Ideas for the Ultimate Strategy Game

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I made this visualization (dozens of hours in Photoshop) of the 10 year Civ II game “The Eternal War,” I wanted to depict the planet as a sphere with absolute realism and on top of that show what my idea for a next generation strategy game should look like. I think we all agree, Google Maps level scalability meets hardcore procedural generation and multi-phased/multi-engine gaming. That’s the future. Let the complexity of the gameplay feel deep but also automatic and natural. I want to see Carl Sagan’s precious pale blue dot idea come to life in a thrilling new way.

I want to see procedural content not just create the raw terrain maps, but thousands of tribes, nations and empires. I want it to generate language, culture, aesthetics, architecture, religion, scientific progress, humanity. I believe that many different game engines should connect to a single cloud data application in order to create persistent worlds. Strategy gaming should prepare for next generation graphics technology, neural network AI, and implement many different portals to access game information. Taking exponential trends into consideration, I want to see what a strategy game looks like when millions of semi-intelligent “agents” compete or collaborate for resources.

I’m talking about Guns, Germs and Steel in gaming form. It could answer questions about human settlement patterns. With different continental configurations, do certain types of regions always become colonial powers or is having many states in feudal competition becoming market powers all that is needed? Does this usually follow the parallel latitude crop theory? The game could have an arcade mode like the Civilization and an observer mode: set the stage and watch. Go back in time, change a few variables and watch the difference. Maybe I’m alone, but that type of concept excites me!

Having studied astronomy in college and being a life long patron of the arts, I hold a great reverence for Carl Sagan. His cosmic perspective on human Civilization is one to always consider when studying the importance of ones self and the grander scheme of life. Please consider his quote on our pale blue dot as inspiration for these concepts.

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
-Carl Sagan from Cosmos

What I have in mind is more than just a game, it’s a discourse into the vast complexities of human history; only to show that every bitter border struggle means next to nothing in a cosmic perspective. And yet, thanks to concepts of technological transcendence, Carl Sagan might be wrong. Whichever culture builds the first self replicating robots with artificial intelligence will determine the fate of the universe. Or will all human language fade into the wind, will our artificial progenesis think principally in the language of mathematics? Is this a universal determinant or just one possible future? Answers can only come from a universal simulation that transmutes cultural development with technology.

There have been several ideas swarming in my head for the last 8 years, on what the perfect grand strategy game would look like and how it might benefit from rapidly accelerating technologies. Recently there was a video posted about a game called Planetary Annihilation which encapsulates some of the scope and grandeur I desire, but not quite in the historical perspective I hope for. P.A. is the Starcraft style RTS game equivalent of the geopolitical mindstorm that has been vitrifying slowly in my brain for the last half-decade. I don’t have the resources or expansive set of skills to tackle this problem all one my own though… So I figured I’d do better to share this idea with the world; and share it before P.A. launches and my idea appears to be somewhat unoriginal and unimaginative.

Okay, I’ll step the ontological ramifications down a couple of notches for now. First, let me explain the games (or franchises) that have heavily influenced this thought experiment over the years.

Inspiration from Other Games

  Californian Tank versus mailed knight Sid Meier’s Civilization: Perhaps the most in-depth and mod-able strategy game franchise ever created. The scope takes humans from stone tools to extrasolar planets. This isn’t the only game in the genre to do so, but it’s the only one to really offer a high level of complexity in each of the eras while maintaining this historical overview. It also has to be the most heavily modded of all strategy games, with a huge support base constantly adding new content.
 
Between the mod projects and the endless permutation of random maps, the Civ franchise has been the most replayablegame I most people have ever experienced. Every game is a completely different experience, different challenges, a unique story.
 
In researching for this idea I came across an offshoot of the Civilization franchise called Call to Power which adds some pretty phenomenal game mechanics, but lacks severely in GUI and ease of play. What’s truly sets it apart from the Civ franchise is that whenever you send a unit stack against another you get to access a combat mode which shows your units battling and offers deeper battle level strategy. While I hate the format of the combat level interface, the fact that it exists shows proof of concept that multi-tiered strategy works well for a game. I’ll touch this in more detail when I discuss the Total War franchise. Another aspect of this game that it offers ocean and orbital colonization. Having an expansive “tech-tree” for futuristic or alternate industries is pretty awesome.
 
My ideal would setting a genetic algorithm for discovering new tech which I discuss in the procedural content section. My favorite thing to do was in Civ IV to play with the Rise of Mankind mod (now Caveman2Cosmos). My two favorite periods were the era of colonization and cold war scenarios with futuristic tech.
 
In the colonial era I loved to play with “Revolution mod” turned on so that I could take over and play as the revolters and build a continental empire from all these other Civs’ overseas cities, so that I end up with an amalgated melting pot not unlike real world America. Then I build it into a superpower, and eventually get the tech to build super-nukes-which kill 90% of the planet; and then rebuilding from the ashes.
 
Yes it’s kind of sick, but it makes for really fascinating gameplay. The biggest disadvantage to gameplay in my opinion is wasted time while taking turns, half or more of gameplay time (particularly in Civ 4) was waiting for damn turn counter to finish for each of the AIs. That’s a lot of wasted time that could be better spent. I like the pausible/variable speed RTS style of Paradox games, which I’ll go into next.

Europa Universalis/Crusader Kings/Victoria/Iron Fist: The depth of the Paradox Franchises collectively spans the whole of human history, but never altogether in one game. I also does not have the time limitation of turned based gameplay. You can set the game speed as fast or slow as you want or just pause it. This means constant engagement with the game. This is more convenient for single player games, but you lose the time speed ability during multiplayer.Next, and this is what truly turned me on to this game: the shear number of playable nations is INCREDIBLE! There are hundreds (thousands if modded) of factions to choose from and constant rebellions are a big part of the gameplay. I do have to gripe about their combat system though, it is terribly non-engaging. Compared to Civilization IV, it’s a unit stack issue; where the stack size changes do to attrition damages.
 
