Drone Swarm Hed
Games

'Drone Swarm' Imagines Autonomous Warfare as a Huge Chore

An RTS finally explores all the promise of the classic Protoss Carrier unit, turns it into a cat-herding exercise.
November 4, 2020, 2:00pm

Forty days after leaving earth, I was asked to commit my first warcrime. The Voohr, a near-hegemonic species whose skin was scaled and whose ships resembled nothing so much as Eldar tanks from Warhammer 40,000, asked me to send drones against a hospital ship belonging to another faction. As I drew the path that sent 32,000 robots to kill the injured, I thought, mostly, “this is tedious."

The warcrime came about two-fifths of the way through Drone Swarm, an RTS developed by stillalive studios and published October 20th. The single player game says it offers “over 100 encounters;” I played 64 or so of them before feeling like I had seen all it had to offer.

The premise, which hooked me on Twitter, is that the player is in charge of a single vessel, which attacks by deploying drones against its foes. Dubbed the Argo, it resembles nothing so much as a Great Value version of the Protoss Carrier from Starcraft. “What if Protoss Carrier: the Game?” intrigued me, especially since 22 years of advancement in game design and computer power meant the Argo was commanding a force literally 4,000 times the size of that legendary RTS unit.

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I was also intrigued to see how the game handled commanding a swarm and making it useful. The generation that grew up playing real-time strategy games in the 1990s and 2000s is now old enough to be making acquisition decisions inside the Pentagon, and I’ve spent the last seven years covering all sorts of developments in military drone technology.

In Drone Swarm, the drones themselves are weapons sent to attack Earth. Through some sort of technomagic, the drones instead become vessels populated by the souls of humans with psionic powers. The game’s intro video, rendered in a comic style that reads like an also-ran Image comic, is a cheesy delight, and includes a quick line about humans nuking their own planet to inhospitability before trying the psionic thing.

Suddenly equipped with a fleet of 32,000 robots and a magical powerful sphere, and living in the aftermath of a self-inflicted nuclear winter, the humans build a special spaceship to go in search of a New Earth, and that becomes the Argo.

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Modeling and maneuvering that many individual units, even when operating as a swarm, is a huge task. The current Guinness World Record for most drones in the air simultaneously was set at 3,051 in September 2020, and Drone Swarm offers command of an order of magnitude more robots.

Once in space, the Argo encounters the aforementioned Voohr, who immediately attack. Shortly thereafter, the humans meet the birdlike Dashan, in open rebellion against the Voohr. Their ships resemble nothing so much as the mining robots of Descent. A rogue AI, using both Voohr and Dashan ships, sometimes shows up. The space backdrops are pretty and have depth, even if combat takes place largely on a two-dimensional plane. (Sometimes ships can be shoved on their side, allowing drones to bypass shields, but there is no way to actually command movement along the Z axis). Dangerous nebulai and asteroids sometimes make an appearance.

Early in the plot, the human crew debates whether or not to align themselves with the Voohr or the Dashan. There’s dialog to click through, though no real choice with in-game consequences - Drone Swarm’s story is on rails. Attacking the hospital ship comes deep into an alignment with the Voohr, working as freelancers in exchange for a path to a New Earth. Attacking the hospital ship comes after the honeymoon phase of this alliance, and the voice-acted characters express regret and resignation that the war has come to this, but there’s no in-game way to resist doing so. “Just following orders” was an insufficient justification at Nuremberg, yet it’s the only option here. 

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Later, when the Voohr move from cynical empire to deliberate cruelty, the Agro’s crew reacts with horror at the assassination of Dashan civilian leadership held prisoner (another warcrime) and remark upon the casualness with which the Voohr actively genocide an entire tribe of the Dashan. (In keeping with the grim darkness of the setting, earlier the Dashan use a bioweapon to render a planet inhospitable. There are no good guys in Space War).  

It’s easy to ascribe a kind of Forever War cynicism to all of this; of course war leads to warcrimes. What is interesting about Drone Swarm’s use of warcrimes in 2020 is how clearly it makes the player directly responsible, instead of hiding behind faulty intelligence (like the exculpatory “chain of errors” the Pentagon pointed to after bombing Kunduz hospital in October 2015) or algorithmic error, as we are likely to see with more autonomous weapon in the future.

Indeed, the most striking feature of Drone Swarm is how little it trusts the very autonomy that makes the entire game possible.

