Tunnel Vision: Why Subspace Mission?

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by: Old Staff - August 11, 1998 for Freespace Watch

Ever since the discovery that missions could be set in subspace, foolish mission designers have been creating escort missions, furballs, and capture missions in that blue-white environment called Subspace. At first, it just seems cool. After all, wasn't that last mission in FreeSpace really neat? But to someone who's played a lot of scenarios set in subspace, there are few worse things in mission design than subspace.

First of all, there are the most obvious changes in subspace: No shields, no support ships, and everything's being dragged along. At first, this just seems to be extra challenges to overcome - and everyone wants a challenging mission, right? Well, having no support ships is one thing. It does force the player to conserve both countermeasures and missiles. This creates yet more problems for craft like the Ulysses, which have little ammunition as it is. But the lack of shields turns a human player into a superpilot. The computer AI does not adapt well to subspace, while a human does. But more importantly, Shivan craft's defenses are centered on shields. The Shivan fighters' low armor is enough of a disadvantage in normal space; in subspace, with no shields, a single Hornet salvo can shatter a Basilisk. Because speed is not very useful in subspace - you're pretty much going in one direction, whether you like it or not, and you can't really move quickly in a new direction long enough to use afterburners and countermeasures - missiles are that much harder to dodge. And as speed is no longer a major advantage, the Hercules is the ship of choice, if available. And a single sextuple-salvo of Prometheus shots - which a Herc can sling off rather fast - will blow most any fighter to space dust. While the mission creator can set shields to be on in Subspace, it would be going against the rules that Volition laid down. So in any believable Subspace scenario. But computer fighters don't know how to handle the unique properties of Subspace, and so die fast. This alone makes subspace missions barely worth playing, as the enemy fighters can be splattered pretty much at the player's will.

Capital ships and cruisers, on the other hand, are used to having no shields, and aren't terribly mobile anyway, so they're unimpaired for the most part. A single Aten class cruiser, if left unchecked, can clear away three full wings of AI controlled Terran fighters before they can get into Disrupter or Stiletto range. This means that the best way to eliminate a cap ship or cruiser is with another. Which leads into the next, and probably the biggest, problem with subspace-based missions.

As can be seen, the only feasible way to make an interesting subspace mission that doesn't quickly degenerate into a turkey shoot is by including cruisers or caps - and probably at least two. Let me say something that every mission designer should remember: Capital ships don't fit in subspace. A single Typhon takes up so much of the tunnel that there's little room for anything else, and no fighter can be safe from the grasp of hungry missile turrets. That leaves cruisers, which still take up a lot of limited tunnel space, but leave more than enough for dogfights around them. Right? Well, while cruisers don't take up that much physical space, their "sphere of influence" (the area around them in which they can greatly influence combat) is pretty large. Also, because of the lack of shields, a cruiser's massive (relative to a fighter) hit points become an enormous advantage.

But don't forget that Subspace itself has a lot of special effects: the sounds, the three or so layers of texture rotating, and the lighting from each end, not to mention a really big "sun" at each end of the tunnel. Any more than two wings of fighters on each side, and maybe a cruiser, will start a P200 with a Voodoo2 and medium graphics quality - my own machine - stuttering. That's bad enough. I've seen subspace missions with 6 wings of 3 fighters each total, plus a pair of cruisers. In a normal mission, my box wouldn't even sweat to handle all the polygons and calculations. Nor would any Pentium II/3D card system. But in subspace, I get about five frames a second in subspace - or, converting the mission to non-subspace, but keeping everything else the same, 45 fps or so in normalspace. I won't even talk about what that subspace mission did to my other P200, which has no 3D card. This should be a clear warning to mission designers: Subspace missions will be slow. So slow that for comfortably running scenarios set in subspace, a computer should be a PII/300, 64 megs of RAM, and a Voodoo 2. Yeah, subspace is that demanding. Strangely, no subspace scenario has ever actually crashed FreeSpace, as most cap-heavy missions do when the calculation level overflows the system.

Finally, there's the factor that doesn't directly influence gameplay: according to the rules of the FreeSpace universe, when a capital ship (and, though they don't say it, perhaps a cruiser) is destroyed in subspace, the massive explosion wrecks the Subspace Tunnel. That nixes Capital ships (and if you want to be safe, cruisers as well) as elements in a Subspace mission that isn't part of a big campaign. And keep in mind that if you do wreck a node, that makes a pretty big impact on the universe - an impact that will always clash with Volition's story.

When the framerate problems are combined with the formidable gameplay and balancing issues, it should be clear that level creators should steer clear of Subspace as a setting. I will say this, however: The first designer to bring before me a subspace-set mission that I can enjoy will receive the coveted "Kewl Werk" Award from me and Zarathud, created for this very sort of design problem. But I don't think that it can be done. Or maybe I'm just too cynical.