Orbital Drop 0.3 Design Notes (aka Cantata 2.0)

We just pushed a MASSIVE patch live on Steam that contains the following:

  • Online multiplayer
  • Map Generator
  • Redesigned supply system
  • Skirmish mode (arbitrary faction selection for matches)
  • Brand new 1v1 & 2v2 map to demo all of the above
  • All sort of other small tweaks and fixes

You can read the full announcement post here, but I wanted to spend some time diving into the massive design changes we’ve made with this release, as I think it’s worth justifying what’s changed but also speak about the what/why. “Redesigned Supply System” is true, but there’s a lot more. And if we did our job right, you won’t even notice. So read on for a design deep dive for our latest patch!

Cantata 2.0

Designing Cantata is not easy. It is a big game from both a unit perspective (about 45 unique units) and a systems perspective. Not only this, but there isn’t an obvious template for the game’s design. Other large strategy games like Civ, Total War, EU4, etc., still have design work to be done on them, but they have a sort of assumed starting point in the form of previous entries that they can pivot around.

Cantata doesn’t really have this. wiegraf on our Discord pointed me to the phrase “grand tactics” - of which, as far as I know, Cantata is one of very few, if not the only. Our closest parallels are traditional wargames, and like, Advance Wars. Neither really is something we can just tweak a little bit to make Cantata “work”. It turns out if you want big maps, tactics, and playability, you’ve really got to start throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what actually sticks.

Which, well welcome to Early Access. I’ve been so glad our community has rolled with every change we’ve made to the design and given us great feedback every step of the way. We all want Cantata to be the best it can be and we all want to crack what makes a “grand tactics” game.

So with that in mind, we’ve got some big changes once again. I’m hoping these are also the design changes to finally make the game sing - I described it on Twitter as basically killing ALL my darlings, and on Discord I said it was like Cantata getting a serious haircut. Cantata has been worked on in some form or another for nearly 8 years. That’s a lot of time for design cruft to build up, and recently we really took a look at the game and we’re like “What does this game really just not need? What is holding us back?”. Addionannly we came up with some guiding principles on what we DID want in the game:

  • As little finicky bullshit as possible
  • More emphasis on supply and production as important parts of the game
  • More “actionable” UI design.

The work from the previous patch on regions helped our thinking a lot here, and helped us make some design leaps we weren’t ready for before now. Regions have provided a clarity to the design, and that’s also helped us see ways to make the game a lot better. So without further adieu, let’s get into some changes.

No More Global Supply

This was a true band-aid rip off moment. But also like taking sunglasses off. Once gone, everything else fell into place.

Global supply has been around since the very start of Cantata. It was initial meant as a way to curb long playtimes as well as provide a global resource that allowed you to build stuff on the map (more on that later).

However, people hated this. It was a ticking clock you could do nothing about. So we added in mines and resources to allow you to better control the resource flow. But then because resources were on the map, we lowered the starting pool of supply. And lowered it again. And again.

And now we’re looking at it and asking, well why is this there at all? Before, the answer was because you still used Global Supply to build infrastructure - it was effectively your only resource pool that we could draw from in semi-abstract to pay for infra. But now we have region storage, as well as the ability to add things to local region storage. Could we use region storage to pay for infrastructure?

No Global Infrastructure - Now built in the context of Regions

Turns out yes, yes we can. and then some. See one other thing about infrastructure was that as the game matured we realized we need to place more restrictions on how and where you could place infra, largely to prevent players from indulging their worst impulses (see Water Finds A Crack) - but also to better shape what we wanted Cantata to “feel” like.

These were largely tied to regions, which meant that you would click an infra building in your global infra menu, and then have to basically search the map to find somewhere you could build it. Not only this, but it was also very possible that you couldn’t actually build it anywhere at all.

Thinking about “grand tactics” again, this is less of a problem if your map is 10x10 out whatever, but in Cantata you could easily have 30 regions across a map 10x that size, and trying to find the right one to place a building falls squarely in the “finnicky bullshit” category.

So if regions largely dictate what infra can be built in them, why not literally tie them together? So we did.

Regions now show you both in their (new) UI and on the region "badge” what infra can be built in that region. You can select the infra option from both the region ui or the badge on the map.

But what off global supply? Don’t you still need global supply to build infra? Not anymore!

Infra built using specific supply types

Infrastructure now is built using the region storage! This has a great knock on effects as well in allowing us to get rid of the player level constraint for infra options: Because we can require specific supply types to build infra, this acts as a more natural tech tree - better infra requires better supply types, so you’ll need to have already built something that produces those requisite types, and so on.

Another related change is that mining units now longer produce global supply, and instead produce a “base” resource type to the region’s storage. This also better makes resources feel like they fully exist in the scope of regions vs. going to some abstract place.

If you’re a Cantata player I already know what you’re thinking, if you’re not I don’t know what you’re thinking of right now? Maybe wondering why you’re reading a long design post about a game you don’t play? Who knows!

