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Alive 8

Tips and Tricks to make a Three-Dee Space game!

As  a  respected member of the Atari scene community,  we get  some  strange
requests  for  help  from time to time.  Take the following  which  recently
turned up in our email postbag...

"Dear Alive! agony Aunt, I've got a friend who is thinking of making a game.
Not  just any old game,  but a 3-D epic along the lines of the classic space
trader 'Elite'. Now I've tried to put him off the idea, but he is hooked and
looking for suggestions on how to improve the basic concept. do you have any
suggestions that might help?"

Now that set us thinking.  The possibilities are limitless, you could go off
in any direction you want with this, and get hopelessly lost in the process.
Maybe  we  should start by thinking of the basics,  and what kind  of  astro
physics,  space  travel and social infrastructure you want to base your game
universe in?

 A number of options are available...

1.  As it is, with current physics.
This  scenario  takes  a  game universe based  on  the  current  levels  and
limitations  of current real-world physics.  It would be set sometime within
the  next 200-500 years in the future.  We are assuming that efficient space
travel  can  be achieved up to light speed,  solar system colonisation,  and
interstellar  colonisation  are do-able.  As a typical star system  is  4-10
light years travel,  colonisation would be a long-term process, with a probe
making two way trip over a decade,  and with a (huge) one-way colony ship to

Trade between star systems under those constraints would be unlikely.  Trade
within  Solar Systems would be expected though.  Colonies intersystem  would
expect  to  evolve  their own distinct self-identities.  In other  words,  a
duplication  of  current politics with its  associated  national  rivalries,
mutual  interests  and loathing etc.  Over time,  the basic human physiology
would  evolve and mutate to take particular local conditions  into  account.
For example, light and heavy gravity locations, maybe even ultra-low gravity
and freefall,  ie,  a race of entirely space-based people. This would be one
way  of making the 'Star Trek' scenario for intelligent life come  true,  as
they  basically  dress up humans with human-like characteristics  in  rubber
suits,  and  exaggerate  particular  attributes of humanity to  get  "alien"

As  Interstellar instant communications are not available,  star systems are
not in touch with each other in any meaningful 'realtime' sense. So no trade
is  possible.  Where  contact could be feasible,  would be with one  stellar
system,  the  last  of a doomed race,  when their star went nova,  turning up
armed  to  the teeth to take over yours!  Anther possible enemy could  be  a
self-evolving nanobot style machine intelligence,  that started off as human
origin,  but  went  wild  from there,  consuming every resource possible  to
duplicate themselves, and their machines of war. Sort of a mini-Borg!

Ship sizes would tend to be large to very large on the whole, unless you are
talking  local travel,  which would be something like current space  shuttle
size. Manouvering physics could be ultra-realistic, unless you want to bring
in  an  easier  arcade  element  which  would  feel  something  like  normal
atmospheric flight.

Interaction  could  include space stations,  classic elite style,  asteroids
(also hollowed out like Starglider 2!), planetary surfaces, spaceports, some
city  models?  The  basic trading,  piracy,  interplanetary cold war scenario
could be livened up by an interstellar invasion as described above.

2. The  'Classic Elite' style universe.
The original Elite was based around a scenario of easy interstellar  travel,
(hyperspace),  an active interstellar trade cycle, with enough communication
between  star  systems  to make it possible.  Central authority,  as in  the
classic sci-fi cliche 'Galactic Empire' sense is very weak or non-existent.

Law-enforcement  only  operates at a very local level,  and there is a  high
level  of  piracy.  This  game  engine came about due to  the  very  limited
capacities  of 8-bit machines,  which could not contain a more complex  game
model.  The  game  creators also came up with an explanation that it  was  a
'Thatcherite universe',  (Margaret Thatcher) a very 1980's viewpoint,  where
the  individual was out to get all they could for themselves,  and f*ck  the

Ship  sizes  tended to stay small,  this made evolutionary sense  too.  They
would be fast,  hard to catch and small targets for the bad guys lasers. The
trade cycle would consist of a lot of short-term hopefuls in their Cobra  Mk
3's,  the  vast majority blown out of existence by various hazards,  many of
them man-made!  A select few would survive and prosper, to be referred to in
hushed tones, as "Elite"!

