Soren Johnson on challenging the norms of 4X games

“Sid [Meier] didn’t know he was inventing a genre back in ’91 – if he had he might have been a lot more careful. He was just making it up as he went along.”

That’s how genres begin. By mistake. Somebody creates a set of rules and systems for the needs of a particular game, and then either people adopt and adapt those rules. Soren Johnson, creator of Offworld Trading Company and lead designer of Civilization IV, is working on a new game called Ten Crowns and after spending almost an hour talking with him at GDC, I get the impression he’s going to be very careful indeed. Not cautious, because I expect some bold reinvention of 4X strategy fundamentals, but careful in his treatment of a genre that we both agree needs to escape its own past.

As might be expected, we began with Civilization. It’s the single settler at the beginning of the 4X genre, planting its flag in fertile soil and watching as empires grow around it. From the not-so-humble beginnings of a game about 4,000 years of history, the 4X genre soon went to space, to fantastical worlds with multiple planes of being, and to specific times and places.

Through it all, the four Xs have endured. Whether you’re visiting a Tolkienesque land or a distant galaxy, the aim is to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate, usually in that order.

Depending on your playstyle, there might be a little more exploitation and a little less expansion, or hardly any extermination at all if you’re chasing specific victory conditions. In its earliest incarnation, Civilization only had two end-games; either you eliminated every other nation or you won the space race and launched the first ship to Alpha Centauri. Broadly speaking, that’s one aggressive option for the martially minded and one more suited to leaders who prefer to concentrate on internal growth and improvement rather than conquest.

Since then, the series has incorporated a variety of victory conditions, each encouraging and rewarding a different style of play. Sometimes they involve systems that make them feel unique, as with Civ V: Brave New World’s World Congress that makes a political game out of the diplomatic route to victory. Other victory conditions feel like gathering raw materials until a tipping point is reached and success is assured; they’re like a longer-term version of the rush toward constructing a wonder.

Ten Crowns is going to be very different. Probably. It’s hard to know for sure in precisely what ways it will be different because Johnson is still figuring out the shape of the game. Victory conditions, however, are definitely on the rethinking and rebuilding agenda.

“It’s easy for me to talk about victory conditions for Ten Crowns because we haven’t made up our minds about what we’re going to do, so I can’t really spill the beans (laughs). But I’m very conflicted about the existence of victory conditions in a game like Civ. I feel like it distorts the game in a lot of ways and that doesn’t mean I necessarily have a solution or substitute for that. If you’re going to make it through a whole game of Civ, the victory conditions are a huge part of your motivation and affect the whole way you play.

“At some point, you’re no longer writing your story, you’re trying to fill up whichever bar you choose instead. This is going to be a struggle for me because I’m going to try and do it a different way, but I’m not sure yet how I’m going to get there.”

I’m going to reiterate my feelings about Civ VI and 4X games in general before I follow up on what I find so exciting about Johnson’s thoughts about the genre, and his ambitions for Ten Crowns. I like Civ VI a lot, even though I found the Rise and Fall expansion disappointing. Every month I sink hours and hours into one 4X game or another, and even though grand strategy games provide more of the emergent stories and complexity that I crave, I can’t imagine a time when I won’t have at least one Civ game on my hard drive, ready to load up when I’m in the mood to discover another new world.

Increasingly, however, I want to see 4X games making some fundamental changes. Not bolting on new features and layers, but reinventing themselves from the ground up. It’s why I love the automation of Distant Worlds, which makes me an actor in a world that doesn’t rely entirely on my input, or Stellaris’ attempts to combine grand strategy with recognisably Civ-like traits. I have a great deal of affection for the Elemental games, which bring in heroes and loot, reminding me how much I still miss enchanting items in Master of Magic.

What these games don’t address is the overall flow and shape of a 4X campaign. Stellaris introduces wrinkles in the shape of its crisis events, which interrupt the march of history with fresh conflicts, enemies and alliances, but you still smart small and hope to end big. Compare that to the kind of games Paradox have made their speciality, which have a more open structure and reward experimentation and roleplaying as well as the pursuit of perfection. Not only is the view of history more intriguing and complex, it’s also less restrictive in ways that are worth considering as strategy games become more inclusive in their representation of cultures.

