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Advanced Agent Skills

Advanced Agent Skills

Agents and operatives within the Phoenix game were added to Phoenix simply because they were in Beyond the Stellar Empire. Even in BSE they were pretty useless and even though the CIA had the ability to hire them anywhere I am not aware of either their proliferation or for that matter use. They never bothered starting rumours or dealing with black markets (nobody did) and may occasionally have checked starport or production. I only remember a hiport being sabotaged once and then the attempt revealed a bug, causing the hiport to be destroyed even though the action failed.

While more actions were coded for Phoenix, there was little in the way of extensive thought on the whole thing. Rather it was coded with the idea of returning to it at some point. When we did however it was very briefly to solve the first major stumbling block, resolving the issue of actually knowing the %chance of success for undertaking an action. Prior to the upgrade was hit and hope.

With other major developments agents and operatives have effectively been ignored with the occasional hat-tip to character upgrades in the distant future where everything is bright and shiny; the actual road between there and this distant vision remaining firmly off any map.


So, what are the issues with Agents and Operatives?
While it is true that they can elicit information about a base and can blow things up, mess around with production and find information about the assets present in the base the effects are not overly impressive. The very good reason why they cannot achieve anything devastatingly effective is down to how the actions are processed. Each action is dealt with on a simple success or failure mechanic with a %chance of success based on the action undertaken cross referenced against the skill of the agent or operative. The fundamental flaw with this mechanic is simple mathematics, in which the use of multiple agents and operatives will overcome the issue of low %chance of success. For example, if the %chance of success is 30% for a typical operative, send in 20 operatives and you can pretty much guaranteed job done even with the retarding factor that improves base security with each action run against it. With the ability to drop hundreds of operatives, it is clear that having truly dramatic results even at low %chance of success is not really feasible. The other primary issue is the meat grinder. This is where failure can result in the agent or operative being captured and eliminated. Putting aside the loss of the agent or operative there is also the aspect of improving skills. As the chance of improving a skill only occurs when an action is successful, it can be seen that all agents and operatives will eventually be eliminated while trying to improve.

  • Fundamental of what is trying to be achieved
  • The goal of rewriting agent and operative actions has to deal with the three primary issues:
  • Use of multiple agents and operatives to swing the odds
  • Not achieving noteworthy outcomes
  • Meat grinder that is failure

The first thing to do was simply consider movies and literature. In all these instances there is the build-up with events occurring along the way. The more dramatic the goal, the longer the build-up and the greater the quantity of events, generally with each event proving tougher than the previous one. Balanced against the increasing toughness of the events however is increasing capability of the protagonist. Another important observation was the option for the protagonist to abort the operation if it became necessary, often while the operation was in its infancy.

How to translate into Phoenix in such a way as to make it both playable while not being abused?
The first idea was to use Missions. These benefit from progress steps and dialogue between each step, with the options for choices. I went so far as to write a few: Sabotage Explosive Ores, Rebel Cell etc.

The problem however was in playability and how missions work. Missions are ideal for one-off events such as discovering about kastorians and moving some colonists for the first time, though quickly lose their appeal when clicking through the same set of operations over and over again. Also they do not really lend themselves to having the same mission being run by multiple positions at different locations.

Further, the inclination when designing missions is to include choices which will modify the outcome. In the case of agent operations you pretty much know the outcome you want and simply want to achieve it or abandon it. It is presumed that the more effective method of achieving the goal will be utilised (in terms of game mechanics, obviously not for literature and movies – where a plethora of moral choices will be winged in just to pad the story out). Ask yourself this, would you chose an option that halved your operative’s chance of success just for an extra line in the resolution printout stating that he bedded a pretty employee while on the job? And then after your curiosity has been satisfied would you take the option again? Thought not.

So, when the mission option is pared down to the bare mechanics what is left is in fact a tiered action where the final resolution point comes after a series of steps each with their own resolution that will either increase or decrease the odds for the next step succeeding. With the action broken down into a series of steps there is also the option for a minimum period of ‘waiting’ before the next step is attempted. This method may give the agent and operative both the chance to improve their skill and or abandon the action before security sweeps in.

