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News: Celebrating 30 years of Star Control 2 - The Ur-Quan Masters

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xenoargh
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Engine Speed / Difficulty
« on: December 17, 2012, 11:15:33 am »

Hiya.  Tried playing this old classic on Windows XP Pro 32-bit on a quad-core Athlon system, ran into a fairly severe issue. 

While the game runs flawlessly (from a technical perspective) the gameplay had severe issues.  Basically, the main game runs at a reasonable speed, but battles run so quickly that it's almost impossible to defeat the AI. 

I haven't had time to break open the source and take a look at this issue yet, but I was wondering if anybody with knowledge of the source could take a peek.  All that probably needs to happen is a small change in the AI code like (pseudocode):

Code:
if (systemTimeSinceLastUpdate > ONE_SECOND / 30f)
{
Run AI sim step
} else {
Advance to next frame, do not process AI
}

We can chalk this up to this ol' gamer's slowly-deteriorating reaction times if we'd like, but frankly, it feels like there's something wrong.  It feels like it's running the sim a lot faster than it was intended to, because it's frame-locked, not time-locked.  The behavior of the ships, shots, and most importantly the AI all indicate that it's all processing a lot faster than it was originally intended and isn't staying locked to real time properly.   It makes the game artificially difficult and it became pretty un-fun once I got past playing against the sole Weak Android enemy (that Spathi at the start).

The rest of the game doesn't feel like it has this problem, so it's probably something specific there Smiley
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Re: Engine Speed / Difficulty
« Reply #1 on: December 17, 2012, 12:19:56 pm »

Which enemies have you been having problems with? The Slylandro Probes are supposed to be ridiculously fast and do 180° turns instantly; if you're constantly being accosted by them every time you leave Sol, maybe you should explore our solar system first before leaving.

The design of the game makes it unlikely that the AI is running faster than the rest of the game (e.g. the human player); if there is a timing problem, the whole game is likely to be too fast. However, your flagship is extremely slow at the start of the game and the Earthling Cruiser escort ship you also have, while capable of turning quickly, can't accelerate too well.

If you are used to the Genesis version of Star Control, note that this version of the game ran much slower than intended; the Amiga and PC versions (and the sequel) run at the correct speed.

You can check the speed of the game in SuperMelee mode by choosing a really slow ship (and two-player mode, so you can fly around undisturbed) and checking how long it takes to turn 360°. For a Chenjesu Broodhome, this should take 4⅔ seconds.
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Re: Engine Speed / Difficulty
« Reply #2 on: December 17, 2012, 03:20:23 pm »

Everything in the game is timed based on frames, and the frame rate is fixed at 24 frames per second for battles.

Could it be that you have actually turned on "Cyborg+" mode? In that mode, the computer fights your battles for you, at an increased speed.
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Re: Engine Speed / Difficulty
« Reply #3 on: December 19, 2012, 05:49:17 am »

Well, I don't know how to answer all of this without possibly looking silly, but here goes:

1.  I remember playing Star Control 1 on a much older computer.  I don't remember it running anything like this fast.  It certainly doesn't feel like 24 FPS.

2.  I did the Chenjesu Broodhome test; it takes about the stated time to turn with player input.  That said, I saw some really funky behaviors with ship velocities when two Awesome AIs were playing in Super Melee; at times, they'd hit asteroids and end up at warp speeds.

3.  Anyhow, let's presume it's all working as designed.

Let's consider that the hardware it was originally deployed on, though, probably wasn't actually capable of running it at 1600/1200 resolution with AI updates every 24th/second. 

IDK whether they wrote it with timing code like in any modern game or whether it was originally only frame-bound, but I suspect that it just didn't run like this; it's probably really hard to see (if you're one of the devs and / or this is one of your all-time favorite games that you know every trick) but the current difficulty ramp is basically a cliff.  One battle that wasn't too bad (for a lifelong action gamer, mind you, vs. a handicapped opponent with the only bad AI in the game) followed by severe drubbings means I just lost interest immediately.  The only reason I'm even writing to you folks about it is that it's considered a classic, is now Open Source and presumably it could be addressed down the road.

Perhaps a good long-term (and fairly easy) solution is to put in a UI at the start of play and/or an option in the game menu that tweaks game speeds and the AI up and down maybe even adds more enemies for people who find it's already too easy, so that everybody at every level of skill can play it and have fun?  That's a modern touch that would be much appreciated by a very large number of your audience, I suspect Smiley
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Re: Engine Speed / Difficulty
« Reply #4 on: December 19, 2012, 06:52:07 am »

That said, I saw some really funky behaviors with ship velocities when two Awesome AIs were playing in Super Melee; at times, they'd hit asteroids and end up at warp speeds.

Ships have a maximum speed which is only enforced when thrusting outside of the planet's gravity field, so it's easily possible for ships to go much faster than their nominal top speed. Also, occasionally, two ships will collide and eject each other at extremely high speeds, i.e. flying through multiple screens in a second (I don't think this happens with asteroids, but maybe it does).

Let's consider that the hardware it was originally deployed on, though, probably wasn't actually capable of running it at 1600/1200 resolution with AI updates every 24th/second.

Well, 1600x1200 would have been a pretty huge resolution for that time if I'm not mistaken. In any case...