The existence of victory conditions is a significant part of the problem. History and the development of a culture can be thought of in terms of winning and being better than the rest, but it is a limiting view, and the pursuit of power leaves little room for creative expression. I’d love to build a city that is wildly wasteful and inconvenient but captures some of the character of my people.

And that’s why Johnson’s conflicted feelings about victory conditions excite me. Recent Civ games have focused on the individual qualities of nations, giving their leaders personality traits, and giving the civs themselves their own rulesets. I’m interested to know how Johnson feels about those changes and how they affect the shape of the game, and it’s structure as a race toward the end of history.

“I think the steady trajectory toward victory is definitely a problem. It’s absolutely one of the top three or four things we’re trying to do with Ten Crowns, to approach those ideas in a different way.”

“Civ is difficult because they’re stuck with a certain trajectory. Sid didn’t know he was inventing a genre back in ’91, he was just making this up a he went along. And because he chose to make a game that was about all of human history, and beyond that because it’s such a broad view of history, it’s hard to make that about something other than just accumulation and things getting better and better.

“I was a part of this too, with Civ 3 and 4. We were always hesitant to take something away from the player. There’s a typical story we try to tell. In Civ IV we introduced Golden Ages, but originally they were Dark Ages. That was something that we wanted to incorporate because it’s something that’s in history and it’s important to talk about. But players really didn’t like it.

“The game has a certain pace and suddenly that was changed. Everything was taking longer and players weren’t as strong as they used to be. So we thought, let’s flip it on its head and instead of Dark Ages they’ll be Golden Ages.

“This is an approach that you’ll see all over the place. Maybe you’re familiar with the story of World of Warcraft and their rest mechanic. Originally, they penalized you for playing the game too much, but players didn’t like that, so instead they gave you a Rest Bonus. Basically, for the first hour of each day you got double experience. It was encouraging you to follow a certain playstyle – but the point is that they started with a negative and then flipped it on its head.

“And that’s something that’s built into the Civ designer mentality. You can’t take things away from players. But things have changed. What people are OK with and their expectations of what games do have changed. The thing that made me realise this was the success of the Paradox games. It was almost like these games existed in a bizarro universe where the rules are different.”

The first Paradox game I played, Europa Universalis II, changed the way I thought about strategy design. Crusader Kings and its sequel even more so. Suddenly here was this game where you didn’t have to be a major power and there was no pressure to try and rise to the top. Sometimes it can be more fun to be subservient to the simulation rather than attempting to dominate it. If the end-point of Civ is always known, perhaps some of the joy of Crusader Kings is in allowing the tides of alternate history to carry you to places that you didn’t expect to exist or intend to visit.

“Right. And you might have your moment in the sun and you take a backseat for a while, and maybe you’ll come back or maybe you won’t. You accept that there are twists and turns to life, and that’s also true in history.

“They did all sorts of things, like the way war is handled. In Civ you can basically declare at any time and if you take a bunch of cities they’re yours. In Crusader Kings, that’s no longer true. You have to have a reason to declare war and even if you take a bunch of cities, you need to negotiate what happens to those cities at the end of the way.

“I find all of that really interesting. Ultimately, though, it’s not about whether we’re being true to history. It’s also a gameplay problem. If the game is just on this continual upward trajectory, it just gets boring. You need some sort of challenge and pushback.
“Traditionally, in Civ, that comes from external forces. Other civilizations. I think that was totally fine in 1991. But nowadays there is a lot more you can do.

“Right now with Ten Crowns, we spent the first x number of months building a multiplayer version. That’s how I like to start. It’s good to get all of that in place right off the bat and you can get a good sense of the feel of the game in multiplayer because it’s always good to try and beat your friends.

“But in the last six to nine months I’ve mostly been playing singleplayer. I’ll start a game, play as long as I can, and I’m adding layers over time. And I’ve actually been holding off, longer than I thought I would, putting in any AI opponents.

