Now onto the grave business at hand…
I was listening to Three Moves Ahead 2018 yearly review of strategy gaming, and the conversation inevitably swung around to how things went for Paradox this year, which unsurprisingly gets us to Stellaris (which has been the hottest space 4X videogame since 2016 - for those that might be wondering). One of the panelists made a comment to the following effect (I’m paraphrasing): I finally have to come to terms with the fact that Stellaris is increasingly not - nor likely to ever be - the game I imagined it would be.
I couldn’t agree more.
Many of Stellaris’s major patches - version 1.6, 2.0, 2.2 - have been riddled with bugs, glitches, and game-breaking jankiness or oversights that have certainly hurt the reception of the game. But for this conversation, I want to set all of that aside. I want us to pretend that these major updates were released and working as intended without the technical issues that have been levied on the fan base and patient customers. I want to pretend the game is working properly because I want to focus the conversation instead on the changes to the game’s underlying design.
When I say that Stellaris is dead, it is not because of bugs and glitches that will - in all likelihood - eventually be fixed. After all, version 1.6 was an utter mess. But by version 1.9 the game was stable and working well. It can happen again.
Rather, when I say that Stellaris is dead, it is because - “FOR ME” - the game’s underlying design has gone in a direction that runs counter to both my preferences, but more importantly, against what I felt the initial vision and dream of Stellaris was in the first place. And not just for me, but for a vast swath of the game's early adopters.
What was this initial vision, you ask?
Galaxy spanning empires and beautiful geopolitical messes… in theory.
Stellaris was billed as 4X meets Grand Strategy, and is developed by the company that is the undisputed master of grand strategy games (Paradox). My idealized vision of a 4X game is one of empire growth and expansion that feeds into a titillating geopolitical strategic experience. By geopolitics, I’m talking about diplomacy, foreign trade, military deployments, competing ethics and national personalities - you know the stuff that Europa Universalis IV is praised for. I thought, that this is what Stellaris would be. That it would take geopolitical strategy and bolt on the initial empire expansion and exploration hallmarks of 4X gameplay. It would be glorious!
When Stellaris launched (again ignoring the bugs and glitches and quality of life lapses in the UI), I felt that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here was a game where you could have a 1,000 stars and dozens of races in all sorts of geopolitical entanglements (Vassals! Subjects! Alliances!). It had an exceptionally refreshing exploration and discovery phase. The warfare system offered up something unique at the strategic level (e.g. accounting for varied types of FTL movement or how federations operated).
The game also tackled one of the big questions that has dogged the genre for years: how do you scale up the size of your empire to dozens or hundreds of systems across an entire galaxy without drowning the player in tedious micromanagement? The answer of course is the sector system, which lets you scale up the level of your management to match, so that you don’t have to deal with the individual planets anymore. The sector system frees you up to focus on the grand geopolitical game. At least in theory.
In those early days, we could opine about all the things that needed improvement: rebalancing combat mechanics, improving the sector AI so it wasn’t a dunce, adding even more diplomacy options, making leaders more interesting, reworking the internal faction system, adding quality of life features, refining the end-game threats. Maybe even adding a cool ethics based goal or victory system.
We got a few of these improvements over the past few years. But we also got a lot of things that undercut, trivialized, or simply did away with them entirely. Whole gameplay systems were replaced with re-designed systems that took the game away from its initial vision (and what compelled me to hold out hope for so long) and turned it into something else entirely.
Lordy, take a look at the new, low-micro planetary management model.
Let me try to spell it out it as concisely as I can. The changes to Stellaris have taken the game further away from its premise as a grand, highly interactive, geopolitical 4X game and more towards an inwardly focused, optimization-based, low-interactive empire management game. I see a very stark difference between an empire management game (think of city management games) that focuses gameplay around internal decisions and optimizations and a typical 4X or Grand Strategy game where the gameplay is focused around external interactions (warfare, diplomacy, trade, etc.).
In short, the changes to Stellaris, on the whole, have shifted the entire conceit of game from externally-oriented to internally-oriented gameplay. Evidence:
* Instead of multiple, distinct FLT (faster than light) modes of travel that created a rich strategic landscape, we now just have star lanes with easy to defend choke-points and brain-dead warfare strategy as a consequence (hold the gap!).
* Instead of messy territorial boundaries that create weird emergent situations and force strange interactions with foreign empires, we have neatly defined and discrete territories with very little uncertainty or dynamism.
* Instead of building a huge empire and being given the tools to manage it at higher level, the game space has been shrunk down.
* Instead of a clean and intuitive planetary management system (if a little micro-heavy outside of using sectors), we now have a labyrinthine horror masquerading as planetary “economy” - which incidentally requires even more micro and attention paid to it (see the diagram above). All of this means fewer planets to control and relatively more focus on the internally-oriented optimization gameplay. God help the AI understand this.
And overall, instead of a daring game of exploration, expansion, and geopolitics, we’re left with a safe game where we can build our little, tall, turtle empire in the corner and not have to interact with other empires much at all. The AI is clearly broken right now - but I suspect a lot of people are just fine with that - because they don’t want to deal with the AI or other players/empires in the first place.
Worst of all, is that so much time and effort was spent reworking existing game systems, which needed tweaking not wholesale replacement, that we’re still waiting for many of things that have been sitting on the wish list since day one. Diplomacy has gotten worse since launch, with whole ideas and mechanics stripped out and replaced with nothing. Sectors were improved - and then their reason to exist was virtually eliminated in version 2.2. Trade was added, albeit through a half-assed global marketplace. Warfare has changed and yet the mechanics around war score vs. war exhaustion feel like they are still going in circles with no clear direction in sight. And of course we’re still waiting for something to spice up the mid- and endgame.
It’s like their empire boundaries naturally conform to the choke points! That’s soooo deep
A good number of people, perhaps even a majority, are happy with the changes in the game’s design direction (assuming the technical issues are fixed). For many people, it seems their enjoyment of Stellaris is coupled to the narratives they imagine for their empire, which are heightened by the more internally-oriented gameplay systems. So for them, the changes may be seen as a positive. This is, I worry, part of a larger trend in strategy gaming towards less-interactive gameplay systems. So to say the least, I’m not surprised.
Call me old school, but I want the narratives I create and the stories I can tell to exist on the grander, galactic, geopolitical stage. On the stage that I thought Stellaris was building. That’s my dream for a 4X meets grand strategy game. But increasingly, this dream is a distant and fading memory. I have little faith that Stellaris will be the game to revive this dream. And so I hold out hope that some other game will.