April 30, 2015
A Shattered Dream: Critiquing the 4X Genre
I’ve been struggling to write a holistic critique of the 4X genre for a while. On one hand, I ask myself “why is such a critique even necessary?” On the other, I feel that the genre is at a crossroads. Different tensions, for good or for bad, pull the genre in different directions. Trying to understand these tensions, which shape the genre’s landscape, will (hopefully) illuminate more challenges and opportunities in 4X design. Of course, I have my own aspirations of making a 4X videogame, so understanding the current “state of affairs” is important for designing in an informed manner and navigating through this messy environment.
Thankfully, a recent Three Moves Ahead (3MA) podcast on 4X games gave me the needed kick-in-the-pants to get me writing. The 3MA episode, intentionally or not, provided a rather scathing critique of the entire 4X genre and its failings, as well as highlighting a few small bright points of promise. I felt myself doing the proverbial headbang dance as I listened to the podcast, as many of their reactions and sentiments echo my own. Engaging in the 4X genre is a bit of a shattered dream, where we sift through the shards in hope of finding that one perfect game. But so often we cut ourselves on the glass.
The “Shattered Dream” is a 3-part article that will critique the 4X genre in a number of ways. Part 1 will focus on defining the 4X genre and relevant sub-genres. Part 2 will dig into what I feel is the primary tension in the genre: the desire to craft detailed simulations of other worlds and provide players with a deep strategic game. Last, Part 3 will look at how various tensions play out in the market space for 4X games and what promising avenues of innovation (and massive potholes!) lie ahead.
Part 1 - A Fragmented Genre
Much of my writing has focused on the classification and taxonomy of games. And it is important to recognize that no classification scheme will ever be perfect and cover all cases adequately. However I feel that the byproduct of discussing classification is that it forces us to explore game characteristics in detail. And this understanding is beneficial regardless of whether it culminates in a useful classification system or not. With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin.
The term “4X” refers to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The term was originally coined in a preview article for Master of Orion (the first) as a shorthand to reference the scope and nature of game - and the 4X term has grown in use ever since. It is tempting to use the label as a literal definition for classifying games, and hence for a game to be a 4X you need to have “The Four Elements” in place. But I think this ultimately doesn’t work; it becomes far too inclusive if taken literally. For example, most RTS games in the ilk of Starcraft or Age of Empires could fall under a 4X definition.
Rather, I think the “spirit” of the 4X label is what is important; which is that the 4X games strive to capture a grander scope than a RTS or turn-based wargame. There is usually some degree of empire building and management present, with the player filling the shoes of a real or assumed leader, often with an omnipotent view and uncontested control over their domain. The time scale is usually long, with a players’ empires growing and advancing. There is usually a balance between internal pressures mechanics, like managing the happiness of your population or the upkeep of a burgeoning bureaucracy, and external pressures such as military threats, hostile environments, and diplomatic posturing.
Yet within this umbrella, there are some useful sub-genres to consider. And it is these sub-genres that I feel provide the most salient lens through which to view the nuances and diversity of the 4X genre. As with past game classification efforts, it is important to consider the historic origins of these sub-genres. Furthermore, I’ll use the opportunity to reference Wittgenstein's Family Resemblance concept. Essentially, rather than trying to adopt a rigid “in or out” approach to classification, we need to recognize that genres are a collection of commonly, but not always, associated traits and that games that fall within a particular genre may only exhibit a portion of those traits.
Here we go:
Empire Builders - The 3MA podcast used the term “Empire Builder” as an alternative to 4X games to describe those that emphasize empire building. Civilization is certainly the most iconic example of an Empire Builder, and some of the key characteristics include: (a) Internal pressure mechanics like upkeep costs, population happiness and approval, diminishing returns, etc.; (b) External pressures from foreign competing empires; (c) Multiple and divergent victory conditions (e.g. conquest, technology, culture, political); (d) Relatively detailed “Management Unit” (MU) optimization requiring you allocate workers or resources within each MU.
