Interstellar Travel

The most important part of writing science fiction is laying down a set of rules which stays constant throughout the book. In A Fire Upon the Deep (aFUtD), there was hyperwave, anti-gravity, hyperspace, and the Zones. In The Mote in God’s Eye (tMiGE), there were only two pieces of technology which violated physics: the Alderson Drive and Langston Field. Each was defined very clearly. Nothing is more infuriating than when an author saves the day with a previously undisplayed loophole.

Cover of A Fire Upon the Deep

The interesting thing about tMiGE is the interstellar travel. Scifi authors usually couple FTL travel with FTL communications; in tMiGE, the only way to send a message to another star system in a timely manner is to send a messenger ship. In addition, jumps between systems can only be made from specific points within each system, determined by the mass of the star and the arrangement of surrounding systems. aFUtD uses a similarly interesting, but completely different, device. Starships in the Beyond make micro-jumps, instantaneously jumping between two points in space and then calculating the next jump. This means that to go faster you just need more computing power. Systems built for different regions of the Beyond work differently; a bottom-lugger isn’t as fast as a state-of-the-art battleship except close to the Slow Zone.

In the fictional world I’ve been developing through a short story, interstellar travel is also interesting. Like tMiGE, the only way to go faster than light is with a spaceship. In my universe, ships have a minimum size requirement; messenger probes are out of the question. An interstellar drive has two parts: the ring, and the spikes. The ring manipulates space, flattening the local regions of the universe around the ship. While in theory a ring could be any size (bigger rings make bigger fields in a not quite linear fashion), it would lack control and have a tendency to fall into gravity fields. That’s why a ship needs spikes. Spikes are long, thin sensors that monitor the properties of the universe in small regions of space. They help the ring avoid massive bodies, correct for small spatial inconsistencies, and deactivate in the correct place. The more spikes a ship has, the safer and more precise it is. The higher quality a ring a ship has, the faster it can go. A ship that was too small wouldn’t be able to avoid planetary bodies or have a large enough detection field to navigate in flattened space. Ok, so maybe there is a little bit of Handwavium. But not THAT much.

You may be wondering: if the spikes hold sensors, why not just make a bigger spacecraft and imbed the sensors within the hull? Good question, reader. The answer is: you could. That is, if you are filthy rich. Rich people sometimes drive crazy cars and build crazy buildings, so certainly some people would make stylish spacecraft. At the end of the day, though, your spaceship is still occupying the same volume of space. It uses more sensors (unless you want minute pockets within your spaceship to expand and explode), and it only gives so much more interior space. It masses more, which means more energy or fuel to boost it through regular space. Spaceships aren’t like cars, either. Stylish lines are going to count for very little; even space stations don’t have windows, and nobody uses video to navigate. The result is that most spaceships are spheres inside a forest of spikes. Not very romantic, is it?

Mass is going to be the limiting factor on spaceship size. Unless you have very expensive spikes, you are still going to redimensionalize hundreds of thousands of miles from your target. You need some sort of in-system propulsion system. Since it is impractical to put a high-powered propulsion system aboard an already too-small ship, most spaceships would use local services: tugboats. Even obscure areas could afford one or two spacecraft with excellent traditional drives that can ferry interstellar craft around in cubic space. This also solves the problem of giving interstellar craft big dangerous drives that create exhaust. Except for military ships, redimensionalizing craft wouldn’t run the risk of toasting someone behind them. Military ships would be the exception; your enemies aren’t going to help you invade their system, so you need your own engines. On the other hand, military ships would be significantly different already. Most attack ships would be gigantic; they need to carry ship-board weapons, planetary craft, and a propulsion system. Military ships also carry prized interstellar equipment; governments are going to outfit their fleet with the finest rings and spikes.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality games are great. They are a good way to encourage certain real life behaviors using game mechanics. For instance, there are a range of research projects focused on creating games that reward players for keeping track of and increasing environmentally sound behaviors, such as recycling and saving energy. Most of these games pit players against other real players, encouraging users to climb to the top of the leaderboards both locally, globally, and within groups of friends. Some games use virtual rewards within the game to encourage behavior. Zombies, Run! is a game that uses recreational running as the main game mechanic. As people run in real life they pick up items in the virtual world and progress the story. Players must also avoid virtual enemies by changing their routes in real life.

Ever since I played Skyrim I have had the idea of real life stats. As you did things during your day you could level up your skills and then compare them with friends. Skills could be anything from button-pressing to sneaking to agility to bush-trimming. Only recently though did I make the connection between ARGs and that idea. The game combines self-competition, leaderboard competition, and player vs. player competition. A person might focus on strength, so they might work out every day and then enter the activities they did from a wide selection. An algorithm would weight different activities differently, etc. But the skills aren’t only physical. People could increase their analog electronics skills, for example, or palm-reading.

