October 21, 2015
Delusions of Grandeur (Part 1)
Preamble: A Fool’s Quest
It may come as no surprise that I have aspirations to design a 4X game. I’m sure many of you reading the headline have entertained such thoughts as well. And while I have designed and published a 4X board game (and am no stranger to the design process) my spider-sense tells me that designing a 4X video game is like navigating a minefield. There is so much that can blow up. We also appear to be entering a heyday for 4X games, which begs the question “do we need yet another 4X game rampaging through the market?” Probably not. But that isn’t going to stop me from dreaming and putting forward a vision for what I feel would be something unique and different.
I’ve dedicated a fair portion of my writing to critiquing 4X games along a number of different avenues: bad endgame experiences, pacing and flow, strategic depth vs. routine optimization, snowball and steamroller, over-complication, underdeveloped systems, thematic incongruities, and so on. Throughout all of this, I always ask myself “If I’m so quick to critique, how would I do it differently?” For a long time I’ve been striving to understand what it is I’m actually looking for in a 4X game experience. Is it narrative? Is it challenge? Is it immersion? I think it needs to be all of the above, but wrapped together in a way that provides a meaningful and coherent experience.
Through all of this, there is one central thing keeps nagging at me as I look back on the many 4X games I’ve played: 4X games rarely have a satisfactory ending in terms of narrative or gameplay - and often both are lacking.
A design lesson I’ve learned is that, for strategy games at least, the end trigger and win conditions are the game. You have to conceive of a compelling conclusion to your game first, and then work towards building that experience. I think a lot of games do it backwards: they conceive of all the things they want players to do, and then figure out how to wrestle the behemoth they’ve created into a coherent game with some way to end it. How many games patch in new victory conditions post-release? It’s absurd if you think about it. Strategy games need to be designed around the victory conditions so that all the elements can be balanced and directed towards a compelling closure. So I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing it backwards.
4X games are often a letdown in terms of gameplay for reasons that have been discussed considerably of late. How many of you actually bother to finish a 4X game once you have passed the point of knowing victory is inevitable, if only you just hang on and grind through? That’s a problem having to do with the snowball and steamroller. Another issue is that victory conditions themselves are often silo’d as isolated offshoots of disjoined mechanics: you have some arbitrary economic win, or a technological win, or a military win, etc. Gameplay becomes a giant optimization puzzle to hit your chosen goal first. More alarming, this is often a goal you set right at the start of the game, based on race selection, and which rarely is challenged or changed during play. Strategy is about deciding on goals - and how much strategy is there really in a game where you set you set your goal in the the first 5 minutes?
The narrative problem that I have with 4X games can be summarized with this question: What does it mean for an empire to “win”? I’m tired of games built around conquering the world or galaxy, or becoming the supreme ruler, or achieving some technological triviality, or abstractly cornering the market, or whatever else. The end triggers for so many games are painfully arbitrary and hence unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint. More to the point, these sort of winner take all win conditions are not very enlightened or sophisticated, they translate colonialism into space. Whoopee. I think we can do better.
I read a lot of science fiction, particularly space operas from the likes of Isaac Asimov (old school) to Peter F. Hamilton (new school). These narratives are dramatic and visionary. They cover vast sweeps of time, and yet boil down to nail-biting and personal moments as the protagonists strive to stay one step ahead of whatever horrific menace is sweeping across the stars. I’ve never had the sort of tension and sweeping grandeur in a 4X game that you get from a novel - but I have some ideas for how it might happen.
So the challenge I’m laying at my feet is two-fold: First, conceive of a design for a space 4X game that would unify the gameplay with what it means to win through a compelling narrative frame that captures the boldness and imagination of the best of space opera. Second, I want to accomplish this with a game that is tightly designed, relatively quick to play (by 4X standards), and is emergent and engaging with getting bogged down by its own design.
PART 1: A Sketch for a Space Opera
A Dream Transcendent
Imagine for a moment that a game with the tightness and pacing of something like FTL (Faster Than Light) had an unholy union with a narratively curious game like King of Dragon Pass. Except instead of trying to fly a spaceship from point A to point B, as in FTL, you were guiding an empire among the stars. And instead of trying to become the king of all the clans, you were seeking transcendence and an ascension to the next level of galactic consciousness. This is the of the idea for Transcend. Let me elaborate.
First of all, I want to create a 4X game where what it means to win is something positive and evolutionary. Most 4X games presuppose that winning is only by achieving dominance in some way, and that other empire’s are inherently in a zero-sum competition with you. Hence, most 4X games task the player with overseeing yet another colonial era of manifest destiny. I think this is a tired concept, and coming up with something novel and positive means reexamining what it means to “win.”
