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Chris

Geoscape Strategic Operations

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I think "strategic operations" are one of the most interesting ideas we have in Xenonauts 2, and if handled well I think they have the potential to make the Geoscape feel far deeper and better connected than it did in the first game. I'll start by explaining the basic parts of the system:

  • Strategic Operations are points of interest that exist on the Geoscape
  • You can send your soldiers to these points of interest in order to resolve the situation (the operation is handled automatically; you don't manually fight a battle)
  • You then gain some kind of reward for completing the operation
  • Soldiers assigned to a Strategic Operation cannot do anything else while out on the operation

A very simple example of a Strategic Operation is a "recruit staff" operation, where you can dispatch soldiers to a particular location in order to "recruit" (i.e. kidnap) some scientists or engineers to join your organisation. The operation takes two days and at the end of it you can choose whether you would like to receive two scientists or two engineers back at your base.

That system forms the basis of a strategic operation, but there's a lot that can be done to expand and improve them. I'll give some of my ideas below and I'd like to hear the thoughts and suggestions of the community too!

Geoscape Interaction:

The example I gave above is the most simple form of reward - giving the player resources like personnel, or items, or money, or research / ENDGAME progress. However I think there's scope for incorporating some of the "behind the scenes" Geoscape effects into strategic operations instead.

For example, you currently receive a few Alien Alloys when you shoot down a UFO that doesn't spawn a crash site (e.g. a Fighter UFO). Instead, these UFOs could spawn wreckage on the Geocscape and you only get those items when you physically send someone there to collect them. The same could apply to your own aircraft; your interceptors could be relatively cheap to replace but if they get shot down then their advanced weapons (and potentially the pilot if we decide aircraft should gain experience) might need to be recovered from the Geoscape before you can use them again.

We can also move some of the alien invasion effects to Strategic Operations. Certain alien missions inflict Relations damage on funding regions to reflect the way that they are deploying infiltrators in that region, and in the first Xenonauts the alien bases cause a continual Relations drain in the local region. Instead, these missions could periodically spawn Infiltrator strategic operations on the map that provide say a -10 Relations penalty in the region while they exist. This has the same effect except the Relations loss wouldn't be permanent - a player can send a team to neutralise those Infiltrators at any point. You might even have a dedicated team specialized for killing Infiltrators rather than actually fighting battles.

Those are the sort of ideas that make me feel quite excited about the potential of the idea; hopefully you guys can see some of the appeal too? Do you have any ideas of your own?

Geography:

I'm keen to tie the strategic operations into the positioning of your facilities on the Geoscape, so we've incorporated a basic "travel time" system that is added to the duration of the mission based on the distance to the closest Xenonaut base. This means choosing which strategic operations to complete is not simply a question of picking the ones with the best reward, but weighing the travel time to and from the operation against the reward.

This would add another dimension to your base construction choices; even a base with no interceptors is potentially useful if it makes the nearby strategic operations easier to access.

Skill Checks & Success Rolls:

Currently the strategic operations succeed automatically, so one of the obvious improvements is to have various success / fail states and allow the number and quality of the staff you assign to a mission to influence how likely you are to get the results you want. One thing that I really liked in XCOM2: War of the Chosen was that it provides you with resistance operations that offer useful rewards in exchange for making you send one of your best soldiers away for a couple of weeks - which forces you to rotate your combat team or make hard decisions about whether you can actually afford to spare that soldier.

There's quite a lot of different ways we can handle skill checks, and lots of different metrics we can factor into the calculation - the number of soldiers, their individual stats (e.g. Accuracy), their experience, etc. We can have the team affect the success chance of the mission or the duration of the mission, or both, and set minimum requirements for pretty much anything we want. It's just a question of finding which system would work best for the game.

Of course, different missions can have different skill checks too. Perhaps the Infiltrator missions mentioned above might require Accuracy in order to succeed, whereas recovering UFO Wreckage might not have a skill check but might go faster if you send more people (irrespective of their skills) and so forth.

