AI War:Lack Of Ship Upgrades

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Why Are Ships Not Upgradeable?

Q: In a huge number of strategy games, there is some building like an Armory where you can purchase upgrades for units: 20% greater attack for archers, 20% more speed for footmen, 50% more recharge rate on alien death rays, whatever. Why is there nothing of this sort in AI War? Is it something that is hard to implement?


Response from Chris Park, AI War's Lead Designer:

From a coding standpoint, and even from a design standpoint, this is trivial to implement. In fact, very early versions of AI War had something along these lines, but that was later scrapped from the game. In my opinion, there are two chief problems with this sort of feature, not just for AI War but in all RTS games that use such a feature:

Play Area Clarity

The first problem has to do with the transparency of the play area. Make no mistake, AI War is a complex game, but you can look at the board and know what is going on just from looking at it if you are an advanced player. There are no hidden modifiers that apply to one player or another, for example. There are ships such as munitions boosters or shield boosters that do cause stats adjustments, but these are visibly on the battlefield in front of you. If you are looking at the composition of an enemy fleet, you can know generally what it is capable of, and you can make general predictions about the outcome. Of course, AI War is so complex that often your predictions won't be right, but you're then mentally filing away the data about the encounter to apply that knowledge to the next encounter.

AI War is largely a game about exploration, and every game of it is different, so it is critical that players be able to form a hypotheses (I think I can defeat that fleet with this fleet), and then test your hypotheses (I won! / Oh crud!), and then evaluate the result. If the result wasn't what the players hoped for, they need to form and test a new hypothesis. More experienced players are able to form better hypotheses more quickly, but because of the (intentional) complexity there is still a sense of exploration and experimentation with each new ship mix and scenario.

Now, the problem with invisible modifiers is that they completely invalidate all of that. If in battle A my fleet wins handily, and then in battle B it dies, what changed? Did the AI use some sort of invisible upgrade on its ships? Or, flip it around, if I won where I previously lost, was it because of some upgrade I applied? Suddenly the game is not just complex, it is downright murky and unknowable. The process of hypothesize, experiment, integrate, is changed to just "flail wildly and upgrade as much as possible" in many cases, because the data that you accumulate about battle performance is non-actionable since you don't know how much invisible modifiers contributed.

Even if the upgrades are not truly invisible, in the sense that you can see them when you hover over the stats for the enemy units, that's still a really bad thing. Then you're left to hovering over individual enemy ships and their classes to make sure that their stats haven't changed from the overall stats that you know. Bad, bad bad -- most players won't do that, and again, this serves only to then reduce the strategy of the game.

Ship Type Differentiation

As if the above issue with play area clarity wasn't enough, there is a second major issue that upgrades cause: over-specialization of ship types. Let's say you just love frigates, and want to cram a bunch of upgrades onto them so that they can roam the galaxy as a uniformly-composed death squad. What has this accomplished? Essentially, it has allowed you to bypass the ship caps for that type, thus short-cutting the enforced variety.

Why is that bad? Well, see the above-linked article about why the game enforces variety in the first place, it explains it quite well. But the short version is that too much of a good thing is, in fact, often a bad thing -- especially in game design. Upgrades are too easy to turn into "just spam my favorite unit to win" type scenarios, which are inherently non-strategic and quickly boring (if initially fun).

Going along with this whole thing is also my desire to have old technology be a factor throughout the entire game. In other words, when you unlock Mark II Frigates, you still have (and need to use) Mark I Frigates. Upgrades of the sort seen in many RTS games are counter to this philosophy, and that also leads to a diminishment of interesting strategic choices.

Conclusion

Upgrades were something I implemented in the game prototypes early on in because they were a quick way to add variety, and because I have enjoyed the mechanic in other RTS games. However, as development of the game progressed, I realized that I was falling into a lot of the best-path and over-specialization and board-state-unclarity problems from other recent RTS games I played, and one of the chief causes of that (there were several, at that point in the game's development) was ship upgrades of this sort. So that's why you don't (and won't) see them in the game now!

AI War:AI War