“Currently, I’m playing with a subset of the game where there are no other players so you’re only dealing with internal issues and what you would normally call barbarians in a game of Civ. External tribes, which aren’t another player in the game but are a problem. I don’t have the exact term for what we’ll call them yet.

“What I’ve found is that I’ve been able to make the game good enough that it’s enjoyable at that level. If you think of a game of Civ where you’re the only player on the board, that would be pretty boring. So I set the bar for myself that Ten Crowns should be interesting even if there aren’t any other civs involved. Pretty soon I need to add that layer, but it was important for me to have enough stuff going on internally that the game is still fun without opponents.

“So there might be a period of time where I was really good at science, then one where I was really bad at it, and what does that mean for how the game plays? Or maybe there was a time when I could build powerful military units easily and I was really strong, but now I’m not. Or I’ve lost a bunch of cities but I can see a path to reclaim them.”

This brings us back to players not liking it when a game takes things away from them. One possible solution, I suggest, is to ensure that when a thing is taken away, the game offers something else in return. You might lose a city or a resource, but in exchange for that loss you receive interesting choices. Failure, or loss, open up new avenues and possibilities rather than closing them down. It’s certainly true of my own experience that I don’t mind losing something as long as I’m given interesting choices in order to negotiate a solution to that loss.

“In 4X, the early stages where you have just a few cities or units work really well. What I want is a way for the game to put you back into that situation a few times. At that point, you know you have a few interesting options and the longer you play, the more they get pared back.

“I am thinking about all of these issues. How you can show the ways a nation changes over time, so you can look back over two or three hundred years of history and see actual changes and obstacles you overcame.”

When a nation’s character is partially set in stone by the unique qualities that the game gives it from the very beginning, it’s hard to see change happening. Progress, yes, but not swerves and meaningful setbacks along the route. The idea of building a nation or an empire that accrues an identity over time, and for that identity to be malleable, is attractive to me but I’m not clear on how it might work.

In some ways, what I’m interested in is a strategy game that asks me to be reactive. There’s some of that in Civ, particularly during the exploration phase when you’re discovering a new world and trying to make the most of it. As time passes, it becomes a game about stamping your authority on your surroundings though – the exploitation, expansion and extermination phases of play.

I asked Johnson if he’d considered the challenge of a 4X game where your nation begins as a blank slate, where you spend the game in a process of becoming a type of people.

“I think that’s what Jon (Shafer) was trying to do with the social policies in Civ V. I think the trend toward very strong civ powers is seen through all sorts of games – whatever the appropriate term might be in any genre. Whether it’s a fighting game with very specific character powers, or something like StarCraft as a classic example. For a lot of strategy games that’s become standard.

“Civ was actually fairly slow to embrace that. In Civ III we had this weird matrix thing with six civ bonuses and each civ had two different ones. They weren’t very strongly differentiated. But then each version since has gone further down that path. I think that was mainly done for gameplay reasons, but once you go down that path, you do lose that sense of writing history as opposed to doing a culture run and then a religion run, or whatever.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily even intentional. People do like the variety of the different civs and giving them those choices is a perfectly valid design decision, but one ramification of that is that you may feel that your path is set from the very beginning.

“It’s weird because I’ve heard people say both things about Civ: that they like playing with the different civ traits, but they don’t like feeling like they’re being railroaded into a certain playstyle. In truth, the two things are closely interconnected. It’s a dilemma.”

It’d be unfair to view Ten Crowns as nothing more than a reaction to existing dilemmas. Even in these early stages of development, however, there are points when Johnson almost has to bite his tongue during our conversation. It’s too early for him to discuss specifics because so few things are decided, but whether its maps, victory conditions, AI, political strife or battles, he sees the standards of the genre as a challenge rather than a given. That attitude might just lead us somewhere altogether different than the familiar routes through history, and I reckon it’s about time.

36 Comments

  1. Archonsod says:

    “One possible solution, I suggest, is to ensure that when a thing is taken away, the game offers something else in return”

    The problem is that 4X games are generally about long term planning. It’s not so much the removal of something that annoys people, it’s the disruption (particularly if the player has little to no control over it) it causes to that planning.

