Captain on the bridge — Part 2

You’re a powerful warrior battling a huge fire-breathing dragon. You swing your great sword with all your might! Except…, um…, it’s not a great sword. It’s a little lump of plastic sitting on your desk: a computer mouse.

When you play a medieval fantasy game on a computer, the computer screen is a window into a fantasy world. The computer gives you the sights and sounds of a fantasy world, and as long as you’re looking at the screen you can be totally immersed. That’s fine if you have a big screen. Sort of. There’s still the fact that you’re typing on a keyboard or moving a computer mouse, which is not exactly the same as swinging a sword or waving a wand.

But here’s the thing about spaceship bridge simulation games: using a computer can be part of the game. Not only is it okay for the navigation officer to use a computer to plot the ship’s course, it’s what you would expect. You can quibble about what kind of peripherals and user interfaces a computer of the future might have, but it’s certainly possible to visualize a setting where the appearance (and maybe even the processing power) of computers hasn’t changed a lot but the propulsion and other systems of the ship are advanced enough to allow interstellar travel. Using computers adds to the ambience of the game rather than detracting from it as it might in a medieval fantasy game.

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about a tabletop game called Space Cadets where each player has a station on the bridge of a starship. It’s a great game, but the game mechanics are limited by the fact that players have to manually keep track of everything. What happens if you have a computer for each station? Then you have something that can look a lot like what you see in Star Trek and other space-themed movies and TV shows:

“Captain,” the science officer says, looking up from her computer screen, “sensors show an unknow vessel rapidly approaching.” The main screen shows an image of the approaching ship.

“Yellow alert,” the captain says. “Shields up. Comm, open a channel.”

“Aye,” the tactical officer and communications officer say, and use their station’s computers to follow the orders.

“Hailing on all standard frequencies,” the comm officer says. A moment later he says “No response.”

“The unknown ship’s weapons are charged,” the science officer says. “It’s preparing to fire.”

“Stand by to return fire,” the captain says.

Okay, I’m not going to get a job as a screenwriter for the next Star Trek movie, but the point is that with the right programs and a group of players who get into roleplaying you can get gameplay that’s a lot like a TV show or movie. The science officer is not pretending to do what a real science officer might do, she is doing what a real science officer might do. Granted, the data on her screen is fictitious, but it’s well within the capabilities of current computer games to produce very convincing data and displays.

Is there a game that does that? A game where each station has its own computer with appropriate data displays? Yes, there is. It’s called Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator, and it’s a great game. There is a comm station, a navigation station, a weapons station, and an engineering station. There’s also a main screen that can show an image of space in front of the ship or a map of part of the galaxy.

Each player has a job to do, and each player uses their computer to do their job, just like crew members do on the “real” spaceships in the movies.

“But wait,” you say, “how can I feel like I’m on a spaceship when I’m sitting in my family room that looks nothing like the bridge of a spaceship?”

That’s a good question. The answer is that when you get into the game, what’s important is what’s on the screens and not what kind of furniture is in the room or what picture is hanging on the wall. You could say a similar thing about a fantasy game, but even a family room with a picture of Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine hanging on the wall can feel like a spaceship bridge if it has computers in it and you’re paying attention to the screens. Sure, you could put some candles in a room and a sword on the wall and call it a castle, but you’d still have all those computers in the room, that look nothing like the things you find in a castle.

If I had to choose between a family room with computers and programs that have a fun and “realistic” game running on them and a room that looks like a spaceship bridge but has no functioning computers, I will take the family room, no matter how good the bridge looks. In fact, a few years ago my family went to the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas just before it closed down. They had a reconstruction of the Next Generation bridge there, and I got a picture of myself sitting in the captain’s chair. I like the picture, and it was fun to be on the bridge, but after standing there and looking at it for a few minutes there’s nothing to do. I’m not even sure where the picture is now.

Isn’t there a way to get the best of both worlds? To have a great-looking bridge that has computers? Yes, there is, but it isn’t cheap. Some people make a room in their house into a bridge, or make a bridge that can be put up or taken down like a movie set. I think there are more people who want to do that, or have started doing it, than have actually done it, but at least one person has done a great job. There’s a link to a video of a great spaceship bridge at the end of this article.

What about virtual reality (VR)? If you really want to be surrounded by a spaceship, why not go with VR? First, that means that everything on the bridge has to have a 3D model and has to be included in the program, which means spending more time and money. A lot more. Game companies are fine with that, but what if I want to make my own games?

VR is great for vision. (At least, I think it is. I haven’t really had a chance to try it out other than a couple of minor demonstrations with Google Cardboard.) It’s probably great for sound as well. But what about actions?

A couple of weeks ago I was looking at the schedule for talks at GDC and noticed that there was a talk about a Star Trek bridge simulation game that Ubisoft is making. I had no idea there was a game like that in the works and at first I was really excited about it. But then I realized that I would have to spend $600 to $800 on a VR headset and controllers, and so would anyone that I wanted to play with. That’s a fair amount of money to spend on games, but obviously it would open up possibilities for lots of other games.

But then I noticed one of the station consoles in the trailer. It was a pretty simple console, with a few sliders on it, and I realized that because of the limitations of the VR controllers, there are limited options for the console. Sliders. Woo hoo.

I am still interested in the Ubisoft game, and I might buy it when it comes out. But when I’m a member of a starship bridge crew, I want to do more than drag a few sliders around while I watch a VR movie. I want to plot firing solutions and decrypt messages and write programs and research mysterious aliens and figure out how to stop the engine core from exploding and vaporizing the entire ship. And I don’t think I can do all of that with a few sliders.

One place where VR could really shine in my game is for away missions. I can totally see crew members putting on VR helmets that let them go down to a planet’s surface and explore on foot or in simple vehicles. Using VR controllers to fire laser beams at a ginormous alien creature that was about to swallow half a dozen innocent bystanders would be a blast. But for the bridge, I want computers that can be used in the usual way, not just with VR controllers.

In short, I want a starship bridge in my basement. I want lots of screens and computer-controlled lights and sounds, and I want the computers to be interesting and useful in a variety of ways, like computers are in real life. It won’t be easy to build the starship bridge and write the software, but with a modular, incremental approach i think it can be done, and I think it will be a whole lot of fun along the way. The journey is the reward.

There’s one other thing I want for my bridge simulation game: great stories. I guess I forget to mention that little detail. I don’t know what Ubisoft has in store for its new spaceship bridge game, but stories are definitely not a strong point for Space Cadets or Artemis.

Stories in bridge simulation games will be the topic of my next post in this series.

Non-compensated links:
Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulation
The Starship Bridge Simulation Network
Spaceship bridge at Kansas City Maker Faire

Compensated links:
Here’s a link to a great book on that tells all about how you can build a cool starship bridge in your basement:
Oops, I guess there aren’t any books like that. Maybe some day I’ll write one…

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