I did not enjoy the diplomacy in Space Empires 5. It was not clear what diplomacy buttons to click in response to different requests or how to properly make a request.
SE5's diplomacy amused me. But I found the SE* series so unchallenging that I always play Team Mode, all humans (i.e. me alone) vs. all AIs. Then I set "many" AIs on "hard" difficulty, and hope for 17-19 of them. (If I get "only" 12, I restart the game.) They team up on contact, trade techs, all sabo me with intel from afar, and tag-team me with streams of their entire production. And I still kill them faster than they can get to me, so I never see unified fleet furballs like in SE3. I like to stare at the empire scores graphs, I can tell when each AI meets me because that's the downward bend in its graphs as they all plunge toward 0.
I only ever played Captain Kwok's Balance Mod, so I dunno if the diplomacy is his or original. Basically, I ignore every AI's 1st request, promptly respond by declaring war, and ignore it thereafter. Heck, Team Mode already means they're all allied with each other and at war with me.
Space Empires 5 was bad. ... The UI was also bad.
I actually won one game of SE3, all the way through the mop-up phase, until I conquered the last AI's last planet. The end-of-game victory splash was ... one tiny pop-up window, roughly half the size of the "Post Reply" button at the bottom of this editor, saying You won! with an OK button. I've long suspected that SE3 was written in Visual Basic.
In SE5, I've never lasted longer than about turn 150, or earlier when I hit the midgame Stolen Colonizer Tri-plosion phase (where my boarding party frigates have stolen one of each colonizer type I don't already have, and suddenly I can colonize all of the equal number of ice and gas planets throughout my sprawling backfield -- this could be 100 extra planets). Micromanaging in SE5 means turn time increases roughly linearly with things to do, until every turn takes me 60-90 minutes (not kidding). Somewhat before then, I always realize that the game simply has become not fun, and doesn't captivate me. Every planet feels the same, every tactical ship combat is the same, it's just more of the same. (I loves tactical combat, but even I can't stomach that much of it.) Even when you can research and build a class-100 ringworld (their planets are hexless lists, but otherwise similar to here: tiny 5, small 10, medium 15, large/homeworld 20, huge 25 -- so ringworlds are supposed to be a Big Deal), there just isn't enough variety in the ground facilities to build thereupon.
The SE* series caused me to think deeply about gaming UI, which I'm still mulling. Roughly, my grand idea is that a UI (and not just for games) must adapt to scale up to the complexity of its environment. As the scope of your thinking increases, the tools at your fingertips, and the level of detail (LOD) you see, also must increase. Hence the vocabulary itself evolves.
- One violinist knows what it's like to drill for one note at a time, with staccato, vibrato, etc.
- At conductor-level, you think in sections, phrases, timbre, inflection ... your vocabulary isn't even single notes any more.
- At composer-level, you might think even higher, in genres, moods, emotions.
- At orchestra-level, you manage buildings, storage, calendars, repertoires, guest itineraries, talent searches, etc.
- At conservation-level, you procure materials for musical instruments, even to planting groves of pernambuco trees to ensure wood for bows for 50 years.
Complexity is hierarchical (or we seem to make it so, because we can't cope otherwise). Management also becomes hierarchical: we chunk modules into self-contained units, maybe with one vice-president to speak upward on behalf of each (and flog downward to meet goals). Zooming out to higher LODs, we sweep the same human gaze across a vista that must be capped at similar total complexity ... but with the grain size now magnified, so that every node / pixel / unit encapsulates a complex state of its own. What do you look for, and how can you be sure you're not missing anything?
This seems to require automation, but the player needs more control than a canned set of ministers. (Partially, I lean this way because I think I can script code better than any stock writer-of-ministers, and I'm willing to compete vs. other scripters). Maybe the first thing we do is embed Common Lisp (because we know it ends up in there somewhere anyways SE5, and every 4x I've seen (including, ahem, GCs 2 and 3), all suffer from the click-only UI: what you do on turn 1 by clicking one pixel at a time is the same thing you do in turn 200, just more of it. There is never an upward-shift, or lifting-of-level, where you define your own theater / unit / department, tell it how it shall run itself and report to you, and then let it go and trust that it works the way you want it to. GC2's ministers were useless to me because in 10 minutes, I determined that I shall play the game a certain way, and ... they didn't. SE*'s ministers are similarly shallow-in-scope. N.B. an AI is just a null player with all ministers turned on, which is proof that the ministers aren't enough.
- SE* all made rendezvous important (e.g. colonizers to colonizables), but had no UI support for it beyond the click-level order.
- SE* ground facilities had scope: mostly planet-only, but some were system-wide, some were empire-wide. Some are pop-dependent (so you migrate them onto your high-pop planets); some are pop-independent (so you migrate them to the tiny/small).
- Hence, by midgame, every system (which may contain 2-15 planets) must optimize a set of "1 of each of these", plus each planet is a queue. How do you micro-manage that? You'd need something like a tree-shaped UI that inherently shows you "1-per-system" items separate from planet queues, and all queues at once.
- Then, how do you automate that without micro? It would be something like a tree-traversing problem-seeker, which flags entire subtrees of your empire as all OK (green node) or this needs attention (flashing red node?). Then your cognitive load collapses to linear in the problem deltas, which you hope are not proportional to the size of your empire, but maybe only to the size of your frontier.
- Each turn, you glance at the few red-hopping balls indicating a blown fuse or deadlocked queue, drill down as deep as you need to fix that, and you know you can skip the rest, because it's passed your checks-and-balances. Surgical micro could be tolerable. This is deliberately similar to unit testing: you want to know what didn't pass the tests.
