The world of 4X is changing. The genre is innovating like never before. Endless Legend brought a revelation in faction differentiation. Thea: The Awakening showed that card-based combat can be done properly. Sorcerer King proved that there’s nothing wrong with a 4X game having a preset climax to make the endgame interesting. Star Ruler 2 opened a new world in diplomacy. Yet, for all these additions, our genre is poised for even more change. Today, I’m going to talk about some of the changes I’d like to see.
Right now, there are three major players when it comes to genre in 4X games: Fantasy, Space, and Historical. Almost all modern 4X games can be put into one of these three categories. That needs to change.
I love Tolkienesque fantasy with all my heart, but I can get my fix with any of these modern games already in that genre – Age of Wonders III, Warlock 2, and Worlds of Magic. When it comes to space, I think we’re still suffering from Master of Orion hangover. Almost all the new games in this genre can be labeled as YAMOOC (Yet Another Master of Orion Clone). I’m not even going to bother listing them there are so many. We’ve been drinking from an open fire hydrant when it comes to Space 4X for the last three years. It’s time to move on. The Total War and Civilization series have the historical genre covered extremely well. What they miss, some asian titles such as Nobunaga’s Revenge or Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the highly anticipated release of Jon Shafer’s At the Gates will, at least partially, help to fill.
There are so many other exciting genres out there that are almost entirely unexplored by 4X. Part of what made Thea: The Awakening so appealing to me is that it was a “dark fantasy” game based on Slavic folklore. That’s not much of a departure from Tolkien, but there’s at least enough variance to pique my interest. That Which Sleeps has me very excited as well. It’s a 4X style game built on Lovecraftian Horror. But there are many other underdeveloped genres that I think are perfect for 4X games:
- Gothic Fantasy
- Central or East Asian Mythology
- The Old American West
- Urban Mafia
Some games may already exist in these settings, but they are hardly choking with titles the way the the “big 3” 4X genres are. I’d go into detail on what I’d like to see from these genres, but there just isn’t room. Anyone interested in hearing my thoughts is free to contact me via Steam. My handle is the same as my real name with an underscore: Troy_Costisick.
Artificial Intelligence (AI):
This might be the biggest boogieman in 4X. The problem, of course, is that strategy games naturally attract very bright people. Designing an enemy that can beat those very bright people on a consistent basis without resorting to massive bonuses and cheats is hard work. No one will deny that. However, if the genre is to thrive, more work has to be done.
I do want to pay some compliments to Stardock. Their recent work on the AI for Galactic Civilizations III has been very welcome. The game provides a much better challenge today than it did at release. Soon it might approach the refinement it displayed with GalCiv2, but that would only get us back to where we were. Likewise, Amplitude has made significant strides with the AI in Endless Legend. The game used to be very solve-able, but now the AI is much more sophisticated and yet still in need of more development. I would like to give a shout-out to one of our community members, “Ail”, who had done great work with mods for Pandora: First Contact. His contributions gave that game a much longer lifespan than it would have had otherwise.
Assuredly, progress is being made on this front, but more must be done. I’d like to see a game give the AI five to seven different strategies to choose from each game. This would keep the player guessing as to what he or she might have to prepare for. Not knowing what tactics the AI might use will keep a game fresh and engaging. Naturally, we’d all like to play against a computer with the kind of power of IBM’s Watson, but that’s not feasible right now. Maybe someday. But for now, giving the AI more options and more refinement is an excellent next step.
User Interface (UI)
Of the three main complaints gamers make when it comes to the 4X genre, I’ve already mentioned the AI. Gripes about the User Interface (UI) usually come next. Some games have great UIs. I’ll toot Endless Legend’s horn once again. Its UI is fantastic. It provides all the detail you could want when you need it and then recedes into the background when you don’t. In my mind, it’s currently about the best 4X UI out there.
So why haven’t more companies copied it? I don’t know. It seems like every game that comes out has UI problems. Perhaps it’s hard to copy what Amplitude did, or perhaps many developers just don’t see how such a UI fits their game. I’m not sure, but I do wish they’d take more cues from EL. That’s not to say EL’s UI is perfect; there are some tweaks I’d like to see. I’m looking forward to seeing what the UI looks like in Endless Space 2. I’m sure it will be even more refined than EL.
