How do planetary exploration games deal with having view from orbit?

I was wondering how various games that have planetary exploration deal with having view from orbit. I’m not talking Civilization where eventually research late-game reveals the map but rather games built on the premise of a space-faring people landing on an unexplored planet (basically early game access to orbital technology).

I guess we have the Starflight model, which was the planets’ vague landforms were seen from orbit but specific terrain details had to be found by exploring the surface.

Alpha Centauri oddly has the same fog of war as the Civilization series. I can’t remember, did they not have orbital technology? It seems like they had a lot of other amazing capabilities, but maybe lacked that? Or did Sid just decide that is the way it was going to be, that uncovering land mass was interesting and that’s that?

I’m (somewhat) considering re-purposing the game I’ve been working on to be able to handle different types of exploration, not only New World type exploration a la Seven Cities but also things like hollow Earth, traditional fantasy, and even space-faring planetary exploration. The first three are easy to imagine in the traditional “uncover the landmass and travel back and forth to a known ‘civilized’ start point for more supplies and to report back” but the latter is much more difficult.

If the premise is “some dudes in a spaceship wrecked on an unknown planet” then it is easy enough to explain why they don’t know the least bit what the landforms are. However, it kind of shoots in the foot the idea of being able to go back and forth from whence they came and makes other visitors unlikely.

If the premise is one planet, or a series of planets, exploring an unknown planet then it is easy to imagine being able to go back and forth to the home planet but it stretches credulity that they wouldn’t have a fairly detailed map of the landforms, locations of any structures, and even a good idea of where the lifeforms are.

In Alpha Centauri, they crash landed and supply pods from the Unity were scattered over Planet. Some of those supply pods do contain geographical data on a limited area of Planet, but the factions don’t really have space tech again for quite a while, IIRC.

One way to model this is to only give generic data when scanning from orbit (large concentration of lifeforms, strong energy sources, dense concentration of minerals etc.), but to really find out the specifics, you have to go down there. Or just use a startrek’ish excuse like radiation or whatnot to give a reason why scans are not possible. Or let the travelling between the worlds be done with something like stargates, no orbital scans that way.
There’s lot of options.

That said … aww man, you’ll never finish this game now that you switched into feature creep mode. :(
Too bad.


Galactic Civilizations sort of fits this bill, except there’s no fog of war. Once you settle a habitable planet you’d see its resources. There were bonus tiles and everything. You find a suitable planet, and then you manually built infrastructure, making sure to place all the right buildings on all the right tiles for the most bang for your buck.

You could say there’s an extremely thick atmosphere that clouds all but the most powerful radar. Saturn’s Moon Titan is the perfect example of that. Despite having a $4 billion satellite orbiting Saturn for a decade, our knowledge of Titan’s surface is practically none outside of the few blurry images caught by Huygen’s probe. Venus’s atmosphere and lack of liquid made it easier to radar-map.

Furthermore, when you look at Jupiter’s moon IO, the surface map is nearly useless (beyond the major mountain peaks) after many years, since the moon constantly re-surfaces itself due to tectonics and lava flows.

You have some very good options outside of the uncontrolled crash landing for minimal surface details :)

And if you want, I can go on for another 20 pages as this is like my second-favorite favorite subject in the world hahahaha.

Ah, that’s right. I really need to go back and play that, been a decade at least. Clever way of handling that.

I really like the Stargate option, I’m kind of annoyed I didn’t think of that, having stuck with that series all the way through. Not a huge fan of radiation clouds / nebula interference, mainly because in a game where the world is randomly generated each time it stretches credulity that every planet just happens to be in a radiation cloud or nebula.

Oddly, I’m being influenced by Savage Worlds (pen and paper RPG) in this. I realized my love is with the whole exploration genre and not specifically in exploring the New World (especially since it was never going to be a nitty gritty historical game, as right off the bat I wrote off slavery, smallpox, and some of the other dirtier aspects). Savage Worlds is an elegant system that, with tweaks per-setting, allows for the treatment of multiple genres with the same base engine.

I actually haven’t added a single feature from what I originally intended but, due to a desire to eventually have other flavors of exploration represented, am trying to make it much more data-driven rather than hard-coded to New World exploration. Well, I guess making it more data-driven (meaning XML and the ability to have different tile sets) is a feature, but you know what I mean.

