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Lost in Space: Looking for a worthy 4X Game

posted on March 5th, 2007 by golden jew

I love the 4X genre. It’s most likely a combination of the fact that I’m a huge geek and love space, and the fact I was beat up a lot in middle school and high school and didn’t kiss a whole lot of girls back then (see the first two reasons of my 4X love if you’re unclear on why that is). My love of the genre started on the old Mac II with Spaceward Ho, a game that lives on today in Palm Pilot versions (which are quite badass). Then came Pax Imperia I, followed by the graphically enjoyable but gameplay poor sequel. I tried other games along the way, such as Hegemonia, but nothing really stuck. Like every player of the genre (except for the ones who fail at life) Master Of Orion 2 was my lord and savior. And, since I’m a Jew, I can call it my messiah and it’s less blasphemous than if I were a Christian.

Unfortunately, I feel as if the genre has peaked and no one has been able to recapture the magic of the 90’s (MOO3 was a total flop). And it pains me to write that, because it makes me feel old. Recently life was breathed back into the genre (or perhaps the corpse of 4X was reanimated via dark magic) by the critically acclaimed Galactic Civilizations 2 (which just unleashed a new expansion), and the much less regarded, but in my view, equally entertaining Sword of the Stars, both released last year.

Not to beat a dead horse, but while each of those two games is fun in its own right, I feel that they are critically flawed in their own ways, particularly in comparison with MOO2, the gold standard of the genre. SOTS, although having excellent combat, ship design and an incredible tech tree, has an (admittedly intentional) basic colony management system, and limited racial selection. Gal Civ 2 has an extremely robust colony and universe management system, solid racial customization, but the functional ship design is poor, combat is completely autonomous, and the tech tree is mediocre.

It’s electric! Boogy boogy boogy.

What confuses me is that many of the changes made in game design, especially in 4X and civilization management games, is evolutionary and incremental. Accordingly, the way to advance the genre would be to build off the generally accepted gold standard, MOO2. This certainly didn’t happen with MOO3. And it seems to me that Gal Civ 2 and SOTS went in completely different directions from MOO2. It’s almost as if the designers each took 75% of the game and advanced it, but completely neglected the other 25%. And while each pushed the state of the genre in positive directions, they diverged from the unified concept that MOO2 brought that made it such a stunning game: quality tech tree, deep racial customization, robust ship design, active combat, and intense colony management. Is game design so hard in the new decade that we settle for intentionally lacking games?

Since the gaming industry has dropped the ball, it’s time for Golden Jew to take charge. If Golden Jew ran more than just the media and banks, but also the gaming industry, here’s what his next generation space 4X game would look like.

Colony Design and Management
Deep colony management, loosely translated as “lots and lots of neat improvements” is essential to any 4X game. The key pitfalls here are not having so many improvements as to become excessively cumbersome, and to keep buildings distinct enough so as to not be repetitious and bland (see Gal Civ 2’s “market”… “advanced market”… “super duper advanced market”). MOO2 did a good job here in terms of robust selections, but the interface was poor–well, not so much poor but outdated. Critical to success in a new game would be a long build queue, and the ability to queue “build packets”: such as a new colony start so one can queue and forget late game additions to the empire easily. I am a big fan of Gal Civ’s planet size affecting building numbers–in concept. However, it makes small planets next to useless. What I’d rather see is certain buildings be size restricted: such as massive factories or mining installations being restricted to larger planets. This would put strategic value in bigger planets without making small planets useless. Along these same lines, Galactic Achievements (World Wonders for Civ players), and the “Trade Goods” of Gal Civ 2, are must-haves. Two excellent colony features that any game should shamelessly rip off. To balance the complexities of colony management and bonuses, a slick interface is the glue to make sure that robust choices don’t become a cumbersome morass.

