Sep 13 2009

Positech Games does not release Gratuitous Space Battles

… but they’re taking pre-orders, and a pre-order gets you entry to the open beta. :)

Gratuitous Space Battles (GSB) is the most recent game being developed by Cliff Harris (Positech Games), a one man development studio (contracting out gfx, sfx, and music) in somewhere in England which produces strategy games for the Win/Mac platforms. Despite a fairly extensive pre-release marketing campaign which included gameplay videos and blog posts discussing the development which had me excited to play the game, and despite having purchased 3 games from Positech in the past, and despite following a discussion about pre-release pricing… I somehow failed to notice that pre-orders were being taken. :( Fortunately, I happened to stumble onto Positech’s site looking at an unrelated application, and decided to check to see what the status on GSB was.

It’s not my intention to turn this blog into a review site, but September is looking pretty sparse. I also think that there is an overlap between the Flash gaming community and the Win/Mac/Linux indie gaming community, but visitors to my site are not necessarily visitors to the various Win/Mac/Linux game developer sites which is where I had become interested in GSB. So if you haven’t heard about the game, read on..


Anyway, GSB is a strategic spaceship combat game, where you build ships, arrange formations, assign orders, and then let them fight the opponent. Both your ships and the opponent are controlled by the AI– there’s no meaningful interaction during the battle itself. Based on the orders you’ve given your fleet, and the design of the ships themselves, you win or lose and may gain ‘honor’ points which allow you to unlock additional modules.

The game is called ‘Gratuitous’ space battles because there is no particular reason given for the fleets to be fighting in the first place. The emphasis is on the combat itself, and on the pretty visuals which accompany the battles. Despite having thousands of objects ranging from missiles, to escape pods, to squadrons of fighters and capital ships on screen at any given time, I haven’t noticed any lag even on my low-end, shared graphics memory, system.

modulesEach scenario has a cap on the number of pilots you can use and the number of ‘credits’ which you may spend in creating your fleet. Every design needs to be created from scratch, using a module system similar to that of EvE Online. Each ship has a certain number of module slots and hardpoints, which are the only slots which accept weapons. Placing more than one module that affects similar attributes (ie- 2 armor modules, 2 engines, etc) decreases the effectiveness of each module in an attempt to encourage balanced designs. Ships are required to have crew and produce power in order to run their modules, and each module adds mass to the ship (oddly referred to as weight), which affects speed.

Additionally, each battle in the single player mode has three difficulty settings which send differently configured enemy fleets to combat you. In addition to the standard single player mode, there is a ‘massively single player’ mode, in which players may issue challenges… basically providing a human designed fleet which you then attempt to defeat using your own ships.

deployThe AI control of your units makes strategy far more important than rapid clicking. Several techniques are being mentioned in the beta forums for using unique sets of orders to accomplish goals. For example, fighters equipped with ship killing weapons are very effective against capital ships which do not have anti-fighter defenses. However, they are easy prey for fighters which have only anti-fighter weapons, because things like the ‘fighter torpedo’ weigh a lot, so fighters equipped with them travel slowly. To ensure these ‘torpedo bombers’ get to their targets unmolested, one player set his bombers in formation with a cheap frigate which he knew would be destroyed, but left his normal fighters unattached to any capital ship so that they could hunt down enemy fighters. In the scenario he was playing, by the time the trigger frigate was destroyed, his fighters had established ‘space superiority’ and his bombers were able to make it to the target. Many different orders can be chained across multiple ships in order to devise such strategies.


It’s worthwhile to note that because the game has not been officially released, the game is subject to bugs and is not perfectly balanced. I beat several of the ‘expert’ difficulty missions with swarms of fighters for example. Other players have found instant success by stacking their ships directly on top of one another. Other features are not yet well implemented. The ‘massively single player’ challenge browser is hard to navigate, and there is no reward for beating challenges anyways, nor feedback for the challenge issuer other than the number of attempts made, and the number of victories. In fact, there is a wealth of both meaningful and meaningless statistics that could be reported to the player after each battle… but aren’t. Hopefully when the final version comes out we’ll learn how much damage each ship did, the cost of the enemies destroyed, how many escape pods were never recovered after the battle, and so on. However, the game is pretty stable… in about 10 hours of play, I’ve had the game crash only once. Balance issues aside, it’s extremely fun to set up a fleet and the hands off gameplay is oddly compelling.

Mr. Harris has said that after the game is officially released, the price will probably go up. Having played the pre-release I can say that the game is enjoyable now, so after release it will presumably be even better. So pre-order it and play now, or wait for the release. Either way the game is worth your purchase. And when you do, send me a challenge. My username for GSB is TFernando. :)


Edit: 9/12/09 … It seems that not long after I posted this, the game was patched to Beta version 1.08. Which included ratings for challenges. :)

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