    • BaaBaa says:

      I get what you’re saying but that expectation of perfect planning has always perplexed me because real life is nothing like that. Actually Paradox grand strategy games too have a way of fucking with your carefully laid plans.

      I think part of the problem might be the 4X audience themselves and their expectations of what a power fantasy means to them in the context of nation building through history. So if Soren or someone else manages to reinvent 4X to address all the genre’s problems, there is a good chance it will no longer be 4X anymore, and might cater to a different breed of strategy gamers.

      What worries me about his approach is the focus on the multiplayer aspect of the game, because the issue of fairness is more emphasized in multiplayer and has to be catered to. Ultimately it’s also the attempt at making 4X games fair that rob them of that potential to be better simulations of fictional history.

      • Zenicetus says:

        Yeah, that’s the other problem with a multiplayer-focused strategy game design. Too much emphasis on balanced factions. One of the other neat things about GalCiv2 was that some factions were just more difficult to play than others, more of a challenge.

        It was singleplayer-only, so the game could get away with that. If it had supported multiplayer, a portion of the user base would have screamed that the factions weren’t “balanced.”

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      • Zorgulon says:

        It depends on the sort of game you want, right? A game like CK2 I can see being more oriented towards simulating “real” history. But Civ has never been like that, and anyone who thinks it is realistic is deluding themselves. I think there’s space in the 4X genre between power-imbalanced single-player simulations and more board game-like experiences.

        In any case, balance doesn’t have to mean homogenisation – I always find the “everyone is overpowered” style asymmetric balance an interesting approach.

      • napoleonic says:

        People talk about games as “power fantasies” as if that’s a bad thing. I will feel bad for enjoying power fantasy games when romance novels and action movies start routinely having “realistic” endings to them. “Reader, I married him, but after a while we started arguing and got into a costly divorce, now I live in a grotty houseshare and my landlord is a pervert.” “Private Johnson ran up to the fort and started shooting, but got hit in the leg. It turned gangrenous and he is now in a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down.” Ain’t gonna happen. Fantasy is the main point of entertainment.

        • BaaBaa says:

          For the record, I didn’t say that power fantasies were a bad thing. I just meant a particular flavour of power fantasy seems to be holding 4X games hostage.

  2. Zenicetus says:

    The one big recurring complaint about 4X games across the board, is that they always need “better AI.” So I’m not encouraged by a developer saying they’re designing systems and testing in multiplayer first. That sounds like a recipe for systems the AI can’t handle well in singleplayer mode.

    The only 4X game I’ve ever played where the AI was an impressive opponent, with no added benefits, was GalCiv 2. And that was because the game was designed from the ground up to be something the AI could play better than a human. The AI could fine-tune a bunch of inscrutable economic and production sliders at each turn, micro-managing better than a human. It didn’t need a bonus over the player to be competitive.

    Other 4X games that have systems more fun and understandable by the player, almost always end up with AI that can’t handle it. So the AI is given massive benefits to seem competitive. There was a recent mini-scandal about this in the Paradox forums, when it was discovered that the Stellaris AI always cheated with bonuses, that there was no difficulty setting where the AI and player were on an equal level. Paradox has since redesigned the difficulty settings to make it more transparent, but it illustrates the basic problem.

    • BaaBaa says:

      Sid Meier actually said something to the effect of “There is no point in making brilliant AI because people will assume it’s cheating anyway.” It was even Soren interviewing him at the time.

      I think the big problem with 4X is that it inherits heavily from board game design traditions, where the players expect a game played by multiple agents who are more or less symmetrical, and they expect 4X AI to replicate that experience by way of simulating other players.

      The solution to your problem then becomes either throwing a lot more resources at AI development, or dumbing the game down so the AI doesn’t need to be extremely smart to optimize its actions. I believe “designing the game from ground up” option you’re referring to would be that, which is fine, but it also means potentially leaving less room for player agency, expression and ingenuity, because the AI has to be able to match it.

