Space 4X is stuck in a rut

David Stark / Zarkonnen
26 Aug 2016, 12:06 p.m.

The last few years have seen a number of games attempting to reinvigorate the Space 4X game. They have all been disappointments. The trouble is that Master of Orion II still looms large. New games not only have to compete against it on their own merits. They have to be both better than MoO2 and at the same time deliver the exact same happy experience as remembered through a decades-old haze of nostalgia.

Space 4X games are stuck in a rut. Much as what used to be the case with Tolkien and Fantasy, or D&D and roleplaying, a single work looms large, and all other works have to define themselves in relation to it, either subverting or surpassing it, but always remaining deeply constrained by their genre.

Let's look at some recent offerings:

  • Endless Space - A profusion of numbers and mechanics but no strong theme. Pretty but super-boring space combat.
  • Stellaris - Pretty, but painfully slow with a big hole in the mid-game where nothing happens.
  • Master of Orion - Basically MoO2 but with better production values, boring combat, and a lot of the zanier gameplay options dialled way back.

Of course there are many more. What about Star Drive 2? Star Ruler 2? Galactic Inheritors? From what I can tell, they all suffer from much the same problems.

I'd like to pick out two problems that many of those games suffer from in particular:

A game is a series of interesting choices.

   - Sid Meier

Recent space 4X games give the player an overwhelming number of decisions with tiny consequences, instead of big, meaningful ones. Bonuses and effects tend to be small and obviously designed not to throw the core gameplay too far off-kilter. The result is that you feel less like a galactic emperor and more like a bureaucrat.

MoO2 "solves" this by being ridiculously unbalanced, with some options vastly better than others. But occasionally, it delivers some interesting hard choices, especially through its research system, which forces you to choose from a set of technologies and leaves you unable to research the ones you did not choose. (Though you can steal or trade for them.)

In particular, right at the start, you need to decide whether to go for Tritanium armor or Deuterium fuel cells. Without Tritanium, your ships are weak as cardboard. Without Deuterium, your exploration and expansion is crippled. It's a decision which I still have to make anew every time I play the game, because the right choice genuinely depends on the situation you're in right now.

Lots of decisions with tiny consequences are easier to design for and balance, but I think a lot of the value that a 4X game should bring to the table is letting players make major decisions and go down different paths in terms of strategy, while remaining balanced. This is hard, but I believe it is a major part of the work that needs to go into such a game to make it satisfying.

Having comparatively few and more major decisions doesn't mean that the game has to be a "lite" version with shallow mechanics, but rather that it should try to get maximum strategic depth and interestingness from each mechanic it adds.

vzzzwbpt zwwwnnnn fwrrrzzzth

   - The audio of every space combat game ever

The new games also usually combine real-time combat with ship design, to their detriment. Now, I'm actually creating a game that does exactly that, and let me tell you, it's tricky.

Compare the combat of StarCraft, a real-time game with no unit design with that of MoO2, a turn-based game with unit design. In SC, each unit you can pick has a carefully engineered role in the fight. It has particular abilities, strengths and weaknesses that make it suitable for a combat role. In combat, players rapidly order around groups of those units, understanding what each of them does. They can see the threat posed by a swarm of mutalisks, or the opportunity of a group of loosely clustered siege-mode tanks with no escorts.

In MoO2, ships have less clear roles. Their external appearance tells you nothing, and you tend to spend the first few seconds of any serious fight scanning the enemies to figure out who poses the most threat. Ship design and tactics do definitely matter, but there isn't such a clear interlocking set of pre-designed rock-paper-scissors relationships.

SC is partly a game about strategy and tactics, but also a game about "micro", the rapid low-level execution of the fight - dancing your units in and out of range of the enemy, rapidly re-positioning, seeking the advantage of choke points. It can be played at such a rapid pace because the player knows what the units can do. MoO2 has no "micro". You get all the time you need to consider your moves, and you need that time to consider the tactical situation created by the design of the ships in the combat.

If you combine aspects of the two - unit design and real-time combat - you end up with something that's surprisingly shallow. You have little idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the units, and no time for precise, deliberate tactics. Sometimes you can barely control the units at all, such as in Endless Space. In other games, you can give orders, but it all boils down to pretty much the same thing: a series of numbers as weapons gradually deplete energy shields.

Now that I've argued that ship design and real-time combat don't work together, how do I make it work in Airships? In three ways: first, the combat is really the centrepiece of the game. It's where most of the complexity and development effort went. You can't compare it to a Space 4X and claim it's superior because it does far fewer things.

Second, the game is realtime but pretty slow-paced, giving you enough time to consider the situation in detail and give orders. In non-multiplayer combat, you can also just pause the game, give orders, and resume it. Third, while the ship designs are variable, the weapons are very distinctive in their abilities, and there are a number of overarching tactical considerations that are always valid. So while you can't see that the enemy is attacking with Immortals and choose a tactic accordingly, you can see that the enemy is attacking with heavy cannon.

This means that yes, you can have an RTS with unit design, but you need to put in a lot of effort to make it good. Otherwise, you're better off either ditching the unit design and creating a fixed set of units with interesting relative strengths and weaknesses, or going for good old uncool turn-based battles that let players evaluate the situation properly.

So if Space 4X games are indeed in a rut, what is the way out? Doing yet another remix of MoO2 with more modern game design ideas and nice production values will not work.

One option would be to precisely recreate MoO2, update the graphics to 2010s standards, and then fix exactly three things only: the balance of techs, the balance of race picks, and the AI. Doing this is surprisingly hard, because it's such a boring project. Any game developer would get a huge itch to start changing things around in an effort to improve things. You can see this in the new Master of Orion, which tries hard to clone its predecessor, but can't help but deviate from it. I would like to play this game, but I would not like to build it.

Failing that, it's time to go back to basics. What are the gameplay moments that the game should deliver to the player? Not the mechanics, the experiences and decisions created by the game. Build up a game that delivers those experiences and decisions with no regard to the mechanics conventions of the genre. If you say "Well, obviously each empire has a number of colonies, and the colonies produce income and production, and you can use the production to build spaceships, and there is a tech tree", you may have already gone too far down the route of just remixing MoO2. Again.

Instead, try and carve new paths, new mechanics. Reinvigorate the genre. Find ways to deliver that epic Galactic Empire feeling without the stale standard gameplay. The first games trying this will probably be simple affairs, compared unfavourably to the usual way of doing things, but at least they will stand out - and show the way forward!