4X

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

With the release of Endless Space 2 (ES2), a wave in the space 4X ocean has crested. The “Big 4” space 4X games –  Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (MoO:CTS), Galactic Civilizations III (GalCiv3), Stellaris and ES2 – have all landed within the past year along with major expansions for GalCiv3 and Stellaris amidst a host of other titles.

And yet I can’t help but feel let down by the collective state of 4X gaming – specifically the prolific bugs and unrefined mechanical systems – especially considering that the above games were released by major, established developers. What began as an era of unprecedented promise and excitement has given way to the malaise of an after party hangover.

Example #1: Development of MoO:CTS appears to have stalled shortly after release with the game failing to have a lasting appeal among the core 4X audience. Will we get any additional content? Probably not. Example #2: GalCiv3 was a buggy mess that under-delivered compared to the highly touted and respected Galactic Civilizations II. Example #3: Stellaris, the innovative darling has just recently, at the one-year mark started to feel polished – but it too has been plagued by bugs and mechanical systems that remain lackluster. Example # 4: ES2 was released as an unpolished beta – and despite the preview build being solid, the release version was riddled with new bugs and plenty of balance issues remain.

So what happened?

A Lack of Polish, That’s What.

Recent 4X games have launched and languished in an unpolished state for significant amounts of time, and this is frustrating 4X gamers across the board. I think this lack of polish, attention to game design, and execution is particularly stark among major 4X releases because we expect such titles to be polished given the pedigree of their developers and their budgets.

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A game, much like a spaceship, should not launch until it has been checked for flaws.

Before going further, I should clarify what, in my mind, a “polished” game has:

  • No major imbalances or exploits in the game that undermine its intended gameplay
  • No major bugs – particularly the obvious and game breaking sort
  • No major performance issues (late game lag, memory leaks, poor optimization, etc.)
  • No underdeveloped mechanics that leave you thinking that something was only half-implemented
  • An iteratively refined gameplay loop and an engaging overall game pace

Many modern 4X games come through an early access program and are released in a “beta state” (at best) by traditional benchmarks. Games get feature complete (enough) and pushed out the door. ES2 was in a beta-like state less than two weeks before release. Technically, there are still planned features that were never implemented at launch (fighters and bombers) – so one could argue that it is still in alpha.

There is simply not enough time given to polishing and fully testing the systems of 4X games once they are feature complete and before release.

Why is this lack of polish a problem? When a given 4X playthrough might take 10 or 15 hours (or more) to complete, hitting a game breaking bug or realizing that the AI is a pushover hours into a game undermines the whole experience. It’s deflating at best and enraging at worst. Civilization: Beyond Earth is a perfect example of an underwhelming launch. The Rising Tide expansion partially fixed issues with the base game, but we also had to pay for the “fix.”

4X games are intended to be strategic experiences that can be replayed many, many times for hundreds of hours. Waiting around for the polish to come six months or a year after the fact, when you could have been playing and enjoying the game is aggravating. That aggravation can turn into cynicism very quickly. I play games in many different genres, and with a few notable exceptions, I don’t see this fundamental lack of polish nearly as much as I do with 4X games. Why?

Ultimately, I think there are many reasons why any particular game lacks polish, and most games are troubled by more than one.

Reason #1 – Design Problems

This is a big one, so let’s tackle it first. I think 4X games are suffering from a lack of design rigor and overall vision – and this in turn makes it difficult to tune the game into a well-polished experience.

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There’s more to design than just checking all the boxes.

First, I think 4X games are having a problem where their scope is too big for the resources and time available to adequately develop and polish the total experience. There is a sense that 4X games “have to have” a certain mix of mechanics to even be considered part of the genre. For example, the community often clamours “where’s the espionage system?” – as if the game is automatically incomplete without a spy mechanic.

Regardless, the result of feature creep is that games have a lot of mechanical systems that don’t feel as interconnected and impactful as they should (e.g. Leaders in Stellaris). It would be better to have fewer mechanical systems that are much more polished and important.

Which brings me to my second point: the design of 4X games is challenged by competing design philosophies and publishers who try to make their 4X game all things for all players. One philosophy is towards a simulation sandbox, where managing your empire becomes an RPG-like endeavor that builds a narrative. The other is towards more strategic gameplay where complexity becomes an emergent property arising from interactions between relatively simple systems. GalCiv 3 attempted to bridge the gap with its initial release with new mechanics like the Planetary wheel, elaborate ship designer, Starbases and an AI that couldn’t play the game all that well. It was unsuccessful. I feel that there are many points to explore in the balance between these approaches, but design has too often fallen back on familiar mechanics that fail to deliver a compelling union of new ideas.

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Endless Legend is big on narrative – but could also be big on strategy.

Third, I believe that constraint breeds invention. Games of the past, due to hardware or other program limitations, were often forced to do more with less. Developers couldn’t include every mechanic they dreamed up – they had to focus and refine a core set into something that made a compelling experience for the player. Now, it seems like mechanical systems of all sorts are included, because “why not?” Technological limitations are no longer a concern. The result is a bunch of stuff that is bolted on and doesn’t support the core gameplay. They just bloat the design.

In the words of french novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

The fourth and final point on design relates to iteration of the overall gameplay loop. You can’t properly gauge the total experience of a game until all the intended features are complete. Iteratively improving a design is critical for getting the overall pace, level of challenge, narrative-building, and other essential aspects of a game’s experience just right. This was the case with the release of Civilization VI, where it often feels the addition of AI “personalities” and the warmongering mechanic has made the overall experience feel less developed than the simpler systems of previous installments. The problem with 4X games is that they are launching right at the point that studios should instead be heavily iterating (i.e. the shift from alpha to beta).

