Practical Shipbuilding for Practical People

2015-01-08

Everyone experiences a sandbox construction game in a different way. While some display an incredible amount of focused creativity, churning out impressive creations almost as though it’s second nature, some of us sit around in frustration as we idly tap on our desks and try to decide where to start. Sure, we can be creative, but there’s just too many options! What’s needed is some direction. In this case, simple, practical direction. You can always put a pretty shell on your carefully-engineered space battleship later, right?

Well… maybe not pretty.

To start with, let’s get the formalities out of the way.

As a member of the latter camp of Space Engineers, I’ve been working sporadically on a Steam guide aimed at helping people form a more concrete picture of what they want to build in the game. I know the frustration of waiting for inspiration to strike or for a grand plan to go from a majestic but blurry outline to a clear and complete schematic. I also know the nagging doubt that sometimes follows. Did I forget something? Wait a moment, why am I stuck spinning end over end? Where the hell are the gyros?

Unfortunately, the editing interface and formatting for Steam guides sucks tremendously. It seems aimed at fairly short and purposeful guides, like how to beat a certain boss or which settings to choose to optimise your game’s performance. When faced with a lengthy work on broad design concepts, it falls flat on its face. Snared in the trap of character-per-section limits and the fact that the entire guide loads as a single page no matter how many images you’ve stuffed into it, and in order to reach out to a larger audience, I’ve decided to begin bringing that guide here. I’ll be doing so in a series of features over the coming weeks, updating and adding sections as well.

The Premise

Space Engineers presents almost limitless possibilities, but this brings with it a very important question: just what are you going to do with this potential? You could build a replica of a ship from your favourite movie or videogame, you could build a “city” on an asteroid… or, if you’re like me, you might be more concerned with building a more believable ship, something with practical applications and more realistic design.

This isn’t easy, though; in many ways, it’s actually harder than just building some grandiose, elegant vessel. You have to try and actually think like an engineer as well as an artist or architect. If I put the engines here, will they be too prone to damage? Have I got redundant controls or is the ship doomed if the cockpit is hit? Does my airlock ruin the ship’s lines, will I have to move it or deal with the ship being ugly?

The larger and more complex your ship is, the more difficult this becomes. Small ships are generally not too hard to design, but a large carrier or colony ship brings with it all kinds of conflicts between structural integrity, aesthetics, capacity, and utility. The larger your rooms are, the weaker your ship will be. The more interior bracing your ship has, the less space you will have. The heavier your framing, the more difficult it will be to maintain a nice shape. Building a practical ship is a careful juggling act between many different aspects of design at every level, a juggling act that can present an intimidating challenge at times.

Presenting examples of design problems and some possible solutions can go a long way to mitigating that challenge. These cases can be applied individually as needed or can be implemented holistically to build a new ship from the ground up. At the end of the day, however, you should always ensure that your ships fulfill your own goals and desires – otherwise, why build them at all?

The Big Picture

First of all, just what are you designing a ship for? What are its objectives, and what kind of environments will it be operating in?

Are you designing a cargo hauler, with a skeleton crew and many modular containers that can be added or removed by cargo tugs? Is it a commerce raider, with emphasis on range and capacity and just enough firepower to scare civilians? A factory ship needs an easily-accessible, centralised conveyor system and a maximum number of refineries and assemblers for a minimum of space – does yours have these? What good is a mining support ship without a hangar properly equipped to handle small mining vessels?

Don’t just decide to build a battleship by sticking a bunch of turrets on a transport – give some serious thought to what it is exactly that your ship will do, and how to best design it to achieve those goals. Think about where and how it will pursue them. Perhaps your freighter needs some defensive turrets if it will be travelling long distances through uncharted systems, or maybe a fighter ship you designed will be expected to operate planetside too and needs wings.

In fact, that last example is a good demonstration: not only do wings provide plausibility for dual-purpose, Space Shuttle-like fighters, but those wings also give you more real estate for mounting weapons. Think of real-world parallels – many attack helicopters have stub wings to carry more weaponry.

Let’s look at an example below.

PartyAlarm’s Goon Construction Vehicle Mk.III is a perfect example of a ship designed around its role, rather than the inverse. With no space wasted, the GCV has a great capacity for its size and can squeeze into even the tightest of work sites; its thrusters are all mounted far enough from its working end so as to avoid heat damage to whatever it is you’re working on. However, it trades this compact size for fragility, being built entirely around a single large cargo container. If this container is destroyed, the whole GCV will crack in half, essentially writing it off.

The obvious solution? Uparmouring! By adding an armoured shroud around the top of the container, this critical issue was solved, albeit at the expense of slightly larger size.

Of course, with the involvement of modded parts such as Uncle Ste’s armour panels, a similar level of structural integrity could be achieved for a smaller increase in height. PartyAlarm later resdesigned the GCV from the ground up, producing the rectangular GCV Mk.IV with tools offset to one side and cockpit to the other, but I’ve always adored the Mk.III model for its aesthetics and simplicity of production. Speaking of which…

Economy of Scale

Just how many of these ships will you be building? One-offs can be lovingly crafted, but utility ships and smaller warships need to be kept simple enough to produce in large batches. As French writer, poet, and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry once said, “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away”. Simplify production as far as possible without impacting on your ship’s functionality, and try to keep its arrangement as logical as possible. This is especially important if other people may need to assist in construction, or if they will be building the ship themselves.

Let’s again take the GCV as an example (payment better be in the mail, Party Alarm). The GCV Mk.III’s design proved so simple that within an hour of seeing one built, another player on our server was able to establish a full-blown production line without any assistance from the original creator – and many others soon joined in building the little ships for newcomers to the server.