Ah, but being metagamers surely some folks will simply run and terminate these multi-part actions at home bases to beef up skills before sending the operative out to other bases?

Of course, this makes perfect sense, but it is presumed that this is part of the operative’s training and that they are already as good as they are going to get in simulated operations. As such bigger bonuses can be given but these are only applied to the specific base and that further actual skill improvements only come when there is an actual risk of elimination. Some actions may simply exist in order to generate bonuses to other actions conducted at the same base.
So, what is envisioned is that an operative will first be created and then moved to the designated target base. Once there they will conduct a number of low-key actions, improving their local skills before moving onto the bigger jobs. If however they drop clues as to their presence, either they will bolt down as an extended action or get picked up.

Breaking down an action into multiple steps is fairly straightforward and each step can be dealt with using a few parameters covering aspects such as:
  • Chance of Success (skill used)
  • Chance of Capture (skill used)
  • Chance of Alerting Base (skill used)
  • Chance of Improving
  • Next Step
  • Cost


Chance of Success
This is %chance of moving onto the next step. Failure keeps the action at the same step but does not end the action. If the agent is on the final step, success completes the action with the final outcome as defined by the action description.

Chance of Capture
This is simply the %chance of being captured when undertaking the next step. Capture may terminate the action.

Chance of Alerting Base
Even though the agent may have 0% chance of being captured, especially if the base has no crackdown, they often run the risk of tipping off security.
Attempting the step gives this %chance of the owner of the base being notified as to the action based on the current security and crackdown of the base. Being notified does not necessarily inform the owner of the nature of the activity or even if it has been successful or not.

Chance of Improving
This gives the %chance that the agent will get bonuses to any or all of the aspects. These bonuses are set for both specific actions and to a specific amount.

Next Step
It is up to the agent when they take the next step, providing it is after the date given for the next step. They can wait days or weeks should they wish between completing steps. The main advantage is that if they have alerted the base, they can wait out any crackdown that is implemented.

Cost
Each step has a cost based on the nature of the step and the action. In the above example it would be based on the quantity of factories targeted.

Example
Action: Destroy Factories on Mass Production Line {item being produced} {quantity of factories}
Description: This action sends the agent to study a single mass production line operating in a starbase and determine how to destroy (preferable) or set them untooling. Degree of success in each step will determine the final outcome. Partial success results in untooling. This is a 5 step action.

Considerations for development

Determining Time to Complete Step
An initial idea called ‘Security Half-life’ was presented in which there was not fixed time to complete a step, rather the chance of success increased with time before looking to complete the step. The main drawback with this was presenting the information in a way that a player could determine what the chances of success would be in X weeks time. Attempts at working through the process felt very cumbersome and needlessly complicated. Instead a second option has been presented, calculating the time to complete the step based on the scale of the task undertaken. In the above example it would be down to the quantity factories targeted for destruction.

Multiple Agents/Operatives
All agents and operatives owned by a player are considered to be working for the specific player. As such we will treat each of these actions being carried out at a base as a joint project. This achieves two things. First it prevents dozens of operatives being sent to a base to carry out the same operation. It does however mean that the player can decide which agent or operative to carry out the next step should they have multiple agents and operatives in the base. Further, it allows the action to continue should the agent be captured when attempting to complete a step.



We will probably weight the chance of the action being terminated with the capture of the agent against %chance of success, i.e. a high chance of failure equating to a high chance of the action being terminated. That said, if the last agent and operative have been removed from the base, all uncompleted actions associated with the political will be deleted.

Extra Stuff for Bonuses
We like the idea that certain actions and steps in the action may benefit from items being ‘dropped in’ through the use of stealth pods. Explosives, diseases, made to order technical equipment and maybe even a clone or two. The premise is that completion of a step may report a ‘substep’ that entails getting the item to the operative. If completed, the next step is made easier or more effective.

