When you take a swing at the king, use a big stick.
This truism is well worth considering when one looks at the 4X genre. In many ways 4X games are one of the “old souls” of computer gaming, the roots of which reach back almost as far as recorded human history.
Bold as such an assertion may seem, consider that the earliest 4X games were inspired by board games. The original Civilization of Sid Meier’s fame is, after all, based on the board game of the same name published by Avalon Hill in 1981 (Hartland Trefoil published the title a year earlier in the UK). Meanwhile, some of the earliest board games come from the cultures of the Mesopotamia region of the 3rd millennium BCE, the late Bronze Age. Egyptian tombs dating back to 3500-3150 BCE have been discovered that contain Senet, an ancient Egyptian board game. To give the reader some perspective on the timescale involved, Senet is a board game from “predynastic” Egypt, in other words a time before the first pharaoh. Some of the tombs in which Senet has been found date from a time in which Egypt was a typical African savannah. In other words, people were playing board games in ancient Egypt before it was a desert.
What does all this have to do with “kings” and “big sticks?” The ancient Egyptians have us looking in the right direction when it comes to 4X games. That is to say that many 4X fans are of the opinion that the greatest examples of the genre are games from the mid-1990s, now “retro games.” The two examples that immediately come to mind are 1996’s Master of Orion 2 and 1994’s Master of Magic. While certainly not a universal opinion, Master of Orion 2 is often cited as the best Space 4X game to date, a true masterpiece. Master of Magic is held in equally high regard in the Fantasy 4X subgenre. In two decades, many will argue, nothing has topped these two giants of 4X greatness. Many developers have tried, and many have failed.
Meanwhile, we 4X players frequently lament the good old days of the 4X genre. “Why can’t someone just remake MoO2 with modern graphics,” we ask? We are often disappointed by new 4X games. “Why does ‘New Game X’ feel so empty/bland/soulless compared to MoM,” we moan? In this internet age of instantaneous access to game development information, we are commonly skeptical of upcoming titles, perhaps with good reason.
Clearly the 4X genre is one whose present and future are dominated by its past.
But why? What is it that makes games like Master of Orion 2 and Master of Magic so untouchable? Why has it proven so difficult (and many would say impossible) to knock these games off of their respective thrones?
As eXplorminate’s resident “retro gamer,” I spend a lot of my free time playing and thinking about old games on both the PC and various consoles. To my way of thinking, the best retro games, the true classics of their respective platforms and genres, have a lot in common whether they debuted on the PC or one of the home consoles. An examination of the qualities shared by the classics across all genres should offer some clues to why Master of Magic and Master of Orion 2 are still lording it over us all.
Gameplay rules all. A game’s graphics can be mediocre for its time and its sound and music can be lackluster. But if the gameplay is spot on, the few complaints about the sound and visuals will be lost in a sea of praise for the game as a whole.
One of the reasons often cited by “retro gamers” for their preference for older games is that, as a general rule, retro games have very little fluff when it comes to gameplay elements. Part of the reason for this phenomenon is purely technological in origin. Due to the media on which games were distributed from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, floppy disks and cartridges, game developers were often faced with tight limitations when it came to the storage space available for the code that ran their games to say nothing of the need to cram graphic and sound files in along with it. Similarly, developers were limited by the horsepower of the average home computer, most of which were not designed specifically for gaming. As a rule, game programming had to be concise, necessitating games that were often relatively simple in their mechanics. Even the most casual student of video and computer gaming history will note the correlation of the rise of game complexity across all genres with the rise in available storage mediums and their respective decline in relative cost, especially with regard to digital distribution in the 21st Century.
But even though many developers may have wanted to make bigger, more complex games than the technology at the time allowed, the restrictions they had to work with created favorable conditions for the creation of many classic games, albeit sometimes unwittingly. Game designers and programmers were often forced to reduce game mechanics to their essential elements. They had to decide what was essential to make the game work they way they had envisioned and what parts could be left on the cutting room floor.
Of course, not every game development company made good choices in this regard and the 1980s and 1990s saw the release of far more clunkers than classics. The best game developers of that time embraced the restrictions they had to work with, despite how big their imaginations might have been, and made the mechanics of their games clean, efficient, and elegant. The true classics of this time period are games whose mechanics were refined to the point of near-perfection.
Master of Orion 2 and Master of Magic display this mechanical elegance. Both games are easy to understand, though a bit of manual reading may be required here and there. There is no great barrier to entry with either title, though many hours are required to truly master them (pun intended). The game mechanics are not overly complex for the sake of some elitist claim of complexity and they are designed so as to interact with each other in logical ways that build two games that end up being more than just the sum of their parts.
The best retro games, the ones regarded as true classics today, often found ways to use the player’s imagination to make up for simple graphics and the constraints of limited hardware. Clever developers created convincing worlds in which to set their games. The very best developers did this both in and out of the game itself. Game boxes and manuals often contained stories and background information on the people and places in the game. Artwork on the packaging and in manuals was used to set the tone for the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps left by the graphical limitations of the time. In the game itself, players often found detailed backgrounds, NPC dialogue, and other flavor text all designed to engage a player’s imagination and draw them into a game world in the same way a good book absorbs an enthusiastic reader.
The best computer and video games of all time all feature detailed game worlds, a strong pull on the player’s imagination. Granted, some genres of games require more world building than others; platformers generally don’t need the same game worlds that RPGs demand. But whether one plays Super Mario Bros. 3, Ultima VII, or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night true classics engage the imagination just as much, if not more, than the eyes.
