Last update: 10 May 2005
This pages defines the fundamental design drivers for SunDog. These are the principles to be considered and given weight when determing SunDog's game design, program architecture and design, and actual implementation.
SunDog had as an overriding principle to avoid being a "railroad" game, where you have to solve a sequence of tasks in a particular order. Instead, you have an overall goal--fulfil your uncle's contractual obligations to deliver a specific series of goods (and frozen colonists) to a new colony--and you're free to figure out how to do that. You don't have enough money off-hand, so you do need to find ways to make money: buying and selling goods and/or components, hunting pirates and/or muggers, etc.
SunDog Resurrection should add new options for making money and completing the goal. These could include:
* asteroid mining
* contracting other firms (at a premium, of course) to purchase and/or deliver goods
* investing money
* buying, investing in, or starting up a small business (i.e., a bar, hotel, gun shop, parts shop)
* carrying passengers for a fee
* taking temp work (ranging from manual labor to skilled technical work)
* buying and staffing a second ship
...and so on. The trick is to allow novel and unanticipated approaches without unbalancing the game. This means introducing risks and barriers, as well as having inordinate success draw inordinate attention--from government, competitors, pirates, etc.
In SunDog, you didn't colonize worlds, build fleets, lead armies, conquer (or destroy) entire systems. Mostly, you tried to keep your ship repaired, dodge pirates and muggers, stay out of trouble with the law, and earn money to buy the goods to fulfil your uncle's contractual obligations.
SunDog Resurrection needs to keep that personal scale. My original goal for SunDog was a pocket universe that I could kick around in. I'm still looking for that.
SunDog--in spite of its highly constrained environment and resources--tried to make the universe as real as it could. The star map was 3-D, something still very rare among SF games. Space combat was also 3-D. Time passed; you got hungry and sleepy. If you drank too much ale, you stood a risk of passing out--and finding all your possessions gone when you woke up. The game tried to keep you from getting killed, but if you persisted--you would get killed. Going up against a group of muggers without a shield was a pretty sure bet for that.
SunDog Resurrection needs to keep that sense of reality. While it will of necessity rely upon abstractions and simplifications, it should avoid the gross unreality of, say, most first-person shooter (FPS) games where you have near-invulnerability and you find weapons, ammo, and medkits lying around. (In SunDog, you have to walk into a store, and they may not even carry what you want).
The goal in all this is verisimilitude, that is, something that feels real. I think this is one key to "sense of wonder" (see below), giving the player the sense that s/he is dealing with what feels like a real world in a real solar system. I belive that achieving that verisimilitude has less to do with spiffy graphics than presenting an environment--however abstracted--that feels plausible, even--especially--when exotic.
SunDog Resurrection should also have more background events going on. The original SunDog modelled three aspects for every planet--law, technology, and wealth--with some variations between cities on a given planet. SunDog Resurrection needs to add more complexity: politics, multiple nations per planet, conflicts and upheavals, and so on.
This driver leads to the next one: automation.
This was a weakness of the original SunDog. I heard from people who would play SunDog on the Apple II and have another computer running a spreadsheet or database program in order to track goods and prices. As Jerry Pournelle pointed out to me at the time, that's just plain silly; the SunDog character should have access to information technology as least as good as the player is using. While the game environment may place constraints on gathering information, once that information is gathered, it should be automatically recallable.
Here's where the game's backstory may need some adjusting. SunDog as it currently stands depends upon market inefficiencies. But star-faring technology implies a high degree of information technology--so why couldn't the player (and everyone against whom the player competes) simply find out the best routes by gathering the information before ever setting out?
In a similar fashion, it's also a bit silly in retrospect to have the player wandering through wilderness between cities. There should be superhighways, or at least roads. I should be able to buy and load into my shipboad computer (as well as my cargo pod and my PDA) a map of the city, indicating where the exchange/warehouse is as well as (at least some of)the shops (the seedier ones might not be on the map--but they may have better prices).
Finally, we come to the core issue of many an SF game, movie, novel, etc.: wouldn't it be better to have an automated weapons system do all the fighting for you? How hard could it be? After all, all that's firing at you while playing this game is some small segment of SunDog code. The answer, I think, is yes and no. You should be able to enable an automated weapons system to manage the shields and guns while you run back to repair things; yet there should be a possible advantage of some kind to taking manual control of the weapons. (Think: Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon.)