There  were  a couple of  wildcard elements to spice up the  gameplay  which
could get repetitive in the end.  These were 1.  The occasionally appearing,
but very devastating Thargoid aliens,  and 2. The chance to boost your Elite
rating with special missions.

3. The  'Elite Frontier' style universe.
With  the  increase  in  memory and CPU power  in  the  next  generation  of
computers, Frontier grew in scale accordingly. The later game assumed a much
more in-depth and complex game model than its illustrious predecessor.  This
was  also a lot closer to conventional Sci-Fi scenario's,  as elements  like
larger  ship sizes,  and power politics from interstellar empires came  back
in. Again, this universe assumes easy forms of interstellar travel, and good
instant, or near-instant communications between star systems.

The 'old' elite world was still very much there though.  This universe would
divide  into two basic parts,  the settled and pacified inner worlds of  the
various  empires  ('Federation'  and  'Empire'),  and the  outer  worlds  or
'frontier',  where central control was still weak.  In the outer worlds, the
old  style of Elite would still hold sway,  with lots of piracy,  small ship
combat,  and  survival skills were hard earned.  The inner worlds would have
enough  law enforcement to make dull but routine trade  movements  possible.
Trade  would  be less profitable,  but the risks are a lot lower.  Yes,  I am
thinking Sol to Barnards Star and back again too!

I  would assume that such travel would include elements such as tourism,  at
least vast space-liners for the wealthy and priviledged,  maybe some sort of
mass  tourism?  In  such a game scenario,  you can add politically  inspired
terrorist attacks against softer targets,  rescue missions,  or intelligence
gathering  and  prevention of such attacks,  if you are able to use  a  very
complex game model?

Frontier had ultra-realistic star maps,  and good solar system and planetary
models  added to the realism as well.  Also there was the chance to  upgrade
and even change existing ships to a far greater degree than before, although
the few very large ships were there only for cosmetic reasons,  you couldn't
fly them yourself unfortunately;-)

The Thargoids were removed, but the special missions were enhanced, with the
chance  to work for one cold-war faction or another,  and build up  military
ranking if you desired. Criminality was more risky, as the policing style in
Frontier was definitely more proactive than before!

3. The 'Star-Trek' universe.
Out of our game worlds,  this would be the oddest one out. This goes against
the Elite-style models discussed above in various ways.

The  Star-Trek  universe,  most visibly in the original series and the  Next
Generation  seemed to downplay trade and commerce related interactions.  The
idealism in the Next Generation in particular, bordered on hippy crap levels
in  the  early days.  The idea of 'Empire' seems to be most  dominant  here,
although  some frontier world style activity leaked back in with  the  later
spin-off series.

The  acquisitive  gene seems to have been ruthlessly scrubbed out  as  well,
apart  from the comic-relief Ferengi.  Future Earth and the Federation enjoy
so  much material prosperity,  they don't have to really fight or bargain to
get  it  anymore.  All  interstellar  activity,  in huge  and  heavily-armed
starships is done for high-minded moral and peaceful motives!

The  ship sizes almost always seem to be 'large',  but strangely,  the rival
factions  are  broadly  equal in size and capability.  The question  of  how
intelligent  life evolved is mostly risible too,  as the majority of regular
protagonists   seem  to  be  humanoid  based,   with  their   distinguishing
characteristics  used  to amplify an extreme part of  the  human  condition.
Vulcans  cold  and logical,  Klingons fierce and proud,  Betazoids are  very
'new-age',  Ferengi  are  ultra-capitalists.  The  humans  are  good   'all-
rounders'  with an edge on the rest.  You do occasionally run into  'things'
which  form  the basis of an episode,  but an intelligent particle field  is
never seen to contribute to a long-running show, on a regular basis!