Increased stats would unlock various ingame pieces of equipment, quests, and story arcs. Quests would require players to complete daring real life tasks, collect virtual items, or figure out puzzles. Quests would often involve prominent features of the surrounding area. An agility quest might involve cutting through a park while avoiding virtual defenses, or delivering an item to a virtual character in limited time. Puzzles could use public inscriptions, decoded in a special way, to point to ingame treasure. Generic quests such as gathering items or reaching various locations would also be available.

A large part of competition between friends would be PVP contests. The object is to either directly tag your opponent and tell them a code word, at which point they have to give you their number, or to lead them into a trap you have set. Other rules of engagement could also be available. Increased stats would help you in your struggle. Abilities, such as being able to locate your opponent, obscure your location, detect traps, or convince virtual characters to mislead your opponent, would come with increased levels of the respective skill. Equipment like traps and invisibility cloaks are available from ingame merchants for a price, but certain skills let players operate such equipment more effectively. Races are another option. Instead of trying to defeat your opponent, you are merely trying to complete a quest in a faster time than your challenger.

OpenGL and Geometry Generation

Today I was thinking about 3D rendering (in part because of the recent work I’ve been doing with ray tracing). I worked out all the math for drawing a polygon based on a list of vertices and a camera. I was considering coding it up, but then I realized that I was very unfamiliar in working with Windows (because I sure as hell wasn’t going to do this in Java). So I spent the greater portion of the afternoon reading a tutorial on Windows programming and using OpenGL, at which point I abandoned my original. I was just going to finally figure out how to use OpenGL.

I had worked with GLUT before when working on a Parallel Computing lab. However, I only used pixel control in that case; I was rendering subsections of a Mandelbrot set. However, that was easier because all the requisite libraries were already installed in the major lab at school (which has workstations with Gentoo installed). Working at home, I have been confounded. I just can’t get the linker to use all the requisite libraries.

The whole thing that got me thinking about 3D engines was my working on a HL2 level. Often I will import brushwork (pieces of the level) from the game’s campaign levels; it saves time and adds a nice level of detail to the environment. However, I was thinking about common elements such as stairs, doors, windows, and grates. It’s a multi-step process to cut a hole in a brush, unless you use carve (but nobody uses carve because it doesn’t give you control over how the geometry cuts). Doors are tedious to cut out and then line up with the texture. Non-solid stairs are the most painful to make, however. You have to arrange the steps and make sure the sidings match up, and for each new type of turn you have to rework the geometry. The whole idea of hand-making all the geometry in a level is ridiculous. I haven’t seen a single FPS level editor than lets you define procedures for geometry generation.

A screenshot of the Hammer UI

A screenshot of the Hammer UI


I feel like it would be relatively simple to define a generation process for buildings, for example. Each building is spaced a certain distance in from the sidewalk. There are maybe two or three justifications for things like planters and doors. Then windows are spaced evenly apart, with buffer spaces on either side of the building. You could attach balconies or planters on to every windows, awnings above doors, and even outdoor area layouts for cafes. After meticulously defining a couple of building styles, you could almost instantly generate entire blocks. Then come the nested procedures. A street, for example, would have periodic drains and manholes, distributions of building types based on the neighborhood type, and junctions to more streets. Signs, traffic lights, road markings, and crosswalks would all be placed correctly at street corners. Coul-de-sacs could fill up empty space. Interiors could be set as well for buildings. Floor plans could be modular. Rooms with distributions of room types and different layout permutations would combine into floors. A building type could have a sequence of floor types defined, such as bottom level stores and top level apartments. Central structures like stairwells would only need to be made once.

Although the procedural parameter definitions might take a while longer than making regular geometry, it would be a huge time saver. Not only could full geometries be generated, but intricate, custom-designed battle areas could be laid out faster. Common terrain pieces like walls, fortifications, stairs, railings, gates, and hedges could be created with the use of a single spline. Suddenly a task like designing the maps for my strategy game becomes less daunting. The pipeline for map production is shortened. General map layouts can be quickly sketched out and then directly generated. Beta testing would be infinitely easier, as map adjustments could be made in hours, rather than days.

Epic-scale Strategy Game

One idea for a game that has stuck with me for over a year has been that of a massive-scale strategy game. A crude way to describe it would be a cross between World in Conflict(WiC) and Spore (except it wouldn’t be as lackluster as Spore). The idea behind it is that players start out at a low rank, and are promoted based combat proficiency on the battlefield. When I have described this idea to people, they have likened it to America’s Army.

