July 21, 2016

Delusions of Grandeur (Part 2)

PART 2: The Fresh Smell of Administrative Air

My delusions continue from Part 1 of this series, which provides teasers, spoilers, and other amazing ideas I have for creating my very own, not-another, space-based 4X game. Last time I outlined the big vision for my 4X game, Transcend, which is built around the notion of guiding your civilization to transcendence while avoiding any number of galactic threats that want to eat you and your citizenry for a midnight snack. I also talked about some specific design goals, around trying to eschew the usual 4X complexity for something built around simple numbers and a relatively small number of total turns. In other words, a more finely tuned game all about hard decisions and big consequences.

In this installment, I’ll be talking about a few core elements of the design related to the structure of your empire and its management.

Elementary Building Blocks

I’ll start first with a criticism of many other 4X games, which is this: why do so many 4X games have space bucks? Or galactic credits? Or whatever they are called. Having money (and associated things like taxes) as one of the central resources, or the central resource system, assumes an incredibly anthropocentric worldview that ends up permeating the rest of the game design. “If we have taxes, then raising taxes must be bad? So we must have some sort of happiness system, right? And if we have happiness, we got to have ways to buffer that right? So we need, like, entertainment centers and futuristic thunderdomes to provide the spectacles, right?”

You see where I’m going here. The central mechanics and how those relate to alien races, in so many 4X games, is just projecting the human modus operandi into the stars. Dressing humans up in ugly clothes and calling them aliens. But what does a cybernetic hivemind care about taxes? What need does a robotic civilization have for money or food? Can they even feel happiness? I want to move away from these thematic conundrums as much as possible, which means taking a hard look at the underlying mechanical system of the game.

When you boil it down, the fundamentals are time, resources, and labor. Any imagined civilization wanting to do anything in the physical universe as we understand it does so over some increment of time, uses some sort of resource (matter and/or energy), and has some unit of work labor (be it a person or a machine) with which to carry out the desired activity. That’s about it really. Money doesn’t need to be a part of the equation (although it could be). Nor does happiness, or taxes, or virtual reality holo-theaters. So my interest is taking these very simple building blocks and building a deep and engaging game with them.

So Much to Do, So Little Time

I’m interested in the notion of time. Time in many 4X games, despite their focus on vast sweeps of time (and history), time itself is rarely a limited resource. Most AI opponents are inept enough that we really have all the time in the world to get our ducks in a row and work towards a win. Even more so, the role we assume in the game, be it as emperor, overmind, benevolent dictator, etc. is limitless in its ability to affect change. By this, I mean that within the confines of any particular turn we can retool our domestic agenda, change ideologies, cue up entire armies for construction, plot out sophisticated movements of forces, engage in diplomatic summits, reassign research priorities, etc.. The player is given full control over their empire each turn, with nothing to limit their actions. Time stands still for us.

King of Dragon Pass had a very compelling idea, which is that in each season (e.g. turn), you could only take two actions. Maybe that would be to adjust the members of your council ring, or conduct a cattle raid, or build up your defenses, or send someone on an expedition. Whatever it was, you were limited and you couldn’t do everything each turn. The result is that you were constantly having to juggle your priorities and where you spent your own time developing your clan or preparing for grander things to come. This limitation forced, very organically, tough choices and tradeoffs. I want to bring this feeling into Transcend.

Hence is the first concept I want to discuss: Admin.

Admin is your ability as a leader “to do stuff.” In some cases, Admin might be consumed permanently as an upkeep cost. For example, it would take a full point of Admin to establish and maintain a basic level of authority over a new colony. If you spent all of your Admin on establishing colonies, you’d be paralyzed and have literally no time for anything else, like marshalling fleets or conducting diplomacy. Those are important things too, and you better leave enough Admin on the table to perform actions in those arenas.

Secondly, and something both FTL and King of Dragon Pass have, is the notion of a “budget.” In FTL, the “budget” is your ship's energy supply, which you distribute among the various subsystems (weapons, drones, shields, engines, etc.) depending on the situation at hand the “strategy” you are going for in your ship design. In King of Dragon Pass, each year, you get to reallocate your budget of “magic” to various fields: cows, healing, communing with spirits, fightin’ words, beards, etc. It has an impact on how the upcoming year plays out. As you might guess by now, Admin in Transcend gets put into the budget mill.

