4X

Quarter 1, 2018 Statistical Analysis

As many of you know, there has been a change to the way Valve handles users’ libraries. What once was open information for anyone to view, is now private by default. The reasons and ethics of that change have been hotly debated. This article is not about that. Instead, I’m doing what may be my last roundup of statistical data for 4X games. I’ll be presenting ownership rates through the first quarter of 2018. Normally, I do this sort of article in January, but as it is very unlikely that Valve reverses its stance on users’ libraries any time soon, so I decided to present this to you now.

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Estimated Owners Charts:

02-2018-4Xowners

03-2017-4Xowners

04-2016-4Xowners

05-2015-4Xowners

06-2014-4Xowners

Analysis:

Obviously this methodology is unfair to the 2018 titles, but we’ll start there anyway. Unlike previous years, this year’s chart includes titles that were in some type of early access or beta test program on Steam. 2018 was looking to be an intriguing year at the very least with a number of diverse titles slated to launch. However, none of them were creating much buzz on our forums – not even Warhammer 40k Gladius or Thea 2: The Shattering. I find that somewhat surprising.

Please note, the numbers for 2018 are so tiny that they are very unreliable. I wouldn’t put much faith in any of them. About the only thing we can glean from them is Space Tyrant (the only title that actually launched in the first quarter) was met with a mild response. Word of mouth is spreading, but not enough to ramp up the game’s ownership to levels we would expect for such a well-executed game. Perhaps Space 4X fatigue has set in harder than even I imagined.

07-SpaceTyrant.png

I was really looking forward to analyzing how Three Kingdoms: The Last Warlord performed relative to the other titles in 2018. It’s being developed in China primarily for a Chinese audience though an English version is available. It would have been fascinating to watch how it faired vs. games developed by Western companies. At the time Valve turned off the data, TK:TLW  was doing quite nicely in early access. I certainly think there is a market for 4X games set in China, as Oriental Empires proved last year. Alas, I’ll have to resort to comparing the player base of TK:TLW’s  using steamcharts.com in order to get some idea of its market penetration.

Of all the 2018 titles listed, Predestination has been in development the longest. Yet, it only accumulated around six thousand owners in all that time. Predestination had a chance to really affect the market – if it could have come out in 2012 when it was Kickstarted. However, I think most of the interest in this title has waned, and even a full launch is unlikely to rescue it. So much has changed in the last six years. Today’s market is nothing like the hopeful one that existed half a decade ago. The 4X garden has become overgrown and looks like it’s choking out any new sprouts.

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The 2017 titles had an extremely tepid first quarter in 2018. Endless Space 2 was the most successful with roughly 70k new games sold in the first three full months. That puts it on pace to double its year-over-year ownership base, which isn’t bad at all. It is lagging somewhat behind its sibling Endless Legend at this point in EL’s lifespan, but still, almost 400k is a respectable number.

All of the other seven titles except for Dawn of Andromeda showed some growth; however, they could only muster about 21k new owners in three months combined. That doesn’t seem like it would be a sustainable number for many of those studios. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most if not all those sales came during price promotions or in game bundles. It would appear that going forward 2017 will end up being the second worst performing year since I started tracking ownership data back in 2015.

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The top games from 4X’s best year (2016) in this data set kept on chugging, though. Civilization VI added around 600k new owners in just three months! That’s astounding. Stellaris added around 200k and maybe would have been higher if version 2.0 had a better launch. Yet, other than those two, not much else happened for games from 2016. Only Planar Conquest, Last Days of Old Earth, and Stellar Monarch showed any growth and the increase is so small, one might as well chalk it up to a rounding error. The imbalance of owners concentrated in the top games of 2016 has only increased as time has gone on.

Similarly, 2015 games showed almost no growth at all in the first three months of 2018. Only Worlds of Magic and Apollo4X increased, and again that might just as well be related to algorithmic variance than actual sales. I will see someone post on the WoM forums every now and then, but A4X has been a dead game almost since it launched. Galactic Civilizations 3 did not seem to get much of a bump from Intrigue prior to the data blackout. It’s probably too early to make a judgement on Intrigue’s impact, but it doesn’t seem to be motivating new owners the way Crusade did.

10-AoW3Logo

2014 has had slightly more success. Endless Legend added about 30k owners, which is very nice for a game going on its fourth year. Age of Wonders 3 also garnered about 30k new owners in the first quarter. Triumph should be pleased, and I’m sure AoW3’s performance bodes well for their new project. EL and AoW3 have demonstrated great strength over the last five years and the fact they are still adding thousands of new owners each month is a testament to their quality. If you haven’t gotten those games yet, you should really consider picking them up during the next sale. Pandora: First Contact, Lords of the Black Sun, and Horizon all registered small growth. That might just be variance once again, but at least those games aren’t standing still like most of the titles from 2015 and 2016.