Each round of the game takes place on large battlefields covering a multitude of environments. The game would undoubtedly be set in the future, so the environments could range from undeveloped farm worlds and water worlds to urban centers and various theaters of space. A single player presides over the whole battlefield as a general, setting basic goals and deciding strategy. Each battlefield is in turn broken up into districts, which ranges in size from a WiC map (usually a couple miles across) to four WiC maps. Up to 8 commanders control 0 to 6 squads (they can order more based on reinforcement points) within each district. Each squad consists of 4 to 8 players, with one squad leader.

Screenshot of World in Conflict

Screenshot of World in Conflict


The basic foot soldier is expected to focus on objectives set by the squad leader. The squad leader is in charge of directing which positions to take and which enemies to focus on. A commander sets goals such as strategic objectives (defined by the game), rally points, and drop zones to secure. They are also in charge of ordering more troops. Their basic strategic goals are determined by the general above them, or perhaps an intermediary presiding over the district.

One major problem that becomes immediately apparent is discipline. How does one keep a player on task? The first solution that comes to mind is to let superior officers give or take promotion points based on the performance of players below them. However, this is easily abusable, both in the giving or taking of too many points and in the complete disregard for dealing with promotion points. The best solution is to have proficiency judged by the game. So what kind of criteria does the game have?

  1. Completion of given objectives

  2. Objectives are judged by the difficulty regarding enemy presence in the area and a number of other minor variables, the most important of which is subordinate proficiency. Failure to complete an objective due to it being impossibly difficult or having an inept team would barely count against a player. Conversely, failure to complete simple objectives would be counted against a player.

  3. Rendition of reasonable objectives

  4. A commander, whether at a high strategic level or as a squad leader, has a responsibility to give orders which make sense. If a commander is extremely incompetent, his commanding officer can choose to temporarily demote him, allowing another to take his place. In addition, sound tactical decisions are encouraged. Deciding to attack a position without much intel, even if the position is strategically important, is a bad choice. If a commander has access to tactical aid, poor placement will result in removal of promotion points.

  5. Combat Proficiency

  6. If the player is a grunt, he is also be promoted based on statistics like accuracy, deaths, and kills. Heroism and initiative may also be rewarded, such as single-handedly taking an objective or destroying a vehicle.

A player who accrues enough promotion points will be promoted to the next rank. There may be multiple ranks per command level to ensure that there will most likely be a command hierarchy even if two decimated squads are merged. Even if a player is promoted, though, it is possible that he will fill a slot lower down in the structure. If there are already enough commanders, someone qualified to be a general may be forced to serve as a grunt. However, if his squad leader is killed then he will instantly fill that slot (unless someone is of a higher rank than him). When a soldier dies, he is placed in a reserve pool. Until a commander orders another squad, he has to wait. Fortunately, battlefields are huge, and most likely, especially at the height of the battle, someone will need a new squad. Nonetheless, a delay time while waiting to be ordered also acts as natural motivation to stay alive. Be warned though, cowardice will be punished highly! Soldiers who pass qualification courses for things like vehicle piloting, administering first aid, and sniping will be able to fill special support slots.

Alongside infantry, commanders will be able to order a range of vehicles, including tanks, transports, and dropships. Other vehicles, like helicopters and ships, will be available as a special unit which must leave after a period of time. Tactical aid not delivered by a player includes artillery (including orbital strikes), airstrikes, and reconnaissance. All tactical aid (i.e. units and abilities not able to be ordered with reinforcement points) is able to be gained through spending tactical aid points, which a commander receives for performing well on the battlefield. Tactical aid points are different from promotion points in that they do not stick from game to game and that they are awarded for quantitative properties, such as objectives completed and enemy units destroyed.

The first person gameplay of the grunts would mirror other mainstream shooters. Each soldier has an array of guns, with the maximum weight decided by the planet’s gravity. Secondary weapons such as grenades and tactical devices (repair kits, radar kits, radios, medkits, etc) are available. A soldier can resort to melee if he runs out of bullets or is restricted by the environment (close quarters, pressurized space environment, presence of volatile props). The game’s varying environments also heavily affects gameplay. For instance, combat in space is an entirely different experience. Players would be able to move almost infinitely far (but would be penalized for abandoning objectives), and combat would be a lot slower. Players would have to worry about keeping their suits intact as well as jetpacks. Vehicles would also play a larger role. Alongside dropships becoming more versatile and critical, spaceships would start playing a role. In some cases the commanders might even be able to control large cruisers with a deadly array of weapons. Space stations would also hold a lot of firepower for whichever side’s soldiers could maintain control of it.

