Playing Escape Velocity Nova has been part of an under-the-radar campaign on my part to dig into lots of space exploration/trading/whichever games -- you know, the whole genre that began with Elite where you start off in a junky space freighter and through game-years of shrewd trading, cozying up to the right factions, and blasting a hojillion pirates, you acquire cash, nuclear missiles, and a giant star battleship and eventually make your mark on the galaxy. (Hopefully that mark does not turn out to be an extra crater on an unnamed moon somewhere.) Some other prominent past examples have included the aforementioned Elite, Wing Commander: Privateer, the brilliant failure that was Elite II: Frontier, and smaller titles like X: Beyond the Unknown. One could argue that Star Control II sort of goes this category too, although it's an uncomfortable fit. SCII is more of a space RPG, really. Still, it does offer handy pointers game mechanics-wise, and that's what I'm really most interested in right now: what works, what doesn't, what are the flaws and pet peeves in this genre?
This isn't really a very popular genre right now, either, so it means I'm looking at a lot of small dev house and shareware games. Which brings me to EV: Nova. Now, I want to emphasize that I'm not trashing this game. I actually like it -- I sent in my shareware fee earlier today (they have a devilishly clever bit of code in the game which waits until your character is at the climactic point in a story arc and then announces you have to register to see what happens next) -- but there is something I wanted to bring up. It's behind an LJ-cut 'cos it's a big ol' spoiler for one of the game's six or so storylines, so don't read if you plan to play EV: Nova and would rather be completely surprised.
Okay, so. One of the storylines in EV: Nova concerns a race of telepaths who have been enslaved by the cruel Federation Government. This becomes less of something to write to the Barnard's Star Times about and more something that affects you personally when, during one of the story paths, your character is unexpectedly outed as a telepath, slapped into mind slavery, and sent on a series of diabolical missions for said Federation Government. (Don't worry -- eventually they get what's coming to them.) In the course of said mind slavery, your character grows and expands his or her psychic abilities to quite prodigious levels, including the ability to mentally synthesize a series of more and more powerful "spaceships" that eliminate the need to actually own a giant hunk of metal and fuel in order to travel around space.
It's pretty cool, actually -- all very James Schmitz-esque, crossing wild mental powers with space opera. The one gripe I have is this: your character's powers grow, and when they do, you acquire the ability to synthesize a new ship while your telepathic mentor rambles on with lot of fluffy hippie-talk about mental eigenvalues or whatever. The problem is that he's so vague and metaphorical about the ship's capabilities that you are left ignorant about how to activate them or even what they are.
For example, the psychically projected spaceship has afterburners. And guns -- the best guns in the game. And it can launch fighters.
I didn't know any of that and eventually found myself stuck in a very frustrating situation where afterburners, guns, and fighters would have been very useful. Complicating the issue as well was that I had managed to play the entire game up to that point barely using my guns at all, so it hadn't felt like I should drop everything until I figured out how to get my weaponry on. I checked out the FAQs and message boards and eventually sorted it out, but I can imagine a player just giving up and walking away at that point.
So lesson #1 for a space game: Flowery writing is all very nice. I approve of it. But if you're going to go that route, you have to be sure not to lose sight of gameplay issues. When the player is being informed of brand new capabilities, highlight them and explain very clearly how to activate them -- i.e., what key on the keyboard activates the hail of nuclear death, and how exactly you target it on the enemy ship. Don't worry about breaking the immersion by mentioning game controls. We're grownups. We can take it.
That's it, really. Not a real big lesson, but I'm just trying to compile as many of them as I can think of.