Monday, April 30, 2018

Making a Better 4X (Part 4 - Final)

Continuing where we left off...

Leaders in 4X games tend to bring some much needed faces to a genre that is traditionally dominated by numbers and objects.  However, when it comes to actual gameplay it's rare for these special characters to be anything more than a mild stat boost.  In the case of planetary administrators, each individual could have a personality to go with those production buffs running the gambit from Winston Churchill to...well...his predecessor Neville Chamberlain.  A die-hard planetary governor might never give up the cause even when an enemy fleet hangs menacingly in the skies overhead, but others might have more practical or even opportunistic outlooks.  Perhaps they could be persuaded with a big enough carrot or stick...or both.  Threats and bribes aside, another possibility could be what I like to think of as the "Lando Calrissian" scenario, a local leader who remains loyal in secret, providing information or aid through backchannels to their empire of origin (possibly because the conquerors aren't holding up their side of the prearranged bargain).

Espionage is  a tough thing to make interesting in a 4X.  All too often it's a pointless aside that adds yet another layer of unwanted micro-management.  When you think about it though the primary purpose of a spy network is to provide information.  Sabotage, theft, assassinations and instigating uprisings might be what players say they want, but knowing what a rival empire is up to or (better yet) planning to do is far more valuable on a regular basis than risky black ops.  Rather than taking the Stellaris approach of having to construct a colossal deep-space sensor array you'd think it would be far more practical to go the Galactic Civilizations III route of establish web of paid low profile informants scattered throughout the stars.  Of course this ties into diplomacy as well.  Knowing the disposition of other empires can be very useful when negotiating.  If nothing else it should be the reason why those intel tooltips popup regarding disposition and relative strengths.  A lack of espionage options aside, Stellaris generally has the widest range of options with guarantees of independence, mutual defensive pacts, vassalization, as well as federations with member or associate status.  That said, I feel like there needs to be more...not in terms of annoying busy work like establishing embassies or constantly renewing expired agreements, but rather the option to engage in more aggressive deal making.  It would be nice if the player could present more coercion (gunboat diplomacy) in their negotiations or incentivisation.  As is, most 4X games are too constrained in the diplomacy department to even present AI empires with proper ultimatums.

End Game:
It's a design conceit of 4X games that the player take on the role of a semi-omnipotent being, guiding the destiny of their species as it branches out amongst the stars.  Since dying of old age isn't a possibility, how do 4X games ultimately end?  In some cases it's when the player gets bored and decides to move onto other things.  Not a very satisfying way to wrap up an epic space opera story, so what's needed is some exciting victory conditions.  In Spaceward Ho! the utter extermination of all opposition is the only way to win.  Other 4X games include this option, but (for the sake of variety) offer up other paths to victory.  The most robust 4X in this regard is Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars.  Aside from the the aforementioned domination victory there are five other win conditions; Technological (ascend to higher realm of existence), Economic (hold a majority stake in the galactic stock market, Diplomatic (get elected leader of the galactic council), Heroic (defeat the universally reviled Antares in their dimensional-pocket lair, or simply have the highest overall score after a set number of turns.  It's a bit "board gamey," but does provide the player with a lot of viable approaches.  Stellaris, on the other hand, embraces a more simulation school of design with an end game crysis (which can have several different flavors) serving as the climax.  I can't claim one approach is inherently better than the other, but I do find myself drawn toward 4X games that aspire to be more than just spreadsheets and maps.  Random events, character backstories, independent traders and fleet tenders going about their merry way...these are the little artistic flourishes that make the setting come to life.  Even static images and artwork can inject a degree of vibrance that might otherwise be missing.  By the same token I understand why voice acting is best kept to a minimum.  It can cost a pretty penny, and that's money that might be better spent elsewhere.  Even so there's something to be said for 4X games that have style.  I'm not a fan of the year 2000 version of Reach for the Stars, but I have to admit it has one sleek looking interface.  There are certain aspects of Master of Orion 2 I do not care for, but that music sure sets the mood.  Even the third entry in the series (for all it's faults) does have an ominous, if not engrossing lecture on the nature of dominance.  I don't think the ideal 4X needs to be hard sci-fi, but if paying lip service to science leads to new and exciting gameplay why wouldn't you do it?

When you get down to it, the best sci-fi tends to be a combination of two things; scientific concepts spun out in a compelling directions and interesting characters that the audience can identify with.  Space 4X games tend to be hit or miss with that first part, but it's with the second that they really tend to drop the ball.  I get that trying to create an interesting cast in a procedurally generated game is a tall order, but if someone could crack that nut, even if only partially, then they'd have something truly special on their hands.

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