Characters
The principle behind these actions is that they are simply complex orders that in theory can be applied to characters once they are coded. Examples include sending in a character to make tooling up or untooling factories of mass production line faster or reducing the quantity of mine weeks remaining on a deep core operation. There are options for counter operatives which would be useful if your base keeps being targeted. Essentially lots of things that should take an extended amount of time.




 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Meklan Unleashed on Mobile Bay

Mad Dewiek scientist Dr Kala released a number of Meklan on the busy world of Mobile Bay in the Yank system. Thousands of civilians have been killed in what is treated by DEN warlords as an amusing practical joke. Rather than take any responsibility for their affiliation’s reckless behaviour, a DEN lord rumoured to be half-meklan himself quipped he would nuke the planet whilst another merely saw it as an opportunity to test some of his greener troops in combat. Surprisingly, the KAS planetary defence force was up to the job of repelling the insidious incursion. Questions remain whether further meklan are stored elsewhere on the planet and whether anybody will challenge the Dewiek’s lack of care for the lives of innocents. Probably not, given how even the mighty IMP are now cowering from a fight with the DEN (see inside this edition).


 
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Who is behind the AFA?

Following the large scale holiday attack by the AFA against the FET the question of who is behind the attacks has been raised once again. What is clear is that the AFA is using ships that were transferred from the GTT to the IMP. The organisation and expertise of the operation also reduces the pool of potential candidates. Few can go from commanding a handful of broadswords to half a thousand warships and significant army logistics without a long stint in one of the more combative affiliations. With the DEN’s allies the HEX in close relations with the FET and no recent history of animosity between the aliens and FET, at least since the departure of former one-eye big-bun Norozov, it would be a bizarre turn of events if they were behind these attacks. Frankly, there’s no point dancing around it. The IMP are clearly behind the AFA. The question is what can anybody do about this move of significant Imperial resources to a black-flag agency?


 
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Fox Effects Fantastic Turnaround

With his feet barely under the table, Xavier Fox has managed to dramatically turn things around at the GTT. With year-on-year sales figures up by 23%, manufacturing up 42% and ship production increased by 36%, the megacorporation is running at full steam with noticeable impact on local economies across the Stellar Empire. Political analysts also note that after a period of retrenchment following the disastrous leadership of Ike Krieger, investment in defence is at a five-year high. After such bullish growth, the trick will be for Mr. Fox to recruit C-level executives fast enough to match his ambitions. It is notable in temperament, the current crop of GTT politicals do not exhibit the monomaniacal xenophobia of their predecessors and have resisted repeated provocations by the DEN to enter a pointless spar before they have re-established superiority against the foolhardy aliens.


 
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Felini flounder in Winter against superior Dewiek forces

The FEL have managed to get their asses kicked by the DEN yet again after provoking the definitely “not cute or cuddly” Dewiek in the Crossley system. The furry punching bags had bought a civilian flagged outpost in the system, without permission or under certain conditions depending on who you ask, and then had the gall to reinforce this error by positioning warships in orbit. The famously patient warlord Halvor did not buy the story these heavy hull armed ships were merely transports and sent a pack to clear the orbit. The mouthy yet green Felini fleet commander Pr'prz fancied his chances against what looked like a light complement of DEN warships and ordered his own warships to engage in the neighbouring Winter system. The result was predictably a wipe out of the FEL forces consisting of forty-seven capital warships at no loss to the DEN. Once again, a series of calamitous decision making resulted in Felini lives being wasted by a leadership barely fit to clean a litter tray. The otherwise untested Halvor can now claim some victory ale although with his penchant for picking on creatures as weak as Gracians, it’s not exactly clear how much glory this new breed of Dewiek warrior can claim against the legends of old.


