Op-Ed: The fifth X

By Joe Robinson 11 Oct 2017 0

4X games have long been a staple of the wider strategy genre. EXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting & eXterminating has become a mantra that fuels us through every turn (or minute, if it’s a real-time hybrid), and these terms have also given rise to a consistent template for any developer to follow whenever they want to create a similar experience.

Civilization is pretty much the gold-standard of land-based 4X games, but the sci-fi half of the genre tends to look towards Master of Orion 2 for its inspiration. Rowan Kaiser, strategy game critic and regular 3MA podcast panellist has in the past lamented the “Space 4X’s” seemingly unending desire to try and recreate MOO2. From where I’m sitting, I can’t say that he’s wrong.

 

That’s not to say that Space 4X games are stagnating – each new addition tries to reinvent or evolve some of the core concepts in different ways. But for every individual element they experiment with, another is left to rely on the basics that the template derives from.

I’ve been playing a lot Space 4X games recently – Polaris Sector has an expansion coming up, and Stellaris has recently had its Synthetic Dawn Story Pack. Meanwhile games like Distant Worlds Universe represent interesting experiments in terms of automation and managing large empires, and are must-plays in terms of genre highlights.

I feel we’re at point though where that basic 4X list needs to eXpand itself to ensure that a better base-line is being used for all future titles. It’s time for the Fifth X.

First Suggestion: X for eXcogitate (verb. ‘to devise’)

Also known as ‘I like new toys’. A truth I’ve discovered about sci-fi 4X games recently is that a respectable technology system, coupled with the right combination of periphery and/or connected mechanics, can carry a game that’s lacking in other departments for longer than you might think it would. Look up the official Wikipedia page for ‘4X’ and you’ll see ‘Research’ is already an accepted part of the formula, but for the genre’s sci-fi brethren I feel this area needs to be enshrined very specifically as an additional core pillar.

Basically, new toys are great, and sci-fi tech trees (especially in games with a decent ship-building element) are always a wonderful treasure trove of shiny new gadgets. What’s that? I have a new engine!? Time to update all my ship templates! A slightly bluer laser that’s good at shorter ranges? Well now it’s time to design that anti-fighter class that I’ve always wanted. Hoo boy, a battleship chassis!? HOLD THE PHONE!

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Space 4X tech-trees are basically an endless loop of new toys – new ship design – new toys – new ship design… to the point where I’d happily blitz through an hour of essentially pointless gameplay just so I can play around with the new tech I know is coming.

For Stellaris, this is what I tend to end up doing around the mid-game. While galactic politics & narrative event-chains are slowly getting better, there can be periods of lull once that early game exploration ends and you’re waiting for something interesting to happen to trigger the end-game. Wars are still a problematic endeavour as well, so you don’t want to be fighting anyone you’re not immensely confident you can beat – so what do you do? Get new tech and design new ships!

Polaris Sector, from Slitherine/Matrix Games, doesn’t have an interesting early game although you’re certainly kept busy. With far fewer AI players to contend with, it can take a while on larger maps for the friction to build enough for war to break out, so in-between colonising and developing your empire, what do you do? Get new tech & design ships! You might actually get to use these new designs as well as Polaris’ early game is more Pirate-ho than Stellaris. Enemy fleets will spawn at semi-regular intervals within your empire.

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Both games have really interesting tech eco-systems in the way they each randomisations their tech trees. Stellaris is far more random (with weighted probabilities) in the sense that it will just throw choices at you that you need to pick form. Polaris Sector is more involved in that you have Practical and Applied Sciences and each race has certain preferences towards certain areas. You can also adjust which areas you want to focus on, which will change the order in which techs and new areas of research unlock. Despite these variables, techs tend to unlock in the same order each play through (by and large) but you can find techs through exploration and you can always go to more extreme measures to prioritise this tech or that.

While both Polaris & Stellaris are comparable in terms of ship-building (the latter using slots, the former using a Tetris-style system based on the ship’s size & shape), Polaris definitely has the edge in terms of combat. More of a mini tactical wargame, the game loads the player into a separate map for all combats, granting you control over individual ships and allowing you to utilise your own tactics. It makes all of the tinkering you do with ship designs more worthwhile.

