I read on a forum a concern from a user about Galactic Civilizations II — that because the planets are now part of the main game map, the game was now so unrealistic as to be distracting for him. The problem is, any space-based game is going to have to make some concessions in order to be fun.

Here’s the problem: Space is big. No, I mean BIG. It’s ridiculously, absurdly, incomprehensively big. It’s just plain enormous. It’s gratuitously big. Big to the point where you have to start wondering, is space..you know..compensating for something?

Some years ago, we released a game called Stellar Frontier. During the beta, the team tried to keep it realistic. Your ship could travel up to the speed of light. Light travels pretty fast right? The game took place in our own solar system. Which meant if you wanted to travel out to say Pluto, it took SEVEN hours at maximum speed. That’s how long it takes light to get from the sun to Pluto. Your ship traveled very fast on the game-screen, it was just that the planets were spaced really far apart. It was one of the first massively multiplayer games and we knew that if the points of interest were so isolated then people would never..you know..get together to kill each other. So we had to make some changes.

In Galactic Civilizations I, we didn’t display planets on the main map. So I suppose purists could imagine that the ships were symbolic (obviously not to scale) and hence since we were dealing with stars, it was okay since star to star relations could be rationalized. But now we have planets on the map too and all sense of proportion goes out the window.

So what if we wanted to have it both ways — what if we wanted to have planets on the map, to scale even, and distances between stars still relative. Let’s imagine that for moment.

You’d have something like THIS.

And it’s a good thing we’re talking about our puny sun (Sol) and not some other star. You see, a red giant, for example, is about 1000 times wider than the sun. So if we were going to maintain any sense of scale, you would need to have the red giants be 1000 times bigger. Now in this screenshot, our sun is only 296 pixels. Not too bad. A red giant at the same magnification would be 296,000 pixels. Scrolling across the screen at say 500 pixels per second (typical scroll speed in an RTS) it would take approximately 10 minutes to actually scroll the diameter of a red giant.

But that’s okay, because compared to our other realism problems, a 10 minute scroll speed is nothing. There’s a dirty little secret sci-fi has been hiding from you all this time. Not just games like Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, Master of Orion, etc. But sci-fi like Babylon 5, Star Trek, etc. You see, it turns out that most star systems are binary. That’s right, there are two stars involved in the star system. That’s not the exception, that’s the norm. Alpha Centauri is just one of three stars that make up its star system. That’s right, THREE stars for a single star system. That’s more common than a single star with a series of planets around it. What’s worse, we’re not even sure our star system is truly a unitary star system. There are many astronomers that believe that beyond Pluto there is something huge that is essentially a star that didn’t quite make it. Basically our own dead star that messes around with the orbits of the outer planets a bit.

Our own star system, Sol, contains (As far as we know) 9 planets. With Pluto being the last one (and it’s barely a planet). But that’s not the end of our star system. A big pile of debris known as the “Oort cloud” marks the exit of our home star system. And it’s really far away. And I mean really far away. Pluto, it turns out, is only 1/50,000th of the way there. Consider that for a moment — if we had any sort of scale, let’s say it took our ship 5 moves to go from the first planet in a star system to the last planet in a star system. It would take another 250,000 moves just to get to the edge of that star system. Let’s say you wailed on the keyboard as fast as you could — 4 times per second, it would take you 17 hours to get to the Oort cloud and get into interstellar space. That would definitely affect our reviews I suspect.

Of course, we’ve only discussed getting out of our own star system. Now we want to colonize the Alpha Centuari system (which is made up of Alpha Centuari, Alpha Centuari B, and Proxima Centauri as you may recall). It’s “only” 4.7 light years. I’ll spare you how many months you’d be scrolling the screen to get over to that.

Then you have the problem of how much planets vary in size and how far away they are from one another (relatively speaking). For instance, if the Earth were the size of a pea then Jupiter would be about a 1000 feet away. Pluto would be nearly a half-mile away. And the next star system? 10,000 miles away.

Like I said, space is big. It’s really really big. It’s so big it’s just ridiculous. It’s like wiping your nose in its bigness, saying to you “Hey, loser, look how big I am!” and then for no apparent reason adding a gratuitous etra “Loser!” after — I mean really, why does it need to get all nasty about its bigness? Well, maybe it’s because so often, we lose sight of just how big space really is. And that’s why we have to fudge things a bit when we make video games based in space.