Lately one of the big features I’ve been preparing for the eventual release is the solar system game mode. There are a lot of other improvements to the interface, the AI, and some graphical updates, but I’ve been holding off on posting an update until I had a really big feature ready. The solar system game mode, which I’ve shown a little of previously, is more of a 4X/RTS hybrid than the standard skirmish mode and the goal is for it to provide a longer, more replayable experience. As it’s getting closer to the paid release, this game mode is one of the features that I won’t be adding to the free demo, however when the time comes, there will be an updated demo with the other graphical and GUI improvements that have been added to the game.

Game Mode Selection

The basic premise is that the player controls fleets (collections of regular ships contained in a single icon) and attempts to conquer planets and create space outposts in order to control territory, which then grants the player greater income.

Solar System View

When two opposing fleets meet, this action creates a battle event which is marked on the map. Since all parts of the game take place in real time, each player has until the battle countdown finishes to send nearby fleets to join in the battle. Once the countdown reaches 0, the main system is paused and the player goes to the newly created subsystem in order to fight the battle as a traditional RTS skirmish. Here the player has sent 2 fleets into a battle against a single enemy fleet.

Fleet Battle

Battle systems are randomly generated based on the surrounding space in the solar system map. If a battle takes place in an asteroid field or a nebula, the environment of the battle system will reflect that. (Here you can see a few of the graphical improvements that I’ve been working on since the last update.) Once the battle is over, the winning player gains ownership of the now inactive battle marker, which grants control over the surrounding space for a short time.

Fleet Battle part 2

In addition to the fleet vs fleet fights, battle events can also take place in planets or player-created space bases. These permanent points of interest are important because they can be upgraded with 4 kinds of prebuilt bases: fortresses, shipyards, trade ports, and research facilities. Like fleets, each of these base icons represents a group of standard units that will appear within the subsystem. Each base contains a Command Center and various other building modules, depending on which type of base it is. Some of these bases have additional effects, such as the shipyard which allows the production of new fleets, the trade port which generates additional income, and the research facility which raises the starting tech level in that subsystem.

Prebuilt Bases

Above: fortress bases, shown at levels 1, 2, and 3, provide a strong defenders advantage should enemy fleets attempt to attack this planet.

See also:

http://www.indiedb.com/games/empyrean-frontier/news/fleets-and-4x-elements

The second version of the demo is now available for download.

Download now from IndieDB:
Empyrean Frontier Pre Alpha Demo

What’s new in this demo:

There is now a Game Options menu where you can set various control and gameplay related settings. These new options include:
– left/right click settings for building placement
– inverted scrolling option
– edge scrolling option
– scroll, zoom, and rotation speed sliders
– color replacement mode
– health bar, energy bar, rally line, and control group number display settings

Gameplay Options Menu

There are now distinct animated cursors for Select, Move, Attack, Attack-Move, Formation-Move, Repair, and Sell.

The Easy AI will now wait longer before attacking and will attack with a smaller force.

The in-game GUI has been scaled down to take up less screen space, plus new buttons have been added in the bottom left panel for various action commands and for using control groups.

Skirmish and GUI

I’ve also updated the tutorials with some better text boxes and explanations of some things that weren’t originally covered such as camera rotations, plus I’ve added a 3rd tutorial that covers some extra concepts including the formation tool.

Tutorials

There’s also a lot of optimization behind the scenes, specifically the fog of war is now much more responsive and the game runs faster with large maps. There are also notable changes to some of the unit AI that makes fighters more effective and makes them look more interesting in combat.

See also:

http://www.indiedb.com/games/empyrean-frontier/news/game-updates-and-demo-2

Command Ship Construction

One of the big features I’ve been working on is adding a 2nd playable faction to the game. I think it’s important that the new faction should be significantly different from the existing one and to that end, the main difference between the two factions is the way the build bases. Instead of building sprawling space stations like the Empire, the Interstellar Union uses massive spaceships called command ships as their mobile bases. Other buildings are built as modules that connect to one or more of the 12 available building nodes on each command ship.

