Classifying games into genres is a challenging endeavor. The terminology for describing games is often loosely defined, or is understood differently from person to person. Even when there is common language, new games are routinely created that seem to defy categorization. For instance, what was once a well-bounded RTS genre is now routinely a mashup of MOBA and RPG influences.
Other times, the entire undertaking becomes an uphill battle against those that call into question the entire point of the classification exercise. What is to be gained by trying to classify genres? The definitions will never be perfect, right? And finally: what’s the point, it is all going to be different tomorrow.
I’m going to answer rather blunty: the topic of game and genre classification is of interest to me at an academic level, and so I’m going to talk about it. Whether anyone else will listen or care is another matter! But I believe there are practical outcomes to these efforts. The design theory uncovered in the process can be useful to game designers and developers. It can shed light on gaps between genres or at the margins where design innovation and novel ideas can flourish. Classification can also help broaden the gaming community’s understanding of a particular term or concept, and elevate the level of discourse.
Ultimately, I approach game classification with this notion in mind: don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. There will never be a perfect classification system for games, or for anything else for that matter. Entire scientific disciplines are devoted to the classification of living organisms, always with an understanding that such systems will evolve as new discoveries and insights are uncovered. But nevertheless, I think we can work towards a “good enough” system for a subset of video games that is usable and flexible while giving us anchor points to talk around. It will fail at times, but those failures are sources of insight as well.
The Quest for the Meaning of
The 4X genre is a tricky one to classify, especially since there are radically different approaches one might utilize. Different people coming at the classification effort from a different direction might end up talking past one another.
One approach takes the four X’s at face value: does the game have exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination? Of course, defining what we mean by those four terms can be its own challenge! Moreover, this approach often runs afoul because there are games that leverage those same, ambiguous characteristics. For example, many RTS games utilize 4X elements (eg. Age of Empires), and yet we don’t call a traditional RTS game a 4X game.
Another approach seeks to identify the unique heart, or core mechanism, of the 4X genre as a means of defining it. Troy’s series of articles (Part 1 & Part 2) on a proposed 4X core mechanism – unlocking hidden tools for victory – is one such instance. However, this line of analysis seems better suited for identifying particular “styles” of 4X game rather than trying to classify the genre itself.
A third approach lifts board game classification terminology (which is quite well developed and nuanced), and would describe 4X games as some combination of engine building, area control warfare, press your luck, and objectives race. The board game taxonomy defines genres based on identifying the primary thing you do in order to win. For 4X video games, this can be difficult because victory conditions can take many different forms – and some games don’t even appear designed with victory conditions in mind at all!
Yet another approach is to crowdsource the genre definition. As part of my background research on this topic, I conducted a tag analysis of games flagged by Steam users with the “4X” tag. The intent was to understand (a) what games had that tag and how strongly that game was tagged “4X” relative to all the other tags it received. Games with a higher ratio of 4X tags are more strongly perceived by Steam users as “4X” relative to other genre labels.
The downfall of all these approaches is that they are too restrictive. They rely on narrowly defining a certain mechanism, or checking off a list of features, or fitting into a categorical slot, or relying on sourced user data. The classification method isn’t flexible enough to capture the existing breadth of 4X game design, let alone accommodating a desirable range of diversity and innovations as the genre evolves.
Roguelike Relativism and the Rise of 4X-likes
The “4X” label is problematic as it is not clear about what it intends to capture. Most often, people seem to be referring to games like “traditional 4X” games (e.g. Master of Orion or Civilization that pioneered the genre decades ago). But the term will also get applied to games that are definitely not traditional 4X games (e.g. Thea: The Awakening and Sorcerer King: Rivals). The approaches used to define 4X often work for traditional 4X designs, but fail to account for non-traditional titles.
Troy’s article referenced a list of 4X attributes I proposed in concert with Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblance approach to classification. For pure genre classification, I believe this latter approach can be quite powerful. Unlike the approaches listed above, it has built-in flexibility. A game doesn’t have to do ALL of the things in the list of attributes to be labeled as a 4X, just enough of them to be in the “4X-like” family.