SunDog was built up from a number of small, largely independent aspects that could then be brought together in novel and unexpected ways. These aspects encompassed such things as the graphical user interface, the data-driven approach to maps and dialog, the construction of tools to help build the game, the economic modeling, and the support for object manipulation.
This same approach will be critical SunDog Resurrection. Complex, intelligent behavior (and simulation) emerges from a small set of carefully chosen, orthogonal capabilities, technologies, and prinicples.
The original SunDog has some very innovative UI aspects, most notably the "zoom action" windows to allow rapid transitions in scale. It also borrowed heavily from the Apple Lisa (most of the work on SunDog UI was done before Wayne and I got a sneak peak at the Macintosh), hence the WIMP (window, icon, menu, panel) interface driven entirely through a joystick (Apple) or mouse (Atari ST).
That said, there were some real annoying aspects to the original UI. You moved yourself and your cargo pod by tracking to the current cursor as you held the button down. As I play the original game now (via emulators), I keep thinking, "Why can't I just point at something, click once, and then move there?" And it got really confusing in ground combat, when you were trying to distinguish between moving and firing, both based on where the cursor was. (Of course, after first writing that, I happened to play Dark Orbit, which uses pretty much the same approach--but it adds in the arrow keys to indicate whether the ship should move. It actually works quite well. Maybe the problem was just with our path calculation algorithm.)
Likewise, the resource and screen space constraints required nested button-menu levels in the pilotage. This leads to fumbling through multiple menus to get to shields, turn on shields, get to guns, turn on guns, go to shields (or jettison or navigation) to take further action, and so on.
Just about everyone liked (and likes) the customization that you could do in SunDog, i.e., buying (usually in bars) various components for your ship: concentrators, ground scanners, autoslews, and so on. This is, of course, now a standard feature in just about any SF game where it applies. But SunDog's approach was still different from that found in most of these games. You didn't have successive generations of bigger/faster/more powerful engines, missiles, guns, etc. Instead, you added some new functionalty to existing systems.
Beyond that, the game itself should be customizable. Of course, it will obviously be customizable, since it will be open source, but the documentation and tools should exist to allow the game to be readily modified by those who want to create new worlds, new games, and new add-ons, either for themselves or for other SunDog players.
Sense of Wonder
One thing the original SunDog couldn't really do well was to generate a 'sense of wonder.' By that, I mean that feeling of amazement and delight at new worlds opening up. (Cf. Ray Bradbury's epigram at the front of _The Martian Chronicles_: "It is good to renew one's sense of wonder," said the Philosopher. "Space travel has made children of us all.") Here are some of my real-world 'sense of wonder' moments:
* 1969: Attending an hours-long "Apollo 11 moon landing" party at Alan Scrivener's house. Hearing the words "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed." Watching Neil Armstrong step out onto the moon.
* 1971: Approaching the North Rim of the Grand Canyon by car for the first time and feeling awe as this enormous chasm slowly became visible through an ever-thinning screen of pine trees.
* 1976: Seeing on the front page of the morning paper the first color photos of the surface of Mars from the Viking landers.
* 1979: Arriving at Clear Lake City, Texas, to work on the Space Shuttle flight simulators at the Johnson Space Center. Walking the length of the Saturn V rocket (from a cancelled Apollo mission) resting on its side at the JSC main entrance. Spending time in the Space Shuttle simulators themselves, including an attempt to perform a loop after takeoff. :-)
* 1980-81: Gathering in the lobby of the Lunar and Planetary Institute (where I now worked) for the various Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn. Watching on a large-screen TV as image after image came in, rewriting science texts as they did so. Listening in real time as the LPI scientists reacted to, discussed, and debated what the images showed.
* 1981: Meeting John Young and Robert Crippen at LPI less than 48 hours after the first Space Shuttle flight. Talking with them about what it was like. Listening Young describe how he took photos of Russia with a 35mm camera from orbit and what it was like to pilot a craft back into the atmosphere at Mach 25.
...and so on.
Having said all that, there are several major challenges in achieving "sense of wonder" in a computer game. First, sense of wonder is often tied to scale, that is, realizing just how vast the universe is. However, to keep games flowing, scale usually must be compressed and abstracted. For example, Dungeon Siege places you in a kingdom allegedly hundreds of miles in expanse. However, if you actually mapped out how far you walk in the single player game compared to your character's size, I suspect the whole kingdom would fit within a few square miles...and you're pretty much on a 'railroad track' the whole time, except when wandering around "major cities" of half a dozen buildings. Now, that's a necessary abstration for DS--or else one would likely die of boredom in the real-world days it would take to have your character walk 50 miles to the next village. In other words, without the abstraction and/or compression of scale, a game can become unplayable. In fact, early into Dungeon Siege, before I realized just how compact and tracked its world was, I frankly felt a bit of panic that I might be forced to wander through interminable (and densely populated) expanses of forest, with no clue as where to go and what to do next. So, trying to combine playability with a sense of wonder is the first challenge.