And don't get me started on the Teleporter. It is the most unfeasible bit of
kit  in  the show.  The energy requirements would rip the USS Enterprise  in
half,  and  the technology involved in converting matter to energy and  back
again,  could  have tons of useful applications long before they decided  to
squirt people through it. You have a 'matter photocopier' there, which would
allow for unlimited material resources, providing you had access to a decent
energy source, Current Starship

Enterprise broken beyond repair?  Well just take the blueprints, and hook up
your matter transpor-erm duplicator to the nearest star, et voila, a perfect
copy!  The  only  time  we  seem  to see this  happen  is  with  the  drinks
dispensers,  and later on,  the Holodeck.  Why opt for "Earl Grey, hot" when
you could be living gods with that sort of tech level!

Second thing,   I'm waiting for the episode where a whole bunch of small and
manouverable  ships,  launched from a 'carrier' rapidly trash the  lumbering
battlewagons.  It happened on earth,  and it is only a matter of time before
someone  realises  that small can be beautiful!  It is fun to watch,  but  I
wonder why the makers of Star Trek,  in all its various forms, insist of re-
fighting the battle of  Trafalgar or Jutland every time?

There  is  no  point doing a game based on the  Star-Trek  universe,  mainly
because people have swallowed its assumptions whole and that annoys me! Plus
it has been done several times already.

4. The 'Star Wars' universe.
This isn't feasible at all, except as a pure arcade game. Lots of eye-candy,
blow it all up.  Ideal if you have a bleeding edge PeeCee and graphics card,
but it would probably overwhelm anything else.

They  have  the most extreme variations in ship size,  from Death  Star,  to
things  which  are  about as big as a four wheel drive  offroader,  but  are
somehow  able to cross vast interstellar distances in the blink of  an  eye.
Also  the  dimensions  seem to bend to where the plot  wants  it,  as  their
universe is vast, but it seems to take no time at all to get somewhere?

Also  Star  Wars has a strangely stilted and almost medieval  viewpoint,  no
sense  of slick 'modernity' in politics and culture.  Very little of that on
view, apart from the many gorgeous backdrops that George Lucas excels in.

Where  they  do  get  it  right,  is the  extreme  diversity  and  forms  of
intelligent life. Hence the need for a protocol droid. On the downside, this
makes things like Jar-Jar Binks possible too!  But I would have thought that
there would be two or three dominant 'international' forms of language  used
in the better established trading zones.

They  do also have an active and busy trading network with a strong  illegal
or  semi-legal element,  Han Solo was probably the (subconscious?) model for
the  original  Elite.  Many  of the tenser situations in that  game  are  an
action-replay  from his finer moments!  The small fast ship and fast  living
model  as been faithfully handed down over the years to  countless  would-be
imitators.  And of course, Phantom Menace is based on a trade dispute, which
is how a lot of wars have started on Earth historically.

There  are elements I would take from it to incorporate in a game  universe,
but I wouldn't buy the Star Wars way of doing things wholesale!

5. Other useful sources of inspiration. (Computer Games section.)
'Captain  Blood'  -  Addressed the  problem  of  interstellar  communication
between  totally  alien  species,  create a universal  'symbolic'  language,
communicate through that!

'Legends  of Valour' - Did the interactive universe thing for  first  person
perspective.  Going  beyond  the scope of this project,  but if someone  had
enough time to add wandering around space stations or planetary surfaces  on
a first person perspective basis, this game could be useful for ideas?

'Federation of Free Traders' (F.O.F.T.) - Great idea,  what a disappointment
in the implementation!  Felt well cheated out of thirty-odd quid, I did, and
that  is speaking as a hardened 'Elite' player.  (Look at that to see  where
things can go wrong!)

'Great  Space  Race'  - Early 8-bit hype,  the actual game  was  very  ropey
quality.  The  idea  of  a "Great Space Race" to be the first  home  with  a
valuable cargo is cool, and could be added to any ingame missions.

6. To Conclude..
Auntie  Maggie would personally suggest that the Frontier model is  probably
the  best  one  to use for a current game  project,  with  customisation  or
enhancements from the other parts as you wish.

NEXT TIME - Ships, weapons and tactics!

CiH, for Alive! Mag,Feb '04.

Alive 8