4X

The Inglorious State Of 4X Games: An eXposition

Greetings! If you haven’t listened to the 33rd Strategic Expanse – 4th Anniversary Hangout featuring all of the lesser (I’m jesting) eXplorminate staffers then please stop reading this and go listen to that first. The rest of this little rant (thoughtful article?) will make a bit more sense with the proper context. With that out of the way…

I’m elated that, despite my absence on the podcast episode, my name was referenced (usually couched in swear words) a significant number of times. That means you’re all listening to me, which is good because it makes me feel a little less like a crazy person screaming into the wind – and more justified because I’m sure you’ll agree that I’m right. And if you don’t agree now, then maybe you’ll agree to agree with me sometime in the future. Only time will tell.

Alright, alright, enough of the snarkiness.

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This episode, live from the Galactic News Network.

The StraX episode centered on a number of big questions pertaining the 4X genre:

  • What is the current state and market of the genre?
  • What needs to happen to evolve or innovate the genre?
  • What are the low points and the high points in the genre?
  • What are you playing now and looking forward to?

All of these are very serious and important questions. And so are my answers.

State of the 4X Market

Many have described the past few years as a new Golden Age for the genre, while others insist that it was only a Silver Age or, perhaps, a Renaissance. There is no doubt that we have seen more big titles (exhibit A: the 4X database) with bigger budgets and from big publishers, as well as indie games, released to the 4X market than any other time in the past. But looking back, I would not call this a Golden or Silver Age.

Perhaps the Gilded Age is a more apt comparison. We’ve certainly witnessed an explosion in the total sales and number of games being released, as well as an industrialization and commercialization of the genre. But frankly, it feels like a veneer of gold (aka sexier graphics and features) plated over a dearth of design innovation. New shiney look, same old stuff.

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What do the Gilded Age and Cthulhu-looking monsters have in common?

Many of the big games are merely a modern regurgitation of the classic formulas, and I’m not convinced the underlying designs are all that much better. The resulting opulence of new mechanical systems and features have added little to the narrative structure or strategic depth of 4X games. We’re still stuck in the same basic pattern of sending out colony ships/pods/carts, optimizing our cities/colonies, incrementing along tech trees, and waging war/diplomacy with typically incompetent AIs in pursuit of boring victory thresholds where it’s evident who is going to win hours before the ending arrives. We’re still stuck, thoroughly, in this colonization paradigm. Maybe this paradigm is, by definition, what a 4X has to be – but I don’t really buy that. I want better.

I would be doing a disservice to the genre and its fans if I didn’t mention that there are games nipping at the heels of this paradigm. Thea comes to mind, with its focus on questing and survival in a hostile environment. Or the promise of Stellaris (delivered on or not?) to be a grand simulation sandbox where all things are possible. Or the focus of Age of Wonders 3 on its deep and diverse tactical combat system. Or Star Ruler 2’s quirky take on diplomacy and planet management. Even the highly asymmetrical factions of Endless Space 2  and Endless Legend are a step in the right direction.

But really, none of that is enough. Maybe I’m hard to please or I just hold game creators to a higher standard. Or maybe it’s as Brad Wardell said in my interview with him: “We [4X] developers kinda suck … There is what we want to do in games and then there is ‘what we’re able to do’ given the size of the market.” Well, the market recently got a lot bigger. What now?

The fundamental question is this: how do we want the genre to innovate? My worry is that we had this big Gilded Age opportunity, where the market turned its eye to 4X games, and instead of offering up something novel and amazing, developers just put out more of the same. I really hope we didn’t miss our window to innovate and gain traction with a larger audience.

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I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.

So, how can the 4X genre innovate?

A few things come to mind, but the biggest by FAR, is the need for more varied and engaging victory systems and end-game triggers. This is critical for the future of the genre.

First of all, it has to do with the variety of experiences on offer within the 4X genre. How many 4X games rely on the same old combination of conquest, economic, political, and technological victory conditions? Almost all of them do. And as a consequence, we’re really just playing the same damn race-to-victory game reskinned a dozen different ways. The hoops and hurdles we go through along the way – fighting off barbarians or space pirates, optimizing build orders, chasing pointless quests – don’t make for truly different experiences.

