All posts by Robert

My Dream List for ST

I’m just back from a vacation where I played an hour or so of Solar Trader every night (waiting for Jesse to finish off his diddlings). The thing is, every time I play, I think of new things I’d like to add. For instance…

1) Huge system with Moons: If I had it all over to do, I’d have spaced out the planets a bit more and put moons in. Jesse and I have spoken about this – it would be so cool to have missions to lunar bases. After all, if you can transport people to far away asteroid camps, the moon would just be a hop. But no, its a little late for that. Everything (gas, air use, power use) would have to be changed, along with some ancient and dusty original coding.

2) More encounters: Like 200+ encounters isn’t enough? I’d love to add new ones. Every time I see something on TV, or read a book, I think – there’s another encounter. Today, I thought about having a dream sequence that might happen while you are in the auto sleep bunk, where you fight your personal demons. It might be a fun sidebar.

3) New misssions: I’d like to add two new missions to the NQA (no questions asked) mission. One would be a photo recon of a deep-space drydock, where as soon as you go by, several picket ships go active and chase you. Another would be getting tossed into the game show “Hares and Hounds” where you have to fly a pod to a distant planet but several bounty hunters are after you. Both of these are doable – I just have to think it out.

4) Backstory: Jesse and I talked a lot about this one – it could be that you could pick these as helpful advantages (like starting with more cash and stuff). Backstories could help you in all sorts of ways. The neatest had it’s plusses and negatives – the haunted ship. Soon as you land, every rat and cat runs out and never comes back. Of course, if a haunting occurs, you take a morale hit and your passengers might go mad.

5) Patch & Go sales desk – like Pixies and the Souk and Droxias, you need a place where you can buy ship stuff. Since P&G has an empty button slot, this would be an easy thing to do. Now, before starting on one of those long long flights, you could gear up. Fun!

I don’t know how many of these I’ll ever add. Number 5 for sure – I could do that in a couple of minutes. The special missions, perhaps. Since OreLuggers is such a useful mission, it would be nice to get some variations in there. The others? I don’t know right now. I guess I need Jesse to wrap up so we can put this out to Beta.

Will it ever be finished? Anyone’s guess at this point…

Politics in Space

Funny thought came up today. A libertarian and a socialist write a game about a future. What sort of a place is it?

Jesse and I have been friends for decades, which is amazing when you think that we are polar opposites on every cultural or political issue. And what’s astounding is that, in thousands of weekly phone calls, we’ve never once had a nasty political fight. His points are always insightful and thoughtful, whereas mine are blustery rhetoric, but still.

So there came a time in the development of Solar Trader when planets and cities and such had to be added. We already knew what sort of universe this solar system of ours would be in 2075 (a bleak one, with immigrants desperately streaming off Earth,  heavy-handed rock bosses on Mercury, a reactionary government in Saturn’s drumstation, and the entire planet of Pluto a prison). Yes, it wasn’t a happy place.

So what would be a future a libertarian and socialist would agree on?

With a nod to Jesse, it would be a Chinese future, with their ruthless command economy dominating all. As we see now, China still pays lip-service to the ideals of communism, but really its all about the tightly-controlled and oppressed society, with a comfortable upper tier and a huge peon class. Their spaceport, a bleak thrown-together metropolis, is now falling apart, indicative of the planet it exists with.

And for me, there is its government-controlled mega corporation, humorously named “MaoCorp” (how could Chairman Mao ever support a corporation, anyway?). MaoCorp is the massive transport company the player (a FreeTrader) finds himself up against. MaoCorp has mob ties. MaoCorp crews hassle the player at every turn. In space, MaoCorp freighters might use their “defensive” weapons against the player if he gets too close (supposedly, they have an “exemption” for such weapons, which FreeTraders NEVER get). MaoCorp directors even send snipers after the player if he gets too successful.

So that’s the sort of universe that has slowly developed by two people with opposing political thoughts about what is “good” and “evil”.

I think the funniest place this shows up is, oddly, ship transponders. Each ship has a transponder, supposedly originally assigned by the Interplanetary Police (pretty much all that’s left of the UN, maybe). The player has a code assigned to him, as do all TreeTraders (an ISO number). Illegals tend to short theirs out. Dead ships automatically switch over to a binary SOS. Bases transmit their asteroid name (using long-standing designations recognized today).

But when Jesse first started working on mook navigation, he had all empty ship slots filled with MaoCorp ships, flying from a planet to a planet. The strange thing was, while most ships you could only see an AU or so away, you could see these guys all the way across the solar system. Why was that?

