One of the hot topics in discussing nullsec affairs is force projection, and in particular, titan jump bridges. While some are calling to get rid of them, and others are campaigning against such a change, I want to talk a little about the various hypotheticals related to space travel and space combat in general that do have some bearing on the issue.

Few people, in my memory, actually tried to do this in any kind of systematic fashion. I’d cite one of Pereslegin’s essays, but I doubt anyone here has heard of it, it being Russian and all. So instead, I’ll try to describe the various models of space travel and space combat commonly seen in fiction myself — at least, in fiction that treats such things with any degree of seriousness, as more than a background for human drama. Ideas as they were developed in fiction are, incidentally, quite applicable to game design.

For the record, I admit I don’t have any kind of firsthand experience in modern nullsec warfare in Eve. But I won’t be talking much about it here anyway, I’ll leave further thinking to whoever cares to do it seriously.

It might come as a surprise to someone born after 1950 or so,1 but before Edwin Hubble‘s work provided the next step in the cosmic distance ladder, all the nebulae cataloged up to that point were believed to be, well, gas clouds at best. Our Galaxy was thought to be the only one there is, and even it’s size was thought to be far smaller than it is now, so fiction on the truly grand scale of the universe at large was mostly beyond imagination. As long as the humanity doesn’t know the limits, it doesn’t dream about going beyond them. The only aliens expected would come from Mars, so there was no point in thinking of getting anywhere further than that.

After Hubble, it all changed. At the same time, Einstein’s theory of relativity entered public consciousness along with direct evidence of other successes of relativistic physics (i.e. nukes) so at the same time as everyone has accepted that the Universe is pretty goddamn big, and has to contain intelligent life somewhere, they also had to accept that they have to somehow cheat the speed of light to meet those aliens and blow them up. Or join in harmonic bliss, depending on the author.

After some 80 years of that, three wide classes of FTL travel models evolved:

  1. Hyperspace.
    Spaceships can go more or less anywhere they please, directly breaking the speed limit. This is most commonly accomplished by moving in some kind of parallel space, accessible through applied phlebotinum — but sometimes, in otherwise normal space. Certain early space age fiction actually expected a photon rocket to bump into a heretofore unknown quirk of relativity theory and accelerate beyond light speed upon reaching it. Spaceships in a hyperspace move essentially just like anywhere else, only faster — as fast as the plot demands to make things happen on a pace faster than geological. Sometimes, limits are imposed on where the FTL motion can start and end — usually, outside gravity wells only — as well as on maneuverability. A limit on the maximum speed is always present.
    Examples: Star Trek is the most famous example of a universe with the hyperspace model, although ironically, it doesn’t use hyperspace as such — instead, they cheat by twisting space to move the ship kind of like a wave. Star Trek ships move at limited speeds, but can enter and exit warp more or less anywhere they please. Warhammer 40k universe not only has ‘hyperspace’ as an actual space, but also populates it with eldritch horrors and space weather that blows ships off course.2
  2. Jump drive.
    Spaceships teleport from point to point, and can do it from anywhere, and usually, to anywhere. Sometimes, there is also a proximity-to-gravity-well restriction, usually when the author realises that you can send a bomb with a jump drive straight inside enemy base otherwise, bypassing all defenses. Sometimes, jumps don’t happen instantaneously, and involve certain travel time, but in this case, nothing can ever interfere with the ship while it’s in flight — this is the criterion distinguishing a jump drive model with travel time from hyperspace model. Usually, limits are imposed on how often the jumps can happen, often, on maximum jump range, and almost always, on the precision of jumping itself.
    Examples: Battlestar Galactica ships use a jump drive, that, at least theoretically, can jump anywhere in the universe in one hop. In practice, however, beyond a certain safe range, which depends on available computational power, jumps will inevitably result in disaster. The introduction of forced delays between jumps, when motion is naturally limited to sublight speeds, serves the purpose of actually getting the characters fights they would probably never have otherwise. Another notable example of a jump drive universe is Frank Herbert’s Dune, even though in there, space travel is more of an excuse for the navigators to get stoned.
  3. Gate network.
    Spaceships can’t break the light speed limit at all. Instead, they use points in space — either naturally occurring or artificial — that allow them jump-drive style travel from point to point. In some variants, the points work for everyone and will shuffle any lump of mass between them, while in others, the points require the use of a special drive. Sometimes, there’s a coded key involved too. Both the start and end points are always known, or at the very least, always strictly paired. If the travel time is not instantaneous, nothing can interfere with the travel itself. Start and end points of such ‘wormholes’ typically congregate around star systems, producing a natural graph configuration.
    Examples: Examples from movies and TV are actually rather uncommon, the only one that comes to mind right now is Legend of the Galactic Heroes, which I really should devote some time to studying closely one day. Stargate, while a universe built on something very similar, is actually almost exclusively a hyperspace universe when it comes to travel by spaceship. Book and game examples are numerous, however — Vorkosigan Saga universe has a network of naturally occurring ‘wormholes’, otherwise normal points in space that a ship can slip through if equipped with an appropriate drive, Fading Suns uses a straight up network of gateways built by an ancient race which conveniently departed from the plot. For certain technical and game design reasons,3 this model is common in games. Eve also follows this model, but with caveats — but more on that below.

These FTL model classes are significant in fiction precisely because they provide very different plot options. Space is big.4 While the number of stars accessible in any given model is normally finite, it is nevertheless huge. This presents obstacles to the plot, which needs to get characters somewhere, preferably somewhere with a name and people on it. While the number of stars is huge, the number of stars with planets is currently believed to be lower,5 and the number of useful planets is thought to be even lower than that. The aforementioned Pereslegin’s essay, written mostly from a non-fictional point of view, aptly points out that this makes natural focal points for the action — any battle is conducted for one or another specific purpose, and this purpose is inevitably connected to planets, so planets should be the focal points of any space combat regardless of the model — not the navy bases, nor mining complexes, but planets with their population, which can be held hostage if you don’t like to bomb them for humanitarian reasons. But which planets get to be the focal points and how differs sharply between models.

In hyperspace and jump drive universes, the number of possible directions is unlimited, and, depending on how far can a ship be detected, the best defense might in fact be simply not letting anyone know where you live. This is even more important for jump drive universes, where the ship is not actually seen moving, and is explicitly a plot point in reimagined Battlestar Galactica, where the Cylons just drop off the radar and nobody knows where they went, until they come back with a vengeance. But assuming that your opponent does know where you live, their best strategy is not to attack your edge systems — remember, space is big, intercepting them anywhere except near the system itself will be a huge problem — but to go straight for the throat with the biggest guns on hand and attack the homeworld if at all possible.

In a gate network universe, there are points in space where your enemy must pass through to get anywhere interesting, so they become interesting themselves and siphon interest away from planets. They can be blockaded, worked around, fought over specifically for the connectivity they provide, and produce natural spatial topology that completely empty space is lacking. Military bases become much more important targets than in hyperspace or jump drive universes, because they can be used to trap the attacker.

But that’s just the biggest and obvious difference, no doubt familiar to any Eve player. Here’s another interesting one: Just like with space travel models, fiction evolved three common classes of space combat models. All three borrow from the experience of naval war on Earth in a specific period, and conform fairly closely to analogies inherited from these wars. They are distinguished by which ship type takes precedence and becomes the most important ship of the war. That’s not to say that other ship types are not present, if they are possible, but they become subordinate to this particular ship type and serve it’s needs rather than the other way round:

  1. Cruisers rule.
    The ruling ship type of certain periods and theaters in the Age of Sail, cruisers are defined here as fast and agile ships that typically attack at relatively close range — certainly closer than that of ground-based artillery. They rely on speed and maneuverability rather than other defenses to avoid damage. In later ages, they were purposely designed with independent long-range operation and continual patrol in mind, and for a while were crucial simply because of the nature of the war theaters they were made for — the Caribbean is in particular notable, because it was all about commerce raiding, commerce protection, and generally running around very fast. And pirates were obviously involved.
  2. Battleships rule.
    Ships of the line eventually displaced cruisers off the top of the pack, as with advances in gunnery, naval engagements started leaning heavier and heavier towards ships with more and bigger guns. It made sense to design ships specifically for the tactic of firing a broadside at the enemy from large numbers of ships. By WWI, the battleships eventually evolved into a highly refined concept in marine strategy upon reaching a point in armor development when small vessels couldn’t really put a dent in a heavily armored warship, while heavily armored warships could carry obscenely large guns. Using those also allowed them to attack targets much further away before they would actually become a threat.
  3. Carriers rule.
    Carriers are the ruling ship type of WWII and up — big ships, carrying relatively small, fast vessels, incapable of long term independent operation, which pack sufficient firepower to destroy a ship as big as the carrier itself even in relatively low numbers, and rely on maneuverability. Carriers won their place on top of the pack because they could do all the things battleships could, including attacking targets that can’t reach them, but also had a much easier time at maintaining a hold on large territory than battleships. Battleships eventually died out as such, particularly with the development of the cruise missile.6

In the history of naval combat, these were evolutionary steps, which corresponded to changes in armor and weapon technology. It’s actually an interesting question whether technology development drove these changes, or the needs of the changing war theaters did.7 But we’re talking about space combat modelled on naval tactics here, and if we apply these specific ship types — made to fill specific roles in specific tactics — we will notice they actually neatly correspond to the three different classes of space travel models.

  • Cruisers uniquely fill the strategic goals inherent in a hyperspace universe. The need to patrol large regions of space is paramount, as you never know which direction the enemy might come in from. Shipping can be attacked in flight at any point, and needs to be protected and escorted. It’s better to fight the invading force as far from your homeworld as possible, and the hyperspace universe allows you the unique opportunity to find and intercept them, which only cruisers can readily do.
  • Carriers are better suited to a jump drive universe, where you never know where the enemy might pop up at rather than from — you can’t intercept them in motion, but you have a time window in which you can see and possibly destroy them, you need to patrol time domain more than territory, and this is better accomplished with small craft flying in wings. Which can still destroy an enemy vessel, sometimes with just one lucky shot.
  • Battleships are appropriate for a gate network universe, where they enjoy the advantage of knowing where the enemy will appear, while the enemy doesn’t have a clue where the battleships will be waiting. Whoever fires the first and best aimed volley in a battle between battleships usually wins, unless a bigger battleship is coming through.

Fiction doesn’t slavishly follow this correspondence at all, but well-designed worlds tend to pick up on that synergy more often than not. Star Trek’s Enterprise is essentially a cruiser, Battlestar Galactica is a carrier, Vorkosiverse is full of outright battleships, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes has thousands of battleships in formation firing broadsides at each other.

Eve is, very obviously, a gate network universe, and therefore, ship classes — or rather, fits — equivalent to WWII naval battleships should, in theory, enjoy a natural advantage in fighting for focal points, i.e. gates. Dreads and sniping battleships should rule the field. But there are certain caveats in Eve’s space model.

The first caveat is the capital ships themselves. They don’t fit through gates. The second caveat is the titan bridge.

I’m not sure what exactly motivated the cynosural field mechanic. It’s possible that it was intended to limit the mobility of capitals, and provide the opponents who don’t have a capital to field against them with an option of stopping them before they come. However, in the current Eve of cyno alts and gates permeable even when bubbled up and camped, that is obviously not a sufficient obstacle.8 It’s also possible that it was intended to limit the use of capitals to groups, which is amusingly naive if true. As it is, a cyno is more of a nuisance than an actual limitation, actually nudging players into using more and more throwaway alts just to get around, and instead of providing such limitations, is used instead to produce emergent gameplay effects, i.e. hotdropping, when capitals appear on the field rapidly and suddenly, the first proper exception from the gated network space model.

The second proper exception is the titan bridge, which still requires only a cyno on the other end, and at the same time, allows any ship — and more importantly, any fleet — to be exempt from the constraints of the gated network model and behave like it’s in a jump drive universe. But only if you have a titan.9

Notice that such a discrepancy is not unique in fiction, and games in particular play with the concept of multiple incompatible space models rather often. In Warhammer 40k, Eldar use a gate network, while most others brave the stormy hyperspace. In Sword of the Stars, every race uses a radically different form of FTL propulsion, presenting examples of all three classes. Multiple space models in a single universe are definitely not, as such, bad.

Now that the food for thought has been presented, here are some questions I ask you to think about:

  • What are the specific consequences of having those exceptions? What would happen if we had neither, i.e. nobody could use a shipboard jump drive? Do the arguments against titan bridges apply to capital ship jumps or not? If they don’t, why?
  • What, exactly, was the purpose of cynos? What does requiring them actually add to the game? What removing them would destroy?

I honestly would like to hear some thoughts on the subject. :)

  1. I have certainly seen it end up a surprise more than once.

  2. I didn’t forget about Star Wars. Star Wars forgot about relying on it’s space travel mechanics in the plot instead. And makes the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

  3. Among other things, a gate network model saves the programmers from having to work with coordinate systems that must be appropriate for the entire universe, and allows them to use coordinate systems anchored on specific objects, like stars. Game design implications are obvious — you’re living them.

  4. To quote Douglas Adams, Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero.

  5. Just how much lower is a major point of discussion, and fresh research keeps pushing the estimates up and down.

  6. And looking at a modern ships like an AEGIS cruiser, which seem to slowly edge themselves into the limelight, it looks like history might be going in circles here.

  7. My initial instinct is to say ‘technology!’ but that’s a bit too Marxist.

  8. To the right ship and the right player, sure — but permeable. Individuals having trouble with bubbled gates is hardly news, but I’ve never heard of an alliance having trouble with getting a cyno lit in the enemy system that wasn’t cynojammed, so I suppose there’s no actual problem.

  9. Or a black ops battleship, but these are such an oddball special case that I don’t really know what to think about them.