Conclusions:

The main thing I take away from the first three months of 2018 is that the 4X Renaissance could well be over. Increases in ownership crawled to a halt for everything but the best-selling titles. Even GalCiv3 failed to register a new high on SteamSpy before the data spigot was closed. That is a very bad sign for the dozen or so 4X games that we know are in development. Perhaps Gladius, Thea 2, or Interstellar Space: Genesis would have rescued the genre this year, but there’s no way to know. I’m dubious whether they could despite the fact that all three look like good quality games that I’m personally looking forward to.

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If I had to bottom line this for you, 2018 looks like the tail end of a very good run for our beloved genre. We have one good historical title (Civ6) three great fantasy titles (EL, AoW3, and Thea), and four solid space titles (Stellaris, GalCiv3, ES2, and Master of Orion). Without taking a new direction or bringing some revolutionary gameplay to the table, I don’t see any new titles being able to break through all those gatekeepers. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Valve is hiding the data. Now we won’t have to witness the carnage first hand.

Links to previous Statistical Analysis Articles

2015

2016 Part 1

2016 Part 2

2017 Part 1

2017 Part 2

28 replies »

  1. i wouldn’t say the “4X Renaissance could well be over”.
    look at it as a normal market that is all fed up. we had much titles released in the last years and
    if i look for myself: with Stellaris, ES2, GalCiv3, Thea1 and Thea2 in my library there isn’t any 4X in the near future that i’m going to buy. i have enough 4X for the moment to play with….even GalCiv3 is only in cause i won a key here (and i added some DLC then).

    my guess is that the next few years will be very quiet on the 4X market with only DLCs comming.
    then in a few years the industry will get back to the 4X market (at least i hope so) and plan new releases or maybe even new IPs.

    for my above theory i exclude all indie titles, they are produced cause the developers like what they do, they don’t follow investor/publisher/market plans.

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    • Thanks for reading, GermanDad. I’m just pessimistic right now. I don’t think any developer, indie or large studio, had any interest in doing something new and different. I see nothing but old ideas in new clothes. Thea and Stellaris are the only ones that have dared break the mold over the last four years. I just don’t think studios will see the success of 2014 and 2016 for a long time and they have only themselves to blame.

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  2. Good you made this article. It’s open to debate on many fronts, but I feel your general opinion and view matches mine mostly.

    I want to make a note for Thea since that wasn’t a traditional 4 x game in the first place. It was actually one of the first mixed genres. (RPG, crafting, cardgame and rogue elements). And afterwards we had a flood of titles that try to match their quality (I still can’t name one that impressed me that much as Thea did in 2015).

    I’m even not sure if Thea 2 will make me so excited again as Thea 1 did. Thea was was exceptional and a rare gem. I 100% believe the dev and team do everything they can to improve, but it will never be that unique as the first. A better title is possible if they listen to the community feedback carefully. (crafting and inventory management was much critisized).

    I played the cardgame demo and I noticed that I was not going back to it much. It’s a nice addition, but not the main feature for me. Also I think the art direction is getting to a more professional way. Something I not see as something really positive for me personally. I really loved the Thea 1 artwork.
    I don’t want it to become mainstream, but unique and original.

    Anyway I do not think that Thea2 will suffer from a (eventually) stale 4x market for the same reason. It’s unique in his kind and offer enough mixed genres that seems popular atm.

    When you speak about a 4x market getting stale you speak for Explorminate as well.
    I see myself less returning to the site then I did last two years. It’s my own busy schedule (the same reason why complex 4x games are difficult to invest time) and it’s your busy schedule. I speak you sometimes in the Steam chat. You are always busy, it’s hard to review multiple games and really invest time in them.

    So if 4x genre get’s stale, Explorminate have to do something about it themself to survive!

    Since April one there is a joke about Victoria 3 (I wish it was true), an article about City Skylines, an article about Heat Signature. All of those are not the main reason I visit Explorminate myself.

    What you have to do (I think with all respect) is to watch carefully what your audience and the audience of traditional 4x games playes when they do not play traditional 4x games.

    And if I speak for myself that’s mostly a sidetrack of turn based tactical games. And exactly that is where I think the buzz is at the moment. (Lot’s of interesting titles scheduled and lot’s to be released soon and already in EA).

    Just my thoughts. Thank you for reading.

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  3. Worshippers is also out. Steamspy says it has between zero and twenty thousand owners.

    I never know how much to take from these. For mainstream publishers with large followings, I often think they can’t fail with a single game. If they make a flop I think they get punished by losing fanbase slowly over time, rather than losing sales on the flop.

    Meanwhile I think that luck plays a large role for the indie studios. If opinion leaders push your game I think you get sales, and if not, you don’t. And you can’t control that very well these days- not because the youtubers are independent exactly, but because they’re erratic.