So why are games having trouble getting the design investment they need to shine? This brings us to….

Reason #2 – Early Access

To understand why design is failing, we need to consider how games are being created in the current climate of crowdfunded, early-access, DLC-fueled development. Here again, there are multiple forces at work.

I can’t help but feel that Early Access has fundamentally changed the working relationship between developers and their audience, and not always in a good way. I admit, the prospect of Early Access is irresistible to both parties, yet I feel it can have a corrupting influence on a game and the expectations that grow around a particular title.

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Early access has been both a blessing and a curse.

It used to be that people could sign-up for beta testing and get access to games for free in exchange for their honest critique and feedback. Such access would usually NOT confer a copy of the finished game either! This arrangement would immediately preclude a lot of people from participating – why would they if they had to buy a copy of the game on release anyway?

But the people who cared enough about testing (and enjoyed it) participated and provided more quality feedback than what you get from the masses via an open, public, paid early access program where gamers now feel like they are paying to test someone’s product (Spoiler alert: they are!). It also absolved testers from feeling like they had to defend their “purchase” because they hadn’t bought it yet! In short, the quality and frankness of the feedback is better when it’s behind closed doors and not embroiled in a payment exchange. It’s more genuine and honest as long as the developers listen to the feedback.

From the developers’ point of view, I can certainly understand why they like Early Access as a means of generating early revenue from their game. For many indie developers, it may even be essential. But so often games end up getting stuck in Early Access for long periods of time – with the developer indefinitely avoiding polish “because it’s still in Early Access.”

For the bigger developers/publishers where money may be less of a do or die situation, I’m surprised that Early Access gets used as much as it does (e.g. ES2, MoO:CTS, GalCiv3). On one hand, there is a risk that if your game isn’t well regarded among your core audience, everyone will talk poorly about it during Early Access and negatively impact sales at launch. I’m pretty sure this is what happened to MoO:CTS. Then again, if being in Early Access takes on its own sort of profit motive, then the situation becomes far messier.

Reason #3 – DLC

While Early Access makes the development cycle publicly accessible before release, the nature of DLC greatly extends the post-release development cycle. Justified or not, this lets developers kick the can of polishing a game down the road as part of a long-term “post-release support phase,” funded by DLC.

Don’t get me wrong, when DLCs provide more of a good thing, it can be great. The problem is when DLCs are being pushed out while the core gameplay still lacks the minimum level of polish. Stellaris, for many people, is in this exact situation regarding the combat, warfare, and leader systems (among others). Furthermore, some people feel that Paradox is trying to make more money by focusing on DLCs at the expense of fixing core gameplay mechanics – an opportunity that must be hard for developers to ignore.

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Paradox has become well-known for the massive amounts of DLC it produces.

If conversations on various message boards are any guide, I am not alone in my frustrations. I am routinely waiting for large patches to fix core gameplay issues – only to see parts of that patch coupled with new DLC content and features (Star Drive 2 is another case in point). The fact that there are times when you actually need to buy a DLC to fix base gameplay issues that should be improved in a free patch borders on infuriating. Make no mention that DLCs consume development time for making new features while other fundamental systems linger in an unpolished state.

Who’s to blame in this arrangement? I understand completely why developers/publishers have the policies and development priorities they do. They’re following the money. And so game creation is slowly becoming less about passion and more about delivering a product. Take a look at how many games from the large publishers are sequels or use established IPs.

Sadly, passion doesn’t always pay the bills. But as long as people continue to pay for and enable such practices, there is really no incentive for developers to stop. So, to answer my previous question (who’s to blame?) I suspect it is the consumer. If we weren’t so eager to hand over our money, the developers might be incentivized to put out a more polished product before opening a floodgate of DLCs.

Reason #4 – QA Process

From the project management side of game development, we’re seeing what appears to be major lapses in effective QA (quality assurance) practices. In short, games are getting shipped (e.g. ES2 or MoO:CTS) or patched (e.g. Stellaris or GalCiv3) with major bugs – even game breaking ones. Often these bugs are found by the community of players within hours of games or patches going live. It makes you wonder what sort of testing is going on in the studios. Even in cases where optional test patches are released, there often seems to be little developer response to issues raised by the testers and the broken patch gets pushed out the door regardless.

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As a point of comparison, look at the games Blizzard releases. Their entire brand – even before World of Warcraft became their money printing machine – is based on the notion that a game will be released “when it’s ready” and they don’t even set or announce release dates until the game is already in a polished state. Then they use the run up to release to polish their product even more. This isn’t to say that Blizzard is perfect, as they’ve had their issues at times (e.g. Diablo III), but it’s about the attitude they adopt towards development and the high bar they set for quality assurance.

Reason #5 – Gaming is Big Business

A number of years ago the games industry surpassed the cinema industry in yearly revenue generation. There is no question that games can be big business. And when publishers and developers merge and/or become publically traded there are certain inescapable realities that affect the end product.

In my opinion, the larger publishers and developers should be held to a higher standard. They are the enterprises with bigger pools of resources, the marketing teams, the cadre of professional programmers and artists, and where experienced industry vets reside. And so I believe that our expectations of 4X games coming from major publishers are higher and that this is warranted.

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Which of course makes it all the more frustrating to see games coming out of large studios without the polish that one expects. MoO:CTS had the backing of a large publisher and a generous budget. It was subject to a long early access period with no shortage of constructive feedback from the community – and yet it shipped with glaring weak points in the design. Endless Space 2, despite being a great game in many respects, was rushed out the door, and I’m not even talking about the game breaking bugs (some of which have maybe been fixed by now). Amplitude set an aggressive schedule for their Early Access program. But even with major and unexpected overhauls to combat and the tech tree, they plowed ahead with their schedule despite the concerns raised by many during the EA period. Why? Why launch the game when it just barely squeaked out of alpha? We can all draw our own conclusions about that.

