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.
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.
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.
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.
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)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.