For fun I tend toward deeper games but I’ve been looking at a lot of web offerings lately, mostly out of professional curiosity. From a design perspective, Neptune’s Pride by Iron Helmet Games is a standout. For anyone interested in the fundamentals of game design, there’s a lot that can be learned from taking a look at how all the parts fit together here.
Ships are the basic “piece” in the game, moved from star to star to gain or defend territory. However, they cannot warp around on their own. They require a fairly expensive carrier to transport them. In addition, once a carrier is loaded with ships and on its way, it is out of contact and cannot change course until it arrives at a star.
This means that players are forced to commit to their moves — once a carrier is en route, any player with sufficient scanning range can see where it’s headed and how many ships it has in tow. Defense is powerful and an attacking fleet’s losses can be heavy even when they outnumber defenders, so it’s in your best interest to have ships waiting at the places where your opponent will land. Even when you cannot completely defeat him, you can often make him suffer greater losses.
This allows for basic strategic gameplay a bit more sophisticated than the traditional “make One Big Army”. There is value in keeping reserves ready to move in and defend once your opponent has committed to an attack, for example. Similarly, it’s useful to feint to get an opponent to commit to a defense so that you can then attack whatever he was defending previously. (And, of course, once feints are possible you allow for counter-feints and therefore counter-counter-feints, and so on until you’re thinking about what nefarious plan your enemy is trying to get you to fall for every time you make a move.)
The use of carriers also makes play manageable as you expand. In my current game, I have some 625 ships scattered across 60 stars. If each of those could be commanded on its own, the game would be far more overwhelming. That’s before factoring in the need to keep track of what my opponents are doing too, which would be potentially hundreds more things to watch. The carriers keep the number of moving parts down and the action focused.
They also convert a potentially tedious task into something more interesting. If the player did have control of individual ships, they would need to visit each star they held (where the ships are made) regularly to send them to rally points in drips and drabs of one or two ships. It would quickly get tiresome to cycle through 60+ stars just to move new ships around. Carriers reverse the process — instead of moving individual ships, you move the carrier and it sweeps up any ships waiting at any star it visits, snowballing in size as it goes. This eliminates the potential tedium of individual ship control and makes for interesting decisions — do I need to move this carrier into the fight with 50 ships or do I have time to detour and grow the carrier to 60?
As that implies, one factor to consider with the stars is simple geography. Travel is slow, particularly at the start of the game when players have yet to research any speed technologies. Clump of stars in close proximity to one another are thus easier to defend, as a single fleet positioned near the center can quickly move to defend when an enemy approaches. Stars separated by a great distance are more difficult as they provide a watchful opponent with a lot of advanced warning. It’ not unusual to detect an incoming attack 12 hours before it lands, which is often plenty of time to have a carrier gather additional ships from nearby stars and move into position to defend.
The “natural resources” model adds another dimension to consider beyond just proximity. Every star has a natural resource rating which dictates how difficult it is to improve. Stars with high natural resource values can build economy (extra money), industry (extra ships), or science (extra research) for cheaper than stars with low natural resource values. The more improvements of a type a star has, the more expensive additional improvements are. If captured, these improvements remain in place for the new owner, making heavily upgraded stars a prize.
These two elements, physical layout and variable cost, work together to make deciding where to spend the daily income an interesting set of decisions. Travel takes time, so you want to upgrade industry as close to your lines as possible so you aren’t always waiting for carriers with ships from the interior. Except, those systems don’t always have the highest natural resources — should you spend extra for the upgrade there in exchange for the savings in time? These systems are also the most likely to trade hands, which means your spending could quickly be turned against you — is it worth the risk? Economy and science don’t produce anything that needs to be moved around like industry’s ships so they are best improved deep within your territory. But, as you expand, high natural resource stars closer to enemies offer far cheaper improvements.
There are only four technologies in the game: weapons (attack power of ships), speed (movement rate of carriers), range (jump distance of carriers), and scanning (range of detection from stars). The player researches one at a time at a rate dependent upon the number of research facilities that have been built.
Typically, games of this sort devolve into determining the most efficient research but Neptune’s Pride does a good job of keeping all four of these relevant. I focused on weapons in my first game and quickly learned that really strong ships aren’t great if they cannot be where they need to be (because a low scanning tech didn’t give me much advance warning of incoming attacks) and that they can be countered by weaker forces when a lack of speed tech gives opponents plenty of time to collect ships and dump them at stars you’re attempting to capture.
Tech progression also serves the game very well. With no speed techs at the start, things are fairly leisurely, which gives new players an opportunity to get their feet under them. As the game progresses, the tech increases players obtain ramp the tempo of play. At the end, things are far faster and more brutal than they were at the start. This helps to bring games to a close and also serves the platform well — Neptune’s Pride is a multiplayer web game with all of the baggage that entails, including a spectrum of player involvement that ranges from making adjustments hourly to playing once and never coming back. The slower pace of the game is better for more casual players at the start while the faster pace toward the end is better suited to the more involved players (who are most likely to be the ones remaining at the end of the game).
All in all, from a designer’s perspective the game is a well conceived package. There are a lot of very simple mechanics here that combine to produce gameplay of a depth greater than they would seem to allow. It’s a good showcase for efficient design.