Moreover, the detailed UI is so detailed and not-user-friendly that it hurts to play and takes A LOT of clicking. I love the maps, they’re beautiful cartographic masterpieces. It’s like looking at a world map poster except that it’s alive. That’s the part of Paradox games that turns me on big time. It’s an alternate history pornography where you get to call all the shots. It’s wonderful… Until you try to fight somebody without the right Casus Bellior you don’t know which menu to modify a certain policy to allow you to build a particular naval unit.
 
There’s a feeling of absolute control that is absent to such extent it makes the game hard to progress through sometimes. Once you become large enough you spend half your time fighting rebels or reducing infamy. If rampaging jihadist Moors took over the whole of France they wouldn’t need to ask to claim half the land, they’d just annex it outright by their own authority. The enforced historical events work half the time, but it makes the game dedicated to repeating history; not procedurally building it. There’s a missing factor of cultural momentum, history feels somewhat pre-programmed and if you push the boundaries it pushes back. I want a world like Civ that is a completely random map with cause-and-effect based history.
Infinity (Unfinished MMOG): This game isn’t unleashed on the public and might never see the light of day. There is so much awesomeness to this game concept that it could really cover a huge bulk of the procedural joy that I would love to see in a nextgen strategy title. However, the scope and detail is limited to nothing more than an “Eve” style flyby style environment.There’s not too much monumental strategy to add to the equation except for the the fact that every single planet is procedurally generated and then stored on a remote server and thus created as the player explores. It’s ship combat, not 4X style game play, but the open universe could suite a 4X very well. The engine is what excites me. It creates worlds that are vast and endlessly explorable; which ultimately is what defines the discovery element which makes 4X games so addicting.
Total War: This arcade style RTS game is one of the more popular in the industry, and the elements of it are some of the best gaming around. Having a campaign map and a battle map is what really sets this series out from everything else. Their approach uses two game engines to depict a larger story with intricate details.This type of multi-engine gaming where one engine effects others is exactly the type of configuration I would love to see in a broader game. If you were to add levels of procedural generation to a Total War game, you’d really be close to attaining the perfect strategy symbiosis. I want to play EUIII as the campaign map and then jump into Total War to control the battle.I just can’t emphasize enough how beautiful the gameplay is, it’s a living breathing battle. This level of detail in each battle is astounding. Thousands of high resolution units fighting each other, jaw-dropping terrain, the strategy of flanking the enemy… It’s a very visually rich experience and has a lot to offer the genre at large.
Mount & Blade/ War of Roses/ Chivalry:  Mount & Blade is a case of multi-engine strategy. Except rather than being a world map/RTS map, it’s world-map/First-Person game. This is pretty fun, it really makes the player feel in control, and provides a strong sense of self and agency. Destiny at a regional scale is put into the player’s hands.Again, if this were more procedural, and tied into even more gaming engines, the experience could be much richer. Imagine being able to play a strategy game at the campaign level, the rts level and the fps level. It’s all done in procedurally generated worlds and sits on a cloud, the level of multiplayer interactivity could be variable. War of Roses and Chivalry both offer similar first person slasher experiences, but we’ll see how well they handle campaign management.
Elder Scrolls Games: This franchise gives you absolute agency in an open world and blends the world map and the FP view into one seemless experience. However, the world has to sit locally on your hard drive and it is prefabricated. It also severely lacks in large warfare like combat situations where rival factions are at war. I mean like 10,000 Storm Cloaks versus 10,000 Imperials. Not 20 v 20.
 
Also, the map scale itself is obscenely small when compared to real continents. Which can be okay for this type of a game; but if you were simulating global history, the size of an empire is determined by the pace of transportation. Scale is important. So is realistic terrain, human needs (food/water), and ability to endure exposure of the elements. Napolean’s army losing to Russiawasn’t because of a few bad dice rolls, it was because of harsh climate and poor planning.What would be really cool is a procedural world where plot and intrigue are generated to create interesting and morally compromising missions. I’m not talking about X person with Y item at Z location; I mean forcing the player to decide to kill his brother’s children to gain succession to a throne. I want Game of Thrones level plot juiciness in a Skyrim like FP engine that sits on top of a procedurally generated planet with multiple layers of strategy.
Master of Orion: One of the earliest examples of 4X gaming in space, and still one of the best. MOO has it all, ship design, tech tree, colonization, warfare; but there’s also a lot to be desired. Planetary systems and galaxies aren’t three dimensional or scientifically accurate. There’s no factions within an empire, planetary warfare is nothing more than a GUI. There’s a lot left to be desired.
 
I haven’t tried Sins of Solar Empire, but something tells me that everything I’m looking for still won’t show up. It will be the same lack of dimensionality and scale as other space 4X games. Plus they don’t seem to know the difference between a star system and a galaxy. As an astronomy student this makes me want to puke. Ultimately, there’s an exponential growth element missing to these games. I’ll cover this in a later section.Note: There’s an open source version FreeOrion! similar to the Freeciv movement.
Spore: Don’t just hate. You can hate the gameplay like me, but I just love the epic timescale of this game. I love how incredibly HUGE the galactic map is, and how three dimensional and interactive space becomes. I think that EA ran wild with Will Wrights’ dream game. Will wanted to recreate the natural universe in the form of a simulation game.What EA decided to do instead was create Pokemon in space.
 
That’s the problem with large publishers, they think over-staffing a game with designers will make it better. All they do is dilute the complexity of the original idea in the name of selling to a broader market. Then the game-play becomes so boring that it isn’t re-playable. They disallow modding because it cuts out a sales niche, and they lose 90% of the community that would have stuck around and made the gameplay better.What I will say is that it is the single biggest breakthrough in procedural generation that gaming has ever seen. I’m actually kind of shocked that procedural generation hasn’t exploded into the industry. It takes replay-ability to a whole new level. Then again, the new trend is to sell DLClike hotcakes, so that new content is centralized and costs money. Ultimately, I enjoyed making stuff and flying around, but the complexity was too thin and the design too childish.Still, the pleasure of going to hundreds of different planets and playing with terraforming tools was really fun. I just wish each planet looked like a real planet and not something out of Pixar.
Empire Earth or Age of Empires: I went there. Old school shit right here. The AoE games had better balance and per era variety; but EE had higher overall unit variety. I liked how these RTS games progressed through the ages and had a ton of units. I loved in EE getting to an advanced era and then sending my hoverships against knights and spear throwers. Then I’d just cage in the lesser faction with laser fences and watch as they slowly depleted their resources and then couldn’t make fighting units any more. Sort of like the Hunger Games. I don’t like totalitarianism in the real world, but being able to study it from a computer game is pretty fascinating. Eventually your disadvantaged opponent to break out or kill one of your guys, it’s that sadistic type of sympathy that really brings out the best in people, haha.
 
I tried to play EEII but my computer at the time couldn’t handle it. By the time I had a new computer, EEIII was out; but it had shit gameplay and on top of that it had campy Warcraft III graphics; which I absolutely despise. I’m sorry HoN fans, but the whole art style just makes me feel queezy. I want my blood-sport to look like Gladiator not Wrestlemania. It’s a matter of taste. Hope I didn’t lose you there. HoN has great aspects, but the aesthetic choice isn’t my favorite.
Rise of Nations: Similar gameplay to Empire Earth but this time you have actually named cities. There was also a campaign mode that let you play a Risk type game where each move on the world map gives a mission for you to play on an RTS map. There was both a whole-history mode and a USA v. USSR cold war mode. Both were fun, and begin to touch the type of multi-engine gaming I enjoy.There was just a good overall synergy to this game that blended city/nation building with RTS as core gameplay. This made for a very interesting experience as you handled civil society and military regiments simultaneously. Each culture has its own aesthetic as well which is really cool. I’m disappointed that Big Huge Games never pursued a follow-up RTS like this. It was some quality work and I still enjoy the memories to this day.
Starcraft: As far as sci-fi RTS’s go, this one is the most popular and competitive. Multi-player matches are easier to setup than any other game I’ve played. The units are balanced and the pace is thrilling. Yet, nothing is procedural, units or maps. There’s only one level of gameplay. It is what it is, a great competitive game but not a mind-blowing or refreshing experience. It’s about getting the win and moving on, not crafting a unique empire that you’re proud to defend.
 
As for playing multi-player. Half the time I want to play multiplayer with my friends on other games it takes hours to configure the servers and firewalls to work; but with Starcraft, it’s a piece of cake. In face, multiplayer is easier to jump into than single player.Ultimately, build queues and unit balance makes for engaging gameplay and a lot of fun. Now if only that unit balance and awesome visual design could be incorporated into procedurally designed units… it would be a great evolution of the best multiplayer RTS franchise around.
Planetary/Total Annihilation: I played some Total Annihilation as a kid, but only a little bit of multiplayer. What I remember is a steep learning curve, tons of unique units, and huge megaweapons.
 
As I mentioned earlier with Planetary Annihilation, those guys really are crafting one of the most awesome and thorough procedural RTS games around. The unit system in T.A. was great, and I expect the same for PA. However, it’s still Starcraft like gameplay, nothing like Civ, and it doesn’t span from prehistoric history to the future. I want to see a game with scope that covers the development of human culture and intelligence on top of being a really fun interplanetary battle royal. Very much looking forward to this!

So that’s my list of inspirational games. Each has its own awesome benefits and flaws. Taking the best gameplay elements from all of these and applying methods of procedural content, multiple game engine views on a cloud server, and then adding a system of scalable complexity.. This would create something truly phenomenal.

 

Procedural Content

Wolfram’s Cellular Automata

Physicist and math software entrepenure Stephen Wolfram’s premise is that simple rules can create higher order complexity. His book A New Kind of Science outlines this premise thoroughly and explains everything from chaos theory to cellular automata. The man is a genius; his tools have trained a generation of mathematically literate individuals and his ideas have revolutionized the way many theories are structured. His concepts fit succintly into the field of neural networks, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Putting automata responses into strategy gaming could be one of the most revolutionary tactics possible. Rather than explain the concept outright, let me show you this video that offers an explanation and demo. The premise is this: simple rules create high level complexity.

 

Cellular Automata are brilliant. Using very simple rules, extraordinary complexity will manifest without being pre-programmed. Our universe works this way, first it took basic physics to build the abundance of chemical elements; then the elements beget life, then complex life, cells, brains, technology. Each level starts with simple components and uses those features to create the higher order paradigm. My friend let me borrow his book, Algorithims, Languages, Automata, and Compilers by Maxim Mozgovoy. It explains how programming languages themselves are comprised of finite automata and regular expressions. Truly, the finite-state  machine is what describes any complex system, including language, physics, games, any type of dynamic function environment. In order to create an enriched, enthralling  living world; it will require a system that can build its own finite-state machines and adapt to player input and restructure on the fly. That’s no small task, but it’s on the border of NP hard but it’s not impossible.

Now, the concept of automata is the framework for hollistic procedural generation. Cellullar automata is a type of procedural generation, but the broader concept of P.G. can include higher complexity logic sitting on top of the lower order components. The end objective is the same though, use a condensed set of rules to build enormous design permutations which classically could not be fit onto regular storage means.

