X3: Terran Conflict (and a QA rant)

x301I’ve always loved space games. Some years ago I discovered a little beauty, “X: Beyond the Frontier“. For an Elite fan, it was pure gold. Gameplay was open enough that you could choose between, what Granik terms, “Space Trucking” and a more pro-active combat game like Eve. It has been through several iterations now, each improving significantly upon the last. A few weeks ago I spotted a new release on Steam: X3: Terran Conflict.

(High quality versions of all the YouTube videos are available if you click thru to YouTube)

On the whole, this is a beautiful game. There are some particle effects that don’t do so well at higher resolutions – at 1920×1200 the “dust field” effect at the Terran starter zone looks truly terrible – but once you stop noticing it, the rest of the galaxy is fantastic.

x307The stations have grown and have all that fiddly little detail you’d expect from someone like Tobias Richter; there seem to be a lot of new Battlestar inspired visuals – some of the new missile systems fire in swarms and some of the big space battles look just a smidgem like Galactic vs Cylons :)

x302Ships vary from fast, tiny little scouts to massive station haulers with carriers, corvettes and etc in-between. The original game had 54 space sectors linked with big, round, Jump Gates that are somehow familiar. With each subsequent X game the universe has gotten bigger.

x304 <- Tanker from outside and oboard -> x305

Some of the big hyped features this release are the player control of some of the larger ships (M1 etc) and the introduction of marines and boarding crews for the really big fleet battles. Woohoo.

Terran Conflict builds up, ultimately, to big sector wide conflicts with capital ships and their fighters, corvettes etc taking out stations:

“Well we wanted wars…”
As we speak in my game a Split task force consisting of an M2, an M7, several M6s and M8s and a fair number of fighters are busy laying waste to the Boron system ‘Reservoir of tranquility’. Already the local defence forces have been overwhelmed and several stations have been destroyed. There have even been reports of ships looting the debris of the destroyded stations. (They may have belonged to me) 

So far there’s been no sign of counterattack from the Boron military. But i’ll keep you updated on events.

I’ve made a bunch of money by scavenging from inside Elena’s Fortune where the pirates keep trying to take out an Argon Military Outpost. Some of the missiles I picked up were worth as much as 80k credits.

The various stations of the various races all carry “extensions” to the ship’s computer, like a “best buys locator”, “Fight Command Software Mk 1”. The idea in X is not to be a lone ship. You can buy transport ships to do trading in the background without every really having to get into the “Space Trucking” yourself, or you can buy scout ships to explore for you or fighters to wingman for you. There’s a lot of power but it’s all well integrated and fairly easily accessible. Most of the time. Sometimes it’s a little esoteric. But it’s quite rich, thanks to one of the more esoteric parts of X.

One thing that always bugs me in space games is that they always have pocket calculators for computers. “Federation of Free Traders” tackled this slightly, with an onboard programmable computer. Unfortunately, given the computer running the game, it was rather limited and hokey.

Egosoft created themselves a little scripting engine with which to provide these tools, amongst other things. Typing in a special keyword can enable access to the script editor (which is largely a GUI interface). This allows players to create their own mods/extensions. If you upload them to the Egosoft forums they’ll check them out and if they don’t see a problem they’ll sign them so that they become an ongoing part of the X universe, which is quite a nice touch.

While I was playing X2 I actually knocked up a few scripts of my own which got signed and all. With X3 they introduced something similar but significantly better (and no allusion to my part in that, there are a lot of X script creators and my scripts were mediocre).

Scripting in X3 seems to be even more powerful although I’ve yet to play with it. For a space-fan-programmer like me… writing ship scripts is a tad like getting to triaxelate the photonic resonance chamber for a trekkie. (And the nature of the system means its a bit like a big lego/robot programming kit in space, which is also ultra cool for a nerd like me — it’s not a half bad environment for learning about programming)

Supplying/resuppyling in previous X games required you to dock at stations, which involved landing inside the station. Early on this was cool but it got a bit tedious. It’s far improved now, but some of the big stations only provide external docking which is kinda cool because you can see the ships docked outside. The onboard computer can dock from the start so … unlike elite, no worrying about trying to match rotation and etc – unless you really want to.

