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First off, I should note that at no point does the game sit you down and say "this is how research works." It doesn't really need to, as it comes up contextually whenever it's relevant. However, I'm trying to explain this in a clear and broad way, so I'm going to do so in an organized fashion.

Initial Key Terms

  • Unlocks are a term for basically... new stuff. Whatever it is. Some piece of equipment, a new type of android, a new mech, several new androids, a new structure type, new job to go in a structure, new abilities for units, new resources that can be used, and a couple of other things.
  • Upgrades are a term for improving... something. These have no direct relation to unlocks. They are whatever they say they are.
    • So it might be an increase in the building cap for a certain class of jobs, which includes some jobs that you don't even have unlocked yet, for example.
    • It might be a firepower upgrade to "all shotguns," and you only have one at the moment, but there are 5 you could have later that would also be benefitting from this.
    • Or it might be to a specific stat of some specific class of unit. Or building. Or job, or equipment. Or it might be something really super duper hyper specific. The system is incredibly flexible.
  • Research Domains are a way of getting more unlocks and upgrades, but not at all the only way.
    • A research domain is an arbitrary thing, and there are as many of them as I feel like there being.
    • One particular unlock or upgrade might be in multiple domains; unlocks are only unlocked once per timeline, but upgrades are typically done multiple times, sometimes many times, in a single timeline.
    • Think of a research domain as being kind of like a big grab bag of possibilities. But you can't get that bag without first having inspiration.
  • Projects are things that you do. They're objectives large or small.
    • Minor ones have only one possible outcome and auto-complete when you meet the criteria.
    • Main projects have multiple possible outcomes, and end when you choose for them to.
  • Missions are a thing that NPC groups do, from time to time.
    • They might be friend or foe or something in between. Typically foe-or-neutral.
    • A mission has two possible outcomes: the NPC group succeeds in whatever they are up to; or they run out of time and give up.
      • If they run out of time, and they were a foe to you, then this is considered you thwarting that mission.

Background About Timekeeping

So let's take an aside and talk about timekeeping. This is a turn-based game, like Civilization (Civ) or similar. However, you are not in a footrace with someone else, unlike Civ, and unlike most RTS games.

This is more of a hot and cold sort of situation. The original Rainbow Six is a game that has come up a lot in comparison to that. When dispatched on a mission in R6, you first get blueprints, and outfit yourself, then deploy around the target location, and remain hidden until you choose to strike. During that period of R6, you have all the time in the world. (Still talking about R6) Then once you decide to move, or get spotted, suddenly everything happens very fast and you must be on the ball. Whatever your plan was, hope it survives contact with reality.

HotM is a lot like this, and frankly I would also sometimes describe AI War 1 and 2 as being a lot like this. Bottom line is, as with AI War, there's often nothing to stop you from just kind of sitting around and "refleeting" (as in AI War), and coming out net-positive by being overly prepared.

So for this reason, this means that a lot of things can't just happen by turns alone, or else the player can literally just burn through like 40 turns and collect all the stuff.

Civ, for example, has infinite-producing science generators, and more-than-linear growth in the cost of their researches. So if you keep on producing more science generators, and keep ending turns, then eventually you generate an even-more-than-linear growth in production, and get all the techs.

This would be fundamentally incompatible with HotM. This doesn't just apply to research, but to a lot of things.

Okay, so back on the subject of research. You can't just have more work done every turn, at least not in a grand sense. So where is the timekeeping for stuff like that?

Answer: Projects and missions, but primarily projects. Things that don't well in being measured by turns are instead measured by how many projects you have completed.

If you're familiar with AI War, this is very similar to how a number of things are essentially measured there by "how many planets you've taken." Nowhere in either game does it outright show that as a measure, but when discussing balance, this is the primary metric for a lot of things.

How This Applies To Research, Specifically

  • When you complete a project, you are typically rewarded with 1 or more points of inspiration for 1 or more research domains.
  • When you thwart an enemy mission, you typically just get a direct reward, instantly.

That means that, in order to keep researching, you have to actually... play the game. This is a lot like how science is tied to planets you capture (or at least clear off) in AI War 1 and 2.


So far I've been a bit vague about rewards.