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This third game I’ve been playing, Distant Worlds Universe (also by Matrix Games), is actually a bit of a let down in terms of this concept. Technology is a fixed tree with little variation other than some race-specific stuff, and ship design isn’t all that satisfying. There’s no template to fill in, no slots to equip different gadgets; simply a list of components with some highly detailed performance read-outs that can be impenetrable to decipher if you’re not used to dealing with that level of detail. I feel it’s far easier to automate that section of the game because you don’t really have any clear sense of what a ‘good’ design is supposed to look like, and ultimately it’s not really part of Distant World’s gameplay loop.

Second Suggestion: X for eXperience

Also known as ‘story telling’. It’s no longer enough to simply ‘eXplore’ the map around you for the sole purpose of filling in the blanks and finding out how much eXpansion room you have. It gets very dry and mindless very quickly. Not boring per say, but still not exactly engaging and it gives rise to situations where as a player I’m looking to areas like the tech-tree & ship design (see above) just to pass the time until something interesting happens.

Polaris Sector, despite having the stronger tech/ship experience, also suffers from this problem in a very concentrated form: since there is no challenge to colonisation other than technological hurdles you overcome through the mid and late game, exploring is essentially a ‘land rush’ to find the good planets and settle them as quickly as possible. From there, you then colonise planets at key control points to form your ‘borders’, and then when you unlock the requisite technology you essentially ‘back-fill’ in your empire as needs require.

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There’s no real mystery or context to what you’re doing other than the almost viral need to spread as far and as fast as you can, simply so you can keep up with the annoyingly-efficient AI. There are random resource deposits to find, tech bonuses and even scattered parts of super-weapons you can assemble, but you’re not telling a story. You’re not even interacting with the game in a meaningful way, and it can get mentally exhausting trying to keep up with the constant need to eXpand, eXpand and eXpand.

In terms of what I’d like to see for this new pillar, there are two games epitomise the idea of ‘eXperience’ in a space 4X: Stellaris & Distant Worlds Universe. Paradox Interactive are generally considered the masters of emerging narrative thanks to their work on Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV, and their grand-strategy Space 4X venture has benefited from its predecessors to create a very compelling early game. Distant Worlds Universe doesn’t quite have the same ‘emerging/dynamic’ systems, but it has its own methods of bringing its universe to life, which is pretty good going for a 2014 remake of a 2010 game.

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In DWU, the narrative is more clustered around a central story that you discover in your own time by visiting specific points in the map. Follow this bread-trail enough and you can trigger all kinds of story events, so the pace in which this stuff unfolds is very much in the hands of the player. In addition, there are more common environmental factors: ruins that can be found on planets, derelict stations or damaged ships that you can take-over and control for yourself. There are even space monsters and active pirate factions you need to fight-off through-out the early game.

Stellaris has all of this as well, of course, but its story chains are more personalised and there are way more of them. The precursor civilization quest-chain is always entertaining, and Marcello’s spoken to me about a ‘Hidden Homeworld’ chain that sounds fascinating. Coupled with this the narrative elements of big end-game crises, potential AI revolts, and the ever evolving nature of your own civilization, it’s clearly a beacon in terms of emerging narrative (and it’s that narrative, coupled with the tech-loop, that helps gloss over its other faults).

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Between them though, they represent a template with which all future 4X designers should follow - universes need to be populated, to appear magical and wonderous and worth eXploring and eXpanding into for more than just fuelling an economic engine. Really, Space 4X games should have both of the above as new pillars, but we only really have the budget to hire one additional X at the moment. These aren’t the only suggestions you could put forward either, although they’re the ones I’d personally like to see. That, and a better base-line for space-ship combat (but that comes under eXterminate).

It must be noted that these points only really apply to sci-fi games – the land-locked 4X games have their own areas for improvement (for example, I think a lot of Civ-like games could learn from the experiments tried in Paradox’s Warlock series). Perhaps we should really consider trying to break away from the X mould completely and craft more specific strategy experiences, but that’s a discussion for another article. In the mean time, it can’t hurt to go back to those dusty old blueprints and see if we can’t make space great (again).

Do you have any suggestions for a fifth pillar in sci-fi 4X games? Played a game that does something particularly well? Let us know in the comments! This article discusses games published and developed by members of the Slitherine Group. For more information, please see the About Us page.

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