“As I stepped onto the Magtube, a thought struck me: Can there be friction where there is no substance? And can substance be tricked into hiding from itself?”
— Dr. Gayle Nambala, Morgan Industries Researcher
In the gameplay, Frictionless Surfaces is labeled as a tenth-tier pure scientific breakthrough. It relies on the Unified Field Theory and Industrial Nanorobotics. And it unlocks the Cloaking Device unit ability, which sounds way cooler than it is.
Cloaking devices attach to land units and they are supposed to do two things. First, they should make the unit invisible to enemy forces unless they actually try to walk on top of them. In that way, it’s the equivalent of submarines but on land. And the second thing it does is let land units ignore rival zones of control like Probe Teams can.
Since most people will play this game against the AI, and since the AI is pretty stupid (as all strategy game AIs can’t help but being), being able to make units invisible really isn’t that great. Even if the game makes sure that the AI honors the invisibility, you won’t really be able to notice it among all the insane churning the AI usually does with its units.
This power would theoretically shine in multiplayer. The thought of invisible commando raids burning down backline bases is pretty terrifying. But even there it suffers in that most multiplayer games that involve skilled players will almost certainly be decided by this point on the tech tree. Competitive multiplayer war is all impact rovers and missile needlejets. By the time the chaos ‘copters come out, the game is decided.
So, in the end, this technology doesn’t add a whole lot to the gameplay. But what the technology represents, along with its place on the tree, is pretty interesting. Most immediately relevant, though, is the quote.
The quote itself is mostly technobabble. But it’s neat technobabble because it’s phrased by the scientist who had the key idea in more of a philosophical bent. It’s reminiscent of pop-science anecdotes, like when people talk about what Newton or Einstein were thinking when they came up with their theories. If you shared Dr. Nambala’s scientific background and intellect, it’s easy to imagine that these questions would be insightful in a way that they can’t be to the player.
But there are a couple of other interesting tidbits hidden in this quote that shed quite a bit of light on our implied canon. First, we see that she had her thought while getting on the Magtube. A few tiers ago, this was brand-new technology that required amazing new Monopole Magnets to construct. Now it’s just part of the background of regular life.
And second, it’s quite interesting that we see an arbitrary Morganite giving a pure science quote. Doubly so since it’s a quote given from the inventor’s perspective. The implication is that the Morganites have taken over the lead from the University. At the very least, they are on the cutting edge of at least some late-game research.
This isn’t as crazy as it might seem. Assume for a moment that the Morganites and the University have roughly the same population and infrastructure. Zakharov, who is almost certainly running his preferred Knowledge option, gets a 40% discount on all technologies.
Another way to think about that is that each three points of energy that enters the ultra-efficient University labs counts as much as five for a regular faction. So all the Morganites need to do to match that bonus is to just generate five-thirds as much net labs energy.
That’s kind of a lot. But it’s actually not as hard as it sounds, given that the Morganite bonuses are all in raw energy and not in post-processed energy. If we assume that the average labs multiplier for each late-game faction is about +200% by this point, then the extra two-thirds labs output only requires about two-ninths again more raw energy. That’s much more tractable given all of Morgan’s energy bonuses.
The upshot here is that the gameplay posits the University’s technological prowess is a wasting asset. The University player needs to leverage his initial lead into lasting real advantages before improving infrastructure and larger energy flows erode it. The University AI has a lot of trouble doing this effectively, which is why many players may notice that Zakharov starts off scary but tends to fade in relevance as they game goes on.
This pattern appears to hold in the implied canon. Though the crossover is happening in the late-game instead of in the mid-game. In this, like in most other ways, the canonical history seems to be proceeding somewhat more slowly than a typical game.