      I for one would be more interested in experimenting with asymmetrical relationship between the AI and human player. Why does AI always have to aspire to be our peer? Why can’t they have their unique perks and strengths that make sense within the narrative context of the game?

      • BaaBaa says:

        A good example of asymmetrical AI is how single player campaigns work in Hearthstone. The opponents you face do things you flat out cannot do: like having outrageous HP or not being bound by the same mana curve, etc, but 1) it feels right because they were never presented as your peers in the first place, 2) you feel clever and good about yourself in the end by overcoming the odds with your strategy.

    • Benkyo says:

      I agree, but I think the fundamental problem is that an AI that can competently play a complex 4X is currently well out of reach. The solution may in fact be to design a game that is still challenging without any AI opponents, which is exactly what is discussed here. Another way of looking at it is that the “barbarians” and whatever else is going on are the real AI opponents, just completely asymmetrical ones.

    • Zorgulon says:

      To be honest I’m more keen on seeing designers approach games from the multiplayer-first angle. I get there seems to be a dichotomy here and the fan base will be split either way. I just think better game design revolves around systems humans can use.

      One of the common complaints about Civ is that the AI isn’t up to scratch, and yeah, I don’t think it ever will be, particularly, without cheating. You could either resign yourself to this, design a game for AIs (which would seem to be the same idea really), or shift the focus towards multiplayer. I think I’d opt for the latter.

    • Danley says:

      I’ve started just playing hot seats against myself, and am actually frustrated I can’t do this in GalCiv3 because the variety of ship builds makes for interesting arms races and emergent character in terms of the appearance the ships will take. (Seriously all 4X games should have some kind of unit or architecture you can personalize. They’re just RPGs to me at this point.) I like having multiple situations to handle but even moreso like forgetting about the game and reloading the saves months later to rediscover the different struggles I had been juggling.

      I have no interested friends but I’ve always wanted to dig through these kind of games-in-process started by someone else, and thought it could be an interesting way to build scenarios. Every save game anyone ever makes gets anonymously uploaded to a server and can be browsed by anyone else to pick up as any of the [civs] already in progress. Even better would be some kind of interconnection between similar save games so that what was accomplished or not in one game would affect the others.

      Which brings me back to AI: why are we ever playing against it? If there are hundreds to thousands of opponents playing equally inadequate opponents, why not take out the middle men and just put people up against each other …but don’t tell the ‘single player’ you’re doing it. Make rewards for not violating a Turing test or pair people according to their previous performance. Make it more like chat roulette than alts in EVE. Everyone knows they’ll be playing real players, but they’ll be faceless, nameless opponents which removes some of the stigma of having to play bullies, trolls and assholes, and the duration of each login session will be so short that no individual player can stand out before being replaced with another similar one. Like blending separate batches of beer so that they both taste the same.

      I’ve looked at Giant Multiplayer Robot, but saves are separated for obvious strategic reasons and the actual playthroughs are slooow because it’s still trying to keep the same players with the same civs they started. Throw this all out and make it a thankless, praiseless pastime just like every other single player 4X game, but made more interesting because the opponents will be at least as good as the people controlling them.

      A different variation of this would be to farm player save games for their play-styles. They don’t need to necessarily be successful and could fall along the spectrum of difficulty levels but either way would produce a huge variety of reactions to player strategies, but again without the direct stigma and pressure of playing someone sitting and waiting on you.

      • Calculon says:

        The current AI in GalCiv 3 (with expansions) seems quite good. It may be on par with GalCiv 2. It’s actually one of the main reasons I picked up GalCiv3 having tried Stellaris (bleh AI) and DIstant Worlds:Universe (worst AI known to human kind). DW:U would probably have been the ‘perfect’ 4x for me if it hadn’t been for the horrid AI and even worse diplomacy options (I’m hoping for a DW:U 2 with a fix for those issues)

