Spacing Out: The Trouble with 4X Games

So Close, Yet So Far...
So Close, Yet So Far…

Hey guys, welcome to my weekly op-ed column that I’m calling “Spacing Out” (the name was a joint effort between my girlfriend and I ;). I realized I’d not been really writing enough op-ed pieces, and came up with the idea of doing them weekly, both as a writing exercise and a way to put thoughts and ideas out there to share and discuss with y’all. :) I’ll be doing these every Wednesday, because if I don’t set a specific day to do ’em, I never will, you know? ;) Recently, 4X games have been on my mind after the recent release of StarDrive. After I made my decision to put my review of the game on hold, I was taken to task on a forum I frequent for not liking other recent entries in the 4X space race, such as Endless Space and Sword of the Stars II. This got me to thinking, what HAS been going on with spacey 4X games of late?

Possibly Spoiled by Distant Worlds

Now before y’all grouse me about this one, I wanted to get it out there first thing. Yes, Distant Worlds has been my favorite 4x game for over a year now, and there’s nothing that’s even come close to it. The living universes with their amazing size and scope, the sense of exploration and discovery, the multitude of options to tweak the game my way and so on keep me coming back to this more than any other 4X since Imperium Galactica II. There’s something so compelling, so engaging about how busy the universe in this game is the multitude of things that can happen, the way it just feels so ALIVE, and so forth. I’ll admit, it was hard NOT to compare it to StarDrive because was trying to do some of the same things (real-time, automated AI, detailed ship construction, etc.), but I tried my damnedest not to compare the two as I was going over it with a critical eye. I’m only human though, so I’m sure it crept in.

Regardless, I’m sure I’ve been spoiled by Distant Worlds in many ways, but one of the most important things the game has that many recent space 4x games HAVEN’T had, it seems, is soul. It’s a hard thing to describe, but I’m gonna try…

It’s All About Soul

What do I mean by soul, especially when it comes to 4X games? Well, a 4X game in any genre is about making all these moving parts (exploration, diplomacy, combat, colonization, etc.) work together to make as seamless a game experience as possible, or at least I think so. The thing is, I don’t always want to SEE those moving parts. While I typically revel in the details, sometimes it’s good for things to be abstracted, at least enough to make me use my imagination to fill in the missing pieces. I think that’s why games like Master of Orion and Distant Worlds succeed on so many levels. These games have plenty of detail, but they also know what to show me and what to keep hidden, which I appreciate as a player. This also allows them to fill in some of the missing pieces with fleshed out events, diplomatic conversations and so on. Little things that just add so much texture to a game, you know?

In the last several years, however, some 4X games have come out that appear to be just about the numbers rather than about the textures. Games such as Galactic Civilizations II or Endless Space look great, have great features, and play by the numbers as a 4X game should, but in the end, they feel like they’re just made up of numbers, at least to me. It feels like I’m doing research just to get that +1 gun, or colonizing planets just to get that 1.5 resource boost, you know? There’s little in the way of nuance, of texture, of feeling like I’m at the head of a mighty empire. Rather, it kind of feels like work.

Stuck in the Middle with You

This is why I find games like StarDrive and Sword of the Stars II so…depressing at times. These games HAVE texture. They have life, they have stories ready to be told beyond the numbers, but something gets in the way. In the case of these games, it’s either lacking features or obtuse interfaces. It’s like, there’s a GAME back there just WAITING to be enjoyed, you just have to dig beyond all this CRAP to enjoy it. It’s sad because I WANT to like these games, but lack of time/patience or whatever else prevents me from doing so. These games, to me, are stuck between the games above. Not numbers-driven, but not at the sweet spot between detail and abstraction, soul and lack thereof. They’re held back by incompleteness, confusing interfaces or so on, and it is just so sad to see these games at the cusp of greatness.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Well, like so many folks, it leaves many of us replaying Master of Orion II over and over again, in many cases, or wishing Distant Worlds was cheaper (you and me both, friend). Hope isn’t lost, however. According to the dev. StarDrive is a commercial success, which hopefully means with more time in the oven we’ll see it get better in the future. We also have a slew of 4X games coming up, such as Deep Space Settlement, Predestination, Beyond Beyaan and so on that will hopefully have the soul other games have been lacking.

What do you guys think? Is there a dearth of soulful 4X games, or am I just being picky in my old age? I look forward to talking with y’all in the comments, and hope you enjoyed my rants.

