Ship of the Line

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Design notes (from 2010)
Ship of the Line is written in Java using the Java Monkey Engine 3D engine. It was originally called Heart of Oak - a better title perhaps, but one now used by another Age of Sail game project, so I have changed my title to avoid confusion.
My aim has been create the sort of game I have always wanted to play - a historically accurate but easy to play first person perspective game of naval warfare in the age of sail. The inspiration for the game was the Man of War series (1 and, more particularly, 2), published over fifteen years ago now. Despite its primitive appearence, Man of War 2 (MoW2) was very close to being what I was looking for in an Age of Sail game; with the viewpoint on the ship's deck (rather than the top down 'God view' of games such as Age of Sail and Wooden Ships and Iron Men), and the ability to play at any point in the chain of command (so that orders can be given to ships under your command, but also received from commanding officers above you). MoW2 had only a weak career mode, and was most often played as a series of unconnected battles, which never seemed totally satisfying, and the emptiness of the ship's deck (no crew, no sails, no guns) made it hard to find the game truly immersive. Even so, I found myself playing MoW2 long after I had abandoned other games of similar vintage. When a PC and OS upgrade finally rendered it unplayable, I realised that if I wanted to play a game of this sort, I would have to write it myself.
Some thoughts on my main aims in designing this game. There are two key features I enjoy in computer wargames and simulations; firstly, the immersiveness of the game, the sense of 'you are there', the suspension of disbelief that allows me to forget that I am playing a computer game and imagine that I am reliving history. This is why I prefer a first person perspective and 3D graphics, and a simple, stats-light interface that does not overwhelm with detail and which, crucially, does not give more information than would have been available to a real life ship's captain. Secondly, I want to play as part of a larger conflict going on all around me - I don't demand total control of every unit on my side, but prefer to have limited influence over wider events. I am aware that this is a fairly unusual preference among computer wargamers - but with this game I have the luxury of indulging myself! As well as being my preferred style of play, this aspect of having only limited control over and intelligence of forces, even those on my side, does offer some design advantages. One of computer wargamers' recurring complaints is the inadequacy of the AI opponent, and how it rarely provides a decent challenge or even controls its forces in a sensible, believable way. I believe that attempting to create an AI that can compete on a level playing field against a human player with a top down, God-like view of and control of the battle is impossible, and such attempts can only result in wasted time and disappointment. The most powerful computers are only just able to play chess to the level of the best humans, and chess is a vastly simpler game to analyse, and more open to brute force solutions, than a typical battle. Rather than trying to produce an AI capable of outplaying a human, I believe the designer should concentrate on trying to provide the player with a challenging, enjoyable, immersive and historically relevant gaming experience, and that one of the best ways to do this is to take away the player's God-like powers and place them instead down in the midst of the smoke and shot of the battle. From this vantage point, AI-defeating exploits, perfect plans and micromanagement are no longer possible, and so creating an AI capable of providing an enjoyable challenge becomes that much easier. That this vantage point also offers a closer approximation to what a real captain (or commodore, or admiral) had to contend with is an added bonus, in that it brings the game that bit closer to historical reality.
With such a viewpoint, the AI can sometimes be stupid and get away with it - and rightly so, since in reality captains often behaved in apparently stupid ways. Reading accounts of battles of the period, I am struck by how often captains either ignored or blatantly disobeyed their orders (getting away with it, of course, if, as in the case of Nelson at Cape St Vincent or Copenhagen, disobedience led to victory). Without the ability of the player to micromanage the action, the AI has the opportunity to behave stupidly from time to time (something AI is very good at) without spoiling the game or the challenge; and by equipping the player only with the level of control available in reality, the player is able to experience some of the uncertainty and frustration that bedevilled his real life counterpart.
Updated April 2015: Most of the design and programming work on this game took place in the period 2007 to 2010, when the content of this site was also created. It is now April 2015 - in the intervening five years there has been further refinement and development of the game, but due to the usual tedious real life reasons, it has not been fully completed (or advanced quite as far as I would have liked). In the intervening time, JME has seen two new major releases (but this game will continue to use JME 1, given the time and effort that would be required to upgrade), and a number of other professional Age of Sail game projects have appeared on the horizon. These other projects have significantly (to say the least) more modern and professional graphics. However, a major overhaul of Ship of the Line's graphics to match is not going to happen - as a hobby project designed for my own enjoyment, I am fairly happy with where the game stands now. One major change though is that the vague idea of expanding the game to cover other time periods has taken a more concrete form, and two further instalments - 'Trireme' and 'Dreadnought' - are now in advanced planning.
Updated June 2017: another two years have passed with fairly modest progress on the game. However, pace is picking up... Watch this space...
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