        Aside from generally terrible AI’s – the one thing I am amazed at continually is the lack of a economic focus for 4x games. DW:U started to t a little closer to this with private economies and more detailed trade goods but I feel that this is a relatively untapped area for 4X games that could yield a wealth of gameplay options. Victoria 2 was one of the few that took this challenge on with interesting (but unfortunate) results – and I would love to see more 4X games go in this direction (supply chains, factories based on supply chains, production vs consumption economies, detailed resources, monopolies on trade goods and patents, deficits, trade deficits and surpluses, embargoes, tariffs, real free trade agreements etc etc) why would I want to see these things or some subset depending on the time/age the game is set in? For three reasons –
        1) many wars historically have either been about economics in some capacity and/or they have been a key objective
        2) economics are an interesting and early alternative to warfare, or tool in warfare.
        3) economics are closely tied to politics, diplomacy and factions within a state

        To me without a deep economic portion of the game – any 4x is just a shell dancing around one of the prime motivations that exist within any state, and a key driver of multiple motivations and relations

      • Ryos says:

        Because offline.

    • Thomas Foolery says:

      The reason for designing for multiplayer first, which Soren has talked about on podcasts, is that it leaves you a lot more room for iteration in design. If you design for multiplayer first, any time you want to see how something works you can just code it into the game and gather a couple people in the studio and try it out. But if you code for single-player first, every single time you want to see if something works you have to stop and write AI for it. And then if you don’t like it you’ve wasted a bunch of time writing AI for a feature that just gets thrown away. Plus, any time the design changes, you’ve got to go back and re-write the AI. On the other hand, if you wait until the design is reasonably finished before adding in the AI, you can make sure you’re writing it for a set of design decisions you know work.

  3. Noelle808 says:

    My favourite thing about the Crusader Kings games is how much changing the perspective changes the experience.

    Playing the king of a nation, instead of of the nation state itself, changes the context of war from “England must expand her borders and so we go to war with France” to “My inbred son will probably calm down if I get a bit of French land for him”

    It wipes away a lot of the shiny nationalism of war and replaces it with a cruel pettiness.

  4. Eldragon says:

    It sounds more like the author is bored with 4X games, rather than problems with the genre itself.

    Sure new, unexpected, and more interesting victory conditions is great; but in the end its still a game. You need a goal and you need a “winner”. Mess with the formula too much and you cease to have a 4x game.

    While this article creates some interesting discussion points, overall it reads like this: “You know, this First Person Shooter genre is fun and all. But maybe we can get rid of all the shooting. Why does it need to be first person? And why a person in the first place?” Take all that away and you’re talking about a different game.

    • sosolidshoe says:

      So. Much. This.

      It’s such a common mode of thought as well, another prominent example being shonky reboots or adaptations that miss the point or change the message of the source material so much that there’s no actual reason for them to share a name beyond cynical marketing tactics.

      By all means innovate and experiment, maybe you’ll even create a new genre, but enough with the “we’re going to fix this thing” when what you *mean* is “I don’t like this thing and I’m going to change it into something I do like, regardless of how little that result shares with its source”.

    • napoleonic says:

      It sounds more like the author is bored with 4X games, rather than problems with the genre itself.

      Agreed. I think there’s a mismatch that arises when we expect games reviewers to spend their entire lives playing games endlessly, to destruction. It’s to be expected that they burn out and start craving the kind of novelty that is off-putting to the vast majority of us who just like to unwind with a game at the end of a long day at work.

    • Flavour Beans says:

      “You know, this First Person Shooter genre is fun and all. But maybe we can get rid of all the shooting.” Except getting rid of the shooting is how we ended up with Portal, and a whole genre of first-person puzzlers like The Talos Principle and The Witness. It’s like they say in the article, new genres get invented accidentally all the time.

      I hope it doesn’t sound like I was trying to dig at you by pulling quotes from you, but I do have to disagree with some of what you said.

      It’s interesting that they mention Paradox’s games in the article, because I think they prove that you don’t need a goal and you don’t need a winner, at least not in the traditional sense and context of the word. I happen to think that lacking that concrete end-point is pretty liberating for a player, since you’re able to try any playstyle you want or take things in any emergent direction that you spot. While you can do that in a game like Civ, your hands are a bit tied since you’re only doing it in service of an endgame, and even if you want to ignore it, your opponents aren’t. When there’s no explicit victory to strive for, you’re free to do what would otherwise be ‘sub-optimal’ or a ‘losing prospect’.