Admin can come in a number of different forms. Military Admin is used for mustering and issuing orders to fleets. Agency Admin for conducting espionage or diplomacy. Civic Admin for building large infrastructure projects. Expeditionary Admin for exploring the stars and establishing new outposts. Players will start off determining an initial “budget” for their pool of Admin across these (and more) different categories. Over the course of the game, the pool of admin will grow, with new admin being assigned to the different categories. Or you might need to reallocate during play, pulling Admin out of research and dumping into Military so that you can coordinate the movements of a dozen fleets during a military campaign. Changing admin from one type to another will consume that point of admin for the turn, meaning that it isn’t available for more productive uses. So long-term planning is rewarded because changing the budget all the time is inefficient.

The question you are asking is what exactly does Admin do? Admin get’s used in a few ways. First, Admin can be consumed as an upkeep expense, such as for maintaining control of a colony. The bigger your empire gets, the less Admin you have for other purposes, which is a nice balancing mechanic against the steamroller trend. Basically, bigger empires are less nimble. Second, Admin can be used for a certain, specific, passive benefits. For example, Military Admin might govern the number of active (non-defensive) fleets you can control at once. Last, Admin can be used to perform actions, which range from launching expeditions, to hosting a diplomatic session, to building facilities and infrastructure, and to executing an espionage operation.

Admin Types might include:

- Military Admin (mustering fleets, launching invasions, supporting defensive fleets)
- Trade Admin (setting up / maintaining trade routes/facilities, economic exchanges)
- Research Admin (building labs & skunkworks, queuing up research projects)
- Industrial Admin (building shipyards and ship, constructing mining and energy facilities)
- Agency Admin (intelligence, espionage, detection)
- Expeditionary Admin (exploration, colonization, archaeology, minor battles)
- Cultural Admin (governance structures, development, cultural influence, psychology)
- Political Admin (treatise, proposals, exchanges, etc.)

With a limited pool of Admin, and hence a limited pool of actions each turn, it requires players to prioritize towards long-term goals. Admin, is basically an action point system, like you often have in board games, which ensures that you’ll never be able to do everything you might want to do. You have to make tradeoffs. When you couple this with the galactic threat (the “death clock” so to speak), you simply don’t have the time or capacity to to do everything it all. Speaking of doing things …

100% All Natural, Galactic Resources

Here’s another zinger … how many 4X games have you depleting the ore resources of an entire planet? Or tapping the energy potential of a black hole? And what unfathomable use could an empire have for such awesome energies in the first place? What if each turn in transcend was 1,000 years? 30 turns is 30,000 years. What are humans going to be like in 30,000 years? What about the aliens?

Harnessing the tiny bits of matter, scattered like crumbs of bread over the ocean, will require careful planning and consideration. Fundamentally, I envision three types of resources: ore, energy, and exotics (of which there will be a number of different types). Ore and energy is fundamental to most building and development tasks in the game, be it planetary improvements, orbital facilities, or space ships. Ore is generated by mining and energy is produced by constructing energy generators of various types. Late in the game, one might be able to build super structures that converts harnessed energy directly to into matter (theoretically possibly, I might add).

A game with a simple resource system that I really adore is UltraCorp, and I’d like to emulate some of that in Transcend. Basically, as you generate ore and energy somewhere, it needs to be transferred to where you can combine it with labor (the third leg of the stool) to produce the final product. Of course produced things have upkeep costs (in ore and energy), so the basic economy becomes a logrus of balancing resource flows through a network of energy and ore supply, all the while keeping an eye on the dwindling pool of resources. The transferal process will be kept as simple (and as visual) as possible. Each level of extraction facility would let you send an increment of resources to a destination of your choice when you build the facility. Of course, changing around your shipping lanes after the fact would require spending Admin (see the rub?)

I’ve always found it clever when games let you screw yourself with your own economy. If you build too fast, without securing enough resources, you production won’t be able to keep up with growth and things will start to unravel. I’ve been interested in this notion of making internal management systems strategic, and doing so by creating pressured within the system where things can spiral out of control if you aren’t careful. What happens when you can’t afford the upkeep on your ring world? What happens to the people then?

