In comparison to their aerial and automobile siblings, naval simulators have remained comparatively uncharted territory. Players have been able to weigh anchor in games as diverse as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Sid Meier’s Pirates, yet very few titles have truly captured the challenge of riding high over the waves, instead favouring a simplified implementation.
It’s a problem that Russian studio Game Labs and its CEO, Maxim Zasov, set out to solve.
“One of my partners and I played Pirates of the Burning Sea a lot,” Zasov reminisces. “We did not like some of the elements in the game and decided we could do better.
“We also wanted to experiment with several old school mechanics like a complete lack of handholding and limited markers. In addition to that, we wanted to convey the experience the Age of Sail captain could feel at that time, including the sense of danger and loneliness at sea during long journeys.”
The result was Naval Action, a nautical warfare title boasting photorealistic recreations of historical vessels, true-to-life physics and weather-afflicted oceans.
While players are tasked with managing the multifaceted aspects of seafaring, Game Labs took steps to keep its complicated gameplay as accessible as possible – finding inspiration in unexpected places.
“It’s easy to stand on the shoulders of giants like Dark Souls, who don’t show everything and expect players to learn complex things by trial and error,” Zasov says. “A lot of players enjoy learning complex mechanics themselves and receive immense satisfaction when they find something new that they did not know.
“There is one trick that we use a lot to help players uncover the mechanics themselves. We try to build complex mechanics around generally adopted practices. WASD is used for sailing, using presets to increase the sail
area. Shooting is built around universally-loved first-person shooter and Angry Birds mechanics.”
"We try to build complex mechanics around generally adopted practices, such as WASD."
Maxim Zasov, Game Labs
With Game Labs setting out to offer such a high level of attention to detail in Naval Action, Zasov says that the developer essentially started from scratch when it came to design.
“We used Unity and wrote our own custom server,” he details. “Sailing ships require a lot of custom things, including custom physics, and there were no solutions that could satisfy our backend requirements so we wrote everything ourselves.”
Naval Action’s ship models are as close to pixel-perfect recreations of their real-life twins as the simulation genre has ever seen. As they are bombarded by cannon balls, battered by waves and rammed by enemy boats, they spring leaks, splinter, demast and burn like the real thing, too.
“The reality is simple: virtual creations, including ships, will never match the real-life counterparts,” Zasov admits. “But vehicles just need to match the realistic mental model. We are not creating a historical photograph – we are creating a photograph of a photograph.
“Things that are important but too complex are automated with an option to override the automation. For example, sail management can be fully automated by use of the auto-skipper. But we give players two tools to override the automation: turning yards to control side force, backing force and wind power, plus depowering jibs and staysails to control heel. This allows the player to extract extra performance from their vessel when it is needed.”
The balance between realism and accessibility extends to Naval Action’s combat, which sees up to 50 players take to the water and attempt to send each other to Davy Jones’ Locker.
“We consider gunnery very important and give player a wealth of options,” Zasov states. “They must choose the elevation of the gun using a mouse for a tracking shot – a mechanic we borrowed from Angry Birds. If a tracking shot hits they can unleash the whole broadside. We give the player options to pick convergence and how guns are fired: from bow to stern or vice versa, or randomly.
“Gunplay looks similar to a mix of a sniper gameplay in Battlefield 3 and 4 where you snipe with tracking shot and then unleash the machine gun volley of all guns – up to 69 on a Santisima Trinidad.”
As any sailor knows (we assume), the greatest danger on the high seas is Mother Nature itself. This is no different for virtual buccaneers, as Naval Action’s wind and physics models affect manoeuvrability, while its dynamic water simulation can often be the deciding factor in ship-on-ship clashes.
“Waves affect the gameplay,” confirms Zasov. “Roll and pitch can affect ship position and expose vulnerable parts of the vessel, or alternatively block the shot. That is why our water is server-based and has to be the same for all 50 players.”
If that wasn’t enough, players will be armed to the gills with 18th-century armaments, from short-range carronades to devastating mortars. That is, if they can hit anything.
“Cannonballs use custom written ballistics, which just uses basic math,” Zasov explains. “You have a projectile that flies at certain speed, has gravity drop off and carries certain penetration that drops off based on distance-energy loss. On hit, we measure the angle of wood planking to calculate the effective armour, which is higher at very low angles of hit.
“We use exact ship shape colliders, thus ships hulls that have curved forms, especially French ship designs, can ricochet more. We also take into account wood type – for example, live oak is much stronger than fir.
“On penetration we do not kill the cannonball. It can penetrate the hull, hit the carriage, penetrate the carriage, hit the crew on its path to the opposite side of the ship and penetrate the other side. Every hit reduces effective penetration depending on the internal part type.
“If the ship hull has an opening – for example, an open gun port – then the ball can theoretically fly through the ports, if the angle was right, and hit another ship on its way.”
With a multitude of intricate elements to manage, it might seem that Naval Action’s audience will forever be limited to a niche of hardcore simulation enthusiasts.
Yet, if the response to the game’s spurning of a traditional mini-map, forcing players to navigate between almost 400 ports using little more than a compass, landmarks and their wit, is anything to go by, it might inspire a flood of landlubbers to set sail.
“We found over time that players learn the surroundings in just a week and can find where they are just on feel,” Zasov reveals. “If you sail southwest you can never get lost in the Caribbean, you will always find land.
“The compass helps, but a lot of players stop using it eventually.”