Examples: Civilization, Endless Legends, Endless Space, Armada 2526, Distant Worlds, Galactic Civilization
4X-Lite / 4X Wargame - In trying to ascertain what games get branded with the “4X-Lite” label, the best I can tell is that these are games that downplays internal empire management in favor of a focus on warmongering. The games are often “simpler” from a complexity of mechanics standpoint but place far greater emphasis on the production, movement, and positioning of military forces. Victory tends to focus primarily (or exclusively) on military related win conditions such as outright conquest or domination of the map. In some ways, I think of these almost as “pure 4X” games because they are most directly aligned with the 4X’s and have relatively few other systems bolted on.
Examples: Sword of the Stars, Age of Wonders, Neptune’s Pride, UltraCorps, Master of Magic, Warlock, Star Drive 2
Heroic Strategy - There is some overlap between this and the previous category, but Heroic Strategy in my mind are games with many 4X elements but often with a strong focus on RPG-like character development of a smaller pool of characters. Oftentimes, “empire management” is handled through the development of a single or primary town/castle where units are recruited.
Examples: Heroes of Might and Magic, Disciples
Grand Strategy - This is a term most aptly directed towards paradox’s landmark titles, like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis. Sometimes, these are described as 4X games where you cut out the opening exploration phase of the game (since generally the geography is already known) as well as the late game victory dash by having more focused scenario-based goals. The heart of such games tend to be in relatively more complex empire planning, force organization, leader/character management, and nuanced diplomatic mechanics.
Examples: Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, The Last Federation, Imperia 5X
RTS-4X Hybrid - These are games that cross the line between a typical real time strategy (RTS) game like Starcraft or Command & Conquer and a 4X game. While any 4X game can be “real time” (e.g. Distant Worlds, StarDrive 1, Star Ruler) many of these are intended to work in a “pausable” real time fashion where “who can click/think fastest” is not really a factor in your success. The RTS-4X Hybrids blend the need for fast thinking (and clicking) found in a typical RTS game with the grander design scope seen in most 4X games, with players often having to navigate far bigger technology trees, diplomatic relationships, and internal empire considerations along the way.
Examples: Sins of a Solar Empire, Rise of Nations, Haegemonia
Campaign Driven - The last category is reserved for games that feature a 4X type system that provides a structure for a campaign, with individual tactical battles (turn based or real-time) taking the center stage. The campaign level can vary quite a bit in terms of complexity and scope, but is nonetheless in the service of providing context (and consequences) for the tactical battles that are the focus of the game.
Examples: Total War series, Dawn of War Soulstorm campaign
Tension Point: On Genre, On Blitzen!
Why is this important? I think these sub-genres (the title of which are open to debate!) have existed for a while without much formal recognition. Yet these go a long way towards explaining people’s perspectives, tolerances, preferences within the genre. Personally, I am tired of seeing comments like “this game is garbage because there’s no depth in empire management!” when the intent wasn’t be an empire building game in the first place. It’s like saying a free-for-all deathmatch arena shooter is bad because it is not team-based and doesn’t use modern military weapons. They are both FPS games, but an arena shooter (ala Quake-series) is much different from a team-based military shooter (ala Battlefield-series).
By calling everything under the umbrella “4X” all the time, it presupposes certain expectations on games and in turn biases our outlook of them. For instance, we assume that it should have some exploration elements, a way of expanding, a way of exterminating, and so on. This creates tension across the genre between our expectations (whether well- or ill-conceived) and the desire for encouraging diversity in the genre. Having said of all of this, genres (and sub-genres) are still useful for understanding games, making comparisons between them, and having more consistent language that gamers can use. But they can also be a trap that confines what we think is possible. If we think too strictly in terms of genres, particularly as designers, we can blind ourselves from seeing and pursuing genre-breaking game concepts.
Part 2 - The Dueling Pianos: Simulation vs. Game
Complexity does not equal depth
If there is one point I hope to get across in this article it is the above line. I think there is a misconception in the 4X community that the only way to have a deep game is to have a bunch of complex systems all intertwined into some giant mechanical monstrosity. But depth in decision-making is different from the complexity of the game. Decision depth is an emergent property of the gameplay that comes about as players are required to make tough trade-offs; whether that be in allocating resources, making diplomatic arrangements, positioning forces, or advancing your empire.
