Saturday, May 19, 2012

Physically Real, Real-Time Strategy

Yeah, it's been a ridiculously long while since I've posted here, but I just dreamed up an idea that's a natural for this blog, so I'm reviving it.  (It really, actually came to me in a dream, just minutes ago.)

Real-Time Strategy in the Real World

In my dream, there were a bunch of pre-teens playing in some kind of basement.  Each one had his or her own 3D printer, and they were smaller than the MakerBots and RepRaps I've seen online.  Their printing volumes were about the size of...  a standard apple or orange.  The printers themselves weren't much bigger than, say, a stack of about 12 CD jewel cases.

I remember asking a little girl how much her printer cost, and she gave me an exact amount that I can't remember, except that it was in the area of 150$.  (The cheapest 3D printers I've found online still cost around 600$ + shipping.)  I know it's kind of weird for a young girl to tell me the price so matter-of-factly, but hey, that's how I dream.

Now, most 3D printers you can get for between 600$ and 1200$ online work with spools of plastic filament that gets melted by the printing nozzle to build up objects.  In my dream, the printers worked with powdered plastic instead.

The kids in my dream were building remote-controlled toys that they would then control from their computer.  Some of the toys even shot small bullets that weren't dangerous to the kids, but would still damage other toys.

But the kids in my dream were just building things and having the things shooting at each other, with no real rules or anything like that.  It was I, in the dream, who started thinking that this was all that was needed to make a physical RTS.

Start with a really clean table.  Place some obstacles, some terrain, and possibly some structures that the little toys won't be able to destroy, but can use for cover, etc.  Then, place some plastic powder in appropriate places, for the toys to "harvest".

Start each player with a couple of toys already-built, including one that can harvest powder, and bring it back to the printer's "reservoir".

Now, each player gets a map of the playing field, on their computer, but everything is more map-like than a realistic rendering, with simple markers for the positions of units, for example.  So they use the computer to control their units (they are not allowed to ever touch their units physically) using an RTS-style interface.

Harvesters bring in more powder, letting a player build more units, including defensive and offensive units.  Each "factory" (in reality, the printer) has some special targets that must be hit a certain number of times to disable it (without really damaging it.)  So players have to defend their factory, if they don't want to lose the game.

There could also be a "shredder" addition to the printer and its reservoir, and "scavenger units" could pick up "dead" units and drop them into the shredder, to turn them in to small enough pellets or powder to be reused by the printer-factory.

Since the units would be pretty small, printing them would be close to the times we're used to seeing in RTS games.

Now, obviously, there's one thing I didn't think about while I was dreaming that I was forced to consider after I woke up with this idea still in my head: how do these toys move, and where are the electronics?

This is the part that is theoretically possible right now, but not quite feasible (I think) for making this a reality.  I hope someone can prove me wrong, soon, and actually build this setup, somehow.  This game would require a combination of tiny servos and one radio receiver, as well as some kind of power unit.

Let's take care of the power unit, first.  Battery technology has advanced enough that building small enough batteries for this shouldn't be a big issue.  So another part of a player's base might just need to be some kind of recharge station, and the game could use electrical power reserves as a second resource for the gameplay.  Units that lose all power before they can reach the recharge station are dead, and left there to be recycled by any player's scavenger units.

Another element that I don't see as a big problem is the radio receiver (which should also be a transmitter, so the computer can communicate with it both ways.)  I've seen tiny radio-controlled cars no bigger than a "Hot Wheels" being controlled by a cell phone, via Bluetooth, so this is definitely feasible.

The last item is the hardest.  We need a bunch of tiny servos that "squid out" of the core that contains the battery and transmitter, in such way that they can be placed in different configurations within the units, for different shapes and movements.  You might have one larger, high-speed motor that is the "main drive", used for basic movement, and the other servos are used for steering, or controlling things like the excavator arm on a harvester.

So, what would happen is, the cores, with their servos that squid out, would be a third resource.  Each player would start with a certain number, and more could be placed in caches on the battlefield (or, it could be that the total number of cores in a game is limited, and players have to fight over them, scavenging them from dead units and such.)

Units would be built in 3 stages: an initial first half of the unit would be printed, then the core would be dropped-in, and each servo would be placed in its correct spot, and finally, the rest of the unit would be built over that.  Again, this all appears to be theoretically possible to me, but there are sure to be some difficulties in engineering all this.

There is one more thing I mentioned at the beginning that I haven't covered yet: weapons and shooting.  If the plastic is made fragile enough, perhaps it would be possible to have something like a small cannon that shoots the same metal pellets as pellet guns.  Units would then be forced to return to base to reload, adding yet another resource (pellets could even be scavenged from the battlefield.)  But this would require additional mechanisms.

Pellets could also be made out of the same plastic as the units, so that players would have to balance the production of units with the production of ammo.

The last thing I thought of was water.  Get a type of printing plastic that can actually be dissolved by water (maybe that's even part of the printing process, instead of using heat -- or it might be a combination of water and heat.)  Next, make sure the cores and servos are properly waterproof.  Finally, include a small water reservoir in offensive units, made out of something other than the water-soluble plastic, which needs to be incorporated during printing of such a unit.

So then, you have units shooting water at each other, and the water damages the units, the way acid would melt metal.  Except that the melted plastic resolidifies as the water dries, so that puddles of dried-up plastic can be scavenged.

And there you have it, boys and girls.  A Real-World, Real-Time Strategy game.  I didn't go into details for the construction of the units, their look, etc. because I think it's better to leave it like this, and let each reader imagine the units themselves.

Wouldn't all this be AWESOME?