If you’re going to have a strategy game that recreates the universe, don’t build it one piece at time. Do the same thing as the universe, set the logic up and let the higher order structure build itself. Not that the typical game engine or state of computing could handle a simulation at the granularity of the Planck length; but first steps towards a new universe is always a welcome advance. Gaming today is trying to create abstract representational of the world and then represent in on a 2D screen, it’s a high level expression of the more granular phenomena of reality.

Here’s a pretty awesome video describing the basics of procedural generation in the game Fuel, which has hundreds of square kilometers to play on.

 

I wouldn’t say that procedural generation is absent from most games. In fact, it’s very present in titles like Minecraft, which also features a ton of user generated content.However, I’d say that on the whole, designers only apply algorithmic content making on certain game elements, when clearly more could be added to make the experience more whole.

One thing that exists enlarge in most large scale blockbuster film movies is agent based warfare and animation. As computers continue to scale down, it may become possible to add highly detailed agent based battles into strategy games on the fly. It takes huge render farms currently to generate this level of complexity while maintaining a highly detailed scene; but if exponential trends continue, this is where gameplay will be headed. When a laptop has 256 cores running inside of it with terabytes of memory and ample storage capacity and connect at 100 GB/S speeds to the internet. That’s when gaming can come into play that looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. My biggest concern is internet speeds in the U.S. as current broadband companies have no plans to scale up modern ultra-fast networks. Eventually progress will wave its way around those limits though.

Agent based logic will bring huge advantages to strategy gaming. It can render as graphics when you’re in a battle or zoomed in on a city; but you’re looking at a campaign overview, all of those calculations can be done behind the scenes in database structures. And unless you ‘zoom in’ to a given level of detail, approximations can occur instead of letting every single agent continually make choices and hog processing power. It’s like quantum mechanics but on the macro scale, the details don’t exist until you observe them.

Let’s say you’re simulating the United States. You zoom in on a specific county in California, all of the agents in that county and in surrounding counties are run on the processor. But every other county in the united states just runs as a generalized formula that describes the pattern of behavior. It’s only when you zoom in on another county that those details are retroactively rendered to give you an overview of what’s happening in that location. This could either happen live on an offline computer or else, once you’ve observed a specific location, that information gets stored in a server location or a cloud address and sits there until you access it again. You generate more information if you look at a detailed overview of every part of the world, but your desktop computer doesn’t need to store all of that information. You could even have indexing that goes by year or decade or something. Once you go back 10 years into the past, only important events are recorded and the rest aggregates into overview stats.

Here’s an incredible video about a group called Massive showing how they render agents when modeling large scale battles in high budget films. Impressive isn’t it?

 

And here’s a battle scene rendered in the Skyrim Engine that depicts a LOTR type battle with thousands of troups each side. Not quite hundreds of thousands, but eventually such a thing might be possible.

 
 

Piecing it Together

So how does this fit into putting together a giant perfect strategy game… Well everything really. The perfect strategy game is completely re-playable because it is completely unpredictable. Every game has new geopolitical challenges and exploits, every story should be unique. With agent based processing, every butterfly flap changes the history of the game. No two decisions will ever be the same.

Random Europe Continent

A procedural Europe made using noise maps for random continents and Voronoi plots to build territories. Pic is mine, software from this Source.

Second picture of procedural world. Showing Asian continent.

So here’s some pictures of a modification to EUIII by this guy named Nom from the Paradox user forums. I tried to help out as best I could, but it was difficult to figure out how best to help out. I ended up making my biggest contribution in terms of graphics, where I determined how the mini-map (bottom-right) could be made to match the random map. In any case, this Nom guy is a genius. He’s a physics PhD. student somewhere and he really poured his heart and soul into crafting this generator. He used an open source noise library to procedurally generate the map terrain height. You got to pick an ocean level, Then his map creation software would run an algorithm to draw forests/terrain; and finally it would use Voronoi clusters to build the territories. Then it assigned continent names, culture regions, and finally nations themselves. The result is a beautiful dynamic map that culturally makes sense and is very unique to play!

Nom’s procedural map almost does it for me. It generates a cool world worth exploring; but there’s no mountain ranges, and geology has very little effect on regional climate. If I knew enough I’d update his source code to somehow use a different set of Voronoi groups to act as plate tectonics, then I’d set velocities to chunks of these grids and put mountain ranges in spots where plates collide. Next I’d try to find a way to make the coastline more varied on the smaller scale.

Voronoi chart showing land based territories, all procedurally made.

The random noise map used to determine terrain height and thus continents.

Final terrain type map with procedural deserts, forests. (Vertically inverted)

Final map with countries arranged according to culture group and continent.

Then there’s the issue of cultural gradients. It’s tough to just throw a bunch of culturegroups on a map in hopes that they resemble something slightly believable. There are tons of nations that exist in the Russian steppe that are Asiatic, but if Europe and Asia aren’t next to each other on the map then were should those groups go? And most of those are like the Golden Horde or other steppe tribes. This generator doesn’t have any logic in assigning what type of terrain a group like that should start on; I’ve seen Hordes on islands. I know it sounds racist, but there is a gradient of culture groups between China, Eastern Europe, and Turkey that slowly transitions in language, traditions and ethnic traits. The Silk Road civilizations can’t really exist if there’s no Silk Road is all I’m trying to say. Also, the Japanese shogunate should be positioned on a tiny island near mainland “Asia” with a ton of small territories. Maybe the same should be true of Britain in regards to Europe.

