Sunday, March 14, 2004

SWG: Jump to Lightspeed: Proposed Ship Systems

[2008/05/17: Before Jump to Lightspeed was released, many of us playing SWG were eager to suggest ideas for what the space-based gameplay in a Star Wars MMORPG should look like. This was my contribution. I have no idea whether the notions here were read or considered by any of SWG's developers, but I found it very interesting that some of these ideas did seem to show up in Jump to Lightspeed.]

(Note: Although I've adapted them greatly for use with SWG based on the Star Wars Databank, I'm indebted for many of the following concepts to Marc W. Miller, designer of the astonishingly good "Traveller" and "MegaTraveller" RPG systems.)

    • HULL
    • POWER
    • 9. FUEL
    • 10. ACCESSWAYS
    • 11. SECURITY
    • 12. CARGO
    • 14. DEFENSES
    • 15. WEAPONS
Some details of each system:


Ship hulls should range from those barely large enough to move one living person all the way up to ISDs and beyond. There should be a selection of different hull types to choose from, including: needle/wedge*, sphere, saucer*, cylinder*, cone*, box, open frame, and irregular. (* indicates which hull types are capable of operating in planetary atmospheres.) The size of a hull should be proportional to its displacement in tons as well as to its cost (with some minor tweaks per hull type).

Since SWG is space fantasy, rather than more "realistic" science fiction, I expect that most if not all hulls will be either needle/wedge (to land on planets). It might be nice to also have saucer and sphere hull types available to provide some choices, however. (The droid control ships from Ep. I were basically a saucer design... and as for spheres, wouldn't the Death Star have had smaller prototypes? /evilgrin)


Typical power plants for starships in science fiction are fusion reactors and antimatter, but apparently the main source of energy in starships in the Star Wars universe is the ion drive itself. Not only does this provide power for in-system flight (see the next section), it also supplies power to the other two types of drive (repulsorlift and hyperdrive), as well as for all other ship systems.

Many sizes and power levels should be available when crafting (or upgrading) ships in the Space Expansion, with price proportional to power output (faster costs more) and inversely proportional to power plant size (smaller costs more). The ion drive (the Databank notes) puts out a certain amount of radiation, which could make working on active engines a hazardous task for shipboard engineers!


Ships in SW use at least two kinds of locomotion: in-system, and interstellar. The in-system drive in SW is the sublight drive (of which the ion engine is one common type), and the interstellar drive is the hyperspace drive. Again, many types/sizes should be available. For example, the Hoersch-Kessel ion engine must be available (after all, it's where TIE fighters get their name -- Twin Ion Engine), but it would be helpful to have other kinds of sublight drive available as well to offer more design options. It might also be fun if the engines themselves were composed of subunits (that darn hyperdrive motivator!), but that might be asking a bit much. As usual, with increased power (for both normal space and hyperspace drives) the size and cost of engines should increase as well.

Note that if atmospheric flight is implemented, this should be based on a third type of locomotion: the repulsorlift. (This is the antigravity technology that landspeeders and swoops use.)


They don't discuss this much in SW, but since you've got to be able to "see" to navigate, it needs to be addressed. Types of sensors provided should include: active electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) scanning (like "pinging" in submarine movies except that much more detail is provided), passive EMS scanning (ways to gain information about other ships or objects without giving away your presence), mass detectors, particle detectors, energy detectors, and computer systems that integrate all these sources into a coherent picture of your surroundings. Many types of these instruments should be available (at appropriate sizes and costs).

The distinction between active and passive sensors is mostly needed to support piracy, where it might be helpful/interesting to allow ships to disguise themselves or hide behind objects. Wouldn't you like to be able to make yourself look like a different (less dangerous) kind of ship? How about hiding within some "noisy" space phenomena such as a solar corona, a nebula, or the tail of a comet? If the SE won't be detailed enough to allow disguising or hiding ships, then basic sensors ("is it there?") will be all that are necessary (if disappointing).

One other reason to include better-than-basic sensors will be if ECM/ECCM ("sensor jamming" in SW-speak) are included in the Space Expansion. Dash Rendar's Outrider, for example, is a stock YT-2400 that (according to the SW Databank) has been upgraded in numerous ways that include "a highly illegal and highly effective sensors/countermeasures/stealth package."