To fit this into the storyline of a government-backed corporation that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about UN mandates, MaoCorp has rerigged its transponders to “bellow” their codes so they can be tracked from HQ back on earth (perverting their intended use). Worse, they have their OWN codes, essentially an “MC”, followed by the origin planet, the destination planet, and the current sequential run. So, even though you are orbiting Mercury, you’ll pick up the amplified transponder for MC742, the second ship of this series running from Uranus to Mars, way far away. Just another reminding of how corporations ignore regulations when it suits them.

So that’s the system you are in, planets under near-feudalistic rule, inept police agencies bickering and fumbling, the belt swarming with pirates, as well as student riots, food riots, and immigrants lining up around the block at the Chinese Embassy, hopeful that anywhere else must be better than this.

Yeah, it’s a great place to fly around, the Solar Trader universe.

(The first move for a liberal like me is to buy a handgun. What’s that say?) 🙂

What can happen to you in Solar Trader?

Jesse is currently finishing up the NPC ship coding, and I’m just playtesting (another way of saying ‘screwing around playing a fun game’). Oh, I’m logging bugs (and the Beta version will have its share) but its largely playable.

So last night, I’m on the pad on Uranus. Distance-wise, it’s a ways out from Earth, very far. But I’ve made it running a special FedUp haul. Now I’ve got a cargo pod fulla fish (don’t you know we discovered aquatic life on Uranus? Don’t you know it’s delicious?). But I’m depressed, really depressed by what I’ve been through lately. I’m not looking forward to that long sunward lug to Earth and now Uranus Control (a sphincter, one might joke) is denying me liftoff, saying I’ll have to wait a day.

Hell with that. I’ve got drugs in my possession.

Yes, so here I am, playing the role of a respectable pilot, shooting up in the control seat, bringing my morale back all rosy, happy, and blinky-eyed. Hoo boy.

“Look, man, if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to drive while I’m stoned. It’s like you know your perspective’s fucked so you just let your hands work the controls as if you were straight.” (points to those who get the reference)

So there’s the green light – lights on! Hardburn  on! Final clearance check! Go! My ship lofts high into the inky Uranus sky, drives akimble. And then the onboard computer crashes. All systems go down.

Frantically I try to get the thrusters (the minimum I need) online but fail. Now the ship is falling and at the very last second, the drives (not hardburn) come on. Uranus doesn’t have much atmosphere so airbraking won’t work. I go for the minimal approach under limited burn and pull it off.

And now I’m sitting somewhere on the pad, my ship steaming, everything still offline except my basic burners.

And I get a fine for not calling space traffic control and clearing in (my radio was down, too).

Rebooting a ship is a time consuming effort. It took a day to get the hardburn running. It took another to get radio. And every day, I got another fine. Go ahead and penalize away – I’m never coming back to Uranus – I’ve got my load and I’m ready to go. For some reason, I call for clearance – I must have owed them four or five cash cards for my various violations. But being a tidy little captain (the drugs have long since worn off) I call, I clear, and I lift.

I would go on to die trying to get into Earth orbit, a combination of a ship’s fire, a bad solar flare and some sloppy navigation. Oh well. Still, that was an adventure the spacers across the various shipping lanes still talk about.

Sick and tired

I just loaded the game “DarkStar One” onto my computer and I’m already burned out.

What is it about space games these days?

At least Solar Trader (still “under development”, meaning Jesse hasn’t returned the code yet) has some nice subset games. There is the interest in navigating a clean path to a moving planet, sometimes a hundred squares away. And of dealing with a dozen resource vectors, all to keep the ship running. And then you have the cities where time and minesweeper-skills comes into play. It’s really a nice little game, probably one of my best, and I’m looking forward to wrapping it up.

But things like FreeSpace, Elite and DarkStar, its all the same. Get a ship. Put weapons on it. Move cargo from place to place. Take side missions. Blow up ships. Repeat. Repeat.

This got me to thinking of what I’d really like to see in a game. First off, Solar has a nice encounter table that really taught me things about Excel encounter tables – like they should be big and modifiable. Once you get the basics going, you should be able to add new stuff pretty easily (with minimal supporting code). This should also be true of planets as well.

See, I think the idea of “a man with a ship” is so overdone, it makes me fall asleep just thinking about it. For our dream game, say you aren’t really a spacer. You don’t own a ship, you never will. Simply put, you need to buy a ticket wherever you are going. Perhaps it will be aboard a liner. Or maybe just some planet hopping rust bucket. But if you want to go somewhere, you’ll enter someone else’s ship and face whatever it may bring.

And people. The game should have characters that are generated and placed around the universe, people you can interact with, who can take the role of NPCs. These would be friends and enemies, perhaps a whore or a bureaucrat or a sweet-shack owner, or a captain or a mercenary recruiter. Like encounters, these figures should have all sorts of traits that give your universe life. Imagine hundreds of them across your generated universe, all doing their little things.