I don’t intend to disparage the developers who work intensely and pour their passion into creating games they believe in. Rather, I think this is a message to the publishers that the community’s patience is wearing thin. If developers are having their arms twisted by publishers to release something that lacks polish, I hope they recognize that there is more at stake in the long-run.

The Long Term Prognosis

If I’m coming across as a whiney, entitled gamer, that’s understandable. Perhaps, after all, it is unreasonable to expect that games be released in a polished state and free of major bugs on day one. Perhaps, it is unreasonable to expect that major studios shouldn’t be trying to foist a protracted and paid testing phase on their customers. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect that six months, a year, or even two years from “release” that the game might actually be finished and polished.

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But I don’t think these are unreasonable complaints. Technology and market forces are changing how games are being developed and sold. If gamers simply accept these changes as the “new reality”, then the trend is only going to further slide downward.

Overall, I’m starting to see an increased frustration and cynicism among the 4X community. People are growing tired of being underwhelmed and having to wait an indeterminate amount of time after release to feel like the product they bought is actually complete. I’m worried that if the current state of affairs doesn’t shift, we will be back in the 4X dark ages in short order. Why buy a new game, when the game you just bought is going to take a year or more to feel finished?

The challenge is that turning this ship around requires action from publishers, developers and gamers. Publishers need to stop setting unrealistic release dates. Developers need to put more effort into polishing their products. They should be using opt-in beta patches to test everything before it goes live. And if they are willing to go into an early access phase, they need to listen to and engage with their testing base in a more genuine and respectful manner. On the flip side, gamers can vote with their wallets, holding developers and publishers accountable. Why are we buying scads of DLC when the base game is still broken? Or when fixes are only fully realized alongside paid DLC content? We have leverage if we’re willing to use it.

I predict that this frustration is going to cause gamers to be even more impatient and subject future games to even more severe scrutiny. Whether it’s a big developer or small independent studio, this isn’t an exciting climate to launch a game, and I wonder whether we are approaching a saturation point.

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The future really is bright… We hope.

Looking forward, there are number of 4X games still on the horizon. The only big release we know about is Total War: Warhammer 2 – and that isn’t really considered a proper 4X game. Otherwise, Oriental Empires, Predestination, and Children of the Galaxy are all in Early Access and it remains to be seen how they will fare. In consulting the 4X Game Database, there are a dozen or so more games that continue to plod along in closed development. Some of these haven’t received significant updates in months, so it remains to be seen which of these will ever see the light of day.

The wave has, indeed, crested.

A Personal Note

Looking back over the past five or so years of 4X gaming, it certainly has been a frantic and intense period. The post – Endless Space 1 era (2012-present) has seen more 4X releases than just about any point in the history of the genre.

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An excellent example of a polished 4X game… After two expansions.

While others on the staff might differ, Age of Wonders 3 (AoW3), for my money, still stands out as the highwater mark and my favorite 4X since Alpha Centauri (which was released almost 20 years ago). AoW3 completely redefined my expectations about what is possible in a 4X game,especially in delivering a high-fantasy 4X, a sub-genre I previously avoided. Coincidentally, the development process followed a traditional approach that was privately funded (no crowdfunding) and developed in a closed testing environment (no early access). They set the release date on their terms when they felt the game was ready.

I felt that AoW3’s design showed an excellent level of polish (yes – even right at launch) and the game grew from there. Admittedly it isn’t for everyone, as combat is certainly the focus over empire management. But there is more going on mechanically than I feel people give it credit for (race relationships, good-evil alignment, strategic magic, interesting victory conditions, etc.).

Speaking of interesting victory conditions, my biggest disappointment in the state of the genre is the deplorable handling of victory conditions – which I feel is central to having a complete 4X experience. In the world of game design (at least board game design) we say that “victory conditions ARE the game” because everything feeds into and builds on them. The entire arc, balance, and pace of the game is structured around how players compete (and cooperate!) for victory. And yet in 4X video games it almost always seems to be relegated to an afterthought from a design standpoint.

Ultimately, I’m waiting for the grand unification of tight strategic gameplay and narrative intrigue – and I think this has to hinge on interesting victory conditions. Other games in related genres have accomplished this feat (ahem, King of Dragon Pass) but I’m still waiting for a true 4X game to knock it out of the park. Despite my hopes, after this latest onslaught of 4X game troubles, it looks like I’ll need to wait a little longer.

50 replies »

  1. I find this piece very thought provoking. Though I do agree with some parts and find myself somewhat less alarmed than Oliver in other, my main point of contention is his choice of a “4X” game as the pinnacle of 4X games in the past 5 years.

    As I’m sure , most of you know that I would chose Endless Legend, but if we stay with the topic of space 4X, my candidate would be Distant Worlds: Universe (graphically UGLY as it is) as the “it” game.

    But, to give where credit is due, Age of Wonders 3 is a phenomenal game with the best tactical combat out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t played Stellaris, so I can’t compare to that, but DW:U has ruined me, in a good way ;)

      I waited an age to play GalCiv3, but turn based feels so retrograde now! Polaris Sector is quite good, but the combat AI is so poor I feel like I’m cheating. I’ll take a punt on ES:2 when it first reaches a discount, but I’m holding out for DW:2 (and hoping that the investment goes to gameplay and AI, rather that Stellaris matching shiny graphics).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I too am looking forward to DW:2 (If it ever comes, over a year without comment by the devs.) The thing about DW was there was no multi-player, so development focused on game play elements rather than balancing things for a MP audience.