As I’ve written about before, decision depth (at a particular decision point) is a function of the major trade-offs or factors at work in influencing your decision and evaluating its potential outcomes. These factors can be economic, spatial, or intuitional in nature. For example: how to use a limited pool of strategic resources (e.g. casting points in Age of Wonders); or where to stage your military forces to maintain map control or chokepoints; or what diplomatic arrangements to pursue with what foreign powers. Complexity only serves to increase actual decision depth, and not merely the challenge of identifying or evaluating such decisions, when it makes these strategic (or tactical) factors more ambiguous.
The “deepest” choices are when players are faced with two or more equally viable or valuable appearing options and the player needs to rely on their experience and heuristics to make the right decision. Complexity, if it does not provide adequate feedback to the player to help build their heuristics (e.g. methods of effective play) simply makes choices harder to identify or evaluate and actually inhibits players from engaging with any potential depth. It might “feel” like the game is deep because it is mentally challenging - but these sorts of optimization hurdles are a pretense to getting to a decision point, not a decision point on their own.
In the worst situations, complexity can backfire when you’ve “figured it out” only to realize that at the end of the tunnel the actual decisions are obvious; that the game is an optimization puzzle of sorts and not really a game. An often used metric for a game’s depth is how many levels of skill there are among players (e.g. Chess rankings). If there is just one or two large skill levels (e.g. “I have it sort of figured out” versus “I’ve figured it all out!”) then it ultimately isn’t a deep game even if it has taken considerable effort to understand. Once you know the formula for success and can apply that every time the game will be short lived in terms of real depth.
Pacing & Flow
The 3MA’s podcast spent some time discussing issues of pacing and flow in 4X games, noting that pacing is key to making games fun in a “one more turn” sense as well as to making the “arc” of a game as it moves from the opening exploration to late-game victory exciting. Sadly, this an area of 4X game design that is perhaps the hardest to do well, especially for many of the newer indie studios making their first foray into game design. Many of the genre favorites are classics, I feel, for the very reason that they got the pacing right and kept players engaged throughout.
One way of evaluating the pacing and flow of a game is consider the types of actions that players can take. I’ve identified four general types of actions that range from most to least engaging and interesting (at least for me!):
1. Strategic Decisions - These are high levels decisions about your strategy, such as what victory condition to work towards, what mid- to long-range goals you are establishing (e.g. what opponents to ally with or fight), where to colonize next, what geographic areas are strategically important to control, etc.
2. Tactical Decisions/Actions - These are important decision points and/or actions that are taken to resolve your strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. For example, how you assemble an army or fleet and which general route they take or how you allocate the use of a limited strategic resource. These decisions can exist at the strategic scale as well as the tactical scale (if there is one in the game).
3. Optimization Activities - Should I build my research lab and then my production facility, or production then lab? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and depending on the complexity can be very challenging or relatively easy. Some players really enjoy these sorts of activities, other don’t. For example, I’d argue that ship building is a protracted optimization activity to construct ship/fleet to accomplish a particular tactical or strategic objective that you’ve previously identified. Adjusting the allocation of worker populations is likewise an optimization task, there is often one best solution/approach for a given strategic goal.
4. Managerial Upkeep/Overhead Activities - Last are routine management and/or upkeep tasks that require attention to move the game forward. Things like keeping unit/building queues up-to-date, remembering to build transports every few turns, upgrading ship designs to use lasers 2 instead of lasers 1, clearing notifications so you can process the next turn, pathfinding your forces to a given rally point, etc.
I feel that better games maximize the amount of hands-on time spent with #1 and #2 relative to #4. #3 (optimization) is more a matter of player tolerance, although personally I don’t like too much emphasis on optimization. The point here is that good pacing keeps players engaged by giving them meaningful strategic decisions on frequent intervals, rather than abandoning players to long stretches of just managing the consequences of a decision. When too many of the decisions in a game are trivial or obvious (often too many #3 or #4 actions), the game can feel far less deep and engaging. Streamlining the design, and providing ease-of-play automation that doesn’t detract from legitimate decision making is important.
