Author Topic: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!  (Read 3874 times)

Offline x4000

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Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« on: April 23, 2018, 10:54:22 AM »
Hey all -- Chris here.

We've hit a juncture point with AI War 2. We’ve built a lot of cool things, learned a lot, and now it’s time for a soft reboot. The current plan is to pivot the gameplay to very closely resemble the original AI War, but on our new engine, and then build up from that foundation.

Achievements So Far


So very much is going right with this game, from a technical level and an engine standpoint.

  • The game is crazy moddable.

  • It's multithreaded to take full use of modern computers.

  • The 3D aspect is working out well.

  • We've figured out a variety of new tricks that definitely do improve on the first game, and can be kept.

  • The UI has already been dramatically improved by the introduction of a tabbed sidebar in the main view, and streamlining of several other mechanics that felt very difficult in the past. Eric (as a volunteer) has been a godsend for the UI, and we have pages and pages of more designs from him that we’re going to be working on in the next two months or so.

  • Badger (as a volunteer) has been an incredible tester, volunteer developer, and general help to getting us this far at all; he’s created the Nanocaust faction, as well as a new and better implementation of both Human Resistance Fighters and Human Marauders, among many, many other things.

  • Folks like zeusalmighty, chemical_art, Draco18s, and Magnus have been wonderful sources of thoughtful feedback, commentary, testing, and even map creation.

  • We’ve got art for over 130 distinct units (not counting different mark levels), and we’re set up well to finish off the rest of the art despite the staff changes noted below.

  • We’ve got over 1500 lines of spoken dialogue from more than 25 actors, focusing primarily on the human side at the moment; we have a few hundred lines of AI-side taunts and chatter, some of which is recorded but just not processed yet.

  • There are hundreds of high quality sound effects for a varied battlefield soundscape (with distance attenuation if you’re far away, and positional 3D audio if you’re down in the thick of it), all routed through a tuned mixer setup for optimal listening to all the various parts.

  • We have a set of music from Classic that is over four and a half hours long, and the new music from Pablo is partly in, but mostly set to be mastered and integrated within the next week or two.

  • There’s also a ton of map types, many of them new, and with a lot of sub-options to make them even more varied.

  • We’ve created half a dozen custom Arks as backer rewards, we have another four in various stages of completion, and there’s a lot of cool variety from those folks.

  • With a lot of the other custom art-related rewards (custom flagships, fortresses, and gold merc paint jobs -- 21 backers affected in all, when you include the custom Ark folks), since we’re having staffing changes in that particular area, we’ve offered alternative options to those backers, yet said we’d honor the original reward if they prefer. We’ve had a mix of both responses, both of which are fine, and things are proceeding well there.

  • Other backer rewards are either already delivered (game keys of all sorts, many of the custom Ark rewards, backer badges, antagonistic AI voice line writing), or something that are still on the todo list but easy to handle prior to 1.0 (custom wallpapers, planet names, cyber ciphers, antagonistic player voice lines, custom AI personalities, and other non-art merc bits).

New Teaser Trailer!


On that note, here’s an excellent new teaser trailer that Chris and Craig created together. It’s light on details, but it’s just a teaser, after all:

The Sticking Point

The new game just isn’t living up to the first one’s legacy. We started out with a lot of design shifts away from the original AI War, and the design just hasn’t been as robust or fun as the original.

  • In AIW2, so far, there was no real sense of logistics. Things felt too simple.

  • The combat was basically getting you to just “fleetball” all the time, though that wasn’t our actual intent.

  • The defensive options felt too limited no matter what we tried, and player Arks wound up sitting away in a corner with their offensive fleet having to return home frequently to help with defense.

The Two Paths


We’ve done quite a lot of engine work to make the actual game that runs on top of it mostly data-driven, so we have a pretty decent amount of flexibility here. For the last few months, we’ve been chasing various issues in gameplay, trying to tidy those up, but it just kept feeling less and less “like AI War.” So, we had two options:

  1. Keep doing that and hope for the best, particularly that it magically starts feeling “like AI War” again.

  2. Go back and actually make AI War again, at least the base game, and then build from that foundation rather than starting way off somewhere else.

As you have likely already gathered, we’re going with option 2. As players, Keith and I have been really let down by how different certain sequels felt from their predecessors, and we really didn’t want to do that to you folks.

We want this to be the sequel you truly wanted, that takes the original game and then goes forward in a refinement fashion. Total Annihilation turns into Supreme Commander, not SupCom becoming SupCom 2. Age of Empires 1 begets AOE2, not AOE2 morphing into AOE3. All of those games listed are good, but there’s a reason that the second in each series is typically more acclaimed than the third.

