Atomic Space News #0: Introductions

Welcome to the Atomic Space Blog! Atomic Space Navy and the surrounding projects are something I’ve been working on, on and off, for quite a while, and while I’ve posted some about them elsewhere in the past I’ve decided to give the project a new home all its own. I still need to set up some more pages, maybe start a gallery with some development screenshots and that kind of thing, but as I’m squeezing this project into my spare time those are competing with actual development for a rather limited resource, so they’ll trickle in. For now, I’d like to give some background on the project, where I want it to go, and where it stands now.

I am a science fiction fan, if you couldn’t guess already. Star Wars and Star Trek were twin pillars of my childhood. Science fiction comes in many forms, smart and dumb, hard and soft, good and bad, and I don’t think any of those qualities are mutually exclusive with any of the others. When I got online I started joining discussions that would eventually make me realize just how unrealistic the things seen on screen in any movie, show, or game are, particularly when combat comes into play. While obviously we’ve not had a real space war to see how things would really happen, and hypothetical technologies in many settings would throw a wrench into the works, we can still make educated guesses and through them reach a spectrum of possible battle-spaces that look nothing like what we see on screens. Books will sometimes live in this harder sci-fi realm, but almost universally if it involves a visual medium, be it movie, television, or video game what we see is a relative of the WW2-In-Space style that can be seen in classic Star Wars.

To those not familiar, the hallmarks of realistic sci-fi combat, at least as I know it, are as follows: 

  • Most of the time you will be fighting people so far away you can’t make them out with the naked eye as more than a point of light. 
  • You will be traveling so fast that you’ll only be in range of your enemies for moments at a time, or you’ll be exchanging long range fire that takes minutes or hours to reach them and has only the slightest chance of hitting. 
  • With the speeds involved, once there is one pass with the enemy it will take minutes or hours to turn around and arrange another pass. 
  • The weapons will be so deadly that in many cases a single hit will demolish a ship.
  • Everything is constantly in motion, coming to a stop is a meaningless concept. 
  • In many cases the enemy will be far enough away for light-speed lag to play a significant role in the evolution in combat. The speed of light may even be a primary factor in limiting weapon ranges.

Over the years I’ve seen the unreality of sci-fi combat discussed countless times, and in most cases someone will say that of course this is the case, because realistic space combat would be terribly boring. All you’d see is at most a few points of light in the distance moving across a star-field and the occasional distant flash. And perhaps in most cases they’re right. I by no means begrudge those that decide to go the traditional route, I love many things that do it and do it well. But the idea that a realistic space war is impossible to make interesting seems narrow-minded to me. Two main things have strengthened my conviction that a compelling space-war game is possible and inspired me to try to prove wrong the idea that it isn’t. 

First would be Introversion Software’s game Defcon, a wargame about an unwinnable global thermonuclear war that’s over in a day. Defcon does not render the world in a detailed fashion, instead it shows you an abstract war-room map filled with cold glowing icons. It doesn’t pretend to be real-time, it lets you vary time to make the slow boring parts of the war play out quickly and then slow down for the things that need detailed consideration and management.

Second would be the Lost Fleet novels by Jack Campbell. Large sections of these books are taken up by an admiral trying to plot out his battle plans to get the best possible outcomes in a setting that, while not perfectly hard, has many of the same properties as realistic combat would. Much of the drama comes from trying to out-think the enemy and the tension of seeing his plans succeed or fail, but the author still manages to squeeze in opportunities for human virtues or failings to factor into the outcomes of the battles, and each battle is a unique story rather than a dull statistical equation.

What I want to make, then, is a game about planning your motions on a solar-system scale canvas. The motions of the planets and their gravity wells are your terrain, and nothing is static. Your battles play out over weeks, months, or perhaps even years in some cases, but can be planned and played in a single sitting. The combat is modeled just enough to have depth, but abstract enough to let you be the admiral of a fleet rather than the captain of every ship. 

You might say that’s a tall order, and I wouldn’t disagree. It’s asking a lot of me to develop and also a lot of the player. Beyond the audience of a few niche games and an even more niche field of scientists, planning orbital maneuvers is quite alien. I consider setting up a working simulation of orbital motion, making a good interface for planning, and teaching the player to use it to be the biggest hurdles ahead of me. Luckily the first of those proved easier than expected, but the importance of the remaining two led me to split the project into two stages. 

Atomic Space Navy was the original ambition, the ultimate goal, and the game I’ve been describing so far. But it carries with it the additional burden of needing to be a good wargame, which isn’t a trivial thing to begin with. Thus was born Atomic Space Race. ASR is a pure orbital mechanics puzzle game. The player will be given a starting state, a list of conditions they need to fulfill, and a set of resources to fill them with. ASR is a pure crucible for refining the orbital mechanics interfaces and underlying simulation, and it’s what development currently focuses on. There is a prototype that is, while rough, strictly speaking playable and winnable. You have a ship, with currently unlimited possible acceleration and fuel, flying through the moon system of Jupiter, and you’re challenged to arrange flybys with each of the four classic Galilean moons inside an 8 week period.

I’ve found it much easier than expected to plot out a winning course in this prototype, given the primitive tools so far given to the player. The simulation is responsive enough to make trial and error effective for refining your course. The following video shows me implementing a winning course that I’d found on previous plays, with some intentional missteps for demonstration.

It should also be said that for the sake of simplifying a still quite complex problem, the game is planned to be entirely 2D. While mean it is quite unrealistic in it’s own ways, the project is still ambitious I consider it an acceptable sacrifice. In the games I have played involving orbital mechanics, dealing with orbital plane changes is a headache I have little interest in reproducing. If ASN is some day sufficiently successful, a 3D version is a natural next step.

So that’s where the project is now, with a playable prototype in development. As I said earlier in this post, this is a part time project for me currently. It is quite important to me, but it is not the only demand on my time. My goal is to not go more than a month without a new post of some substance on this blog, be it discussion of some aspect of the project’s current state, future goals, or recent development. If you want to know more about something, feel free to comment.