February 11, 2013

A Failure to End - Too much "What" and Not Enough "Why"

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.

Wrap Up

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.


  1. After reading this I am under the impression you have yet to play planets nu?

  2. I haven't even heard of that one! I'll take a look at it. Thanks!

  3. All very good points. Sadly a lot of players like micromanagement and needless complexity, and game developers have to cater to them.

  4. To your point, I wonder whether developers are sometimes targeting the wrong group. 4X games as a thematic genre seem like they would be pretty appealing to a bigger base if they were not so complex. Well designed 4X game need not be super complex or take 100's of turns - there are others formats or styles that could appeal to a different base.

    A idea I keep kicking around is a 4X game that's a strange blend if something like FTL and king of dragon pass. It's strategic but plays faster and looser. Less time optimizing spreadsheets and more time shooting from the hip.

  5. The original Master of Orion is what you want.


    1. or Distant Worlds, with some things automated

    2. Distant Worlds does everything it can wrong. It's bloated, uncontrollable and unnecessary complex. Of course, it's subverted because it's supposed to be this way with you having only so much control over your civilization. Not sure if this indirect control justifies complexity though.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Most problems you mention are cause people think they want exactly this. More mechanics, more units, more everything. 4X games are a niche and most 4X players consider themselves hardcore powergamers so you can't sell them game with less complexity, no matter how much depth and balance is hidden in simpler mechanics. Meanwhile games like Dwarf Fortress and Aurora have no graphics, interface or balance and they're cult classics just because they're unbearably complex.

    1. Yes - I agree totally. I keep wondering about what the audience potential is like for a 4X game is IS mechanically much simpler but more in-depth. More boardgame-like in some respects.

      What if you had a 4X game that was about on par with FTL in terms of pacing and complexity? E.G., you could knock out a full game in an hour (FTL is often much shorter obviously) and the decisions were more carefully constructed.

    2. I've actually thought about it one time and imagined what would be if you remove all micromanagement you can from Civilization. And I've made a game. In the end it looked more like a boardgame or RPG cause I've reduced nations to characters (each with quirks and specific behavior), I removed map so everyone can attack anyone directly. Winning only brings money which helps in diplomacy and allows getting situational bonuses. So it all comes down to bare bones where each of four X'es is one of menu buttons.

      I've released it on Android and didn't include any graphics so it's not very popular or enjoyable. Still I've learned from expirience. You need specific micromanagement routines and "complexities" so that... AI doesn't look random. Really. When you reduce the number of choices it's hard to see patterns in AI behavior even if it does behave logically. When you see AI building a decent city or creating good army composition you believe it's intelligent even if those tasks are trivial and may be programmed by trivial build order. And this is where player can be dumber than AI for some time cause he doesn't know how to play. Many players play 4X games only to the point when you understand mechanics and the real strategy only comes after, but this initial period of learning is fascinated exactly cause AI flaws aren't visible and you're playing city builder and competing against yourself and mechanics, not contenders with ridiculous bonuses.

  7. I agree with a lot of what you have to say here. I've always found the massively different levels of abstractions bizarre to deal with, whenever I have to send specific spy agents on a mission, but can manage interstellar food logistics with a single freighter count.

    That being said, I would argue that a lot of 4X gamers are not always looking for the tightest game mechanics, but rather some level of a simulation about some things the player finds cool and fun. This is why as Space Emperor, you have ship design, because a lot of players find that fun, and enjoy watching their creations blow up their enemy's strongholds. Some of them also like to imagine their clever spy, kitted with the latest tech from their cutting edge research labs infiltrating the opponent's military base. They do not generally care about how their people get fed their yearly quota of space pancakes.

    As an aside, if you want 4X down to an FTL size, check out:

  8. I couldn't agree more with your points. These are some reasons why I recently bounced pretty hard with the Stardrive and Star Ruler games. I really like the premises of this genre, but very few games of it manage to grab my attention for more than a few hours (ex. Civ IV and its mods).
    I think most space 4x game developers have only the ambition to reach MoO2. While that is hard, it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all because there are many aspects that could improve or even focus. Obviously the more ambitous ones can turn out like SOTS games at launch, but they are the ones that move this genre forward and diversify it.
    I fell like my dream 4x game would be something turn-based more controlled and limited, with few systems/planets/cities (imagine the Dune or LoGH universes) where resources are truly meaningful, using the simulation of CK2 with the intrigue, dissention of governors/generals/admirals and civil wars, the UI of the Endless Space/Legends games, and the battle/army mechanisms of RTwP of Total War series where you control not a single ship but fleets of hundreds/thousands and where you have to account logistics and morale.

    1. Heh ... your dream game is something curiously close that I'm at the pencil stage of designing. Probably will never be made - but who knows!

      I imagined the game as a sort of cross between King of Dragon Pass, FTL, and a MoO2. Almost more of a "geopolitical" game than a typical civ/conquest game.

  9. @ Oliver, I had the idea of mixing AoW (for the battles and general fantasy lore) with Sovereignty (assymetric starting positions on a grand strategy) with Crusader Kings 2 (dynasty management - ported into the Aow lore, would make playing Goblins versus Elves radically different, as one reproduces quickly but dies fast and the other reproduces very slowly but is immortal...)