Future Growth


We do know that some of you backed for something more radical in departure from the original game. Why have the same old experience again? That’s certainly a valid point, and that’s why we talk about this as being a foundation for future growth.

Look at how much the first game grew from version 1.0, way back in 2009, through six expansions and version 8.0 in 2014. They’re radically different games. That said, we were constrained at every turn by an engine that was designed for street racing, and that we were trying to take offroad. That just doesn’t work.

The new engine for AI War 2 is so robust and flexible that we can take it street racing, offroad, or underwater. Maybe we can have our cake and eat it too, at least eventually? Based on the underlying engine, there’s nothing stopping us from having n factions, xyz ships, and all sorts of new sub-games and mechanics on top of it if the response to the baseline is positive enough.

One example: We’ve floated a variety of crazy ideas about hacking in the last few weeks, for instance; and while those are Way Out Of Scope right now, there’s nothing stopping us from implementing those exact systems or something like them a year or two from now, once we know the baseline game is fun and feels “like AI War.”

Second example: in the preliminary design document we’re working on, check out the section way at the bottom about using Arks as champions. That’s something that we want to attempt sooner than later, and it could be an enormous leap forward on the “radical new ideas” front. Same with the mercenaries section in that document.

Schedule Changes


At this point, we’re looking at Early Access (the “fun point” fulcrum) being sometime in July. That will give us a lot of time to further implement Eric’s UI and refine some visual elements and whatnot while we’re at it. Obviously, schedules change, and this is a tight one on the side of Keith’s core gameplay work.

THAT said, the transition toward the fun point is going to come in 5 overall waves of core features from Keith. The 1st wave being minimum set of units to have a functional, winnable and losable game; the 2nd focusing on core variety; 3 and 4 focusing on various toys on human and AI sides; and 5 wrapping up the last toys as well as adding the minor factions noted on the design doc as being pre-fun-point. (Nemesis and Spire are both post-1.0)

Hopefully we’ll have a general idea of our progress, and people’s reactions to it, throughout those five waves.

After Early Access starts, there’s a bunch more stuff to add and tune, and we think the 1.0 can still be October. Some of the stretch goal content (Spire, interplanetary weapons, possibly some merc stuff) may be after 1.0, but that was always the plan, anyhow.

Staff Changes


All the above said, this is not coming without cost; it's a major financial blow to the company, and unfortunately we can’t afford to keep our longtime artist Blue after April. She’s been with us for five years, and will be sorely missed, but we've known for a while this might be something that had to happen (as did she).

We're basically folding back down into a quasi-one-man company, although that's giving me too much credit. I'll be the only full-time employee, at any rate. Keith is part-time and has been for some time. With the AI War 2 project being almost a year over schedule, something had to give. For myself, I've taken on a lot of debt, and am about to take on more.

We Remain Committed


You better bet that the game is going to come out; we’re working hard to make this truly shine, not just as a half-baked, unenjoyable mess. We’re determined that this will arrive at 1.0 as something that we can be proud of and that you can enjoy for many hundreds of hours.

This Isn’t an Engine Overhaul


We want to emphasize this! The AI War 2 engine framework isn't changing much. The engine we built basically kicks butt, with all the moddability and support for advanced UIs and multi-threading, and so much more.

What's changing is what we do with that engine, back towards something we know was fun on a different (much worse) engine. That solid baseline will be something we can have confidence in, and will be a great place from which to grow.

Example question: “Is the engine is flexible enough to go back to the original vision of mobile Arks as your king unit, and no stationary home command station?” Answer: an emphatic YES. The engine is so flexible that you can designate a king-unit option in XML and select it through the interface. That king-unit could be a squadron of fighters if you want, or the largest spirecraft with steroid stats. All of that can be done, at this very moment already, without any need for more than XML edits.

The 40+ Page Design Document


Measure twice, cut once. We’ve just spent the last week going back and planning things. Here's the detailed design document.

In general there are a few upcoming stages:

  1. Working on getting it to match the AIWC base game. (The Pre-Fun timespan.)

  2. Players declare it is as fun as the base game of AIWC was. (The “Fun-Point.”) We may take it to Early Access at this point?

  3. We start bringing in more features. (The “Post-Fun-Point.”)

  4. We release the game to 1.0, probably in October.

  5. We do more stuff to meet our obligations as well as our personal goals. (The “Post-1.0 period.”)

At this point, Keith and I are feeling like the feature set as planned for the pre-fun-point is pretty darn huge on its own, and then there’s a variety of stuff planned for pre-1.0 that makes it even larger. We weren’t trying to expand the scope, but such is life.