Again, this isn't discussed much in Star Wars, but again, it's reasonable to expect that they're required in a starship. One particular type of computer that we know is necessary is a navigation computer (navicomp), but really there should be computer capability distributed all over a starship. You'd want a main computer for handling user interaction (queries to the galactic database of objects, games like Dejarik, etc.), but pretty much every ship system should have embedded computer control and communications with the other ships' computers. These will allow control and status monitoring of ship subsystems without having to route everything through the main computer. Think of the main computer and many distributed computers as the brain and nervous system of a starship. Capabilities should vary, and be priced accordingly.


Well, you've got to control your ship somehow! The bridge (or cockpit in a single-person ship) is the place on a ship to which all control information flows, and from which all command instructions exit. You can get as bare-bones as having nav sensors and a joystick and lift controls, or as fancy as a a bridge crew of 20 staring at a 3-D holotank. Prices, of course, will vary proportionally.

For a starfighter, controls should be fairly simple. Millions of dollars have been spent trying to figure out the most sensible number and types of controls and their layout in modern fighter jets, but one design principle remains clear: simple is good. A complex arrangement may give you a high degree of control, but it may also become too complex in the middle of a major firefight.

For larger starships, the canon suggests that control and monitoring functions are often split between multiple personnel. A small freighter might break down operations into Piloting and Navigation/Avionics, while a military vessel might have separate officers in charge of Piloting, Navigation, Engineering, Sensors, Weapons, and Communications, and a full-size military ships would include these officers, sub-officers, and numerous deckhands to serve as crew. In all these cases, separate monitoring and control activities should be routed to individual stations. (Note: I hope sitting down to operate a station won't result in our buttsliding into the void of space. That would be a Bad Thing.) [Historical note: "buttsliding" was our name for a bug in SWG where, after avatars were in a sitting position for a few minutes, they would visibly move several feet in a random direction while still in the sitting position. So if you were sitting in a chair, you'd now just be sitting on air; and if you were sitting on the ground... you'd appear to be sliding across the ground on your butt. This was corrected eventually, but only after many months of puzzlement that SOE would fail to fix such an obvious and disruptive bug.]


This might be counted as a key system, but I count it as support since it won't be used all the time. Still, it's nice to be able to talk to someone when you really need to.

Comm hardware should vary by size, distance capability, and cost. A related category is comm jamming equipment.

The MegaTraveller RPG suggests that certain "channels" are available: ship ID (the "black box" transponder), hailing, distress, landing and takeoff, tactical, etc. This concept is easily extended to SWG and the Space Expansion, where "channels" for various purposes already exist. The existing chat channel system should work pretty well for this; we'd just create new channels for purposes as they come up.

Some channels should probably be system-run persistent channels, however. Maybe when your ship pops out of hyperspace near Lok you should be able to open the planetary landing control channel (assuming Lok has one; not every "adventure planet" should) for any system messages. Maybe something like, "Attention travellers: due to increased pirate activity, the Imperial presence here on Lok has been stepped up for the duration of this emergency." Or possibly such messages should be more applicable to gameplay: maybe the landing control channel should give you specific instructions as to where you can go to land your ship and how to do it.

The Space Expansion might even allow you to fill up your ship with cargo remotely. Instead of having to get out of your ship, walk to a Bazaar terminal, buy stuff, carry it home with you under your arm, and only then store it in your cargo hold, you should be able to activate the Sales channel to see the local listing of Bazaar items, then buy whatever you want (at a higher price than if you were using a Bazaar terminal) and have it "delivered" to your ship (as long as your ship has enough cargo/inventory space for it).


This system includes all the technologies needed to preserve life and comfort in the vacuum of space. It features controls for: temperature, atmosphere, light, humidity, and artificial gravity. But SWG doesn't require any special handling of perishable or living items!

For example, I've had several fish stuck in my bank vault for eight months now and they show no signs of starting to stink. The various flora in my private chemical and food crafting station have likewise been there for months without degrading in any way. So we probably won't have to start providing special environmental controls for living things or organic matter in SWG just because of the Space Expansion. (Bit of a shame, really, as "decay" of living items would be a way to reduce the number of database objects that players could probably accept. I'm not saying they'd like it -- just that they could live with it because it's realistic.)


It may not be necessary to buy and use fuel in the Space Expansion. The "realism" would help generate a feeling of immersion in the world, and it might make for an interesting component to the economy if it's ever rare. But it could also be considered an annoying administrative impediment to just getting out into space to duel other players. In other words, having to have filling stations might be more trouble than it's worth. Another hint that starship fuel might not be included is the fact that power sources just aren't talked about much in Star Wars -- the Star Wars Databank has nothing to say on the subject. Presumably power in Star Wars is so easily and cheaply generated that it's just taken for granted that you can always have as much as you want for free. If the Space Expansion is implemented this way it would detract slightly from the "science fiction" feel of the game, but the "Star Wars" feel won't be reduced much (if at all).