Command Ships

Unlike space station modules, these ship modules do not have any outward connecting points, so once all 12 building nodes are occupied, the Union player must construct a new command ship in order to continue building. This is accomplished by using the capital shipyard module, a tier 2 module that take up an entire side (6 nodes) of the command ship. This module is able to construct additional command ships, and eventually will be able to build smaller combat-orientated cruisers as well. While the capital shipyard is unlocked at tech level 2, same as the Empire’s Mobile Command Ship, the current plan is that during skirmish play the Union player will start with a Command Ship which already includes a single capital shipyard, making it possible to expand before upgrading to tier 2.

Command Ship Construction

Like the Command Center, the new Command Ship also gains a visual upgrade with each tech level, so that a player can visually determine what tech they or their enemies have unlocked.

Tech Level Visuals

Overall, the Union is planned to be a more mobile faction that specializes in advanced fighters and large cruisers, with less emphasis on medium sized frigates. I’m still working on creating models for all the combat units, as well as the rest of the base modules, but for now, I plan to also work on an updated demo with some better gameplay/input options and more sound and music assets.

See also:

http://www.indiedb.com/games/empyrean-frontier/news/new-faction2

The first pre-alpha demo for Empyrean Frontier is finally available for download. The demo contains a skirmish mode with 2 1v1 maps and 2 AI settings, as well as 2 tutorial missions to explain how to play. There is also a listing of all game controls within the options menu and a graphics settings menu for customizing settings for your computer.

Download now from IndieDB:
Empyrean Frontier Pre Alpha Demo

Skirmish:
• The basic skirmish works much like other RTS games you might have played. Build up your base, construct an army, and destroy all enemy buildings (space station modules and lunar colonies) in order to win. Currently there is a choice of two playable 1v1 maps and two difficulty levels for AI opponents. AI opponents play with only the information that would be available to a human player, and currently don’t recieve any extra bonuses. (You can play in observer mode to watch how the AI plays.)

Skirmish Gameplay
Skirmish Gameplay

Skirmish Gameplay
Watching AI Players in observer mode

Additional Notes:
• The current version of the game includes one playable faction and a only the basic skirmish mode. Most ships and station modules are present in the game, although additional content will be added as development progresses and the current state of the game is not representative of the final product. Feedback on the demo (bugs, gameplay concerns, etc.) is very much appreciated.

Minimum System Requirements:
• -Operating System: Windows
• -Graphics Card: Directx10 compatible card (PCs with integrated graphics cards might not be able to run the game)



Updated SuperWeapon:

The new version of this structure performs the same role as the old one, but the main difference is that we now have a much wider laser beam, allowing for more realistic better visual effects. When activated, the cannon now fires a single energy beam, which will continue until it collides with a planet or runs off the edge of the map, dealing heavy damage to any units in its path. I’m finally finishing the process of replacing all of the old placeholder models. For this update, I present the most complicated of these, the super weapon, which was first added more than a year ago. Since then I’ve significantly changed the base building system, allowing for much larger and more impressive models.

Unit control GUI

The interface still allows switching between two different attack styles: a wide beam for damaging fleets of spaceships, or a focused beam for destroying large targets, including small moons.

Unit control GUI

A much smaller version of the wave cannon structure is also available as a base defense.

Unit control GUI

Other Notable Changes:
– improved skirmish AI
– added several music tracks to the game

What’s next?
I’m afraid I’m significantly behind schedule of where I had planned to be with development, and I apologize for that. My next goal is still to finish up a playable demo for testing and feedback purposes. The last of the major content additions before the game gets to that stage is now complete, and the main things I’ll be working on next are creating several tutorial missions and making a useful options menu for adjusting graphics settings.