      Getting rid of specific victories also allows for much more variety in a game. You’re able to work in a great deal of asymmetry and imbalance and game-changing events that would get labeled as unfair and broken in a game with a finish line everyone’s running towards. Again, using Paradox’s stuff as an example, it’s the lack of defined victory goals that frees developers and players up to go in as a Count in the HRE in CK2, or as a primitive society in EU4, or to contend with endgame crises in Stellaris.

      One of the interesting sidenotes in the run-up to the Civ6 expansion’s release was the discussion about the Cree’s inclusion in the game, and the general idea that success doesn’t always have to be measured in global conquest or hegemony.

    • Josh W says:

      I don’t think it’s that he’s bored with the games, so much as he remembers what it’s like to play the game without knowing how the victory conditions work; the grand historical experimentation that is not necessarily particularly optimal for any specific goal.

      If you can make a game that makes that initial impression closer to optimal play, then you can create greater continuity between the experience of someone who first tries out the game and someone who has played it for years.

  5. Zorgulon says:

    This is all very interesting blue sky thinking that the 4X genre, particularly Civ-likes desperately need. But it almost seems pointless to comment on such vague ideas at this stage. I’m genuinely excited to see Søren thinking about these things, and to see what he comes up with… whenever that is. An approach that brings you back to the feeling of these tentative starting moments seems like a good thing – the most common complaint about this genre seems to be the slog towards victory when the competition is left behind.

  6. level12boss says:

    I like what he’s saying about the city building aspect standing on its own two feet. I could see a new style 4X game emerging from basically modernizingthe core aspects of HOMM3. Instead of abstracting the city building it could occur in 3D, with opponents able to target actual building and services in the city, and fight over supply sources. Kind of like a RTS with just a little more scope and scale to bring it up to a 4X level. Even as a turn based it could be quite dynamic.

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    alison says:

    Great read.

    This article made me ponder if anyone has tried to build a 4X that is sort of the inverse of what – having never played it – I assume Spore was. Instead of becoming responsible for more and more complex things throughout the game, you stay responsible for a roughly similar scale of issues in a world you previously established.

    So, during the traditional explore and expand phase, you’d be civving it up as per normal. But at a certain point you’d be downgraded from God-Emperor to a regional administrator, then to a mayor. Meanwhile the AI still plays out the rest of your civ using a play style learned from your prior decisions. This way it could still feel like you are part of the society you established.

    Instead of managing a global conflict during the end game, you could just manage your region’s reaction to it. Do you need to send your kids off to war? How will that impact manufacturing and your regional economy? Do the people in your region even care about a war happening thousands of miles away?

    Maybe your city gets invaded while you are the mayor. How do you manage the occupation? Do you encourage a resistance? Do you assimilate? Do your people flee and become refugees? Maybe there’s no war at all, which is fine too, because just managing a city still presents lots of challenges.

    I wonder if this sort of structure would help to preserve that “new game feel” without taking away from the sense of pride and achievement in prior choices.

    • napoleonic says:

      “Regional Administrator Simulator 3000: coming soon to all good game stores near you!”

    • Josh W says:

      That’s actually pretty clever, because playing more peacefully, or at least, playing in such a way as your interior cities are better protected, would then put you in a better position to play the smaller game, and so on. At each stage you’d be improving the stability of the general empire in order to increase your chances in the smaller games.

      If you don’t let people choose which city they get to manage, or even which character within the city, if you go that far down, then you have a game implementation of the “veil of ignorance” model of justice.

  8. Premium User Badge

    jimmya28 says:

    I think it’s a great article, and I welcome innovative thinking such as this. Why wouldn’t you? If a new kind of 4X comes out, they’re not going to get rid of all the others.