I realize it isn’t very innovative to just say, “Hey guys, why don’t you copy what Endless Legend did?” So, here’s something more original. There have been some massive advancements in UI in multiple software fields since the introduction of smartphones and tablet computers. Gesture commands have changed the way we interface with technology. Oddly, though, PC Games have not adopted much, if any, of these innovations even as touchscreens on laptops and desktops become more mainstream.
Anything in a game that can be moved using drag-and-drop should be easy to port to touchscreen. It’s just as easy for me to use use my finger when I’m playing on my touch screen laptop as it is to fumble with my wireless mouse. And advancements in this arena aren’t limited to actual touchscreen technology. There are many gestures that can be used to display all open windows, close all open windows, scroll between open windows, etc. that could easily be adapted into keyboard commands. Imagine if you could hit the left and/or right SHIFT key to scroll through a game’s research window, city management window, diplomacy window, unit management window, etc. Imagine if scrolling were just as fast as it is on an iPad! That would be really nice and convenient.
I could also mention tooltip innovations, but instead I’ll just point you to Jon Shafer’s At the Gates and Thea: The Awakening for some nifty new takes on this necessary part of game design. I look forward to more games adopting this kind of thinking.
The third leg on the 4x grievance tripod is usually the endgame. Rob wrote a good piece on this last year. I’ll expand on what he wrote by pointing out that we’ve had one good new endgame added: The Climax.
The Climax victory in modern 4X gaming has been brought to us in Endless Legend with the escape victory and then again in Sorcerer King. In SK, you are fighting against a single enemy: the titular Sorcerer King. He’s the one baddie you must defeat in order to win. In Thea and Endless Legend, you have optional quests you can do in order to emerge victorious. All three games have very different takes on this new idea and I’m excited to see what new victory conditions expansions for these games bring.
Some might point out that Master of Magic had the Spell of Mastery back in 1994, so Climax victories have been around forever. I’d disagree. The Spell of Whatever (see also Warlock, Elemental, Worlds of Magic, etc.) and its kin are really research victories. The original Civilization had that too. Research is not a Climax, to my way of thinking. Climax victories are different because winning is not a matter of accumulating enough points in some particular resource in order to trigger the end game. In a Climax victory condition, you must actually DO something to earn it.
I don’t want the reader to get the idea that I’m advocating every new 4X game have a Climax. I’m not. It’s just one example. There are many good victory conditions out there, but the community is looking for more. And we’re not just looking for old victory conditions spiced up, warmed over, and renamed. This is one area where I think some games drop the ball.
For instance, there are nine victory conditions in Endless Legend; however, many of them are just rehashes of the domination victory. For instance, the Elimination, eXpansion, and Supremacy victories are all essentially the same. It’s just that the cutoff for triggering the win is slightly different. Score victory and Science victory are different in their application, but very similar in their concept. 4X needs more and we need better. Now, I don’t mind having all those victory conditions. I like them a lot! It lets me customize my game, but that doesn’t mean I want the genre’s evolution to stop there. Far from it. We need to keep going.
We are all used to procedurally generated maps. We can even tolerate randomness in combat, though the modern 4X gamer seems to loathe that more and more. And we all know that random events are a staple in this genre. However, we do not see the joys of randomness in research, faction bonuses or world features.
When it comes to research, I’ve seen several threads on our forums mentioning random research trees. I’m not sure fully random trees are something that would be beneficial to the 4X genre, though I know it has been tried in games like Sword of the Stars and Pandora: First Contact. Check out Micah’s excellent review of Pandora to see what I’m talking about. I feel, however, that semi-random trees/webs, like in SotS, hold more promise. What if some games provided bonus research nodes on the trees or webs that didn’t appear every time? Players would never know what might be there and what might not. Having these randomly allotted bonus technologies or spells or whatever would really help keep a game fresh and interesting. They would certainly add to the replay value as so many of us who love this genre aren’t satisfied until we see everything.
Faction bonuses are something that’s pretty much set in stone each game. But imagine if a game allotted each faction five bonuses, only three of which were guaranteed. Developers could create dozens, maybe even hundreds, of bonuses and special abilities that could fit into the random slots. As much as Endless Legend did for faction differentiation with asymmetric gameplay, I think there are still vast possibilities to explore in this area.