        Oliver talks about Early Access being part of the problem, but it seems to me that these days 4x developers feel they need to add multi-player or they won’t get sales. I don’t think that’s true, I think the majority of 4x players are single players. In any case, if sales dictates the need to have a multiplayer element, if it were me, I would design the single player experience, release that, and then reduce that game to the bare essentials for multiplayer. Maybe make that a DLC for those that really want a MP experience. In essence, two versions of the same game. But one where players get to pick the multiplayer experience if they want it without having to pay for it.

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    • Well, Mezmorki did acknowledge that it was his personal choice and that others might differ.

      I haven’t played Endless Legend yet (it’s in my library, I just haven’t gotten to it), but I get the impression that Endless Legend is fairly heavy on the empire management and relatively light on the combat side of things, while Age of Wonders 3 focuses more on the combat side of things with simpler empire management. So which one would consider the best among fantasy 4X games would depend on which part of the 4X experience you most enjoy. EL is the standout if you prefer the complexity to be more in empire management, while AoW3 is the standout if you prefer the complexity to be in military composition and tactics.

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  2. I enjoyed this piece – I think it captures a lot of what I’ve been hearing from the community over the years and puts it all into context nicely.

    I do have a couple of points of contention, though.

    First, a minor(ish) point: I agree with Nate Nasarog that Distant Worlds: Universe was glaringly absent from this write-up.

    Second, you write “the design of 4X games is challenged by competing design philosophies and publishers who try to make their 4X game all things for all players”. I don’t believe you directly address this as a bad thing, but the tone seems to indicate as much. I would tend to agree with you, but you also write “Speaking of interesting victory conditions, my biggest disappointment in the state of the genre is the deplorable handling of victory conditions”.

    I think there’s a class of 4X gamer that doesn’t care much for victory conditions – they make their own, if you like. This is where the Paradox games fall, for example. You even acknowledge this earlier in the post: “One philosophy is towards a simulation sandbox, where managing your empire becomes an RPG-like endeavor that builds a narrative”.

    I wonder where you fall on this point – that publishers are trying to produce “catch-all” games, to the detriment of the genre – because I couldn’t come down one way or the other based on the article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good points and observation. Touching on the topic of victory conditions and strategy vs narrative is indeed a much larger subject and the editors here have put me up to writing a full article on it as well.

      But briefly, I do think that making games that try to be all things to all players can be problematic. In theory, unifying the strategic play with more of an RPG narrative style is possible – it’s just much harder to accomplish and so many of the efforts end up failing in one or more ways.

      My personal preference is more towards games with a strategic emphasis, as I find the RPG narrative dimension to not be all that engaging. My preference is for a unique narrative to emerge through the strategic choices and consequences you make on the path to victory.

      I think Stellaris is doing a lot of cool things. But if we were to imagine the narrative of a game being a novel, the ending is such a letdown that it jades my view of the entire thing. Or it’s like reading a book where the last 100 pages were left out. The narrative and lore building via the sandbox has so much going on – but it doesn’t amount to anything. And mechanically, all the techs and pop gene modifying, and other cool stuff just amounts to making numbers grow bigger and faster. It’s not pointed towards anything that supports the climax or conclusion of the narrative.

      I’m all for Paradox abandoning the traditional 4X victory model – we are all getting tired of that. But they replaced it with nothing. Their other grand strategy games that are time limited have a historical context that bounds the game, but nothing bounds Stellaris and provides a narrative conclusion. I would love to see some unique multi-stage quest chain that spans across the entire game and that varies based on your ethics and government type. And that it be something that requires longer term strategic planning and tough choices to accomplish.

      Basically, I think there is a huge lack of innovation among the handling of victory conditions, whether you are talking about from a strategic OR a narrative standpoint. This in turn results in games that are all following a very similar arc and don’t provide much by way of a unique experience. I’ve been dabbling with Empire of the Fading Suns – and what a cool design approach that game is! Where are the new 4X games that similarly strive for something original and inventive as a way of structuring the game?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for the clarification regarding where you fall on this issue.

        I see what you’re saying regarding the narrative and how that ties into actually “finishing a game”. It’s interesting that the genre can, and does, attract people that are looking for different things. I’m quite happy not to finish a given playthrough, for example. I understand that there are those that don’t and, in that regard, I totally see where you’re coming from.

        I wrote a related piece in direct response to an eXplorminate article a few months ago regarding story telling in gaming. I took a spin on it to consider story telling in strategy gaming; somewhat relevant to what you’ve discussed above. If you’re interested: https://odingaming.com/2017/04/04/story-telling-in-strategy-gaming/

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  3. Reblogged this on Odin Gaming and commented:
    Oliver Kiley over on eXplorminate has done a great job contextualising and summarising the air of displeasure in the 4X community over the release quality of games in the genre.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Distant Worlds Universe is my candidate for exemplary 4X game in recent times in the space genre
    In spite of crude graphics and an awkward UI the game has depth & character & replayability
    It is unfortunate more people dont play it and it has not spawned a significant modding community which is likely on account of its complexity and almost vertical learning curve
    I am looking forward to seeing what Codeforce will produce for DW2

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  5. I would add that I think there’s a fundamental flaw in the basic 4x recipe, and that games live or die in terms of “greatness” based on how well they fix/avoid/cover it.

    The fundamental flaw is the “upgrade mill” effect, where you get a tiny endorphin rush from upgrading your stuff, and the game just hands you a fifteen hour process where you upgrade a thing so you can upgrade another thing, forever, without making any truly interesting decisions. Or at least while only making a few truly interesting decisions over the course of the game. “Do I fling my Stack of Doom at the enemy’s face on Turn 150 or Turn 180?”

