Realistic space simulation?
July 20, 2007 10:03 AM   Subscribe

I've recently been playing Freespace SCP and it's been making me think about realistic space simulation, and the lack thereof.

Freespace is a fun game, it's remniscent of X-Wing but somewhat more up-to-date. It's become an open source game so I encourage anyone who's interested to find it and check it out.

But, like X-Wing and every other space sim I've ever played, it's highly unrealistic. Problems include:
* it treats movement like an airplane in the atmosphere. There's a "thrust" control that sets your speed. In space, you would thrust to get up to a speed, then stop, then reverse thrust to slow down. In all space sims I've seen, you "step off the gas" to slow down.
* laser-like weapons don't move anywhere near the speed of light. They travel more like at the speed of projectiles.
* dogfight combat is all at close range, 1000 meters or less, at low speeds, generally something like 100m/s (about 220 miles per hour). This is RIDICIULOUSLY slow, I think. It seems to me that space dogfights would probably take place at ranges of thousands of km at very high speed. I have a feeling that the low speed and engagement range are so that you can use visual identification of enemy ships, if there were hundreds or thousands of miles away all you'd have would be computer readouts.
* There are lots of explosions and what not. I understand the need for this, because it's a game after all.

None of this stuff really bothers me, because it's all geared towards making the game fun, but it does make me wonder. Is it possible to make a space sim that's more realistic, that would be fun, or more importantly, even PLAYABLE? Are human reflexes just not up to the task? Is the concept of capital ships with fighter squadrons itself just a ridiculous idea?
posted by RustyBrooks to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: The speed is really bothering me at the moment, the more I think about it. Even fighter plans engage each other and stationary targets at much greater speeds that 220 MPH, and at greater distances than 1km.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:04 AM on July 20, 2007

Look up Orbiter. It's a freeware very realistic space sim.

It has no combat though :)
posted by spacefire at 10:14 AM on July 20, 2007

the way I see space combat occur is with large powerful ships that match orbits and then 'broadside' eachother with lasers, plasma bolts, old-fashioned nuclear missiles and even short range interceptors or boarding parties.

Since maneuvering in space is energy consuming, akin to doing the same with sailing vessels, it's natural that we revert to the techniques from the age of sail.
posted by spacefire at 10:16 AM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: Try space combat and find out.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:21 AM on July 20, 2007

Once upon a time there was a "Space Shuttle Simulator" game around. It might have even been made/sold by Microsoft, I'm not sure.

I remember playing it once, years ago, and finding it very, very hard compared to normal flight sims. It was pretty realistic, or at least it seemed to be.

Not sure if it was a DOS or Windows game, but you might take a look around for it. It might be close to what you're looking for.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:25 AM on July 20, 2007

Yeah, it's kind of like the flightsim versus combat sim rifts; eventually something has to be sacrificed in the name of the gameplay experience otherwise everything would be so goddamn difficult and dry that there'd really be no incentive or immediate gratification to performing well.

As far as making a space sim realistic I'm not so sure that's technically possible considering all the various theories and explanations of how certain conventional weapons would work in that environment. Personally I don't understand how the dogfight model would even translate, in my opinion it would make no sense and most likely be a complete waste of resources - especially in the light of a universe like FS2 where you have the huge capital ship standoffs with their lazer beams that are wider than your entire craft.

In that same vein I'm not so sure there wouldn't be an analogous move away from "hitscan" or in this case "lazer" based firing platforms to pure missile oriented/bomber systems as was seen in the USAF around the Vietnam era. People weren't trained to dogfight like they were in previous conflicts because it was considered obsolete.

When you consider these enormous vessels also generally have the ability to "warp" or travel between the "fabric of space" it seems even more ridiculous. The only reason they can't teleport all over the place is because it would be too complicated to work into the mythos and the plot mechanisms, so you see these artificial and arbitrary situations being crafted with very little deviation.

It'd be an interesting experiment but like anything too much realism in games completely handicaps them. You don't want to play an FPS of WW1 mucking around in the trenches with your rotten, soaking limbs being chewed on by rats, firing blindly into no-mans land until you are shelled with mustard gas.
posted by prostyle at 10:29 AM on July 20, 2007

It's this one:

you can download it from or something similar.

You will need a DOS emulator unless you have an old pre-XP system around.

I played this for abit but always failed :)
posted by spacefire at 10:31 AM on July 20, 2007

I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall that Space Rogue had some fairly realistic flight mechanics, assuming you don't mind the polygonal was released in 1989 after all. I could swear I had to constantly correct for momentum and reverse thrust to stop. Man, I loved that game.

