It's been a while, so I want to talk about what's we've been working on internally, beyond general visual development. At the moment my personal focus isn't on making another mission, as while I do have plans for more there are other parts of the mod that need attention. Right now we're trying once again to firm up the gameplay design of skirmishes for the UNH faction. We've got some competing factors going on in that. First of all is that our goal here is to make a successor to HW1, so diverging too far away from the classic gameplay is something that provokes some resistance. Second is that verisimilitude has always been one of the guiding lights of our design and the UNH of our story is a professional military that has updated its designs to respond to the events of HW1. Most significantly the mothership concept we've been developing is a radically different beast. The original mothership, especially in single player, had a passive role as construction ship and initial resource dropoff. HWF motherships so far are military ships with significant weapons. As motherships are so massive, even with a modest amount of space devoted to weapons they can mount a lot of turrets. Consequently our current implementation has more hit points and has more weaponry than a single heavy cruiser.
The question becomes how do we handle that in multiplayer. There are a number of examples in strategy gaming of successful superweapon or hero unit implementations, but starting the match with the most dangerous unit the player will ever have is a radical move. It's how the mod is designed right now, and I'm not certain it's broken, but it does make early game raiding artificially difficult. You can't perform aggression with a few frigates when sitting right next to them is one and a half cruisers worth of ion cannons. For skirmishes, that kind of early game aggression seems like an option that should be preserved, otherwise the only way to victory is extended macro, and while that's fun for some I don't think it's fun for all.
So far we have been considering two implementations. One is to have the mothership start the game fairly similar to a classic HW1 mothership, and then over time allow the player to spend RU and time to bring it up to its full power. Second is to have the player start with a carrier and later summon in a fully functional mothership, HW2 shipyard style, as a late-game superweapon type unit that would either let them expand their build capacity a lot(our motherships have a ton of parallel build slots) or spearhead a fleet, or both. Whichever concept we choose does raise further questions for other factions, as motherships aren't something everyone in the galaxy have access too, but that's a whole other can of worms.
Another gameplay concept we have been mulling over is what to do with research and tech progression. To me one of the positive ideas behind the changes to gameplay HW2 made is that production modules in theory create rewards for scouting and the ability to damage an enemy in a raid without outright destroying a production ship. While I don't care for a lot of aspects of their implementation, this kind of tech scouting and raiding is an essential part of many strategy game's designs and is worth exploring to me. To that end we're experimenting with a research ship with specific research modules for different fields of technology that would let other players know what paths you are pursing if they saw it, and let them attack something besides your resourcing operations. If we elect to have each player's motherships start with a high strength, introducing targets vulnerable to fighter harassment becomes even more appealing. Motivated by the thinking that resourcing operations are the natural 'leading edge' of a player's expansion, we considered combining research vessels into resource controllers to create a 'fleet auxiliary' ship that might also have some limited build capacity, building things like probes. Even if this doesn't make it into the UNH fleet it seems likely we'll reuse the idea as a faction quirk for someone else later.
We'e also been experimenting with basic strike craft - the scout, vs the interceptor. Currently our fighter roles and stats are mostly lifted straight out of HW1, plugged into the old HW2 balancing tools. HWR 2.0 brings a ton of new functionality that calls for reconsideration of our old choices, and honestly we've never been super pleased with the design of fighters. Scouts in particular have been a headache. HW2 had it be a mobile probe with an EMP, HW1 Scouts may have been the best fighter for experts, but relied on arcane micro techniques that HWR did not seek to reproduce. When reduced to the raw HW1 numbers without the micro you're left with a unit that feels like it has a lot of redundancy with either ints, probes, or both, so we're considering the following options.
A) The dogfighter, inspired by the current HWR kush/taii scout's performance as a decent fighter killer that falls away vs corvettes and such, the goal with this unit would be an anti-fighter specialist that works as a stopgap unit for someone who doesn't want to invest in fighter tech. This unit may actually be slower than interceptors and a bit more of a defensive unit. While contrary to how it was in HW1, this would make it so that the unit named 'interceptor' would be the fastest combat unit and thus the most natural choice for intercepting something
B) The sniper, with a single high power, long range cannon comparable to a defender or corvette's gun and an attack style to match. This might be able to harass harvesters from the edge of controller guns' ranges or perhaps a bit beyond, but wouldn't be able to dogfight worth a damn. Probably would work quite well in traditional scouting roles.
C) The light bomber, a unit intended to be an early game raiding/anti-capital fighter. I've had some rewarding thought experiments on how to design around early game raiding options with this being a 'tech zero' unit, available at the game start, but there is some question of how to make it work in the same universe as classic attack bombers without being made entirely obsolete or resorting to gimmicky damage multipliers.
D) The recon, a ship with little or no combat role and perhaps a low standard speed but an extremely powerful speed-boost power. Think of it as a reusable probe. Might remove the need for a probe in the ship list at all, but would largely remove the scout as a T0 combat unit.
We've got some prototypes of all these in a development branch, and have been doing some playtesting. Overall the challenge is beyond just scouts, and is to get fighters and strike craft in general in a place where early game skirmishes with handfuls of units are interesting at least, and also ensuring things doing breakdown when you send capped endgame fleets at each other. It's a frustratingly complex problem.
However, if we're revisiting fighter balance, it'd be a damn shame to not work in ballistics features. The problem is ballistics are hard. Fighter balancing is already quite difficult. Flight patterns, weapon cycle times, movement and movement stats were already a chaotic, hard to control combination, which is why I've long had sympathy for the dice-style combat system of HW2. At least with everything else unpredictably interacting it gives a designer one nearly sure-fire way to turn damage vs a target type up or down in a way that's visible to the player watching the fight. However, as mentioned when talking about motherships, verisimilitude is one of our design goals in Fulcrum and the magic of watching an interceptor lead its target perfectly instead of firing homing bullets is a cherished memory of HW1. Fulcrum is essentially a quest to create more of what we liked about HW1, so while using the ballistics system properly is hard, we've got to try.
In the past I've tried to get around the uncertainties of balancing by setting up fights in our skirmish mode. Spawn equal RU values of ship A vs ship B, make them fight, and then see how many survive at the end. It's given useful data in the past, but it's tedious and time intensive. So I've automated that process. We've got a testing framework in the mod now that lets pit sets of ships against each other and record the outcomes. With the -superturbo flag providing tens to hundreds of times speedup depending on the ships involved I've been able to get days worth of dogfighting tests done in a few hours, iterating through different test values. What that means practically is that if I'm not sure if a change to a value in the new ballistics system will improve or hurt a ship's performance, I don't have to guess or eyeball it, I can just do some fast iterative testing. Which doesn't make balancing easy, but it sure helps.
If you've got any thoughts or reactions to any of this, we'd love to discuss further! And if you've got any interest in playetesting some of these design ideas against players or AIs definitely speak up, as they won't be truly proven until people get a chance to break them!
P.S. I wanted to share something a friend did. A maker of physical models, of both spaceships and other things, he got ahold of his own 3D printer recently and asked for some model files. Not long after, he sent me these pictures!
It's pretty flattering to have one of our models be given this treatment. so I thought I'd share it with all you guys.