STEAM GROUP
eXplorminate e4X
STEAM GROUP
eXplorminate e4X
44
IN-GAME
693
ONLINE
Founded
September 24, 2014
Language
English
Location
United States 
All Discussions > Off Topic > Topic Details
Mezmorki Apr 23, 2015 @ 6:53am
Three Moves Ahead - Critiquing The 4X Genre
Here's my blog article following-up more comprehensively on this topic. Feel free to comment here or there. Enjoy!

A Shattered Dream: Critiquing the 4X Genre[www.big-game-theory.com]

======================================================

The Three Moves Ahead (3MA) podcast recently posted an episode critiquing the 4X genre[www.idlethumbs.net] as a whole. I’m working up my own much longer reflection piece (for my own blog) – but wanted to generate a little discussion here in the forums.

I gather, from the most recent weekly exchange and from chatting with some you, that 3MA’s “harsh” critique of the 4X genre seemed a bit off base and that they failed to acknowledge certain 4X titles that (maybe) are pushing the genre in different directions (e.g. Star Ruler 2). In their defense, they did discuss Arcen Games, At the Gates, Sorcerer Kings, Distant Worlds, and others in terms of striving to be more innovative.

Regardless, I found myself strongly agreeing with the general criticism they were laying on the genre. They are approaching the 4X genre from the lens of a critic and asking, more or less, “why are we still clinging to basically a Civ template or a Master of Orion template as the default design?”. And I think that is a fair question to ask. How many upcoming or recent 4X games have specifically said “we’re trying to make a modern MoO2” or something to that effect? A lot of them.

The challenge is that there is a huge base of players that really only want the next Civ or a modernized MoO2. And I think the sales of games that deviate from these tracks are telling (e.g. Star Ruler 2?). So is the problem that developers aren't making more revolutionary titles (I think there are some being made) or that these more revolutionary titles just aren't as marketable given players’ wants and expectations? I’m learning, sadly, towards the latter – but I don’t think that is a shock to anyone.

The other thing to consider is that most of the more revolutionary titles are being made by indies (since AAA studios don’t want to take the big risks on an unproven concept) and as a consequence the games often fail in their execution. In other words, the concept is great but the resulting “game” is buggy, or glitchy, has rough graphics, feels unpolished, etc. So the game fails in the market despite having a cool concept and an interested audience.

3MA’s critique, if I interpret it correctly, is basically saying the genre is stuck in a catch-22 situation. The biggest market opportunity is rehashing (or modernizing) a proven design concept – yet indie and AAA studios often fail in this endeavor. Either the polish and execution is off, or the developers just didn’t understand why some of the older titles worked successfully and replicate that in their own game (e.g. Alpha Centauri to Beyond Earth = fail). Alternatively, if you try to be innovative and different, unless your game is exceptionally polished and well-made (I honestly can’t think of an example of huge-ly successful revolutionary 4X title – maybe Distant Worlds?), your audience is even smaller and it is going to be hard to get a critical mass playing your game. You are stuck in a niche within a niche.

The “way forward” isn't terribly clear, and many of the games that are trying to take a different approach to 4X (e.g. At the Gates, Sorcerer Kings) end up not really looking a whole lot like the typical expectation for what a 4X game is or should be. At that point, are you better off marketing the game as something other than a 4X to avoid confusion or in hopes of roping in a broader audience? I don’t know the answer to this one, but it’s part of the issues facing the genre I feel.

Personally, my biggest frustration in the 4X genre, and a point which 3MA’s touched on and I’ve discussed previously as well, is that most of the indie titles (whether recreating an older design or going more innovative) are just barely able to get a functioning feature complete game pulled together for release. Consequently, the polish and refinement to the systems and content that is needed to actually turn these into compelling “strategy games” is missing and/or left for post-release development, and it often takes a game a year or more of continual patching development to get it where is should be. This issue ties in heavily into goals and victory conditions and the late game of most 4X titles, which so often just unravels into a flaccid experience.

If there is one thing that separated darling games of the past from those of today, I think it the above point. During the heyday of the 90’s, a game needed to be very solid at release because most people would never patch (or even know to look for a patch assuming it was possible) once they brought it home. The game was the game, for good or bad. As a consequence, a LOT of time was spent polishing and balancing before launch to make sure the gameplay was as genuinely compelling as it could be, that there was ample room for real strategizing, and that the AI was as good as it could be to provide real opposition.