 
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***** Inter Galactic News *****

Dastardly Dewiek Disregard Yank Neutrality

The governor of a MRC outpost in the Yank system reports that a 400-hull DEN warship called Grey Hunter Axiom entered orbit of Spritzer and opened fire with weapons of mass destruction (WoMD) against a platform, outpost, ground party and ship. Reports indicate significant casualties to Kastorian personnel both in space and on the ground. The KAS Junta is gruffly warning, with a slightly indifferent air, that everybody better stay out of the sector of the outpost for their own health. It is unclear what measures the KAS have or will take against the DEN on this matter. Such a breach of Yank neutrality has in the past caused the Dewiek to froth at the bit against the Empire for their disregard of ‘civilised’ norms. Their current silence on this matter speaks volumes.


 
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Yenni-bodies Pirates?

A PIR outpost was miraculously discovered by an IMP freighter, of all things, in the Yanni system with several Javelin class warships in orbit. After noticing the IMP freighter and seeing the public post by Jack Jones on subspace, the PIR decided to flee and leave a combined force of IMP and FET forces to capture the outpost. A brain damaged three-year old commentator who still believed in the goodness of people and Santa Claus was quick to commend the IMP on their good work, dismissing those who thought it no more than a convenient clearing up operation signifying* completion of operations in the nearby FET claimed systems of Graydown, Canth and Onissian by IMP puppet Edward Lowe. Meanwhile, the Wolf Lord Lyceum summed up the view of many when he screamed, “What is this amateur b*llshit?” into an uncaring universe.


 
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Crowe Coups Self

The IMP Viceroy Tiberius Crowe has finally achieved something in his unremarkable tenure by relinquishing even the semblance of wearing big boy pants and instead, appointed Jack Jones as Patrol Commissioner, salty spokesperson and policy maker for the Empire. Crowe will now join CIA Director Laton in riding the special bus to work where the two of them will enjoy long pleasant afternoons sipping cups of tea. Actually, just tepid fruit-scented water as neither of them can be fully trusted with a hot kettle. Occasionally, they might be visited by equally dynamic war “veteran” Admiral Bridge to enjoy mimes presenting the latest comics from the Howl. Meanwhile, Jones is putting pressure on the FET and will soon no doubt find a pretext to deploy his vast mercenary forces against anyone else who is seen working too closely with his most hated of enemies, the HEX.


 
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Highlord Aadolf Loses Control As Dewiek Break Peace Treaty

Around one hundred DEN warships have launched an attack on a small GTT destroyer squadron of forty ships in the Daggern system. Two GTT ships were destroyed and another fifteen suffered noticeable damage. CEO Xavier Fox issued a restrained but angry statement demanding the DEN explain themselves. Highlord Aadolf’s buffoon-like response amounted to “Dewiek be Dewiek, let’s drink and forget about it.” Cold comfort for the dead crew onboard the GTT ships and their families. Especially, as seems likely at this time, the Empire will settle for some bloody money instead of retribution.


 
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The Worm Turns

The FET have reduced relations with the IMP to neutral. Sneezy boss Cu Chulainn took the bold step of putting 1 and 1 together by linking recent mercenary attacks in their systems with the IMP scouts seen loitering for some time and refusing to move. Even bolder, hints that they believe “a certain Imperial citizen” is responsible for Edward Lowe’s entire underhand operation were voiced loudly enough that the handsome but hard of hearing Tiberius Crowe had to take note. He was seen grappling in trademark fashion with his skin tight jacket, pulling it down over his partially concealed middle-aged girth, as he sat to issue a terse public statement. Exactly who this citizen may be was left unnamed and no news channel subject to Imperial laws would dare unmask the villain. Luckily dear readers, we are not subject to phony Imperial laws. It’s Jack Jones everybody. Jack Jones, butcher of Naplians and fancier of silver long johns.


 

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I’ve played on and off for approximately 10 years, over a 20 year spell. After some interesting debate on the in-game forum, I did wonder what, exactly, has kept drawing me back to the game, when for so many others I’ve generally lost interest after a few months.

Ultimately, I think it is a combination of automation (that allows the game to handle thousands of positions to interact on a daily basis) coupled with Special Actions (that allow the story arc to develop in a way that could not be catered for by a set of predefined list of available orders).
-Zigic