Saturday, May 29, 2004

SWG: Jump to Lightspeed: Balancing Rebel and Imperial Starship Strengths

To my mind, the right way to get the crazy swirling dogfights we all love from the movies is to make Rebel and Imperial ships truly different, and not just the exact same ships with different graphics and sound effects.

(Time for a little history. Bear with me.)

When George Lucas wrote the original story for Star Wars, his best inspiration for how the "evil Empire" was organized militarily was the Soviet Union. Historically the USSR (from its basis as a Russian civilization that is related to but distinct from our own Western civilization) had two great assets: vast territory, and abundant natural resources. These features led to a military doctrine that favored rapid production of highly mobile units. From the mounted Cossack to the T-62 tank to many MiGs, Russian/Soviet units have typically been relatively cheap to produce and simple to repair and replace, allowing military leaders to quickly apply military force at any place where a show of force was considered necessary. (Note that although some Soviet/Russian fighter jets got lots of press for having advanced features, these aircraft were not mass-produced front-line units. They were new aircraft brought to Farnborough or Paris to make the rest of the world believe that the USSR was maintaining military-technological parity with the West. Soviet fighter jet designers were often creative and brilliant, but the most advanced aircraft were far too expensive to produce in any meaningful numbers.)

The corollary to this "fast and cheap" doctrine of warfare is that individual units become expendable. The human beings who make up the individual units of such a force are no more than meat; if you need more you just produce more.

By contrast, Western military technology from its earliest days embodied the belief that the individual person has value. (This was true even if one person is thought to have more value than another.) Therefore, rather than relying on large waves of identical and expendable units, Western forces have historically been composed of small squads of specialized units which emphasize high-tech offensive power and defensive survivability. Cavalry (especially the mounted knight) and the F-15 are examples of how Western military doctrine based on the worth of the individual favors small numbers of technologically advanced units with good defensive capabilities.

With the Cold War offering these two clearly distinct models of military organization, it shouldn't be a surprise that Lucas developed the military organizations of the Empire and the Rebellion as he did. Like the Soviet Union, the Empire in Star Wars had a vast area of space to try to control. It also had access to plentiful resources from the territories it controlled. So like the USSR, the Empire needed to be able to throw large fleets of small, cheap, identical ships at targets that could pop up anywhere in a vast expanse. The Emperor's solution was the production of thousands of TIE fighters. Eliminating shields kept down costs, and using twin ion engines but not including a hyperdrive allowed excellent maneuverability once the fighters were conveyed to the battle site by a hyperdrive-equipped carrier such as a Star Destroyer.

As the Star Wars equivalent of Western civilization, the Rebel Alliance used military craft that were designed to be much more self-sufficient because the pilot inside was considered to have intrinsic worth as a person, and thus was worth preserving. (Also because Rebels are hard to replace!) Ships like X-wings and Mon Calamari cruisers were more expensive than their counterpart Imperial ships, but the Rebel ships were considerably more effective in one-on-one engagements because they packed more firepower and offered far superior defensive technology. (The Star Wars Databank, for example, offers the note that Mon Cal cruisers often featured triple the number of shield generators of comparable Imperial starships.)

Taking all this as our guide, if combat in the Space Expansion is to "feel" like the Star Wars movies, then yes, a typical engagement should consist of a few Rebel craft taking on a larger number of less powerful Imperial ships. Raw numeric odds of 2-1 or even 3-1 should be common, while "impossible" odds of 20-1 or worse (or better, depending on your point of view) should occur from time to time.

There are three main problems with implementing combat in the Space Expansion in this way.

1. "Fairness": The developers may believe that fairness requires them to make Imperial ships just as good as Rebel ships so that people who want to fly as Imperials don't spend all their time being blown out of the sky by the much more capable Rebel ships. While I'd typically agree with this view, in the case of the Space Expansion I think it would be detrimental to the feel of being part of the GCW. Flying a dangerously inferior ship -- but having lots more squadmates to support you -- should be a clearly acknowledged part of choosing to be an Imperial. In fact, this is exactly the kind of difference that makes the Empire different from the Rebellion! There's no reason to choose one over the other if their capabilities are identical. Because their ships, while more advanced, are more expensive, and because the Rebellion should have less access to resources, members of the Alliance should need to protect their ships by fighting only battles they can win and running away when they can't. And Imperials -- because their ships are weaker but less expensive -- should need to work together in large packs to react to rebel incursions in unexpected parts of the galaxy. When the Imperials win, it should be due to strength of numbers and organization.

2. "GCW stats": If Rebel and Imperial ships really are implemented with different capabilities, then the calculations for who's winning the GCW should take this disparity into account. On a raw numeric basis, it's likely that there'll be a lot more Imperial ships destroyed than Rebel ships. If the calculation for who's winning the GCW just uses a raw numeric count for Space Expansion stats, that would tend to misleadingly skew the results to the Alliance. Consider an engagement where the Empire completely destroys a flotilla of 20 Rebel ships, while the Empire loses 30 ships out of a fleet of 40 vessels. By a simple count of ships lost, the Alliance is the winner because the Empire lost more ships even though the Rebel fleet was wiped out! So if there's a real disparity between the average capabilities of Imperial and Rebel ships of comparable classes, then the GCW calculation needs to bias the raw numeric result of every engagement by some "difficulty factor" based on the difference in average capabilities. If (for example) the average Rebel ship is twice as capable (in terms of power, defenses, weapons, and other systems) as the average Imperial ship, then instead of the Rebellion winning the above engagement 20 to 30, the Empire would have won by 40 to 30 (since the 20 Rebel ships, at a 2-1 bias, would have been worth 40 Imperial ships). And "last man standing" in a fight should confer a bonus.

3. "PvE vs. PvP": If Rebel and Imperial ship capabilities are allowed to differ, then the toughest problem isn't with PvE, where Imperial ships can be spawned in reasonably appropriate numbers to match Rebel strengths (and vice versa). (Although this probably will be a serious problem if the streets of Bestine and Mos Espa, currently strewn with hundreds of stormtrooper corpses, are any guide.) The real problem is in PvP action. It's just not going to happen that often that "appropriate" numbers of Rebel ships will meet "appropriate" numbers of Imperial ships. It's much more likely that a lone Imperial will be dry-gulched by some roving band of Rebel marauders, or that a lone Rebel will mistakenly fly through an area of space next door to an Imperial Player Association's gathering point. No matter what, PvP in the Space Expansion is likely to be unpleasant for the solo player. Furthermore, if the capabilities of Imperial ships are allowed to be less (on average) than Rebel ships, the servants of the Empire are likely to feel even less happy about PvP than members of the Alliance.


Having said all this, I still think allowing Imperial ships to be less capable on average than Rebel ships is worth doing. It's more "historically" accurate; it's more in keeping with Star Wars canon; and -- most important for SWG -- it helps distinguish the playing experience of being a Rebel from that of playing as an Imperial.