I love the 4X genre. It’s most likely a combination of the fact that I’m a huge geek and love space, and the fact I was beat up a lot in middle school and high school and didn’t kiss a whole lot of girls back then (see the first two reasons of my 4X love if you’re unclear on why that is). My love of the genre started on the old Mac II with Spaceward Ho, a game that lives on today in Palm Pilot versions (which are quite badass). Then came Pax Imperia I, followed by the graphically enjoyable but gameplay poor sequel. I tried other games along the way, such as Hegemonia, but nothing really stuck. Like every player of the genre (except for the ones who fail at life) Master Of Orion 2 was my lord and savior. And, since I’m a Jew, I can call it my messiah and it’s less blasphemous than if I were a Christian.
Unfortunately, I feel as if the genre has peaked and no one has been able to recapture the magic of the 90’s (MOO3 was a total flop). And it pains me to write that, because it makes me feel old. Recently life was breathed back into the genre (or perhaps the corpse of 4X was reanimated via dark magic) by the critically acclaimed Galactic Civilizations 2 (which just unleashed a new expansion), and the much less regarded, but in my view, equally entertaining Sword of the Stars, both released last year.
Not to beat a dead horse, but while each of those two games is fun in its own right, I feel that they are critically flawed in their own ways, particularly in comparison with MOO2, the gold standard of the genre. SOTS, although having excellent combat, ship design and an incredible tech tree, has an (admittedly intentional) basic colony management system, and limited racial selection. Gal Civ 2 has an extremely robust colony and universe management system, solid racial customization, but the functional ship design is poor, combat is completely autonomous, and the tech tree is mediocre.
What confuses me is that many of the changes made in game design, especially in 4X and civilization management games, is evolutionary and incremental. Accordingly, the way to advance the genre would be to build off the generally accepted gold standard, MOO2. This certainly didn’t happen with MOO3. And it seems to me that Gal Civ 2 and SOTS went in completely different directions from MOO2. It’s almost as if the designers each took 75% of the game and advanced it, but completely neglected the other 25%. And while each pushed the state of the genre in positive directions, they diverged from the unified concept that MOO2 brought that made it such a stunning game: quality tech tree, deep racial customization, robust ship design, active combat, and intense colony management. Is game design so hard in the new decade that we settle for intentionally lacking games?
Since the gaming industry has dropped the ball, it’s time for Golden Jew to take charge. If Golden Jew ran more than just the media and banks, but also the gaming industry, here’s what his next generation space 4X game would look like.
Colony Design and Management
Deep colony management, loosely translated as “lots and lots of neat improvements” is essential to any 4X game. The key pitfalls here are not having so many improvements as to become excessively cumbersome, and to keep buildings distinct enough so as to not be repetitious and bland (see Gal Civ 2’s “market”… “advanced market”… “super duper advanced market”). MOO2 did a good job here in terms of robust selections, but the interface was poor–well, not so much poor but outdated. Critical to success in a new game would be a long build queue, and the ability to queue “build packets”: such as a new colony start so one can queue and forget late game additions to the empire easily. I am a big fan of Gal Civ’s planet size affecting building numbers–in concept. However, it makes small planets next to useless. What I’d rather see is certain buildings be size restricted: such as massive factories or mining installations being restricted to larger planets. This would put strategic value in bigger planets without making small planets useless. Along these same lines, Galactic Achievements (World Wonders for Civ players), and the “Trade Goods” of Gal Civ 2, are must-haves. Two excellent colony features that any game should shamelessly rip off. To balance the complexities of colony management and bonuses, a slick interface is the glue to make sure that robust choices don’t become a cumbersome morass.
Building and designing your own race is one of the best parts of a 4X game. Who doesn’t want to lead a custom designed, scientific, space combat adept race of tentacle monsters? Even standard 4X games like Civ 4 that allow for the selection of broad characteristics are fun for the replayability that comes with the option of using different strategies. As usual, I am a fan of the MOO2 system where “picks” are used to select negative and positive attributes. In particular, I like the broad categories that MOO2 covered, such as government, production, ship combat, and others. One thing I’d like to see more of are the “qualitative’ type bonuses that affect gameplay, such as the “aquatic” trait of MOO2, that makes watery planets more desirable. These are more interesting than just a “+1 food” type bonus. One thing Gal Civ 2 brought to the table here was the “alignment” concept: periodically, you are challenged with ethical decisions that shape the alignment of your empire. I’m curious to see how this would play out in a multiplayer game, but the interactivity of the choices is another strong new feature. Ultimately the key to a good racial characteristic set is thorough testing by the designer: even MOO2 suffered from a number of racial traits that were useless or imbalanced.