Narrative Arc & Goals
The “narrative arc” of a game does not refer to it’s actual plot or storyline, but rather to the structure of the game itself as a story; with an opening, middle, and late-game phase that culminates in (hopefully) a well-earned and awarded victory. While good pacing is key to making the gameplay engaging and flow well, the overall narrative arc of the game helps shape your memory of the experience. Good games are memorable games.
How many times do we start a 4X game only to abandon the session part way through when it becomes obvious who is going to win or lose? In my mind, games that push us towards aborting a game early fail to provide a compelling narrative arc. If we already know how the story ends, we don’t bother finishing it. Creating an interesting narrative arc is undoubtedly a challenge, and is wrapped up intimately with the goals and victory conditions of the game.
In my experience, a lot of 4X game developers, particularly newer ones, don’t spend enough time (for whatever reason) refining the narrative arc to create excitement. Snowball & steamroller issues are part of the problem that push games towards a foregone conclusion: the player that optimizes early exploration is best positioned to expand/exploit the best, and hence best positioned to exterminate their opponents with no counter-threat. So addressing this issue is critical.
The victory conditions in the game are also a vital part of the narrative arc - and ideally the game is designed such that all players are kept in a state of tension all the way to victory. Runaway leaders and foregone conclusions are not much fun, but if you can counteract snowballing by providing alternative ways to achieve victory (perhaps as a high risk, high reward option) then it can help to keep the game close. Age of Wonders 3, while remaining focused on warfare (as a 4X-lite), combines typical conquest with a leader assassination and king-of-the-hill style victory options. A player that is steamrolling militarily can be eliminated from behind by killing their leader and capturing the throne city. Alternatively, other players can grab seal points and force the steamrolling player to divert focus away from conquest and claim seals instead.
The 3MA’s podcast further criticized the typical conquest, research, economic, etc. victory system used in so many games because it tends to put game mechanics into silos. If you only care about research and can otherwise defend yourself, you just focus on research until the end of the game and aren’t really incentivized to engage with the other elements of the game. These disconnected goals lead to a sort of disconnected play experience that doesn’t culminate in an interesting closure to the narrative. Achieving victory tends not to signify much beyond hitting an artificial threshold before your opponents, there is little thematically memorable about it. And for games that can take dozens of hours to play, the drab “victory screens” are a further taint on the experience.
At the end of the day, the narrative arc should culminate in an exciting and hard-fought win, not a tedious grind to an inevitable victory. 4X games need to pay serious attention to victory conditions and how these set the stage for a compelling arc and drive the gameplay forward.
Tension Point: Simulation Toy vs. Strategy Game
Keith Burgun recently wrote a thought provoking article, Videogames are Broken Toys, about how many so-called games might actually be better understood (and hence designed) as toys instead of games. To a certain extent I agree. I think about open sandbox games like the Elder Scrolls or the X-series, and indeed they are very “toy-like.” They are an environment for interaction, where the player can establish their own goals and interact with the systems to whatever extent they want.
I have a pet theory about 4X gamers, which is that there are two camps of preferences (which occasionally intermingle in the night). One set of preferences is for detail and “simulation” - and you often see people clamoring for the ability to micromanage 1000’s of colonies across a vast intergalactic empire. Another sentiment is that some people “love watching the galaxy unfold” into a living dynamic system. Indeed, Distant Worlds seems to be the darling game here, where you can literally automate everything and watch your empire take on its own life. Likewise, the player is at liberty to engage with whatever part of the system they want to, and automate the rest. In my mind, these are both very “toy-like” notions, and the more complex and intricate the toy, the more it people enjoy manipulating it.
The other set of preference is more aligned towards a fair, competitive, strategy “game”. Here, streamlining and simplification is tolerated (and even preferred) when it brings the decisions and their consequences to the forefront of play, even at the expense of simulation realism. More clear-cut discrete choices that rely less on complexity and more on transparency is important. As a “game,” feedback on what worked or didn’t work, via the UI or reporting, is vitally important to building heuristics and better strategies. To use Keith Burgun’s terms, a game is a “contest of decision making” - and the more focused the gameplay is around those key decision making points, the more successful it is as a strategy game.