There are also a number of ideas of varying tentativeness for after the fun-point that we want to try, such as bringing Arks in as a champion style. Things like that should really make the game feel like it has been taken to the next level compared to the first.

Looking for Modders!


Did you know:

  • ALL of the game data is in XML in AI War 2?

  • Adjusting ship stats is as easy as using a text editor to change a few numbers?

  • Adding new ships is just a copy-paste and then edit situation in those same XML files? You can use temporary graphics, and we can do real ones later.

  • All you need is Visual Studio 2015 Community Edition (which is free) or similar in order to edit tons of pieces of code for the game.

  • You can program map types with ease, GUI things with pain (that’s just UGUI for you), and make AI tweaks and similar somewhere in the middle of those two poles?

We’ll provide as much help as we can in getting you the info you need, and documenting all of this as things go on. If you have questions about where anything is, you can always ask Keith or Chris. Badger probably also knows, and before long we hope to have a solid stable of folks who know this well enough to help others.

Further, I feel it’s worth pointing out:

  • If you disagree with us about something relating to balance, you have the option of tuning the numbers yourself in your local copy and then showing us why we’re wrong. (Of course you can still ask us to do it, as has always been the case -- but we’re no longer a bottleneck.)

  • If you make something particularly cool, then with your permission we’re happy to integrate that into the main game as an option that people can access without having to download something separate.

  • We wouldn’t have some of the cooler features that the game has right now, like the Nanocaust or some of the more interesting Dyson Sphere behaviors, if it wasn’t for Modder #1 -- Badger. We know there were more of you who wanted to get involved in that sort of capacity, and now’s as good a time as any.

What do we WANT from modders?


A good question was raised: what are we really asking of modders, here? Honestly, that depends on the modder.

Some folks like putting in interface bits to solve personal pain points that they had with the original interface. Others have ideas for creative extra factions -- for instance the Nanocaust -- and we’d love to have those be something that you’re working on as we move toward 1.0, rather than as we move toward 2.0. If it’s all the same to you, anyway, it’s more valuable to us sooner than later, if that makes sense?

But in general, it’s kind of a “hey, if poking around at games like this is your sort of thing, we’re throwing a party and you’re invited.” We’re happy to show you around the house, not just throw you into the deep end of the pool without floaties.

Short Term Goals


We’re going to be aggressively pursuing the Fun Point, with Early Access to follow; and meanwhile building up and refining the UI, controls, and so forth to be the best that they can be.

Long Term Help


On the further volunteering end of things: if you want to help out with any sort of balance testing or custom unit design using the mechanics that we decide on as final, then the XML is easy to edit, and our doors are always open on our forums and on mantis.

Thanks for your continued support!

Best,
Chris
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Offline Cyborg

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #1 on: April 23, 2018, 07:38:05 PM »
 :-\
Difficult to read. I'm so sorry. But it's the right decision.
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Offline Sounds

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #2 on: April 23, 2018, 08:07:31 PM »
I worried this might need to happen when you last spoke about changes to the UI (which were definitely needed) and the time needed to do it right.

I had hoped to help out at some point UI wise, but my own schedule meant that it was nigh on impossible. Even with the little time I had spare to help every time I opened the alpha/beta I could see the game was drifting from what I actually loved about the original. So my thinking up (until this post) was "oh well, I'll just keep playing the original as the new one is not for me.".

As of now you've sparked my interest again.  :D
« Last Edit: April 23, 2018, 10:28:17 PM by Sounds »

Offline x4000

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #3 on: April 23, 2018, 09:18:13 PM »
Glad to hear we're sparking your interest again, Sounds.  That's definitely a good sign. :)

And thanks, Cyborg -- seems pretty much everyone is in agreement.  I feel glad about the decision, at least.
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Offline Sounds

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #4 on: April 23, 2018, 10:28:55 PM »
Glad to hear we're sparking your interest again, Sounds.  That's definitely a good sign. :)

And thanks, Cyborg -- seems pretty much everyone is in agreement.  I feel glad about the decision, at least.

Looking (hopefully) forward to kicking the tyres this weekend. :)

Offline chemical_art

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #5 on: April 24, 2018, 09:32:05 AM »
Looking forward to the new direction this brings.