And cities. Solar Trader had them pretty good, that each planet has a different city feel to it. That’s what I’d like to see in this imaginary new game, where a huge settled planet would have a sprawling city with all sorts of districts but a fuel depot might only have a couple of windblown shacks and a couple of shops. Encounters should be tied to the sort of place it is (i.e. executives shouldn’t be strolling down the street of some Palukaville and prostitutes shouldn’t be working below the walls of NeoVatican). This goes back to those huge encounter tables. Everything needs to drive off a table, with as little coding as possible.

I’ve got a bunch of other ideas – sprawling encounters that encompass worlds, like interplanetary wars and economic crashes and all that. It would be interesting, even if you just set it in motion and let it run. Allow a thousand years to tick past, then generate a character and step in. Who knows? Maybe our next game…?

Memory Lane –After the Fall

After Deathrace, I decided to go back to just writing games for myself and selling what sold and playing what didn’t. Defeatist, maybe, but you’ll go crazy otherwise.

Years ago I’d played this load-from-tape game called Hammurabi. It was the old play of the Malthusian equation where population grows faster than food production. For mine, I envisioned a hot seat multiplayer game. The time frame was the just after some cataclysmic disaster to some nearby city. Each player represented a farming community just off this target zone. Instead of just people, you had Lieutenants, Warriors, Farmers, Techs, and Drones (i.e. middle manager sorts with no real skills). There were four seasons and some basic rules – you planted in spring (one farmer could farm eight or so plots), you maintained in summer (a farmer could maintain twice as many plots) and then the fall harvest (again, eight plots). Winter was pretty cold so everyone hunkered in and maybe hunted some. This meant you had a campaign season in the summer, a natural occurrence in medieval times.

The game was a lot of fun. Un-winnable, but fun. You got points for the number of people you had times their morale level, added to your grand score each season. So the idea was to live as long as you could, as happy as you could.

If you’d lived under a dome, this might have worked. However, something always went wrong. Someone would raid you or you’d have a bummer harvest or something. And then people would start starving. Inevitably, you’d find yourself in the end-game state: three warriors living in a ruined hut, hunting nonstop to stay alive. But man, it was a lot of fun. We’d laugh about it for hours.

This game had our first occurrence of “God Variables”, which are hidden computer variables that you only learn as you play and which are reset each game. This means the game will not play exactly the way it did before. Maybe in one game, farmers can farm a lot more fields. Maybe in others, warriors aren’t really that much better in combat. You just didn’t know until you played. It worked pretty well. We used it all over the place in Solar Trader.

We never did get the tech angle worked out – it just didn’t feel right. And it never went anywhere: we just played it a lot and then Jesse went off to college in Atlanta and that was that. But still, we’ve been talking about another game, a true multiplayer. And this might be our next project…

Memory Lane – DeathRace

Now that money was flowing in and I was learning coding methodologies at University of Central Florida (who knew about linear coding – I was so sloppy, I still blush at the mess Eagles was internally), I decided to write another game for SSI, this one from an old board game I’d done a decade earlier through our startup Setheral Simulations. DeathRace was a pretty neat car game. My hope was to combine the clean driving system of Grand Prix with a combat system with a lot of dice. Never got the driving part to work very well, but blasting someone in the trunk with a shotgun was a very satisfying sensation.

I got that game running in its most basic form and was just getting sound effects into it when I sent it to SSI. Sadly they were not interested. I’ll give them that the game probably needed a lot better graphics (I was up to my font tricks again, but I really couldn’t get the sounds to come across well). But the other reason they gave was that the same gaming house that stole our cute little board game idea (after stripping off the good points and introducing crap) also were now producing a computer version of it. So my copyright-violated board game was now being snuffed as a computer game by the same people? What a sad irony.

And you know what? A year later I finally did manage to pick up their game and give it a play on the Atari. And it sucked. It really did. I wouldn’t have minded so much if my hopes had been crushed by a product of merit. But no, this was just a crummy arcade game that didn’t work very well.

Memory Lane – Eagles

So this was the big one. I was working in a Miami lumber yard, I didn’t know anyone. I was pretty much on my own. I needed a playmate. Then one day, while sorting the board stacks, I came up with a neat World War One flying idea.

Planes could have a percentage chance to turn 90 degrees (else they went straight and THEN turned in their next move). Diving increased their chances, climbing decreased it. Same thing for speed – each plane might go one or two squares, based on their speed percentage. Simple yet elegant. I wrote it using a series of fonts to animate the plane movements and, on a lark, sent it to Strategic Simulations Inc, the powerhouse of computer military simulations.

And they bought it.

