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Thursday, 14 October 2010

Fever dream

Just when I think I've run out of utterly obscure curiosities to dust off and show you, I go and open a box in the attic and find a dozen more. This time it's a top-level design concept for a browser-based 3D realtime strategy game. This would have been written back around 2000. Having just left Eidos along with Plague lead coder and Warzone 2100 engine creator Sam Kerbeck, the two of us we were looking for a project to work on together.

I got the 'flu and had this weird dream about a guy searching in the dust of Mars a million years ago for the last drops of water. When I woke up, I wrote it down exactly as I saw it and then started sketching out the combined arms principles of the game.

The aim was to make a very simple little game with not too many units, all of which would be low-poly models, so that we could get it done quickly and cheaply. (Yeah yeah, you should always laugh when somebody says that about an RTS.) Then we got more ambitious - as we always do - and decided to turn it into a much bigger game using the astonishing graphics engine Sam created to replace the one for Plague, later Warrior Kings, which was "based on a concept by Ian Livingstone", as the saying goes, insofar as the actual concept in question was for a turn-based 2D version of SimCity set in 14th century London. I kid you not.

Anyway, this game was based on a concept by my virus-cooked subconscious. In my dream it was called Liquid, and I envisaged the ad in Edge with three coloured dots beside an image of Mars, labelled as follows:

Water - the colour of Life
Poison - the colour of Death
Blood - the colour of War

Yes, I know - a bit rough-edged to say the least. But to come up with this stuff while you're asleep and running a temperature... Well, you try it. And I believe it is always worth taking the raw material that you get that way and seeing if you can make something good out of it, because it is the one and only time you're creating without the nagging whisper of your critical faculties.

First thing to go would have been the title. It was about the desperate struggle for resources. Thirst seemed to fit it better - and that's a name I've always liked.

What happened? The dotcom bubble happened. We should have stuck with the quick-n-dirty version, because after the shit hit the FTSE there wasn't nobody handing out a million or two for a start-up game developer. But here is the original fever-fuelled outline:

The red desert of Mars. A fissure in the ground. Our view descends into a crevice, down and down towards the sound of running water. A skin of water ripples down the walls, which are covered in astonishing patterns of phosphoric salts. Further down, far below the planet's surface now, the water runs into a gushing underground river. The river is bubbling, pounding, frothing... A living force in the heart of the dry rock.

The pressure builds, sending a jet of water up the crevice. Back on the surface, the dry edges of the fissure moisten with droplets of water bubbling up out of the interior of the planet. It seeps out into the dusty red sand –

A man wakes. His grey eyes stare in shock, fatigue, despair. His blond hair is plastered with sweat. He is wearing a white environment suit and a mask across his mouth and nose.

The image of bubbling water must have been only in his dreams, as all around him lies a desolate dry landscape: ochre-coloured dunes tinted with patches of olive lichen, red sandstone boulders like giant fossilized eggs. Huge flat-topped mesas stand out darkly against a cobalt blue sky. The sun is smaller, dimmer than it appears from Earth, and there are two swift moons.

The man stands and takes a flask from his belt. Removing his mask, he lifts the flask to drink. But there are only a few drops left. Barely enough to wet his cracked lips. He throws the flask down at his feet.

There is a rhythmic hum on the air. As the man looks around trying to work out where it's coming from, his eyes fall on the shadow at his feet. It is cast by the mesa behind him.

So why is the shadow moving?

The man stands with the mesa behind him outlined against the sky. As he turns his head, an airship prow emerges over the edge of the mesa. Slowly it drifts overhead, filling the sky. There is a hieroglyph on the side of the airship - not the same one that is on the man's suit. He grabs his harpoon rifle but it's obvious that it would be futile for one man to attack such a vast ship. As he watches, ports open in the sides of the cabin slung below the balloon. Green droplets are ejected and fall in slow motion towards him.

He's frozen for a moment watching the green droplets fall. Then he runs. Behind him, the poison bombs splash against the red dust - splattering heavily, they contain dozens of gallons each. There is an acidic hiss and clouds of green vapour start to spread. The man pulls goggles down to cover his eyes.