All in all, a game’s leans towards simulation or “game” has ramifications for the complexity, pacing, and narrative arc of a game. Individuals will all have a different preference points between these poles, and I suppose the insight for developers is to consider carefully their intended audience and how they can craft the best experience (narrative arc) within that context. Getting this right takes no small amount of effort, and in a way it is unfortunate that so many games are released in the genre missing this key stage of refinement or leaving it to post-release development.
Breaking out of Orbit
Rooted in the Past & The MoO2 Conundrum
A tension in the 4X genre (and the videogame industry as a whole) from a marketability standpoint is that innovation is risky and tried and true designs sell better. We see this as evidence for successful games being serialized or reimplemented under a different guise. It is amazing to me that some of the mechanics seen in the early civ games or Master of Orion 2 (like allocating workers in a city) has remained a hallmark of the genre 20-some years later. How many recent or upcoming space 4X games are trying to snatch the MoO2 mantle? Why are we still clinging to a Civ template?
The 3MA’s podcast was suggesting that the genre is stuck in a bit of a catch-22. The biggest market opportunity is rehashing (or modernizing) a proven design concept – yet indie and AAA studios alike often fail in this endeavor. Either the polish and execution is off, or the developers just didn’t understand why some of the older titles worked successfully and replicate those lessons their own game (e.g. Alpha Centauri to Beyond Earth = fail).
For games striving to be more revolutionary and innovative, unless the game is exceptionally polished and well-made, the audience is even smaller and the marketability even less. Without a bigger budget (production values, marketing, attention, etc.), innovative titles that are amazing in concept often fail in the execution due to buggy launches, crude UI’s, unengaging graphics, lack of press coverage, and so forth. Many indie games, whether going innovative or more traditional in their design, are barely able to get a feature complete release together, let alone do the necessary refinements to the pacing and narrative arc to make the games stand out in comparison to the old classics.
I am increasingly feeling that the era of Early Access and the expectation of post-release development is partly to blame for why games seem to come up short. During the heyday of the 90’s, a game needed to be very solid at release because most people would never patch (or even know to look for a patch assuming it was possible) once they brought it home. The game was the game, for good or bad. And people also frequently waited for reviews to come out before purchasing, so they would know whether they were about to step into a buggy mess or not. As a consequence, a LOT of time was spent polishing and balancing before launch to make sure the gameplay was as genuinely compelling as it could be, that there was ample room for real strategizing, and that the AI provided real opposition.
With Early Access and games being released well-before their time becoming the norm, it just paints a poor picture of the entire genre. How many 4X games come out with bad reviews but are eventually patched or expanded to be great games a year or more down the line? A lot of games are improved and turned from bad or mediocre to great – but in this situation you’ve lost your ability to reach a wider audience with a positive launch and you’ll never make-up the lost sales. All of this poor perception keeps the genre as a niche; the mainstream crowds don’t have much tolerance for waiting.
Of course, Early Access and crowdfunding is largely responsible for enabling indie devs to get to market in the first place, adding their take on the genre. Without these tools, we would likely see far less diversity and innovation than we do now. So I don’t intend to be overly critical of these new tools either. A lof of games seem to go into Early Access before being feature complete, and get released soon after being “feature complete” - which really doesn’t leave enough time in my opinion for polish and balance with all the systems in place.
Reimagining the Challenge, Asymmetrically of Course
I feel like we are, perhaps, on the precipice of a new era of 4X games. Should we manage to secure a few good (or exemplary) reimplementations of past favorites, e.g. our darling Master of Orion modernized, it might leave the door open for pursuing alternative styles of 4X games. And a number of games have been released or are under development that are exploring new asymmetric designs as a way to provide a novel experience to players while still building on the 4X language. One of the primary goals of such endeavors is to get around the typical need for competent, human-like AI opposition. Without a strong AI to challenge and pressure the player, so many 4X games just feel flat and underwhelming. So if you can’t change the AI, change the game.
