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Alive 9
Universe in a Box 2

 Space Combat, ships, weapons, and tactics..

A  range  of sizes and functions,  from fighter craft,  to huge 'ship of the
line' battlewagons several miles long have been represented in sci-fi future
war  scenarios.  In  all  cases  they are leaning very  heavily  on  earthly
examples.  In  some  cases,  they  are jumping up and down on the corpse  of
established  laws  of  physics  as they operate  in  a  zero-g  and  airless

For  most computer games with less than unlimited cpu and  graphics  drawing
power,  smaller  is better.  Current real world spacecraft are pared down to
the  minimum weight and size needed to do the job.  The gaming example I  am
going to refer to first would be classic Elite. Smaller quicker ships done a
simple  wireframe made a lot of sense for an 8-bit computer.  They also made
sense  in  a fast and loose universe,  where there was not a lot of law  and
order,  and too many eager scumbags wanting to grab your cargo.  The default
Cobra  mk3 was a handy all-purpose model,  very adaptable to being upgraded,
but  the player was unable to trade up to something else.  The volatility of
the  situation meant that evolution had kept your potential enemies down  to
something more or less equal to you as well.

The options expanded with Frontier (Elite 2),  solid 3-D was possible on the
16/32 bit generation,  and the scope of the game was widened considerably as
well.  In  Frontier,  you  saw  a much greater variation of ship  types  and
capabilities.  There was provision for small light fighter craft, through to
some  respectably  hefty traders,  with the Cobra Mk3's stuck firmly in  the
middle.  There  still  wasn't an option for taking the helm of a very  large
ship, although there were some of these around for cosmetic reasons ;-)

Frontier  also  saw a lot more dissimilar combat,  between heavily  shielded
ships  with  multi megawatt lasers,  versus a poor little fighter,  with  no
shielding, and something stuck on the front that was better used to light up
Xmas trees in a decorative way! The outcome was quick and predictable to say
the least!

Other computer games, such as 3D Crown of Creation, Zero 5 et al, all assume
a  fighter  craft,  one lone hero against the alien hordes.  This follows on
from  time-worn  conventions in two-dimensional computer  gaming.  In  these
cases,  the  better  games  do  include some sort of upgrade  path.  To  see
anything  different,  you  have to go to the PeeCee,  which isn't my area of
expertise at all, for anything where you take control of larger ships?

So  we're trying to go beyond the confines of what has been  described  thus
far,  what  could  we  use?  Fighters,  yes,  and  I might also suggest that
fighters  can be carried on larger ships,  ready for use when needed.  These
would  be  totally optimised to be very fast and manouverable,  and  heavily
armed for the size, but little protection, no hyperspace, and possibly time-
limited  life  support.  Alternatively,  ship-launched  remotely  controlled
drones,  or  A.I.  controlled  units  could be carried instead.  Drone ships
without pilots could have dual role as antiship missiles in extremis.

Cobra-sized ships,  small to medium general purpose vessels. The backbone of
any  decent  game.  These would have interstellar range,  but limited range.
They would be similar to fast missile/torpedo boats or corvettes in  current
naval terms.  Suggest different mixes of armament/speed/protection according
to  whether  they  are aggressive or defensive role.  They would  have  good
agility/manouverability compared with larger ships,  reasonably able to keep
in touch with fighters.  These will be the smallest class of self-supporting
ships if playing in an individual role.

Destroyers,  larger than Cobra,  but not overwhelmingly so. Matching closely
to  current destroyer definition in contemporary navies.  Would favour  good
offensive  armament  and  high  speed  over  protection.  Would  be  handled
aggressively  as main attack weapon in any significant fleet  style  action.
Fewer  in  number ingame than Cobra/fighter types,  but more  numerous  than
heavier ships.

Raiders,  these  fall outside the regular pattern of warship classification.
Bigger than fighters and cobra's,  in fact the definition of size, speed and
firepower  is  vague  in the extreme.  Most commonly,  these  are  converted
merchant  ships,  to  take heavy armaments,  shielding etc,  as far as their
structure can accomodate.  They are usually pirate captured vessels, adapted
from  their original role.  Capabilities will vary widely,  but some will be
very deadly.

Dreadnought,  generic  catch-all  for anything bigger than a destroyer.  Can
mount  the  heaviest weapon types,  would trade off on speed and  protection
according  to  whether  they  are faster  (Battlecruiser  type),  or  slower
(Battleship).  In all cases,  they would be protected at a far more generous
level than the smaller ships, and would be a difficult target to take down.

