Saturday, April 14, 2018

Making a Better 4X (Part 1)

I've been bouncing back and forth between Stellaris and Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars over the last couple of weeks and it has made me think long and hard about the genre.  Pretty much every 4X has its own strengths and weaknesses.  Might it be possible to combine the best of each entry in the genre to create an ideal 4X?  Galactic conquest strategy games tend to follow a predictable gameplay pattern of species selection, galaxy creation, exploring stars, colonizing planets, researching technologies, manufacturing, ship design and after encountering rival empires things like diplomacy, espionage and warfare.  So, let's examine these core aspects of space 4X design and see how they are handled or see what, if anything, can be improved.

Species Selection:
Every 4X begins with the player choosing who they want to be and who they want to play against.  Spaceward Ho! (the first 4X I ever played) had no differences between empires except for the kind of hats they wore.  Evenly balanced, to be sure, but there was a distinct lack of variety.  One of the nice things about having a pool of diverse alien species to choose from is the dramatic increase in replayability.  Being humans from the planet Earth is a very different experience than say taking the role of a hive mind of giant insects from a chthonian world.  That said, balanced gameplay is oftentimes hard to maintain with a more exotic selection.  Ask anyone who has played a lot Master of Orion and they'll probably tell you that the Mrrshans and Bulrathi are some of the hardest species to win with because their advantages are minor compared to other races.  Stellaris is the most robust option currently out there in this regard with the ability to choose from a list of pre-made species and custom create new ones to play as (or against).  Players can even randomize the selection process or have the computer generate species whole cloth.  This definitely adds an extra layer of mystery when they player journeys forth to the stars.

Galaxy Creation:
On the surface this seems like a fairly straightforward task.  Astronomy ranks all stars in the universe on the OBAFGKM scale of classification with each having subsets like "giant" and "dwarf" within their respective light spectrum.  This is all easy enough to simulate in a digital environment until you account for the numbers needed.  Realistically, the smallest galaxy in the observable universe has 250 million stars.  The only game I know of that grapples with numbers of that size is No Man's Sky, which as someone other than myself astutely observed has the width of a vast ocean, but the depth of a tiny puddle.  More stars does not equate to more interesting gameplay.  Thankfully, there is an elegant way meld plausibility with playability.  Stars tend to form in clusters.  Representing the area in which the game takes place as one of these clusters allows for a realistic arrangement without melting your CPU and possibly your brain.  Of course it also begs the question, what is preventing the player from sending ships outside the cluster?  That's something I'll explain in the next section.  For now there is another potential numerical nightmare I want to address when it comes to galaxy creation - planets.  The discovery of large numbers of exoplanets in recent years has definitively proven that our solar system is unexceptional when it comes to orbital bodies.  In fact it appears that many stars have planets in significant numbers.  4X games have been, and still are, stingy when it comes to allocating planets around stars.  The original Master of Orion had a maximum of one planet in each star system.  Spaceward Ho! simply had planets suspended in the void.  Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares along with the most recent one, Conquer the Stars, rectified this to some degree, but the average is still only 2~3 planets per star with a maximum (that I've seen) of 5 planets plus an asteroid belt.  Stellaris pushes the number of planets per system higher still in addition to having colonizable moons.  However, the game isn't able to represent our own solar system accurately without modding support.  It's certainly possible that Sol has an exceptionally high number of planets compared to most stars, but even so I think any given 4X should be able to generate an eight planet star system.

Now that the game has begun in earnest we come to the first "X" in 4X games.  So, how does one go about it?  We're going to need FTL (short for Faster Than Light) travel.  Scientifically speaking it currently only exists in the world of mathematics.  Sci-fi authors, on the other hand, have come up with inventive ways intelligent life might be able break the ultimate speed limit.  Generally speaking FTL can be distilled down into three basic forms: Warp (Star Trek), Gates (Mass Effect) and Lanes (Wing Commander).  Most early 4X games used Warp, but more recently the genre has shifted over to Lanes and, to a lesser extent, Gates.  Stellaris had all three, but recently embraced Lanes, similar to what Conquer the Stars did in comparison to the the rest of the Master of Orion series.  So, why do developers like Lanes so much?  The reason comes down to A.I. programming.  The more possible moves available the harder it is for a computer to make good decisions.  This is why your PC can play a killer game of chess, but is barely competent at Go.  Compared to Go, chess has a fairly limited moveset; hence the reason it's good at the latter and not so hot at the former.  Lanes also create some interesting strategic options that are lacking in the other two forms of FTL.  That said, I don't think Warp and Gates should be excluded entirely.  When you get down to it trying to travel from one planet to another, even within the confines of a single star system, can be a real headache both logistically and in terms of resources needed.  Therefore, I think having some kind of Warp drive, even if only capable of sub-light speeds, would be an extremely useful component of any interstellar empire wanting to accomplish things on human timescales.  As for Lanes and Gates, I think combining the two technologies could create some interesting choices for the player.  Assume for a moment that each star system (on top of planets, moons and asteroid belts) has a bunch of nodes that connect to other nodes in neighboring systems.  Building a gate at a node opens up that's the catch though, it's a one-way trip until a gate is set up on the other end.  So instead of sending scout ships or a science vessel (depending on the 4X) the player must mount a resource intensive expedition complete with a survey team and construction ship to set up the gate on the other end.  In this way it becomes very important for the player to consider where they want to focus their "stellar cartography" efforts.  Some nodes with more distant connections require more advanced gates to utilize which can only be accessed through technological advancement.  In this way new routes will become available as the game progresses, creating shortcuts and unlocking new areas for exploration or avenues of attack while still keeping things within the star cluster generated at the start of the game.  In fact there's a lot this sort of FTL arrangement adds to wartime strategies, but I'll discuss that in more detail in the section on warfare.

Whew!  Long post...expect more in about a week where I'll continue this space 4X examination by continuing with the next item on the list - colonization.

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