Star Trek Armada: Development Diary
The Mad Doctor’s Designer’s Diary (Feb. 15, 2000)
As we roll into the last month of development on Star Trek: Armada, it's easy for the programming team to see how much work lays ahead of us. But it may be just as important to see how much is behind us. Armada is a complicated game by any means: a fully 3D RTS meant to compete with the best 3D games out there and the best RTS games. We've had to break new ground in graphics, AI, networking, interface, and game core design.
To start with, Armada has a beautiful graphics engine. We started out the game using an inherited graphics engine, which let us get underway with the game development, but Steve Williams, our graphics guru, decided that to compete with other games coming out around our release date, we’d have to go an extra mile or two. The Storm3D engine was developed by working closely with the art director and trying to get that Star Trek movie look out of a PC. The engine is Direct3D compatible, and we’ve had to work closely with all of the card manufacturers and Microsoft in order to bring every consumer the best look possible. The end result speaks for itself.
The AI in Armada has been a team effort, with significant contributions from myself, John Hancock, Martin Martin, & Richard Myers. At a recent GDC (Game Developer’s Conference), a poll was taken of game producers and they said that they spend roughly 60% of their programming budget on AI (up from less than 20% just a few years ago). While the evolution of 3D programming interfaces such as Direct3D and OpenGL has enabled the graphics wizards to focus on the high end effects, there is no such standard for AI. Each game presents a whole new open research problem. Fortunately for us, we’ve gone a few rounds with strategy games before (Dark Reign, Dark Reign: Rise of the Shadowhand, Battlezone, and Civilization: Call To Power), and we had some basic tools and some experienced hands to throw at the problem.
We broke the AI problem down into two main components: Tactical AI and Strategic AI, with some smaller modules on the side. John and Martin tackled the tactical AI and physics; this part is responsible for how each individual ship acts when it’s on either a human or computer team. This was an enormous task. With more than 30 different types of ships, each of which has special weapons, with four different races controlling them (plus humans!) giving the strategic orders, the complexity of the tactical AI was enormous. The biggest challenge is that in a Star Trek game, the gamer has expectations about behavior. Klingons can’t act like Romulan. The first time an AI Borg cube sucks your Akira class dry of crew, you can thank Mr. Hancock.
Richard and I tackled the strategic AI (with large doses of support from Brian Hawkins and John). One part of this is the troop allocation system. This system looks at all of the ships available to an AI team, and analyzes the known map to decide where to send the ships. On top of that is the expert system for choosing personality for the computer. We have a system of rules and scripts for setting up the highest level of AI behavior. The strategic AI controls the ebb and flow of missions as well as putting up a fight as foe or ally in multi-player. The system is designed both to allow the designers to craft each mission to have its own feel and to respond and react to the human’s actions so that it feels alive like a human opponent.
Which brings us to the networking work of the infamous Mr. G, aka Gordon Moyes. Our Australian import has dedicated himself to giving us the most robust networking this side of that side, and to ensuring the overall health and well-being of the Armada engine. He’s been tasked with giving great LAN and Internet play, and it’s a testament to his skill that when we demo’d the game at E3 eleven months ago, we played it in 4 hour long multi-player games with a third computer in observer mode. The rest of the team has done everything we can to make his job tough with new features to support and the like, but he’s always a step ahead of us. Now if only his promised operating system, OS G, would ship, we’d all have easier lives.
One of the surprisingly tough elements of a 3D RTS was the in-game interface. The best RTS games all have rich on-screen interfaces with troop information, and status. In a fully 3D game, though, we’ve had to build a GUI that works entirely with 3D sprites and polygons form the ground up. Brian has led the charge on this, and has had more seemingly impossible tasks to tackle than I care to mention. Collaborating frequently with Steve and Mr. G, Brian has managed to create a configurable RTS interface which responds like the best interfaces around and looks better than any of them.
Finally, but maybe most importantly, the game core is what makes the game into our game. 36 Special weapons, wormholes, boarding parties, phasers, photons, temporal anomalies, nebulae, asteroid belts, and a laundry list of other Trek-isms make this game a unique playing experience. Dale Son & Linus Chen worked their magic on the bulk of the special weapons in the game. Each special weapon required a unique graphical effect and had its own strange effect on the ships around it. Check out the Nanites for a treat! But the game core went far past the special weapons, and Brian has been working nonstop for the length of the project to make our game the best RTS out there with gobs of help from all the other coders, with John taking a large role in the closing days of the project.
So, with less than a month left, we’re still busy as hell, but the accomplishments dwarf the tasks left. I’ve had the rare opportunity to play the game a fair amount in the last two weeks while testing AI in multi-player games, so I have some perspective on the game, and I can tell you that I can’t wait to finish writing this so I can go force Matthew Nordhaus to take his Borg-ass ships out of my Federation neighborhood in a multiplayer game. Of course, the AI Klingons might just mop up the galaxy with the both of us.
Mad Doctor I
Producer Diary: How Paramount and Activision Work Together To Make a Great Game
By Marc Turndorf.