The exotic resources will be things like antimatter, organics, rare minerals, power crystals, black slime, and so on. Exotics will occur randomly and sparsely around the galaxy but are a vital part of building/implementing more advanced technologies. In particular, many of the late game technologies that will set you down your path to transcendence may require stockpiling a large supply of exotic resources. Want to build a nova bomb and detonate a star? You’re going to need a lot of anti-matter. Want to build a transdimensional gateway to connect your worlds? You’re going to need a lot of black slime. How about a Dyson sphere or a ring-world? Get those wonderful power crystals!

Exotics also provide a central means to facilitate genuine trade and diplomatic agreements. The key is that not all races will need the same resources in the same abundances. For example, the actual requirements for constructing things, or researching tech, or what a given race needs for “food” might change depending on your selected race. The result is that each empire may have access to a number of exotic resources but only be able to utilize a few of them. It behoves those players to trade their excess resources for the exotics they need. And late game, this becomes a point of leverage between players. If you are relying on a flow of organic materials from my unused gaian world for food production, and I cut you off, suddenly the gloves are off. It makes trade and diplomacy all the more critical and a real tool for pressuring other empires that goes beyond just warfare.

A Labor of Love

The final leg of the stool is labor, which relates directly to your population, so let’s break down the systems here a little bit.

Planets (as well as orbitals or deep space facilities) can contain population. In locations where conditions are favorable to your race’s physiology, growth will occur provided that you provide upkeep for your population (although there is no actual “food” resource in the game - upkeep is purely an energy and ore flow). Humans would likely thrive on a Gaian planet, but would have a much harder time living close to a Jovian planet. Which isn’t to say that late-game technologies and genetic modification of your population wouldn’t alleviate these ill effects! Other locations might have zero growth or even inherent population loss - so maintaining a work force might require a continual influx of offworld workers.

Coupled with your raw population is the planet’s “development level” (DevLvl). The Development Level is essentially an abstract reflection of the quality of the infrastructure in supporting your population. Development levels might range from 0 - 6 (for example), and each level would be able to support an escalating number of population (1/3/6/10/15/etc…). On high growth planets, it may be possible for the population growth to quickly outpace your ability to develop the planet's infrastructure (which gets increasingly costly), resulting in some amount of population being “unsupported.” Unsupported population not only wouldn’t contribute to the planet’s outputs, but it might also put strain on the rest of your population. Of course increasing a planet’s development level requires spending Admin and an injection of energy and ore.

For the supported population, each unit of population is assigned to a built “facility” that is part of your empire, and produces some sort of output that you can put to use. So a facility might be a sensor relay station, or an asteroid mine, or an orbital shipyard, or a research lab. The population assigned to these facilities generate a fixed output based on the facility and subject to some simple modifiers. For example, your budget allocation to Admin can passively provide bonuses to its associated field. Having a large research budget, and whether you are spending research admin to initiate research projects or not, would provide a passive output bonus to all your research output.

A Delicate Balancing Act

One issue with 4X games that I’m sensitive too is the runaway steamroller problem. The steamroller is largely, I feel, a function of centralized production systems. In a Civ or a Master of Orion type game, city’s generate “production” that gets used universally to build everything and anything. So production can go equally into building a research lab or a spaceship or a holo theatre, despite those all being very different in nature. It means that raw production is almost always king, and getting a big advantage in production can see you quickly outpacing your opponents in the global race.

In Transcend, there is no generic “production”. Your population units work facilities “after” they are built in order to produce a certain output good (space ships, culture, ore etc.). Instead, it is your pool of Admin that enables the construction of empire controlled facilities. Constructing an advanced science lab might require 6 Research Admin (for example). If you only have 2 Research Admin in your overall budget, it would take 3 turns of fully investing in your new lab to build it, meaning that Admin would not be available for other Research uses (like queuing up a new research project or implementing a technology). But this has no impact what-so-ever on how quickly you can build up Embassies to extend your diplomatic reach - that would tap into your political Admin budget.

