Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Improving on the promise of Master of Orion

Master of Orion was one of the most influential game I played in my teens. Fueled by my love for space exploration and adventure, I spent countless hours planning the expansion of my empire, working with and against other factions, coming up with plans and strategies to end up at the top when each game session reached its end.
I am not alone in my love for that game. A relatively small but passionate community has formed around the first two games (especially Master of Orion 2), and it has lasted and evolved to this day. This community has enabled a number of inspired games and successors to be viable on the market. Like many people in that community, I cherish the memories of the original and have been trying for almost two decades to find another space game that can recreate some of that experience, without much success.
This "find a worthy successor" quest has taken quite a few weird turns, and a few years ago ended in an important realization. The fact that no other game has filled the void Master of Orion left has more to do with how I've changed in the meantime, rather than the quality of follow-up games in the genre. I came to that realization after replaying the original and found it's no longer as appealing as it used to be. I had the same trouble getting into Master of Orion 1 and 2 as I had with other successors, games like Endless Space, Stardrive and Galactic Civilizations. My next step, then, was to find out why that is. My passion for slow-paced strategy games and space as a setting is still intact after all these years. What has changed in the meantime and why can’t I get the same entertainment and excitement as I did in the 90's?
Discussing this with other Master of Orion players has not helped much. In talking with the community, I can't help but shake the feeling there's a strong conservatism at play. Many of the players there will tell you that Master of Orion 2 is as good as it gets in terms of gameplay: Nobody should be trying to mess with the classic, except in peripheral improvements (better graphics, better AI, bigger playing field).
Further proof of this attitude, in my mind, is Wargaming's recent announcement of the Master of Orion reboot. This announcement commits to not making any radical changes where it matters the most ("the game will be staying true to its classic 4X gameplay"), and then goes on to make a more detailed list of superficial improvements (enhanced visuals, new voice overs, revamped user interface, more races).
Based on my recent experience replaying the original, I can't relate to this conservative attitude, though I can definitely understand it. What developer in their right mind would go against what seems to be the promise of the franchise for a large, vocal part of the community?
But I would still like to do a thought experiment. For a moment, let's assume we can survive the fan rage and pitchfork crusade coming after the developers who announce a radically different Master of Orion experience. Let's assume we can freely evolve that 20 year old game design in whatever format, gameplay direction, platform, or business model we want, using whatever experience we have gained as developers, taking advantage of any aspect of modern technology, and in line with how we ourselves have changed in the meantime. How can we improve the original Master of Orion promise if we were unrestricted to change anything we want?
This post is about what that thought experiment looks like for me. But before I talk about specific changes I'd make to it, I want to list what I see as the promise of the original Master of Orion. Delivering on this promise better is the foundation on which I build my proposed changes.

The promise of Master of Orion:

Progression: Explore an interesting galaxy, and make part of it your own. Over time, grow your assets, including population, fleets and technology, in order to become a formidable, respected force in the galaxy. “Build an empire to span the galaxy”, as the game’s box promised.
Diplomacy: Lead your civilization into a prominent position among other peer civilizations, in a highly political environment that involves friendships, rivalries, unholy alliances, betrayals, unlikely allies. You can choose whether to participate in cutthroat politics or stick to predefined ideals.
Strategy: Using information the game provides (sometimes incomplete), make exciting strategic decisions, choose using your own moral compass, and set priorities that affect how your civilization grows, expands, and affects other civilizations
In case it's not obvious, this is what I personally see as the promise of the game. Other people can disagree or argue that I left out important parts of the promise. I expect many would shape the promise around the 4 x's, which I am deliberately avoiding here. For instance, the concept of extermination doesn't sit well with me; it leads to zero sum experiences that has players focusing on exterminating or dominating the other participants. When I think of Master of Orion, I don't immediately think, "Oh, that game that allows me to terminate other civilizations!" That's not part of the promise for me.
Keep my definition of promise in mind as you're reading the rest of this. Any disagreement on the promise will also lead to disagreements on where to focus potential improvements. That's fine! In fact, I'd love to hear from other people who have played the game, what the promise is for them, and how they'd improve the original design to better deliver on that promise.
So with all the disclaimers out of the way, here's how I'd go about improving the Master of Orion experience in the modern age. I'd look to improve the impact of Progression and Diplomacy, while keeping the strengths of the Strategy promise intact. And in order to accomplish that, I'd focus on three somewhat inter-related fronts: A persistent universe, Truly social diplomacy, and better Time management.

Persistent Universe

Exploring an interesting galaxy and growing your empire to expand to that galaxy is a big part of the Master of Orion promise. But the fire and forget sessions reduce the impact of this aspect. After a few hours, when the game session is over, the generated galaxy is gone forever, and we can't go back to it.

