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Three Moves Ahead Episode 51 – Science and Technology

February 10th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 33 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


Troy is joined by Tom, Bruce and Rob as they counter December’s religion show with a talk about how strategy games treat science. How do you link technology to other game mechanics? Is there a risk of runaway games if you emphasize science too much? Dead ends, blind research, science of observation and whether you can actually have hard science in a strategy game.

And Bruce replies to comments about his thoughts on Hearts of Iron 3’s infantry weapon research model.

Listen here.
RSS here.
Subscribe on iTunes.

Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History Of The German Bomb
Three Moves Ahead Episode 20 on The Snowball Effect in Game Design
Tom and Miriam Sitting in a Tree (Wayback Machine – very slow)


33 Comments so far ↓

  • Cubit

    Hey, where is the poll?!

  • Jon Gad

    Okay, I acknowledge that it could be a problem on my end, but every time I try to download this episode it chokes at 4.1 mb and says the source file can’t be read. Other podcasts from other sites are downloading fine, so it suggests to me that maybe there’s a problem with the uploaded file.

  • Troy

    34 MB file on the database. No problem on my end downloading it either.

  • Jon Gad

    Well, crap. I just tried again, and it did the same thing, bouncing at 4.1 mb. I don’t understand why my connection likes the Big Freaking Podcast more than it does you guys. Very odd. Guess I’ll try it from work tomorrow, and if it works, chalk it up to either Internet Gremlins, or the Massive Worldwide Conspiracy of the Moment.

    (What is the MWCotM this month, anyway? Are we still on “Obama was born in Indonesia” or have we moved on to something else yet? I can never keep track.)

    Anyway, thanks for having a look at it.

  • Troy

    I had someone else try it, too, and she had no issues.

    If you can’t get it tomorrow, drop me a line and we’ll see if we can hook you up some other way.

  • Ian Bowes (spelk)

    It seems science in strategy games is all about the Tech Tree and its traversal using resources. Even RPG’s and Shooters are littered with Tech Tree’s nowadays. I think it begs the question, has anyone done anything interesting with Tech Trees? Or are they only a universal means to and end, in measuring and promoting progression throughout a game?

    It also made me wonder whether you’d consider physics-based controls as an example of science in games? Something like Osmos, where momentum and mass are key to the gameplay. This got me thinking has anyone used physics-based controls in a strategy or war game?

    Sadly, this episode threw up more questions than it answered for me. Mainly screaming the word “Tech Tree” and having a few deviations, based on random rewards from investment, or failing to complete the funding of a Tree limb.

    Has anyone done a strategy game where you can lose Tech gained from a tree, if you can’t supply enough maintenance funding? The only example I can think of is the support of those special resource hungry Legions that require a maintenance fee in Solium Infernum. If you can’t pay the maintenance, you lose them.

  • Dectilon

    I was surprised you managed to get Al Gore and Ron Paul on the show. The best discussion are the ones where both sides are irrational and first fight is hanging in the air :)

    It actually makes sense that it gets easier to research something when other countries have already researched it. Isn’t that how science has always worked? Even if there’s no direct exchange of technology, the knowledge that led up to the discovery is often universal. Isn’t that why historically the same groundbreaking inventions are invented by different people all over the world with no real connection around roughly the same time?

    If I ever made a strategy game I think my science tree would have both specialized research and base research. You could spend cash on improving existing tech, take a risk and commission the invention of a new tech for a certain task or have your scientists do base research, knowing you’ll get tech out of it even if you won’t know what.

    I can’t remember hearing about any concensus regarding global warming other than that it is an existing phenomenon, and that if the historical trend is accurate it’ll get warmer from hereon out. I don’t think there’s certainty if more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes temperature increases or if temperature increases causes more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere though (or both). Regardless, refuting global warming is like researching which race is the least intelligent on average or if women have a natural tendency towards enjoying cooking or whatever. It’s not helping anyone, and it potentially hurts someone. I’d rather spend some money trying to prevent a problem even if the risk is relatively low. The people who go apeshit over spending money on reducing emissions seem to want to spend it on guns anyway, so there’s that advantage if nothing else.

  • Paul C.

    I think Sword of the Stars has an interesting take on the tech tree, although it is still at heart a tech tree. There are only a small number of “core” technologies that you are guaranteed access to, while other technologies have only a chance of appearing. The way it works is that when you discover a technology, you have a percentage chance of discovering each of the technologies that links off of that one. So you have an idea of what things might be out there, but in any given game you can’t count on what you will get so you may have to alter your normal plans and go in different directions. Furthermore, the chances for each technology differ depending on the race you play, giving them a flavor in what sorts of weapons they might tend to use but not a certainty.

    The other thing Sword of the Stars does with research is that the cost of a technology is not a given fixed amount, i.e. you can’t say “when I have spend 100,000 on research I will get UV lasers”. You only get an estimated cost, and then as your research approaches that cost, the game starts to give you a chance each turn of discovering the technology. Sometimes you will get it before you reach 100% of the cost, but other times you can go up to as much as 150% of the cost before you get it (you can also game the system by reducing your research spending drastically once you hit 100%, as that will still give you a good chance of discovering the tech each turn).

    So its not a radical departure from the Civ tech tree model, but I like the wrinkles that it added, as they introduce a little more uncertainty and discovery in to the process

  • Dectilon

    MOO 2 had the same thing about a percentage chance for a breakthrough, but only towards the end of a research project.

    Man, I loved that game. I wish they would make a MOO3.

  • nullspace

    Thanks Paul, I was going to mention SotS, but you did it for me. But SotS even went a bit further than that. It also had the ability to boost your research by spending a lump sum of money, but that had the chance of causing a lab accident that destroyed all your progress on that tech, and had some other deadly consequences depending on what type of tech it was. And if you didn’t have access to a tech, you might get the opportunity to reverse-engineer it from the wreckage of an enemy who did have it.

    Some of these features weren’t very useful for winning the game, and they could be frustrating if you got unlucky, but it did include many of the ideas suggested in the podcast.

  • One Move Behind – And the Science Gets Done and You Make a Neat Gun | RobZacny.com

    […] This mechanic, originating in the Civilization franchise and inherited by most every other strategy game, was the subject of  the most recent Three Moves Ahead podcast. In between Bruce-baiting and liberal-baiting, we managed to talk about science, game mechanics, and history. You should give it a listen. […]

  • Nikolaj

    “Has anyone done a strategy game where you can lose Tech gained from a tree, if you can’t supply enough maintenance funding?”

    Emperor of the Fading Suns did this. You needed labs to maintain technology, and if you somehow lost some labs, so you no longer had enough, you would start losing technology. I really wish someone would remake that game. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the most interesting civ-like games I’ve ever played.

    “I think Sword of the Stars has an interesting take on the tech tree, although it is still at heart a tech tree.”

    I was kind of surprised that this game wasn’t mentioned. I specifically thought of it when the possibility of a dead end in research was discussed. In SotS this was possible, depending on how you look at it. You might try to focus all your research on getting a specific tech far down (up?) the tree, only to find that the tech isn’t in your tree. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

    Great podcast guys!

  • Jon Gad

    I did finally get this down from work, so whatever the problem is, it exists only at my home.

    Stupid internet.

    Anyway, I agree with Bruce that its a shame that outside the first couple of playthroughs of a game, there’s no longer any mystery in a game’s research and development. The Sword of the Stars methodology of randomly allowing you access to certain techs works reasonably well, as does choosing the Uncreative civilization trait in Master of Orion 2 and taking your chances with what you get, but in both of those cases even if you’re artificially limited on what techs you can take, you always know what they can all do, which still limits your ability to be surprised. I’m not sure how to fix that, outside of some kind of procedurally generated tech tree, and even that lends itself to gross game imbalance.

    Something else that bothers me about most tech trees is that there’s rarely any ability to do much in the way of development. In Civ 4 I can research to get Archers, but I can’t do anything to make my original Warriors better. I can only promote them to Archers. Even in a more granular game like SotS, your weapons never get better, they only get replaced. MOO2 at least allowed your lower tech level weapons to improve somewhat as your energy tech improved. They became smaller, allowing you to put more guns on each ship. Even then it was rarely worth it to have a ton of small cheap guns because of the way shields worked.

    Contrast that to jet fighters in World War 2. Jet propulsion would eventually become the standard for all combat aircraft, but the early examples of the technology that made it into battle in WW2 simply weren’t better enough than their well understood propeller driven counterparts to justify the expense that went into researching and producing them.

    You don’t get that kind of problem in strategy games, though. It is nearly always the best choice to get the next technology and equip it immediately. I’d like to see a game where I have to make the choice as to how far I want to extend my proven current technology rather than gamble on the new hot tech my wiz-kids just churned out.

    As it is in most games, though, you’re always going with the new hotness, and everything else is automatically old and busted.

  • Troy

    Glad you got to listen, Jon. Hope your home internet works soon.

  • HomiSite

    Because it was mentionend: Did someone play “Armada 2526”? I didn’t find much response/tests on its release – and there isn’t even an demo?!

  • Troy


    Tom and I played a late beta and spoke to Bob Smith about it. I’ve not had time to go back and play a final build.

  • John Louis Swaine

    Bruce was Right.

    Tom wasn’t describing a Dead End, for this reason:

    In a meta-game sense, Tom’s position was a Dead End. Presumably spending all those SpaceBucks on research that did nothing meant he would never be able to spend further money on the research (because someone else obliterated him or because he was incapable of generating any more resources.)

    However it was not a true Dead End. There is a very simple way to demonstrate this: If there was a card shuffled into that research deck which said “You may no longer attempt to research”, THAT would be a Dead End.

    If you hit that card there would be no possible way of researching further. Tom’s position merely meant further research was either unlikely or strategically infeasible because he had expended too much capital.

    Which is kind of like running out of gas. As Bruce posited!

  • Tom Chick

    I’m not sure why this is being argued. The point Bruce was making is that research always pays off. I came up with a game where research doesn’t pay off, which easily serves as an abstraction for dead ends. In Supremacy, when you stop looking for the nuke card (there might actually be a “Research Failed” card), your resources are lost, leaving you with nothing to show for it. If you don’t want to call this a dead end, that’s fine. We can call it “running out of gas”, “choking the alligator”, or “beating the dead horse” instead.

    But it’s a rare gameplay example of research that doesn’t pay off. It’s a risky mechanic, and I understand why more videogames don’t do it. In Supremacy, I recall that it could be devastating for you if it failed, just like it could be devastating for the other players if it succeeded. It was an example of the risk/reward balanced pushed to the eXXXtreme.

  • Quinten

    Having been playing a lot of roguelikes and Dwarf Fortress lately, I came up with an insane and creative solution to the Tech Tree Dilemma. I am referring to what Bruce said: even if the Tech trees layout is hidden, you learn what all techs do over a couple of plays. But what if the techs were like scrolls in a roguelike? They can be randomized, so you know there is gunpowder, but you may get something else instead. Name them abstract names “Project Delta” and that project could be any one of a couple random things. This would not work in Civ, where techs progress through human history, but could be great in a Gal Civ or other games where the setting is a specific period.
    The effects of the techs could randomize as well, so every side in every game has different effects: Germany has discovered Heavy Tanks, and afterwards America discovers them too. But Germany’s tanks have different stats then America’s. And sometimes a Tech could be useless or hurt you, like a scroll in nethack.
    I’m not saying it would have to be a roguelike, but this could shake up how techs work in your standard strategy game. This system would be great for a RTS where all the techs won’t be discovered in a single game, so there’s a chance you get a different set of random techs every game, with differing effects.

  • Dectilon

    The problem with that is that in a roguelike you have no human opponents, so while it’s a neat idea it’s not really good design to have matches be decided by a die roll.

    Maybe it could be balanced by something like spying. If you spy on your opponent you may get their technology as they discover it, but if what they discover is the Badly Sealed Bio-bomb then suddenly you have that problem to deal with too. It would still be a die roll then, but more balanced maybe?

  • Quinten

    Maybe with Spying you know what your opponent is going to get, and you can invest in figuring out details of your next tech. It is sort of tactical, dealing with the resources given to you. Plus if the game has military and political components, then it isn’t completely unbalanced by the random techs.

  • Patrick

    Another interesting feature of Emperor of the Fadings Suns is, if you are in sufficiently good standing with the church, the ability to petition the inquisition to proscribe any technology you wish. In a standard game, many of the better technologies are off limits and will bring about excellent quantities of wrath right from the start. With a little bribery and some clever planning, though, you’re capable of retroactively banning technology. Play your cards right and your opponent now controls a dozen heresy-filled research laboratories slated for annihilation by the Papal Fleet.

    If that isn’t an example of how “running away” with a technological lead can backfire on you, I really don’t know what is.

  • solomani

    Wasnt Reach for the Stars on the C64 the first game to have a tech tree? It seems to be the progenitor for all the modern tech trees – especially in space games.

  • Erez

    With regard to technological victories, in WWII, the Germans were actually ahead in several technologic fronts, most importantly, the tanks and planes. For instance, they managed to develop and implement the Jet first. However, it wasn’t technological supremacy that won that front, but production supremacy. For every plane the Germans took down, the US sent 10 more. It wasn’t a matter of who has the best technology, but who can make more, and faster. And while the Americans got to the Bomb first, it wasn’t what won the war, only hastened the surrender of Japan, which was already mostly defeated (and had lesser technology than the US, mainly because they insisted on diverting most efforts to creating battleships rather than carriers and air-force)

  • Erez

    This is for the Tom Vs. Bruce debate concerning dead-end/running out of gas. I believe what Bruce referred to as “dead end” meant that in “RL” science, you usually don’t research a goal, i.e. most of the time you don’t say “we are researching antibiotics/map-making/masonry”. In science, we observe, and attempt to theorise the cause of certain observations. There are those who research “cure for cancer” or, like in the Manhattan project, researching a way to split the atom and create a weapon, but these are specific cases, and, at any rate, are not planned in a sense of “we research for X years using Y dollars with Z scientists” and many times, the difference between a successful research and a failed one is minimal, other than the end result.

    In this sense, Tom’s example, of the player playing towards a goal, is, if I understand Bruce correctly, a manner of a driver knowing where his destiny is, and how to reach it, but running out of gas, while Bruce compared research to a person who has entered a city and doesn’t know where he wants to go, only that he needs a place to stay, a place to work, etc. and during his excursion gets totally lost.

  • Dauntless_Dad

    Have any games tried to create a linkage of technologies with societal changes, so that the players have to deal with secondary, unintended consequences of scientific improvements? One example might be Automobiles -> individual mobility -> geographic dispersion of families -> increased social cost for elder care services (as the kids aren’t nearby to take care of Mom and Dad in their old age). Or perhaps an even simpler one, like Human contraception -> increased standard of living + reduced birth rate (or even net population decline, as the result of the combined influences of two or more scientific advances). Imagine playing a Civ-game where you could unintentionally science yourself into societal non-existence! Now THAT would be cool!

    That sounds extreme, perhaps, but my point is that scientific advances change societies, and not just in obvious ways. But maybe those influences are too deep to be captured in games.

  • Troy


    That’s a long chain, but that sort of thing is reflected a little in some games, but usually in terms of bonuses here and there. Even Civ’s Wheat>Agriculture>Growth>Health>Granary>More Growth>Need New Food Source is a societal chain. It’s not framed as a specific series of links in a chain, but it’s a good model of the expansion of early cities.

    Unintentional consequences from inventions (space travel, air conditioning, birth control) have been well documented but haven’t found their way into games mostly because, as Bruce said, once you know the chain it’s not surprising any more.

  • Nightmare

    solomani: I believe you are right that Reach for the Stars was the first strategy game that had a basic research mechanic. However, I don’t think there was a tech tree; it more or less just allowed you to spend money for upgrades to ships or planetary environments. Woe betide you if you fell too far behind your opponents in ship tech…

  • Dauntless_Dad

    Generalizing my initial question a bit – it seems to me that most strategy games portray research, whether scientific or civic, as solely beneficial. Research armor, and build better tanks. Research libraries, and get a boost on your science production. Research nuclear weapons, and build superbombs to deal with your competition. In such games the research race is a key element of gameplay.

    Not that I’m unhappy with that idea, but I’m wondering what a nation/civilization type game might be like if tech advancement wasn’t all rainbows and roses. What if successfully researching nukes also brought along increased social unrest (anti-nuke protesters), or if researching Industrial Revolution also generated a societal push toward Socialism that would make maintaining a monarchical, democratic, or dictatorial government more difficult? The tech race then becomes more that just a decision of opportunity cost – what should I research next, Laser Weapons or Supercomputers – and instead becomes a decision of which direction do I want to take my society, and can I manage the consequences?

    What games, if any, take that approach to “advancement?”

  • Dauntless_Dad

    I just read Rob’s article about EU3 on Gamasutra. That’s exactly the kind of thing I was talking about above, except not so science-oriented. Maybe I’ll have to give EU3 a try…

  • Troy

    Yeah, EU3 is full of trade offs like that where there are all kinds of negatives built into some progress. Science in that game, though, is entirely advantageous. There is never a reason to avoid choosing a new National Idea (though you can only have so many at a time) nor to keep researching.

  • Dauntless_Dad

    So I guess those scientists in Li’l Abner were right after all.

  • Alex Ryan

    Armageddon Empires I would suggest as an example of a game in which research was both risky and optional. With extreme resource scarcity, you could easily screw yourself paying for the chance to ‘discover’ something, and you certainly didn’t need to “tech up” or whatever the kids say to remain competitive.

    Still I sort of disagree that games rewarding players who work their way up the tech tree to the point where not doing so is a guaranteed failure is in any way a bad thing, and arguably not to different from the way these games reward players for capturing more territories, building bigger armies, or making more money every turn.

    Also, agree with Bruce on the climate change thing…