For the past few weeks I've been working on a new prototype which allows players to quickly "sketch" space ships into existence.
However, in order for the sketched ships to mean anything, there needs to be a world they exist within. A framework in which they can be judged. A set of rewards for doing well. A progression in the types of devices and hulls, and so on.
Any kind of stat-heavy core gameplay loop (repeatedly designing space ships, for example) needs a larger context.
Now, you could create a story. "The Earth Empire is expanding into deep space and oh no the Brikklebats from Klonor 5 are attacking!"
Or you could create a simple board-game-like set of mechanics. "The ship you created will manage to map sector 3 in 8 years, then you can build a colony ship..."
But both of those are missing the point.
See, when the player builds something, the point of the game is to glorify the thing they built. Whether it's good or bad, you want to make those good and bad aspects shine.
Games where you can fly the ship after you build it are good at this, because you can really feel that the engines you installed work well, or that the guns really aren't good enough, or whatever. But I don't want to make a game solely about ships that shoot at each other. The player is far more likely to build a freighter or a science vessel, and I need to glorify those... and there's not many games which do that.
I think the main feeling I want is that moment in a science fiction show where you see a ship type you're familiar with doing something in some episode. It could be a squad of Galaxy-classes struggling to fight off a Borg cube, or it could be something as simple as a rebel B-wing sliding into a docking bay alongside Luke's X-wing.
These ships are things you recognize, and they exist in the universe. Hell, they make up the universe. They have an ongoing role not just in one story, but in dozens of stories. They don't stop existing once you've rated them, and the fabric of the universe is woven out of these threads.
To make this something that works in a game environment where the players make the ships, we need to be able to tell those kinds of stories.
So... what if we make a star map that is entirely about creating story hooks?
Instead of placing facilities that make numbers go up, you place facilities that create stories.
For example, instead of placing a lunar mining facility to make your minerals increase, you might place a "mining concern" that overlaps the planet and the moon. This would create stories of strife between the lunar miners and the planetside miners. To place it, you would need to build some kind of freighter or mining ship. Then there would be an "episode" - a simple story where the emergency performance of your ship helps miners survive... or die. The core performance of your ship would determine how long the mining concern remains a mining concern: at the end of that duration, it would transition into established and peaceful infrastructure.
Basically, each turn the player might choose to place a concern on the map, and then either build a new ship class or assign an existing ship class to it. The simple, generated story it tells highlights the ship's emergency performance and livability, while the numbers attached to it at the end are determined by the ship's core mission functionality. The story can easily include arbitrary existing elements: interference from nearby concerns, ships inherited from old concerns in the area, named characters and ships from other episodes.
The amount of player control over these episodes is limited, perhaps even nonexistent, and the story quality is not important. I mean, they play the same role as an arbitrary random encounter in a combat game, they don't have to be genius.
They exist solely to take what the player has created and show it back to them in full glory. "You made this", the game says, "look how it works in this universe!"
With a side plate of "oh, remember this stuff from before? What a definitely-existing-and-not-at-all-completely-bullshit universe we have!"
... I think it might work.
What do you think?