I was just thinking about other genres for exploration: pulp-y exploration of interior Africa, Asia, etc. or hollow Earth or more fantasy and then got stumped about decent ways to shoe-horn in science fiction.

As for development on the game itself, it’s been a bit slow. I had to plan and execute our big summer trip and get the kids back in school. Now that that is done I’m settling back into it big time. I’m determined to see it through, and will do my utmost to avoid feature creep – I intend to (other than the data-driven model being implemented) only focus on the New World aspect for now as that’ll be way more than enough to test the game’s systems. If people like it then I can start thinking about incorporating data for other genres.

In this model, then, the real exploration is in locating a suitable planet and then after that it is exploiting its resources to the fullest. Almost seems as if the Seven Cities analogue would be the former rather than the latter, though exploiting the resources could involve bumping up with natives, competing with others, etc.

That’s a good point. It is certainly reasonable that, in addition to the aforementioned nebula / dust cloud explanation that many planets are not mappable due to reasons like the ones you mentioned. Though I’m not sure that exploring Io would be enjoyable, certainly not building outposts in an environment like that!

Dare I ask, what is your first-favorite subject in the world? =)

I pre-ordered your game, so you are contractually obligated to finish it for me! ;-)

Anyways - I always imagined that while planetary topography can be easily done from orbit, the details of what exists in a specific sector needs hands on.

As an example, look at what we are doing at Mars right now. We are surveying the planet via robotic probes, because thats how we get to know the most. Heck, we even have two communication satellites in orbit around Mars, but we still need to be on ground.

Unless technology changes radically in your game, that need will exist there as well.

Well, there’s a pretty huge difference between the Mars situation and any reasonable scenario (sans something like stargates) in which the tech is advanced enough to travel between planets at will.


So you’re the pre-order! I was wondering who that was!

This is the Starflight model and works pretty well, though you do have to suspend disbelief a tiny bit because as rezaf points out any space-faring society probably has significantly improved surveying technology that we don’t have yet. I don’t think it is a huge stretch, though.

Not necessarily. Maybe they had a technological breakthrough with FTL but the rest of their technology isn’t substantially advanced over what we have now (that’d be kind of scary, actually - we don’t have the tech to deal with a lot of SF situations). Or the travel between planets is done based on some system that the civilization themselves didn’t implement, like stargates.

And nebulas are big, so if you -wanted- to use nebulas as an excuse, you could just have the entire sector you’re exploring be inside one. I agree that that’d be a bit lame, though.

Like I wrote earlier, in a game, it’s totally easy to find a means to justify no orbital scanning.
Your sensor array has been shot and you’re exploring the planets in the first place to find a replacement…


I mean, honestly, the advent of satellite mapping services in the last decade or three should be enough to show that the future is bound to be crazy-able to get a detailed map of a planet’s surface. What said maps lack is context: Google Maps are useless unless you have another source for what all those spindly grey lines connecting cities actually are called :)

IIRC, SMAC also had an option that could be used on game setup that would show the broad outlines of land and sea terrain as uncovered on game start, but where uncovering the details such as bonus resources required an actual view by a unit on the ground. I believe it was called something like Unity Survey? And it was off by default.

You could have some sort of stargate that gets launched from Earth and is made of some kind of indestructible material, and if it’s cheap enough you’d just send them to all the planets you knew about and then once they made planetfall you’d send a survey team through to see what’s on the other side.

Not that there have been many games like this, it does bother me when I run across it. Any star-faring race should have a basic planet survey if they spend any time exploring the solar system. If they plan on colonizing it, I would expect a much more detailed survey before even picking a colony location.

Alpha Centauri was a special case since kind of crashed on the planet. Still though a basic lay of the land type of survey should have been a standard option.

BigWeather, might I ask what game this is?

Also, I was gonna mirror rezaf’s comments. Have shipboard scanners not have the resolution to really get a detailed scan of the planet, only generalities, such as “there are lots of lifeforms here” or “there are lots of valuable minerals here” and then you have to land to get a finer, more detailed scan. Maybe an orbital scan can reveal faint energy signatures as well, who knows? Sounds fun though!

Yes. I always played with it on, as it made sense to know the general contours of Planet but not the specifics.

Also, your first orbital station permanently turns off fog of war.

Frops! (Frog Bog, Pond and mini-backyard ecosystems)

The Colonel wants a word with you…