In Dan Simmons Hyperion series, space "battles" often consisted of ships lancing one another with long range weapons from hundreds of kilometers away. Trying to evade was generally pointless as in the time it would take a ship to spin up to intra-system speeds, the enemy could easily calculate a firing solution and destroy the target.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:51 AM on July 20, 2007

In all space sims I've seen, you "step off the gas" to slow down.

You never played Asteroids?
posted by neuron at 11:03 AM on July 20, 2007

Oh, forgot the link. Space Rogue
posted by JaredSeth at 11:06 AM on July 20, 2007

Freelancer has an option to turn on "realistic" space physics. It still has the dogfight-at-close-range problem, though, and the universe itself seems to be very planar. However, it does allow you to get into situations where it is just about impossible to regain control of your ship.

X-Plane also has pretty realistic space physics but doesn't have much in the way of combat. You can download custom vehicles, though - you can simulate a launch into space (plus reentry!) using a Saturn V or the Space Shuttle.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:12 AM on July 20, 2007

it treats movement like an airplane in the atmosphere. There's a "thrust" control that sets your speed. In space, you would thrust to get up to a speed, then stop, then reverse thrust to slow down. In all space sims I've seen, you "step off the gas" to slow down.

Theoretically, in a fly-by-wire situation (which presumably most space fighters would be) couldn't the reverse thrusters be used to slow you down i.e. you take the foot off the gas, and the computer responds by engaging the reverse thrusters until your forward momentum stops?
posted by mmascolino at 11:17 AM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: Play Independence War and the sequel. They feature realistic Newtonian spaceflight (there's also an inertialess drive and a hyperspace, but those are for travel, not dogfights.) There's a lot of fly by wire going on so that the spaceship goes the way you point it and so on, but you can turn it off when you need to. In both games the main weapons are beams of energetic particles with about 10 km range.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:20 AM on July 20, 2007

Some problems:
  1. Human reflexes are designed for a very different environment. In a real space battle you might spends months maneuvering your spaceship around, to engage in a battle that lasts a tenth of a second as you pass within weapons range of another ship.
  2. With realistic physics, the energies of space flight are so great that destruction is very easy. If a handful of pebbles hit your battleship at spaceflight speeds, you're probably annihilated. So there probably wouldn't be any dramatic escalations of "damage". You're probably either perfectly fine, or vapourized into an expanding cloud of gas.
  3. Space is famously empty: there isn't really any "cover". There's not a lot of suspense when you can see exactly where everybody is.
So, I think you'd have to be a very creative game designer to make a realistic and interesting game.

You might be able to do it. You could maybe lengthen the duration of the tenth-of-a-second battle so it takes up the whole game; launching beam weapons, missiles, interceptor missiles and chaff at each other to try to reach a result.

Or, you could slow down a decades-long relativistic battle. Since you're travelling at near the speed of light you'd then be back to a situation where you don't know where your opponent is and can't see him till the last minute.

I suspect games companies will find it easier just keep pretending it's like a WW1 dogfight though.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:34 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I thought about the computer-assisted angle but unfortunately I think the model that these games have would actually be very wasteful. In these games slowing down has no penalty, it actually can SAVE you energy to use towards shields or something, but in real life slowing down COSTS you, you only want to change speed or orientation if you have to.

Independence War looks interesting, might have to try that out.

OK, sure, asteroids is a counter example. I wouldn't exactly call it a realistic simulation, though.

In Forever War (the book by Joe Haldeman) most of the space combat is done at very large distances at significant fractions of the speed of light. It's all done by computers, though, and most counter-manuevers seemed to be random flight patterns, so they couldn't predict your location when the missiles got there.

The Space Combat game looks good too, I'll check that out.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:42 AM on July 20, 2007

Response by poster: I think that a closer model to how space compat might "really" work might be more like submarine battles, where you spend a lot of time cloaking your location (limiting emissions and movement) and surface briefly to launch missiles and what not. And there probably would be very little visual contact, just the output of various sensing devices and what have you. But at that point I guess you might as well make a submarine game. I played a Star Trek game AGES ago that was kind of like that. It might have been turn based but I think it was semi-realtime.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:46 AM on July 20, 2007

There are no realistic space combat games because there is no real space combat. With current technologies, it makes no sense for there to be combat in the near-earth space (the only space that matters) since weapons from earth would be more than capable of rendering satellites useless. In fact, shortly after the initiation of space-hostilities near-earth space would probably become useless from the junk.

