A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

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.