Finally, I think there could be more randomness in the way the worlds/galaxies of 4X games are built. I’d like to see more rare and special terrain types or planet types that don’t necessarily appear every game. I’d like to see very limited resources that provide unique and fun bonuses/abilities that only show up once every three to four games. The same idea could be applied to goodie huts, heroes, quests, places of interest, and so on. Developers should not feel compelled to include every resource, dungeon type, minor faction, etc. in every game. Add some randomness to this aspect of design to keep it all fresh. I realize that these suggestions can cause some balance issues, but that’s what playtesting, community feedback, and early access is for. Stellaris by Paradox is promising a lot of what I discuss in this section. It will be interesting to see if they are able to execute on it, and even more interesting to see if other companies start to follow suit.
Over the years, it seems like animated cutscenes have just been tossed aside. Two of our forefather games: Master of Orion 2 and Master of Magic had tons of cutscenes. They really made the games come alive. I understand that cinematics are extraordinarily expensive. I know that most indie companies can’t afford that, and even the bigger names like Paradox, Stardock, and Amplitude can have trouble justifying the expense. But they make such a difference, and that’s why we need some innovation. Firaxis took a good step forward in their recent Rising Tide expansion for Civilization: Beyond Earth. Those voiceovers and cinematics should have been in the base game, but they are welcome nonetheless.
I’d like to see some less expensive forms of animation utilized or developed for 4X games. Cinematics don’t have to be fancy – especially for indies – but adding them will definitely help increase players’ enjoyment of the games. Even something like comic panels would be a novel approach that could help make a game feel more immersive. I’ve read reviews of so many games “lacking a soul” or whatever because they lack cinematics. I really think Galactic Civilizations III and Worlds of Magic would seem so much more alive it they had some kind of animation and maybe special sound effects, voiceovers and unique music. If developers who are early into their projects are looking for something to help them stand out, cinematics might be one very viable option.
The seventh and final area I’d like to touch on is diplomacy. For all the advancements developers have made in combat, terrain generation, faction development, game setup, and so on, diplomacy is not much changed from the early days. For most games, once you strip out the glitz and glimmer, it’s just a methodology for trading resources among players and gauging relationships on a binary love/hate axis. Time for a change.
There are three examples I’d like to point out. The first is Star Ruler 2. SR2 has a very complex, but very innovative diplomatic system. You earn cards as you play, and the cost to play those cards varies each turn. The cards can turn negative results positive and thwart your enemies’ attempts at establishing rapport with other players. Diplomacy cards are bought using influence (similar in limited ways to Endless Legend’s influence mechanic) and are also tied in with what one might consider espionage – gaining intelligence on enemy maneuvers. SR2 takes a new look at an old system and adds a host of new wrinkles that other games could take, expand, and customize for their own.
A second example of a good start when it comes to innovation in diplomacy I’d like to mention is the complete revision of diplomacy in Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide. The Warscore from the Paradox titles is blended with the Diplomatic currency of Endless Legend to create a hybrid diplomatic system. With the addition of some leader traits and espionage mechanics, Firaxis produced a very unique system for leader interactions, faction bonuses and conflict resolution/avoidance. It is a perfect system? No, not by a long shot. It needs more work. But is it different? Absolutely, and I am hopeful and curious to see what Firaxis does with it going forward.
I also want to point developers to a thread that was opened on our Steam Forums. A nameless developer (I actually don’t know who) asked if Nate (Nasarog) would start a thread on how to improve diplomacy. The sheer number of ideas that poured forth from our community was astounding. Some of them were really quite brilliant, and it all built toward a consensus. One set of proposed mechanics, too complicated to transcribe here, essentially puts diplomatic relations on more than one axis and the AI players react to different requests based on multiple criteria. The idea seemed to be very popular amongst almost everyone in the thread. It is my hope that some developer takes what was discussed and utilizes it in his or her game. That would be quite fantastic!
My purpose for this article was not to spark innovation. That spark has already been released. I feel that developers today are the most creative they’ve been in 20 years! What I’m doing is joining in the thousands (millions?) of other 4X fans and blowing on those glowing embers of cutting edge ideas, hoping they turn into a bright flame that draws more and more gamers in from the cold. We have a warm and growing genre, not to mention a warm and glowing community. I just want to see the games we support continue to improve and evolve.
We may not have to wait that long. On the horizon we have Endless Space 2, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars, At the Gates, Oriental Empires, Stellaris, and many more that are in development. All of these games hold promise, and I personally cannot wait to see what they bring to the table.