Author: Brian Rubin

24 thoughts on “Spacing Out: The Trouble with 4X Games

  1. It’s no wonder you want to go back to MoO2, every game that goes out cares only about one or two Xs of the 4X, they all copy each other and instead of improving they usually simplify in the name of killing micromanagement.
    MoO2 is great but it was not perfect, still it’s the closest to perfection together with MoO with a few older games of the genre. Sadly in my opinion I can’t say the same about new games.

    1. Well said. While I do love extermination and exploitation, one has to make the exploration and expansion fun as well. Or give me something to do while only one or two of those are in effect.

          1. Nahhhh. Don’t worry about it dude. You’re just expressing a concern shared by fans of 4X games. That the concern is widespread as it is, is news in itself.

      1. Exactly, have you played Eador: Genesis?
        While it’s not a space game I find the exploration part to be extremely entertaining, while the focus is exterminate I think the other 2 Xs are well developed too.

        I think if well made, this same kind of exploration could bring Space 4X games to life, when you explore because it’s fun to explore instead of exploring just to get bonuses.

        1. I have played it a little but, but I haven’t put too much time into it because OMG SO MANY SPACE GAMES TO PLAY! #firstworldproblems #Ihatehashtags #yolo ;)

  2. In the interst of full disclosure, I bought Distant Worlds (and a new computer to play it on) based on what I have seen here and elsewhere. So that’s about $1,100 to play a $100 game that I played for a month-six weeks. I discovered that while a 4x game is intricate and involved, when you only have AI to play against and can’t really even control one ship without constant supervision (which lets the rest of the game slide), it quickly got boring to me. I need a persistent world with other people to interact with to get the most enjoyment out of my gaming dollars and time.

    So while I didn’t particularly enjoy Distant Worlds, since it is adjudged the best of its genre. I’ve saved an incalculable amount of time by avoiding lesser iterances. I’m glad that some folks like them but I’ve discovered they’re just not my cup of tea and I appreciate knowing that early on.

    Keep up the good work Brian!

    1. Totally fair dude, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I implore you to try it again because it’s seriously worth the investment if it clicks.

  3. I’m taking all of this to heart. I really really hope that I can accomplish this with Beyond Beyaan. At least to fill the turn-based 4X void.

    One idea that I had of infusing “soul” into the game is changing how diplomacy are done. I really like funny conversations that you had in Star Control 2, and would like to do something like that. So you try and talk with another race, and if you manage to score points with them, additional options are opened up (You just brown-nosed your way up so that they’ll now consider a non-aggression pact). Most of the conversation will be chatting about each other’s background, events, and stuff. For example, if your spy destroyed a missile base, you can respond “Haha, my spy did that, your defense sucks!”, “Sorry, I got no idea who did it” (poker face), “I think the Pyrrhans did it, here’s some evidence!”, or “I’m saddened by your loss, here’s 20 BC to help you rebuild your base”. Each would have different impact on relations. So you could destroy their bases, then pay them and they’ll like you better as a result. Political maneuvering! Also, each conversation relation modifier will be randomized each game, so bringing up a certain aspect race’s history could be positive in one game, but negative in another game.

    So it’s more organic, and less number-crunching spreadsheet relationship. Also, “Diplomacy” skill will give you the ability to see how much a conversation option will impact the relation, instead of just being buddies with everyone, this would be actually valuable considering that options’ impact will be randomized each game.

    Think this would enhance the “eXploit” aspect of 4X?

  4. I’m among those that are completely in love with Distant Worlds, too. Games are ultimately an emotional thing — we like them because of how they make us feel, and even moreso — how they guide us through feeling. For me, it mostly boils down to a game making me feel immersed (doesn’t get in the way of my fun game of make-believe!) and powerful (kick-ass). Really, I love Distant Worlds for this… but also other games, like Assassin’s Creed, for the same reason.

    Distant Worlds takes me through a range of emotions. I feel urgency at the beginning to establish my empire, with real (but not insurmountable) threats lurking. I feel curiosity mixed with fear when I encounter another empire, because their goals and mine could be what brings us together or sends us to war. I feel panic when war breaks out, because I know I need to change my posture and how I’m playing quickly enough to counter the threat. I feel intense accomplishment when my fleets carry out successful battles and invasions.

    All of this adds up to a feeling of satisfaction at the end of a game session. I feel like I *did* something.

    I think one of the things you spoke of is the key: other games have so much potential to be like this, but they ruin it by making us focus our attention in an unbalanced (annoying) way. Working against the UI is distracting. Bad AI breaks believability. Too much tediousness is exhausting. These things break the flow of emotions from one to the next as the game’s sandbox story develops.

