Friday, April 20, 2018

Making a Better 4X (Part 2)

Continuing where we left off...

It can't be a 4X without the "eXpand" part, and in a space opera setting that means colonizing worlds.  The degree to which players are tasked with managing these operations varies a lot even within the sub-genre.  It can be anything from moving some sliders around on the overview screen to dragging and dropping individual units of population on a tile-like grid.  More complex systems of management tend to give the player the option of having an A.I. assistant take the reins although this tends to be a sub-optimal choice.  Personally, I don't think the level of detail is nearly as important as where that detail centered on.  For an interstellar empire it's not really about what's on the planet, but rather what the planet can get up into space.  To clarify that last point a bit further the total population of a planet is a lot less important than how many trained personal can be brought up to (and sustained in) orbital habitats.  Construction materials and equipment follow a similar line of reasoning.  Raw resources are another major point to consider.  For all intents and purposes it's a lot easier to mine whatever is needed from asteroids and small moons.  A fuel refinery in low orbit around a gas giant is far more useful than one down in the gravity well and dense atmosphere of a planet's surface.  From the player's perspective a planet's space infrastructure should be all that really matters when it comes to managing their interstellar empire.  Farms, factories, and power plants can be abstracted out of the picture because the things that really matter on the ground are space elevators and rocket launch/recovery facilities.  Meanwhile, orbiting stations that serve as shipyards, supply depots and living facilities count for far more by virtue of being readily available for use.  Having said all that, I think making planets entirely irrelevant would be a bad idea.  Quite the contrary, giving each colony and outpost a distinct feel adds a lot to the 4X experience.  Aside from biome type, world size, and mineral richness, most 4X games give planets little "tags" to help make them feel more distinct.  In Master of Orion it's things like artifacts (which boost research) or crystals (that raise colony revenue).  Stellaris is a bit more interesting with tags like titanic life or the discovery of a previously unknown underground civilization.  These sorts of flourishes are great, but it feels like there needs to be more of them.  Ideally, there should be a bunch of "tags" for each kind of planetary biome.  It would also be nice if habilital worlds were more defined by their native flora and fauna.  After all, if the planet can support life then chances are there's life on the planet already.  Whether that entails nothing more than primordial ooze or a sentient race of primitive natives, what's already living on the planet can dramatically affect what the player can do with it.

In Spaceward Ho! there is quite literally only five thing that are ever available for research; speed, range, weapons, shields, and miniaturization.  All scientific efforts in the game are directed toward war.  Master of Orion and it's sequel have six distinct categories of research which are further divided into individual "techs."  Stellaris does something similar, but reduces the categories down to three.  In Spaceward Ho! technology is a linear progression, level 3 shields are followed by level 4 shields and so on.  It's pretty bland, but functional.  Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars opts for a tech tree with more exoctic sounding labels.  In all but the first game in the series there was an attempt to create more gameplay variety by limiting the player's research to one of of several options within a given category.  The problem with that approach is some techs are more useful than others, plus it never really made sense to me why you couldn't simply go back and research something that had been previously passed over.  Stellaris does a much better job with its "deck-of-cards" approach.  Although I still find myself annoyed by the fact that certain techs will vanish from the list of options only to reappear later.  Stellaris also has some kinds of rare technology exclusive to certain empires based on government ethics or special events.  Overall, it is the best take I've seen yet, but it still has room for improvement.  As reluctant as I am to break that ever-so-important sense of immersion, for the purposes of comprehension it might be better to simply categorize fields of research into three clearly label subsets such as "ship," "colony" and "society" based improvements  Other than that, I see some interesting ways the Stellaris research system could be more heavily customized for a given species (depending on their natural tendencies).  Take, for example, the Bulrathi; they are tough, ecologically minded wolf-bears from a high-G world.  Based on that information I can come up with interesting setting questions like, do they refrain from heavily polluting industries?  How about terraforming?  Are they pro cybernetic and see it as a way to enhance their innate strengths, or do they view the tech as a kind of spiritual corruption?  High-G tolerance sounds like a boon for spaceship crews that need to withstand maneuvers with rapid acceleration or deceleration.  Does that make them better in space combat?  What about boarding actions?  There are more questions I could ask, but I think I've made my point.  A species having bonuses or penalties based on their nature is great, but I would also be curious to see what potential can unlocked over the course of the game.

In Spaceward Ho! population equals production.  Master of Orion uses a combination of population and factories to measure industrial output.  Stellaris turns everything into various currencies which are spent over time, or in a lump sum to achieve a desired goal.  If a player wants to build a cruiser then they need to pay a certain amount of mineral points and wait a certain amount of in-game days.  Once the warship is finished the player must pay a monthly energy credits fee to keep it operational.  None of these economic systems are particularly elegant.  They get the job done (so to speak), but as I mentioned in the colonization section, I think a decided focus on what can be brought into space (rather than what's on the ground) is the way to go.  The exception to this is terraforming.  In Stellaris they initially made the mistake of pushing this tech  out to the late game in an attempt to avoid the Master of Orion pitfall of having every planet end up with the exact same biome over time.  I see the issue here, but I honestly think terraforming should be available from pretty much the very beginning of the game.  I would also dump the prohibitive costs usually associated with utilizing the technology.  Instead, terraforming should simply be a huge time investment.  Say we're playing humans with the starting planet of Earth.  The first planet we colonize is Mars and from the get-go we start to terraforming it for a minimal expenditure of resources.  Over the course of the game the planet transforms from a barren world to a tundra-like environment.  By mid-game it's an arid desert world, and only toward the end of the game do we finally see a blue-green Mars.  The Jovian moon of Europa might travel a different terraforming path, starting off as a ball of ice, then becoming vast arctic sea, and at last a temperate ocean world.  Of course as habitability improves the colony could redirect efforts toward things other than simply sustaining itself.  The more prosperous the world the more it can contribute to the interstellar empire as a whole.  What that contribution entails can be left to the player's discretion.  Maybe they want one colony to work on establishing a star-system wide mining network?...or perhaps a steady supply of new space-adapted recruits.  Maybe the colony is geared toward research and scientific discovery?  Construction ships are nice and all, but much like merchant fleets, I don't see why the player needs to micromanage them.  Just assume they are there ready and able to do whatever task the player wants unless it's some kind of extra-special project like building a gateway between star systems.  Also, if we're going to have construction ships at all, I'd prefer something more along the lines of a mobile dockyard that moves from star to star gathering up materials and personal that are needed to build whatever the player demands.  It's sort of like a giant 3D printer in space, or a "Mothership" from the RTS series Homeworld.

Next up is spaceship design...

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