Since we’d each claim (or build) a GCV, name it, and paint it up in our own colours, some of us got a little attached. The end result? We ended up repairing our GCVs if they broke, and making our own little customisations and improvements. A few of us built armoured shells over the top to stop them from cracking in half in case of an accident or sabotage (far from uncommon on goon-run servers), and others rearranged the tool rig or increased their capacity. It was like a Trabant owners’ club, but in space.

As you can see from the production line in the background, there isn’t much to a GCV if you strip the armoured shell away. This was the main thing that made them so easy to build from memory. All you needed to do was slap down a large cargo container, build two short conveyor arms from an elbow piece and a straight piece each (or use two short straight segments instead of one normal one, to allow for more colourful livery later), add the tools and then build a cockpit between them. Front done. The back was similarly simple, a (usually downwards-facing) collector with a small reactor on each side, and a connector at the back. From there, players could improvise a thruster arrangement and add lights or beacons as needed, and then build an armoured shell if they felt so inclined.

Survivability

Nobody likes losing hours, days, or weeks’ worth of work. Before you get carried away with the sweeping promenade decks, high-ceilinged halls or mile-long corridors, stop and consider what these will mean for your ship and its crew. Can a hull breach risk explosive decompression of your entire vessel? Could one well-aimed missile or unlucky asteroid sever your connection to your engines, or cut your ship in half? If you lost part of your ship, would you be left drifting helplessly because all of your gyros were there? Reundancy is only one step, careful design is another.

Following are some ground rules for those who value practicality over splendour. Compartmentalise your ship. Ensure your bulkheads are solid enough. Keep vital areas in the centre of the ship, and/or spread around – not in a giant clump which begs to be shot away. Have a course of action planned for each eventuality, a backup to each system, an out for every potential disaster. Make sure you’ve thought your lighting through – nobody enjoys blind collisions or falling down a long access shaft to their deaths.

Consider also the ease with which your ship can be repaired if it does get damaged – can you easily access all of its major systems to repair them? Are there some parts of the ship you can afford to cannibalise to patch a hole elsewhere? These sorts of questions, and your answers to them, can be the difference between limping to a safe port or drifting into eternity. In the case of the GCV, loss of the cargo module would destroy the ship for all intents and purposes, leaving it without power or propulsion. The obvious solution was to reinforce its structure to provide some redundant support to the tail end in case of an accident.

Versatility

Does your ship have more than one task, or will it need to use different tools to complete its missions? Consider using the new merge blocks as tool attachment points. This can allow your ship to seamlessly switch from one task to another without needing to undergo an extensive, costly (and probably time-consuming) refit every time something comes up.

During a redesign of the standard lifeboat, I added a downwards-facing merge block just behind the pilot’s seat and another by the airlock, with the idea of using them to dock the ship to stations or attach tool rigs to it. The simple addition of the merge block under the cockpit turned the standard expendable lifeboat into a ship worth keeping, as I built a large grinder attachment that could be clamped on when needed and then removed when not in use.

Mobility

Depending on the role of your ship, it may not need to be fast or agile. For work ships like the GCV shown earlier, excellent control response and even thrust distribution is more important than speed; to call GCVs ponderous would be an understatement, but they are easy to fly in tight spaces because of it. For interceptors and blockade runners, speed and agility means everything. Freighters, meanwhile, need enough power to get them moving in a straight line at a steady pace – turning and braking is optional.

Be sure that you are properly accounting for this need as you build. Underpowered fighters are doomed to fail; if you lose power to an overloaded reactor in the middle of a dogfight, it will probably be your last. On the other hand, superfluous gyroscopes on a freighter or factory ship are just wasting space that would be far better used for more cargo storage or machinery.

Remember, it’s a good idea to have redundancy in those systems most important – giving a fighter more gyroscopes than it actually ‘needs’ isn’t a bad idea, and nor is providing a backup reactor for a factory ship.

Creature Comforts

There’s a fine line between cozy and cramped, but if there is one thing practically-minded shipbuilders should avoid, it’s wasted space. Hallways should provide enough room for two or at most three people to pass, and perhaps some conduit space – no more. Make use of idle floorspace by adding seats, desks, cargo modules, or backup systems. Make sure people can see where they’re going and look at using some form of colour-coded system to help your crew navigate larger vessels without getting lost.

When planning crew areas, consider what you would find on seafaring vessels of equivalent weight class and role. You may not need bunks on a tug, and perhaps your shuttle only needs one or two – but your cruiser will definitely need quarters, a mess, and recreation space.

Make the best of what space you have – even a seemingly tiny and cramped space can always be utilised in some way. In this case, the interior of my refit lifeboat still seems cozy rather than cramped, even after the addition of a double-length bunk, separated cockpit, and even an internal airlock.

Keep in mind that civil and military vessels will differ in interior design, and the ship’s size will also factor in. Larger civilian ships should feel more open and luxurious, while military vessels tend to be cramped and claustrophobic regardless of size. Small merchants and shuttles should feel cozy rather than cramped or spacious.

What’s next?

Each section of the guide covers a specific area or range of areas, starting with broad design concepts and working down to small details. The same structure is followed by the guide as a whole, and so the opening sections cover some of the more basic (and yet critical) areas of ship design, providing a starting platform to build upon later.

In the next section, we will be examining the issue of resolution in a block-based game like Space Engineers, and how failing to define it early on can lead to serious problems later. We’ll also cover the issue of drones, and weigh up the pros and cons of remote control in spacecraft.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Rossmum.

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