With Early Access and games being released well-before their time becoming the norm, it just paints a poor picture of the entire genre. How many 4X games come out with bad reviews but are eventually patched or expanded to be great games a year or more down the line? A lot of games are improved and turned from bad or mediocre to great – but if this is the situation you’ve lost your ability to reach a wider audience and you’ll never makeup the lost sales from a poor launch.

I apologize for being so negative here, obviously there are many great games coming out, and it IS an exciting time to be engaged with the genre. I do think it’s growing again and that the community here can play a role in pushing for better games and supporting developers where they can.
Last edited by Mezmorki; Apr 30, 2015 @ 9:30am
< >
Showing 1-15 of 69 comments
Mezmorki Apr 23, 2015 @ 7:37am 
BTW, below is a link the the 3MA's forum discussion on the episode:
https://www.idlethumbs.net/forums/topic/10071-episode-302-the-4x-genre/page-2

People made a lot of good points I feel.
Mezmorki Apr 23, 2015 @ 7:43am 
Oh ... and you never listened to it, here's an older 3MA podcast (discussion thread + link to episode) discussing space 4X games. This was from 2013, so the context has changed a bit. Linky:

https://www.idlethumbs.net/forums/topic/8613-episode-216-lost-in-space/

Here's a quote from the first reply in the forum:

The first issue i have with space 4x is that each X is essentially a gating mechanism for the next. The big extermination battle of the late game is only interesting if you've done a good job of micromanaging your expansion (both in terms of planets and tech), exploitation and before those exploring. Whilst many wars in the real world might be decided before they start, we're far more interested in the decisions made in fighting them. My experience of 4x games is that often when my bubble meets another alien bubble one completely runs through the other because they did the first 3x's better than the other, and the last x, warfare is sort of redundant. This snowball effect is largely the result of the games currency/resource base being the same as its victory points. Planets generate more power and also the means of winning, so the player with the more/better planets has more potential to grow in power. If you play with a bigger galaxy this problem is exacerbated.

My second issue is drama. Many 4 x game create the premise for an epic and then reduce it to a spreadsheet and a map. When i first bombed a city in DEFCON i thought about it the rest of that day, when i wipe out billions of people in a 4x game a number changes and then a colour, theres no emotional content, little drama. Some of the games do deliver space battle drama, but since they make you repeat the same battle about a dozen times every hour this quickly wears thin. The big decisive battle appears to be rare in 4x games.
Ufnv Apr 23, 2015 @ 7:44am 
Thanks, interesting read. To be honest, I never listen to audio or watch the video - this takes too much time. Reading is much quicker, especially if it is summarised in a good way you did.
ilitarist Apr 23, 2015 @ 7:47am 
They've reminded me of what Soren Johnson (Civ 4 guy) said about RTS. He basically said that games like C&C and StarCraft killed the genre forcing everyone to mimic them. When you say "Real-Time Strategy" you mean very specific kind of games (base building, resource gathering, tactical rock-paper-scissors). This alone limits us: when people make a game they call it somewhat in their head, and if you want to make "RTS about Rabbits" you already know your game will have barracks, troop upgrades, rush/boom/turtle etc.

As someone said in this podcast, the savior may come from mods like DOTA came and moved people away from Starcraft clones. But we, normal people, don't have time for mods. Cause we mostly want complete products with bearable interface and for modders usability is usually the last concern.

This is why I agree with 3MA guys (and by extension with you, Mezmorki) not listing all those small 4X's. It's not what your typical gamer would play. Even if they do some sort of revolution they're all in early access and you should never advise anyone to buy Early Access - and even after that those games are crude compared to the ones they've described.

They've talked about Arcen games. Those are unique and interesting enough to be relevant even though their playability is doubtful. They've talked about At the Gates - and this is the game from the guy who made (and screwed up) Civilization 5, and he's going to make really polished product - this is why he's relevant to gamers. All those original games like Star Ruler 2 (or was it Drive?) are not known for good or original gameplay as much as for failing to sell one more Master of Orion clone to people. Games like Endless Space become bestsellers just because they're adequate - they take on very complex genre and end up popular just because they're playable and not ugly - and people agree to bear with Endless Space lack of AI or balance.