What the swarm does effortlessly is flow like a school of fish around the Argo. Using it in combat is a bit more arcane. As a circling pool, the drones protect against attacks with their bodies, but they are much more effectively drawn into either attack or defense formations. With one move, I can draw a line to get the drone to attack a specific path; with another I can have the drone temporarily form a wall. Later maneuvers let the drones form a kinetic ball that shoves objects, or a cloud that confers buffs on any drones that fly through it.

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Mostly, though, combat consists of repeatedly drawing lines on enemies, and defending the Argo (or, exhaustingly, allies in escort missions) with drawn walls. Both of these actions deplete from the 32,000-strong swarm. After each command, the drones regroup at the Argo, ready to be sent forth on a different mission. It meant that, for most of the time in most missions, I was frantically drawing lines on where I anticipated enemy ships would be, and hoping drones would fly to intercept them in time.

The Argo itself does not move. It sits like a fortress in the middle of concentric circles, while other vessels move in space around it. This is somewhat mitigated by upgrades which let the Argo passively fire rail guns and missiles. Still, the immediate feeling is not one of the soaring power of a carrier but instead the inevitable injury that comes with tower defense.

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Played on story mode (the easiest setting, which I switched to about 9 missions in), the battles are short, lasting around 90 seconds to three minutes. (With the exception of one plot-pivotal twist, that strung together three battles around cutscenes and may-or-may-not have revealed the war crime to be just a dream).

Despite this fast pace, combat is a lot of drawing the same lines over and over, hoping the plotted paths will stick. Unlike in other RTS games I have played, there was no simple way to select an enemy and order an attack. Despite drone command being at the core of the game’s design, it had less automation for attacks than, like, Starcraft: Brood War did back in 1998. 

By contrast, here is the copy from an ad for the Kite-Strike rugged mission computer, which ran on October 29th: “The next generation of combat vehicles will employ advanced AI algorithms to lower the burden on the human operator—all powered by advanced hardware.”

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Beneath the jargon, what the Kite-Strike is promising, what lots of military tech is promising, is a way to automate the mentally taxing parts of war, so that the humans in battle have to make fewer decisions. Most immediately, that means processing sensor data, from cameras and the like, and spitting it out in a useful form for a human. In the future, it could mean powering facial recognition or target identification.

As promised by defense contractors and feared by human rights types, automation of war leads to a future where machines, operating faster than humans can process information, do the actual fighting, and in turn make decisions about if and when to kill people. The challenges of accurate target identification, meaningful human control, and accountability for error are far beyond the scope of this game review. Suffice to say they are legion and pressing.

In Drone Swarm, this meant that not only was it abundantly clear that I was responsible for a drone strike on a hospital ship, it meant I had to drag the swarm over the target several times to even make the war crime stick. Forget the promised automation of 2030 battlefields; what this game was missing was even the simple “attack-move” command of an Age of Empires, or the ability to identify a target, and trust that my AI-piloted minions would attack it on their own until it was dead.

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There were steps to mitigate this—a maneuver unlocked a little into the game lets players draw a closed circle path for the drones, which will attack anything in that loop until ordered elsewhere. But that still meant I had to anticipate where the enemy would be, hope I had enough unassigned drones for my little orbit, and trust that the orbit wouldn’t get bricked by an EMP attack. (EMPs, as a way to stun and disable a mass of drones, make a regular appearance, perhaps the game’s biggest conceit to drones as a unique weapon).

With its planet-hopping map and overall “one against the universe” story, I couldn’t help but wistfully compare Drone Swarm to FTL as I played. Combat in FTL, too, involves automated weapons targeting and blasting away, and players can deploy drones to harass or attack enemy ships. At every moment, FTL’s combat lets weapons work as assigned until the player changes it, and the challenge comes from actively managing automated tasks. In Drone Swarm, combat instead largely consists of issuing the same order, repeatedly, as drones attacking a hostile cruiser become blank slates the moment the attack run is done.

What was so compelling about the Protoss Carrier is how effortlessly it devastated foes. Right-click to attack, and trust the robotic interceptors to get the job done, all while that Carrier stays at a safe distance. In Drone Swarm, the Argo loses all that maneuverability, that distance, and instead reflects that fate of aircraft carriers in any likely naval battle today: big, hard to move targets, forever threatened by smaller, nimbler enemies with long range weapons.

All of that would have been forgivable if the game offered a more interesting, more autonomous system for dispatching drones on missions. As it is, it took away the part of combat RTSs had previously automated to perfection, and replaced it with a control scheme that multiplied the amount of work a player needs to do to win a fight. The fights are still plenty winnable, and the controls are functional, but as an attempt to divine the future of war, Drone Swarm fails to understand what makes autonomy in battle compelling.