    That’s why I think Age of Wonders 3 blows Endless Legend out of the water. The limited options for city construction are a positive, not a negative. Each one has an express purpose, and you should probably skip them and build units unless you literally need their function.

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    • Yes, exactly. In a tense AoW3 game, you can set yourself up for a loss by building city structures that you don’t need at the expense of military. Working that line is where skill comes into play the choices are far more interesting to me than other games where you just build everything everywhere and can rush build giant fleets in few turns if you get caught behind.

      Good point about the upgrade mill. 4X games, to borrow boardgame terminology, are more “efficiency engine” games than anything else, particularly as the war game dimensions tend to get simplified and pushed back in emphasis.

      Efficiency engine games basically task the player with building an economic engine that grows exponentially – with the critical strategic moment being when to shift from building the engine to using its outputs to generate points for scoring.

      Take Endless Space 2, it’s a land grab game coupled with an optimization puzzle to build an engine that maximizes FIDSI production. At a certain point, you focus the FIDSI output towards a desired victory conditions – e.g. Science with research, conquest with ships, production with industry, etc and his spam end turn hoping to cross the finish line before your opponents. It’s efficiency engine through and through.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll take some exception to that last paragraph, Oliver. I think you’re right for all except Supremacy and maybe Conquest. I’m almost 400 turns into my current game and I can tell you that land grabbing is a disaster (especially if you do it early in a Conquest game) and maximizing your FIDSI is pointless. For those victory conditions, it’s just grindy and watching your back for sneaky AI’s and internal political strife.

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      • @Troy

        I’m not quite following you… you mean that FIDSI output isn’t important for the non-military victories? That seems odd considering FIDSI output is exactly what you need for those military victories.

        As for the military victories, IMHO the strategic gameplay around military conquest is very thin. I literally use the exact same battle card, with all my ships crammed into one flotilla, 99.9% of the time. Refitting ships to counter the AI is trivially easy. The only remaining input is how many ships you throw at the AI – which also comes down to maximizing FIDSI outputs. If you outproduce the enemy and at least equal their technology level, you’ll win the war.

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      • This will be a bit roundabout. But let me get there.

        The problem with 4x-as-RPG is always one of balance. Traditional rpgs either structure the game such that you approach challenges at a time those challenges will be fun, or they utilize a grinding mechanic that lets the player choose their difficulty at the cost of time (grinding) to lower it. 4x difficulty traditionally varies wildly over the course of a long game where your opponents are AI in a complex system that they may or may not effectively manipulate. It’s no surprise that the best 4x-as-RPG is Thea, which uses asymmetrical opposition that grows per a timer mechanic, plus gate like challenges that you can take on at your leisure when you’ve powered up enough (done enough grinding, which fortunately in Thea is actually fun) to feel comfortable taking them on.

        The 4x-as-competitive-game 4xes are indeed engine building games. No question. But they rarely seem to take any cues from the much more developed and evolved world of board game engine builders. One of the key traits of an engine builder is that the engine should never have time to operate for very long before the game ends, AND, the game should require you to use the engine along the way in ways that would be suboptimal if not for the constraints the game placed on you.

        Agricola is a classic example. You can build an infinite food engine, which lets you feed a max size family. One appropriate stove plus three of each animal. That’s nine good per harvest out of the ten you can maximally consume, and getting the last food handled is trivial. But by the point you’ve achieved that you have maybe two harvests remaining and the the game ends. And getting there is tough because you need all kinds of other resources along the way that make stockpiling what you need for that setup very different. You’re constantly put in positions where getting one useful thing might require you to, say, eat the sheep you were going to try to breed, setting you back in one respect in order to move you forward in another.

        The closest thing a traditional 4x has to that is either building units to defend (which takes away rounds you could have used to build a better engine) or building economic units to pay maintenance on other buildings (which is essentially a tax on having an engine). But military units can also be used offensively, so they’re really part of your engine. And chances are the game let’s you use that economic building you built to purchase more things for your engine… which also means it’s part of your engine. Plus it’s just not that interesting of a mechanic. Unlike Agricola where you might know you need four food in the next six actions or else you face disaster, while having half a dozen ways to get it all of which vary wildly in efficiency, longer term payoff, and likelihood of success, all based on your expectations as to other players choices, you just… build the thing. It’s just a straight tax you fire and forget, if even that since it’s probably just a different part of your engine.

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      • Nope. What I’m saying is that once you get deep enough in the game, maximizing your FIDSI output is pointless for military victories. You reach saturation in each of those to where a few +’s here or there don’t matter anymore. There’s no sense in taking the time to move pops or terraform planets. You just don’t need to.

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      • @troycostisick
        Yes – I agree. At a certain point, when you’re making +15,000 dust per turn and +7000 influence or whatever, maximizing beyond that is a waste of time, especially for military. You can win well before needing to push things that far.

        @cadfan17
        Great example of making engine building interesting.

        I wrote in a prior article about the nature of strategy games and the balance on internal versus external systems. Most engine builders lean more towards internal systems – and indeed Agricola is very inward looking. The only external interaction is in the worker placement, which is a less direct means of interaction compared to attacking or taking territory.

        However – many 4X games seem to be doubling down on these internal systems, but they don’t include the sort of internal pressure mechanics like Agricola has to make the decisions interesting with tough tradeoffs. The answer is to always just build the thing as you mentioned. Maybe you have a choice of building A first or B first, but 100 turns later that choice is irrelevant.

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      • Yes, indeed it is. But there are plenty of instances where games do this.