The only thing I will point out as that after this latest burst of growing pains that on the strategic level we stick to this plan rather then shift again. From a project standpoint this update in part has led to going two weeks without an update and it would be hardly realistic to expect an update this week so that makes it almost three weeks. I am remaining disciplined in keeping attention on this project since I actually have time to do so but it is difficult when updates start to drag on this long. This is a petty, selfish complaint but it is an honest one just because other things are calling for my attention constantly. Up until a month ago I would check in maybe every 6 weeks and I certainly don't want to fall back into that. The longer without updates, the more likely I fall off the project and don't recover for too long.

Once we get the initial groundwork done I hope we can have an extended period of constantly having a process of steady mixture of small inputs and refinements, with a new fleetship or two every week. I could conceivably do a (from my point of view) a "full" playthrough every week with feedback if the project ever gets to that pace.
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Offline x4000

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #6 on: April 24, 2018, 11:27:35 AM »
Cheers, guys.

Definitely I understand the desire to have more frequent updates.  Things are going to be a bit messy for a while, but we may have our earliest release (Keith's wave 1 or 5) done by late next week.  Not sure exactly.  I am going to try to match his pacing, and also push out some releases.  I have to admit my productivity has taken a bit of a hit from some pretty bad depression so far this week, although I'm not sure what purpose is served by saying that.  I'm trying to get fully back in the saddle, because I know that keeping this thing going is important to keeping people's attention.
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Offline chemical_art

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #7 on: April 24, 2018, 01:55:57 PM »
It's very natural to not feel well at a time like this Chris. This is a stressful shift and not at all something you were hoping for when this all started. Please don't take anything negative here personally, it is from love and a desire for this to succeed that I put this game through the paces.
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Offline etheric42

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #8 on: April 24, 2018, 02:26:22 PM »
I worried this might need to happen when you last spoke about changes to the UI (which were definitely needed) and the time needed to do it right.

I had hoped to help out at some point UI wise, but my own schedule meant that it was nigh on impossible. Even with the little time I had spare to help every time I opened the alpha/beta I could see the game was drifting from what I actually loved about the original. So my thinking up (until this post) was "oh well, I'll just keep playing the original as the new one is not for me.".

As of now you've sparked my interest again.  :D

Just curious what was the thing(s) you loved about the original that were being drifted away from?  Not that I disagree, but I've been trying to pin my finger down on what it is.  A lot of people have said "depth", but I wasn't sure what depth was lost besides a lot of different ships and minor factions and AI types, but that's not really right at the mechanical level, that's mostly just content.  Right?

Offline x4000

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #9 on: April 24, 2018, 02:36:58 PM »
It's very natural to not feel well at a time like this Chris. This is a stressful shift and not at all something you were hoping for when this all started. Please don't take anything negative here personally, it is from love and a desire for this to succeed that I put this game through the paces.

Thanks, I appreciate it.  I keep forgetting this, but I'm also just stressed out because my grandfather is in the hospital right now.  Last grandparent on my side, and he's been having continual medical emergencies for 4ish days now, is stuck in intensive care, and so on.  It keeps drifting out of my head, because I naturally push those thoughts away and then forget why I have this underlying ill feeling.  That wasn't there last week, since he was fine then (relatively speaking).

Anyway, when it rains it pours. My wife has one grandparent left, and I have one left, and that's it for us.
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Offline .hawk.

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #10 on: April 24, 2018, 11:13:59 PM »
Just curious what was the thing(s) you loved about the original that were being drifted away from?  Not that I disagree, but I've been trying to pin my finger down on what it is.  A lot of people have said "depth", but I wasn't sure what depth was lost besides a lot of different ships and minor factions and AI types, but that's not really right at the mechanical level, that's mostly just content.  Right?

In my mind, it isn't/wasn't content lag from the first game that left the, apparently wide spread, underwhelming feeling when playing AI War 2 to this point. Not to just regurgitate point in Chris' OP, but for me it was mostly the missing logistical component as compered to classic that made the game less interesting. A fully mobile command station sounded awesome as a concept but in practice it kept you from having to spread out and make hard decisions on what to build where. Sure, you still needed to keep resources coming in but specific planets seemed less special and loosing them was less scary. In Classic, you won (for the most part) on the front lines but when you lost, it was always lost on the opposite end of the map. You couldn't be everywhere at once. You had weaknesses. And the AI seemed to always find interesting and intelligent ways to exploit them. You could largely circumvent some of this in 2 before the pivot and, in my opinion, that made for far less interesting gameplay. I'm sure others have different, probably better, reasons but thats my 2 cents.

Offline crash6674

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #11 on: April 29, 2018, 05:05:09 PM »
this is prob not something you want to be doing right before a release... there is no way you can rebuild the game by july.