He rounds the mesa. Reflected in his goggles is a horde of giant crustacean – or insects, maybe. Their hard limbs make a thunderous chittering on the rocks as they march towards his location. Carried in their mandibles are the creatures' riders: soldiers in black environment suits. There are hundreds of them.

The man looks back. The airship has manoeuvred into position between two mesas and is continuing to bombard the ground with poison charges. As he stands undecided, an electrical blast from the vanguard of the insect riders catches him a glancing blow and spins him around, sending him sprawling in the dust.

He's lost his rifle. His arm is stiff where the electrical bolt hit. Maybe he blacked out for a few seconds. With desperate bone-weary strength, he pulls himself to the foot of the mesa. Sheer luck guides him to a cave, the entrance partly concealed behind a jagged rock. He crawls inside, his feet tumbling over the pebbles. He disappears just moments before the insect riders come into view.

He peers out. There is a haze of dust as the riders mill to and fro, the huge insects gleaming like oiled machinery. At close range the insects look like scorpions, their heads tiny in comparison to their massive chitinous bodies. The riders sit in massive jaws that protect them like a cage, while above them gleam the insect's inscrutable jewelled eyes.

The airship has dropped anchors. They are tethering it between the mesas, lowering a ladder so that the crew can descend to the camp.

The man retreats deeper into the cave. As the noise of the soldiers outside grows fainter, he hears a trickling sound. He looks at the wall of the cave. Something odd. The rock seems to quiver and swim...

He reaches out and touches the wall. Water flows around his fingers. Tentatively he touches it to his lips - then he is splashing it over his face and pressing his face against the rock to drink.

Half crazy with the discovery, he runs back up the passage towards the mouth of the cave. But a rider of the enemy army is there, his insect mount stooping to allow him to look into the cave. As he sees the man, he levels his gun. The man cries out in panic, pointing back into the cave. He's trying to tell them about the water.

Too late. A blast of electricity burns through the air, flinging the man back. The last sight we see is the liquid gleam of his eyes as they go dull and dead.



Ground units:

Infantryman - Carries a polearm with a white-hot welding-type arc at the end. Very tough in close combat. Medium armour.

Plasma Artillery - Carries a heavy bazooka that fires plasma blasts. When artilleryman is in position, bazooka takes a few moments to set up on its base before it can fire. Weak in close combat, because they cannot fire at point-blank range (the plasma blasts have a detonation radius). Medium armour.

Kelid Riders - Humans riding in the jaws of giant scorpion-like insects. They fight with magnetic guns that fire thin metal harpoons. Light armour.

Aerial units:

Airship - Huge hydrogen-filled balloon driven by solar-powered propellers (the solar panels cover the balloon surface). At manoeuvring altitude, the Airship moves a little slower than an Infantryman. At cruising altitude (higher) the Airship enters the Martian jet streams and potentially can move faster than any other unit, but only in the direction of the jet stream - in order to switch to another jet stream in a different direction, it must first drop to manoeuvring altitude. (Note: the directions of the jet streams are very predictable, like rivers, but their speed changes slightly with the seasons.) Airship weaponry consists of bombs that explode into clouds of acidic gas when dropped - Infantry and Artillery will die before they can get out of a direct hit, but Riders are fast enough to escape the cloud with only about 50% damage.

Skimmer - A very fast, low-flying intelligent creature like a dragonfly. Skimmers live in hives in the caves inside a mesa and will collect ore, which they deposit at the nearest friendly Command Post. As aerial units, Skimmers can see further than troops on the ground and this means they also act as an early warning system of attacks on their city. However, they are not intelligent enough to distinguish troops' type or allegiance - to a Skimmer, they just appear as generic units.

Armour Weapon Range Move
Infantry 3 7 1 5
Artillery 3 6 9 4
Rider 1 3 8 7
Airship 2 9 - 4/6-8
Skimmer 0 0 0 9
(For comparison, mesas are about height 6-7 and Airships fly at heights 9-20.)


All buildings except Bridges must be placed on top of mesas. They are built by Infantry, using the arc-welding effect of their lances.

Bridge - A means of spanning the gap between mesas to extend a city. Energy can be carried along the Bridge's cables, allowing a network of mesas to draw off a shared set of Pylons. Troops can cross bridges, and Fulmin Turrets can be placed on them. Force bubbles do not protect bridges, however. Bridges can also be built across chasms.

