2010-01-24

Operation Survival - humanity's last stand

I have a pet game idea and design lingering at the back of my head for close to 15 years now (I'm getting old I suppose). That idea was the reason for developing BlackFish, an isometric 3D engine. Back in the days we used C++ and DirectX7. Anyways, I still like the concept very much and nobody has produced the game in the meantime. So I have decided to give it another go.

If you know the old UFO XCOM series by the Gollup brothers you have a pretty good idea of what I'm aiming for. The game is a perfect blend of a base building, resource management and turn based tactical combat simulator. The premise is that the earth is under attack by aliens invading with small fleets of UFOs, performing various reconnaissance, raid or research missions - conducting nasty experiments with cows and such alien stuff ;-) The back story is not entirely original but very well done and plays expertly with real world conspiracy theories and ufology.

The game is roughly divided into three major parts:

The geoscape, a view of the whole world, floating in space like the vulnerable blue marble that she is. You choose where to build your bases in this view which affects which countries will pay you for protecting them. You also coordinate UFO intercept missions by launching your fighters after them. This part plays in real-time.

The battlescape, a 3D isometric view of tactical combat missions. After a UFO has been shot down or landed you send in your ground troops to clean up the place. The action is turn based and you coordinate up to around a dozen soldiers to find the surviving aliens and either stun and take them hostage or simply kill them. The missions are usually set in some idyllic small town with the UFO crashed in a corn field nearby. There is a strong role playing component as all your soldiers have names and individual abilities and stats.

The last part are the various resource management screens available from the geoscape view. You build out your bases with better radars, more research laboratories, better alien containment facilities, ground-to-air rocket defenses, living quarters for your soldiers and similar buildings. You also coordinate researching the found alien artifacts and interrogating kidnapped aliens. Once you understood parts of the technology you can start using and building it yourself.

In my eyes even to this day this is the greatest game ever made. The atmosphere it managed to create was just phenomenal. The genre blend worked perfectly and didn't feel tacked on or misplaced as is often the case with similar experiments. The scale was nailed wonderfully by contrasting the whole globe view with the handful of soldiers combat missions. You really felt responsible for the earth as a whole and bled with individual soldiers at the same time.

I'd like to update the original concept a bit because I believe it would make a perfect online multiplayer game. I imagine a continuously running, real time geoscape with hundreds of players. Every one manages a single base and flies intercept missions from that base. This would be a "massively" multiplayer part and allow for global events like coordinated alien attack waves which have to be fended off. The game would run in a browser and allow for very casual play sessions (during work ;-) ). You log in, play through some short aerial UFO dog fights, give some research and construction orders and log out again. Base building and research works as in most text based browser games which use real time as a resource (i.e. constructing a new laboratory takes 3 days). When you have the leisure for a longer play session you sit down to play a tactical mission. These would be turn based as in the original with some crucial changes. Most importantly they'd be multiplayer. The player who shot down the UFO "owns" it. He sends out his ground troops and may invite additional players to join him in combat. Once all players have joined the mission starts and lasts between half an hour to several hours. There is no load/save, death is permanent. This calls for careful balancing and ways to rescue dying soldiers as long as you still have some men standing but I hope to make the player really sweat for his men. There is a global ranking system with military ranks from private to general and you'll have to balance risking your top men in missions vs being overtaken by other players.

I think this design will fix lots of current multiplayer game offering shortcomings and make them work to its advantage. One is the investment of time. Current games are either very casual without any persistent state except for the high score (think connect-three flash mini games), require massive investments of time (world of warcraft) or don't allow you to invest more time when you actually want to because you have to wait around for the next event (text based browser game with real time resources like OGame). Operation survival tries to work on all of these time scales, adapting to and respecting the players busy life. Another point that really bugs me is the competitive nature of most multiplayer games. Often the player who invested the most time (grinded the most) automatically wins. Skill is a secondary issue, if at all. This leads to strong players totally dominating and exploiting new comers (farming n00bs). This again leads to lots of bad blood and grieving players and creates a high barrier to entry. Existing player protect their investment and actively discourage newbies. Operation survival has no means of direct player vs player offensive actions. All players pursue the common goal of protecting the earth. The only competitive aspect is in the various rankings and ladders. You want to be the one having the general, produce the most research, own the most resources, shoot down the most UFOs etc.

While lots of this may sound very derivative of the original UFO (and it should!) I do have lots of detailed ideas to make this work as a multiplayer game. More in the coming months...

This is a very ambitious project and will probably never see the light of day. However, it's fun aiming for the stars and working on it. My hope is that it'll eventually pick up momentum and I'll find supporters. After all, the original game was a labor of love of two guys as well. Maybe technology and productivity advances made since then allow the updated design to be realized by a small team as well? Today's expectations for browser game visuals and production values are around the level of the original UFO I'd say.

Dream big.