Updated interface for unit selection:

Most of the information and commands a player needs to manage units are located in the selection bar, located in the lower middle section of the screen. The panel on the right shows a list of icons representing all currently selected unit types and how many of each type are selected. This section also displays the total health and energy levels of all the selected units above. Clicking on one of the portrait icons here will deselect all other types within the current selection, which is designed to allow the player to easily select only certain unit types for special attacks.

Unit control GUI

The left panel contains the colored stance buttons along the top (aggressive, defensive, hold position, and hold fire) and automatically populates the lower section with all abilities available to units within the current selection, in this case some of the selected ships have a speed boost ability, which uses up energy.

Unit control GUI 2

Unit production:

GUI for Production Buildings

Unit production is handled similarly to regular unit control, but makes use of an extra panel on the left side of the screen. Note that the actual buttons for creating units are on the panel to the upper left, while the lower middle panel displays the next 5 units in production and the progress bar for the ship currently under construction. The upper panel also displays the total number of each type of unit in the production queue, since the player can queue up many more than 5 units at a time, however only the first 5 are shown in order. Units can be canceled by right clicking on the portrait in either location. Some of the changes to the production GUI are a result of switching to a pay as you go system for producing units, (like the one in C&C games) as opposed to the model where you have to pay all the resources up front to begin production (as seen in Starcraft.) This way, the player can queue up a very large number of units even with low resources, which should make macro management less stressful.

Finally, in addition to the GUI updates, I’ve made some changes to the graphics engine. Ships are now better lit and contrast better with the background space, plus I’ve added or increased a glowing outline effect to most units to help them stand out even more.

After a lot of testing, I decided a while ago to bring a two resource system back to the game. There are a few reasons for this change, and while I’m hesitant to add any more complexity to the game, some change was necessary. For one, I wanted to add a more gated resource to balance out the un-gated asteroid resource; asteroids are meant to be very common on most maps, which unfortunately also means that there would next to no limit to a player’s potential ore income. The maximum collection rate for the second resource is tied to the number of large planetary bodies, which limits the player’s ability to rapidly strip mine and spam units.

 
mining base and player owned moons

In summary, there are now 2 different game resources: ore and credits. Most units require a mixture of both ore (obtained from asteroids/scrap or planetary mines) and credits (obtained from scrap harvesting as well as from taxation and trade from planets.) Lower tech units as well as space station modules require primarily metal, while higher tech units and upgrades will require more credits.

 
scrap metal harvesting

Scrap metal deposits are placed in strategic locations on the map and are also spawned whenever space stations or ships that are frigate class or larger are destroyed.

 
asteroid mining

Asteroid fields can provide a plentiful source of ore throughout the game.

 

colony modules

The 4 types of available colony modules and their respective landing ships in the foreground. In addition to their specific roles, all colonies increase the planet or moon’s population over time, leading to a greater commerce rating and more income in credits to the player who owns the planet. These colonies have been in the game for a while, but I’ve recently revamped their appearance and changed a few of their functions.

  • Planetary Cannon: strong base defense (has a limited firing cone which changes direction as the planet rotates)
  • Trade Port: enables trade between planetary bodies (see picture below)
  • Atmosphere Factory: creates a breathable atmosphere if one doesn’t exist, increases population growth rate and grants bonus efficiency to all colonies
  • Mining Colony: provides a supplemental income of ore

 
trade routes

When the player controls more than one celestial body that has a trade port colony, a trade route is automatically created between them and trade ships are periodically spawned based on each planet’s commerce rating. Trade ships that make it from one planet to another will give the player a moderate sum of credits, however these ships are extremely vulnerable to harassment during transit.

What’s next? I’ve fallen a bit behind where I’d like to be with the game, but I’m still focused on making a playable demo and then going into a paid alpha. Going forward, I’ll be working a lot on improving the skirmish AI, and I intend to also post a smaller update as I finish updating the GUI and the last of the new space station models.