  • A reward is basically a grab bag of stuff. It has some mix of Unlocks and Upgrades in it.
    • A given reward group has a certain number of times that it allows an upgrade to be done from that location, per intelligence class you are (more on that later)
      • And unlocks, as noted, can only be done once per timeline.
    • A reward group has a certain number of options it will normally allow you to choose from, unless the grab bag is running low.
      • It also has a certain minimum number that will be upgrades.
  • When a reward group is emptied of unlocks, aka all of the unlocks in it are exhausted, then it does one of two things.
    • One, it just gives you upgrades, if there are no successor reward groups.
    • Or, two, if there is a successor reward group, AND your intelligence class is high enough, then it starts giving you rewards from the next group in the chain.
  • This makes it so that a couple of things are true:
      • You have to get certain unlocks before others even show up, at least in specific reward groups (that rule is often broken by other ways of getting the same thing).
      • You can skip pretty much any upgrade, but not if your intelligence class is too low for too long.
      • You can do a lot of things in a wide variety of orders, but it still always makes sense in the larger thematic sense.

What Gives You Rewards

  • When you thwart an enemy mission, it just says "here you go, take one of these right now."
  • Or, when you have a point of inspiration in a research domain, and research that domain for a few turns, then at the end it goes "okay, take one of these right now."

What Happens When You Choose An Option From A Set Of Rewards?

  • If it's an upgrade, it just applies immediately. Yay you!
  • If it's an unlock, then it is now considered Readied (aka, you had the idea), and now it's ready to be researched.

So how do you research, exactly?

  • There's a list of things available.
    • They are a mix of Unlocks you have readied, or Research Domains in which you have at least 1 current point of inspiration.
    • You must choose one before ending your turn, if you have not chosen one yet. If there's only one, it just auto-selects for you. If there are none, then nothing happens.
    • It takes a certain amount of time, ranging from 1-9 turns, which are always a fixed amount of time per specific domain or unlock, and then the thing is yours.
      • Most stuff takes 3-5 turns to research.
  • If it was an unlock, that thing is now yours. Yay!
  • If it was a research domain, it gives you a reward from that domain, see prior section.

Intelligence Class

  • You start out as Intelligence Class 1.
  • A whole bunch of unlocks in general, and reward groups tied to research domains, are inaccessible to you without raising this number.
    • You can get up to class 99, but that would be an insane number.
    • An incredibly late-game number is really more like level 35 or so.
  • Broadly speaking, you gain intelligence class by maintaining a larger and larger Zodiac (an artificial reality for humans).
    • If your zodiac experiences issues and shrinks, so does your intelligence class.

Closing Notes

Further implications of all of this:

  • You can't really speed up research, but individual pieces are all pretty fast as it is.
  • Your Zodiac doesn't make research faster, but instead gives you access to higher-quality stuff.
  • You might have points of inspiration you have gained in a domain, but can't spend because your intelligence class is too low at the moment.
  • When and which domains you get inspiration in is largely up to you, by which projects you take on, and which outcomes you target on those projects.
    • This is a lot like choosing which planet to attack in AI War.
  • What results you get from a given domain are randomized, but each pool is small enough that it's not painfully so.
    • In other words, it's not "military research." That would be a sea of options, you'd never get what you want.
    • Instead it's "small arms research." When paired with the chains of rewards, it keeps things focused in a way where you can control what you get, but not perfectly.
  • In general, the whole thing here is meant to kind of simulate the natural feeling of exploration that research has. Aka, that sometimes you get an unexpected idea you were not looking for, and now you can investigate that further and turn it into a tangible product. Etc.
  • Overall the number of turns is pretty low on research, as noted, but here's why. In cases of combat or other situations where every turn counts, the turns go fairly slowly. Three turns is a lot of shots fired and a lot of movements, etc.
    • It's possibly too far away to really help if someone is encroaching on something of yours, or you're losing the momentum of some conflict.
    • However, in between these times, when you're not being directly threatened and not directly threatening someone else, blazing through three turns might take literally 3-5 seconds. So it's just kind of instantly there, and the slowest part about it is choosing which one to do next, and then bashing the 0 key a few more times
    • In general, the natural player response is probably to get all the goodies they can, until their current pool of inspiration and readied unlocks is depleted, before they play more of the main flow of the game. I'm fine with this, and have designed the structure of this with that in mind. It's like refleeting in AI War; going back in with half a fleet would be an odd strategic decision.
    • Since there is often significant construction, configuration, and other things happening in those "down times" between assaults, quite often you're not going to just blaze through those turns hitting the 0 key. So the rewards tend to actually come at a nice pace, as you do whatever else it is you have going on that isn't combat.