Steve Hartmeyer of NetDevil, Ltd., the makers of Jumpgate, Auto Assault, and upcoming titles Jumpgate Evolution and LEGO Universe joins us for the fourth in a series of developer diaries. His first three, covering the inspirations behind Jumpgate Evolution, its ship development process and mining in Jumpgate Evolution, may be found here, here and here.
As we develop Jumpgate Evolution, much of our programming work is built upon the codebase of the original Jumpgate game, which released in 2001. We’ve learned many lessons from our older product, but we also recognize that many of its features need to be rewritten thoroughly as we adapt, alter, and enhance things to make Jumpgate Evolution into a completely modern MMO experience. Our new missile system is an excellent example.
Jumpgate Classic’s missile system was pretty simple. Each ship design had some number of missile hardpoints. Missiles were fired singly or as simultaneous-fire multipacks of two or four units. There was no lock-on process, which meant a pilot could and often would choose to dispense all his ordnance as quickly as possible, a phenomenon we called “missile spam”. The only countermeasures available were a passive jammer that redirected incoming missiles, a destructive device that could blow up any missile very close to your ship, but which required careful timing, or plain old white-knuckle evasive action, which turns out to be the method most pilots swore by.
Jumpgate Evolution’s missile system is in an early stage of implementation now, and has just entered the iterative testing and enhancement process we use to refine game content. We expect that the system will be changed and extended considerably over the next several weeks. At the moment, pilots can only purchase basic missile launchers to mount on their ships. Each launcher can fire a number of missiles before it’s depleted. We’ve added and are testing a new lock-on system, which has the twofold purpose of eliminating “missile spam”, while also delivering action gameplay familiar from space combat games like Freespace, X-Wing, and Wing Commander. As we build the system further, we intend to make some missile types lock onto targets quickly, making them handy in a dogfight. Others, particularly the powerful missiles necessary for damaging major targets such as capital ships, will almost certainly require the launching fighter to fly a straight course in order to obtain a lock, making the shooter vulnerable to turrets or opposing fighters for at least several nail-biting seconds.
The redesign of the missile system should enable us to include some features in Jumpgate Evolution that were considered for Jumpgate Classic, but never added. For instance, mines can be defined as missiles that do not move, but possess large warheads and proximity detonators. Even though proximity detonation was a pre-existing feature, mines would have been of limited use in Jumpgate Classic because missile objects were culled if the shooter left the area. Due to major changes in the system design for Jumpgate Evolution, however, missiles are now independently persistent objects, so mines or sensor drone variants are good examples of potentially viable features we could now add.
To further extend missile combat, we’re planning a suite of active antimissile countermeasures. Active countermeasures are vastly preferred over passive kinds of countermeasures in our design decisions, because action, fast decision-making, timing, and pilot skill are all crucially important to the feel of our dogfights. Some possibilities for active countermeasures are classics such as chaff dispensers or decoys, which could fool the guidance of an attacker’s missile, or even things like “sandcasters”, which would project a cloud of fine debris that could destroy the incoming missile by physical contact. Countermeasures such as these keep piloting decisions and situational awareness at the forefront. We also plan to examine the performance impact of testing bullet collision against missile objects. Impossible in Jumpgate Classic, bullet collision tests against missiles would make it possible for point defense turrets, and perhaps skillful fighter pilots, to down missiles with gunfire, adding an entirely new factor to missile defense.
As with most systems we put into the game, we want missiles easy to use, but difficult to truly master. The HUD elements must be immediately clear and easy to understand, but to use missiles effectively should require judgment and skill on the part of the pilot. To be worth the development investment, of course, the rewritten missile system absolutely must be fun and add excitement to Jumpgate Evolution’s fighter combat. Over the next few weeks of iterative work, we’ll be striving to ensure it does exactly that.