When it comes to games, I want gameplay genuinely deep in strategy. I want the question of what the best strategic choice is at a point in time to be significant. If there is always a clear path forward, the game isn’t about formulating a unique strategy to match the moment, it’s about following a prescriptive pathway. That’s not depth, its optimization. I don’t want to play Empire Manager: Spreadsheet Edition. I want to play Empire Uberlord: Mastermind Edition.
This post considers a number of things that I feel 4X games (computer games specifically) aim to achieve but routinely fail to deliver in the pursuit of “deep” gameplay. In large part, I believe this is a result of game developer’s spending too much time working out the “what” of gameplay instead of working out the “why”.
This is going to sound cynical and snarky, be prepared!
#1 – Confusing complexity with depth
More stuff and more detail don’t make the game inherently more strategic – it just makes it more intricate. I know a lot of people like gobs of detail in their 4X games – but how much of that actually translates into different, meaningful, strategic choices? If a game has the option to use AI governors, alarm bells go off – because their mere presence suggests that at some point in the game the level of information + required management will be too great to handle, and if I don’t turn on the governors then gameplay is going to grind to halt. Big red flag! In the pursuit of “empire management” is becomes just that, managing the paperwork – not planning the big picture.
#2 – Mismatched abstraction
Too many 4X games, in my view, focus on ship design and conflict to the determent of other aspects of the gameplay. Personally, I find ship design to generally be quite boring – it’s an optimization issue that pulls attention away from the big picture. Even more perplexing is why some games go into great detail for ship design but then the combat system doesn’t even give you an effective way to leverage your unique ship designs! If you are going to go into detail with ship design, why not have a similar level of detail in the cultural systems, or the economic systems?
But the key point of my grip is that the detail is too often funneled towards mundane tasks as opposed to strategic decisions. Cueing and tracing planetary build orders is dull – give me decisions that have an impact on my strategic options.
#3 – Tech’ing without trade-offs
If, at the end of the game, every player’s tech tree pretty much looks the same – what’s the point of the tech tree? You are just pushing the player through a tech tree mini-game that ends up the same way regardless. Sure, there might be the matter of sequencing and timing when you get techs – but all too often there emerges a sense of what the best sequence is, and it remains fixed from game to game. If you do the same sequence of tech advancement each game, it’s time to start asking questions.
Now, a game could maintain a big open tech tree, but other mechanics should push players into divergent technological directions that cascade into real differences in playstyle. But more to the point, the differences created by the situations should pose the player with a real significant choice of direction.
#4 – No information war
Most 4X games catastrophically fail to provide any interesting or dynamic gameplay as a consequence of “information manipulation”. In general, games give out way too much information about your opponent – and it pulls the deduction and intrigue out of the game. If I can see all your fleets, see where they are headed, see what ships are in them – then WTF! Pretty stupid space empire’s if you ask me.
I’d like to see a lot more 4X games make use of access to different levels of information a driving gameplay element. There should be a back-and-forth between detection and stealth. There should be the need to actively invest in scouting and detecting as well as masking and disrupting. Games that lack this element just come down to who can field more firepower; and that comes down to can most optimally build up firepower the fastest, which makes the whole game a matter of who knows a prescriptive sequence of actions best.
#5 – Fleet mismanagement
In part this is a UI issue, but I suspect it is also often an engine issue. Basically, 4X games do a miserable job of fleet management, both in concept and in execution. Here are some particularly irritating things:
Fleet size caps, or “we can’t bring any more ships into this fight because there isn’t enough room in space for all of them!” Please. Can we just admit that games with arbitrary fleet size CAPS have those caps because the game fails conceptually or technically in handling larger number of units in an interesting way?
Fleet Assignment, Movement, Rallying. Most games do a terrible job, via the UI, of actually managing fleets. It’s pretty simple. Create a fleet, make it easy to add/remove stuff to the fleet. Done. Give us rally points for new ships to join fleets. Tell us how many turns it will take a fleet to go somewhere before they commit to the move. Really? This is basic stuff that isn’t handled well.
#6 – Combined arms failure
Most 4X games DO NOT have an underlying mechanical system that encourages combined arms strategies. Ideally, I would like a system where different inter-fleet compositions create different synergies. There should be many types of units that can have different roles and strengths and weaknesses against other types of units. Sending in the Mothership without 1000’s of smaller ships to soak up fire should be a stupid move.
Of course, this comes with the need to design a conflict system that creates meaningful opportunities for combined armed strategies – or creating fleets with different compositions to perform different roles. Very few 4X games do a good job requiring or demanding combined arms strategies – and it’s totally unfortunate. Till then, I’ll just cue up the next batch of Laser Raiders Mark III’s on my worlds and send ‘em to the trenches!
#7 – Deplorable diplomacy
Diplomacy in a lot of 4x games seems to be an afterthought all too often. I’d like to see a 4x game designed STARTING with diplomacy and building off of it from there. Diplomacy just doesn’t get much love and ends up feeling only partially implemented more often than not.
#8 –Illogical logistics
Often times in 4x games, I can’t help but feeling that the numbers and basic economic systems don’t make sense. The specific deficiency I have in mind is that of trading/shipping/mining/manufacturing in some combination. I really want a game where high value assets have a strategic role to play in the development of your empire that in turn creates interesting strategic choices for your opponents. Being able to have a mineral rich system with mined gas giants providing material and energy resources for population production worlds is cool, and creates opportunities for blockading and other trickery. Instead, I find games magically washing away all these opportunities for strategic texture.
#9 – Multiple ways to fail
This is the biggest issue for me – and one driven home by a recent forum discussion for an upcoming 4x game. I can’t help but feeling that 4X dev’s get totally engrossed with detailing out the “what” in the game that they totally ignore the “why”. The “what” are things like exploring, tech’ing, fighting, etc. The “why” are things like logical goals and victory conditions. Moving into the late-game on many 4x titles I’m kinda sitting their wondering WTF I’m doing. It’s usually obvious at that point whether my victory through total conquest is inevitable (accounting for many turns spent sending ever more fleets at my effectively beaten opponent) or whether my total defeat through conquest is inevitable (which I get to watch play out over many turns as my opponent’s send in more fleets to claim my weaker and weaker empire).
I can’t help but feel that 4x games, with this great sandbox like environment, could put more effort into creating divergent and interesting victory conditions that create a more engaging narrative for the players. Give me ways to achieve military victory in a few different ways, give me cultural or diplomatic options, give me technology victory, give me crazy victories based around assembling ancient alien artifacts. Give me all of it – and give me to the tools to see where and how other players are working towards these many goals so we can all interact over who gets to one of them first.
This is all immense, poorly articulated ranting – and by choice I avoided making references to particular games to illuminate my tirade. Perhaps I’m asking for the impossible here, or perhaps I’m simply going against the grain of what the fans demand/expect.
But at the same time, I can’t help feeling this sense of aimlessness in many 4x games. By trying to get too detailed and too epic they lose sight of delivering a compelling narrative or a deep big picture strategy experience that keeps bringing me back. I sit down to play the latest 4X, and I’m immediately left feeling they got most of the elements right, but none of it comes together and says why I should play it again.