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I've been wanting to ask this for a while. I'm not sure if this kind of thing had been discussed here before, especially in earlier years when it seemed like hypothetical discussions were more lively... not that I was around back then (I've only seen from searching).
With the recent surge in space games (which I'm thankful for!), I've noticed that virtually all depicted spacecraft use some sort of rearward-exhausting rocket engines. Why?!
I guess I'll answer my question right away: "Probably because that's the easiest to understand for regular people".
But for futuristic space technology--and many of these games lay smack in the middle of futuristic science fiction--I wish some more games would try some other kinds of propulsion to innovate on design and maybe even gameplay mechanics, while also incorporating the need to traverse the vast distances of empty space. People are throwing around "Alcubierre drive" after both the recent introduction of jump drives in Space Engineers and recent popularization of "negative energy" theories. (However, Space Engineers' jump drive seems more like interstellar teleportation to me, akin to BSG's "FTL" or "space folding" from Dune's Spacing Guild Heighliners or SDF-1 Macross.) Other than Star Trek's warp drive and Honorverse's impeller drives, my personal favorite is Independence War's linear displacement system drive where moving pieces of space around you in large enough gaps allows you to fly through stars! In all of those examples, no rearward plumes. On the other hand, exiting those propulsion modes doesn't seem to conserve their perceived momentum (except for any momentum prior to entering those modes).
If they must resort to Newtonian-based physics in "normal" space--and hence incur time-dilation penalties--again "why only pusher rockets?". Why not "puller" devices? Heck, if you look at our modern history, we have several examples of dominant "puller" technology. WWII planes used "pulling" propellers. Most cars today use front wheel drive. Trains use pulling locomotives. Scoop up them interstellar hydrogen atoms! Tractor the hell out of everything!
I'll guess I'll answer my question again on that: "In a medium with resistance (atmosphere, roads, etc.), pullers were the simple answer to instability due to frictional turbulence. In space, there really isn't much turbulence, so pushers should still be stable enough."
I understand in terms of games, propulsion as a means to an end means it may not matter so much to people who just want to play games. But in some games, it has mattered, e.g. thrusters damage objects behind them in Space Engineers. Yeah, I'll acknowledge that's not really a counter-argument.
However, applying differing behaviors to propulsion mechanics might change things around to help achieve certain kinds of gameplay. For example regarding Elite: Dangerous, I'm on ExpandingMan's side (apologies if I misinterpretted) regarding disagreement of their nerfing yaw because it just doesn't make sense in 3-D space (damnit!). The victorious opposing side asserts equivalent yawing capability encourages "turreting", which is more of a gameplay opinion. (But damnit, I enjoy turreting because I like to run away!) However, it would've been an easier pill to swallow if they simply changed the normal-space propulsion mechanism to something fictionally different, maybe even "reaction-less" or "slipstream-ish" to force that kind of WWII dogfighting mentality. Most non-teleportational FTL movement I've seen in past space games already disallow lateral maneuvering, so it wouldn't be that much more of a leap to restrict one more "degree of freedom". (Regardless, I still like to run away!) Yeah, I know they already did some of that with their Supercruise mode (which I enjoy quite much), but if they're so insistent on copying the maneuvering mechanics into normal space, why not just dump the rocket engines entirely and let the Frameshift drive do everything?
However, what if we created a game in an environment where space was NOT empty? What if it was filled with tons of space dust and debris? Pre-stellar systems, gas giant atmospheres, or even stellar nurseries might be candidates for such murky environments. Not sure how rich in resources those environments might be to be worth any species' while to inhabit, but... hey, remember Species 8472 in Star Trek Voyager? Oh wait, weren't they trying to escape that zone? I don't remember.
"Pusher" propulsion would slam your hull against the high-density debris or induce chaotic turbulence, so the initial dominating technology of motion would be some kind of trawling caterpillar drive that pushes aside or ingests the gunk, but I'm not saying that'll be the only or fastest method; I just haven't come up with better ideas. Combat would also be adversely affected as the environment would not only nullify ballistics and beam weapons, but also fast-kinetic melee (just say no to "swords in space"). The only effective thing I can think of at the moment would be short-range explosive harpoons and direct-contact "taser" lances. "Ranged" weaponry could be shock-wave based due to the high-density of debris, but may not be effectively damaging beyond a limited range. I don't want to eliminate ranged tech; I like ranged tech, but I'm just wondering about non-traditional or non-direct-fire ranged. Sensors would be pointless; instead use PUDAR/SHODAR (PUsh/SHOve Detection And Ranging)! For that, I envision employing arrays of pistons alongside your hull, thumping about, but carries risks similar to active SONAR. Alternatively, GRAViDAR, you know, when debris starts collecting on one side of you more than the others.
Heck, because I value simulators as long as they're *logical* according to their own rules (sci-fi suspension of disbelief) and need not be "realistic", I certainly wouldn't mind extending the "murky" environment to perhaps be occupied by some exotic non-Newtonian fluids. That is, the harder you push doesn't necessarily mean faster. I guess all this might mean is that your caterpillars are now 100% drills and shoving may shove back.
I've also been trying to brainstorm other possible kinds of mechanics around angular momentum and/or 3-D sailing (similar to triangular sails, not those boring square "solar sails").
I dunno. What do you guys think? Not fun? Too slow? Too restrictive? TOO INSANE?! More "simulator" than "game", I know.
Sorry for the wall of text. This has been on my mind for a long time, and my local friends are nowhere near as interested in space/sci-fi stuff as I am, so virtually no discussion possible there. But now, I should probably go to sleep.
Also, why do most space ships in games look like either triangles, bricks, or sausages? I like fish. Why no fish? But absolutely no 4-legged creatures nor chariots in space... well, unless they really do look cool and don't seem like they need a "ground".