Racial Characteristics
Building and designing your own race is one of the best parts of a 4X game. Who doesn’t want to lead a custom designed, scientific, space combat adept race of tentacle monsters (tentacles give +10 to schoolgirl rape as a racial bonus)? Even standard 4X games like Civ 4 that allow for the selection of broad characteristics are fun for the replayability that comes with the option of using different strategies. As usual, I am a fan of the MOO2 system where “picks” are used to select negative and positive attributes. In particular, I like the broad categories that MOO2 covered, such as government, production, ship combat, and others. One thing I’d like to see more of are the “qualitative’ type bonuses that affect gameplay, such as the “aquatic” trait of MOO2, that makes watery planets more desirable. These are more interesting than just a “+1 food” type bonus. One thing Gal Civ 2 brought to the table here was the “alignment” concept: periodically, you are challenged with ethical decisions that shape the alignment of your empire. I’m curious to see how this would play out in a multiplayer game, but the interactivity of the choices is another strong new feature. Ultimately the key to a good racial characteristic set is thorough testing by the designer: even MOO2 suffered from a number of racial traits that were useless or imbalanced.

For starters, you can make me a game that’s multiplayer.

The Universe
The more fun stuff in the Universe, the better. If there’s one thing Civ 4 has taught us, it’s that OCD gamers can’t get enough of bonuses and bonus resources. I’d like to see everything: quasars, pulsars, asteroid belts, whatever. Gal Civ 2’s resource system (floating bits that can be converted into starbases that grant bonuses) is an elegant way of doing things–and they’ve added asteroid belts in the expansion. Nebulae and black holes are of course a must. Technologies to exploit these resources would also be an interesting addition. On the planetary side, there are many ways to do things: a numerical class, such as Gal Civ 2, or an actual planet type, such as in MOO2. I find the actual planet types to be more interesting, because of the ability to integrate corresponding bonuses. Beyond this, having planet specific bonuses, such as resource deposits or phenomena that boost certain aspects of that planet’s activities would add depth and the desire to colonize and conquer those planets. Another bonus system I’d like to see would be moons that can add population, science, etc. Detail and depth, as with most 4X games, is the key here. Bonuses should be clear, with variety, but not so much as to overwhelm.

Tech Tree
Hands down, the best tech tree would be ripped off from SOTS, with a core tech tree and randomized side techs. This adds much replayability and also forces players to adapt to each game, preventing guaranteed killer tech combos and forcing diversity. This also enables racial characteristics, buildings, and even leaders that give greater chances for accessing “new” (as in, not in the base) technologies. In terms of actual content–something along the lines of MOO2 or SOTS works well. Most games have fairly solid tech trees–it’s a matter of rising above mediocrity that is the challenge in this category.

Robust diplomacy is important both for player and AI interactions. The ability for flexible trades and relationships adds needed depth to the game. A great example of this is Gal Civ 2, which lets you trade anything for anything, be it ships, starbases, planets, money, your sister’s virginity, etc. Another depth option would be to work in joint research and economic agreements, much like MOO2, or the ability to jointly research a la Civ 4. As with anything in a 4X or strategy game, the key to diplomacy is to ensure that the players can do anything they want to do, within the confines of the game. Another cool option might be projects which can only be taken on by multiple players: military or science projects of high power, but with the caveat that you have to share the benefits with an ally… who could become a rival.

Ship Design/ Ship Combat
This is where things can get tricky. Ship design is pretty straightforward. A system like MOO2 or Sword of the Stars, with detailed ship design (be it modular or system based) is a winner. Although tricky to balance on the design side, the ability to design and fly your own ships is very attractive to most gamers who enjoy the tactical/RTS aspect of 4X games. Given the new “RT4X” style games, such as Imperium Galactica or the upcoming Sins of a Solar Empire, this seems to be what a certain subset of gamers want.

Ship Combat is a function of ship design. Gal Civ 2 focused on the aesthetic part of ship design, since combat is purely mathematical. On the other hand, Sword of the Stars focused on a deeper Homeworld style experience. I enjoy the SOTS’ method, but find myself still enjoying MOO2’s more simplified approach. Although turn based combat is fairly out of style, the battles in MOO2 are complex enough to take advantage of your customizations, but not too complex as to focus on a player’s twitch gaming skills. The optimal game in my opinion would be somewhere between MOO2 and SOTS. My fear would be that a simple combat system like MOO2’s, even with updated graphics, would be ridiculed as too simple. At the same time, Gal Civ 2’s basic combat has been highly accepted, so I could be pleasantly surprised.