Cantata players may think: This sort of system with the region supply line changes seems like it produces the same types of problems the old unit to unit line system did, with units/regions requiring access to types they don’t have easy access to. To which I would say - I agree!

So we got rid of region supply lines

These take the cake for a feature in the game that took the most effort but stuck around the shortest. These once again getting cut due to “finnicky bullshit” rule.

But regions still need to connect to share resources, so how does that happen?

Supply Networks

When you own two adjacent regions, those are effectively automagically connected and form a ”network” by which their storage is directly shared. Any regions captured adjacent to that network are also added in (we also added some changes here where regions must be "held” for a period of time before their ownership flips).

You can have multiple supply networks, and multiple disparate networks, if connected, can become a single network.

What we realized with the previous system was that we were just limiting you on supply lines for no good reason. Not only this, but the system didn’t make a ton of sense in the function of the game. A region with two supply lines could connect to a region to its north and east, but what about the regions to its west and south? Especially if the region border was “open” - you’d have to route supplies another step just to go adjacent to where you were, which then means literally another turn in the chain.

So instead of requiring you to build and micro the lines, only to still end with subpar results, we just axed it. This also reduces a ton of the cognitive load of “an I doing this right?” that is very present in the game as is. Now it just works, and your focus is on building and capturing territory.

Supply Outposts

If everything is now done in the context of owned regions, how do you actually do stuff in regions you don’t own? We went through a TON of iterations on this, and landed somewhere I think rides the line of finnicky bullshit but is definitely useful enough (and hands-free enough) that I think it’s pretty good, and that’s the concept of Outposts.

Outposts are buildings that you can build that allow you to expand a supply network that exists in regions adjacent to the region you are building inside of. Provided you are inside the range of an outpost, you have access to the network inventory of the region that that outpost is connected to. Connections are also automatic, so no need to mico them.

Outposts can additionally daisy chain off of each other, such that you could actually extend a supply network far across a map without needing to explicitly capture territory. The downside of this is that the outpost is an actual unit on the map, meaning it can be destroyed, so if you have a long chain of outposts you’ll need to defend those outposts from other players taking them out.

Notably, being inside the range of an outpost doesn’t allow you to build infrastrcuture, so if you want to actually establish a meaningful base, you’ll still need to capture the region.

Even just in testing, the existence of outposts has already proved super interesting. It forces you to think about player supply access in a way that didn’t make a ton of sense (or wasn’t as literal) before, and has already produced a better feeling game!

Speaking of building;

No more consumption costs for resource production

Imagine you have a supply network of 15 regions, each with 1 buildings. These building all produce 1 supply type B by using 1 supply type A. This means that you need 15 A. However, your network only has access to 8 A - where does the supply come from? Who gets skipped?

Well you could add in some priority mechanism and… sorry my “finnicky bullshit” alarm is going off. So we just got rid of consumption costs. Cantata gets a lot of these problems, ones that are solvable but at what cost- is Cantata a game where you will micromanage building priority for consumption costs? No, but that doesn’t mean that you could do that in other games, we just feel like something like that isn’t right for our game. Also related:

No control of mining, generator, and producer pull

This is another one of those things that just stressed players out. Having the option to increase or decrease lull made people feel like they had to constantly micro those settings in order to achieve baseline optimal production/consumption.

Even though we want expert players to have ways to show mastery, being the best at micro-Inc sliders is neither fun nor cool. It is instead “finnicky bullshit”. So we cut it.

Now, everything just produces a baseline 1. That number won’t go up and down by your hand, so now when you build a building, it produces 1. You don’t have to keep thinking about it.

This also provides some flexibility in the design - units can now have the ability to raise or lower this number, which IS cool and fun. But at a baseline, you can look on a map and get a sense of how much of what is being produced by just the unit placements, no worry about sliders. This also runs into a new design rule I have:

If your design requires a slider, it is a bad design and you should get rid of it.

Every slider I’ve put in Cantata I’ve eventually taken out. Maybe choosing between 5 numbers is fun (through probably more 2-3), but choosing between more than 5 numbers is boring, in part because it’s very hard to reason about. Additionally, large ranges of numbers usually map to smaller numbers of discreet states - if that’s the case, make more fun ways to just pick those states directly!

There’s a small litany of other changes to support this patch’s features, but I think I’ve touched on all the major stuff here. The crazy thing about all this is that, I think, when you play the game you won’t really even notice any of this. The sum total effect of all of the above is that the game just feels “right”. When I said Cantata got a haircut I really meant it - it’s the same game but just cleaner, tighter. I think you’ll really like it.

As always, thanks to all the people that send us feedback on the game through whatever method. Feedback form, Discord, forums, etc. You all help us continue to make this better and I’m so glad everyone is around to help.

Let me know below if you want to read more stuff like this about the design for the game. It really is BIG so we talk a lot internally about this same stuff! Thanks for reading, and check out the game - we really think you’ll like the latest version.