Some thoughts on hard science fiction in space

I’m going to use this game as a way to discuss some of my thinkings regarding “hard science fiction” in space games.

Starfighter, Inc. Kickstarter

First of all, I expect this will be a great game, and I’m looking forward to playing it. So for all I say here, it is not a criticism of the game itself, the efforts and brilliance of its creators. Secondly, the kickstarter page doesn’t use the term “hard science fiction”, but this article does:

Starfighter, Inc. is go for Launch

Putting “hard science” into a game is something I prefer, and think it should be expected rather than something special. I thought it was absolutely hilarious when I was playing a “space” game and when I moved left and right the “spaceship” would rotate left and right like an airplane. It was comical. These guys aren’t going to do that, great. But the article mentions “hard science fiction” which is something far more than just including newtonian physics. So how far are they taking it? Authors’ attempts at “hard science fiction” typically break down fairly quickly. Here are comments on some things from the above two links:

Ship designs: In the article, they recognize that the ship designs that they are actually showing on the kickstarter page are not hard sci-fi based. They are eye candy. I could describe why they don’t make any sense, but since there is already agreement, let’s leave it there.

“Pilot a single-seat recon ship”: Why would there be manned recon ships? I can’t think of a good reason. Risking an expensive trained pilot would be far less likely than using mass produced unmanned probes. We’re already seeing that trend today in the real world, let alone 200 years in the future.

Human controlled turrets: Software can outperform any human in targeting a turret. We are already very near the point where we could develop software that could optimally control turrets. In 200 years, it will be technology that would have been taken for granted for a long time.

“decks… are perpendicular to the thrust of the engines”: For that to mimic gravity you would have to be constantly accelerating with no stopping or even slowing ever. “The whole time you’re moving through space, you can walk around like you have normal gravity.” Uh, no. There’s a lot could be said here, orbit, fuel, using planets’ gravity, 1 g requires a lot of thrust vs. efficiency of propulsion technologies, etc. that makes it unfeasible to always have 1 g, but… I’ll leave it at that. It’s true that doing it perpendicular might make more sense, but the assumption that that will give us normal gravity for most of the trip is unlikely.

Weapons:  “mass drivers, lasers and nuclear missiles” “And while it’s possible to engage at very long ranges, the chance of success at those ranges is minimal due to the target’s countermeasures.”

First the key thing: against a sufficiently close and slowly moving target: a computer controlled laser will never miss. That makes missiles useless. And by “sufficiently close”, I mean not close at all. We already have technology that can “hold a laser beam focused on a dime 400 miles away,” the hubble telescope. 200 years from now, targeting will be a non-concern.

Lasers lose very little energy across distances in space, so if any countermeasures exist for them, then they apply at all distances so either they can be long distance overpowered snipers, or they can be worthless.

Mass drivers might make sense but it seems that sufficient armor would make them ineffective.

“If I pull up on the stick…”: Spaceships will not be controlled with a stick. I understand that Star Trek only mildly attempts at realistic sci-fi, but the point where they pulled out a joystick on the bridge achieved a new level of absurdity far beyond my ability to suspend disbelief. I’m still gobsmacked just thinking about it. There is no way a human can pilot a ship better than a computer in the near future. We’re not quite there today, but we’re already close enough to make it a foregone conclusion.

I apologize this post probably comes across as critical. To soften that, I want to emphasize that “hard” sci-fi is just that: hard. Extremely hard. So, I saw this as an opportunity to put forth some ideas that have been formulating for a very long time. It’s part of a much bigger issue about giving up realism for the game. It’s my opinion, and goal, that one can make an extremely realistic game that is still very interesting to play. But it requires an immense amount of careful craft in creating controls, mechanics, etc.

Also, it relates to the game I’m working on right now. Especially the two points about software controlled targeting and movement are issues I’m tackling and will be taking forward more and more across the games I plan to produce over the coming years.