Jon Shafer’s “At the Gates” is one such game, where the player is primarily responsible for leading a migrating city around the map, absorbing different clans along the way. The opposition comes from various external threats, none of which are intended to be analogous to the player. Similarly, Arcen Game’s AI War pits the player as a tiny flee-of-an-empire against a vastly bigger AI empire, requiring the player to build up without gaining too much attention from the less-than-friendly AI. Keith Burgin’s iOS title “Empire” has the player managing cities that deplete their natural surroundings and must constantly be relocating, yet this is set against the backdrop of a growing corruption that will eventually overwhelm the player and lead to their defeat. The challenge is to see how long you can live - and much like a game of Tetris, eventually time runs out.
These Aren’t the Boardgames You Are Looking For
Another trend that I’ve been seeing is more reference to digital games that use “boardgame-like” mechanics in their design. While what constitutes boardgame-like is a topic all of its own, I think part of it comes down to transparency, streamlining, and providing fewer but more challenging decisions. For 4X games, this relates to the earlier section on complexity and depth. Boardgames, by virtue of having to be “processed” by the players at the table tend to be far more transparent in how their mechanics work, and create depth through challenging situations rather than relying on complexity alone as a stand-in for depth. The effective depth-to-weight ratio is higher for most boardgames than video games I feel.
Curiously, 4X games have their roots in boardgames from the 70’ and 80’s (as does Civilization). With a number of highly successful 4X boardgames (Eclipse in particular, also available on iOS) showing what is possible in a non-digital format, perhaps it is an opportunity for 4X video game designers to look back over the fence and learn a few tips. Perhaps, by streamlining games but maintaining the depth, we can make 4X games more accessible to a broader audience or even make it easier to build competitive AI’s. Unfortunately, one recent title, Sid Meier’s Starships, missed the mark and its claim to have been influenced boardgames suggests that maybe it was looking at the wrong boardgames. But there is hope.
On Finding Greater Meaning
The 3MA’s podcast discussed to topic of meaning in 4X games, which is a great final point to this long-winded article. In short, they commented on the notion that at the core all of these 4X games are really the “same game.” They are all an embodiment of a colonial-era manifest to become the supreme lord of the manor. On one hand this isn’t surprising given the “ingredients” of the 4X genre of exploring and laying claim to unknown lands and exterminating your way to victory. But this begs the question - can the genre do more?
What is it that compels us to relive the same narrative over and over in different flavors or via a slightly more polished implementation? Why must it always end in blood or economic monopolization or diplomatic unity? Can or should the genre be an opportunity to speak to a different, perhaps post-colonial, narrative? This prompts bigger questions about meaning in video games and to what extent games can provide a greater commentary on the human condition beyond tickling our fancies. What happens after we conquer the planet? In a way, Burgun’s “Empire” is a reminder that all of our civilizations will eventually crumble to dust and be replaced with something else - I’d like to see more games put the player in those reflective situations.
I also remain eternally fascinated by my relatively recent discovery of King of Dragon Pass, which is a sort of mash-up between a clan management, 4X, and a choose your own adventure. Here is a game where the player is not an omnipotent ruler of their domain, but a single person with only so much time in the day for making decisions and taking actions. It is a 4X game of sorts, but the perspective is shifted and the entire tone is immediately more immersive and reflective. Could such an approach be applied to a more traditional 4X title? Could it sell?
A Menagerie of Tension
To sum up, the 4X genre is fraught with tensions. Some are internal to the design of the games themselves, such as the balance between simulation and streamlining or designing an open sandbox versus a tight strategy game with a compelling narrative. Other tensions relate to the legibility of the genre itself and the extent to which 4X is even a useful term, or whether the sub-genres can gain traction as a shorthand. Yet more tensions exist in the marketability of 4X games, with the drive to pay homage to the past and take on less risky (more profitable?) projects or to tackle more revolutionary design concepts. And of course, there is tension in the development process of the game’s themselves and the mixed-messages and needs of Early Access and crowd-funding.
My hope is that cunning developers can navigate all of this. We can each imagine our perfect game (or games!). And should the genre grow and mature the chance of that one game being made goes up, somewhere, somehow. There might be more chaff along the way, but it’s the dream that keeps us sifting through the broken shards of glass. And if all else fails you can always set sail and try to make your own game right?!