    I buy and play every space game I can get. For the most part, I *like* them all, but they usually have something that is sufficiently distracting/annoying to ruin their immersiveness:

    * Endless Space: endless worrying about planet numbers, and too few real strategic options to indulge my imagination.
    * StarDrive: Pacing feels wrong, balance is frustrating, numbers lack obvious interpretations/meaning, and every ingredient feels muted compared to what I want it to be. SO MUCH potential, though.
    * Sword of the Stars II: Too much time spent managing stuff I don’t care about; pacing is awkward. Honestly, didn’t end up playing enough to let it try to woo me.

    1. Welcome to the comments, Josh B, and I love your comment because I am pretty much in the same boat. :)

  5. It really is as simple as this, stardrive and sots 2 are not finished pieces of software. Sots 2 after near 100 (literally) patches and an expansion is finally at a true 1.0 release. And it still has problems in displaying the number of turns missions take.

    Lets really digest the last thing I said, in 3 years of development a game where every turn your primary focus in the game is to send fleets on missions the amount of turns the mission will take doesn’t always get displayed correctly in the mission setup screen. Or go look at something as stupid as endless space not saving your pre-game setup options (which you have to reset every time you want to restart a map), civ 4 put in an option to regenerate a map without leaving the game.

    I could go on and on and go into great detail, like how there is no intentional design behind stardrives economy. ( if your one guy and you program the economy and then program ai govenors and they don’t know how to manage the economy you just wrote odds are you don’t even know what you did)

    As a long time programmer / IT guy I look at games like Stardrive / Sots 2 / Endless space and don’t see bad games, I see poor unfinished software. Distant Worlds has it problems, mainly when you smash things like ship size and ship name (like there is no actual difference between a frigate and a escort, or starbase type and function again no real difference (except when you try and use the mining base type as a hybrid which is weird).

    All that being said the most complete piece of software is definetly Distant Worlds. Namely that you know the AI works. You can turn it on and watch it and you know thats what the AI opponents are using. I have almost come to the conclusion that the best way to make a single player game is the automomous agent ai philosophy so well on display with Distant Worlds. If the developer can’t teach an ai how to play the game and then give some of those to the player to use as components you have to wonder if he knows if the AI is working at all.

    I tested Sots 2 for too long, you would see the AI just break down and you would go in an mod stuff and come out realising stuff like the fleet compositions were so off for some races with early fleets that they didn’t have enough supply to go to any stars and so the AI for those races would essentially look like it wasn;t fo anything cause it couldn’t even move. And just FYI for everyone it does actually work now they have ironed out those kind of single player game killing AI problems.

    Anyways I know reviewers hate to dig into the details and want to review games “fairly” but honestly in the past decade or so alot of it is alot of holding a broken toy in your hand that is a really cool concept and something has to be said other than its broken. No other industry works this way and honestly its a shame this one does. Its also no wonder why you don;t want to get into the details and point out exactly how its broken and how it should be fixed. And even when reviewers do do that most do not have the technical expertise to really distinguish between broken game mechanics, broken software, broken AI, and the interesections and intricacies of the latter.

    So anyone can say what they want about Distant Worlds and despite it not being close to perfect it is by far the most complete 4x gaming software we have, and the game mechanics, while rather rote, actually work with the software. Actually it lacks most in the art / assets department, some of the art for messaging / cursors / UI is almost laughable compared to clip art of the mid 90’s.

    I think we are all waiting for someone to actually be able to get everything right in one game, unfortunatly I think it will be a bit of a wait.

    1. Welcome to the comments, jam3, and may I say, your first comment is AMAZING, and I can’t disagree with any of it. :)

    2. Some great points!

      Also, to be fair… Distant Worlds’ initial release was in a somewhat unfinished state. Playing was very difficult as the AI bungled fuel management, force allocation, resource delivery, etc. Once those things were ironed out, they stopped being an annoying reminder you were playing a game and let you immerse yourself in the fun.

      Lets hope that StarDrive gets as much love and dedication as Distant Worlds has!

  6. I have yet to find a 4x game which has satisfied me and after reading this I’m glad I’m not alone. I want to love these games but some do feel very lifeless.

    Definitely made a note to check out Distant Worlds! Thanks for the awesome read. I just found you guys today. Keep up the great work!

    1. Hey Daniel, welcome to the site, and thanks for the kind words. Distant Worlds is totally worth looking into. :) Glad you’re also enjoying Evochron Mercenary! ;)

  7. Found this article by searching “space games like imperium galactica”. For me, imperium galactica is one of the best games I have ever played. And I can’t find anything like that in new games…

    1. Hah, welcome! And yeah, the original IG is fairly unique amongst its peers, even its own sequel didn’t match some of its elements (however much I may have loved it regardless). :)

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