Another point is that culture and language is gradient across geography. There’s a reason that Romance languages, Slavic languages and Turkic ones are all in similar areas, not spattered randomly. It’s a linguistic evolution. One language develops into another over time as languages split and join in interesting ways. Sometimes by forced conquest, or through trade, religion, or isolation. I’m not a linguist, but I enjoy the concept of cultural linguistics and I think it would be insanely cool too apply procedural language and culture morphology to a history simulating strategy game. One way to implement this in a game would be to try and force historical nations to starting locations that fit into the linguistic spectrum so that it matches Earth very well.

Source. A linguistic map of aboriginal language in Australia.

The more exciting approach would be to scrap Earth culture altogether and roll back the clocks to prehistory. Then, either start the game in prehistory or have an algorithm assign a language to one territory and then assign a number of people who speak that language. Then, use a technique of cellular automata to walk have those small groups migrate, grow, die, interact. I’m sure that nomadic societies versus stationary ones would have huge impact on those dynamics. I wonder just how much of modern language originates from hunter-gatherer clans at the end of the last ice age.

Imagine nations with procedural names, flags, military uniforms all evolving in parallel with the language. Now assign a genetic algorithm to technology. Guns, Germs and Steel is one of my favorite books. It genuinely describes the logic for how agricultural, military and early industrial technology came into fruition. He notes that technology like the printing press was invented on an ancient Greek island state, but was never widely used. So technology has a stickiness factor that is completely dependent on other existing technologies or social situations. In any case, it would be cool to see accidental iron age war balloons pop up. Maybe with a balista on it or something.

Artist’s depiction of Ancient era Airplanes. Silly, but just a vague illustration of what might come out of genetic algorithm techtrees.

One thing to consider in procedural tech would be accidental dissemination. It’s not like guerrillas in Afghanistan fought off Soviet (and now American) tanks with horse cavalry and pistols. They used Israeli captured AK-47′s and improvised explosives. Same goes to Vietnam, war technology is global; it does not depend on the manufacturing capabilities of a nation. It’s probably around WWI where this dissemination became most rapid. It’s a byproduct of industrialization. The class differentiation between the first, second and third world means that it’s the first world building better weapons but the second and third world is where they get used. It’s a horrible concept, it’s the military industrial complex, and it sucks for global human welfare. If a simulated strategy game could accurately depict military conflict and technological disparity  maybe it could help understand current conflicts well enough to provide a test-bed for solutions. Preferably solutions where war isn’t considered or insurgents aren’t armed or radicalized in the first place. Death for either belligerent is horrible and any tool to avoid it should be instituted.

Then there’s the fact that technology accelerates, it builds off itself. Kurzweil may or may not be correct about there being an upcoming technological singularity; but a trend in computational ability throughout history is there. Better communication systems means faster exchange of ideas, pushing the world ever further. I would have to say, for any strategy game that spans all of human history; once nukes are on the table to deter conventional warfare-the world enters a media-state global platform. Inter-nation warfare is still possible but the stakes are very high. I’d say the type of gameplay should change to be more purely economic once flight and nuclear weapons exist.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the law of accelerating returns or the “singularity,” here’s a quick overview from Ray Kurzweil himself. The premise is that technology builds on itself and is rapidly approaching a point where artificial intelligence will arise and begin to improve itself. The fact that it fits into the same logarithmic time domain as the printing press, human evolution and cellular life only adds to its validity; but does not make it inevitable.

 

The point for gaming though would be that information era and beyond should have radically different warfare than is typical of the genre. You know, like laser guns and hover tanks. Warfare instead takes place as Media platforms, corporate espionage, network security/hacking, and exploitation of lesser developed nations. It’s not Buck Rogers, it’s StuxnetAnonymous, Wikileaks, police action, terrorism, drug trafficking, secret detention facilities. Borders stay mostly fixed and power stuggle occurs behind closed doors. Sorry if it’s not fun, but it’s our reality. The cool thing about a simulation is that it could tell us if this self-destructive type of behavior is endemic to humans or just the result of unfortunate global events.

It’s a question that requires a context of history explaining the link between money and warfare. I read a book my girlfriend had for a class once called War in European History. It covered how wars began as more tribal conflicts, then covers feudalism, chivalry, mercenaries +trade wars, and finally the gradual rise of nationalism following the Treaty of Westphalia. What’s interesting is that before that, borders weren’t always clearly defined. That’s why when I play games like Civ, seeing borders in the ancient era makes me laugh. City states had fuzzy areas of influence, but it took quite a while for solid empires to come into play. Even then, authority could often be confusing. Maybe having solid borders is something that could result from a particular event, as something that happens when a feudal region of the world becomes more economic in nature. It’s this distinction that marked a change from pure mercantilism to more of a free market. Maybe I’m not the guy for the job here, maybe a historical economist could lend some ideas.

Consequences for Realism in Space Warfare

Back to accelerating technology. Let’s talk about robots, artificial intelligence, and space exploration. Have you ever heard of a Von Neumann machine? It’s the concept for self replicating robotic space probes. If a technological “singularity” does occur, the idea is that these self-replicating machines will spread across the galaxy, stopping at every matter source it can and turn whatever it can find into computational matter. Then it spits out more probes, the cycle continues. Faster than light travel might never be possible. There’s stuff like the Alcubierre drive that is hypothesized but most consensus is against it being feasible to build. While writing this piece, a new announcement was made that is exciting and dramatically lowers the mass requirement; but that still doesn’t make it possible. FTL or not, the human-robot civilization will expand like an unstoppable bubble rather than a point and click adventure. Again, sorry; but space warfare would look more like a galactic scale Petri dish with fireworks than Tie Fighters shooting it out over Coruscant.