        The colony development model in Armada 2526 is one example that comes to mind. The limited number of building slots you have and needing them coupled to population units means that choices you make will have game long implications. Almost every building provides a unique capability (and very few are the typical +resources% sort of buildings) – and so you’re making long-term strategic choices every time to plunk a building down.

        This is also where player expectations and what people think they want starts to work against them. People want to have huge scale games with no limits, and end up managing huge piles of planets that down in homogeneity as everything gets built everywhere.

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      • Actually, ES2 does make those decisions matter. Building a science building before you build a trade company increases the political power of the science political party while keeping the religious party or whatever weak. I don’t know if that matters 100 turns later. I think that’s too long of a timeline to ask of devs. But 10 turns? 20 turns later? Yeah, that matters in ES2. It can matter a lot.

        Liked by 1 person

      • @Amber, that’s a good point about the political parties. I’d say researching techs in a particular order matters even more in ES2. That is a choice that can matter 100 turns later as long as you continue to pursue that strategy.

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    • While Agricola features only one meaningful way in which players interact, it’s really, really meaningful. Optimal play involves analyzing your opponents board positions, figuring out THEIR optimal play, and then weaving through their actions to get what you want without opposition like some sort of 15th century German farming ninja, always taking what you need the split second before it’s gone, and never a moment earlier or later. It’s a game where critics sometimes say there’s no interaction… while also saying that they’re endlessly frustrated by how every time they want to do something, someone else does it first and ruins it and they never get anywhere.

      I would argue that this is actually a far more involved form of interaction than most games of direct military conflict. If your farms state was hidden information this wouldn’t be the case. But because you have nearly full information you can analyze other players incentives and needs, predict their choices as to how they will attempt to exploit a limited pool of shared resources, and then use that to optimize your own choices in that same resource pool so that you always get what you want, and only sub par options remain for your opponents.

      I really need to learn to code. I have four full 4x write ups, each of which attack the issues we’re discussing from different directions.

      Unfortunately, while I actually can code a bit, my experience is all with dragging complex behavior from simple languages (I programmed the Game of Life in ASCII on my calculator from scratch once, it ran way too slow but it did work). I have no experience with modern tools. I have a copy of the free version of Unity and literally no idea where to even start. As in, I don’t even know how to program a button.

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    • I liked both AOW3 and EL very much, bit tottaly disagreee with the ending sentiment. I fail to see the diference in function in building up your economical side both in AOW3 and EL, except that in AOW3 its simple (which is fine given its focus). In EL you got more options and more layers , but these choices are important and interesting decisions, dependend on circumstances in part, no set algorithm. It can be very benficial to build a supercity if yuo find a good spot with many anomalies (the bonuses are insane). For expansion you got to to balance us influence for empire plans and luxury resources… And all this versus miliarty buildup/protection depending on your neighbors.

      Also there is a big part of players liek me who just take pleasure from building up your faction and seeing the results, I believe what you called upgrade mill. Its fun and in EL requiers as much thinking or more as military side.If you didnt notice it, imho maybe you played on a to easy setting.

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  6. I completely agree with this article. AoW 3 stands out as a finished game in a djungel of half done games. AoW 3 is without meaningless half done mechanics that dosen´t ad much to the core gameplay. Right now I am trying to play Civ VI, but half of what I do feels boring and not adding to my game plot. Its like I don´t get to make any decisions anymore. I might be playing CIV VI wrong.

    Endless space 2 looks fantastic and the UI is great but as it is right now it feels unbalanced and unpolished. I hate when I get the feeling this game is sort of ok but this and that is putting me off, and I start to wonder if I should wait I while before they patched this and that.

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  7. THe “personal note” at the end seems odd. Like you just threw that in at the end. I’m not sure I get it. But the rest of it is really good. Paradox, Stardock, Amplitude, Firaxis, and Wargamming are all big enough to afford good QA teams. THe amount of money they spend on them will be offset easily by improved sales. People are sick of BUGS! Glad you wrote this, Oliver.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for reading and for your comment.

      Regarding the personal note – In a way I feel it was a way to capstone the entire article. AoW3 is my favorite 4X game recently, and I don’t think that it is a coincidence that it followed a very traditional development model. Moreover, the game was a labor of passion among its creators, returning back to a franchise that had a good place in many people’s hearts – and they delivered.

      Stellaris is an amazingly ambitious game in many respects – but it’s a flagship product of a publicly traded company. The lead designer for Stellaris was pulled off the project and re-assigned after the first patch or two. Good or bad – it’s a different mindset geared towards managing a service and delivering a product rather than executing a particular design vision. I expect Stellaris’ design vision will change a number of times as leadership over the project changes in the years to come. It’s a different mindset.

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  8. I am very interested in what Triumf is cooking up. After AoW3 I was hopping that Civ VI would be more warfare oriented with armies, generals and tactical battle maps much like in AoW but perhaps more automated like in Call to power or Endless space 2.

    Triumfs next game is for me the most anticipated game in the near future. The little I know is that they announced that it will be a turn based strategic game and that if we liked AoW3 we will like the coming one. But I guess they had to rethink and adjust their game ideas after this years releases. They might have been planing to do an AoW game in space.

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  9. Great article Oliver.

    I’ve stated before that 4x gaming has been following a post launch content design similar to one made by a developer/publisher creating a MMO.

    Paradox is closer in comparison than other studios in this regard.

    I have absolutely no issue with this model of the following conditions are met by the studio.

    1. It’s clear to the consumer that the game will see continued support and changes for the next few years in terms of free and paid DLC.

    2. The game remains in a stable , mechanically sound state throughout this process. Where I have no problem playing a game relatively bug free while you continue to add content.

    If you faulter on any of those 2 values it not longer makes the endeavour worth while to the consumer who supports the game.