Sad but true: 4X are hard to make good, hard to make unique, very hard to make great and not clones. And while most players are begging for MoO2 remake developers are caught in a loop.
Nasarog Apr 23, 2015 @ 7:51am 
Well, StarDrive 2, a legit contendor for MoO2 title is out. Let's see if the sales match what people are asking for.

To me SD2 is MoO2.5 and SR2 is a very different game altogether.
Mezmorki Apr 23, 2015 @ 8:24am 
@ilitarist
Good points. I think videogames in general a, for whatever reason, very prone to succumbing to genre pressures. In the boardgaming world there are genres too, but they are far less well defined and there is far more variety within any given genre and a real interest among boardgamers to play lots of very different games. The whole culture in videogames is very different, and part of this is an attachment to these genre labels, and it ends up driving everything.


Originally posted by Nasarog:
Well, StarDrive 2, a legit contendor for MoO2 title is out. Let's see if the sales match what people are asking for.

To me SD2 is MoO2.5 and SR2 is a very different game altogether.

Yes, with some polish and refinement, I really do think StarDrive 2 could be the "modernized MoO2" everyone has been clamoring for. The level of detail in the various systems and the overall scope of the game is comparable to MoO2, and it stays pretty true to the formula.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

On a related note ... this whole discussion is why I am wary of the rigid "5X" format that has been adopted for reviews. It presupposes that every game you review should have the 4X represented somehow. And games that deviate and take a more "revolutionary" approach and maybe don't have much to do with one or more the X's will come across as lacking irrespective of what systems you try to shoe horn in under what heading. I know we're all about "4X" games but I really don't think that should be taken as literal operating basis - because in a way it kind of contributes to the same genre perception-expectation issues that 3MA discussed. How can we clamor for more revolutionary titles when our review format itself presupposes that all games under consideration should be discussed under the same 4 headings?
Nasarog Apr 23, 2015 @ 8:32am 
Heh, (incoming) Rome 2 review breaks a little from the format. The 5X review is there for a reason. We, as people, like to categorize. We really do. The 5X format creates a template. Not every person reading the review will know the foundation behind it.
The 4Xplorer Apr 23, 2015 @ 8:35am 
Originally posted by Mezmorki:
@ilitarist
Good points. I think videogames in general a, for whatever reason, very prone to succumbing to genre pressures. In the boardgaming world there are genres too, but they are far less well defined and there is far more variety within any given genre and a real interest among boardgamers to play lots of very different games. The whole culture in videogames is very different, and part of this is an attachment to these genre labels, and it ends up driving everything.


Originally posted by Nasarog:
Well, StarDrive 2, a legit contendor for MoO2 title is out. Let's see if the sales match what people are asking for.

To me SD2 is MoO2.5 and SR2 is a very different game altogether.

Yes, with some polish and refinement, I really do think StarDrive 2 could be the "modernized MoO2" everyone has been clamoring for. The level of detail in the various systems and the overall scope of the game is comparable to MoO2, and it stays pretty true to the formula.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

On a related note ... this whole discussion is why I am wary of the rigid "5X" format that has been adopted for reviews. It presupposes that every game you review should have the 4X represented somehow. And games that deviate and take a more "revolutionary" approach and maybe don't have much to do with one or more the X's will come across as lacking irrespective of what systems you try to shoe horn in under what heading. I know we're all about "4X" games but I really don't think that should be taken as literal operating basis - because in a way it kind of contributes to the same genre perception-expectation issues that 3MA discussed. How can we clamor for more revolutionary titles when our review format itself presupposes that all games under consideration should be discussed under the same 4 headings?
But that's why the format would work, as it would give the reviewer a great base to discuss how other games do things differently. Have a radical new way of exploring your surroundings? Great, the eXplore portion will talk about that!

I don't think the "rigid" format is all that rigid. It's just a guide.
The 4Xplorer Apr 23, 2015 @ 9:11am 
Originally posted by Nasarog:
Well, StarDrive 2, a legit contendor for MoO2 title is out. Let's see if the sales match what people are asking for.