I think modern humanity, as a whole, could move towards “winning” in some sense by achieving world peace and ending poverty, or achieving an equilibrium with planet Earth. Those are positive goals in my mind. Becoming the supreme ruler of earth doesn’t sound very positive to me - it’s draconian. So in Transcend, there is one singular winning condition: surviving to achieve transcendence with your culture. Achieving transcendence will open up a pathway to a higher plane of existence (e.g. accessing higher dimensional orders of reality) where other transcendent cultures thrive and continue their own quests for evolution and understanding in the universe. It’s a bit Zen-like, eh?
How your culture achieves transcendence will vary in unique ways depending on their physiology, consciousness, and morality. These starting conditions, which will be covered more later on, frames a sequence of positive goals you need to meet to successfully transcend, such as achieving empathy, equity, freedom, creativity, etc.. A race of artificial machines might need to learn empathy and compassion, or a culture of passive space slugs to learn when force is justified, or for humans to move beyond their rigid individualism.
In my mind, these transcendent goals provide a more compelling context for a 4X game’s winning condition than “I’m better/bigger than you.” So the idea isn’t a technological victory or any other specific win trigger, but rather requires players to build a strategy that employs all aspects of their empire as they pursue a series of culture-spanning transformations towards transcendence. This will also (hopefully!) create an opening to recognize and reward cooperation between empires. Such cooperation is a rarity, and most often a friendly handshake is just the precursor to a stab in the back. But here, it is possible for multiple races to Transcend and even work together to achieve it mutually, because it isn’t zero-sum. What I need to transcend may be very different from what you need, and there is room for both of us to succeed if we work together.
Yet achieving transcendence, in the absence of any external threats, must be a challenge on its own. Managing growth and resources so that your culture doesn’t spiral out of control and consume itself along the way, putting transcendence forever out of reach is central to the design. There needs to be internal pressure on the player. In metaphor, the path to transcendence is like navigating through a maze of tightropes, and there are plenty of opportunities to fall off.
There are also things trying to push you off the tightrope.
Whispers in the Dark
My space opera inspired design challenge also needs to apply external pressure on the player to keep them on their toes and prevent players from simply optimizing their way to victory. Enter the Galactic Threats. Galactic Threats are something big and bad that happens to the entire galaxy. Fundamentally their presence requires players to achieve transcendence before the galactic threat wipes you (and everyone else) out.
So the central strategic challenge in the game becomes balancing your own progress towards achieving transcendence while holding enough back to deal with the galactic threat when it shows up. You need to walk the tightrope but be resilient enough to not get pushed off by a strong wind. If you invest too heavily in one aspect of your empire, you might not have the flexibility and foundation in place to react when the threat comes knocking. And while players may be able to slow down the galactic threat, inevitably they will have to transcend to escape it - there is no other way.
Of course there is a further wrinkle: you don’t know what the galactic threat will be. The game will include a series of different threats, and one of them (or more than one on harder difficulties) will randomly be unleashed on the galaxy at some unforeseeable moment. And these threats can take a number of different forms, with only subtle narrative clues and events hinting at the storm to come. For example, an unfathomably massive black hole might appear in center of the galaxy and slowly starts pulling all the star systems into its maw, turn by turn obliterating them. Transcend before your empire is swallowed.
Another threat idea is “Galactic Hot Potato” (working title!), where a mysterious homing beacon is unearthed that starts summoning progressively stronger waves of extradimensional alien forces into the galaxy. Players need to cooperate to “pass the potato” and keep the aliens chasing it around the galaxy. Or maybe you can use spies to sneak it onto an opponent’s world to sic the aliens on them! Regardless, if the aliens get a hold of it, the motherships show up and you are all screwed. Prudent leaders transcend before the motherships show up. Or maybe some wild nano virus starts spreading throughout sentient life and turning your populace against itself.
Holistically, the galactic threats introduce an asynchronous form of opposition that provides a more compelling narrative structure to the game. On a basic level, it gives the player an interesting challenge, greatly lessening the burden for programming other AI empires to give the player a challenging peer-to-peer experience. Additionally, the threat system has the potential to open up more interesting gameplay, with opportunities for cooperation between players to occur as they collectively try to hold back the tide; yet with each culture still racing against the clock to transcend on their own. When combined, these two dynamics (transcendence and galactic threats) can move the genre beyond a mere repetition of the colonial manifest into something bold and new, and more fitting as a “space opera.”