Command Post - Generates a force bubble that covers the top of the mesa. The strength of the bubble depends on the energy available. Force bubbles can only be destroyed by Artillery. All types of ground troops can be spawned at a Command Post.

Fulmin Turret - Has a ranged electrical-blast attack that is effective against all units (weapon strength 8 if Turret fully powered, range 7).

Hydroponic Farm - Must be built on the edge of a mesa. Pipes lead down the side and into the ground at the base of the mesa, extracting water from the deep wells below the planet's surface.

Hangar - Used to spawn Airships.

Pylon - A high metal tower stretching up into the jet stream. This continually attracts an electrical halo, generating Energy.


Energy - generated continually by pylons and fed to all buildings within that city. Energy is used to power Fulmin Turrets and a Command Post's force field - these continually draw energy, and if not enough Energy is available they are weakened. Spawning new units also drains energy. Since space on top of a mesa is limited, you have to balance Pylons for Energy production against other buildings.

Ore - available scattered across the surface of Mars. Some areas are particularly rich in Ore. Meteorites sometimes fall from space, creating a new source. Ore is usually collected by Skimmers, but can also be picked up by Infantrymen, who use their arclite lances to break down the ore. (Infantrymen given the order to gather Ore move at reduced speed until they can return to the Command Post or are ordered to drop the ore.)

Water - an "implied" resource, like food in Warcraft. You don't have to collect and store water, you just build Hydroponic Farms and that sets your population limit.


It's possible to describe typical combat results, assuming equal numbers on both sides. These paradigms can be changed by other factors such as terrain.

Infantry vs Artillery
Infantry will take some damage but will catch up to Artillery (who move a bit slower because of their heavy guns). In close combat, the Infantry then win easily. (Note: the Infantry will take greater damage if advancing in close formation, because of the detonation radius of the plasma bolts.)

Infantry vs Riders
The Riders can back away (the insects go equally fast in all directions, and are swifter than men on foot) while firing. The guns don't do a lot of damage, but they will slowly whittle the Infantry away. So the Riders win with no damage to themselves.

Artillery vs Riders
The Artillery's plasma blasts do more damage than the Rider's guns. A further problem is that an insect taking a direct hit will scuttle burning through the ranks, causing confusion. Artillery wins, but will sustain about 50% damage.

Infantry vs Airship
The Infantry can do nothing.

Artillery vs Airship
Artillery's range is unaffected by the direction in which they shoot - even straight up. Assuming the Artillery start firing as soon as the Airship is in range, a sufficient number should be able to destroy it before it is in place to drop bombs. (Note: this is not a literal 1-on-1 paradigm, as one Airship costs as much as maybe six Artillery.)

Riders vs Airship
The Riders can do some damage to the Airship, but their guns are affected by the altitude they are firing at, so it's minimal. If the Riders stay in position, the Airship will bomb them before it has taken much damage.


Sandstorms reduce the effectiveness of ranged units (Riders especially).

Riders shooting downhill get a damage bonus that can turn the tables against Artillery (whose weapons do the same damage whether shooting up or down).

Riders who can get close enough to ambush Artillery (eg, by hiding in sand dunes or behind a mesa) will beat them because the Artillery cannot fire at point-blank range.

Infantry who can trap Riders (eg, in a narrow pass between two mesas) will be able to slaughter them easily, as the Riders cannot then retreat while shooting.

Riders who are on a mesa can do more damage to Airships (because there is less of a difference in altitude).


Rout - Units drop their weapons and flee back to nearest friendly base. You have to re-equip them, but at least you save the men.

It's rather strange to come across this after an interval of ten years, especially given the atypical inception of the concept. It's a never-was project, of course. You get through a lot of those in the videogames industry - which is the main reason why I returned to writing.


  1. I believe that's one of my drawings Dave. If you have the orginal [?] may I have them back please.

  2. I wish I had the originals to send you, Russ! That was one of the fillers for Heart of Ice, I think, of which I have a large-ish photocopy (presumably taken from the original) if that's of any use? I imagine the originals are somewhere in the vaults of Mammoth Books, if they still exist.