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Why so much butt plumes?

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".


  • sscadminsscadmin DarkOne
    edited 6:22PM

    Nice post. I truly haven't never put a bunch of thought into ship propulsion before and you bring up a lot of good points and ideas. And I do think you are right we are so used to seeing rear based thrusting systems that we don't even give it a second thought anymore as to new ways or ideas for propulsion in games. I think its a whole risk vs reward as to why we haven't seen much in this area in gaming.


    I mean if someone did think of a decent and practical propulsion system to be used on ships in games. What would that bring to someone's gaming experience... probably little to nothing in the grand scheme of the game unless it was a simulator based game where you had to put tons of thought into this topic. But in a practical scifi action space game I doubt we will deter from the norm much since it is the standard and until there is a game mechanic around this new propulsion and how to make it fun and challenging I think we are stuck with it :)

  • edited 6:22PM

    sscadmin, Thank you for your thoughtful response!  Honestly, I was worried because I was already feeling a bit embarrassed writing all that... and kind of wanted to erase it because... "tldr;" :(

    I think you're absolutely correct regarding your assessment of risk vs reward.  I've observed many people nowadays think of gaming as "getting to an end game".  (They vocalize: "What's the goal?" "How do I min/max?")  So when it comes to mechanics, simpler is better.  The ever-growing mobile game market is certainly pushing that because of limitations on their screen real-estate and audience attention-span (for a variety of reasons).  That's fine; I find each platform has specific strengths and weaknesses.  Unfortunately, I just see many space games across the board are turning into regurgitated space-skinned tropes: chess (of the 2-D kind), shooting galleries, rock-paper-scissors.  For those cases, the means doesn't matter, only the ends.

    (I wrote out more, but... it turns out I'm just ranting, so I'll just end it here. Thanks again!)

  • edited July 2015

    That was a really interesting post, potato (hope you don't mind if I call you potato!  :crazy: )


    I've thought a little about this in the past, but not to that level of detail - the whole bit about PUDAR/SHODAR is a brilliant idea and yes, I can see why it would be necessary!


    One of the things that my "ideal" space sim would possess would be the ability to choose between different types of interstellar propulsion based on technology level and your budget - everything from chemical rockets, to fusion mass drives, to reality-distorting warp drives and space-sliding engines. But I think there is always going to be a market for rear-facing engines, simply because (a) it's what humans are used to and it "feels" right, and (b ) you don't necessarily want to be using your Antimatter Fusion Solar Spacetime Warp Engines in close proximity to the atmosphere of inhabited planets....the local navy might not be happy with you! :)



  • edited July 2015

    Sorry I'm slow. I'm always slow, but I've also been preparing for a trip. Thank you for the complement! Nope, I don't mind at all; I had to expect that when I picked that name and avatar. :)


    Yeah, destructive or distorting technology probably should be minimized around population centers. But rocket engines are kind of destructive, too, albeit in a limited sense... but I just keep thinking of all our historical propulsion tech that began with pushers, but made way for pullers or alternatives to maximize efficiency and/or safety or solve engineering problems. Maybe that will happen to bring planetary escape and travel to the common man, ala The Jetsons!


    WARNING, now this is where I start getting crazy almost making stuff up: A possible non-distorting alternative I didn't talk much about before was the concept of sails. Yes, solar sails included, but our known concept of them are bulky. I was fantasizing more like raising and lowering various sails, that may have differing design concepts. For example, "dark energy" sails. Where "dark matter" is a placeholder for explaining why there seems to be more matter than we can detect, "dark energy" is a placeholder for why universe expansion is accelerating instead of decelerating. Whereas solar winds emanate radially from a star, dark energy "winds" might all be going in one direction. Raise the solar sail to exit the system, raise the dark energy sail to ride or tack against DE wind. And if by that time we can manipulate energy-to-matter conversion, adjust our mass (like a Space Engineers' mass block) to ride gravitational fields. Deploy dark matter harpoons to either anchor us to a DM mass, sling around them, or ride them if they're moving (mmm... shai'hulud "sandworms"). "Dark" vs regular because just maybe it might get us around relativistic effects... yeah, right! I fully admit that I have no idea if these concepts jive with what scientists today theorize about how they behave, but exercising this kind of fantasy isn't much different than what the world thought about "glorious atomic energy" back in the 1950s. :D Yep, cuz sci-fi.


    tldr; I pulled a lot of stuff out of my... butt! Yay, full circle!... well, almost.

  • edited 6:22PM

    Haha, no, again, that's a really cool idea, and one I haven't seen anywhere else before. Solar sails yes, dark matter/energy sails no!

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