As a point of reference, this approach has been used to clarify the Roguelike genre (and Roguelike-likes). A “traditional roguelike”, as in games that nearly exactly clone the basic mechanics and systems of Rogue, has at least the following four key attributes:
- Procedural generation of game environments
- Turn-based, top down gameplay
- Player controls a single character
Traditional Roguelikes use these same four key ingredients as the basis for the design, but others depart from the formula. Some Roguelikes discard the turn-based, top down gameplay in exchange for a first person system. Others switch from turn-based to real-time or a sidescrolling platformer approach. But we can still easily trace the family lineage back to traditional roguelikes.
Here’s the crux of this approach: by defining a “traditional Roguelike”, we can gauge how far other games are relative to that known reference point. As a game has more of these core family characteristics, it moves closer towards traditional roguelikes. It is then possible to have a discussion about “how much” family resemblance is necessary to be a core member of the family (the roguelikes) versus a more distant relative (the Roguelike-likes and Roguelites) versus a game that merely uses some roguelike elements.
We can apply this same approach to 4X games by identifying the key minimum traits expressed by a “traditional 4X” game and then determine the cut-off point for staying within the 4X-like genre. For this, we will use a rubric!
The 4X-like Rubric
When is a game “4X-like” enough to feel like a part of the 4X-like family? The following rubric provides a more objective way of determining how closely a game lines up to the key attributes of a Traditional 4X game. “Traditional 4X” games are the benchmark specifically because they provide a clear reference point that is likely to be understood by a broad spectrum of strategy gamers.
The rubric is based on six criteria. Some of these criteria relate directly to gameplay mechanics and systems, others are more about theme and the roles players assume in the game. I must stress upfront that this rubric does not assess the quality or validity of a game as a strategy game, nor should it be viewed as a list of features that games “must have” – it is purely a system for classification (see **DISCLAIMERS below).
Criteria #1: Exploration of unknown geography
- Unknown geography typically means that the game’s geography is procedurally or randomly generated and different from session to session such that it cannot be known to the player in advance.
- Exploration typically means that the geography in the game (the starmap, the landscape, etc.) is fully or partially obscured from the player at the start of the game. Maybe the location of stars is known, but not exactly what’s in the system. Or it has a fully hidden map (e.g. Civilization) at the start of the game that is revealed through scouting.
Criteria #2: Expansion through territorial control
- Expansion can take many forms: it is typically settling a new city or colony. It may also be staking claim to territory using markers, influence, culture, or other resources to secure exclusive control. The key point is that the controlled territory or geographic asset falls under the ownership of a specific player.
- Player empires grow in size over the course of the game. Typically empires will begin with a single colony or city and expand out from there.
Criteria #3: Technology advancement and internal development
- Technology advancement typically means that there is a system for research and/or advancement that reflects the progress of the player’s empire and assets through technological means, often over long periods of game time from a thematic standpoint. Technology is a loose term. It can refer to magical spells, futuristic weapons, combat abilities, development projects, etc.
- Internal development typically means that players have ways of upgrading their internal empire “engine” by building improvements that increase the effectiveness or outputs of controlled assets.
Criteria #4: Management of a large-scale, sovereign empire
- Sovereign empire typically means that players control or manage an entire sovereign territory / state / empire / culture / civilization. This includes management or consideration of the population and civil society. The game is about more than just managing military assets.
- Large-scale typically means that the game is played on a strategic map where cities/colonies/planets/etc. are organized into an abstracted management unit, typically with its own dedicated UI interface.
Criteria #5: Slow paced gameplay
- Slow paced gameplay means the game is typically designed for a slower pace of play, using either turn-based, pausable real-time, or slow-time systems. The game does not reward or require fast paced “twitch” gameplay where reaction time matters.