    I will not wait a month for mechanics added via DLC to be properly implemented and balanced and neither should anyone else.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I’m convinced now that the fundamental problem with 4x is the ever-widening possibility space that leads to a late game that is difficult to predict and control.

    Games like DWU have this problem but also manage to sidestep it because the game is so huge that no one really ever expects to win. It’s something I’m keeping in mind for my eventual return to outer space.

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    • Agreed.

      I think one reason why this is too often the case is because 4X designers aren’t starting with thinking about the victory conditions. They start by designing the exploration systems (which everyone likes right?) and then try to shoehorn victory conditions into the game at the end. It’s completely backwards.

      I’ve been playing Empire of Fading Suns a bit, and victory resolves around trying to control these scepters that are scattered among the various great houses. Controlling enough scepters will let you ascend to the imperial seat or whatever. But how you get these is the real joy and becomes a way to link diplomacy, military, economy, etc. all towards a common goal. These things become a means to an end, rather than an end in and of themselves.

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  11. Interesting article. I will play devils advocate here and add another point though for consderation(no idea if true or not) : Maybe its just really expensive to develop a polished 4x game, and and its just not possilbe for 30-50 $. The logical thing would seem to cut out a base game for 30-50 $ and add rest in DLCs, but first it takes a really good design, second look what happned when imho TWH did this nearly perfectly: a neverending cry about DLCs. Even if base game was complete and great and nearly bug free and all the expensive DLCS were ony needed if you wanted to play as the said faction, as AI they were for free.

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    • TW:WH was also one of my favorite 4X-ish games recently. They did a good job with the base game and the DLC’s are almost entirely content based. Base game patches have handled all the mechanical tweaks.

      As for the question about developing polished 4X games – I don’t believe money or technical issues are a limitation. Distant Worlds was made by 1 person – and as many have chimed in it’s a high water mark for the genre. Polaris Sector and StarDrive games were each developed by 1 person. How many people worked on Civ 6? 30? 100?

      I agree that making 4X games is difficult – but I think every genre has its difficulties. The graphics demand and asset needs for modern FPS / RPG games is astronomical compared to a 4X I would imagine.

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      • Excellent point. Thea: The Awakening had a dev team of just 4 people and has been a model of game stability since it launched. Even the multiplayer has been bug free. Why can’t games like Stellaris, GC3, nuMOO, Civ6, etc. with much bigger budgets and staff do better? No idea.

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      • Totally agree Troy. I don’t get it either.

        I had written down in my original hand notes for this article the following remark:

        “Why lack of polish? One more of the following: laziness, incompetence, greed”

        Harsh – but I think that’s what it comes down to on a case-by-case basis.

        Also to keep in mind, as project teams get bigger and bigger, the challenge is so often just in managing the process and the team. And failures stemming from that is often attributed to a combination of all three issues. “It’s good enough to make money” brushes up against the challenge of getting all parts of the design and work effort acting in unison. It’s hard, and takes very competent leadership.

        In this way, I think small teams have an advantage. As was mentioned earlier, in older times the designers were also the programmers, and the back-and-forth between good design and a functional product was more seamless and iterative as a result. This may have contributed to more tightly designed games than we see today.

        Liked by 1 person

      • If more people work on something, it’s harder to connect the parts correctly and no one is responsible for it. Which might result in poor design (various game mechanics connect with each other poorly) or outright bugs (for example : this AI procedure requires X,Y,Z as parameters but one person calling it uses X,Z,Y instead, the other doesn’t know Z is required and only adds X and Y etc) or weaker features overriding stronger ones (for example the AI in Master of Magic can properly select an attack target out of 5 identical units. Then there is an override after that which says “if there are multiple identical creatures to the target, attack the nearest one”. Which then results in stupid decisions (the nearest one might be at full health while the other was wounded – the correct choice to attack the wounded then gets ignored) and bugs (if one unit was enchanted by flight, making it invalid to attack by walking units, but the other copy was not, the system will override attacking the walking unit by attacking the flying one, which is an illegal attack.). Another such example is how someone added a “do not contact the human player if relation is too high” thinking the AI shouldn’t threaten the player in that case – but it applied to all diplomacy so the AI became unable to offer the player treaties (which requires good relations) and this has never been found out and everyone just assumed Master of Magic AI is dumb and can’t do offers in diplomacy. Probably even the developers aside from that one person who coded the procedure making the offers.)
        I can’t imagine these sorts of bugs being the result of anything else but people not familiar with the existing system working on it. If you make an elaborate attack targeting system, you wouldn’t add an external part that overrides it, would you? But the guy working in the next room will…

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  12. Aow3 became a great game once they flushed out the races but at release it was underdeveloped and disappointing. Distant Worlds is prob the cleanest case of a game being released without missing content or having polish problems. I’m guessing its very late steam integration and weird pricing model really hurt sales.Master of Orion I think has fulfilled its obligations and is now a great game but the early access period was extremely contentious and it broke the company. The devs of Stardrive and Galciv ans Sots2 are all socially autistic. Thea is great but its not a game for everyone.I would suggest that we look to the marketing/publishing departments of big company’s like paradox and take 2 for deserved blame.

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    • I intensely disagree that Distant Worlds is the “cleanest” case of a game being released without missing content. When the game first came out, it got ravaged by Space Sector (and justly so, in my opinion) for its blandness and cumbersome gameplay. Only in later expansions did Distant Worlds gain much of the polish and features that now make it stand out.

      It’s actually the first game that comes to my mind when people bemoan the “release a bland vanilla, fix it with the expansions” publishing model.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. This is a great article. There currently is not a lot of pressure on developers to make a strategic game that really “hangs together.” I feel like too many 4X games have a lot of fake choices or weird obfuscation of strategic decisions hidden behind math. I wish 4X players would look more to board game designs to understand how to make a thrilling strategy game experience.