Carrier,  a  larger  ship type,  corresponds to Earth-type Aircraft carrier.
Would  be  able  to launch fighters/drone ships,  ideally en  masse,  as  AI
controlled swarm!  This gives rise to Carrier Command style tactics of being
able  to  launch  airstrikes!  "Go  to point x,  engage any enemy  you  find
there.."  Alternatively,  these  can be used to enhance any defence  against
enemy  small  craft and fighters.  The carrier itself,  based on  historical
experience,  would be a faster ship,  but with not so great protection. They
usually  didn't  travel  alone,  and  had an escort  of  smaller  ships.  If
something  gets  close  enough to kill a carrier  directly  without  serious
efforts being made to stop them, then you are doing something badly wrong!

Other ships,  merchantile etc..  These can run the full range of size,  from
Cobra  mk3  type,  which has a maximum load capacity equivalent to  a  heavy
goods  vehicle,  to  something two miles long and towing a comet to  provide
water  for  a  dry planet!?  There may also be a place  for  pure  passenger
carriers,  from airliner size,  to something a lot more like an ocean liner.
(And who can come up with the nicest looking ship design there?) There could
also  be  scope  for specialist vessels,  such as asteroid  miners,  and  we
mustn't  forget  the  good  old space  station.  (Double  spinning  doughnut

A quick word on escape capsules...
The  original Elite featured escape capsules as an optional extra.  In other
words,  if you didn't have the money,  then tough! But life got a lot easier
and longer with one of these installed. Even when fighting to the last laser
blast  and  drop  of energy in the worst armpit of an  anarchy  system,  the
escape  capsule would take you safely out of harms way when it was used.  It
even provided you with a replacement ship. Now that is civilised...

My own feelings on escape capsules are,  that in reality,  you could just as
likely end up captured and taken into slavery,  or have your capsule riddled
with  laser fire from the scumbag behind you,  who felt like a little  extra
target  practice.  On a more practical level,  Escape capsules would only be
useful where there is a planetary system present,  and one with some kind of
human/intelligent life in it,  or where there is a fleet scenario,  a rescue
ship in the area. Eject in deep space away from a solar system, and you will
sit there twiddling your thumbs until the air runs out, ridiculously far off
the  shipping  lanes to get rescued.  Any passers-by will be passing  by  in
Hyperspace, and quite oblivious to your plight!

Thinking about it a bit more, I kind of prefer the original model!

A digression on damage!
Hands up those of you who find it believable that an opponent is down to  3%
efficiency,  and  still  spitting fire and destruction at you,  as if he was
still running at a spritely 97%!?  - What,  none of you? The example above I
seem  to recall from some early Star Trek game on the ST.  There are  better
ways  to tackle this tricky issue,  and it might be useful to consider  some
gaming and real world examples..

As  always,  our  friends who made Elite had a good interpretation.  In  the
constrained game engine,  they avoided certain categories of damage, such as
major structural or engine damage,  short of outright destruction. They were
able to sacrifice most other ancilliary items of equipment under attack.  So
for example, you could incur the loss of a docking computer. This would be a
major  loss  both to the ship efficiency,  and of course financially,  in  a
universe where everything has to be paid for. Frontier refined things a bit,
so you could lose the use of your warp engines. A major embarrassment if you
are  in an inhabited but lower tech level system,  and are unable to get the
parts  when you make port.  Or an end to the game at that point,  if you are
marooned in an uninhabited solar system!?

There was no attempt to tie in damage caused to a specific area of the  ship
being  hit.  It would not matter with the small sizes of the ships concerned
in  Elite.  However,  if  there is going to be a game engine that caters for
larger sized craft, then that becomes an area worthy of further exploration.

The vital areas of a ship can be considered thus:- 

Hull/structure.  Damage  potential  according to how puny or massive  it  is
built.  Partial  failure  not necessarily fatal,  ie,  a big battlewagon can
continue with pieces gouged out of it!

Reactor/Power  generation.  This will be the best protected area of the ship
bar  none!  A  decent hit here will mean "Game over" for you,  and  possibly
anyone  else in the adjoining area.  Do the words "Warp coil breach"  strike
terror  into your heart?!  The reactor/power system would take the place  of
the  ammunition  storage/magazine  in  olde  Earth  naval  battles  for  its
decisively catastrophic effect.

Engines.  Most  people  will have more than one of these.  Hits in this area
would result in loss of manouverability,  ability to speed away from trouble

Weapons. Mostly mounted on the hull, so fairly easy to kill or disable. Then
again,  a  warship of any size will have a fair number of these in different

Scanners.  Difficult  to get complete loss of these.  Scanners are multi EM-
spectrum,  passive and active,  and physically spread over a wide area. They
could  be temporarily disabled by jamming/countermeasures or EMP effects  of
other weapons.