Criteria #6: Competition towards victory conditions
- Competition typically means that players are competing against other peer empires/players that are striving to achieve victory while interacting through the same gameplay systems. There may be asymmetric aspects to the game, but other players/agents are nonetheless in competition with each other and using the same gameplay mechanics and systems.
- Multiple victory conditions typically means that there is more than one avenue for triggering a win, including both military AND non-military means of victory. While military interactions may be a critical aspect of the gameplay, it is typically possible to achieve victory without the direct use of military force.
Using the rubric to assess a game’s 4X-likeness
To apply the criteria towards a given game, go through the list with the following guidelines:
- If the game fully meets the typical requirements for a criteria, it is fully-met.
- If it only partially meets the criteria, it it counts as half-met (subject to heated debate!)
- If the game clearly meets none of the requirements, it is not-met.
Tally up how many criteria are fully or half-met. Two half-met criteria can combine to count as one fully met criteria. After tallying it up how many criteria are met, take a look at the chart below:
- 6 criteria The game is most likely a full-on “Traditional 4X” game.
- 5 criteria A Non-Traditional 4X game that deviates in some notable way.
- 4 criteria With 4 of 6 criteria met, it is 4X-like enough (welcome to the family!).
- 3 criteria Probably not a 4X-like, but it almost is… from a certain point of view.
- 1 – 2 criteria The game may have some “4X-like elements” but is not a 4X-like game.
- 0 criteria Space Invaders called and wants more quarters.
As you can see from the scoring chart above, a game that meets four of the six criteria is deemed 4X-like enough and is part of the broader 4X-like genre (four-criteria, 4X-like. See what we did there?). Examples for how this breaks down across various subcategories is presented below. But so far, I haven’t found a game that feels like a 4X-like but fails to meet at least four criteria.
That said, the rubric can also be useful in helping people better identify their own preferences and tolerances. You may intend to find games that are more like traditional 4X games, and hence look for those meeting all six criteria. Or you might be interested in going the other direction, and finding interesting edge cases (i.e. games meeting only three criteria) that nevertheless have “4X-like elements” to them. How you use the rubric, and where you draw your line in the sand, is up to you.
** IMPORTANT DISCLAIMERS!
(A) This rubric is NOT intended to assess the quality of a game. It is a tool to help categorize a game relative to traditional 4X games. A game that meets four of six criteria is not inherently better than one that meets two of six or worse than one that meets all six. Instead, the criteria highlights how the two games are just different despite sharing some common elements. If a game meets a given criteria “badly” (botching the attempt to meet it), for the classification purposes that criteria is still be counted as fully or partially met in the rubric.
(B) The rubric is NOT advocating for games to be more like traditional 4X games, rather it is intended to promote broader genre inclusion. The rubic and the emphasis on “4X-like” games is intended to cast a wider net around a pool of games that likely share certain common features and would be of interest to a common audience. By pulling more games into the pool, the hope is to encourage more cross-fertilization of ideas and support continued diversity and innovation in the genre.
(C) The rubric is NOT assessing the validity of a game as a deep or engaging strategy game. A game that scores a six is not inherently more sophisticated, deep, or engaging than a game that scores a zero (and vise versa). Rather, the game is just less like a Traditional 4X game, and it may more than compensate with other gameplay elements that are added to the overall experience.
Sub-Genres of 4X-Like Games
The rubric uses Traditional 4X games as the primary reference point for defining the 4X-like genre. However, one additional and desired outcome is that the rubric can also be used to identify related sub-genres and styles of 4X-like games. We can gain a greater understanding of the genre and how to place a given game within the broader bucket of 4X-likes.
Below are some suggested sub-genres of 4X-like games. Each sub-genre reflects a departure from Traditional 4X games in one or more key ways (i.e. based on not meeting one or more of the criteria). Of course, games within these sub-genres may also ADD gameplay elements that aren’t part of the Traditional 4X definition; and so despite scoring lower on the rubric these games can certainly still be (and often are) just as deep or engaging as their Traditional 4X counterparts.
The taxonomy below reflects an improvement on a similar one developed previously, but now leveraging the rubric to bring greater clarity.