Again, Master of Magic and Master of Orion 2 are no different in this regard to the classic games of other genres. The game worlds themselves are chock full of places to explore, treasures to find, and territory to claim. Master of Orion 2 taunts the player with an entire galaxy to explore, space monsters to fight, and randomly generated planets to discover. Master of Magic features unique landscapes, dungeons to raid, and an alternate dimension to enter.
Besides detailed game worlds, both games offer interesting background information and stories that capture the imagination, and interesting and varied races that populate the game world. Specific to the strategy genre, 4X games offer both the chance to play as all of these interesting races and the chance for the player to test himself/herself against them as well. Throw in the option to craft a unique race, and the player cannot help but be sucked into the worlds that both of these games masterfully create.
Near the top of any list of a retro gamer’s complaints about modern gaming is that newer games are “too easy,” that some genres have been “dumbed down,” and/or that modern games do too much “handholding.” While there is some grumpy old man-ness in such comments, there is a kernel of truth to them as well. The phrase “Nintendo hard,” for example, is a reference to the days of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (known as the Family Computer or “Famicom” in Japan) and the notoriously high difficulty of many of the games on that system. The 1980s and 1990s were also the heyday of the video game arcade, a business filled with games designed to eat your quarters. There is also the popular theory that developers made their games extremely difficult in order to hide the extremely short length of the game as a whole.
Whatever the true reasons, many have a sense that most games back then were more difficult than most games are now. And while that difficulty could manifest itself in a variety of ways depending on the game, a common source of difficulty in both the RPG and Strategy genres of the time was that the games were often “poorly balanced.” Or so we often read and hear today.
Indeed, one of the complaints commonly leveled against both Master of Orion 2 and Master of Magic is that the games are horribly imbalanced. Some default races are clearly easier to guide to victory than others. There are some custom race combinations that “break” the game and some with whom it is nearly impossible to win. Meanwhile, some of the technologies/spells in the game are obviously overpowered and extraordinarily difficult to counter if used against the player. Many players, especially those who come to these games these days, cry foul at these imbalances and wonder how the developers could have made a game that was so obviously lopsided in practice, if not in design.
But what if that very imbalance is a strength rather than a flaw?
It is true that imbalance can be frustrating, especially when one is fighting against it, annoyed at its mere existence. But imbalance is what gives us variety. Sure, some races in Master of Orion 2 are easier to win the game with than others, but each race has its own distinct flavor and must be played quite differently to be successful. No palette-swapped carbon copies here. Meanwhile, these same imbalances are what gives the AI players real personality in the game. Every Master of Orion 2 player knows how easy it is to sign treaties with the peaceful Psilons and the overbearing menace that is the Sakkra empire. Similarly, the presence of these imbalances cause the player to adjust, to change his/her strategy or be defeated. Discovering that one is neighbors with the Sakkra leads to an entirely different strategy than being neighbors with the Psilons; the player who treats these races as if they are mere palette-swaps does so at his/her own peril.
In its own way, imbalance can lead to a lot fun as well. In Master of Magic, many of the most “imbalanced” or “overpowered” spells and racial abilities are what give that game its soul. Whether it is flying units, enchanted roads, or the volcano your opponent just raised in the middle of your empire, Master of Magic cannot be accused of being dull and uninteresting. Using global spells to change the terrain in the game world was certainly “unfair” in some sense but it was also interesting and spells of that kind engaged the player and challenged him/her to use these crazy abilities in strategic ways. Despite any flaws that Master of Magic may possess, it is certainly a wonderful strategic sandbox. But it is the game’s inherent imbalances that create opportunities for strategic brilliance and lead to memorable moments and war stories to share with other players.
Imbalance can, if done mindfully, create deep and meaningful experiences even in a genre as old as 4X. Too much balance can lead to the the often heard complaint that a game is “soulless” and that, while it may be well done, feels empty in practice. The developers of Master of Orion 2 and Master of Magic, uninhibited by 21st century gamer concepts of “balance,” delivered finely tuned and fun experiences that made players feel that anything could happen when they started a new game. Modern 4X developers would do well to carefully consider the positive effects of intentional imbalance in their games if they aim to dethrone the classics of the genre.
Bringing it Home…
So why do some of the older games in the genre still rule the roost in the eyes of many 4X fans?
The answer to that question can ultimately be found in the relationship between the player and the game itself. Computer games have certainly changed a lot since the mid-1990s and developers are able to do things with their games that they could hardly have imagined 20 years ago. Every new 4X game has more features, new graphics, (allegedly) shiny AI, and on and on.
But we players have not changed much, at least not in any way that really matters. Despite our love for shiny polygons and fully-orchestrated music these days, the older games still know how to push all the right buttons. The player wants to formulate a plan and see it through. The player wants to be caught off guard by the AI from time to time. The player wants to overcome a strategic challenge. Games like Master of Orion 2 and Master of Magic create these situations for the player and they do it well. Deep down we 4X fans know that games like these are the very essence of what a 4X game should be.
One day, Master of Orion 2 and Master of Magic will be well and truly dethroned as the kings of the genre. With the recent resurgence of the genre in the last few years, that day may not be long in coming. But when they abdicate the throne for the next genre-leader, I firmly believe that it will be to a game(s) that have learned from the lessons that Master of Magic and Master of Orion 2 have to teach us about what makes a great 4X game and what we, as players, really want.
Now, where is my Senest board…