Stellaris: To Le Guin and Beyond! [Part 1]

By Alexander Williams 03 Oct 2018 0

Paradox Interactive, the publisher of games like Stellaris, have to have a very clear idea of what they want to do when it comes to supporting their grand strategy games.

Given the amount of premium DLC they produce, especially the ones that shake up gameplay in some significant ways, it’s important they give players brand-new ways to play without destroying past mechanics and systems which they had implemented.

Stellaris is a slightly different case – earlier this year the game received a huge ‘2.0’ update which shook the fundamental principles of the game, especially around warfare. It is the newest out of all the grand-strategy titles, and in many ways the title that’s less certain of itself – but it keeps improving. We come now to the Le Guin update, a new patch that is being rolled out for Stellaris sometime soon, although we don’t know when. What we do know is what’s been shared via the dev diaries where the developers do a little bit of a deep dive into the things that are coming down the pipe.

This is going to be a huge update, and the dev diaries have shown as a glimpse as to how the game is going to fundamentally change once more. If you haven't read them,  a tweet went out today with links to all the past diaries (with a new one due out tomorrow):

I'm going to assume that you have at least glanced over these, as we’re going to talk about what some of the impacts that are coming to the game are going to be. There is too much to talk about in one article, so first we're going to deal with the most complicated, detailed change and then talk about the rest in a follow-up article.

Shaking the Foundations

Le Guin is going to change the game from the ground up, quite literally. The way that planets are managed is going from a very literal tile and grid system into a much more abstracted list-with-art system.

Resources won't be tied to a given tile; instead, they will be a value which determines how many "districts" devoted to exploiting that resource can exist on the planet. This is a lot more abstract and it has the interesting effect of reversing the influence of terrain over resource. Before Le Guin, the type of terrain tile you had determined what kind of resources it could have.

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If you've ever played Civilization, you know about sliding populations between types of allocation. It looks as though we're going to get something like that for Stellaris. Population will be allocated between Districts, which are abstract locations on the planet which can include Buildings and Resources. Those buildings and resources can have prerequisites of other buildings and resources and they can output resources and effects in turn.

As a result, we are going to spend a lot less time trying to make sure that we have a specific pop on a specific tile which has a specific resource and gone is that need to come back through later to upgrade a specific building to get an incremental change.

Pops are also getting real jobs, cutting their hair, and finally getting out of the house. Infrastructure in Le Guin is going to make us think about how we can maintain all the things that we want to happen on a specific planet. If there's one part of this particular bit here that makes me concerned, not necessarily in a bad way, it is the introduction of the new mechanic of Infrastructure. City districts provide Infrastructure and certain buildings themselves scale with the amount of Infrastructure on a planet, both in the number of employment slots they have and in whatever resource they provide. City districts have requirements to support them in terms of buildings and types of population. This is going to lead to a very, very delicate dance at certain points in the development of a planet where you have to decide how that planet can and should develop.

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Before Le Guin, while it is possible to create an "agricultural planet" or a "mining planet", what you’re really doing is making decisions based on the available resources on the planet tiles and there's not much thinking that has to be done – if there are more minerals than anything else, it’s a mining planet. You can't really ‘choose’ another option unless you are making some real efficiency trade-offs.

After Le Guin, it looks like there are going to be a lot subtler choices available, and the development path of a planet is going to be less obvious.

Getting A Real Job

Populations will have jobs, which come in two varieties: those which are limited by types of resources on the planet and those which don't have a maximum number but which are enabled by some other things going on. The ultimate upshot here is that you can start thinking about your planets as places where populations live and do jobs, and if you want them to live on Coruscant the ridiculously densely populated city world or Tatooine the barely-scraping-by vast farms of moisture evaporators planet, you can. It will make a difference how much you develop your cities and urban areas and there is pressure to diversify.

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Along with the jobs we get social strata, where you get the traditional division of Rulers, Specialists, and Workers. It looks like outside of the ruling class, requirements in terms of resources devoted to upkeep to keep that populace happy are reduced – but remember what game we're playing. This is a part of interaction that's going to be dynamic around the civic traits you choose. Particularly on the Egalitarian versus Authoritarian axis, I fully expect to see this be one of the key differentiators.