IDK whether they wrote it with timing code like in any modern game or whether it was originally only frame-bound,

There has always been a frame rate limit ever since the first Star Control game.

but I suspect that it just didn't run like this;

I don't have a hard time believing that it did, though I don't have the original game (and, if I'm not mistaken, UQM either doesn't run or at least doesn't run well on Windows 98), so I can't test this myself on our old ~1992-1994 machine.

it's probably really hard to see (if you're one of the devs and / or this is one of your all-time favorite games that you know every trick) but the current difficulty ramp is basically a cliff.  One battle that wasn't too bad (for a lifelong action gamer, mind you, vs. a handicapped opponent with the only bad AI in the game) followed by severe drubbings means I just lost interest immediately.  The only reason I'm even writing to you folks about it is that it's considered a classic, is now Open Source and presumably it could be addressed down the road.

I never played the original game, and the first time I played UQM, I was one-handed (my left arm was in a rather unnecessary splint, so I couldn't use it with the keyboard). I never noticed an issue with the speed at all.

Perhaps a good long-term (and fairly easy) solution is to put in a UI at the start of play and/or an option in the game menu that tweaks game speeds and the AI up and down maybe even adds more enemies for people who find it's already too easy, so that everybody at every level of skill can play it and have fun?  That's a modern touch that would be much appreciated by a very large number of your audience, I suspect Smiley

I'm not so sure that a speed drop is a good idea for a difficulty setting. Maybe a really stupid AI would make some sense, but to be honest it's already incredibly stupid as it is. Personally, I think you just need more practice in Melee. Remember that it isn't a pure action game; there's strategy involved, and this is very important if you play against other players (but still important against the AI). One important aspect of strategy is ship choice; there's a very elaborate rock-paper-scissors chain in terms of what ship work best against what other ships (though this differs against players and the AI, since the AI is rather stupid).
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Re: Engine Speed / Difficulty
« Reply #5 on: December 19, 2012, 07:24:46 am »

Quote
Personally, I think you just need more practice in Melee.
That's always the easy answer, when people say a game's feeling artificially difficult.

Why not just address the design issue?  Surely adding a couple of new choices to the existing menu UI isn't that big of a deal; nor would be changing the behavior of the AI if X or Y flag is set.  Voila, game's easier for people who don't want it to be all that hard.  Anyhow, if I felt like playing it any more, I'd probably get the source set up to build and see if I could knock it out; it's probably not too bad.

Quote
Remember that it isn't a pure action game; there's strategy involved, and this is very important if you play against other players (but still important against the AI). One important aspect of strategy is ship choice; there's a very elaborate rock-paper-scissors chain in terms of what ship work best against what other ships (though this differs against players and the AI, since the AI is rather stupid).
When you're playing the SP game, you don't get those choices, unless you know the game's static universe really well and just go for the stuff you need right away (kind of like how you could speed-run through Fallout).   Bear in mind that we're talking newbies here, not people who've beaten SP so many times that they helped write the Wiki about it.

Unlike Fallout, however, the difficulty ramp is not well designed; it doesn't gently immerse you in the title past that very first fight, which is so artificially easy (compared to anything else you'll do) that the first "real fight" is like, whoa, I've just lost all three ships and now I have to reload from my last save, which was, oh, about an hour ago, because it doesn't auto-save or prompt to save when entering a battle.  For a modern gamer who's used to how games are designed now, it's almost unbearably frustrating. 

I just plain don't have time to sit and play Super Melee until I can win that Earthling Cruiser vs. Spathi fight, if it's even winnable vs. the AI.  I have a million other games to play, and one without a difficulty slider and that big of a difficulty curve just doesn't appeal any more Smiley

Anyhow, I know that a lot of you guys probably played it back in the day and it's hard to have an unbiased conversation about this title; I had fun playing Star Control 1 with friends back in the day but never played this one, and I don't recall it being anything like this hard vs. the AI.  It's just a bummer that what looks like a really rich game is marred by something that's pretty easy to address without destroying the core at all; a difficulty setting hurts no one and broadens a game's appeal.  Ah well Smiley
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Re: Engine Speed / Difficulty
« Reply #6 on: December 19, 2012, 11:52:55 am »

A speed setting could be considered. Auto-save is planned.

For the moment, there is another play style you could adopt: use the flagship for battles. It's how I myself prefer to play the full game. Once you get some decent weapons, combat becomes a breeze, even without melee skills. You can then use the escort ships to store extra crew, which you can transfer to the flagship when needed.
Also, invest in thrusters. You can outrun anything if you max them, which you can do with just the minerals in the Sol system. This means that you can just avoid combat. There is also the warp escape, for when you don't yet have decent weapons on your flagship. It's still a good idea to save often though, in case you get overwhelmed.
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Re: Engine Speed / Difficulty
« Reply #7 on: December 19, 2012, 03:15:32 pm »

The difficulty of the Slylandro probes is pretty severe. Once you're quite good, you can manipulate the AI and rip through them with Fwiffo - but that's a high bar to get over. And few will be so brave as to load up on all thrusters, neglecting nearly all else.

If I were to change just one thing about the campaign, it'd be to downgrade the Slylandro to a 10 point ship. Perhaps just lowering its health to 8 so a lucky 2 shots from a cruiser could take one out.
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Re: Engine Speed / Difficulty
« Reply #8 on: December 19, 2012, 10:29:06 pm »

Pretty much the two single most important things to do in the campaign early on are to pour all RUs you can get in Sol into thrusters on the flagship (IIRC it is possible to fully upgrade them just from  resources in Sol - can't remember if you have to sell the flagship's gun first), and to practice with Spathi against the probes in Supermelee (since Fwiffo is your best way to fight them early on, and often later on too). Once you get that done, you can avoid most combat, and you'll be mostly good enough to get past what you can't avoid.
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Re: Engine Speed / Difficulty
« Reply #9 on: December 20, 2012, 12:06:11 am »

Note that the probes are different between SuperMelee and the main game. IIRC, the difference is that they turn around more frequently in the main game.
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