Incidentally, in Xenonauts 2 your scientists and engineers are treated as personnel in just the same way that your soldiers are - so we can consider designs that allow or encourage you to deploy scientists and engineers on these strategic operations too.

Balance & Limitations:

The final thing to talk about is how we limit the strategic operations so the player has to make choices about which operations to do and which not to do. Right now the only limitation is those soldiers are not able to take part in ground combat (and even this restriction is bugged and doesn't currently work), so it's pretty easy to circumvent it by building an extra Living Quarters and recruiting like 10 additional soldiers, as soldiers are very cheap.

I've got a few ideas on ways we can add some limitations:

  • As mentioned above, requiring experienced soldiers means you can't just brute force every operation with a horde of new recruits
  • We could require each team sent to a strategic operation to require a small helicopter, so you'd need to have one helicopter at the local base for each operation you were running. These helicopters would fill the same hangars that your interceptors could use, so in some ways you would have the balance the number of interceptors you have against the number of strategic operations you want to run at any given time.

I'm open to further ideas here, or on any of the ideas outlined above. Basically I think this is a really exciting idea but there's quite a lot of things to consider before we get something that delivers on that promise. What do you guys think?

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Posted (edited)

Well, I like the idea of giving the soldiers something more to do... in X1 I had some soldiers only sitting around the whole game just in case the base would be attacked.

Just some thoughts here:

  • one possible way to limit the Strategic Operations might be that there is just one specific soldier you can send or you don't. This might not work for every type of Operation, for example why should it require a specific soldier to kill an infiltrator? What I a thinking about are maybe missions of the type, you get a message by someone who wants to meet but he only trusts one of your soldiers (supposedly because it was a civilian that was saved during a raid by that soldier before etc.) or some government only wants the soldiers that were previously recruited out of their own army to assist with smething etc.
  • The idea of positioning of bases to get to the the Operation faster feels somewhat awkward to me, because, doesn't it require time to travel to the base first before starting in a helicopter from there? Unless of course teleporting devices that somehow got into the hands of the Xenonauts become part of the background fiction (possibly allowing instant teleportation of personnel/material between xenonaut bases but not to anywhere on the globe, because there is needed a receiving device on the other end)
  • The idea of giving recruits or other resources as reward - this will need a lot of balancing because why should a player do a strategic operations if recruits can just be hired for money and resouces would be found on regular ground missions anyway? This would only make sense if the personnel/resources get more expensive in general or there are some rare resources / espiecially skillful engineers/scientists that you just dont come by on other ways.
  • I see in the strategic operations the potential to improve the multiple playthrough value of the game. In Xenonauts you just had exactly the same storyline in each playthrough, mostly told by research reports to the player. It could be interesting if the whole campaign could go into an entirely different direction depending on the players choices and outcomes of strategic operations

Small OT: where have gone all the other threads in this subforum? Can only see this one.

Edited by wulf 21

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1 hour ago, wulf 21 said:
  • The idea of positioning of bases to get to the the Operation faster feels somewhat awkward to me, because, doesn't it require time to travel to the base first before starting in a helicopter from there? Unless of course teleporting devices that somehow got into the hands of the Xenonauts become part of the background fiction (possibly allowing instant teleportation of personnel/material between xenonaut bases but not to anywhere on the globe, because there is needed a receiving device on the other end)

Small OT: where have gone all the other threads in this subforum? Can only see this one.

Yup, I've hidden the other threads. I'll be making quite a few new ones over the coming weeks and the old ones contain a lot of old information that I'm concerned may not still be accurate.

The final base mechanics aren't set yet but if we do stick with the main base / Geoscape airbase concept, then the logic is indeed likely to be exactly what you outlined there. The Xenonauts have reverse engineered alien translocator technology, and their airbases are connected to ATLAS base using fixed-location translocator gates that allow you to instantly transfer personnel and aircraft weapons across the world from ATLAS Base. Doing an open-ended translocator "jump" anywhere in the world like the Skyranger does is a much harder and less precise process.

