Issues of Scale

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Things come in different sizes. That’s the premise here. A given. Most games deal at least a little with scale imbalance. Fledgeling will deal with objects and organizations on vastly different scales.

But what does it mean that something is bigger or smaller? Does size really matter as much as we think? Can a difference in size amount to a difference in kind? I would say, respectively: Larger things are more difficult to work with, but also more useful. Not really. No. A single set of flexible rules should be able to account for the behavior of large and small alike.

What does scale mean? Like any distinction, scale means relative motion along several gradients. Here are five to get you thinking.

  • Temporal: Small and quick vs large and slow. The temporal gradient is very evident in characters, where huge corporations and governments are less able to quickly react to changes in their environment. However, their environments are also generally large, and thus do not change very quickly either. Relative to a small object, large objects are “slow”.
  • Mass: large momentum vs small responsiveness. If you want to keep going in one direction, larger is better. If you want to change direction a lot, go with small. Large objects are “sluggish”.
  • Material: small, strong, and durable vs large, rigid, and brittle. Again, this works for non-material objects as well. Big things generally break and splinter more easily than small things. Not more easily in an absolute sense, but more easily relative to their size. Large objects are “fragile”.
  • Efficiency: Large and powerful vs small and versatile. Large systems tend to waste less. Even when they are less efficient than small systems on a per-area basis, they make up for it in volume. Large things are efficient.
  • Transmission: Small and diffusion vs large and convection. Transfer of materials, information, and goods occurs differently in small and large systems. The smell of bacon will diffuse easily through a room, but it takes a good wind to blow it across town. In biological cells, diffusion rules. On the planetary scale, convection is prevalent.

Imagine a planet. Now imagine a pebble. For all their differences, a planet is very much like a pebble. They are both basically rocks. They can both collide with things. They have mass, position, and velocity. They may even be the same age, and the same density. You can break each apart and find out what’s inside. Of course, they are numerically very different, but the relative size is more important than the absolute size. If you hit a rock with your space-ship, what happens? I guess it depends. How big is your spaceship? How big is the rock?

Employing scale in games is tricky. If we are going to be treating all the rocks the same, then we need an elegant way to get a sense of scale. Again, the relative size is paramount. A silhouette of the player’s character (whether city or citizen) next to the object in question should help. Distance attenuation and depth-of-field will help with the relatively very large and very small respectively. Whatever the method, a clear indication of the size of a thing is important.

If everything is the same scale, comparison and conflict will be fair, but uninteresting. But differing scales call the comparison into question in both directions. The player character can often take on huge foes only because the foes are much smaller intellectually than the player. The imbalance of scale in one dimension requires an opposing imbalance to offer an interesting challenge.

Many times, a “boss” will be physically larger than the player, with more health. However, the boss will make up for this by moving slowly. Sometimes even the bullets are slow, giving the smaller player character time to dodge. This exaggeration of drawbacks makes for an interesting competition.

This imbalance is often run in reverse, with the player character being “bigger” (tougher, more powerful) than the foes, who have the numerical superiority. In this case, games often avoid the “Bolivian Army Ending” type of attack, which is really the clear course of action for a numerically superior foe. Justifying this oversight has become easier as players are more used to stupid AI. Fledgeling should not shy away from overwhelming tactics. If you pick a fight that is too big for you, you’re going to die for it.

So, there you go, a few random thoughts on scale. I hope that was interesting.

One thought on “Issues of Scale

  1. (Editors note: The spam filter caught this one, but I thought it was pretty enough to let through. I’ve sanitized the URL of course.)
    White cloud never promise the sky where and when she will go, but she will be accompanied by your side morning and evening. Star never promise the night to bring him a light, but he is hard to twinkle; The Scenery never says to eye to be forever, but always been beautiful;

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