One thing I haven’t talked about much in any venue is the way that Slower Than Light handles technology research. It adds an entire step to the creation of components that I think players will find gratifying, but poses a number of design and technical challenges to implement. Let’s talk Science!
Basic vs. Applied Research
There are two different types of research players can assigned their science resources: Basic and Applied Research. Basic Research is a semi-random system that allows the player to devote research to finding new branches of technology; ion engine technology, new fuel types, solar sails, and so forth. The product of a successful Basic Research task is a new line of inquiry for Applied Research.
Applied Research is a more conventional leveling system. In Applied Research, you choose to research a technology directly. For example, you might allocate resources to researching fuel tanks. On successful completion of that research task, your technology level in fuel tanks goes up one level. What does that buy you?
Each Applied Research field has abilities and properties associated with it. These properties can be things like weight, capacity, thrust, power generation, and so on. As you add levels to an Applied Research field, the values of these properties become more favorable. For instance, in the above fuel tank example, as you research more levels of a fuel tank, the maximum capacity will go up and the dry mass (the weight of the tank when it is empty) will go down.
New Components and Technology Readiness Level
When a player is building spacecraft, they are made of components. These components don’t pop into existence when your technology level gets sufficiently advanced to allow them; the actual engineering research needs to happen.
The development of a component is an explicitly ordered player action. The player uses a component creation screen to lay out the capabilities of the component they want, based on the Applied Research levels they have. Continuing our fuel tank example, a player might simply ask their engineers to create the best fuel tank they can by moving the sliders for capacity to the very highest it can go and the sliders for the dry mass to the very lowest it can go. The engineers then go to work.
The technology is assigned a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) as the engineering team develops it. Each set amount of time, depending on the complexity of the component, the engineering team makes a check to see how successful they have been. If that are successful, the TRL goes up. If they were unsuccessful, it does not. If they were particularly unsuccessful, it goes down, indicating an unexpectedly dry line of development. The TRL continues like this until it reaches TRL 7 – the prototype. At this stage, the component becomes usable in player-built spacecraft, and the engineering team’s work stops.
The component’s development hasn’t ended, though — the component still has reliability penalties. The player continues development by building and launching a spacecraft with the component being developed — literally flying the prototype. If the component does not fail, the component is moved to TRL 8. If it fails, it remains at TRL 7. Once at TRL 8, the component is more reliable and available for future spacecraft, but it won’t be at its full potential until several missions are flown with the component, which put it firmly in TRL 9 — Flight Proven.