Sim City meets Starcraft: The accidental influences of Chaotic Era
It’s often said that the meaning of a piece of art comes after it’s been made—the audience assigns their own ideas and emotions to it; they see trends and patterns that not even the original artist was aware of.
Just as in painting or sculpture or songwriting, the same principles apply to the art form of game design. Whatever a developer has in their head when they’re creating a game is only half the equation. The art direction, the gameplay, the end goal they have in mind… while these are important factors, ultimately there will also be inspiration beneath the surface, deep within their subconscious, that find their way into a game whether they’re aware of it or not.
This has definitely been the case for Chaotic Era.
When we first started work on the game years ago, we had a vague notion of what the final product should look like. We wanted to build a strategy game on an epic scale; one that would take place across an entire universe.
We wanted to capture the mystique and vastness and excitement of games like No Man’s Sky and Elite Dangerous while working in ideas from our favourite sci-fi classics.
And in our first phase of development, where we mostly focused on navigation UI and worldbuilding, those influences couldn’t be more clear.
Our minimal FUI design combined our love for the retrofuture of Blade Runner and Alien, with the modern interfaces of fighter jets and helicopters. The AI-worshipping interstellar universe dominated by shadowy corporations drew from a wide range of sources like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battletech, and Dune.
Image via www.scifiinterfaces.com
But once we started getting into the nuts and bolts of the game—the actual gameplay and game rules—we started making our way down a rabbit hole with little idea of where we might end up.
Each exploration started to take on a life of its own as we began adding components that felt like they made sense.
How would you build new ships? Well, I guess we need worker units. Where do worker units come from? Well, I guess we need building units that house workers. And those workers require population and energy to produce. And energy comes from reservoirs you discover, and harvest with those same workers.
And so on it went, until we came to our current point in time: with a fleshed out game experience whose influences surprised us.
Once we were able to look back on what we built, we quickly began to retrospectively see patterns that we weren’t even aware of.
Our isometric grid, world planning, and disasters? We realized those were pulled out of ninth grade memories spent beating Sim City 2000 in computer labs.
Worker units created by factories, sent to harvest resources, and used to construct new buildings? Hours sank into Starcraft were surfacing in unexpected ways.
Without even realizing, but thankfully so, we were building a strategy game that was subconsciously heavily influenced by some of our favourite RTS trailblazers: Sim City 2000, Starcraft, Command & Conquer, and so on.
Each planet in Chaotic Era is like its own Sim City or Starcraft match; the main difference being here that as you expand your empire, you’ll find yourself balancing many matches at once. And those matches will suddenly have complex interdependencies and domino effects based on the decisions you make, or don’t make.
The interesting thing is that I feel like if we had intentionally set out to create a game that emulates these classics of the genre, then we would’ve ended up with an end product much flatter and less exciting.
By chasing a notion of what we wanted to build—looking at the world and feelings we were trying to evoke—we let our minds pull together these influences without even realizing, ultimately creating something that we’re incredibly proud of (and constantly surprised by). We weren’t forcing building blocks together, instead we were chipping away at marble and uncovering the hidden forms underneath the surface.
Now, it’s been a while since our last progress update, so I wanted to cover a few things along the lines of how early real time strategy games have been driving our recent game design.
Changes in visual direction for planets
At lower levels of elevation, the camera aligns to an isometric, 45º point of view, allowing the player to see a different level of detail than when zoomed out. As well, a subtle "ground" texture has been added to suggest terrain, populated by perlin noise.
isometric + editing
A dust effect was explored as well, inspired by the ground conditions of a comet captured by a European probe:
Outline shaders were explored but ultimately dropped due to difficulty required to achieve a certain level of quality, but also additional visual noise that would be introduced. The shader will be re-examined when there's an opportunity to display models in higher levels of detail (ie. a "unit details" view)
Introduces a finite grid to the garage which consists of tiles that are owned by the player, not owned but purchasable, not purchasable and not owned, and unknown. The majority of the "board" consists of unknown tiles, acting as a fog of war mechanic. Tiles that are unowned but purchasable are represented by a single dot and when tapped, are purchased for a fixed price immediately.
The previous set of rules dictating validity of a unit's position have been adjusted too, now discriminating against a few more rules than before, such as whether or not a tile is unowned, non-purchasable, or of an unknown state.
A new Unit class and mechanic has been introduced, TileUnit and Tile respectively. TileUnits can be purchased in the same way ShipUnits can be purchased, and placed in the garage in the same way too. The only difference is TileUnits can produce Workers which are required for performing various functions, starting with terraforming the surface of a single body so additional units can be placed. This is all in the vein of making energy and population generation/consumption more transparent, where there will eventually be a unit for generating energy and population, and population will be literally countable by the number of worker units in a single garage.
This work began with exploring how to subdivide a 2D cell into n subdivisions, and creating connected pathways across the lengths of the cell for workers to travel across.
The step after this was investigating how to fill available space around the paths with as large shapes as possible in order to fill them with decorative elements such as tents and satellites.
From here, it was a matter of figuring out a way to place assets in these available spaces.
Work was then done to ensure entrances were calculated by neighbouring entrances to ensure seamlessness of interlocking tiles.
The final result was actually inserting worker units and their assets and having them follow these paths towards assigned targets.
This involved a new Job-Worker design which now gets encoded to save files. The user creates jobs by performing an action like clicking an available cell, and a new Foreman class takes inventory of "idle" workers, dynamically assigning workers closest to the job location, or reassigning assigned workers by pulling them off a job they are already stationed at.
This design will need to continue evolving over the next few months to fill in functionality gaps, such as the ability to move and perform work while the game is closed. This and many more aspects will be refined as unknowns are uncovered.
Before you go: