Alex Mosolov is showing me a picture, and for a good few moments I don't really understand. There are well over a hundred spaceships, all spread across one white plane, all of differing sizes and construction. Concept art, maybe? Not even slightly. "That is all of the ships in one of the mod compilations. Numerous high quality mods are either being worked on, or are more or less finished."
Mosolov is lead designer on Starsector, a top-down space farer where you build up your own fleet and find a place for yourself among the stars. It's in early alpha testing at the moment, but they're adopting the Minecraft model and allowing anyone to pay up and get early access. Which is important when you've got extensive mod tools, and the longevity of your game relies on your players making the most out of them.
At the moment things are a little on the sparse side, with the combat mechanics welded snugly into place, but the majority of the higher functions have yet to be implemented. Starting a new game drops you unceremoniously in the middle of hostile space with nothing but a frigate to your name, forcing you to flee from blood-thirsty pirates and attempt to scrape yourself a few extra ships and some bigger guns.
Essentially, you want to become a bigger fish in this small pond, so the pirates run from you. Even still, beyond chasing down enemy fleets and expanding your own, you're left to speculate on how things could go, from expansive trading routes to intricate faction dealings. All of which are on the Starsector roadmap.
"First of all I'd like to expand a range of interactions with the campaign to something more involved than just clicking on an entity to interact with it," says Mosolov. "As an example, being able to explicitly adjust the speed of your fleet to get through an asteroid field safely, or turning off all non-critical systems to reduce your profile on enemy sensors - things that would let the campaign go from a way to get from one battle to another to being a game in its own right."
It emphasises where all the work has gone so far; the combat and the instanced battles. Halfway between an arcade shooter and a tactical strategy game, you hurl orders out to the ships under your command while figuring out the best way to dispatch the enemy fleet. There's enough depth and variance in the ways you can deal death and protect yourself that everything has to be taken into consideration.
Combat revolves around the judicious use of shields. Your guns and your defences share a common energy pool, so every bullet your shields absorb also means another bullet you can't fire so as not to risk an overload. "The idea is that whether you want shields to be on is a choice you're making moment to moment, rather than shields being just another passive layer for each side to chew through," Mosolov explains. "Having to trade off firepower for defence is interesting, since there's no obvious right answer, and it depends on the situation. A lot factors into that decision - do you have the armour to take some hits on? Is the incoming damage costing the enemy more flux than it is you?"
More importantly, you have to ask who kills what? The bigger craft are slow and ponderous but throw out the biggest punch - though they can't chase, and they can't run away. So you can bunch up your frigates and your fighters, dispatch them quickly, leaving the enemy force without any muscle. Or you can try and pick off their weaker ships and expose the .
Looking forward, Starsector is ripe for expansion. "Right now you fight battles because that's all there is to do. Consequently, you don't ever have to take a tough fight, and there's little to stop you wanting to reload after even slight losses. On the other hand, if there was a pirate fleet heading for an outpost you own, that changes the dynamic completely - you have a reason to take the fight, and you only have so much time to prepare for it."
Between Mosolov and Starsector's increasingly active community of modders and engaged players, it's only a matter of time before the already established combat is given some well-needed context and setting. But even now there's a lot to relish if you're wont to stare at the stars of a night and wonder if we're due another space jaunt.