You shouldn't have to think about these very often, but you do need them: ramps, airlocks, iris valves, sally ports, hatches, docking clamps, etc.


If you think about it, security aboard a starship should always favor the defender. With sufficiently advanced computers you can recognize official crew and passengers and (since every access point has its own computer) control where they can go. Uninvited "guests" could trigger an intruder alert mode in which unfriendlies are led into passageways that are then locked off... or perhaps into airlocks that get opened to space. Security on larger vessels might also involve troops whose purpose is to repel boarders.


If you're going to ship cargo (legally or otherwise) you'll need a place to store it. The two main issues here are how much space you need, and what kind of environmental controls do you want for that space. Prices are proportional to both of those. (For example, 500 cubic feet for shipping closed containers of nonperishable items might run you CR10,000, while 10,000 cubic feet for shipping live wampas and tauntauns might cost you CR200,000 (extra space plus environmental controls). Additionally you might want a few special compartments... these should be available, but at a considerable cost. This system also controls cargo bay operations (doors, loading, unloading, etc.).

It may also be necessary/useful to allow respulsorlift-based cargo loading and unloading. (We might never see it, but that should be the notional explanation.)


In anything larger than a one-person ship, you'll probably need berths for crew. Furthermore, if you're going to carry passengers, you'll need staterooms. You might want a range of staterooms, with costs to match (see any modern cruise liner's Web site for pictures showing how staterooms are laid out). You might even want special environmental options for non-human passengers... again, at a cost.


Ship defenses seem to come in two flavors -- passive and active. The typical passive defense is armor; more and stronger armor means not only higher prices, but more mass to move (which should require larger engines, which cost even more money). This should work like personal armor in the ground game: condition points are taken primarily from armor, but a sufficiently powerful attack may cause "internal" damage. In ships, this would take the form of a reduction in the condition points of subsystems like engines and weapons. You might also lose hull condition points (assuming those are tracked separately).

Active defenses can take a number of different forms. In SW, the classic active defense is deflector shields (not available on the original TIE fighter, of course), which should be available in different strengths and recharge times at different prices. The Star Wars Databank notes that shields come in two types: ray shielding and particle shielding. (This is probably another way of saying "energy" and "kinetic" shielding.) Ships, with their smaller power sources, typically generate several small shields in "arcs" around the ship; this allows the efficient use of shield power since it can be directed away from where it's not needed to where it's desperately needed. Other types of shield generators include personal shield generators (as found in SWG) and Gungan energy bubbles, and large, ground-based deflector shield generators, which are powerful enough to protect entire installations or even large orbital objects.


Ah, the fun stuff. First of all, ships should use the "hardpoint" system to determine where and how many weapons may be attached structurally. Examples of ship-mounted weapons in SW that we know of (we can always make up more!) are ion cannons, light blaster cannons, turbolasers, and various missile and torpedo launchers.

Mines, such as the ones Jango Fett deployed in the Genosian asteroid field in AOTC, could also be interesting weapons. If implemented, actuation modes could include contact, proximity, magnetic, and signal. (A contact mine detonates on contact; a proximity mine detonates when any appropriately-sized mass field gets close enough; a magnetic mine detonates when a metallic object gets close enough; and a signal mine detonates when it receives some number (1 or more) of external commands, either from a character-controlled key or from a command mine.) Detonation modes could include explosive, concussion, nuclear, and command. (An explosive mine just blows up with a standard destructive charge; a concussion mine produces a concussive wave; a nuclear mine produces a "dirty" radioactive explosion; and a command mine sends a signal to other mines that it's been activated.)

(A note on command mines and mines with signal actuation systems: These are used together to create minefields into which ships can travel some distance before other mines explode. A signal-actuated mine can be set to require several signals before it detonates -- you could even have a signal-actuated mine that in turn detonates as a command mine to other signal-actuated mines. A ship entering this kind of minefield would pass through a first line of command mines; as it gets into the middle of the field it kicks off more and more signals until the "magic number" is met, at which point the entire field detonates. Very nasty.)

Other systems that could be counted as weapons include the tractor beam projector and gravity well projector.

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