Systems,  can  be subdivided into various categories relating to  everything
else  such  as  automated control of defences etc.  You are  likely  to  get
specific failures fairly early on.  But then again there should be carefully
duplicated  back-ups  in  place.  Of  course,  you could make  a  window  of
vunerability out of the slowness of these to kick in!?

Life Support. Loss of this would be a lesser factor in the game. There would
be  a large amount of back-up and local emergency provision built in,  which
would tide over a situation for several hours at least.

Freak  hits.  These  don't tend to happen in computer games,  but do in real
life. Here's a famous WWII example. A small air-dropped lightweight torpedo,
delivered by an obsolete biplane,  happened to hit the battleship 'Bismarck'
in just the right place,  disabling the rudders, and effectively dooming the
ship from there. Of course, earlier in that battle, Bismarck had the luck go
in  their  favour when a single hit on her opponent,  HMS Hood  ignited  the
cordite  storage,  blowing  the ship up completely.  Then there is the human
error  factor,  as a simple accident could cause the loss of the whole ship.
The example here,is the Russian submarine 'Kursk', where the proximate cause
of the accident,  was a mishandled torpedo (which had a hidden design defect
allowing  it  to produce very large amounts of inflammable oxygen  from  its
hydrogen peroxide propellant!) This led to a fire in the torpedo room, and a
much larger explosion shortly after.

Lastly,  there  is  the  issue of damage control.  How effectively  can  you
recover from damage substained?  I would assume that a small ship would have
limited  capacity  to  do this,  and would need to take  themselves  to  the
nearest repair facility,  whether that is located in a port,  or on a larger
ship?  On larger ships,  there would be some local self-repair available. It
would be possible to more or less fully restore damaged systems and scanners
for example,  keep life support going. Limited self-repair would be possible
to weapons, hull, and power/engines.

These come in two distinct categories or classes.  1.  Kinetic or projectile
based systems,  including missiles,  shells, solid and explosive-tipped shot
etc,  or 2. Directed energy based, lasers, fancy particles concentrated into
a narrow beam, directed plasma etc.

For  our part,  we are looking at weapons from both classes.  Most commonly,
lasers  and  missiles are used as weapons of choice in  Elite  classic,  and
Frontier.  Frontier  also mentioned the option of a plasma cannon for larger
ship sizes, which could disable or destroy an opponent with a single hit.

We can also widen the choices a bit from that.

Lasers,  are  almost universal.  They are used to fit on all sizes of craft,
they have a great variation in size and firepower,  choice of rapid pulse or
continuous  beam etc.  Multiple installations are possible,  even on smaller
ships.  These would be the prime weapon of fighters,  Cobra style ships, and
probably  destroyers  too.  Lasers have a useful rapid fire rate,  can  keep
going as long as there is an energy source on the ship,  and have reasonable
range.  They  can  also  be prone to overheating,  and can be considered  as
bullet-like,  in that the area of damage per hit is generally small, and you
would  need to hit vital areas of your opponent to put them out  of  action.
Lasers  can also be negated by 'force fields' or 'shields'  At least  whilst
those are able to keep functioning under a heavy power drain!? The effective
range, where it can do substantial damage, could be limited too?

Directed plasma.  The favoured choice of the heavy mob!  These will be found
almost  exclusively  on larger ships,  dreadnoughts and similar.  These have
great  firepower,  able  to  destroy small ships completely  with  one  hit,
disable medium sized targets,  and significantly damage an equal opponent at
optimum range.  The effect of plasma can be reduced to some extent by decent
shielding, and there should be a 'tailing off' effect where it diminishes at
longer  range.  Also,  the  rate  of fire would be somewhat slower than  for
lasers, with one shot per mounting possible only every several seconds.

Fancy  pseudo-physics  type stuff.  Try something different for  a  wildcard
weapon. Gravitational beams that create a mini black-hole effect and suck in
and implode their targets, for example.

Railgun,  magnetically  boosted solid shell.  Can be fitted as complementary
to,  or  replacing  plasma  guns on bigger warships.  These are  closest  to
present  day  shipboard weapons.  Current research is going on into this  to
supplement/replace traditional cordite-powered naval artillery in US and  UK
in  future  warship designs,  probably others too.  A railgun offers several
advantages,  it  could  be  capable of a rapid rate of  fire  compared  with
plasma.  The range could be made to be a lot greater,  and you have a choice
of  projectiles,  solid  for  direct hull  penetration,  or  proximity-fused
explosive, up to and possibly including nuclear?