Too bad the 4X genre hasn’t advanced as much as the Elerian empire.

It’s easy to sit back and gaze upon a genre and arbitrarily state what makes a game better or envision the “perfect” game. The reality is that game design is much, much harder. Despite this, I can’t help but wonder why the genre is so stale. Numerous games have come after MOO2, but none seem to have captured the communities’ imagination and attention. In the meantime, we’re left with the gamer’s dilemma: play a 10 year old game, or constantly yearn for a successor. And while I enjoyed Gal Civ 2 and Sword of the Stars, I find that neither is as enjoyably replayable as MOO2 was. Perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised in the future by a worthy successor, but in the meantime, I can relish that after a quarter century in this universe, I am finally old enough to nostalgically remember the “good old days,” something I thought wouldn’t happen until I was taking Viagra.

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  1. Pingback: Games » Games March 6, 2007 12:26 am on March 6, 2007


  1. Ripper1776 said on March 17, 2007:

    I whole heartedly agree with you.  I’ve been looking for a good 4x since MoO2.  Gal Civ 1 & 2 are ok, and there’s some others are pretty cool, but nothing that grabs me like MoO2.  I STILL play it every so often.
    So, from one lonely 4x’er to another, keep looking, maybe someday they’ll make another great one.

  2. 4xfan said on May 1, 2007:

    I totally agree with the article… Its sad that moo2 was the best so far… hopefully freeorion will be better, or perhaps birth of the federation 2, however we are still looking for a great 4x game… a graphical improvement of orion 2 would be a great place to start

  3. Jure Repinc said on May 6, 2007:

    Great opinion piece about 4X strategy games. When I was young I was also in love with this genre. I played Galactic Civilizations 2 for hours/day when still using OS/2 Warp 4, later I played these games on Windows (Stars!, MOO2 and GlaCiv 1 and 2). After that I stopped playing 4x games for a few years and started playing adventures and slowly I stopped playing games at all. Later I switched from Windows to Linux. And after a few years in Linux I came across Stars! again so I started to feel nostalgic for times when I played 4X games. I started looking at various free and open source projects making 4X games and one project really caught my eye: Thousand Parsec. They are not only creating one 4X game. They are creating a framework for making various types of 4X games. I saw a lot of potential in this project and since I know a little bit of programming I’ve joined them. Be assured I’ll point other developers from Thousand Parsec to this article. I’m sure it will be helpful when trying to create a great 4X space strategy experience. I also invite everyone to check out the project, tell us what you think and what you would like to see in 4X games and maybe even join us and help us develop (there are many ways to help, not just programming).

  4. Mal said on July 26, 2007:

    maybe you have a look at http://www.botfii.armadafleetcommand.com ! There’s (among others) a nice, free and already well-developed 4x game called Birth of the Empires, an intended inofficial sequel to Microprose’s Birth of the Federation. It offers a lot of in-depth resource management and a lot of tools to adapt the game to whatever you want.

  5. Pato said on January 7, 2009:

    yet i still like moo1 more than sword of the stars or galciv2, i dislike galciv interface and sots combat limitations (like you need to have tech and specialized ships to command more ships in combat… for me this is a little stupid), i dislike the moo2 “command points” too, imo the only limitations a 4x space game should have on how many ships an empire commands are on maintenance costs

    i would really love a moo1 remake.

  6. TheBank said on April 15, 2009:

    I agree completely with this article. MOO2 was the best 4x turn base strategy game out and we are still waiting for a more modern version, something with simultaneous moves for multiplayer. The other games just lack the feel, fun and simplicity of M002. MOO3 completely lost the plot (such a shame). I hope one day there will be a worthy successor.

  7. Adam Solo said on July 20, 2009:

    If I recall in MOO2 uncreative would get a random tech, if “normal” one could choose one tech, if creative the player gets all three techs of a field. This is a perfect example of race traits determining the research hability.

    Ok so the creative trait would need to be super expensive, something equal in magnitude as the ability to colonize all planets without the technology (tolerant if I recall correctly in MOO2).

