Real space battlefields are extremely boring. Think about it: Space is a porous, huge, empty field with very few restrictions; in any fight between X-Wings, Y-Wings, Enterprises or Last Starfighters, combatants can move in any direction. And without obstacles, they can see ridiculously far. With the loss of two-dimensionality, they can organize themselves for insane amounts of focus fire. Without friction or diffraction, weapons have an effective infinite range.
You get the idea. When creating a space strategy game, designers are essentially in a position to create, alter and exaggerate things (like nebulae being used as a cloaking field) to compensate for space’s inability to support fundamental strategic and tactical elements.
Blocking, cover, choke points or front lines, flanking, protection of rear line units, minimizing surface area of attack, use of formations, pinning and trapping all wouldn’t be possible in a purely realistic “space” space. And these all apply at both the tactical and strategic level-take any cool battle or grand war plan from the past and consider the strategies employed: Cannae? Trafalgar? Battle of the Atlantic? Operation Cobra? Desert Storm? Without landmarks, gravity, elevation, or any obstacles to design tactics around, you’d be hard-pressed to re-create the scale and challenge of these battles in the void of black space.
It’s taken a while for me to understand this. When I booted up StarCraft for the first time in college, I couldn’t believe how Blizzard had designed it. Crystals growing out of space stations? Goofy battleships the size of a squad of space marines? But after years of pondering some of the same issues with Sins of a Solar Empire, I realized that Blizzard simply recognized the issues inherent to space strategy games. Terrain is the key one.
With some of such challenges, some players tend to look for remedies on how they can still fully enjoy the game. For instance, when playing GTA, some players would use aboutmods and other cheats for them to modify some aspects of the game.
Space strategy game designers are forced to make concessions in order to bring back all the wonderful tactical and strategic elements offered by terrain and somehow make them work in space without totally destroying the illusion that maybe this is a valid way to build an empire in space. Drastically reducing the scale, absurdly increasing the density, minimizing 3D movement, adding weapon and sight ranges, overpopulating space terrain (asteroids, black holes), adding spacey elements that duplicate terrestrial limitations (nebulae disrupting sensors), changing physics (capital ships as boats and strikecraft as WWII fighters), changing the rules for star travel (star gate or wormhole choke points), creating “silver bullet” sci-fi versions of magic that can basically do anything (nanobots to hold units in place or cloaking to hide them) and so forth. At some level, this all helps bring terrain or its effects back into the game.
I’m as guilty as the next guy for propagating some of the most nonsensical interpretations of space strategy out there, but there are certain advantages to grabbing a trope here and borrowing someone else’s interpretation there. Pop sci-fi writers (in literature and film) have already popularized their solutions and made them accessible and serviceable to their stories. As game designers we can tag along with these conventions and in turn, our games are more accessible and we have a set of tools that are serviceable to gameplay. And ultimately, gameplay is king; despite my desire for such realisms as terrain-less space battles, dynamically orbiting planets, and spherical ships, Sins of a Solar Empire included almost none of it. And for the same reason, I’m sure StarCraft 2 won’t abandon its floating space islands.