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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.