If there was a significant problem with fleet-management game Gratuitous Space Battles, it was that it was almost too gratuitous. There were a lot of space battles, with nothing to link or contextualise them. To fix this black hole in the space-time of his creation, Cliff "Positech" Harris has been constructing some DLC, a "massively single-player" non-linear campaign, which is now nearing completion. I had a quick chat with him about this development, which you can read below.
RPS: So how is it going, any release date yet?
Cliffski: Nothing firm, but it seems to be bug free, so right now it's just a case of me tweaking the balance and adding the odd bit of polish and fluff. There will be a pre-order beta-access period anyway, possibly starting very soon.
RPS: Okay, so tell me a bit about what you went through coming up with this. Did you know you needed to do it before all the reviews said "this game needs a campaign"?
Cliffski: Well I always thought it would be good, because it completely fixes the one 'structural' flaw with the idea of GSB, which is that you get to build fleets that are only good for doing one thing - beating a specific battle. The campaign forces you to behave like a real space-admiral, because you are re-using the same ships and fleets in different circumstances. It does make the battles less gratuitous, but that's life.
RPS: Did you research the work of real space admirals for that then?
Cliffski: I did exhaustive research, by watching tons of sci-fi movies. It's a tough job, this game-design lark.
RPS: So what sort of scale is the campaign? A couple of hours? Longer?
Cliffski: You must be joking. It's more like a week at this rate. Depending how good you are at the game. There are 52 planets to conquer, but it's not a linear thing, and you often fight and then lose and then retake a system many times. And that's assuming you don't dawdle much. But I'm sure some uber speed-geek will do it all in 10 minutes, and demand his money back... I'm also hoping that modders will enjoy building new campaigns around it.
RPS: So how are your fleets maintained and resourced? Is there some planet management? Shipyard tweaking?
Cliffski: There are a bunch of different facilities on each world, although they are fixed in place. Factories and academies produce cash and crew, shipyards build or repair ships and repair yards can repair them. The campaign basically has crew and cash as the two resources, and the fixed location of facilities mean they act as a fixed resource as well. You will find that shipyards are absolutely crucial bases, and you are always short of either crew or cash, which informs your decision as to where to attack next.
RPS: So, uh, any diplomacy?
Cliffski: Pah! Diplomacy is for wimps. The only diplomacy is a hail of plasma torpedoes. However, you can retreat mid-battle (a new single fleet-wide order) and you can capture enemy ships if they are left over once victory is declared.
RPS: Presumably the AI for the campaign was still it's own challenge, though - how is that coming along?
Cliffski: Well it's a bit of a balance nightmare, but playtesters seem to think it's working well now. It isn't coded in the traditional way, but designed to always present you with a reasonable challenge. The game attempts to detect if the player might be getting bored, cocky or overwhelmed, for example. The design of enemy fleets and ships isn't AI though, those are other fleets that have been designed by other GSB players. It's massively-single player. You are pitted against the skill of long-time GSB veterans, essentially.
RPS: Thanks for your time