    As a Sui Generis has commented in my blog post: http://www.spacesector.com/blog/?p=21 it would be neat to be able to mary the randomness factor of MOO1 with the creative/normal/uncreative traits of MOO2. This allied with the factors I introduce in my post would turn in my opinion the game experience in terms of what research is concerned much more exciting:

    * An ancestor ruin is discovered
    * Special artifacts were found on planets
    * Unexpected contact with alien races that shares knowledge (with the “correct” approach/answer)
    * Luck
    * Race characteristics
    * Decisions made on certain actions like colonizing, government decisions
    * Previous breakthroughs
    * Planet events
    * Special people (specialists) born in the planets

    I invite you to read my post http://www.spacesector.com/blog/?p=21 where I discuss this topic a bit. Leave a comment if you’re in the mood to help build more ideas

  8. Adam Solo said on July 25, 2009:

    Don’t you think that space strategy games are still missign the mark in what concerns Spaceship design? Galciv2 did a nice effort by allowing us to costumize our spaceships but I think something is still definitely wrong in what SpaceShip design is concerned. There are too many spaceship models and too many possible costumizations. Spaceships are ultimatelly easy to build which allows the creation of tons of them. In late games sooner or later the game looses its interest because there are just too many spaceships crawling around. Its overwhelming and irrealistic.

    If you think about the StarWars, StarTrek and BattleStar Galactic series how many spaceship models do you usually see?

    I invite you to read my latest article in this topic at: http://www.spacesector.com/blog/?p=55

    Let me know what you think about this.

    Personal Blog: “Space Strategy Games: What’s Next?”
    URL: http://www.spacesector.com/blog

  9. Chaos said on December 28, 2009:

    To answer the above post, in Battlestar Galatica there are limited designs, primarily because with the humans, its based on the original and in that their design was limited both because of available tech and budget contraints, but also because it was a based on a what-if. Their spaceships were like cars, and how many different car designs do you see? They take MASSIVE resources to contract for us, just as ship building would for a more advanced race, presumably.
    As for StarTrek, in Deep Space Nine during the Dominion War it is said they have a total of about 2000 or so star ships. Thats just the Federation. The Borg have admitedly tens of thousands, if not more. Not including ships they assimilate and dont deconstruct for resources.
    As for Star Wars, well again, it suffers from the same problems as Battlestar, but not as bad. If I remember the Star Wars tech mannuals, there is almost 50 different ship designs all up – thats from Ep 1, to Ep 6, not including expanded universe.
    As for those who say that large ammounts of star ships are unrealistic, or make the game boring when its late game, if you dont like Micromanagement, what the hell are you doing playing a 4x game?

  10. Jeremy said on February 23, 2010:

    Space Empires IV and Space Empires V give many of the features you’re looking for — moons which are separately colonizable, et al. Unfortunately, the franchise is in legal limbo, and SE:V turned out to be not as effective at managing honkin-huge empires as was SE:IV. Both games are tied to DirectX 8, limiting performance on Vista and Win7. Still, neither was produced with anything like GalCiv2’s budget, and the graphics show it at times, but the game play is worth checking out.

  11. Peace said on May 9, 2010:

    I agree alo space empires 3 was good. ALso, for those who like to mod SE:4 puts everything in notepad files so you can change the pararameters completely. Want to have a super race? Just change the cost of bonuses.
    If you set no warp points you can play it so you have to research the tech tree enough to make ship to make wark points. Only way to get the whole tech tree in on game is to mod the bonuses as some techs are only available
    with bonuses. The you can make racial bonus have negative cost.

  12. Victuz said on June 22, 2010:

    Well from what I lately played the is a “possibility” for a great X4 game.
    All we need is “Distant World” (google it) with “Armada 2526” (google it as well) controls.
    Both games are good on their own but they have many things that deny their greatness.

    In case of Distant World is exactly what I mentioned, controls. The game is brilliant and grand in scale, but the controls are awful, so awful in fact that you are forced to leave control over most things to AI, and it includes WAGING WAR, Because when you have 260 ships of different types and simply don’t have time to hand pick them all and add them to a fleet. In biggest maps there are over 1500 stars and micromanaging your empire with 200 colonies and harvesters in another 400 is pretty much impossible.