Traditional 4X / Empire Builders
These hit all six criteria. When you think of the most clear-cut cases of a 4X game, these are it.
These often do not meet criteria #1, as geographies are typically known and fully revealed to the player at the start of each map. Most often, there is no procedural generation of the game world in grand strategy games either. Grand Strategy games generally focus on simulating a point in time (real or imagined) and have specific end game triggers or win conditions tied to that simulation (e.g. scenario based and/or conquest-only) that depart from a traditional multiple victory conditions approach. And so Grand Strategy games often only partially meet criteria #6.
These are games that are close to Traditional 4X games but often deemphasize internal development and management (criteria #3 is usually only half-met) and focus more on goals related to military conquest. They may not have non-military victory conditions (criteria #6 half-met).
These games hit many of the criteria except that they are designed to play more like a conventional RTS game, rewarding reaction time and twitch gameplay to some degree, and thus do not fully meet criteria #5. Often, they may also be structured at a smaller scale, for example managing only one settlement at the level of individual workers, therefore only meeting criteria #4 partially.
4X Survival Simulation
These games pit the player against a hostile environment and are not structured as a competition between peer empires – and thus do not fully meet criteria #6. In many cases, these games also focus on smaller scale settlements with limited or no means of expansion (criteria #2 and #4 half-met).
Heroic 4X Adventure
These games de-emphasize internal management and technology progress (criteria #3 half met or not met) and instead focus more heavily on character/hero development mechanics. Expansion may be limited to utilizing existing settlements as opposed to having a free/open colonization system (criteria #2 half-met or not met). The default mode of play for many of these titles are on “challenge” maps that are the same from game to game (criteria #1 met only if you intentionally choose a random map).
These games hit all of the criteria but may do so in a more streamlined or focused manner, leading to a smaller scope game. The size of the decision space and/or the gameplay time required streamlines the whole 4X experience into a tighter package. While some may meet all six criteria, the overall combination feels like it doesn’t quite add up to a traditional 4X experience. Typically 5 or 6 criteria met with criteria #4 being the least likely to appear.
Ultimately, I’d like to use this rubric, alongside any suggestions for improvement, to begin the process of classifying the catalog of 4X-like games and matching those against crowdsourced classification data (e.g. Steam tags). From an empirical standpoint, I want to test how well this rubric and the sub-genres above match overall gamer perceptions.
It is important to acknowledge the limits of the 4X-like rubric. First, it is aimed at putting a box around the 4X-like genre based on distance away from Traditional 4X games. Second, it is not intended to make judgements about the quality of one game compared to another, but instead to facilitate a discussion about how and why those games might be different from a design standpoint. Of course, it can also draw attention to those critical shared attributes and facilitate comparison and contrast style analysis.
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that there may be other important characteristics of 4X games that this taxonomy doesn’t capture at all. Two games might be equally a 5-criteria 4X-like, but one emphasizes a complex simulation and open-ended gameplay whereas the other is all about tight, focused competition between rivaling empires. Additionally, there are other facets to the design of 4X games, whether manifested through a core mechanisms or schools of design type inquiry, that are good to bear in mind and may be grounds for future investigation.
Language frames our understanding of the world, and much of my game analysis writing has focused on language and terminology. Game design is not an exact science, but having effective terms to use – whether for designing a game or critiquing one – is invaluable for advancing the level of conversation in the genre. If nothing else comes from this undertaking, I hope that the term “4X-like” sticks in our collective consciousness and that we use it as a means of advocating for a broader pool of games to be “in the family” than we might otherwise assume.
We are deeply interested in what you think about this article and the proposed approach for classifying 4X-like games. So interested, in fact, that we’ve put together a detailed survey that will allow you take the rubric for a test drive with a range of different games (or any other game you suggest!). We will periodically analyze the collected data and see how it can further this conversation. Please check out the anonymous 4X-like perception survey. And, as always, we look forward to talking with you in the comments below.