This was one of the headiest things that ever happened to me. To see my game in magazines and in shops. To get big royalty checks (I took my entire evening computer science class out to pizza). It was really, really cool. Fame is a very intoxicating drug.

I still have the game on the shelf, and the original art hanging in my kitchen. Every now and then I look at it and think, you know, it wouldn’t be any trouble at all to write this grid-based game in Excel, to duplicate what I’d done and advance it further (how about hundreds of planes on various patrols, allowing you to play at a tactical AND strategic level?).

Yes, someday.

Memory Lane – Game aids for StarWars, Top Secret, Maatac

At this point in my life, I started looking at the computer from its tool perspective rather than its game-creation angle. For one thing, I was doing a lot of DMing for my StarWars universe (hosting at least two games a week at VPI).

Here, the computer came in very handy. First off, back then there was very little home word processing – for college papers, I’d hand-write them and then take them to a secretary pool to get them typed up. For games, all the tables that people needed turned into over-Xeroxed messes covered with hit-point notes and pizza stains. Suddenly, with the word processing cartridge in my Atari, I could actually type in these charts and print out a bunch for my players! Revolutionary!

Also, more importantly, I wrote a program to handle a lot of the heavy table-trashing that combat took up. Now, when resolving roleplaying combat, I could run down a form (while off-handedly describing the action) and tell people what they needed to roll to hit (call it legacy, but the players still wanted to roll their own dice to hit – having the computer do it nearly raised a revolt!). And, in tuning the gameplay, I actually remembering writing a program to shoot 10,000 stormtroopers 10,000 times to get the percentages of deaths, knockouts and still-standings. It took the Atari about a minute to clump through the run.

There were other play aids developed. Besides the Role Playing game Top Secret, I also coding it the laborious combat tables for Maatac, the futuristic tank-to-tank miniature game. Now, instead of looking up every weapon system, one at a time, for each tank’s barrage, the player would just call out “Two heavies, range twenty one, armor C” to the person manning the keyboard. Somehow, using a computer to resolve a simulated computer’s combat efforts seemed more nature than our early attempts to fully automate StarWars. Nobody protested.

It was truly a labor-saving device.

Memory Lane – Estates of Seth

Now this one I do remember. Following the dismal ???? of Seth (discussed in last week’s blog) I approached my next game more methodically. I wanted to do a full rewrite of the Pits engine. No more of the round-robin combat – now you’d actually have locations to worry about. I think we also put minor magic into the game, so there were wizards and archery, too. Now everything was done on a grid, with ranges and blocking squares and all that.

The Estates were outside of town, a ruin of a mansion with walls around it, fallen- down, roofless rooms inside and a level of vaults below. You could actually walk wherever you wanted, even leaving the party (those slugs!) and go wherever you pleased. And wandering monsters actually wandered, occasionally leaving their lairs to bump around the halls for a bit before returning. Oh, there was even an “outside” town-to-estates-and-back game, automatically linking the first Pits game to the second. And, oh, the things we could do with fonts. I even had the writing in an olde-englishe font.

It was an okay game – we played it on and off for a bit. I think most of us were transitioning in our lives – I was leaving home to go to Tech and my brother and his friends were budding out of the larval stage and becoming something resembling pre-formed humans. It was a good game, probably better designed and written than the other two, but for some reason just not as much fun as the original. And that’s the thing about game design. You might think that you’ve made great strides over your former games but when it’s all said and done, it’s just, well, meh.

Memory Lane – ???? of Seth

Over fifty-five years of living, there are (frankly) people I have forgotten. I am certain there are friends (girlfriends and otherwise) who I no longer recall. I’ve lived in a lot of places and knew a lot of people, so there it is.

But it’s incredible for me to think that I made a game that I don’t remember. Vaguely, I remember coding something in after Pits, to take advantage of the new speeds (and space limitations) of DOS (Disk Operating System on the Atari). And the use of the font-modification software we’d gotten from a magazine. And there were other things I wanted to add, better ways of playing. But I don’t remember what they were.

I think, in a misty way, that this game was actually the “journey from the town to the Pit” game, where you had to cast around a random land looking for the dungeon entrance. I think I wrote that to fill out more of the Seth universe. Players would leave the city, travel across the land, and then when they got to the site they could enter (and get a full listing of the party so they could retype them in when they started Pits. Sounds like a kludgy way of doing it, but we were men back then).  I’ve actually rewritten this paragraph as more random memories come to me from so far away.

So I spent three months or so writing a game that we hardly ever used. I think the whole “play one game just to play another” turned out to be a drag, especially when you got there and got slagged in the first room, and had to exit the game and then retype everything in for the journey home.

So there you go. Like cities in fallen empires, this game has been forgotten by everyone, including the designer.