One of the core principles of Cogmind's original level design was to split the world into two types of areas: the main complex vs. branches. I wrote about this concept here on the blog shortly before Cogmind's first alpha release, but one function of this approach is to provide a tamer more predictable central route to the end game, one containing plenty of challenges but overall few to no extreme surprises other than what trouble the player stirs up through their own actions (and also little to no intrusion by the story). Branches, on the other hand, are generally more dangerous while also offering significantly better rewards and even whole new play styles.
For fun I put together a world map of Cogmind in which each pixel represents one cell. Many direct branch links can appear at more than one depth (and in a few cases there are even shortcuts)--this just shows one set of possibilities, and in the version above I have removed highly redacted spoilers, meaning a number of maps are missing at various depths, but it shows the split between the main path (central column of larger maps) vs the branches linked out to the sides. You can download the full-size image to examine it more closely, or if you don't mind FULL SPOILERS you can download this version which includes even secret redacted-level areas.
As a result of this division, the main complex will seem a bit same-y compared to the variety offered by branches, but it accounts for a minority of the total area of the world, and one's route is optional after all, so there's always plenty of opportunities for adventures into branches. Again, by design the main complex maps are intended as a sort of "hub-like" area where you can relax your mind a bit because there aren't unique threats all over the place--it offers relatively consistent types of challenges regardless of depth, conducive to planning and preparation for those riskier branch excursions.
They are, however, the largest maps in Cogmind's world, and with so much room to play with and the main game long complete now (who cares about version numbers :P), as we start to expand into really optional dev territory I think it's time to consider new options for "sprucing up the main complex."
Primary Map Events
Technically from early on we've had several small-scale surprise/random events that can occur in the main complex, but these are mostly rare encounters that only people who play a lot will ever see, sticking to the original goal of keeping that sort of content from becoming the norm in the main complex. This category includes Derelict or Assembled incursions of various types, among other faction activities.
Also of course there are some major player-triggered plot-related events initiated via branches, but those don't really count in this context.
Cogmind Beta 11 is adding an event that belongs in a whole new category of its own, which can be summed up as essentially "optional high risk-reward content moving through the main complex." Compared to the other types of events mentioned above, this new one is the first reliable risk-reward event that everyone can encounter, and the fact that it's mobile rather than requires being at a specific point on the map gives it a further unique slant.
Introducing "cargo convoys"..
Convoys are centered around the A-27 Freighter, a new Hauler variant which is itself based around the new Cargo Storage Unit introduced with the Beta 11 storage overhaul.
A-27 Freighter stats.
Haulers (affectionately dubbed "loot piñatas" by players) are normally green non-combat bots ferrying parts around the complex, sometimes escorted by Grunts. Ambushing one in a direct attack without immediately destroying it generally results in reinforcements being sent to the area, but most of the time it's not all that dangerous to intercept a Hauler and hope it's carrying something useful (or targeting it precisely because you already know it is ;)).
Freighters are a different story, only dispatched as part of a special convoy containing a huge inventory packed full of Definitely Very Good OOD parts.
Examining a distant convoy's inventory via a Modified TNC borrowed from the Exiles.
If convenient one can also hack a terminal to pull the convoy's manifest
to decide whether it might be worth intercepting.
Although Freighters still flee when attacked, unlike other Haulers they are armed with a close-range weapon for defensive purposes, thus instead of using the normal green color they appear yellow, earning them the nickname "yauler" (yellow hauler) from players.
The yauler itself isn't all that scary, since even with high core integrity it moves relatively slowly and can't fight back at normal ranged combat distances, but anyone interested in intercepting a cargo convoy is usually going to have to deal with the escorts, which are decidedly more problematic.
Shadowing the Freighter are two ARCs (Carriers) and a Protector class bot to shield them all. The ARCs are quite a significant concentration of power since they're even deadlier than high-security assault forces, each carrying four dangerous bots including a range of possibilities (even Specialists) and making for high variability in terms of capabilities. On that latter point, one of the risks of engaging any ARC is that until it opens you can't be sure what type of combat bot(s) are inside, and therefore may not be able to as effectively plan for that part of the fight in advance.
Anyway, it's a lot of firepower (and defenses!), so high risk, high reward.
Some Freighters may even be hauling a seriously good piece of unique tech that can only be found on convoys, something I'd probably like to do more with in the future but for now haven't added more unique parts for that purpose, just one so far to entice and reward would-be hauler robbers.