Railguns would be a weapon of choice for planetary bombardment.  The effects
of  laser  and  plasma  tend to diminish if the  planet  has  a  half-decent
atmosphere,  it is a great natural shield. Railgun based systems, could also
be  fixed in forward facing positions,  I am thinking destroyer type  ships,
and  would  be  single shot,  or limited duration.  I've got a feeling  that
shielding,  force-fields  would  do less well against this type  of  system.
Disadvantages  are that even the fastest railgun is slow,  compared with the
speed of light.  If engaging at extreme range,  with adequate early warning,
it  is  possible  to get out of the way!  Also railguns will have  a  finite
magazine capacity, and could run out of shells.

Missiles.  Most commonly encountered as small but useful  'lock-on then fire
and forget' type on Cobra mk3.  They could originally destroy an equal sized
opponent,  and  severely degrade a (slightly) larger one.  Missiles could be
negated  by Electronic countermeasures (ECM),  but 'military' missiles  with
higher spec electronics were resistant to that.

Missiles  would  be very flexible,  with even fighters being able  to  carry
some,  as  their  main limited-shot number firepower multiplier.  Cobra type
ships  use  these in the same manner as for elite/frontier.  Destroyers  may
well  use  these,  probably in a scaled-up size capable of harming a  larger
ship than them.

Missiles could be able to stop and start their engines in flight,  turn into
mines  if programmed to do so,  lurk waiting for a target for weeks,  spring
back to life when one comes within range!

Missiles  would  be slowest system of all,  it was possible to shoot down  a
missile  in  classic Elite if you held your nerve.  Also it was possible  to
outrun  them.  They  would have to deal with ECM,  sometimes causing classic
explosive failure,  or possibly making a missile go off course and lock onto
something  else  instead?!  I  would also give larger ships CIWS  (Close  in
weapons system) such as an automatically cued very rapid fire light  calibre
laser  to stop these.  CIWS also has a useful secondary role against fighter
attack in general.

Missiles are traditionally explosive filled but non-nuclear, unless you feel
like being a right bastard!!

Electronic  countermeasures.   These  were  high-energy  consumption,  short
duration  systems  in Elite,  but generally prettty dependable  for  getting
those nasty missiles off your back.  You can have provision for this.  There
may  also be scope for a jamming system targeted at a specific  enemy  ship,
that stops it aiming or cueing any of its weapons, or severely degrading the
ability of their scanners to 'see'. They could do something like that to you
too.  The  effect could only be short term if they/you are able to switch to
using different frequencies for radar, or different parts of ER spectrum for
passive detection.   Alternatively, you could have some of your fighters and
small  craft  equipped  with specialist payloads  to  fight  the  electronic
battle. (Wild Weasel Cobra anyone??)

Electro-magnetic  pulse  (EMP) effects.  I think the 'smart bomb'  in  Elite
started  as  an  EMP bomb!  This would be a nuclear class weapon,  with  the
ability  to  damage or degrade shipboard systems as a  whole,  applied  over
quite a wide area. Major care would be needed, as it would affect all within
a certain range. The blast radius could start at 1. Physical destruction (if
a  nuke,)  going  out  to  2.  Permanent and  severe  damage  to  electronic
circuitry.  At a greater range 3. the effects would be less severe, probably
temporary.  In  the  cases  of 2 and 3,  electromagnetic shielding would  be
helpful in alleviating the worst effects of this.

Mission  statement.  If  you are playing as an imperial or federation  sized
power,  your  job would be to protect freedom of movement within and between
the systems under your control, against creeping lawlessness or an organised
hostile  attack.  In  a  full hot wartime situation,  this would  expand  to
include attempting to deny the enemy *their* freedom of movement.

If you are a trader,  it is very simple,  you try to survive and prosper.  A
more  detailed assessment of the scope of what is possible will  follow  for
next time.

If  you are a pirate,  you would tend to look for easy pickings,  plunder to
the limits of your ability,  and try to upgrade that ability. You would tend
to avoid direct confrontation with superior forces,  unless you have a death
wish. Eventually, it might be possible to build up a pirate fleet.Even later
on,  you  could  seize  your  own inhabitable planets,  make  your  position
unassailable,  sort of a proto-empire.  I think this would be very rare,  as
pirates  normally do not have the grand vision,  or the life expectancy,  to
make this happen.

A terrorist would be looking to attack very soft and specific targets, where
the  'point' being made would be far greater than the force used.  Then  you
would have to avoid the subsequent massive manhunt if you are successful.