To me SD2 is MoO2.5 and SR2 is a very different game altogether.

Honestly, the more I play it and look at it with "non beta tester eyes", the more I don't think it'll do this.

I feel like Stars in Shadow has a better chance of becoming a modern Master of Orion take, to be honest.

That's not to say that SD2 isn't good. It's just that it's shortcomings are becoming more intolerable to me as time goes on. Especially in light of games like Endless Legend, Age of Wonders 3, and Sorcerer King.

We desperately need a space 4X game that tries to change things up as much as EL or SK does and does it as well as they do, or a game that's as polished and fun and mechanically sound as AoW3 is now. Maybe StarDrive 2 can get there, but I'm not convinced that Dan will support it long enough achieve that.
Last edited by The 4Xplorer; Apr 23, 2015 @ 9:14am
Mezmorki Apr 23, 2015 @ 9:27am 
Originally posted by DevildogFF:
We desperately need a space 4X game that tries to change things up as much as EL or SK does and does it as well as they do, or a game that's as polished and fun and mechanically sound as AoW3 is now. Maybe StarDrive 2 can get there, but I'm not convinced that Dan will support it long enough achieve that.

That's unfortunate if that's the case. I posted a big set of changes here and in the SD2 forum based on rounding up my own thoughts and comments from many others. Honestly, I don't feel like it needs "that much" to get worked into a good state - and I really hope Dan sticks with it at least 6 months or so, I think it could get much better in that time frame if he takes everyone's feedback seriously.

----------------------------------------------------------

Meant to post this snippet earlier in regards to victory conditions:

Elaborating on victory conditions. The quote above mentions that a fundamental issue is that victory / win conditions are wrapped up in the same systems that you need to be developing to have a strong empire in the first place. Controlling planets give you power/production/research, and you use that power/production/research out power/production/research your opponents and win. The snowball/steamroller is an optimization game and leads directly into the victory conditions.

My "big idea" for a revolutionary 4X is basically to make the victory conditions orthogonal in some fashion to all the stuff that you do to grow a strong empire. Let's just call this "Transcendence" for the moment. Transcending (and thus winning), wouldn't require you to exterminate all of your neighbors or reach the pinnacle level of technology first. Fighting, research, development, and so on would all be tools in the toolbox for achieving transcendence, but none of those tools on their own can lead directly to victory. In some cases over-investing in military or research or development or expansion should be a hindrance, requiring to you take a more nuanced approach to expansion + exploitation.

I haven't worked out exactly what "transcendence" is or would look like (thematically or mechanically), but it's a concept I'm mulling over. But more broadly, the idea of de-coupling the basic mechanical systems from the actual goals is really compelling to me. Armada 2526 sort of got at this with its race specific victory conditions (the only victory conditions I might add), that often hinged on achieving a certain population score based both on numbers and happiness of your own race's population. Going to war wouldn't get you any more population of your own race (for example), so planning an invasion needed to be considered carefully as to whether or not it was even worth it.


Mezmorki Apr 23, 2015 @ 9:31am 
EDIT:

I think Star Ruler 2 has some interesting ideas - but it is also a little rough around the edges, especially visually, that will keep it out of the limelight I think.

Stars in Shadow has a long way to go IMHO ... I leave it there for now ...

Predestination looks like it's ready to implode on itself. Seems way too detailed or overworked from what I've read about it.

Imperia 5X is going to be way to complex + detailed for the average gamer, this one is super niche I think.

Apollo 4X is interesting, but more focused on economic engine building and trading than the full spectrum of 4X stuff.

Jeezz .... we could go on ... there's so many 4X space games in the works:

Apollo 4X
Deep Space Settlement
Dominus Galaxia!
Galactic Civilizations III
Galactic Inheritors
Galaxia: Remember Tomorrow
Galaxial
Heirs of Orion
Imperia
Lord of Rigel
M.O.R.E.
Predestination
Starlife
Stars Beyond Reach
Stars in Shadow
Xenia's Ark
Firgof Apr 23, 2015 @ 10:58am 
I think Star Ruler 2 has some interesting ideas - but it is also a little rough around the edges, especially visually, that will keep it out of the limelight I think.
I've seen this critique a number of times but nobody ever really goes into detail. What in your opinion are the rough bits (aside from the research web)?
Zero Apr 23, 2015 @ 11:03am 
Plain and simple, 4x games are huge and almost impossibly complicated. To produce StarDrive 2 in any commercially reasonable time frame required some laser focus on what we're going to do and how we're going to do it. The sales bear out that people wanted a MOO2 clone. We're not doing Endless Space numbers by any means, but we met what I had originally set as my total sales goal for StarDrive 2 within 10 days.