AI Swarms battle it out in AI War Fleet Command 2

So Warfare at a Galactic level might be less like Master of Orion and more like AI War. Ultimately, scifi ground based warfare is probably the most fun but least plausible. The conflict would look less like Halo and more like this scene from the third Matrix movie. Except it spans the entire planet, and no fleshy people; both sides have flying octopus monster robots and heavy ground based artillery. Then occasionally an orbital weapon blows up everything within 1000 km. Hell, maybe its not on a planet at all but on a Dyson sphere… Or maybe there would be some crazy tampering with the universe’s physical constants to destroy everything within a huge region of space.

I’m just going to say, if two hyper intelligent artilects ever go to war, it would occur at a scale so vast with technologies so extreme it really is probably beyond our ability to comprehend. So for a game to be a playable and realistic space warfare epic might be out of the question. Even if it were possible it’s almost a separate game entirely from the Civ-Paradox hybrid I’m thinking of. Combining the two into a R-rated version of Spore+AI War might be possible eventually… but it’s an afterthought to the main project.

 

Of Hexagons, Geodesic Grids and Icosahedrons!

So one thing that has always irritated me about Civ games is the lack of spherical gameplay. It doesn’t matter in early history, but once you hit the flight era and you have intercontinental ballistic missiles, satellites… Well the flat map won’t cut it if you want to touch on anything resembling realism. Why should games like Civ be played on a flat map? The world isn’t a cylinder after all. So it’s not a problem to project a hex grid onto a sphere (I like hexes over squares). The problem is that you need to have twelve cardinal pentagons in order for the non-euclidean geometry to work out; just like a soccer ball! So you have 12 spots where the hexagons overlap a little bit and you just lump it into a pentagon.

Hex Planet Demo software by Joel Davis. Source

I did find one pre-engine software implementation of this idea. Where the twelve pentagons approach is used. So it works! I think the challenge is incorporating it into pre-existing game engines. The other option is to rebuild the same game on the new engine. I think that’s the crux of the issue anyway. It would be great to see FreeCiv get adapted to this globe view as a first step. I could go into detail on the mathematics behind how these hex maps work, or I could just let you look at this long and engaging forum discussion from CivFanatics. They talk about finding ways around the pentagon problem by doing temporary grid realignments to turn the pentagon temporarily into a hexagon when you zoom in; there’s a few technical problems surrounding this though. Ultimately one quick fix would be just to make those tiles un-settleable.

Or maybe tiles aren’t the way to go at all. EUIII seems to work fine without them, just using Voronoi territories instead. But you still need to use some type of uniform icosahedral polyhedra to create a round earth, so why not use the hexagonal icosahedron just in case the hex model is the ideal way to go.

From the Civfanatics forums. Shows hex-grid earth where a natural map sits under hexagonal lines.

TEXT

What this projection looks like at the north pole, the hexes here overlap, the best solution is to have a pentagon vertex point. Source

Photorealism, terrain percentages, organic spread of Civilization

Moreover, when building the world, the continents themselves should be photorealistic. Hex grids can be laid over top, and each hex can have a “percentage water” value. Moreover, there could be several different terrain values that apply to a single hex.

  • Percent desert
  • Percent grass-plain
  • Percent forest

So on, for a variety of features. This could also include climate tags, which would effect what crops and animal resources can be spread and cultivated in this area. Mineral resources could also be a value here. And of course human impact modifiers; so settled “cities” in a tile means you can see roads and infrastructure appear as that particular tile becomes more developed.

This also could mean a system where instead of building settlers and worker units, people spread naturally. Newer technologies let you have more control over the shape of your empire. Initially, people spread to follow food sources. Once agriculture becomes the primary source of food, this migratory pattern slows down. Once artisan classes show up in your cities, trade networks start building themselves on their own. As trade technologies expand, you can forbid (or raise tariffs on) certain groups from trading in your cities. Or you can give subsidies to traders going to certain areas. In this method culture spreads.

That’s how you’d control early expansion. But that’s not necessarily going  to shape your empire, just where people spread to. Eventually new cities sprout up in higher density areas and trade crossroads, maybe you can cherry pick spots where you want to invest in a new city if it hits enough criteria and traveler or farming density is high enough. Usually these will be places close enough to your central core, or along a road/waterway. Tons of cities will also pop up automatically. Buy them outright if you have the dough, flood them with your merchants, or of course you can send your military! Just remember, invasions will temporarily lower the population and productivity of that city, and will anger other surrounding cities that might feel vulnerable. In turn they raise prices on your merchants or boot them outright.

Advisors in Civ 5, perhaps an example of flat 1-d advisors that offer little to gameplay. Truly interesting advisers can act as agents, have a numerous amount of titles, exist as real units and can travel around the map.

This type of setup is not to be confused with “City states” in Civ 5. Although similar, the idea here is that cities pop up and get clumped into larger states or “empires” as an alternative to settlers walking halfway across the globe and plopping down. This ties into the concept of rebellions. Depending on the era and the government type, rebels will pop up on overextended or weakly controlled states. Don’t colonize a bunch of small nearby islands if you don’t have a powerful navy. Or don’t try Mongolian style conquest without horses and mobile housing (yurts).

Perhaps after enough time has elapsed and several city states or empires exist, a game mode could become unlocked that allows players to play as heroes. Maybe every so often a hero comes along and they get the chance to use that hero to lead a Golden age. These could be juicy points in history where multiplayer might get really exciting. Like the Punic WarsFall of the Roman Empire, the reformation, the world wars. This could utilize the same aspect of the game engine as the “explorers” part and could let players’ achievements guide the grander history of the game. However once the central conflict of the period ends or that hero dies, the focus shifts back to the main campaign engine.