I mention satellites only, because they are currently the only thing in space worth blowing up. In fact, there are no projections for anything else worth blowing up in a long time. In addition, given the nature of space travel, there are no realistic reasons for putting a human being in charge of a light vessel fighting other light vessels (all calculations are done by computer anyway). Orbital mechanics mean that you cannot just fly around randomly like on Earth. However, for a game you need just such a situation, otherwise you have nothing to simulate.

After that, if you are going to use lots of fictional technology with fictional reasons for putting people in small ships with goals that make no sense in a situation which bears little resemblance to anything we are likely to produce, then you might as well go ahead and construct it out of pure handwavium. I liked Wing Commander, but I don't worry about the "unrealistic" parts, like why they look like freaking cats.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:54 AM on July 20, 2007

I played Independence War for awhile precisely for this reason: wanted to try out more realistic physics? And guess what? It makes for a boring game. Combat ends up being mostly like jousting; quick passes with a few shots fired, then flying fast past the other guy and having to turn around for a second pass. It's just not much fun.
posted by Nelson at 12:17 PM on July 20, 2007

Oddly enough, the only setting I know of that takes this principle is the Robotech setting. They actually state that their propulsion systems are built to respond in this manner, requiring banking turns, etc. because that is how their pilots learned to fly. I know that this doesn't mean much in this context, but I thought it might be something you would find interesting.
posted by slavlin at 12:25 PM on July 20, 2007

Freelancer has an option to turn on "realistic" space physics. It still has the dogfight-at-close-range problem, though, and the universe itself seems to be very planar. However, it does allow you to get into situations where it is just about impossible to regain control of your ship.

Freelancer was fun, but became trivial when you actually mimicked realistic fights (like cutting the engine and drifting in one direction at full afterburner speed while pivoting to target things chasing you). The AI wasn't very smart.

Jinko Zane was hot though.
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:57 PM on July 20, 2007

The most "realistic" way to handle this would probably be with turn-based warfare, and could be constructed out of a slightly modified Battleship game.
posted by klangklangston at 1:59 PM on July 20, 2007

Sweet question, this is something I've thought about too, on occasion.
posted by !Jim at 3:08 PM on July 20, 2007

EVE has a relatively realistic space combat model -- fighting distances are generally in the 20-100KM range, unless you have a reason to get in closer, and to move you set the location of your ship with reference to some other object (orbit X at some distance, maintain some distance from X, approach X, align the front of the ship toward X, etc). Whenever you order a change in direction or a full stop, you have to wait for your thrusters to finish firing (some of the big ships take AGES to turn, so you can easily be killed while trying to turn toward your chosen point of retreat). Everything is done by selecting various options with the mouse.

It is realistic, but also unbelievably boring. Give me Wing Commander style Dogfights In Space over EVE any day!
posted by vorfeed at 3:10 PM on July 20, 2007

I remember a game on the Commodore Amiga called Warhead, which I think may have been created by a guy who went on to work on the I-War (Independence War) games mentioned previously (the first one of which I loved, the second, not so much).

Combat was similar to I-War, complete with the jousting runs, but weapons were limited to guided missiles (your craft carried maybe a dozen, so you did have to be careful), mines (very useful when the enemy did a high-speed run at you) and an anti-missile point defence gun (manual aim and fire). As you progressed through the missions you'd get weapon upgrades, including the "Pseudo-Stellar Missile", which was basically a nuke. Fire one of those puppies and run like hell, because if you were in the blast radius when it hit it's target you were toast.

Warhead made the ship controllable by introducing a series of autopilot modes. As I recall, Mode 1 was free manoeuvreing (i.e. Newtonian), plus there was a "pursuit mode", an "all stop" mode (although it was possible to overload it and have it send you into a spin) and a creep mode (inertialess low-speed for docking, etc), among others.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 3:46 PM on July 20, 2007

Frontier and First Encounters, of course. Properish orbital mechanics, realisticish speeds etc. Combat isn't great, but I had 100x more fun with them than *spit* Elite.

I've never played it, but Battlecruiser may be worth a look too.
posted by Freaky at 5:56 PM on July 20, 2007

If you're willing to sacrifice some realism for fun, the hobbyists over at Beyond the Red Line have written a Freespace 2 MOD for Battlestar Galactica fans. It has strafing and 'glide' mode where you can play around with newtonian physics... Highly recommended, if only for one demo level.
posted by anthill at 3:57 PM on July 21, 2007

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