It’s my view that the arc and the narrative structure of 4X games (not the plotline mind you, but rather the story created by the sequence of strategic choices you make) is largely the same. So many of us play out the opening moves (exploration phase) only to abandon it when we reach the point where we know how the rest of the story will go. Once the mystery is gone, the illusion is shattered and our motivation to keep playing plummets.

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Shattered dreams, like this broken window.

There are two aspects to this issue of victory systems that are important to acknowledge. One plays into the strategic depth and challenge in games and the other plays into our desire for roleplaying and immersion. I feel, these two aspects are frequently at odds with one another in the design of 4X games – with successful games tending to fall more on one side or the other. Games that appeal to both sides – the “grand unification of 4X games” – seem non-existent.

For example, AoW3 clearly places its design emphasis and victory conditions around strategic warfare and tactical challenges. On the opposite end is something like Stellaris – a great big sandbox where you can live out your fantasy as the hive-mind behind a race of xenophobic hamster slave-masters… Or whatever strikes your fancy. The point being, victory conditions in Stellaris are irrelevant to the game’s larger purpose of letting you craft a story and inhabit a universe. In the third corner of the ring is a game like King of Dragon Pass or Six Ages (admittedly not a traditional 4X by any stretch)  – which genuinely puts the narrative first and foremost and structures the gameplay around these events.

Incidentally, the game that has come the closest to this unification is Emperor of the Fading Suns, which is a big beautiful mess of a game. But it takes the idea of a clever victory condition (in this case snatching a certain number of “scepters of power” from the hands of rival houses) to reach victory. You can get these through diplomatic exchange, warfare, or espionage. The key is that these tools are all applied towards a common, narratively-based win condition – they aren’t separate tracks that lead to a divergent victory point. It forces players to adapt and think deeply rather than to merely follow a pre-baked pathway to the finish line. Why aren’t more developers remaking this game (instead of yet another MoO2-clone)?

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Empire of the Fading Suns: A forgotten dream of what a 4X could be.

So, I believe that the biggest potential for innovation is the idea of crafting more unique and varied victory conditions that are tightly coupled to the roleplaying and narrative-building aspects of the game. It’s creating new strategic challenges and marrying that to a roleplaying experience. I don’t think this is terribly hard to accomplish and I feel like it can be achieved within the structure of many existing games. Nevertheless, novel approaches to victory are critical for enabling whole new 4X gameplay experiences to emerge.

Let’s consider Stellaris again. What if it was restructured such that multiple crises occur simultaneously (and perhaps in competition with each other) and your faction’s ethics align you with one of these sides? The result is a grueling geopolitical nightmare scenario. But if you survive (and are hence on the winning side), your race ascends to godhood and you win the game. The struggle is real, but the rewards are worth it. Suddenly, the game isn’t about merely surviving and creating your little sandbox story, instead it is connected to a much bigger narrative that has huge mysterious consequences for the how the endgame will play out. It blows my mind that these sorts of ideas aren’t developed or implemented more often.

Amplitude has taken some steps in the direction with faction quests from Endless Legend – but in that case they feel too isolated and disconnected from what the other factions are doing. In ES2 they forgot that idea entirely, it seems. They also missed a huge opportunity to inject a game-winning geopolitical challenge via the Academy quest line. The Academy quest could be cool but it’s implemented in a totally janky and superficial way. It could be so much more. And so could the entire 4X genre.

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Not even a Samurai bear could save StarDrive2’s sad ending.

Low points and high points

My low points in the past few years – as it relates to 4X games – are many. The saga of Stardrive 1 & 2 stands out. Not so much because of the developer’s antics (although that has been a challenge) but because SD2 was so close to being a modern MoO2 replacement. I wanted it to succeed so that, if nothing else, we could finally and definitely say, “Here is the modern MoO2 game – it’s great and awesome. Can we move on to new ideas now?” I enjoyed my time with SD2 in particular, but its buggy final state makes me sad.

So many other 4X games, space ones in particular, just failed to grab me. Galactic Civilizations 3, Stars in Shadow, ES2, Stellaris, Dawn of Andromeda, Oriental Empires – I tried and want to like them more, but it’s just the same story each time and I’m looking for a different experience. And for those wondering, despite what Stellaris claims to be, it is far more of a traditional run-of-the-mill 4X than it appears, and from that lens it’s boring. It’s the pinnacle of optimization based gameplay and I just don’t care for it (nevermind that the fundamentals and meta of the game keep changing from version to version). The soundtrack however is freaking awesome. I still listen to that in the car.