Offline BadgerBadger

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #12 on: April 29, 2018, 05:35:21 PM »
Well, you couldn't rebuild AIWC with the old engine. AIW2's engine is extremely flexible and it's very easy to add new pieces in. It might not be every single feature in AIWC, but a very playable game with most of the elements that made AIWC great is definitely doable.

Offline x4000

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #13 on: April 29, 2018, 08:23:50 PM »
We're also not rebuilding from scratch.  We only have to do the diffs between each feature here and in AIWC.
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Offline Magnus

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Re: Pivoting AI War 2: Bring The Fun!
« Reply #14 on: April 30, 2018, 07:37:14 AM »
So while waiting for the pivot to restart the playtests, I went back and played a full campaign of the first game, to refresh my memory and have a good baseline to make comparisons. I used the beginner script to get a feel for something which is, I think, more similar to the starting situation of the new game; so the difficulty was 6 and it lacked most of the advanced options and units.

It was a very long (43 hours on the official timer but a lot more than that in reality due to dozens of reloads), total-conquest type of campaign where I conquered very nearly the whole galaxy and ended with AIP over 1200. This is the map right before my final assault:



After this, I went back and re-read the google document. Here are a few observations:

  • The AI could be tactically stupid even in the first game. The most obvious offender tactic is to have one of your planets with many turrets destroyed by the A.I.; all you need to stall even a huge fleet is to keep sending new remain rebuilders from the nearby planet and micromanage them to keep rebuilding the turrets, easy to do especially if you built the sniper ones all around the planet "border". I used this tactic to massive effect to gain enough time to replenish my warhead stockpiles and deal with several attacks which were otherwise too massive for my defenses to handle. Not sure how much of this is due to the lack of advanced unit types, though.
  • I see that engineers and remain rebuilders are back in the game; for the love of God, either replace them with the new planetary controller or allow them to be automatically rebuilt even if the planet is under attack. By far the most annoying thing in the whole campaign was the micromanaging of the rebuilding of those two units during a planetary defense. Or maybe flat out forbid them to be rebuilt and/or warped in from a nearby planet during an attack; this will block cheese tactics like mine above, but note it will also make defense much harder.
  • Keeping all the units at the latest rank is an easy win over the first game.
  • Turrets and force fields are virtually mandatory for defense. They also give the game a strong tower defense component which makes it interesting. Per-planet turret cap is a very welcome revert.
  • I sorely missed big, very powerful units in the end game, when the A.I. was throwing stupidly huge fleets at me (152.000 gatlings...). All I had was lightning warheads and nukes... which I freely employed. Having golems in the base AI War 2 release will fill a very needed niche.
  • The revert to the gazillion hull and weapon types is, I think, a mistake. On paper having a hugely complex rock-paper-scissor subsystem is good, but in practice, it will get ignored the instant it becomes unmanageable due to the lower cap between player skill's and game controls' abilities to actually use it to your advantage. I didn't even try to start fiddling around with ship and turret types and just went straight to "build as much of every type as you can and throw everything at the A.I" stage. Maybe an advisor of some kind which tells you the most prevalent A.I. hull types observed so far and which units/turrets kill them most easily?
  • Exception to the above point: raider starships. You really need to better underline how massive those are for surgical strikes at critical A.I. assets.
  • Cloaking is another old mechanic which is mandatory to have. It didn't work too well in my campaign for anything except scouts, though, because even after killing the tachyons on the A.I. side, most units under the theoretical protection of cloaker starships ended up getting killed in those brief instants after the emergence from the wormhole. Maybe have the cloak persist for 1-2 seconds after cloaker starship "disappearance" to help in the wormhole transitions?
  • Don't know how feasible it is, but: a way of establishing supply deep in enemy territory without a direct line to your home planet would be a huge improvement over the first game. It would open up so many more strategical possibilities. Even if very limited, very expensive, and impossible to do closer than X hops from an A.I. home planet. Sometimes you just need to open a new front without having to conquer everything in-between. It also goes well with the "guerrilla tactics" lore, I think.
  • Rally points for ships being built from a mobile dock. Pretty please?
  • I know that I sound like a broken record here, but fleet build caps specific for control groups would make waging a multi-front war so much easier for the player.
  • Minor quibble: in the first game, you can keep playing after you win, but the A.I. keeps sending waves even if it shouldn't be able to anymore. You should make sure this doesn't happen in the second game for the obsessive-compulsive types like me who like to finish conquering the galaxy after they kicked the A.I.'s butt.