    I always remember SimCity and SC2000 – I’m not sure there was a victory condition, or a point of victory, but I still spent hours on it. Why do we need a pop up that says “YOU’VE WON” to validate enjoyment of a game?

    • Flavour Beans says:

      Aside from scenarios, no, the SimCity games, and their successor, Cities: Skylines, don’t have victory conditions per se. But they do have a fairly obvious progress indicator: your population.

    • RosalietheDog says:

      Also, victory in a Civ game is the most anti-climactic experience, as a writer in PC Gamer observed recently. I personally cannot win a Civ campaign without feeling like I’ve just wasted an enormous amount of time, especially when you look at the statistics of the campaign and realize you basically won 50 turns ago or something similar. I feel shallow admitting it, but the Steam achievement “You’ve won a campaign with X” or “You’ve won this victory with this difficulty” is more validating than I would have thought beforehand.

  9. napoleonic says:

    From the not-so-humble beginnings of a game about 4,000 years of history

    It’s 6,000+ years of history: the game starts in 4,000 BC and doesn’t have to end in 2,000 AD.

  10. Falsadoom says:

    As much as I adore Sid and his contributions to gaming, he did not create the genre. It existed in many forms prior to any of his creations. Empire, and many other early games were 4X. Play by mail, mainframe games, and even board games had this claim before personal computers were a thing.

    • Je-Tze says:

      Yup. That’s why I logged in to comment too. Sid was very influential, even crucial to helping to develop and define the genre. But he did not invent it.

      If you’re too young to actually remember the early 80’s, and even the 70’s, please do some basic fact checking before you make those kinds of statements.

      …actually, as journalists you should be doing that fact checking regardless of if you think you remember something or not. Also does RPS not have editors, etc. to help catch this kind of thing?

      It may be a small matter in this case, but accuracy is important, and fake news should always be unacceptable.

  11. sagredo1632 says:

    I’ve always thought it a bit odd that 4x games let you control an entire civilization like some unstoppable colossus, enacting the all-powerful player’s 5000 Year Plan to perfection. History is much more about the ebb and flow of ideas rather than the perpetual rise of a specific mono-culture.

    Perhaps it would be more interesting to limit the scope of player identity to a specific creed or political party instead of an entire civilization. Then you could feel the push and pull of internal politics while needing to compromise to help meet external threats. As well, it would naturally give rise to situations where the player’s power waxes and wanes, and lead to some interesting choices in terms of where and when to compromise one’s vision. It would fit somewhere between the player diktat of Civ and the dynastic chaos of Crusader Kings, unified at least nominally by a consistent ethos. I’ve found that players often insert a meta-narrative for 4x plays (e.g. I’ll be a pacifist technologist this time), and this would be a nice way to mechanically reinforce a natural habit.

  12. Josh W says:

    I wonder if it makes sense to not have victory conditions at all, but loose conditions?

    One of the reasons Go is an interesting game is that it forces you to say when the game is over, as the loosing player, when you feel you can’t take any more territory and have been blocked off.

    So what if you put effort into that experience, in giving players narratively interesting and civilisation appropriate ways to concede; I remember people being very fond in strategy boardgames of suddenly leaving and gifting all their stuff to someone else, realising that although they couldn’t influence the flow of the game as themselves, with one gesture they could turn the tide of someone else’s conflict.

    So what if you can concede to someone’s empire, in ways that put a permanent mark of your nation on theirs? You can even score people according to how much they contribute to the final winning empire, regardless of if they were still playing it or not.

    Once you have players choosing how they loose, you still have an end state for the game, (when all players but one loose) and it is in the player’s interests to make themselves someone who it is comfortable to loose to, in parallel with how actual warring regions finally become pacified.

    Transform the game into:
    Adventure, Advance, Attack, Absorb

  13. lysander says:

    Great article.I’m always interested in what Soren is saying and doing. It’s great to hear his ideas because he’s an experienced developer who wants to innovate. I think it’s interesting reading the comments to on how things should be looked at. There’s no right answer. The passion for the genre is great though and ever more popular. It means better games will come in different ways. The genre doesn’t need reinventing but maybe some spicing up.

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