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Indie Innovation Spotlight: Gratuitous Space Battles

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 18, 2012

Innovation isn’t usually a burst of complete originality, but rather an incremental probe of territory only brushed by previous titles, or the combination of existing ideas in a new way. The former  is pretty much how the “Tower Defense” genre was born. It originated not as a specific genre, but as sort of an evolutionary offshoot, primarily as mods / maps for certain real-time strategy games, like Warcraft III (though the idea had appeared in other games before). It caught on, and indies started making some very fun stand-alone titles. Planning and building a defensive fortress and letting it defeat hordes of attackers is apparently a lot of fun.

And, as indie Cliff Harris has shown, it makes a useful seed to combine with other ideas to make something new and exciting.

Gratuitous Space Battles, by Positech Games

What Is It?

Take the core idea of the Tower Defense genre – the planning and building that goes into it, followed by setting it loose and letting the automation do its thing – and combine it with the giant space fleet combat from movies like Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Star Trek: First Contact, and a few choice episodes from season 4 of Babylon 5, and dozens more… and you’ve got the core concept of the aptly names Gratuitous Space Battles.

The basic game has three “phases.” First of all, there’s the main menu “HQ” section of the game where you can buy (unlock) technologies such as new power or weapon systems, or new ship hulls. The points you obtain to unlock these items comes from victories in battles. You can then create ship designs based on your unlocked technologies – but nothing is free. Bigger weapons and faster engines and more powerful shields may sound great, but they require more or bigger power-plants and more crew. And those, in turn, require more of your precious slots – all of which are arranged and limited by hull design. Ships come in three sizes – little fighters, frigates, and the giant cruisers.  And the more powerful your tech and bigger your ship, the more points it will cost in the deployment phase. Finally, you can choose your next battle (and battles unlock as you score victories), and its difficulty.

Then comes the fleet deployment phase. You are given a certain number of points (very different from the points you use to unlock tech in the previous phase) to build your fleet. While you can go back to ship design from this stage of the game as well (and I frequently will),  the focus on this phase is to put together a fleet capable of handling the enemy forces. You know in advance what the enemy force will look like, as well as special rules for the upcoming battle. For example, a battle may take place in a part of space that renders shields useless, a la Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, meaning you are wasting points putting shields on any ships.  Your job, then, is to choose the right ships for the job, arrange them in a proper formation, and give them their standing orders / priorities.  You have only so many points with which to build your fleet, so the biggest ships with the best technology may be too expensive to use exclusively. Smaller or cheaper ships may be put in a role to protect these “jewels” of your fleet.

Once you have arranged your fleet in the most efficient manner possible, the third phase begins, which is a non-interactive view of the battle taking place in real-time. You can move and zoom the camera, and slow or speed up the action,  but your only real choice during the battle is whether or not to retreat and give up the battle early. If you fail, you can try again at no penalty. If you succeed, you can try again at a higher difficulty or with a more efficient fleet deployment; as you get awarded more victory points (to unlock tech) the fewer points you spend in deployment.

The game also allows you to square off with your own fleets against other players.

The game offers multiple expansions with new races, ships, and technologies. One of the expansions offers a full-on campaign mode which combines traditional 4x strategy games (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) with GSB’s unique space combat system.

What Makes It Stand Out?

While Gratuitous Space Battles may have originated with the Tower Defense idea, a casual inspection of the game might not reveal its genesis. It ran with the core concept in its own direction, which is why I felt it worthy of an innovation spotlight. In the end, it’s more of a space-battle “simulator” for gear-heads. It’s like drag-racing, where the the vast majority of the work comes before the car even gets to the starting line. You can go back and tweak your winning strategy with slight variations in commands, formations, or technologies. Or try something completely different. Your efficiency is rewarded with extra victory points if you are successful, so it’s worth trying to squeeze as many points out of a battle as possible through multiple efforts to give you the maximum flexibility in more challenging battles to come.

Positech also really polished the concept to a fine gloss. This is most obvious in the battle views, where high-tech destruction is revealed in brilliant cinematic glory. Ships burn, shields buckle, fragments tumble out into space, missles arc off wildly as their tracking systems are defeated by countermeasures, and the screen fills with lovely – and one might say gratuitous – smoke, lasers, tractor beams, and lots and lots of explosions.

The polish went into the gameplay as well. One of my favorite game rules is the damage experienced by a ship’s friendly neighbors when it is destroyed.  This encourages you not to let your fleets get too “bunched together”, an otherwise too-effective tactic. It also discourages an over-dependence on the bigger cruisers – which have much more lethal explosions. Otherwise, you could end up with a fleet that can go from winning to losing in battle in a very quick chain-reaction.

While overall – for me – it’s not quite as satisfying a strategy experience as something like Galactic Civilizations II, it’s also a game that doesn’t take hours and hours to play like Gal Civ II. It’s a great game for a “quick fix” emphasizing… well, gratuitous  space battles. Just what it says on the tin.

Filed Under: Indie Innovation Spotlight - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • Void said,

    Not the freshest news, as this game (well the base version) had been included in Humble Indie Bundle some time ago.
    It’s a good game and much better, then the next production – Gratuitous Tank Battles.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The indie innovation spotlight isn’t about new games – though new games may appear from time to time. One of the games I’ve featured here was from 1992 or thereabouts. ( Corncob 3D – http://rampantgames.com/blog/?p=4364). Another, Orbz, was from around 2003.

    The thing is, many indie games end up going pretty far under the radar forever, and a lot of people never hear about them at all. The purpose of the spotlight is to note some of the cool, outside-the-box kind of things that indies have done – whether it’s a really obscure or popular, old or new.