“Planet’s Primary, Alpha Centauri A, blasts unimaginable quantities of energy into space each instant, and virtually every joule of it is wasted entirely. Incomprehensible riches can be ours if we can but stretch our arms wide enough to dip from this eternal river of wealth.”
— CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Centauri Monopoly”
First off, let us take a moment to marvel at the kind of guy who looks up at the sun every morning and sees a cosmic-level business opportunity. Of the sun’s rays that make it to Planet, most of them are filtered by the atmosphere or end up uselessly warming up the oceans or the dirt. Only a precious few end up in his solar collectors. And, worse still, almost all of the sun’s rays are radiating off in the countless directions that aren’t toward Planet at all.
Advanced Spaceflight allows a faction to construct a new kind of satellite: Orbital Power Transmitters. These are giant orbital platforms that can help solve Morgan’s problem by extending his metaphorical reach. Less poetically, they catch incoming sunlight and then safely beam the massive quantities of energy down to power a faction’s bases. From the gameplay perspective, they work exactly the same as sky farms, except for the fact that they deliver raw energy instead of nutrients.
And these end up having quite a large effect on the optimal way to play the game. People who are familiar with the Civilization series have probably encountered the term “ICS” before. For those who haven’t, it stands for Infinite City Sprawl, and it represents a strategy that seeks to build absolutely as many bases as physically possible without regard to the underlying terrain.
From the designer’s perspective, game rules that encourage ICS are considered harmful for several reasons. It makes the game map ugly and crowded, it reduces the value of carefully selecting one’s settling locations, and the micromanagement burden on the player grows significantly with the number of bases he controls. So every Civ-style game has to take some measures in order to try to prevent ICS from being the one right tactic in all situations.
Reynolds settled on a few rules into SMAC that were intended to deal with the ICS problem. First, he carried over the corruption rules from Civilization. Each base loses energy based on its distance from the faction’s HQ, potentially reducing its energy value all the way to zero. Second, he made it so that the number of drones in each base also depended on the total number of bases, the idea being that an extra base could make existing bases less stable instead of just being worthless in and of itself. And, third, he made it so that each base improvement cost a significant amount of energy per turn. The idea here was that these improvements would be very powerful, but they would only pay off if the base were large and working lots of tiles, which would not be physically possible if the bases were arranged in a tight ICS grid.
This system is supposed to be the real point of the Efficiency mechanic. Back in Civilization, corruption was based on the government type. In SMAC, social engineering choices determine the Efficiency rating, and Efficiency modifies the rate at which energy is lost and additional drones add up. This is why PS/Planned kills all non-Yang economies. A -4 Efficiency rating is bad enough to drop the energy output from all bases to essentially nothing.
The bane of all ICS mitigation strategies are bonuses that accrue per base, because they make more bases necessarily better than fewer, larger ones. And, for SMAC in particular, per-base energy bonuses are the most problematic, because the energy penalty is supposed to be the biggest penalty to over-expansion. So having a mechanism by which free energy can literally rain down from the heavens unbalances things.
As an aside, this is the core reason why AI Morgan is usually so weak even though the Morganites are actually a strong faction. The AI thinks that the “Build” priority should be to try to make a few really tricked out bases with lots of energy multipliers. That’s what Reynolds wanted it to mean, after all. But, really, Morgan needs to ICS more badly than anyone.
Looking at Morgan’s faction powers, we see that he has an Economy bonus, an additional trade bonus, a Support penalty, and a lower base max-pop limit than everyone else. And absolutely all of these factors lean strongly in favor of ICS. The Economy bonus straight-up gives bonus energy per each base and the trade bonuses do something very similar. The Support penalty means that each base can only support one free unit instead of two, meaning that he needs twice as many bases to field the same amount of free units. And the effect of the lower population cap is obvious: he needs more bases to work the same number of tiles as his rivals.
To be fair, though, I believe that the unbalancing at this point in the game is largely intended. For narrative reasons, Reynolds wants the pace of the game to pick up at the end. And this can’t require any special skill on the player’s part, since he’s obviously expected to be a novice while everything about the game’s story is new and fresh.
A little thought shows that the easiest way to do that, by far, is to give him the ability to rack up bonuses that accrue automatically per base. You can’t expect the player to discover any special terraforming strategy or non-obvious supply crawler magic on his first playthrough. Hence, satellites.