We'll make the decision based on what the most interesting game mechanics are, anyway - we can probably come up with an explanation for whatever mechanics we choose to use.

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Wow, sorry I went long on this post...

Geoscape interaction:

  • Could the events cluster up? So instead of distinct one-off events, you get a string or tree of them with some basic narrative (I like @wulf 21's suggestion that soldiers' bios become relevant) 
  • Are there any bounds on what can be offered as an op-reward? There must be tons of variables in the game: info on the next UFO wave (when/what), ticker progression of the alien's upgrades, even things like the aggression of AI in combat - e.g. a strategic op in the geoscape could be propaganda, resulting in more/stronger NPC combatants in the next mission. Or, the op could be misinformation, making the aliens send a weaker than usual force in one of their attacks.

Geography:

  • Linking to the above about a chain of events, could they leave permanent markers, or alter the geoscape in some way? Even something cosmetic would be neat, and it would make different play-throughs feel different. The geoscape tends to look quite static and would be livened up by, for instance, a nuclear crater where some city used to be. 
  • Would the choice of a good strategic op-base be inverse to a good air-base? So a good op-base would be population centres and infrastructure, whereas a good air-base would be hidden in the middle of nowhere. I'm just thinking of countering the X1 'place your three bases here, here and here' de facto rule.

Skill Checks and Success Rolls:

  • Why limit the factors to just soldiers? To make the decisions involve more strategy, let costs include other resources like cash, research-time, reputation or alien loot. That would provide a function for all those alien plasmas that you pick up from the field. And for the cost of sacrificing some reputation with a region there are plenty of fun things you could do. 
  • Personally, I don't like the idea of losing soldiers to random geoscape events. Good tactics can keep your fave dudes alive in the field. But maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to have that option of a lethal gamble.

Balance and Limitations:

  • Limit the attractiveness of an op by having boons for keeping soldiers in the base; e.g. more officers in the barracks increases the rate at which rookies train.
  • Construct some kind of economy around resources needed for ops. Maybe use a different name, but have a resource like Intel be fundamental to running strategic ops, so there is an effective cap on the number of ops you can run.
  • Don't let strategic ops constrain the game like the air war could do in x1 :|

Other thoughts:

There is a lot of potential to strategic ops. And it doesn't just have to be so you have something to do with your soldiers when they are on xeno-leave. XCOM2's operations weren't very deep, mostly just a mechanic to rotate your squad - they almost became tiresome. But this could be fleshed out into something with a lot more gameplay complexity to it - but it needn't be too complex design-wise. Just some text and artwork. The Prototype games did a really cool thing with their Web of Intrigue mechanic - it was fun to uncover a big conspiracy, bit by bit.

Something like the research/engineering aspect of the game feels like it has a lot of strategy behind it because it has meaningful, long-lasting consequences for every other aspect of the game. If ground combat is to be forever the meat of the game, then special ops can certainly be some fairly satisfying beverage to accompany it. A lot of people (myself included) on this forum bang on about choice. I don't know for sure what makes a choice an interesting one, but they're certainly good to have.

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I think the most interesting thing that could be done with Strategic Ops is to improve their interactivity. With both XCOM's Spy Ops and XCOM 2's Resistance Ops, all you do with them is set the agent on their task then forget about them until their timer has run out. It's quite easy to forget that you've set someone on an Op because they're just a little reminder down in the corner along with all the other alerts. I've mentioned this previously but I'd like to do so again. There's a game (at least, there's a prototype of a game) called Net Gain. Now, Net Gain is all about progress bars which is not very interesting. To spice up the progress bars, Net Gain interrupts the progress bars with occasional crisis points. The player has to make a decision at these crisis points and the decision can govern the rest of the op. Here's an example: 

 

netgainexample.png

This is something that's also used in Battletech. During the interstitial period flying between missions, occasional crises spring up which the player has to make a decision on. 

sampledecision.png

I think this could be used to good effect in Xenonauts. You could tie a crisis decision to a timer, and give the player a short period of time to make an important decision. Let's take an example. Perhaps you've got an infiltration mission, and the crisis textbox throws up the following

 

"Commander, we have received an emergency communication from our agent. He believes he has been followed for the past several week by a shadowy figure, and is convinced it is an enemy agent stalking him. The agent has counter-tailed the figure and is in a position to take out the target. Permission to proceed?"