    Armada 2526 on the other side is exactly the opposite, the controls are great (very similar to Master of Orion 2 in fact!) but it suffers greatly from the scale, There are only a few technologies to research, biggest maps in fact feel quite small and condensed. Great controls but small (too small) scale.

    So. Matrix games, talk to Code Force Limited (Distant Worlds) and Ntronium Games (Armada 2526) make them merge and you have the recipe for a great X4 game! Probably best X4 of all time!

  13. Schobronics said on July 25, 2010:

    I just quickied “Distant Worlds” and “Armada 2526”. Both made a good first impression and seem worthy successors of MoO2, so I’m going to try them out.

    From what I read so far I think “Armada 2526” will loose to “Distand Worlds” because of the limited size and tech tree.

    I hope the controls of “Distant Worlds” are not as bad as Victuz mentioned. Neglecting some aspects of micro management is a must in huge empires, it just takes too much time to do everything yourself. As long as the AI is good and does what I tell it to do in the way I want it done I have no problem with that.

    Waging war is something completely different, though. I want to lead my battles myself. If the fight system is so bad to make this impossible it’s a turn off. Well, they can always release a patch to change that.

    The built in customization features and game editor look really promising. Being able to influence the game on a grand scale should guarantee great replay value. Modding would further enhance that, so I wonder about the mod possibilities. Does “Distant Worlds” have most settings saved in editable files similar to MoO2?

    Well, be it as it might, I guess I’m going to find my new fav 4x game.

  14. Spyder Mayhem said on August 15, 2010:

    Star Lord looks promising. But it may have bigger dreams than it can realize. Only time will tell, I guess.

  15. Dan said on September 4, 2010:

    This is a good, if outdated article.

    Distant worlds is a good game. However as someone mentioned, the inerface/controls can be a handful, so peronally I tend to focus my control to just the core part of my empire. IE the good colonies and the good fleets and leave the rest to the computer.
    It also falls short with technology. There aren’t enough technologies by a long shot for a game of this scale and the system is somewhat different to what we are all used to.

    It also falls prey to something mentioned in this article, where a developer takes 75% of the features of a good game, improves them then throws the other 25% out the door.

    Space EMpires V is another good one IMO and with mods I would go as far as saying it is better than moo2 for a time, but it falls short with a very poor AI that can’t cope well in the mid to endgame.
    But early game in SEV is very good and can be a real challenge if you make the wrong choices about what to build and research.

  16. tihi said on September 22, 2010:

    Space empires 4 gold and 5..The game it have every thing from MOO2.
    Great ship design (100+components), very big research tree, good planet and galaxy menagment, AI is not hard as in MOO2 but it can be pain..And you can have a loot hours to finish game. Space empires have with community races 120+ races and race design, you can create your races…only thing that is realy pain is multiplayer…Not the game but the game change files from host to players and when you have 200 files to change it take 1-2 mins.

  17. scritty said on December 1, 2010:

    Distant worlds is abou the closest I have come so far to finding a MOO2 successor. IN many ways it’s better.
    Or completely out of the box – X3 is technically a 4X game. One where you spend your time actually in one of the ships you own. There is no planetary stuff (boo) it’s all done by building and owning spacestations in various sectors depending on what resources are there.

    Trouble is (IMO) as a 4x it’s too slow. Say 20-30 hours to really start making progress, building fleets and creating a decent sized empire. Also no diplomacy (at all)

    I found SEV far to hard to manage and GC2 a little dull after a while. Distant worlds is just about right – not perfect, and it will never give me the buzz that MOO2 gave me first few times through, but it might actially be a little better. See the review from “out of 8”

  18. Charlie Mac Duff said on June 2, 2011:

    SOTS wasn’t too shabby. I liked being able to target a bug ship’s engines, and blow it to pieces. What I would like to see is more tactical combat found in Homeworld where you could drop DOWN onto an enemy, instead of approaching everything along a 2d plane. 😛

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