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“Ahh, it feels so good to be so bad!”

My high points in recent years come down, primarily, to two games.

The first is AoW3, which was released on the early end of this Golden/Silver/Gilded age. The game is often derided as a 4X “lite” but I think it’s all the better for having a clear focus on combat and strategic warfare. The game cuts out the tedious city-building optimization stuff (or greatly streamlines it) and instead focuses on more interesting strategic conundrums: where to position forces, what units to bring to bear, how to hold multiple fronts, how to control objective triggers, and so on. It can be tense and varied, and I think it’s really great.

The other highlight is the Total War: Warhammer series. We can argue about whether it’s a 4X or just enough in the 4X family, but it scratches the itch of building an empire and waging strategic warfare like few other games manage. Almost every choice matters, and the margins for error are slim. The factions all have unique and interesting mechanics, and things like the Vortex campaign are a perfect illustration of creating interesting victory systems that connect throughout the game’s design and strategic decision points. Awesome stuff.

What I’m playing now and in the future

To be honest, I’m on a hiatus from 4X games until the next wave arrives. Mostly I’ve been indulging my inner Warhammer-geek by playing far too much Vermintide 2 for my own good. If you have any interest in Left 4 Dead-style cooperative FPS games – Vermintide is a blast. Pay no attention to the people complaining about loot drop rates and weapon balance. This is a cooperative game – play it for the moment.

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Star Traders: Frontiers – another planet, another delectable spice hall!

I’m also really digging Star Traders: Frontier, which is a starship sandbox game (imagine playing Han Solo’s life as a smuggler) from the Trease Brothers. It’s simple but well executed, with elements of Halcyon 6 (also good) and Darkest Dungeon (also good). Reminds me a lot of the X-series of games (also pretty good) but without the first person space sim / flight simulation bits.

Beyond that, I’ve been diving back into board games. I still maintain that strategy video game designers have a lot to learn from board games – particularly when it comes to creating interesting gameplay arcs and victory conditions. Recent favorites include Root, A Study in Emerald (cthulhu meets Sherlock Holmes), Yellow & Yangtze (a civ-building abstract), and Iron Curtain (fight the Cold War in 15 minutes). Good stuff. Root in particular is a rather amazing combination of counter-insurgency inspired wargames (COIN-series) with a woodland animal theme (think Redwall book series). Root boasts an amazing production value, highly asymmetric factions, and lots of negotiation across the table. Puurrrrfect.

As for the future of 4X games, the picture is a little grim overall, but there are a few bright spots on the horizon. I’m impressed by what I’ve seen (and played) of Interstellar Space: Genesis. The game falls within the traditional 4X paradigm (i.e. MoO2-derivative) but it has a lot of unique ideas under the hood. But while the individual systems demonstrate some needed innovation, I nevertheless worry about the overall feeling of the game and whether there will be interesting victory systems to provide a more novel experience. Regardless, it may indeed fill the role SD2 attempted in being the MoO successor we can all point to. Or maybe it will be Dominus Galaxia. That one also has some clever ideas in the works. Fingers-crossed.

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Help me AoW: Planetfall, you’re my only hope.

Of course, what I’m most excited about is Age of Wonders: Planetall. I feel like Triumph Studios “gets” what it takes to create challenging and interesting strategic depth in their games. I’m excited about the many ideas they are bringing forth that build on AoW3’s strongest points. AoW3 – more than most other games, had clever victory systems with the Seals and Beacon victory conditions, and I really hope they build something even more novel for Planetfall.

My fingers are double-crossed – not just for Planetfall, but for all of the 4X genre.

28 replies »

  1. Nice piece of writing Oliver. I very much agree on almost everything you wrote there. No wonder we have the same interests in the same games. I’ve played a lot of AoW3 and am very much looking forward to Planetfall. Till then I´m playing a lot of TW: Warhammer. Not on a daily basis, but I love playing that game with different factions and pick up an older save every once in awhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeup – it’s a pretty clever and challenging game. I started reading a strategy guide and was frankly stunned by the level of detail and depth that people are considering. Made me realize that with 15 hours in I’m just barely scratching the surface of the game.

      Like

    • Yeah – fingers crossed.