Then you might be given the choice to kill the figure (which may kill an enemy agent or might kill an innocent), pull out completely (ending the op), or ignore the target (potentially avoiding a messy scene, or imperiling the agent). If you tie it to a timer so the player has only a short period of time to make a key decision you introduce a degree of pressure on the decision. Furthermore, the information on the textbox might be more or less accurate. Using the prior example, the agent may be convinced or mostly certain, with every lesser degree of certainty giving the player clues how to proceed. 

A useful sidenote is you can make all of this just text and it wouldn't loose the impact of a crisis, making it a lot cheaper to churn out crises. 

 

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One of the simplest ways to remove the benefit of keeping rookies in the barracks to send on the strategic ops would be to have one of the major benefits of sending a soldier on such an op be a tactical bonus to that specific soldier.

"[Soldier] has established a rapport with [political entity]. On missions within [political entity], if [soldier] is present, LOS of all local forces is shared with the squad."
"[Soldier]'s experience with stalking aliens in [terrain] has improved their ability to notice things. [Soldier] has [X]% improved sight distance and range while fighting in [terrain]"
"[Soldier] has become familiar with the terrain in [region]. On missions within [region], if [soldier] is present the terrain, but not enemy units, starts fully revealed."

In addition, stat bumps are also things that are always useful. And if there's a way to justify non-transferable equipment (cybernetic implants?), that could also be interesting.

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Is no-one interested in Strategic Ops, then? Anyway, concerning balance and limitation. XCOM 2's Covert Ops had lop-sided issues with this. You could only do 1 Op at a time, but you didn't have to assign critical soldiers to the Op. On the one hand, players couldn't indulge by hiring a bunch of recruits and sending them off willy-nilly. On the other, I had 2 guys who only ever did Covert Ops. That freed up the rest of my soldiers to go fight battles. It was completely prescriptive, and I'm guessing that isn't the vision for Xenonauts. Like Ninothree, I'd endorse a mix of controls. Inducements to keep solders at base (through training) and requirements in terms of scarce resources would act as natural brakes. the issue I see with a helicopter or similar design is the narrative dissonance between a team doing a Strategic Op that needs to travel across the globe, and the insta-travel of the dropship. Why one, but not the other? But I do like the idea of having to give up space on an airbase for Strategic Ops, as that would be another more organic limitation on what you could do. 

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Couple of minor things:

I personally would not enjoy loosing soldiers to a random chance i have no control over except: "Take the chance or don't", especially when not taking the chance is not really a viable option gameplay wise, but i'd think other gamers might feel different about that. If the chance of the mission going awry would be tied to a skill that would both lead to the desired effect of usually tying up highly trained individuals for the missions and giving the player some control over whether the mission goes wrong. Would it be an idea to include an option of whether soldiers can actually die on these strategic operations, like the Ironman mode in difficulty settings? I certainly think that having them occasionally come back wounded (and thus out of commission even longer) or perhaps be captured which requires either a separate strategic operation or a tactical rescue mission might be interesting. Another option would be to offer different levels of difficulty similar to what XCOM2 did: you can choose how high risks you want to take, with corresponding rewards. I personally see a bit of a balance threat there: if a player goes for very high risk and has a couple of lucky dice rolls, they will become significantly overpowered for the rest of the game. Conversely, a couple of bad dice rolls early on would simply lead to restarting the campaign.

A minor thing from a personal perspective: i'd prefer that the choice whether you want to recruit scientists or engineers needs to be made before the mission rather than after. Doing it the other way around just takes a player out of the game with how unrealistic it is.

 

If I remember correctly there used to be a "science" and "engineering" skill, which might be crucial in how quickly or with what chance a strategic mission is completed. Has that concept since been removed?

 

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