The story of the game would revolve around two distinct sides. Two budding empires emerge from different sectors but end up clashing for control of the core colonies. Whichever side dominates the colonies gains ultimate control over known space, since the colonies are the main centers of knowledge and raw material production. Humans have developed faster-than-light travel, but have not yet perfected material synthesization, so the majority of humans still rely on farm worlds and other such production centers to get metal, food, and leisure products. The FTL will probably be like The Mote in God’s Eye, in which ships can manipulate certain zones of space determined by gravitational fields to jump between stars. These jump points are hard to calculate, and only one exists between each set of stars. FTL communications have not been developed, so the only way to get a message to another system is to send a ship (a jump disables electronics and requires a sentient being to boot the systems back up).

Mediocre Super-heroes

It was just another ordinary day: I was letting Wikipedia impress human knowledge upon me. Suddenly, as happens often, a mildly interesting idea sparked within my mind.

To begin, let me explain some of the things I was looking at. Magnetoreception, for example, is an incredible phenomenon that seems drawn straight from science fiction. Yet, in nature it is fairly common. Of course, we only have inklings about how the mechanisms behind it might operate. To sum it up, many animals have the ability to detect magnetic fields and use them to navigate. This can be seen in migratory animals, for example. In addition, some aquatic creatures have the ability to detect the faint electrical impulses given off by other animals nearby; it aids them in hunting.

Moving into the realm of human-enabled abilities, I was looking at radio-frequency hearing, which is actually a quite common occurrence. As the name suggests, people have been known to hear sounds, ranging from buzzing to knocking (similar to the sounds of tinnitus) and seeming to originate from above and behind the head, when electromagnetic waves in the frequency of microwaves (300 MHz to 300 GHz) are within their vicinity. As it turns out, this is caused not by vibrations in the eardrum but by slight expansion of brain tissue within the skull creating pressure waves which stimulate the inner ear. Pretty crazy, right?

Then I remembered a documentary video I had seen about a guy who exhibited immunity to electricity. I looked it up, and it turns out that there are a couple of people like that. It comes from having naturally thick and dry skin, which increases resistance and lowers the amperes to a non-lethal level. The areas of the body which this applies to ranges from just hands to full-body and mouth.

On the level of increasingly bogus, take a look at this video, in which a Chinese man living in Java claims to be able to control Chi (funky electricity). I don’t believe it myself, but the video was well done and it looked credible enough.

Anyways, this got me to thinking about the show Heroes. Franchises which share that premise, such as x-men, try to explain the super-powers scientifically, but then introduce ridiculous powers (like vortex generation). I think that a movie/show in which both the super-heroes and the super-villains are both relatively mediocre would be excellent. For instance, one person might have the ability to regrow limbs, eyes, and organs not unlike a Caudata; and like a salamander, it would take them 2-3 years to regrow something like an arm. They would be able to afford being stabbed or shot or losing a finger, but they wouldn’t immediately be back in the fight. People could have enhanced magnetoception, RF hearing, electrical resistance, and electrical generation.

On the same thread, I highly dislike explanations that involve either the “10% of the brain” cliche, or the entire “brain wave” concept. Both are unbased in reality and are overused. Powers would be strictly based on phenomena that occur in the natural world. Devices that rely on technological concepts that have been conceived of but not yet well mapped out would be out. As a corollary, Batman-esque powers (i.e. being rich) would be discouraged for super-heroes. Super-villains, of course, almost always need to be rich. More important than riches is genre-sight (or lack of Genre Blindness), and awareness of things like the List of 100 Things to not to do as an Evil Overlord. Their mediocrity would lie in their plans and powers, not intelligence.

That train of thought can be taken a couple of stations farther. The villains may ultimately be more likeable than the heroes. Since the heroes have weak powers, they obviously have personality flaws (like Watchmen) as well (e.g. Superman is almost invincible, so he is almost perfect) and poor planning. Overall, however, both the heroes and the villains are playing a losing game. The villains’ plans aren’t that devastating (except for the occasional climax of a world-threatening plot), and the heroes are disliked by the media due to their imperfections.

Looking farther into the universe, the news of real super-heroes would no doubt spawn a wave of popularity within certain sects. Eccentric individuals or crazed fans would take a low-powered Batman approach and utilize cool pieces of technology for crime fighting, such as d3o or this (the guy made it himself for about $35,000, although prototyping cost him nearly half a million):

That was the essential fabric of my idea, but it could definitely use some ironing.