Combat design: A possible improvement

I have a suggestion of something that could significantly improve the level of depth the combat offers with minimal effort: Make most if not all encounters be against more than one enemy at a time. Smaller ships could be weaker but fight in groups whereas bigger ships could have escorts. Below I have a rather long argument for why this should be done. But in short, since this requires almost no development time to implement it would be good to experiment with it to see if and how it improves the combat, and what other design changes may have to be made to adapt to it.

Sunless Skies has a slightly greater emphasis on combat compared to it’s predecessor. This does of course NOT mean that combat should be the main focus. Failbetter games have shown their greatest strength to lie in storytelling, and that is how they should continue. However, combat should still be an interesting part of the gameplay. It should prefferably not be something mindless that plays out the same way every time, nor something that you only engage in if you want to. Sadly, you could easily say both of these things where the case for Sunless Sea, and i would like to prevent this new game from drifting in the same direction.

The combat in sunless sea only had two modes. Against a ship you circled around it until you could press yourself up against it’s side, then repeatedly fired til it sunk. Against monsters you mostly backed away hoping to god your engines where good enough to stop its charging attack from hitting you and minlessly pressed your firebuttons until it stopped moving. Neither of these where interesting and any other combat strategy would almost inadvertently lead to failure.

In it’s unfinished state Sunless Skies is not much better. While there is now actual aiming along with strafe dodging and heat management the combat against single ships still lacks an element of choice. For there are still only a couple of optimal ways to fight. Against a fast turning ship, circling around it is useless, so you simply have to stay still and time your strafe to dodge while firing off your own long ranged weapons. Against slow turners , its back to the Zea combat. In the future they may introduce more enemies, more weapons, different variations of engine that may affect things like strafing, but at pressent I cannot see how these things could be enough to fix this fundamental problem.

There may however be a way to at least partially bypass this issue. For the biggest problem with the combat comes when you fight a single enemy. Multiple enemies can get quite interesting. You can’t use either of these two established tactics fully, so you end up having to improvise. You circle around them or dive between them trying to get into a position where you can shoot one without the other getting in the way. When your course is perpendicular to another ships direction you can rarely be hit by their canon, but keeping such a state with more than one ship becomes an actual challenge. This is why I would propose that they avoid 1v1 battles as much as possible. Bigger ships could come with escorts, smaller ones could hunt in groups. This would require some major rebalancing of weapon damage, but that was already going to happen at some stage throgh early access. Since this would be so easy to implement initially, there is no reason not to test it. Just give some smaller ships less health so they go down in a couple of shots, and spawn ships in groups that move togherer (admittedly a little bit of AI work with that, but it’s still minimal). If this does turn out well then it could be developed further, and if not it was still worth a try.

I agree that combat could be improved, but I think the best way to do this would be by adding more interesting enemies. I expected the high wilderness, especially the reach, to have a greater variety of creatures, not just a few trains and 1 little monster.

That being said, I’d rather have exciting stories than exciting combat.

I did just realize that I have died to beeeeesss and a tentacle infested train so maybe there are enough creatures.
edited by Ludovide on 4/2/2018

I think some interesting enemies migth enhance the experience.
On the other hand Ludovide is right about the stories. They are the main focus of the game and should get the most attention.

@Blaurgh: And there is something I want to elaborate one, but here is an tl;dr:
assuming that the changes you request would require no development time might be completely of.

So, what I wanted to say is, that you should not assume adding a few small enemies to be simple or very little implementation work.
Even small things can require a lot of programming, testing and bug fixing. So what you describe as almost no development time could cost a single person working full time several days to maybe even a few weeks, depending on how the whole thing is set up.
This is not meant as a criticism on you but rather to try and give some insight to make it more understandable why one should refrain from judging workload from the outside. This can feel really frustrating for the people working on such a project.
That being said, I have no insight into how their project is set up, but I think I can give you some general information on such a developement process.
I have worked on a few very small projects in Unity and can say that even when using such a powerful game engine small changes can take a lot of programming. And programming is not the only thing to consider here. The assets, i.e. 3D models and textures, must fit the scale for smaller enemies. Then you have to consider things like physics, i.e. collisions, forces applied etc. They might need some adaptations as well. Then there is performance. Additional objects on screen to render and AI to compute could potentially require changes to graphics settings etc. to keep stable framerates. And then there is testing and bug fixing.

Again, sorry if I sound judgemental or something like that, it is not my intent. I just hope that it helps to create some understanding concerning the development.