The more fun stuff in the Universe, the better. If there’s one thing Civ 4 has taught us, it’s that OCD gamers can’t get enough of bonuses and bonus resources. I’d like to see everything: quasars, pulsars, asteroid belts, whatever. Gal Civ 2’s resource system (floating bits that can be converted into starbases that grant bonuses) is an elegant way of doing things–and they’ve added asteroid belts in the expansion. Nebulae and black holes are of course a must. Technologies to exploit these resources would also be an interesting addition. On the planetary side, there are many ways to do things: a numerical class, such as Gal Civ 2, or an actual planet type, such as in MOO2. I find the actual planet types to be more interesting, because of the ability to integrate corresponding bonuses. Beyond this, having planet specific bonuses, such as resource deposits or phenomena that boost certain aspects of that planet’s activities would add depth and the desire to colonize and conquer those planets. Another bonus system I’d like to see would be moons that can add population, science, etc. Detail and depth, as with most 4X games, is the key here. Bonuses should be clear, with variety, but not so much as to overwhelm.
Hands down, the best tech tree would be ripped off from SOTS, with a core tech tree and randomized side techs. This adds much replayability and also forces players to adapt to each game, preventing guaranteed killer tech combos and forcing diversity. This also enables racial characteristics, buildings, and even leaders that give greater chances for accessing “new” (as in, not in the base) technologies. In terms of actual content–something along the lines of MOO2 or SOTS works well. Most games have fairly solid tech trees–it’s a matter of rising above mediocrity that is the challenge in this category.
Robust diplomacy is important both for player and AI interactions. The ability for flexible trades and relationships adds needed depth to the game. A great example of this is Gal Civ 2, which lets you trade anything for anything, be it ships, starbases, planets, money, your sister’s virginity, etc. Another depth option would be to work in joint research and economic agreements, much like MOO2, or the ability to jointly research a la Civ 4. As with anything in a 4X or strategy game, the key to diplomacy is to ensure that the players can do anything they want to do, within the confines of the game. Another cool option might be projects which can only be taken on by multiple players: military or science projects of high power, but with the caveat that you have to share the benefits with an ally… who could become a rival.
Ship Design/ Ship Combat
This is where things can get tricky. Ship design is pretty straightforward. A system like MOO2 or Sword of the Stars, with detailed ship design (be it modular or system based) is a winner. Although tricky to balance on the design side, the ability to design and fly your own ships is very attractive to most gamers who enjoy the tactical/RTS aspect of 4X games. Given the new “RT4X” style games, such as Imperium Galactica or the upcoming Sins of a Solar Empire, this seems to be what a certain subset of gamers want.
Ship Combat is a function of ship design. Gal Civ 2 focused on the aesthetic part of ship design, since combat is purely mathematical. On the other hand, Sword of the Stars focused on a deeper Homeworld style experience. I enjoy the SOTS’ method, but find myself still enjoying MOO2’s more simplified approach. Although turn based combat is fairly out of style, the battles in MOO2 are complex enough to take advantage of your customizations, but not too complex as to focus on a player’s twitch gaming skills. The optimal game in my opinion would be somewhere between MOO2 and SOTS. My fear would be that a simple combat system like MOO2’s, even with updated graphics, would be ridiculed as too simple. At the same time, Gal Civ 2’s basic combat has been highly accepted, so I could be pleasantly surprised.
It’s easy to sit back and gaze upon a genre and arbitrarily state what makes a game better or envision the “perfect” game. The reality is that game design is much, much harder. Despite this, I can’t help but wonder why the genre is so stale. Numerous games have come after MOO2, but none seem to have captured the communities’ imagination and attention. In the meantime, we’re left with the gamer’s dilemma: play a 10 year old game, or constantly yearn for a successor. And while I enjoyed Gal Civ 2 and Sword of the Stars, I find that neither is as enjoyably replayable as MOO2 was. Perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised in the future by a worthy successor, but in the meantime, I can relish that after a quarter century in this universe, I am finally old enough to nostalgically remember the “good old days,” something I thought wouldn’t happen until I was taking Viagra.