If you're starting to get the feeling that the functioning of planets after the Le Guin update is going to be much more like an abstract city builder and less like a traditional Civ/4X – I believe you're right. A lot of these mechanics are flowing directly from thinking of individual planets as management systems with resource loops, and my gut suggests that there is going to be a lot more time spent looking at and thinking about how things are allocated on a planet than what is done currently.

Happy, Healthy, and Wise

Happiness is always been a big deal when it comes to keeping things running smoothly in Stellaris. Managing the happiness of your populace so that there isn't efficiency-killing unrest is a big deal. That's not going to change.

If anything, it appears that a lot more of the influences that change population happiness are going to be much more visible. Planetary Stability is a trait that we can look at directly and which will affect a lot of what is now specifically a side effect of population happiness. When it drops below 40%, you're going to start seeing unrest events, terrorism, and other unpleasantness.

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For me, the interesting thing that they specifically call out is the phrase "which can further lower stability down below the threshold for an armed revolt to start." I've been missing rebels from EU4 in my Stellaris and the necessity to keep an eye on whether or not a place is about to go absolutely ballistic with armed rebels trying to overthrow your governance. This looks like we're going to see it and I'm excited.

Paradox is explicit about the decoupling of happiness and influence in Le Guin. Individual population happiness doesn't matter so much as long as the ones with political power are happy. That's a huge deal. It means that in Egalitarian empires you're going to have to keep everyone largely happy because the difference in political power between the Rulers and the Workers is going to be fairly narrow, but in an Authoritarian empire, all you'll really have to do is make sure that the Rulers are kept satisfied and the vast unwashed can go pound sand. Again, more opportunities for differentiation between civics and this will be a huge plus.

Along with crime, which is another planetary trait that can be affected by various pops and their status (and interestingly event chains, which heavily suggests that random events are going to become a bigger part of the Stellaris experience, as right now they are currently as largely a side effect of space exploration), there are a lot of moving parts which affect one another on each of your planets.

Le Guin promises that the game is really ramping up the complexity of the day-to-day, moment-to-moment gameplay with a lot of things to monitor and pay attention to, which are going to have a lot of knock on effects. The loop is going to be massively shaken up.

Pushing the Planets Around

I'm not going to go into each of the individual changes. There are a lot of fascinating tweaks coming – for example Habitats, and Machine Empires/Hive Mind interaction, and every one of them is going to be a big deal in terms of gameplay change. I want to take a moment to talk about where this is going at this point.

Already, we've covered changes that if they were implemented on their own, could definitely be the core of an entirely different game. Paradox could build an abstract city builder off of the core mechanics that have been described in the Le Guin Dev Diaries, and it would make a pretty solid management system – certainly the equal of the ones which are currently very popular in the marketplace.

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But all of this is feeding into a wider game. An wider 4X game, with a goodly dollop of space combat, economic management of empires, and some diplomacy. When we talk about that level of multiplication of attention going to individual planets in a 4X game, the experienced gamer starts to feel a little concern because of all the virtual economies that exist, one of them has very little flexibility and that is the economy of the player’s attention span.

A player only has so much attention and it has to be spent on interacting with the framework of the game in order to play. That's not a big deal for explicitly single player games, but Paradox's grand strategy games have always involved the possibility of playing with your friends – and not just your friends, but also large groups. Stellaris supports up to 16 player multiplayer, and if everyone involved is paying the level of attention that is going to be necessary (as far as we can tell) to play the planet game well, I have to wonder if it's going to really bog down overall play.

It's very possible it won't, instead giving everyone something to do at any given moment when they might otherwise just be waiting for resources to grow or ships to go somewhere. But the concern exists in my mind, and I'm not sure it's something that a Diary will be able to help me shake. That will have to wait until we see actual video of gameplay and get a feel for the rhythm of engagement. 

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Next week, on Stellaris...

And that's it for talking about the upcoming changes just for planets in the Le Guin patch for Stellaris. We recommend you read the diaries in full for a point-by-point breakdown of all the changes – there’s some fascinating stuff there.

Next up, we're going to talk about the other things that are going to be completely overhauled in Le Guin: a brand-new economy, a brand-new marketplace, a complete re-factoring of sectors and factions, and something that all of us have been wanting since day one of the game's release: Trade.

Until then, keep rating those outlying planets and remember, the battleship spam is real... next week on Stellaris… IN SPACE!

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