The Supporting Cast: Design Goals
While the Transcendence and Galactic Threat systems address my overarching design goal of creating a challenging and narratively interesting victory system, there are other critical design goals to discuss. Establishing goals for a design is important to guide decision making and to keep the game focused around the experience you are trying to craft. While goals can certainly change, often times the constraint of holding the design to them can breed ingenuity. So what are these other goals? So far I have seven of them:
I’m longing for a 4X game that I can sit down and play to it’s conclusion in an evening or two and feel like I’ve been challenged and engaged the whole time. Contrary to the “just one more turn” sentiment, I want every turn to have tough choices and tradeoffs to make. I want less turns, but I want them each to matter more. There should never be a turn of “doing nothing but pressing next turn.” I want to compress the normal 4X experience so that all those crazy late-game technologies we drool about are actually employed sooner and have a bearing on the game. I’ve had this notion of structuring the flow and pacing of the entire game around 30 turns, recognizing that if I design for 30, I’ll probably end around 45 or 60 turns. Each turn, to capture the sweeping growth and transcendence of a culture, will need to represent a large chunk of time, and by necessity requires a bit more abstraction throughout the design. But I think that’s okay, because I want to …
Embrace the Fantastical.
Science fiction literature is filled with all sorts of awesome ideas: cultures going post-physical, hive minds, dyson spheres, ring worlds, starbombs, galactic cannons, miniature black holes, Helium mining from super gas giants, getting lost in subspace, etc. Very few 4X games really give you a way to engage with these ideas. With 30 turns, the idea is to bring these fantastical ideas to the forefront and let players utilize them earlier on as part of your grand strategy building on the quest for transcendence. I rather like the design doctrine of letting everything be “overpowered” - the gameplay results are usually far more interesting.
I want most of the numbers in the game the be less than 10. 4X games can quickly spiral into complex math and algorithms that obfuscates the gameplay, requiring players to jump through all sorts of mental gymnastics just to evaluate the potential outcomes of different choices. I want to keep the numbers simple so that evaluation of choices is driven more by a consideration of the context, needs, and opportunities as a discrete option rather than as a mathematical optimization exercise. In other words, I want to enable players to “shoot from the hip” in their decision making, which might also open up the design to a broader audience.
To the extent possible, I want to keep the theme and mechanics in alignment. I dislike, in general, “gamey” systems that exist without a clear connection back to the theme. If a mechanic or system can’t be clearly understood on the basis of it’s theme, then it needs to be reevaluated. If I’m doing something in-game that is totally illogical or counter-intuitive, that’s a problem. Games obviously require abstraction, but I want to abstract the various systems in the game to a comparable level. So many games go into great detail on ship design and combat, yet leave espionage or trade woefully underdeveloped. I want both to be compelling systems, even if that means neither might be as deep on its own.
One issue I have with many 4X games is that they don’t provide enough feedback to the player on the consequences of their choices or as to the state of affairs in the game world. Without adequate feedback and information, it can make it hard to understand why the game state is the way it is, and in turn is hard for players to build heuristics and develop their skills and strategies.
Big Picture Management.
4X games can quickly spiral into a management nightmare for many gamers (myself included). The core systems of the game will be designed starting from the end, i.e., what does an empire look like at the precipice of transcendence and how is managing that state of affairs interesting, engaging, and free of frustration? That’s the goal, and achieving it relates to both the core game system mechanics around empire and colony management as well as the UI approach. I want the game to focus on the “big picture” at the galactic scale, and not get too far in the weeds. Ideally, there would be few menu’s in the game, with information presented visually right in the main viewport.
Strategic Interaction, not Optimization.
I have a nagging feeling that a lot of 4X games are more like optimization puzzles than proper strategy games. Part of this is because interaction between empires is usually limited to warfare. If interactions are based only around warfare, then the player that can optimize best, and build the strongest military engine the fastest, will inevitably win. Typically, there aren’t enough other ways to interact with foreign empires that can apply pressure to the same extent that military force can. As a result, the “strategy” of most 4X games is rather one-dimensional and boils down to learning the optimization puzzle best. I want Transcend to embrace multiple avenues for interaction, both peaceful and aggressive in nature, so that building up a big military isn’t the only way to go and that other emergent opportunities can manifest as well.
In conjunction with the transcendence / galactic threat system, my hope is to create a more tightly designed 4X game. I want players to immediately be faced with compelling situations that require strategic planning, not number crunching, to navigate. I want the game to move at a fast pace to keep narrative constantly evolving over the course of the game, with other empires thrown into a highly interactive geopolitical arena.
Up Next: Species & Core Gameplay Systems (probably)
In Part 2, I will present the core gameplay systems that underpin the design, specifically the Admin System. The Admin system is envisioned as a way to frame the player’s role as the leader of your culture. How Admin relates to exploration, colony management, and the production model will be described in greater detail.
In the meantime, I welcome any discussion, theory-crafting, and criticism of what has been presented thus far. Thanks, and stay tuned!