Instead, SunDog took an opposite tact: scale was maintained by compressing time and representation. The same size screen was used for walking around the SunDog, walking or driving around the city, or driving cross country; however, the distance across the screen jumped from less than a hundred feet to hundreds of miles, and elapsed time during movement sped up tremendously. In that way, the sense of reality was maintained. But that same compression removed most sense of scale and with it any chance for a sense of wonder.
Next, sense of wonder tends to be tied to visual representation. There are many games out there with truly gorgeous eye candy--though, in my opinion, space games tend to overuse nebula and asteroids quite a bit--but even that doesn't necesssary convey sense of wonder. And, of course, eye candy tends to be a resource sink, consuming time, talent, money, code, bandwidth, and disc/disk space.
Finally, familiarity breeds contempt, or at least indifference. Sense of wonder tends to disappear with repeated experiences with the same thing. This gets back to previous two issues: resource limits on eye candy and the demands of gameplay to keep every experience from being novel, lest the player so confused, frustrated, and/or bored as to quit the game altogether (something I've experienced before).
Long story short: sense of wonder in SunDog would be great, but it may be limited and hard to achieve.
What I'm not trying to achieve
Any design should also state explicitly depricated goals, so as to limit the design and avoid the kitchen-sink syndrome. The following states what I specifically am not trying to do with SunDog.
SunDog is not an online (or even offline) multiplayer game
The reasons are simple.
* First, it adds a significant layer of complexity that could bring the whole project grinding to a halt. Heck, things aren't exactly screaming along as it is; we need to find ways to keep things simple and moving ahead.
* Second, online multiplayer games by nature face a host of problems--cracking, cheating, social engineering--that were obvious even 20 years ago (check out my game design notebook from 1981-82 if you don't believe me). Given the open source nature of this project, a multiplayer SunDog would be even more vulnerable to such activities than most commercial online multiplayer games.
* Third, large commercial organizations are expending vast amounts of time and money to develop and run such games. Why compete?
* Fourth, I'd rather invest any leftover effort in some decent non-player character (NPC) artificial intelligence. At least, that way I know the other characters I encounter will actually keep me in the illusion of the game.
In short, I'd prefer to keep the SunDog universe a fine and private place. if someone wants to fork SunDog and create a MORPG or even a MMORGP, more power to them. However, I think they will be hard-pressed to come up with something as well done as Earth & Beyond (Westwood/EA).
SunDog is not a classic "4X" game
The "4X" stands for "eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate", a class of games that includes Reach for the Stars, Stars!, Masters of Orion, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri/Alien Crossfire, Starships Unlimited, and Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, as well as earth-bound games such as Civilization I-III and its many, many imitators. This is actually one of my favorite class of games; I wince to think of the hours I have spent playing all these games combined.
But SunDog is not a 4X game, at least not in the sense of the games listed above. As noted above, you don't map out entire galactic sectors, colonize (and stripmine) worlds, build mines, factories, and ships, and wipe out enemy fleets, cities, planets, or even entire races. SunDog should emphasize (and reward) cleverness, courage, chutzpah, and common sense--which, I guess, makes it a "4C" game.
SunDog is not a classic "FPS" game
"FPS" stands for "first person shooter", a genre really pioneered by Doom and the folks at id Software. Most FPS games following common design principles:
* Kill (almost) everything that moves.
* Resupply by breaking open crates, barrels, and furniture.
* Clear out a given level, solve the puzzles along the way, then move on to the next level, which will be even harder.
* Repeat until dead or finished.
Now, mind you, I have no problems at all with the FPS graphics and modeling technology per se. I'd love to play a PC/Mac/Linux-based SunDog that had such technology. But FPS game designs are by their very nature, uh, unreal. If I really found myself set free on a civilized alien planet, I wouldn't start mowing down everyone and everything in sight. I wouldn't find food, medkits, ammo, and ever larger weapons inside of stacked crates and random barrels (presuming I found crates and barrels all over the place).