      I mentioned Emperor of the Fading Suns – and it’s a really awesome example of making a cool victory system that kind of “stitches” the whole game design together. AoW3 seals did that it in a way.

      Like

  2. Thank you for this article. I was thinking about this a lot lately while waiting for AOW:Planetfall and being disappointed by CivVI and Fallen Enchantress (got it on the sale recently).

    I think there is one more problem: AI. While 4x games follow the same formula, nevertheless, they become more complex. On the other side, it became much easier to find someone to play together than it was in MoO2 times. As a result, developers don’t invest in AI much more than they did 20 years ago, so we have either completely helpless opponents, or the same helpless opponents but with huge bonuses. AOW3 also looks better than the other titles in this regard: while there is nothing special about the AI, at least it won’t go down without a good fight.

    P.S. Speaking about Endless Legend/Space: there are so many ways to win and they are too loosely connected with each other. As a result, each participant plays its own game and, what makes this even worse, each faction is designed around only one victory condition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true about AI. If I wanted to play games with other people, I’d invite people over and play board games on the tabletop. I play single-player computer games when I want to do something by myself for a while. I’d much prefer that it be something interesting and challenging.

      Like

  3. Alliance of the Sacred Suns has real promise. Problem is the dev is effectively solo and as such there are some issues with communication and his ability to devote time to the project.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yea this game has a lot of ideas that I hope studios will take inspiration from. Putting out a fully fledged 4X title and supporting it afterwards is just too daunting task for any solo developer because of the resource constraints it seems.

      Like

  4. I fully agree. Most of the recent 4x games are very shallow. I’ve tried to get onboard with all the love for the endless games, but they’re not a challenge and once you’ve gone through the quest chains it’s fairly dull. I find I spend most of my time on much older games. Distant Worlds, despite the graphics and somewhat clunky UI, has almost everything you need, great exploration, varied races and victory conditions, pirates that will eat you alive, diplomacy that actually means something where you can see all your modifiers, and a late game threat. I’m hoping to see DW2 before I die of old age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I played this a bunch years ago. I really liked a lot of the core gameplay and I think it struck a nice balance between creating interesting strategic challenges without being too complex. What mostly bothered me was the RTS combat system – it just felt awful and janky to me and I didn’t like how only 8 (?) ships per side could fight at a time. enemies would run away and you’d spend 5 minutes staring at the screen as ships tried in vein to chase down the enemy. It just dragged the game out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It does have a lot of ‘janky’ things about it, that’s what keeps it from being my main space 4X. It did so many things awesomely, and so many things just terribly, especially including so many situations where you just have to sit and wait. If they had even included a “repeat build” so I don’t spend 80% of the game time queuing up freighters I’d play it a lot more.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I might have ended up disliking the real-time tactical combat, if I’d gotten that far. I couldn’t get used to navigating the 3D strategic map, even in a “flat” galaxy. As to the 3D tech tree–what were they thinking? I’m sure there’s a good game underneath all those poor design decisions.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Dominius Galaxia – looks like / plays like / smells like – MOO clone
    4x is dead….developers just keep rehashing MOO gameplay with rehashed graphics and 10% more this and that.
    Look towards Battletech, Battlestar Galactica, and Warhammer for more interesting turn based strategy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The thing I don’t get about this, is all the MOO clones don’t even include the features that made MOO awesome… it’s like they’re intentionally watering it down to just get sales because it looks like MOO or something.

      Personally even if they just updated the UI in MOO 2 and kept the game mechanics exactly the same, I would buy it again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I still play MOO and MOO2, and the UI is OK with me. Aside from a few bugs, I consider MOO to still be one of the very best 4X games around. For the most part, I like the original better than the sequel. I especially dislike tactical combat in MOO2. The tech tree is cool, though (except that “creative” races cheat)–making one choice permanently eliminates a couple other options. Getting used to an older UI is worth it for this kind of game play, IMO.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m also into Age of Wonders III, though I’ve only owned it for five weeks or so. I like it so much I’ve been inspired to also go back and play the earlier versions of AoW; they’re also very good. The only downside to me is that I’m impatient about tactical combat, but I feel I’m missing out if I auto-resolve battles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • @p55carroll, you’re not missing out as such, it’s just a different skillset, figuring out what works well in autocombat and learning to, for lack of a better expression, “game” the system.