 

Zoom Levels Google Maps Style, units with lifespans, poor mapping skills

Back  to the map, use hexes, and then make it so that if you zoom in, this splits into 7 more hexes. Then again a few more times. Have each layer procedurally generated and stored on a remote server; it gets pulled whenever you zoom in, just like Google maps. When starting the game, you are forced to start at the most zoomed in level. As your units explore more territory the map zooms out. Now, mapping technology took quite a while to become accurate or reliable. It would be cool to have some way of distorting the map early on in such a way that mimiced poor map making in early history. One method might be to apply a deformation to any hexes in the nearby vicinity. Literally warp the tiles until you send units back out there.

Carta Itineraria, drawn for Charles V depicting his Holy Roman Empire. (It’s upside down). Definately more accurate than some antique maps, but nothing near modern standards.

One thing that would be brilliant would be to incorporate city rendering technologies that follows computational models of human expansion. There are a variety of methods for determining planned cities and having it mimic the real world. When I was a student of astronomy there were groups at my university working on what is called N-body simulations. This would involve modeling billions of particles as stars/star systems and then watching the swirl as galaxies collide with one another. This would produce merged galaxies which could then be rendered as photos and compared to real Hubble pictures. The closer the images the closer the simulation.

This same type of test case is being run but instead of stars it’s modeling  cities. Add mountains, rivers, then draw some roads and voila! You have a city that procedurally generates that uses an economic model to approximate home prices and living conditions. Then they compare it against real cities. This is what would be needed to have a truly zoomable strategy game where cities rise, fall, evolve over time. The feedback loop between economics and geography is important. All you would need to do is add in technology, transportation, regional interaction, and then you’re nearly almost there. Apply the same method as the automated-agent rendering where cities are only generated if you zoom in on them and that data stores on a cloud when you don’t look at that city.

 

Another layer of complexity might be to have units with life spans and/or supply limits, or they defect. That way if you scout treks a few thousand miles, he probably doesn’t come back. If a scout dies before return back to one of your cities, then his explorations disappear. Scouts have a life span and a supply limit, so if they go too far they turn back on their own, or perish, or go native and join another tribe. In whichever case, you lose the visibility. Over generations, that visibility goes away unless you have sufficient mapping tech. Scouts, mind you, can be automatic; and of course sometimes random scouts from other places will show up and offer you maps at a price. In an agent based simulation, every unit is potentially looking out for themselves before their state. There’s safety in duplicity and paying your agents fairly.

Colonization limit map in procedural EUIII map. Red is too far, green is okay. Blue is currently being colonized. Unexplored areas can only be traversed by unit stacks lead by “explorer” leaders. These units often die, but the area still remains visible.

If you combined explorers with some type of engine that lets you escape “rulership” mode and go into discovery mode, it might offer a lot of fun to the game-play experience. Let’s say your civilization is on the decay, but you manage to send out an ambassador-explorer to the other side of the world. You go into explorer mode and leave your cities behind you. The world is mysterious, you encounter new cultures and learn new things. You find some new technology or landmark along your journey, and if you or your crew manage to make it back alive that new tech can revitalize your industry. This would add some fun types of “mini”-game to the experience and ultimately might be one of the more fun elements of play.

Adventure into the unknown, seeing the beauty of nature and the diversity of peoples’ customs is awe-striking in reality; having it generate in a computer makes it truly unknown once again and that could be really exciting. Glorifying explorers instead of generals would be an awesome new take on strategy as well. I’ve always felt the great people in the Civilization franchise are flat and one-dimensional. Some famous scientist pops up, you spend him on a technology, the end. I want to play as Lewis and Clark, Edmunsen and Scott, Marco Polo; then there’s more destructive explorers like Colombus or Cortez. The gameplay would show the player that some of history’s “heroes” still committed terrible crimes against humanity, and hopefully this can lead to a better cultural sensitivity towards oppressed groups everywhere.

Persistent Worlds, Scalable Complexity and Proper Social Network Integration

Persistent worlds are the idea of a virtual environments that can exist outside of your personal computer. Most MMO‘s fall into this category. The world exists without you, but you log in and play a character. I’d like to see things go a step further. As in the worlds are created by the player, they exist online but are not necessarily shared with the wider world unless they want it to be. It offers the player a space that they can “escape to” which is consistent much in the same way that an ongoing tv series is persistent. Rather than play one game of Civilization or Halo or NCAA 012, then move straight to another game or replay, you have a single engine that is constantly creating new scenarios and challenges, but exists along a single historical line. You could have multiple histories and play through each one at a time. Basically, it would be serializing game play and making it easier for somebody with a 40 hour work week to digest a complex world. It’d be like Game of Thrones, or Terra Nova but instead of waiting for network television to make another season, you just play a game that invents unique characters and conflicts. No waiting required.

Game of Thrones TV series, Rob Stark at war council. Here he is waiting for something to happen. In much the same way the show’s fans need to wait for new episodes; but in a persistent world, the episodes happen when you want them to (in single player), or when special events occur (in multiplayer). Any waiting you do will be purely strategic, looking for the right time to strike.

When I talk about scalable complexity, there’s the computational defination; but I also mean the choice to pick between micromanaging specific interface options or delegating it to an AI. Europa Universalis has a system of debt and inflation, tied closely to economic performance, mercantile rating, economic technology levels, trade network infrastructure, regional tax levels, political influence with dozens of neighboring states if  you’re in the Holy Roman Empire. The complexity of economics in a game like this doesn’t appeal to all types of gamers, some people just want to hack and slash through new territory. So why not do what politicians have done in real life for as long as there have been politicians… Delegate. Give AI advisers a sense of autonomy and let them barter on your behalf and interact with a collection of other agents. You get options to appoint broad policy, choose broad regions to invest in, and pick key goals from some type of intuitive sexy interface.