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  14. Good stuff Oliver! I fully agree with you on AoW3 being the primary example of how a game should be developed and delivered these days. I’m still have tons of fun with that game, simply because the choices you make matter so much. I have to say that GC3: Crusade it heading in that same direction for me. It’s a big step up from GC3 but it took a long time to get there.

    Anyways, you caught Stardock’s attention with your article.
    https://forums.galciv3.com/483562/Pick-2-Polish-low-price-sophisticated-gameplay

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  15. Really good article Oliver. It’s fantastic to see it trigger plenty of good debate in the comments section too. I read Brad Wardell’s (very candid) post on the galciv3 forum with interest. It’s interesting to hear a developer’s perspective. it’s great that eXplorminate facilitates this kind of discussion amongst fans and developers alike. Thank you all!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I completely agree with Oliver and the opinions he voiced in his article. I also agree on his view on AoW3 (I don’t get away from playing and modding it since its release), but AoW3 isn’t what I would call the typical 4X game; the game is so good because it doesn’t even try to become “vast” or “empire-building”. In the typical 4X game the “military” can be a liability in the sense that it’s “wasting” assets, and it’s possible to exist and even thrive without being invincible – or even able to properly defend yourself. That’s probably a very important factor in space games, since in them you are PERMANENTLY researching new components for your ships, and with each component you have to decide whether it’s worth to actually use them by constructing a new ship around them.
    So, yes, I also agree about the “upgrade engine”. There is probably too much “Civilization” in all (or most of) the 4X games – add to that the “ship upgrading”, and it becomes too much of a game of maximizing a specific income and optimizing building orders.

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  17. As for end game, or victory conditions, 4x games are STRATEGY games, there is no strategy if you don’t have an objective. Paradox and their “you play the way you want – there is no end” is a total cop-out allowing them to ignore victory conditions and balancing those.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 100% agree.

      I referenced a split between 4X gamers interest in simulation/roleplaying versus playing a strategy game. Keith Burgun talks on his blog about these very ideas. Without an objective/goal you cannot, in fact, have a “game” in a formal sense. A 4X like Stellaris (which has goals that most people ignore) intends to deliver a simulation/roleplaying experience first and foremost, and as a result is more like a “toy” (per Keith Burgun’s definitions) than a formal strategy game. A “toy” is exactly as you say, something with which you “play the way you want.”

      Personally, I’m more interested in games that tell a story/narrative NOT by feeding the player canned story lines but INSTEAD through the strategic arc and culmination of the game. My best strategy game experiences have always been about overcoming a tough situation, where i thought all was lost, but through my actions managed to squeak out a close victory. That’s drama and excitement. It’s a narrative that emerges from the strategic gameplay.

      Endless Legend started down the pathway of trying to tie lore and story lines to strategic victory with their main faction quest lines. I think there is massive potential in 4X games to explore these sorts of victory conditions more. Stellaris certainly has the potential to pursue this sort of thing – as the sandbox nature of the game IS well setup or organic drama and story generation. So there is the opportunity to fuse and unite the formal storytelling with the strategic narrative by way of compelling and interesting victory systems. But so far they haven’t explored this territory much.

      Across the entire 4X genre, I think the endgame is simply not getting enough attention in design and development. And the fact that games aren’t exploring novel victory conditions means, fundamentally, all of these games are basically amounting to the same experience: build up your empire engine and then snowball resources to hit one of half a dozen thresholds (# of planets, tech victory, economic victory, etc.). It’s the same experience and arc every single time. There is barely any novelty in the structure of most 4X games.

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  18. “My best strategy game experiences have always been about overcoming a tough situation, where i thought all was lost, but through my actions managed to squeak out a close victory. That’s drama and excitement. It’s a narrative that emerges from the strategic gameplay.”

    I have come back to Aow3 after a long hiatus and the game has embraced me into it’s sirenlike arms.

    In my current game I’m on what seems to be a mostly land map but with considerable bodies of water, and I was being hard pressed by a Human Rogue but I managed to neuter her and capture 2 of her cities, with impressive hammer production, currently one turn producing Knights,

    I’m Dwarf warlord by the way, with ShadowBorn Master and Expander. Expander has some nice boosts for getting your cities up and running, The plan was to have a core of 6 Dwarven cities (done, with 2 Human cities as a bonus) and tech up to Phalanxes with lifestealing. With MCUs these guys can become seriously seriously strong.

    If you sacrifice mobility to bring along Foprge Priest you have decent healing.

    Anyway, it’s an story that’s still emerging because a Human necromancer declared war on me and is now sending an invasion force.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. 1) The pinnacle of 4x games, at least scifi 4x games, actually occurred 24 years minus 42 days ago — I know because tomorrow would have been my 24th anniversary with my late wife, who passed away four months and three days ago. Unless my math is wrong, or wikipedia is wrong about the release date of the original Master of Orion. (Hint: Master of Orion 2 was an abomination only exceeded by the… thing… called Master of Orion 3.)

    2) I’m almost positive that most games don’t have _any_ automated unit tests. As a professional sofware developer and the test fanatic on my team, I’d love to hear that I’m wrong — but a lot of the bugs that I see happening in games (most especially Civ VI) argue that I’m not, because I don’t see any way they could have occurred with decent test coverage (upwards of 85% is a minimum, though in my professional opinion less than 95% C2 coverage is a failure).

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    • You know, at times, I’m not convinced that that some Devs ever actually sat down and played their 4X games from start to finish. Which is a problem me think.

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