      @John, none of your listed games are 4x, whereas Mez is griping about how 4x are getting stale.

      I’m inclining to the idea that maybe 4 x as a genre is just TOO big for any one game to do right.

      Maybe the evolution is towards game that take an X and focus on that?

      So, tactical turn based games, like Xcom etc.

      A game based around diplomacy and bluffing?

      A game that is basically an empire building race, or where you are a God with indirect input etc.

      We’ve seen some of these idea already (god games etc) but maybe that’s the future, like how rts games became mobas and how the fps has drifted into battle royales…

      or just ix everything and let’s have a fantasy battle royal with a set number of units per side instead of the player being an individual, so a series of battles, and the tension is between going all in to win a battle, versus conserving your units for the next battle.

      Or a simple aow3 battles/arena/tournament mode?

      Liked by 1 person

      • It would be awesome if AoW: Planetfall had an army builder system separate from the main game where you could challenge friends/AI in tactical battles. TW:Warhammer does this – and it’s pretty awesome to get X points to build a customized army with and duke it out with an opponent.

        Fingers crossed on that one…

        Like

  7. Really interesting article – anyone following the forums has seen some of this discussed piecemeal in the past, but I don’t think it’s all been in one place until now. IMHO a must-read for any strategy game developer – or for that matter anyone who is looking for a deeper understanding of *why* some games might be more fun or engaging than others.

    Thanks Mez!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oliver says:
    “There are two aspects to this issue of victory systems that are important to acknowledge. One plays into the strategic depth and challenge in games and the other plays into our desire for roleplaying and immersion. I feel, these two aspects are frequently at odds with one another in the design of 4X games – with successful games tending to fall more on one side or the other. Games that appeal to both sides – the “grand unification of 4X games” – seem non-existent.

    “For example, AoW3 clearly places its design emphasis and victory conditions around strategic warfare and tactical challenges.”

    That rings true. And yet, for the past several weeks I’ve been mostly enjoying the “roleplaying and immersion” aspect of AoW3. In earlier versions of the game, I mostly ignored the story and characters and other RPG elements, as I only wanted to achieve my objectives. Somehow, the new version makes me want to pay more attention to the characters, the quests, the lairs and treasures, and so forth. I get so caught up in welcoming vassal cities and developing my realm that I end up prolonging the game. I don’t want to just beat my rival(s); I want to make the whole game experience last.

    I have to remind myself that AoW might as well stand for “age of warfare,” since that’s about all that happens in the game. When I remember that (usually when a rival declares war and wakes me up from my reverie), it does seem at odds with the “roleplaying and immersion” aspect. Then I find myself internally torn–wanting to employ good strategy and tactics to win, but also wanting to just level up my heroes and learn new spells or even go back to exploring territory.

    It seems to me that alternate victory conditions might not be the final answer, because enjoying “the strategic depth and challenge” entails bringing the game to a satisfying conclusion, whereas the “desire for roleplaying and immersion” tends to make us want the game to go on forever. It’s like reading a good novel and regretting that the end is so near.

    What I might like to see is something like AoW3 with an endless campaign comprised of a wide variety of custom and predesigned scenarios. The satisfaction of bringing each scenario to an end would then be balanced by knowing that the story will go on and on.

    The problem then would be how to make each scenario a significant part of an ongoing story. Also, heroes, units, cities, and realms would have to have their ups and downs; without that cyclic progression, the “never-ending” story would grow too big and eventually collapse of its own weight.

    Like

  9. What a well written article and completely on point. I felt like reading my own thoughts on the matter just in a better structured format.

    Victory conditions certainly are the #1 disappointment of 4X games. When half-way through the game you already feel you have won then something is really off. Also the fact that AI doesn’t provide any real challenge is not helping that case. Non-militaristic VC are especially boring because they lack any interaction with other factions at all so you feel like playing solitaire.

    AoW3 certainly nails it due to it’s heavy combat focus thanks to combat being really easily made fun and interactive. I don’t like TW:W games though because I’ve never liked the the real-time pausable combat. What I’d like to see more of are games that focus on trade, economy and/pr diplomacy so that Star Traders: Frontiers certainly looks interesting and I’m gonna check it out.

    I’m currently also burnt out of 4X but I’m hopeful that Thea 2 and AoW: Planetfall can reignite my passion.

    Liked by 1 person

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