If your adviser screws up, dismiss him/her, kill him, exile him. If they tell you that taxes are too low to pay for your armies, they tell you and offer solutions. They could even use machine learning to become accustomed to your leadership choices, good or bad. Maybe one day you could even use voice commands like with the Kinect. It would be the ultimate power trip, to actually talk and act like a king rather than just clicking buttons… But the option to dig deep into the details still exists! The adviser setting makes it easier, but managing details is still possible. This could get even more interesting in republics/democracies where you as a player want to control parts of the economy more closely but ultimately congress makes decisions on their own.

You could even add an additional layer of complexity to multiplayer where people playing get assigned or choose specific roles. One player is a general, another is a theologian, or maybe there’s two presidential candidates; each one is a different player with their own agenda, and getting elected is part of the multiplayer experience. If you don’t get elected you can try to lead a civil war, but this might be a bad idea if neighboring nations are strong and interested in your territory. Similarly one monarch type player might appoint another player as governor of an overseas colony. That governor might conspire to rebel, this could happen in single player games too where agent AIs are governors instead. Then there’s feudal era politics. Pretty much a bunch of little monarchs trying to control the larger throne, but uniting in common cause against larger enemies. The opportunity for great multiplayer experiences and dynamic politics even in single player modes could match what is in Paradox games, but be more social, more accessible and more intuitive.

1100 AD, an example of Facebook strategy gaming. The elements of social interaction could be drastically redefined for this type of gaming. The art style could also be made more serious and non-repetitive.

One thing I am so SICK of is the  “CUTE” factor in Facebook and mobile games. Why does social gaming need to look like a 3 year old plays it in order to be fun or accessible to the public? A lot of interesting features of a multi-engine game like this could be built into a social game. You could have a game client desktop application for the heavy gaming, but have a less graphic intensive campaign view from a Facebook app game. This would be great for extended campaigns for people who work long hours. Just take a break from the job, conquer some territories, advise your advisers and then let them take over until you can hop on again. This type of passive gaming with universal access could be incredibly interactive and holistic.

Think about having facebook users log in to an anonymous adviser menu, where they interact with other players in their nation or region. I’m just saying, take something like Facebook Risk and the Sims turn it into a portal into this simulated universe. Then go home use your heavy duty graphics card or console to visualize the world in fully rendered 3D beauty! Maybe on the ride home you can use a phone app to play too! Hell, you could even have a procedurally generated Wiki site to cover world history and battles. Eh?

 Or hell, you could scrap the whole 2D flash thing and have something akin to OnLive! This will require next generation internet speeds before it’s feasible though. Considering the current state of monopolies in this country and the lack of competition in ISP’s, I think it will be at least a decade before the US has competitive internet speeds. Currently we’re ranked 28th with no signs of stepping up. In any case, if truly high speed internet ever exists in this county the complexity of gameplay will no longer be hindered by individual hardware muscle and that means massive environments on unthought of scales without the need for severe compression.

Wishlist, My Role & Yours

So where do I fit in? I’m really just the dreamer here, if I had anywhere near the resources to make something like this I’d be working on it now instead. I have a busy life with little free time. It took me over a month of late nights to type up this blog post. I have a blossoming career with 40+ hours a week, many personal responsibilities, can’t skip the gym, NFL to watch. I get to play strategy games about once every four months, yet alone break down into the gritty process of building one. My knowledge covers operational knowledge of SQL servers and database design, but I haven’t the slightest clue on how to create a game engine.

So that’s why I’ve posited a summary of my ideas and wishes here. So that somebody out there with time and money can rip me off and make this. Why, because I think it would be extraordinarily fun and vastly enlightening. I want a game that shows the power of history, that violence becomes more u necessary as technology opens access to vastly abundant resources; but the perils of ecological collapse or cultural malevolence.

I studied physics and astronomy in college, I wasn’t a genius at it or a fast learner.. but once I understood something well I could illustrate it and explain it to a three year old. I’m a big picture guy, I think visually. I can’t necessarily make all the things I envision but I can illustrate those ideas in a way that makes sense and involves more people. So that’s what I’ve started here, tried to sketch what such a simulation/game would look like. I will continue to find ways to illustrate my idea. If only I were better acquainted with 3D animation!

YOU! If this blog post or any part of it excites you or you want to take the idea somewhere, speak up. Let me know! It’s not in my cards to make a project of this scale at this time, the technology is 5-10 years off anyway; but if someday anything like this ever does popup, I want to hear about it!

 

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  1. Pingback: Replying To Ion-Tom On Ideas for the Ultimate Strategy Game « FORWARD BASE B

  2. I knew someone somewhere had to have been having the same thoughts as me. I’m a CS major with a deep interest in linguistics. I’ve already started working on a language generate that would create not only phonology and lexicon, but also a coherent and believable grammar as well. The ultimate goal of this is to incorporate it into a later version of a game I’m making and let the culture and language of different civilizations change naturally.

  3. >I’m talking about Guns, Germs and Steel in gaming form.

    I’ve been working on that very idea! Currently, I’m working on getting freecol edited to make various fixes and improvements to the game.

  4. Pingback: Reduction of Mysticism as a new Paradigm Shift in Cosmic Thinking | iontom.com

  5. Hey Tom,

    I’ve been working spare time on a similar concept that integrates First person/arcade style combat to strategy level gaming MPORG style. Should I get to the point I have saturated my usefulness I intend on starting up the game with my own seed funding. I am looking towards making it as democratized as possible so that players can play on eachothers worlds/creations and swap mods and skins they have created etc.

    I just stumbled on your site today while i was searching on hexographic planet maps.

    My hope is that by the time I get going we will be utilizing true 3-d formats.

    I enjoyed your post very much.

  6. Pingback: State of the Simulated Universe – Part I – Finding Direction

  7. Pingback: State of the Simulated Universe – Part I | rSimulate - Recreating History, Discovering New Worlds