Why  and  where battles happen.  Battles of any sort,  from the first spear-
chucking episodes, through to the future times we are considering don't just
happen  in  any old random spot.  There is often some kind of passage  being
disputed,  whether  it is a road or trade route.  A battle happens where the
two   armies/fleets  meet  on  that  route.   Additionally,   you  could  be
defending/attacking  a major target at the end of the road.  This rule  will
hold  good for our future warriors too.  The vast majority of kick-ups  will
take place within a solar system,  and most likely where there is a valuable
planet,  or  the  nearest jumping-off point to this.  Unless something  very
weird  happens,  no  hostile  acts would take place in  the  vast  trackless
wasteland that is insterstellar deep space..

Another  catalyst for conflict is convoying.  Escorting a group of vunerable
cargo-carriers  through a disputed or pirate-infested region of space.  This
gives  opportunities for running mixed ship types,  merchantile and military
together.  It  would  also  test  the game A.I.  whether  the  convoy  keeps
together,  or  scatters  under  a heavy attack.  And it would also test  the
abilities  of the escort commander to organise the different types of  ships
at  his  disposal,   to  counter  a  variable  but  constant  threat  level.
Alternatively,  you  could  be  a  commerce raider attacking  such  a  large
formation on the other side.

In  all battle scenarios involving membership of a larger organisation,  you
could  play,  according  to  your  experience level,  starting as  a  junior
commander in a fighter working as part of the formation,  graduating through
stages  to  being the supreme commander making  broad-brushstroke  decisions
that your A.I. controlled ships then carry out.

How  big  can they get?  Space battles can be any size from a couple,  to  a
couple  of  hundred.  In  technical terms,  a 16mhz Falcon could  cope  with
Frontier  and a skirmish of 3-4 ships without breaking sweat.  I managed  to
play  a saved-game with a *huge* number of solid 3-D bad guys,  maybe ten or
more fighting against me,  and the frame rate chugged a bit.  Life would get
easier  with  a CT2 class system,  and an '060,  with the massively enhanced
maths  co-pro would cope quite well.  It might be interesting to note that a
reasonable  depiction of huge space battles was possible on  a  bog-standard
ST,  if you remember the sprawling 3-D game 'Epic'.  This managed to squeeze
some decent set-piece attacks out of what would be more limited hardware.

Most  conflict  would stop short of an all-out war or fleet action,  but  it
would  be  nice to make sure that the target hardware is up to  it,  if  you
wished to go down that road!

Deployment  of  different ship types.  We've already gone over this to  some
extent, in discussing ship types. Nevertheless..

1.  Fighters,  use  as  offensive  expendable speartip,  more expendable  if
unmanned, or outer defensive shield in static or slow-moving situation.

2.  Cobra mk3's,  jack of all trades ship,  from routine patrolling,  or mix
with fighters to act as bombers, or close convoy escort where destroyers are
lacking or deemed too valuable to utilise.

3. Destroyers, are fast escorts for more valuable dreadnoughts and carriers,
would  be used as a pawn sacrifice for these in extremis.  Alternatively  as
fast  and  nimble heavy offensive ships (with light protection,  so if  hit,
relatively easy to stop.)

4.  Dreadnoughts, line of battle, convoy escort backstop, with large amounts
of firepower, heavy artillery to use against planetary or static targets, or
ship to ship classic naval battle against equal opponents.

5.  Carriers,  would need to be protected by others.  Launch pad and control
centre for fighters, possibly Cobra-class ships too?

Ideas from other computer games that might provide hints and inspiration.. A
shedload of PeeCee games,  starting with Wing Commander.  This isn't my area
of  expertise at all..  A lot of them owe some kind of heritage to Elite and
its kind.

'Epic' vast space battles with decent looking solid 3D on an ST(!) The  more
I look at this game, the more respect I have for it.

Carrier  Command,  has  never really been imitated,  let alone surpassed  on
Atari platform.  (I'd be interested to hear if anyone redid the concept in a
more contemporary form?) It had a neat point and click 'go there' system  of
getting forces to the target. The only slight drawback is the fact that they
had  no ability to attack the targets themselves,  but loitered in the  area
until you took control yourself, or let them run out of fuel.

'Lasers and Men'.  Not a space game, but interesting in how it placed you as
one of a larger A.I. controlled team

'Cannon Fodder' again, not for purist space fans, but you have the chance to
adapt their A.I. where your movements control a group which 'swarms' closely
together,  and  attacks as a unified team.  Could be applied to fighters and
smaller craft especially.

Next episode, Trading and society!

CiH, for Alive mag,April '04

Alive 9