So you have this concentrated deathball of robots making its way across the map, one can imagine how nasty it would be to turn a blind corner and be staring down one of these convoys... Okay earlier playtesters indeed reported this sort of tragedy which led to various refinements ;)
While running into a convoy when you least expect it or want to is always going to be entirely possible (SURPRISE! *cue volley of gunfire and lasers*), there are a number of things we can do here to make them a better experience overall while still preserving their unique challenges.
First of all there will only ever be one convoy on the map at once, and its impending arrival is announced in advance in the form of an ALERT message.
Cargo convoy alert warning of impending Freighter dispatch.
For fairness, the convoy's entry point also won't be near the player, and before the convoy itself is dispatched, a group of Swarmers is sent out to clear the "transfer corridor" as mentioned in the above alert. As implied, this means they'll follow the intended convoy path to ensure there are no threats ahead (which may include Cogmind :P), and observant players seeing these guys on sensors will know something is up since they move at full speed, which is normally something Swarmers only do when chasing down targets. So that's one way to get a glimpse of where the convoy will be headed. (Or even just running into a squad of Swarmers after the announcement is sufficient to be suspicious.)
Convoys may also be detected through a variety of other means that require proactivity from the player, such as of course regular robot/visual sensors and bot tracking methods, or installing a particular Hauler-tracking Trojan, or using various other forms of intel.
One of the more widely available options on shorter notice is to salvage a Transport Network Coupler from any Hauler and use that to pinpoint the Freighter, and as an added bonus the TNC will even show the entire planned cargo route, making it easier to set up an ambush or (avoid the path entirely).
Using a combination of sensors and TNC to watch a squad of Swarmers then the convoy pass by,
while also able to see the route they'll take.
Cargo convoys do leave the map once they reach their destination, either a Garrison Access or 0b10 map entrance somewhere else on the map (usually far from where they entered so they'll cover more ground).
Highlighting a sample cargo convoy route across a Factory map.
Of course even without any of these methods one could just generally be careful when there's an active convoy out there--this knowledge affects how one might decide to path through rooms and corridors on the off chance you could run into such a large force. The likelihood of an undesired encounter also changes depending on general map layout, where routing through apparent bottlenecks increases the chance of meeting trouble (although this is always true regardless of convoys!).
Aside from early testing hiccups like being jumped by an unexpected convoy arrival (which were also more frequent at the time to allow for more encounter opportunities), players generally like the concept. Convoys add interesting new possibilities to the main complex, tapping into a bit of that risk-reward element more abundant in branches. It's the type of addition multiple players have expressed a desire for over the years, but as mentioned earlier I'm only more comfortable working some of it into the game now.
It's nice how many interesting tactical options there are for confronting a convoy, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, be it of the stealthy, hackish, or destructive approach. Part of the challenge comes not purely from having to deal with the escorts, either, but the Freighter's high core integrity making it harder to quickly destroy and thereby increasing the difficulty of doing so without taking too much damage from the escorts, or instead prioritizing the escorts while the Freighter itself gets away during the battle.
That it's a mobile event also makes the encounter even more dynamic and therefore more challenging to pull off a successful ambush, but doing so is usually quite rewarding, and not even just for the cargo since salvaging the powerful escorts can also net some nice parts.
Below is my test run of the Beta 11 prerelease in which yaulers were introduced, the first encounter I think is the one at 1:56:23. We met several on that run, and they were interesting but I didn't do all that well with them :P
The following section/remainder of the article contains spoilers but is relevant from a design standpoint so I'm including them here with a notice in case some readers want to just experience this stuff in game.
Cogmind isn't the only one who might want to stop a cargo convoy in its tracks. Players will be familiar with a particular warlord capable of sending in forces to intercept the whole bunch. This potential event doesn't have anything to do with Cogmind directly, though Cogmind can technically benefit from it by looting the battlefield since the odds overwhelmingly favor the ambushers.
I added this as a way to occasionally give players some free rewards if they know where the convoy went down (or get lucky enough to happen across it before everything is cleaned up!).
Also it's intriguing when a global ALERT pops up reporting that the convoy is under attack but the player maybe isn't anywhere nearby :P. Just another way of reinforcing that the world goes on without Cogmind and keep players wondering until they discover why.
Of course, even if Cogmind wasn't involved in the ambush (but hopefully got something out of it regardless xD) they still may have to deal with some of the fallout, which involves a new type of response by Complex 0b10, one that I may also use for future situations but this is the first and only one so far. "Access Lockdown" redirects Heavy bots posted at junctions to exits across the map, and if necessary calls in additional Heavies to defend any other unprotected exits.
What are Heavies? Well that's a topic for later ;)