- In SE5, I often have several actions running in parallel, all involving ships and planets, but for totally different goals:
- combat ships
- ships blockading enemy planets
- dome-lifting: You can colonize the wrong atmosphere, but you get a dome cutting it to 20% capacity. Conquering planets gives you native breathers of those atmospheres. Move some of them back in a transport, then take all of your non-breathers off-planet. The dome vanishes, and you can build stuff. Challenge: Do this without spacing any colonists out the airlock.
- SOSUS: Satellite-with-sensors (range 5-7), transport(s) full of them. Laying a pattern of 6 grants full-time view of 1 entire sector. This involves many small rendezvous problems, since any planet can build units (satellite is-a unit), if you just give the order enough in advance.
- remote mining: Asteroids have resources (just like planets). You need medium satellites + robo-producers (one for each resource type). Build those, transport carries them to every sector's 2 or 3 asteroid fields, launch them. Gradually you can move vast portions of your production entirely off-world this way. More rendezvous problems.
- trophy carrying: Conquered planets give you surviving enemy satellites, and (very rarely) weapon platforms. I love to use a transport to haul these back to my homeworld, for the sole purpose of bragging about it.
- build to the helix: To conquer a homeworld, you (research and) build ground units, on any planet, at any time. Any cargo ship can pick them up, but you generally need one small transport chock-full, and you'll take 30-60% losses. Ergo, this is beyond-rendezvous: the ship traces a helix in space and time, and every planet along that route shall build up to the height of the helix at that point, and no more.
- thenardier: a boarding party + shipyard ship, to scavenge enemy ships I've crippled. It meanders between furball hexes, picking up their pieces when they can't shoot straight.
- How do you manage all of those? A single flat ship list (SE* provides that, too) is utterly lousy; just seeing 1 ship does not inform you what role you've grouped it into.
- After pondering, I envision a new primitive: provide customizable slices to each entity-list, where players can freely define and split off their own slices / subsets / groups.
- Let each slice mean one player-determined thing. Then slices naturally handle regions, theaters, fleets, hierarchies-of-fleets, diplomatic gifts, garrisons, and any other concept that can be expressed as grouping. This concept exists in other apps: layers in a graphics or CAD editor, groups in PowerPoint, themes in music, maybe even classes in C++.
- Each slice merges both entity list and map UI, e.g. you can see a slice as an overlay on the map. (Whimsy: you can literally drag slices around "vertically" (in a 3rd dimension orthogonal to the map), e.g. to get them out of the way, or focus on them, or compare 2, or as part of the (gasp) cross-slice rendezvous stitching UI. So if I want to restrict map view to only my attack-helices slice, then the UI suppresses all other slices.
- Slices can gain interaction flags (e.g. "needs attention"), pieces of code (satisfaction predicate, bean-counting, etc.), map icons, state flags (is-a-doodle, is-committed), etc. Basically, once they become first-class UI elements, whole vistas open up.
Many of these ideas also cover war boardgames (with hex maps, c.f. Avalon Hill), probably for similar reasons. We need UI tools to make what-if tests, compare alternatives between 2+ strategic choices, and generally see higher-level information superimposed upon (or floating above) the map -- which creates interesting problems in data visualization.
- Conquistador (boardgame) turn-planning consists of buying in advance the movement points for all of your ships in play. To do that efficiently, you gotta doodle out all of their actual movements, right? So what you really need to do is to plan your entire turn out, in breadboard mode. Then you need a UI that provides doodling as the primitive. So: slice-as-doodle, allowing you to make what-if slices at any time, and then finally commit to one.
- Most boardgames give you innumerable tactical battle problems, where you must decide how to allocate your factors to maximize odds. What you're really choosing is between different configurations of good-odds. In real boardgames, you physically tweezer the pieces around. Slice-as-doodle works here, too: region-select a focus area (your units and all nearby enemy units), say "split a doodle-node", it floats above the map. From that node, split a slice-as-doodle, make a configuration (here you might dip into click-hell, it's unavoidable), click Eval and see your odds. Repeat this to split off many slices from that node; the UI organizes it as a tree (of depth 2). Collapse all doodles into that node, expand them out, doodle more. Repeat until you've spanned the entire tactical board. Select one tiling of the board (a set of slices-as-doodles that cover the board, so that all game rules are satisfied, e.g. soak-off attacks at low odds to satisfy stack-adjacency rules), commit to the whole bunch.
- We do this in chess (in going-over-the-game mode, post-mortem) by physically moving the pieces around, then looking at the board, then moving them back ... or, OTB, you really do it all in your head, maintain the whole tree of alternatives, and evaluate them all. But chess is a sport because it's so tiring, and we play games to have fun. Good UI in FullHD is part of the experience.
I've focused almost entirely on the visualization part of a game UI, and kind of waved off the issues of diplomacy, game length, and immersion. It's because a bad UI is such a roadblock that it eventually (or quickly) trumps everything else, and no amount of 4X fun can overcome it enough to keep me hooked. Bad micro is the antithesis of fun. If I ever get around to writing my own, it'll have boring graphics, generic components ... but a script language capable of writing a C++ compiler (hehe), and UI elements that let you compose and doodle. It's such an unexplored niche (even today).
As for the rest, I lack experience, so I'll abstain. I've never seen a diplomacy worth beans (so I have zero expectations), game length depends on how inefficient the UI is (I almost never finish any 4X game), and nothing immerses me yet. I find beauty in numbers, and in running an empire just a bit more efficiently than the other guy. I'm open to any kind of game world machinations ... but nothing can mask a poor ability to juggle the numbers. If they're important at all, then let me run an entire empire's worth of them my way, to my satisfaction, without demanding my constant attention.
i.e. let me defun