From the start, Egosoft games have had a rich environment – there are voices for everything. The shipboard computer will read you all kinds of announcements and most of the important text in communications will be read in one of many, many voices. It makes it incredibly immersive.

If you go into station building you have the option of joining them up into complexes. That may have been in the original X3 but I gave up on that early, which is where we get to the negative slide.

I keep buying these X games because once you get into them they’re great sandboxes either for trade, combat or building. But Egosoft appear to embody everything bad about old-school game development. They release late, they release buggy and they release with an ever diminishing tip of the hat to the newbie.

But they are great space games. Eve can’t hold a candle to X. I downloaded Fallout 3 and X3:TC the same night. I played Fallout 3 for 6 hours and, having seen enough to recognize it as Oblivion Post-Apocalypse, I haven’t gone back, X3 has just kept calling me back.

But it’s riddled with minor nuisances. This is why you make QA a fundamental.

  1. When you can keep your investors/sponsors appraised of development progress from the get go, they are far better equipped to work with you on release dates etc.
  2. When you keep yourselves appraised of development progress from the get go, you are far better equipped to plan/prune/tweak your development schedule.
  3. When you can estimate the health of the project/codebase at any time, you can far better task resources and you can get cosmetic on stuff earlier so that you have features in the bag for when the investors start getting antsy.
  4. When you have your product quantified from day 1, you can reach a release-ready state far sooner at which point your investors can breathe a little easier while you get on with adding the niceties you want to add – they’ll have a good sense of your development rates and success rates. It’s the difference between your management blindly saying the product is not ready vs saying “we’d like X more time to add Y features”. Investing money is about the principle of f(I) > I: ‘f’ is a function that returns a value significantly larger than I. If “f” is opaque, that’s gambling, not investing. The more well defined f is the better you can ascertain the worth of investment.
  5. When you are able to zip up features down to the cosmetic level earlier on, and rely on their QA being secured henceforth, you don’t have to keep dipping back into old cruft you thought you’d finished with – which makes programmers unimaginably more productive; most producers have so very little idea just what the cost is of having a programmer spend “half an hour” to go back and fix something that’s popped up in an old feature. It’s absolutely something you need to plan rather than react to. “Returning to code” is extremely expensive. If you take someone off a task to go fix a bug, that’s atleast two “Return to code”s which equates to a major loss of productivity of the developer.

So far I’ve not experienced any major crashes in X3:TC, but I have run into a slew of things that are just plain annoying:

  • No obvious link to the manual/documentation, which sucks for a digital download.
  • Lots of unannotated choices (the thing I hate about our game, e.g. the Orbat). The first being which game type with the option to choose badly.
  • The tutorial system is incredibly picky and clumsy, a terrible combination. (Also, it has steps which are impassable on some game types – e.g. as a trader you can’t progress past the middle step asking you to fire upon a target)
  • After the recent 1.2.1 patch some of my ships have stopped picking up cargo on their automated runs
  • The mission system has a fixed and – I suspect – hand-entered ranking system that isn’t scaled based on the user in anyway. Thus it’ll happily tell you a mission is “trivial” despite the fact that you have no shields, no lasers and no passenger transport capacity. As you fly to the pickup you get attacked and (due to lack of shields) destroyed. You run again, give the attackers the slip and finally dock only to discover … the guy wants you to use a passenger transport it’ll take you days of game time to rustle up the funds to buy.
    • The game will give you missions to recover abandoned ships within a time frame; the time frame has nothing to do with the speed at which the ship can travel or how damaged it is. Making them generally impossible.
    • You’ll see ships travelling through sectors with a mission icon, it turns out they want an escort. “Trivial” or “Very easy” turns out to be “Not too difficult for someone with a heavily armed and shielded fighter craft, but annihilation for anyone else”
    • One of the few missions that seems to scale-to-player is the “cargo needed”. Unfortunately, these two off-by-one bugs. Clearly someone reported a bug that the cargo needed always wanted one more unit of cargo than you have. A coder went in and “fixed” it, but got it the wrong way around so … every time I get one of these it wants me to carry 2 more units of cargo than I have room for (I’ve only one completed one of these missions, I held off a cargo bay upgrade before taking the mission, upgraded the bay and then managed to deliver the cargo with 3 seconds to spare and got a couple thousand credits for my hassle)
  • There is a new “barter” system that lets you trade directly with people who’ve landed at a station. It probably works according to some definition but as yet I haven’t either found a trade worth making that worked.
  • From time to time, some pilots will offer to sell their ship. If you make the mistake of saying “I’ll come back later” the ability to buy ships goes away.
  • The X universe is big and travel is slow. Fortunately, there is a way to accelerate time (“SETA drive”) that simply requires you press the “j” key (SETA is an extension but it’s installed in your starter ship by default). Unfortunately, this is something you might not notice if you didn’t read the manual and haven’t played an X game before :)
  • The initial learning curve – especially without a manual, is pretty bumpy. (The game does ship with a manual, just have to locate the game folder). If anyone at Egosoft was able to sit down with newbies to do an in-house playtest, it was clearly far, far too late to actually do anything about the problems that came up (which means it was a waste of time and probably solidified in their minds that playtesting is useless)
  • The scourge of the X galaxy are the rogue “AI” terraformers called “Xenon”. The “Terran” game type starts out sending you on a patrol to kill some. Your ship is equipped with “lasers” that fire energy balls that travel at about 600m/s (don’t ask, X weapons are overall pretty cool if not apropos to their descriptions) Unfortunately, these Xenon are pretty fast – faster than your ship. They’re also very agile. And this new AI is smart. It performs evasive maneuvers, changing course randomly every few seconds or less. They’re also terribly small. So: small target, faster than your rounds, moving faster than the time it takes a round to close to target. It’s a bit like trying to hit a flea with a yoyo. They’re not hard to kill, they’re just not easy to hit. So it takes time. Meanwhile, their weapons are also very fast including a beam that has no travel time. If you lose shields and take hull damage, you slow down. This can have a really enjoyability degrading effect (you can eject from your ship and use a repair laser to fix the damage, something I’d have known if I’d realized there was a manual to read)
  • Finally, but least significantly, Egosoft are a German company. This can lead to some odd wordings. It has always given the universe a quirkiness that is believably futuristic, like the blending of English and Chinese in firefly. Unfortunately, this isn’t a deliberate design – it’s just lousy translation. I guess this is what playing an English-language game is like in a foreign language. Every X game has suffered slightly from this: it ruins the immersion of the storyline when the storyline itself is atrociously worded. Long paragraphs of the storyline border on being meaningless post-translation, if you don’t have some familiarity with German. It’s by no means game destroying, but someone really needs to tell Egosoft they are paying their current translator(s) far too much. Other times, as I say, it actually embellishes the game.

x306 x303

I put together a movie of some gameplay stuff but I’d forgotten to update my Fraps and nothing I have or could download would support 96kbps with 5.1 sound. Fortunately, the Beepa guys recently added a workaround.

Here’s the original 14Mb MP4 video. Or if you want to see it in high-res, here’s the 83Mb 1280×1024 movie.

Some better videos (by other folks)

5 Comments

looks cool….where can I read more about the multiplayer aspect? is it like a 64 person game or something like BE?

Lego? In Space?

Been there, done that..:P

http://photobucket.com/images/eggstar/

It’s actually single player only.

“Elite fan” caught my eye and I decided to check it out. Having wasted (?) a year of my life at age 14 playing Elite, that brought back some memories! I might actually buy it, but trying the X3R demo, I’m inclined to agree with the “ever diminishing tip of the hat to the newbie” comment. I haven’t even been able to figure out how to configure my X52…

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