    Look at the successes. They are, for the most part, the things you would expect if you knew nothing about the games except the reputations and fan bases of who published them, as they were at the time of release. There are a few faces you might not anticipate- Thea, Aow3. But mostly its the big 4x studios that have a history of big sales to large followings of people who know them by name.

    I think fatigue is a possibility. I still go back to Thea and AoW3 every so often. When a new 4x comes out I don’t rush to buy it just because its a 4x… I have Thea, Aow3, Oriental Empires, and Civ6. I’m mostly good to go. That doesn’t mean I can’t be persuaded to buy a game, but, if the game looks like one of those four its going to be a hard sell.

    And I could speculate on some specific instances. Maybe Oriental Empires is profiting from a growing asian market? Maybe Thea 2 isn’t getting buzz because slavic mythology is something that people constantly tell us is new and different and exciting but, uh, no offense to people from slavic regions… it isn’t as unknown as people say it is? (TWO 4x games, THE WITCHER SERIES…)

    But more likely, I think that the youtubers grabbed hold of Oriental Empires so it sold a lot of copies, and the youtubers haven’t had a chance with Thea 2 so there’s no buzz. I think everything indie is a roll of the dice in 2018.

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  4. The Dutch Triumph studios was acquired by Paradox. I believe that could have an effect in sales for them after releasing the game long time ago. Imagine Paradox userbase receive newsletter with AOW as a new game…

    Pandora (also a much older game relative) small growth can have something to with the same studio is making the Warhammer Relic game.

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  5. After listening to your comments here about Stellaris I have no interest in getting it until they finish work on the game. I have so many games to play with a limited time window I find it better to wait until the game is as good as it can be before I invest my time in it.

    I also suspect that 4x suffers from its own success to a certain extent. What other single player games can you spend so much time with? I look at my play of endless space and I have a couple of hundred hours there, and I am still enjoying Endless legend and AOW 3. I don’t have time to play the newest versions yet, not to mention other non 4x interests in my gaming collection. I suspect I am not alone in this situation either.

    Its a great time to be a PC gamer with lots of choices may be not so much for the developers now.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice information! Is 4X getting stale? Well maybe. My perspective is that the games in the last couple of years have been somewhat stale in their approach to 4X and/or poor releases. I would like to see more innovation in the industry based on the tremendous improvements in processing power and mobile computing. With ubiquitous internet connectivity why don’t we have 24/7 multiplayer real-time strategy games (well, there is EVE, but…). What about machine learning and AI improvements? There is just so much potential that has not yet been tapped…I think the next 5 years will be better than the last 5 for strategy gaming.

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  7. By the way most of your 2018 totals for the 2015 game releases are exactly the same as the 2017 totals, which makes me question them-have all those games really not sold any copies in 2018?

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  8. Interesting the Civilization Beyond Earth and Stellaris have roughly the same number of copies. Granted Civ:BE has been out longer but it sort of shows what the size of the market is for sci-fi 4X games.

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  9. Definately 4x fatigue.
    Look at the figures – nearly every game is a re-run of the same “model” since way before 2014.
    – Civ type games
    – MOO type games

    Thea & EL are standouts for something different – the rest are nearly all upgrades of stuff we have all been playing since the first Civ & MOO came out.

    We need something different to make the next purchase – Xcom was that game – and look at the results.

    Stellaris and Endless Space are trying – but they are not enough different to make a huge difference.
    And honestly, Stellaris just went backwards with their starlanes change and combat is still awful.

    I think someone needs to bring it all together for the next step change to happen.
    Exploration like a true explore game. Old technology to be explored & found, in ancient pyramids and cities.
    Colonization of planets like Civ.
    Planet Invasions like a Combat Mission game
    Fleet Battles like Polaris sector or lmperium Galatica 2
    Research has to different for each race and stop the 5% gain with this tech upgrade / space travel has to different for each race. Spaceship design has to be different for each race.
    And make it a true universe – huge – lots of stars and true solar systems available, to colonize and exploit.
    With lots of NPC’s with their own agendas and tech’s.

    I know it would take time to play – but that can be minimized by govenors etc.

    Just a few of my rambling thoughts on what i’d buy.

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  10. The analysis is quite telling Troy, statistics are a very valuable tool and do indicate that “fatigue” may be setting in.
    Is it really a wonder though? Not everyone is into 4Xs, but for those that are, I think you hit the nail on the head. So many tittles and so little innovation.
    We want something more, something better, we want our games to evolve just as we as gamers have evolved. I’m not speaking strictly technologically either, I’m speaking about the actual game experience.
    Like you, I have my hopes that we will finally see something “evolved” and innovative soon… time will tell.

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  11. For me, only Endless Legend, Thea, and Stellaris have tried anything different in the last five years. AoW3, GalCiv3, and MoO are good games too but it’s kinda sad when you can just point to six games out of 40ish or whatever as being decent.