From the beginning the Paramount, Activision relationship has been a solid one. Paramount brought their vast Star Trek resources and Activision its core Real-Time Strategy production team to create the first RTS game set in the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe. From there it was just a matter of making the two pieces fit together into one awesome game.
Paramount, to assure the game would ring true to the franchise, supervised an approval process that not only looks at the game as a whole, but also every individual asset. This was very helpful in defining each individual race visually. When the art team was creating Klingon, Romulan, Borg and Federation ships and buildings not already existing in the Star Trek universe there was a tendency to inadvertently blur the lines between Klingon and Romulan architecture. (Not to mention squashing the Cardassian fetish our art team seemed to be partial to.) The people at Paramount were instrumental in guiding us through these changes. Paramount did a terrific job of pointing us in the right direction by suggesting and showing us examples of Klingon and Romulan architecture. Usually by the second pass both sides were happy. When the design team was writing dialog for existing Trek characters Paramount kept close watch to make sure the text stayed true to the character. However when the design team was creating new characters, Paramount gave us more room to improvise.
While every asset needed to be approved by Paramount, the production team still has had more than its share of creative freedom. The true Trekkers on the team salivated over the opportunity to create new ships and buildings within the Star Trek gaming universe and they were not disappointed. My favorite ship created by the design/art team is the USS Premonition, a prototype Federation ship from the future who’s third Nacelle gives it time travel capabilities. The Borg and Romulan sides required many more ships than were established on the television shows and movies thus the team had the chance to add to their armadas by creating new ones. Paramount was very helpful in this process by telling us where the Star Trek Universe was headed so our designs could reflect these advances.
Before Activision acquired the Star Trek franchise the Armada team was working on a design document for a RTS game set in space. We could not have been happier when we learned a Star Trek RTS was in the cards. Both Activision and Paramount were committed to making a great game, however careful attention had to be paid in balancing RTS gaming and Star Trek.
Core to the RTS grammar is the collecting of resources, thus in the game each race must mine Dilithium to build ships and stations. However in the Star Trek universe resource gathering is obsolete as Dilithium is a reusable energy source. Another area of concern was the scale of ships and buildings. Certain concessions had to be made so that a Federation Scout Ship would appear discernable next to a Federation Sovereign class vessel. The biggest creative license had to be made in the area of build time. Star Trek cannon tells us that a Federation Sovereign class vessel takes 7 years to build. That would make for a rather drawn out game. Fortunately Paramount understood RTS games and was on board with expanding certain areas of the franchise for the betterment of the game.
While the Star Trek license and RTS gaming did not always meet eye-to-eye, in may instances they were a perfect match. The license lends itself to a wide variety of factions each with distinct weapons, ships and ideologies. With so many great races to choose from it was hard paring it down to only four.
The concept of fleets of starships battling for control of a galaxy, a concept central to many Star Trek shows and movies, is a match made in heaven with real-time strategy gaming. Commanding an armada in RTS fashion has Trekkers and hard-core RTS gamers alike counting the days until code release. The seamless conglomeration does not end there. Many RTS games rely on ‘hero ships or characters’ to propel story and drive missions. The Star Trek Universe is full of these and Armada uses among others, Picard, Worf, Sela, Martok, Toral and Locutus.
Special weapons, or magic attacks by mage-like creatures are found in many RTS games. Star Trek unintentionally has introduced many of these ‘attacks’ throughout its history. Every time an engineer decides to run the phaser banks through the transporter cells, or the warp core is overloaded through the central computer bank new and ingenious combat tactics are created. The Armada team has taken these and created a vast array of ‘special weapons’ whose roots come from the Trek television shows and movies.
The Star Trek Franchise has also inspired advances in the RTS genre. Transportation is a stable of the Star Trek franchise. This has been incorporated into Armada with great results. Players can transport crew onto enemy ships when their shields are down to take control over that ship. The success rate depends on the amount of crew on the enemy ship and your races strength in hand-to hand combat. (i.e. Klingons are much more adept at this then the Romulans.) Players can also transport crewmembers onto friendly ships to help with repairs, or transport crew to derelict ships and take control of them.
Another innovation in the RTS genre that the Armada team can thank the Star Trek franchise for is the Cinematic Window. The Cinematic Window is a small window on the user interface, which shows ‘beauty’ close-up shots of the action. Click on the window once to go to the action, and click on it twice to make the window full screen to play the game from a view similar to the television shows and movies. Both these features are natural fits to the RTS genre and add new dimensions to Armada’s game play.
As code release approaches it is clear an RTS game set in the Star Trek universe can appeal to both hard-core RTS fans and Trekkers alike. Paramount made sure the Armada team honored the Star Trek franchise while respecting the Armada team’s ability to create a compelling and impressive RTS title. The Aramda team deferred to Paramount in areas directly in the reticule of Trek cannon. Concessions had to be made by both sides, but thanks to the mantra subscribed to by all: “above all else let’s make a fantastic game” the end product will be a great success.