Interstellar Drive – A Daydream

August 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

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Reading up on Elite Dangerous has made me frisky. I have always had a tender spot for space-games, ever since I played Tie-Fighter way back in the days when they were plentiful (I still actually have the disk somewhere), I have bounced from each popular joystick-jaunt to another during my teens. I even played the original Elite on our schools old Acorn during my lunch breaks, and never quite getting the hang of it to be truthful. The notion of trading was a strange concept to my Command & Conquer addled mind, and I instead spent my efforts on trying to blow stuff up.

I still enjoy space-sims, despite the pickings being very slim over the past few years. The X: Beyond the Frontier games have kept the wolves from the door for the most part, but I have began to notice something missing from the experience.

The ships you fly in almost all modern space-sims are all terribly dull.

This got me thinking – why are ships in those games so characterless? And why do they gloss over all the practicalities involved in owning and maintaining a spaceship? I don’t mean the actual nitty-gritty of building a fusion-drive (or something) from scratch, but simple stuff like component wear and mileage/age. Like buying dodgy second-hand ships. Like the kind of stuff we all go through at some point in our real lives when our car craps out on us.

Then I started to daydream…

This daydream of mine is an open-universe – much like the upcoming Elite Dangerous or Star Citizen. However, the myriad of star-ships and fighters you can fly aren’t just differing cockpits and status bars, but rather a collection of parts and concepts glued shakily together. Your first ship would be akin to the little hatchbacks bumbling around the city centres. Probably second-hand, but reliable, dependable, good fuel economy. Lacking in toys, of course, and speed, and boot… uh – cargo space, but cheap. The biggest worry would be knackering the engine by pushing it too hard, meaning that for most – regular engine maintenance will be important. But since they are so widely used, you can repair/pick up spares in just about any Space-Tesco.

You also may get a little peeved at the sleeker, more dangerous looking ships that overtake you easily in the space-lanes. Probably silver or black, ludicrously equipped and fast. Lovely, but you smirk at the notion of actually owning one – the parts for those things probably cost as much as your whole ship. Still, the envy lingers. Of course, you could buy one second-hand at a massive mark-down in price, but then the worries begin – when were the fuel-lines last replaced? Will the gyro-stabiliser give up the ghost while you are doing barrel-rolls dodging missiles? And besides, the thing drinks fuel like a fuel-drinking-starship-shaped-fish. Nah, it’s not quite within reach yet.

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You are going faster than some though, like this transport-ship. These crawl from system to system, slow and steady, hauling everything from bricks to ships. Deceptively shabby to look at, this one was probably ticking over 80 000 light-years with the thruster-mountings it was sold with. These are the Scania lorries of this imaginary universe – built to last with mighty, slow-ticking engines and very little else. It might take them ten times as long to get to the next system, but they always arrive. And with payloads that allow their owners lie in space-satin sheets each night. These buggers are moderately expensive, but they run forever and when something does go wrong it’s reasonably cheap to fix – provided you can reach a station with the proper facilities. The biggest issue with these ships is simple – they are bad-guy magnets. Better bring along backup if you are carrying anything particularly valuable.

Of course the game wouldn’t be much fun if you ended up buying a ship that simply won’t work. So there are certain requirements before a ship can be sold and safely depart from the dock, called a Space MOT. This is a regular mandatory check to make sure your ship has working shields, weapons and safety equipment. Of course you can try to fly without a SMOT, but you run the risk of heavy fines and even losing your ship if you get caught. As a further precaution, you can always test-fly a prospective ship, testing its control response and listening for possible issues. A semi-burnt out engine will rattle and grind under full throttle, for example, or there will be creaks and groans when turning quickly. But in the worst case scenario, there is always the rescue service that, for a fee, will pick you and your stricken ship up and tow you to a nearby station.

But once you find the ship that suits you and your budget, you can then replace worn out parts as you go. Plasma exhausts and manoeuvring thrusters are always worth keeping an eye on, particularly if you do a lot of planetary landings. Engines don’t last forever, but with regular maintenance they can outlast your payments on a ship – although the fuel delivery system should be regularly serviced to avoid unwanted engine failures. Internal systems are mostly self regulating, although if your hull is damaged in combat (or bouncing off stations), you should make sure the atmospheric systems are functioning and you have no leaks. Finding out your are running out of oxygen in interstellar space is very bad for your health.

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I use the car analogy because I feel it best expresses what’s missing from most of the current crop of space games. Most drivers have an affinity for their cars, or a car that they want to one day own. They assign traits to them and covet them and personify them in weird ways (I call my little Seat Ibiza “Iggy” for no good reason) – it endears them to us. We may not be driving a car in these games, but the principle is kind of the same. Our little ship is our home, our conveyance, our protection and our way to progress in a sometimes-hostile place. And yet a few hours into a game like X3, you stop even noticing what colour it is. Giving these inanimate bits of machinery a soul is perhaps a futile gesture for a lot of players, a faulty engine manifold that rattles when you throttle up may just irritate people more than anything else. But then there will be that little ship that held together just long enough to escape those pirates. Or the time the engine blew up right in the middle of a system hop, leaving you stranded in deep space for fifteen minutes till the space-RAC arrived. Or that big red dart-like thing you bought that just wouldn’t work properly, ran through fuel like a bastard and still managed to be the most fun ship you ever flew…

Injecting a little bit of personality into the ships we fly, I believe, is far more important than any sweeping tale of evil empires or civil war that space-sims get lumbered with these days. And if any of these space sims on the horizon come close to that kind of experience, I might just die of happiness.

 

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