Here's a snapshot from a recent game I was having. System Pollus at the edge of my empire was at an interesting situation, located at the intersection of my empire with 3 other civilizations, 2 of which I was at war. As it is, I may feel the urge to defend that location because of its strategic location, or I can choose to abandon it to better defend my inner systems. Once this game ends, no matter what happens, I'll forget about this particular geopolitical situation, and move on to whatever the random number generator prepares for me in the next game. Over time, my overall memories of playing countless similar sessions is a random mess of star systems and ships flying between them. I can't really point to a single concrete thing I helped build or progress over time. Sure, I gained experience personally playing the game and now I'm better at it, but that's all.
But what if this exact situation was part of a persistent universe? What if there was a deep history of how I came to own Pollus, that goes back weeks or months? Maybe I had stolen it from another player who actually developed the system first, and had unresolved feelings about my repossession of the system ever since. Maybe I had managed to defend it over a long period of time against all odds and then lost it tragically when other players ganged up on it which left other areas I wanted to get to unguarded. Under a persistent universe, the playing field becomes more than a strategic board and gains history and life of its own, making the entire experience more meaningful and interesting. Strategic choices are influenced on a whole new level from emotions brought on by the history of how I came to own specific parts of the universe.
A game where I log in and continue from where I left off last time has huge benefits for delivering on the promise of Progression. Instead of starting from scratch each time and going through the regular motions (research the same technologies, expand using the same strategy, produce the same kinds of ships), it allows me to always make decisions that are novel, depending on my current situation. And after playing for a while, I can look back, consider where I started from, and see how far along I've progressed. Spread over time, this feeling of progression is much stronger than an 8 hour session, especially when shared with other people (see next section on Diplomacy).
OGame is a good example of an online, persistent space game that does Progression well (though Diplomacy and Strategy are weak). So far I've expanded to and developed 5 planets, over the course of 2-3 months of playing. Some of the planets are in different solar systems, have unique advantages and threats, and despite some throwbacks, my empire is progressing even during times I don't have all the time in the world to play. Looking back how far I've come in the first months is a source of pride, and I can't wait to see where I'll be a year into the game.
There are of course many far-reaching side effects of replacing the game board with a persistent universe. The game would either never end, or if it does, it has a lifetime measured in weeks or months, not hours. There's no concept of "reloading" an old game; decisions made cannot be taken back, and you can't reload an old game to see how a different decision would have played out. A player who has made a lot of progress over months may need to be somewhat protected from losing all that progress from a single mistake. And a turn based universe that exists regardless of whether a given player is logged in or not poses many design questions on how to handle player input and progress the turns.
But none of these side effects violate Master of Orion's promise to me. Some of them actually help the promise, as discussed in the next sections.

Truly social diplomacy

Another powerful promise of Master of Orion is the political ecosystem that consists of other civilizations. In the original, those other races were controlled by the computer, but in Master of Orion 2 and many successors, more than one human players can pick a race. Regardless of whether the participating races are controlled by the AI or a human player, I consider the diplomacy part to be weak both in the originals and in many of the follow-ups they inspired.
Here is the diplomacy screen from Master of Orion. When talking to another leader, we have the option to give them some things, in exchange for some other things, in a way that leaves us both better off after the trade. There's also a "how much do I like you" slider that trivializes the relationship down to a single number between "I hate you" and "Have my space babies". Any potential deals are immediately enforced by the computer: there's little opportunity for someone to promise to give something and later refusing to do it (unless we're talking about the over-used, easily predictable and therefore boring strategy of "let's make peace now while I build up my strength so I can come full force for you later").
This format of diplomacy can create a certain number of interesting situations. But it closes the door on the far more interesting opportunities for deeper diplomacy among human players. The kind of diplomacy that allows any kinds of deals, on any time horizon, and within the context of more complex inter-player relationships. The kind of system that enables complex politics to surface over time, instead of making diplomacy interactions just a tool someone has to decide when and who to go to war with.
It's obvious why the original Master of Orion focused on a diplomacy system that makes sense for AI opponents, since it was released with no multiplayer mode in an era when many of us didn't even own a modem. But seeing so many successors in the last decade concentrating on improving this AI-based system, even for games that do allow multiplayer, makes me wonder why there is not more effort to focus on unique advantages of human to human interactions.
Neptune's Pride is one such game that offers direct, unrestricted diplomacy between human players. It offers gameplay loosely inspired by Master of Orion, where each of the human players can produce, research, explore and expand into the star system. The universe is persistent during the 10 days or so that each game session lasts. The goal of the game is to capture more stars than other players. Players are expected to cooperate in groups to proceed- people who ignore diplomacy completely will likely end up getting attacked by all sides, and that’s impossible to defend against. Players make short lived alliances in their effort to become more powerful (but not too powerful early in the game so that everyone will come after them). The diplomacy screen is a simple chat window, where a player can talk to one or more of the participants in the game. Even with such a simple screen, the diplomacy runs quite deep thanks to game features designed to support it. For example, a weaker player may be able to convince more than one contesters that they can help them win the game, only to benefit from their indirect support and become themselves contesters for the top spot later in the game. There are more exciting examples of how diplomacy between real players can work out in such games (for examples see here and here).
Neptune’s Pride
All this is good, but in my view, Neptune's Pride’s end game goal is an obstruction to meaningful, long lasting diplomacy. No matter what, a single player will sooner or later capture half the galaxy and win the game. Everybody knows this, and it affects everyone's behavior. The chance to create meaningful, long lasting bonds is diminished. Instead, players are incentivized to manipulate just for manipulation's sake. I don't consider that ideal social gameplay. And it's not hard to imagine how this simple, unrestrictive diplomacy system could go much further in a persistent game that contains less defined end goals or does not really end at all.
I've written before about some potentially interesting social structures in games. Some of them would fit perfectly in a Master of Orion-inspired space strategy game, especially one set in a persistent universe. These social structures, combined with supporting game features and Neptune Pride's free-style, chat-based diplomacy system, could offer very interesting diplomacy scenarios not possible in the original Master of Orion. Random examples:
- Two players at war are presented with a common, urgent threat. Whether they join forces and under what terms may depend a lot on their history and faction allegiance.
- An alliance of players has just discovered that one of the highest contributing members has a history of interacting with an enemy alliance. How do they react?
- Legislating social structures could allow players to vote on contentious issues, like sending assistance to the weaker side of an ongoing conflict. How certain players voted can be a matter of record and have repercussions with other players long after the conflict is over
I respect the efforts of many strategy games to improve AI using modern technology. But I can't get excited about such efforts, not when we have so much unused potential to explore between real player interactions.
My final comment about the AI-based diplomacy of Master of Orion and successors has to do with the look of the alien races. I'm not sure if it was Star Wars and its liberal use of weird looking alien life forms that inspired the original Master of Orion designers to include a myriad of strange looking races in the game. Or maybe it was a misguided attempt at realism (there must be other races in the universe, and they can't all possibly look like us). But especially now, as I've grown older, the look of the alien races in many of these games is an active turn-off. Here's a random assortment I could find on google - only one of these is not from a space strategy game:

Allowing the player to bond emotionally with the race they are leading, even the races they are allying with or fighting against, is not optional to the experience.  When I look at most alien races in space strategy games, I'm more likely to think "Did I feed the cat?" than respect them. Humans are already pretty diverse, why not use our own, already relatable, race for depicting alien race leaders? Subterfuge (a strategy game inspired by Neptune's Pride) is doing a terrific job of creating an interesting profile of an underwater civilization, using human based portraits. Observe and contrast with the above, and also note the distinct lack of fish people:   

Time management

I've talked before about how my lack of continuous free time has affected the way I play games. Master of Orion is one of many games I can't enjoy anymore, because I rarely have continuous hours to put into them, and they are simply not enjoyable in disconnected 15 minute sessions at a time.
Can the promise of Master of Orion be fulfilled by a game that can be fully played and enjoyed in short sessions (5-15 minutes at a time)? A game that allows, but in no way requires the player to spend continuous time in longer sessions? I believe so. This belief is based on fragments of proof I've seen in other games with similarly short sessions.
Progression can happen over the long run, even if someone only has a few minutes to play each day. Games like OGame are a perfect example of this. Even during periods where someone does not have a lot of time to play, logging in for a few minutes a day, checking up on plans, and adjusting orders will ensure some progression that adds up over weeks or months.  This does require a persistent game world - otherwise, the 5-15 minute session will often be wasted doing setup work.
Meaningful diplomacy and Social interactions can easily happen asynchronously. Neptune's Pride diplomacy is specifically designed so not all players have to be online at the same time. But it also optionally allows players to chat in real time if they do happen to be online.
As for maintaining the integrity of the Strategy promise under a short session based game, again Neptune's Pride and Subterfuge prove that it can be accomplished. Both these games can recreate the best tactical scenarios from Master of Orion, without requiring the player to be online for any significant continuous amount of time.
Even though a game that maintains the strategic depth of Master of Orion while still being playable 5 minutes at a time could work, it probably sounds like sacrilege to many people who grew up with the original. And I can understand their arguments, because for a long time they used to be my arguments, too. “Sitting down for continuous hours at a time, getting lost in a faraway world, forgetting everything else about your life outside the game is good for immersion and maximizes enjoyment”. But I don’t see things that way anymore. The best chunk-based games I played over the last years on web and mobile platforms have shown me that using my pockets of free time with good, persistent games that get straight to the point is also very enjoyable. The way the best of these games become part of my routine is a new, positive experience that I didn’t have in my youth. Maybe there’s a way to combine the best of both experiences.
I understand that a game that integrates all the above suggestions would be something very different than the original Master of Orion. Currently all I have is this theory that such a game might re-ignite the spark that made the original so special for me, 20 years ago. I could be very well wrong. As far as I know, there's no such game - though I'd be happy to be proven wrong on this.

If you also love Master of Orion, and have your own radical or not so radical ideas on how to improve it for this day and age, please get in touch.

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