    I’m hoping Thea 2 rocks. I’m loving the art and worldbuilding so far.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Aye, many 4Xs have come out, I’ve been playing these things since… well, no need to go there. Can’t speak for anyone else, but what I would like to see is this.
    First, a fierce AI that can take a player to the wall, if you win, it should feel like it was by the skin of your teeth.
    An exploration phase that is as immense as space itself, Imagine playing a game where it is quite possible to win before you actually discover all that is out there.
    A true balancing act between immersion , choices and lack of micro-management.
    A smart exploitation mechanic that matters and isn’t dumbed down to tears but at the same time doesn’t become boring or tedious.
    Combat that feels like combat, not a card game, not rock paper scissors!
    Fresh new events, ranging from the simple to entire mini-quests, along with the option to ignore them should a player wish to do so.
    Throw in some well thought out hero units, unique, impactful, but not game-breaking.
    Make it pretty and make each session vary as much as possible, (just because you won last time by focusing on tech doesn’t mean you will win the next session by doing the same).
    I could go on but this here is just a “minimum”. Give me a game that challenges me and doesn’t insult me and please, give me a game that is actually fit for release instead of a bug-ridden beta disguised as finished product.
    Is this too much to ask for?

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    • It might actually be.

      I think the difficulty issue is structural rather than a matter of AI programming. I think that a truly challenging 4x that maintains challenge level throughout the single player might be impossible unless the fundamental structure of the game is altered.

      Traditional 4xs are kingmaker games with snowballing power levels, where the AI is supposed to maintain difficulty over time without being unfair while also performing a similar role to a human player.

      Balancing that for challenge is essentially impossible.

      Easy example that doesn’t begin to cover all the issues- in a game with all human players it’s completely reasonable for three players to band together to eradicate the fourth and split the spoils. Unfairness is inherent.

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  13. Fatigue has definitely set in for me. I’m not even done playing EL yet! Also part of growing up and getting a real job I guess. Mostly play civ6 online with my friends once every other month or so… I’d rather have had 1 extremely well executed must have innovative game than what we had the past year. Haven’t tried Thea yet though! It’s on my wish list :)

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    • Difficult yes, but not impossible. You also have defined part of the problem well, snowballing. Given enough attention, snowballing can be contained to reasonable levels, it doesn’t need to be eliminated entirely, just contained.
      The example you use is perfect by the way, I would not mind seeing an AI do that from time to time, as it would be realistic in two ways. Throughout history great powers have often partitioned the week. Game wise, it happens quite a lot when a group of human players play against each other.
      I know this means that the player would face greater chances of actually being defeated by the AI… that alone would have me coming back for more.
      Unfairness is indeed inherent, in many things… I personally do not want my victory guaranteed before I even start the game, I want to enjoy it when I gain it.

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  14. I think we’ll look back on this 3-4 year stretch and the word ‘potential’ will come to mind. MOO:CTS had potential but fell quite short. Civ 6 has potential but the AI is really keeping it from reaching that next level. Stellaris had a lot going for it before Paradox began bungling every patch and changing the game in radical, questionable ways. ES2 looks great but is the content there? Beyond Earth could have been the unofficial sequel to Alpha Centauri that most of us have been waiting for, but what we got instead was a Civ 5 mod with quite possibly the worst tech tree I’ve ever seen.

    I may be in the minority here, but I think when it’s all said and done the best game out of this era is going to be GC3. It’s definitely the most polished game of any in recent memory, it’s got a good AI, looks great, has incredibly interesting systems (city management, ideology, citizens) and has a really intuitive UI. I’ve found the game to be a really pleasant surprise because I typically find Stardock games to be completely soulless. I’d definitely recommend it to people burned out on the current offerings, as I don’t think it has garnered the respect it deserves from the community as a whole.

    And on a side note, I am one of the handful of Dawn of Andromeda owners. The game looks incredible, has a great soundtrack, but it’s dreadfully dull.

    Anyway, great article, great show. I really appreciate what you guys do for the community.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. It is possible that market demographics might be the saviour of the 4x genre. A large contingent of buyers are most likely middle aged earning reasonably well. Therefore they will buy each and every iteration of the popular 4 x models even though the innovation etc. is lacking. Personally for example I have bought all the increasingly disappointing HOMM versions just because I fondly remember HOMM 3

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  16. I think we have had a great ride for the last 5 years. Now market is fully saturated and it’s time for the next phase. It’s true that we won’t have as many new ones coming out but all the old titans will be improving their games. And when a new one comes out it has to be innovative to penetrate the market.

    Meanwhile we also have some great stuff coming out in tactical turn-based strategy and survival/city-building genres. Also both Paradox and Triumph have something coming up. And then in a few years we might see a resurgence of 4X again.

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