Forty years I’ve been at war. A war with no battles, no monuments… only casualties.

Apr 26, 2013

"Re-verify our range to target... one ping only."

Well, you’re a shite for shore eyesh…

Progress has been strong this week. Target 32k, actually achieved 36.5k. More than a week ahead of schedule.Today’s quote is from one of my favourite films, ‘The Hunt for Red October’. You might be asking what a film about a stolen Russian submarine has to in common with a space opera set in the 34th century. The answer is quite a lot actually.

I’ve got to a stage in the story where the ensemble of characters is mostly aboard ship in the process of tracking, chasing, locating and generally trying to hide from or find each other.

Cast your mind back to the original Elite and the Frontier games and you’ll recall the ubiquitous ‘scanner’. A very late addition to the game, this elegant piece of design allowed you to spacially locate your adversaries (and you’ve just *got* to use a Sean Connery voice for the word ‘adversary’!) in three dimensions with a quick glance. The ‘periscopes’ or ‘golf clubs’, as they were often referred to, gave you height and depth information. Very clever indeed.

The Scanner as seen on the ZX Spectrum Elite. 3D Spatial Radar.

The Scanner as seen on the ZX Spectrum Elite. 3D Spatial Radar.

There was a similar setup in Frontier and FFE. Quite how this scanner actually worked was never revealed. It appeared to be some kind of radar with a relatively limited range. Objects would drop off the scanner after only a few dozen kilometres, it was a short range system. No version of Elite, that I’m aware of at least, has a ‘long range’ system of any kind.

In Elite:Dangerous, we’ve seen in the Dev Diaries that you’ll be able to pick up heat signatures. As ships move about and fire they’ll heat up, showing up more to infra-red sensors. We’ve been looking at this in the Writers’ forum and we’ve come up with the concept of ‘passive’ and ‘active’ scanners for the sake of the fiction.

This takes us back to the submarines. Military subs have sonar, which allows you to ‘ping’ sound energy into the water. If there is something there, the sound energy bounces back. Measure the time and intensity and it gives you a distance and bearing. You can lock your torpedoes on target and fire away, Commander!

Active Sonar

Active Sonar shows you what’s out there, but advertises your own position.

There’s a downside though to this ‘active’ type of scan. The moment you ‘ping’, you announce your location to anyone who might be listening. If an enemy sub has sneaked in behind you, you’ve given them what’s known in submariner talk as a ‘firing solution’. Suddenly you’ll have a torpedo bearing down on you, apparently from nowhere.

What military subs do most of the time is sneak around as quietly as possible (the term ‘Silent Running’) hoping to hear the noise the other subs are making (engine revolutions, propeller noise, even onboard chatter from the crew), slowly sneak closer (minimising their own noise) in order to gain a ‘firing solution’. This requires some very sensitive equipment and computer processing to determine what you’re picking up. This is your ‘passive’ type of scanning.

An accoustic signature from a passive sonar array.

An accoustic signature from a passive sonar array.

Fast forward into the future. You’ll have active scanners as in the earlier games, but with the same downsides as the subs. If you can see them, they can see you. This may not be desirable in some situations. You can’t sneak up on someone this way and you can’t hide.

If you don’t want people to know you’re there, you have to switch to passive scanners. This assumes someone else is giving off a heat signature (or other emission) you can track. If you’re all playing the ‘I’m not moving and staying quiet’ game, it’s a stand-off. Another quote from Red October – “The hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch.”

Slow your ship and cut all energy emissions. Your ship will be almost invisible to a passive scan, but now you can’t move. I don’t know how this will play out in game, but the indications are that we’re going to be experiencing that kind of tension in certain situations. You’re going to have ‘fog of war’ problems, your sensor data will be incomplete. Will you risk an active scan? Or is that the last thing you should do? Decisions, decisions.

This is absolutely fabulous for my story though. The tension, the lack of knowledge and the stress that develops from this allows you to write a really gritty scene. It’s not so much about the fight (as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs) it’s about the jockeying for position beforehand. The characters in question don’t have all the facts at their disposal. They’ll be trying to make the right choices given the data they’ve got. Sometimes that will work out well, sometimes it’s going to go all Admiral Ackbar on them.

I really think he should have seen it coming, don't you?

I really think he should have seen it coming, don’t you?

What else have we been talking about? Windows.

Not the operating system, but the things you look through. Spacecraft in Elite:Dangerous will have cockpits with windows. That seems to be something of an aesthetic decision rather than a practical one, but it’s one I’m rather pleased about, partly because that’s how I’ve already written my scenes, but mostly because it ‘feels’ right. I like the idea of looking outside the ship.

This does give you a few practical problems though. Some things in space are very bright (Stars and brightly illuminated planets for example). Some things are very faint (Remote Stars, ships at range and so on). Human eyes can’t perceive very wide ranges of exposure level, so you’re not going to see faint objects out of your window if there’s a bright object shining light on you. Every space movie bar none makes this basic error; you can always see ‘everything’. It’s why some nutters think the moon landing pictures are fakes – Well, duh! There aren’t any stars in the sky! – actually that evidence in favour of them being real.

You can never see this with human eyes. The stars would be too faint to see with the glare of the planet.

Looks pretty, but it’s not realistic. The stars would be too faint to seen with the glare of the planet.

Another problem is distance. Even a big ship at a range of a few dozen kilometres isn’t going to be all that easy to see, particularly if there’s not much illumination. Forget trying to see a Viper or a Cobra at that range. Realism is a pain sometimes!

Your window is going to have to be supplemented by something else. Fortunately the ‘holofac’ technology from The Dark Wheel has been retained in the ‘Canon’. So we have free standing holograms in Elite:Dangerous both for communication and information display.

"Where's the START button in Windows 1337 ?"

“Where’s the START button in Windows 1337 ?”

Your window will be supplemented by head up displays (HUDs) that will give you extra information about your surroundings. I’m guessing that these will include infrared sensors, telescopic zooms and the like. We’ve been told to expect an in game screenshot before too long – but I doubt I’ll be allowed to share it with you. Sorry!

So back to you guys. What do you think of the submarine warfare motif for starters? The technology in Elite:Dangerous (with the exception of Hyperspace) seems to be relatively ‘low tech’ compared to many other space opera universes. How’s that sitting with you?

Comments as always. See you next week.


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