But haven't I just shifted a steamroller that runes on “production” for one that runs on “admin”? Potentially. But Admin points will be much harder to come by, and the pace that your overall Admin budget grows by will be far more limited compared to the exponentially increasing productivity levels seen in other games. Furthermore, implementing facilities that grow your Admin will lock up population to work that building, pulling population away from other productive uses.

Furthermore as the size of your empire grows, relatively more admin is required to maintain authority and control of its various parts. So a smaller empire is more efficient in its use of admin, freeing up relatively more for performing actions. A larger empire would have relatively more of its admin locked into basic upkeep, giving you less available admin to play with each turn. This would make a bigger empire less nimble and flexible.

Like, So Totally Alien

I mentioned early in this article about wanting to identify the most basic elements at work in building an empire, the “universals” of time, resources, and labor that can be applicable to any alien species we might imagine. I mentioned in Part 1 about how different aliens might have different ways of winning the game, that “transcendence” might mean different things for each type of alien.

This closing section will describe a little more how alien races are constructed. Essentially, each alien species will have be identified along the following lines:

Physiology: This is the physical characteristics of the species. Is it biological and organic, having evolved through some combination of chemical and evolutionary process? Or perhaps the beings are based on crystalline or gaseous forms. Even maybe they are synthetic in form, artificial beings created at some lost point in history. Regardless of the types, physiology will to basic characteristics of your population in terms of how they grow and utilize different types of planets. For example, biological species might reproduce at some basic fertility rate, while synthetic species might grow by queuing up new “labor” or machine-workers as a construction project.

Mentality: This refers to the psychological structure and organization of the species. The species might be like humans in that they are individuals - each with their own free will. On the opposite end, would be perfect hive-mind, where all populations are essentially of one shared mind. Or it could be organized based on various sizes of mass-minds or sub-collectives.

A species mentality will have a direct impact on how it can utilize Admin - particularly with respect to galactic expansion. A hive mind might be wonderful where all elements are in close proximity and connected with little delay to the central mind. But maybe the individualistic mentality of human-like species is more suitable for more dispersed expansion behaviors, where colonies can operate more autonomously. Then again, individualists may care a great deal about the happiness of each member of its race, and be prone to revolts or rebellions when not satisfied - something that would be more difficult for a hive mind (unless it became schizophrenic!)

Demeanor: This relates to the overall psyche and motivation of the race, including things like ethics or attitudes. Is the race genuinely curious and wanting to be galactic peacekeepers, or are they paranoid xenophobes that want to eradicate everyone else? Demeanor will have a big impact on diplomatic relationships as a result. But they are also critical for driving the transcendent victory conditions. Different demeanors will relate to methods and endpoints for achieving transcendence. It may be that in order for the peacekeepers to achieve transcendence, they need to build a multi-species coalition first, achieving some feat of galactic unity. Conversely, an technophilic isolationist race might want to hide in the corner of the galaxy and pursue their own private agenda.

So you could make your typical Artificial Intelligence Aggressive Hive Mind Machine Race, hell-bent on domination. Or your benevolent collective consciousness crystal-cortex race. Each of these traits determines basic attributes about your empire (growth, bonuses, etc.). Different technology trees could even be attached to each major type of trait - so depending on what species you play could yield different mixtures of technology.

But more importantly, the combination off all three establishes a unique pattern of objectives you need to transcend. To couple a 3-stage quest/objective system to finding transcendence, and trying to do so in the face of a rising galactic threat seems like a pretty awesome space opera story to me and would let people dabble in the all the cool 4X strategy things, but have it all geared towards a cool narrative win condition instead of the typical win conditions we always see. And I would love to incorporate the ability to actually change your species composition overtime. It may very well be necessary for achieving transcendence that certain traits change over time, or that you change your species to chase a different win condition. It’s an interesting proposition.

Up Next: The Galactic Topology & Exploration

In Part 3, we’ll look at some ideas related to how empires can interact in various ways, and how those interactions dovetail with technology advancements. cheers!


  1. I just found this article and I have to say it's fascinating - I can't wait for Part 3.

    Oh and your articles over on Explorminate are some of the best I've read too - keep up the good work!

  2. For those who have gaming interests might like this article. I also like gaming articles as i am a gaming developers.