Alright this is a more thorough followup response to the Stations orbiting the planets thread. To recap, I mentioned in a recent post that players will incrementally fight for control of a solar system by duking it out within successive “battlescapes”. A battlescape is defined as a single anchor celestial body, most likely a planet, along with lesser supporting celestial bodies such as moons, asteroid fields, planetary rings, etc. Some people read this and got rather upset, believing that we are unnecessarily reducing the scope of the game or were previously being misleading about the gameplay. Here I will attempt to clarify.
The game we pitched during our Kickstarter was the game we wanted and hoped to build - the minimum cost of building that game we estimated at $2.5 million. Obviously, we came nowhere near that and instead barely made it past our absolute minimum of $300k. There is a gaping chasm of a difference between having $300k and $2.5 million, so, what does that mean for Infinity: Battlescape? We priced our minimum Kickstarter at the point where we believed we could build something that was at least in the spirit of the full vision.
While planets and solar systems are really cool they present a significant problem from a game design perspective. Given their incredible size how do you populate all that “space” with interesting content? Since our game is multiplayer-only the most obvious answer is you cram as many players as possible on a single server. This is why, on our Kickstarter page, we mention “semi-persistence” for the full vision of Infinity: Battlescape. You can interpret “semi-persistence” as “miniaturized psuedo-MMO”. In practice this meant that we would spend significant engineering effort trying to support as many players on a single server as possible because we felt that would be critical to providing a good experience.
Unfortunately, populating the solar system with enough interesting content isn’t the only problem. We have to balance how much firepower it will take to destroy various pieces of infrastructure within the game. Can a single interceptor destroy an entire factory in any reasonable amount of time? What if we require the equivalent firepower of at least 1 cruiser or a full squadron of bombers? If 10 players are on a server only a couple of them will ever be able to attack any one installation at any point in time. In an entire solar system there will be many pieces of enemy infrastructure so not only will it potentially take you a long time to destroy all of it by yourself but the likelihood you ever run into an enemy player will be slim until you have destroyed the majority of their bases.
So, we successfully raised our minimum Kickstarter, we can’t afford to spend the engineering time required for a proper MMO scale server, what do we do? The idea we originally came up with prior to launching the Kickstarter, as we figured it was much more likely we only raised $300k vs $2.5 million, is to artificially reduce the areas of conflict within the solar system. What this means, as described above, is that all “interesting” content that pertains to the outcome of a single “match” will be concentrated around a single planet. The entire solar system is still seamlessly explorable - it’s just that the other bases etc will all be temporarily hidden so you are incentivized to stay within a more confined space. This dramatically increases the likelihood you will run into other players and have more interesting and enjoyable experiences. How do these other battlescapes get unhidden? When a server starts up the battlescapes within a solar system will have their ownership split up among all of the teams. Each battlescape represents a single match in a tug of war for control of the entire solar system. When a battlescape is conquered the match ends and another one begins at a new battlescape until one team has conquered everything. Another way of thinking about it is that each battlescape is a capture point and whichever team captures all of the points wins the war and the server then resets.
Another potential solution to our problem is AI. On a server with few players compelling AI could fill in the gap and still create a rewarding experience for the human participants. Since AI consumes considerably less bandwidth than human players we could conceivably have 100’s or thousands of AI players on a server that can only support a few hundred human players and that would go a long way toward resolving our problem. Those of you who’ve been paying close attention may have noticed that we originally promised no AI for Infinity: Battlescape. This is because good AI takes a lot of engineering effort and given the choice between the two we’d prefer to spend our limited time on player driven interaction. Coincidentally, we now have AI anyway however that was more or less an accident. Flavien needed some simple bots to test out weapons and he kept incrementally making them slightly smarter until we realized we actually had a halfway decent AI that did in fact create a richer experience.
What does all of this mean for Infinity: Battlescape over the near future? We spent the better part of last year working on our networking code and arrived at a result we’re pretty happy with. Thus far we believe we should be able to get up to ~500 players without too much of a problem on respectably powerful hardware, not to mention there’s still plenty of room for optimization. If we end up ever having the time to implement any of those optimizations we think it might be possible, with somewhat specialized high end hardware and a 1gb connection, to go well over a thousand players on a single server - that would be huge.
Since we accidentally have AI we’ve decided we’re going to try and continue making incremental improvements to it and hopefully by release it’ll be something that’s good enough. The hard part about making AI isn’t building bots that can win - it’s building bots that can convincingly lose. For Alpha, as we’ve mentioned before, our goal is to build a single battlescape. We will use this to balance weapons, ships, and infrastructure while implementing the rest of our core gameplay. During Beta we will begin to build the rest of the battlescapes. Fortunately, testing an entire solar system-wide war is fairly straightforward - we just enable all battlescapes all at once - and we may play around with that before fully committing to a “capture point tug of war” set of matches for final release.
Of course, if any of you have suggestions as to how we could support an entire solar system of seamless conflict we’re always open to hearing your ideas. With our current cash flow we have ~1 year of development runway left and it’s getting to the point where we’re going to have to start making some hard decisions. If we’re lucky our sales will increase after Alpha and Beta and if that happens we’ll have more flexibility to tinker with some of these things. Otherwise, we’re going to do our best with the time we have left. While I understand some of you really have your heart set on a seamless, continuous solar system-wide conflict I ask you to please keep an open mind about this “tug of war” system. If, during the Alpha, you find yourself enjoying the game within a single battlescape then perhaps, while not ideal, it won’t be so bad in the end. If everybody ends up hating it then honestly we probably have bigger problems than worrying about whether or not we’re using an entire solar system all at once. Either way, we’ll be engaging with all of you every step of the way.