Engine Improvements:

Since the last update (formations and optimizations to unit movement) I’ve been working on optimizing and generally improving all other aspects of combat in the game. With the new projectile code, I’ve been able to drastically increase the number of projectiles the game can handle, leading to a re-design of several of the old units to take advantage of this. (including adding a rapid-fire Gatling laser cannon to one of the low level frigates) I’ve also been experimenting with dynamically adjusting graphics settings to turn off some of the more expensive graphical effects when especially large battles are being displayed.

optimized fighter groups
(better game engine = more ships and more lasers)

These improvements are especially important because, in Empyrean Frontier, the combat system is mostly based on projectile attacks with realistic ballistic physics. There are no traditional damage types or armor types, instead the size, accuracy, rate of fire, base damage, and number of ships in a group determines which units are able to counter which other units.

There are a few interesting side effects that come from this kind of projectile based system. The main reason why I like it is that it provides a natural incentive to spread out your ships and surround the enemy forces, rather than vice versa. Projectiles that miss their intended targets are still very likely to hit nearby units when they are tightly packed and there are overlapping lines of fire, whereas projectiles are likely to miss entirely if the units are spread out. The army with the better positioning tends to have a massive advantage, so the tactical aspect of RTS army control will be extremely important in the finished game.

At the most basic visual level, it’s important that weapons tend to act as you’d expect; high rate of fire weapons are good against many small units, while a large single projectile like a tank shell is more efficient against larger ships. To improve readability and decrease the learning curve, weapons are also being color-coded according to their rate of fire and damage output.

Color Coding:
Green = anti-fighter
Red = anti-frigate
Yellow = area of effect damage

Unit Improvements:

In addition to the back-end optimizations, I’ve also been working on updating the unit models for all of the ships. At the moment, there are 8 different kinds of combat ship: 2 fighters, 5 frigates, and 1 cruiser. Progress has been slower than I’d like, but as I still want to release an alpha and demo as soon as possible, it was important that the ship models were updated to be more professional looking. Apart from looking nice, which hopefully they do, each kind of ship needed to have a distinct style in order to easily distinguish between different types. Therefore, each type of ship has a fairly unique shape and groups of ships also display a semi-transparent symbol specific to that type of unit, so that even at a great distance, the player can tell what kinds of ships are active.

I’ve also been finalizing the unit roles and balance of the different unit types. Each ship has a specific combat role and is strong against some compositions, but weak against others. The basic idea behind most of the units should be pretty familiar to RTS players. Fighters are generally light harassment units, like very fast infantry, Sentinel frigates are made to counter fighters, Destroyers are the main tanks, and so on. One of the more unusual units (see video above) is the Flying Saucer, which is now armed with a medium strength laser and a tractor beam that can push or pull enemy units. My goal with this ship is to emulate the “pikemen” style of units you tend to see in medieval or ancient RTS games; the flying saucer can play a support role and pull in and focus down individual units, but its greatest strength is its ability to counter high damage, close range units like bomb frigates, by simply pushing them away and preventing them from getting in range. The full list of current units (and I do plan on adding more in the future) is presented below, with basic data on each unit’s strengths.

optimized fighter groups

The first improvement in this update is the addition of geometry instancing to the main draw methods. This optimization has greatly increased performance by drawing all units of the same type together, rather than calling each one as if it were a different model. This change is most noticeable when there are a large number of fighter groups, since there can easily be hundreds of individual fighters on screen in a normal game.

optimized fighter groups

I’ve also added exhaust trails behind ships in order to better convey movement and direction of ships. (Plus it frankly makes the game look a lot more interesting.) In addition, thanks to some rewritten movement methods, fighter groups are now able to circle in place when not moving, which is also mainly a visual change.