When I see other 4x Indie games, I wonder how they do it, or how they plan to do it. I know what it cost me in terms of time and money and emotional energy. I don't think you can _afford_ to take risks in this genre when getting a product finished in the first place is such a herculean task. If I had $1m budget and 2 years, you'd see a really different game. But I had less than $100k and 18 months, and I'm not going to risk that time and money on something that I'm not sure people are going to buy.

SR2, these guys definitely went more creative, but it's not paying off for them. Their game is probably "better" than StarDrive 2, but it'll never sell as well because the market for an unfamiliar 4x game isn't as big as a market for a more familiar product.

It's also easy to take SD2's graphics for granted because they're basically pretty darn good. I'll hold it up to Endless Space's graphics and give them a run for their money. Given my budget relative to StarDock or Amplitude, we've achieved wonders with our graphics. And Graphics sell games, full stop.

Whatever I do next, after StarDrive 2, it's not going to be a 4x. I'll swing back around on 4x later in my career, but frankly these games are too damn hard to make, and the market is now becoming saturated with mediocre games. And maybe I'm part of that trend, maybe not. People seem to really like SD2 and we're going to give them more of what they want until it's no longer commercially viable, and then see what we can do for some other beloved genres.
Mezmorki Apr 23, 2015 @ 11:08am 
Originally posted by Firgof Umbra:
I think Star Ruler 2 has some interesting ideas - but it is also a little rough around the edges, especially visually, that will keep it out of the limelight I think.
I've seen this critique a number of times but nobody ever really goes into detail. What in your opinion are the rough bits (aside from the research web)?

I haven't played it too much yet ... but off the 'cuff:

- The "tabbed" UI is interesting but just feel like a nice interface to me. It's too perfunctory in a way.
- The color pallet used throughout the game is a bit garish in my opinion, there really isn't a clear graphic design intent behind it. This is most notable in the tab colors and in the tech web (I know, I'm being picky, but these impressions matter a lot to people).
- The tech web is ... well ... confounding. I am sure it's interesting, but it's confusing to look at and try to figure out what's going on, what you should research etc.
- As interesting and innovative as the diplomacy system is, the presentation is just sort of an explosion of color, cards, boxes, text, etc. It's hard to make sense of it all - double so when this is a real-time game.
- Real-time game: Maybe these just aren't for me. I understand that it's pausable (that's what I do) but it leads to a sort of disjointed experience. If you let time advance, it's hard to know whether or not you should be doing something. I'll chalk this up to a lack of experience on my part though.
- BIG NUMBERS - I cringe a little whenever I see really big numbers used in a game, as it's much harder to wrap your mind around them.


It's a very cool system and set of mechanics - and I need to give it a lot more time to grok it all. There's a steepish learning curve here that feels confusing to climb up without a lot of feedback. Also, in the Audible eXtension for the game, the crew mentioned that entire aspects of the game seem like they can be ignored. E.G., one person pretty much ignored planetary development, another ignored tech advancements, etc... Coming from players with more experience in than me, this makes me wonder about how the whole design comes together.

Nasarog Apr 23, 2015 @ 11:12am 
Originally posted by Mezmorki:
Also, in the Audible eXtension for the game, the crew mentioned that entire aspects of the game seem like they can be ignored. E.G., one person pretty much ignored planetary development, another ignored tech advancements, etc... Coming from players with more experience in than me, this makes me wonder about how the whole design comes together.

Yes, but I think you missed the point there. To me, the ability to play the game without perfect mastery of it is a fantastic oppotunity. Not everyone wants to play a game the same way, and SR2 gives you that opportunity.
Last edited by Nasarog; Apr 23, 2015 @ 11:12am
< >
Showing 1-15 of 69 comments
Per page: 15 30 50

All Discussions > Off Topic > Topic Details