In the backend, units will now move with more efficient collision avoidance algorithms, again reducing lag without sacrificing precise movement. I’ve also written some simple flocking behaviors, so large groups of units will move together efficiently. For the most part, unit movement is now pretty much on par with what you’d expect from a modern RTS; the player can also queue up multiple move or attack orders by holding the shift key, and even large clusters of units are able to follow any waypoint path with reasonable accuracy, intelligently altering their courses based on other nearby units.

flocking behavior

Formation Drawing:

Finally, I’ve implemented a new formation drawing system, one that is much more customizable and all around better than the old one, which had only a few preset formation shapes. With the new system, when the player has a group of units selected he can hold down the formation hotkey (which for now is the Alt key) and by right clicking and dragging, draw a line of any shape in order to create a formation move order. Drawing a simple concave formation facing an enemy position is probably the best example of how the formation drawing system enables the player to very easily perform a useful task that would normally require many actions in other RTS games, but it allows for many other tactics as well. You can even scatter or split the selected units into multiple groups for a flank attack by releasing the right mouse button during the movement and drawing another separate line. In the same manner, the player can create formations several lines of units deep or add higher concentrations of units at certain areas on the line.

Ultimately, I think this system should elevate the level of gameplay for players of all skill levels, by providing a more intuitive control scheme for complicated tasks involving unit formations, especially considering that the largely projectile-based combat system in Empyrean Frontier heavily incentivizes good positioning. The formation drawing tool doesn’t automate any of the strategic or tactical decision making, it simply enables the player to give detailed orders with significantly fewer mouse clicks.

See also:

http://www.indiedb.com/games/empyrean-frontier/news/optimization-movement-and-formations
http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=31326.0

Lately I’ve been working mostly on improving the interface. GUI design is definitely one of my least favorite parts of game development, but at least the game looks more polished now. Here’s what’s new since the last update:
shipyard under construction
Improved GUI:

Since the last update, I’ve primarily been working on updating the user interface in the game and replacing the old placeholder graphics. At this point, most of the in-game GUI has been updated to a more acceptable quality and in some cases, redesigned to improve readability on lower resolution displays. The major interface elements are all focused around my implementation of the fairly common bottom bar design. The metallic panel on the left displays the player’s resources, as well as providing commonly used formation and basic unit control toggle buttons, while the right panel houses the minimap and system data for multi-system maps. An additional popup panel on the left houses production menus when the Command Center or any shipyard is selected, and the digital panels in the center of the screen display information on currently selected units.

 

Research System:

Tech trees and the ability for players to research or otherwise unlock more advanced and more devastating weapons are an essential part of any RTS. The following is an early look at how these mechanics will be implemented in Empyrean Frontier.

In the current design of Empyrean Frontier, all of the research and unlocking of new technologies will be handled directly from the Command Center. Command Centers will share the same tech database, but multiple Command Centers will be able to research separate techs simultaneously, adding an additional incentive to expand to more than one base. Command Centers currently serve as the hub of each of the player’s space stations, and are also responsible for constructing new building modules, so giving them the role of researching as well seemed fitting. Additionally, this simplified design eliminates the need for separate tech buildings and lets the player see all available techs in a single screen, which should make the game easier to understand without really losing strategic depth (as well as making it easier for me to finish it.)
shipyard under construction
At this point, most of the actual techs are not implemented or even fully designed, however the goal is to include many fairly standard kinds of tech including weapon, armor, and engine upgrades, plus certain unlock-able units and abilities. Currently, the only fully implemented techs are the three upgrades to higher tech levels, which serve as bottlenecks in the tech tree, with each tech level unlocking the ability to purchase all buildings and techs available in that level.

When a player upgrades the Command Center, it undergoes a visual transformation, becoming larger and more elaborate with each tech level. These visual changes are important from a gameplay standpoint in order to allow for some way to scout the enemy’s current technological progress.
shipyard under construction
See also:

http://www.indiedb.com/games/empyrean-frontier/news/improved-gui-and-research-system
http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=31326.0