Monday, December 19, 2016

The Stars of Stellaris

Remember Stellaris? No? 4X space game that kinda flopped a little?

Time to learn some game design. Let's examine why Stellaris is flawed and how to fix it.

Oh, no, we're not talking theory. We're talking mods.

This mod.

All the mod does is make your starting "warp" drive travel at light speed. In normal Stellaris, a journey takes around ten days. With the mod, it takes a few years to get anywhere. A year charging up, a year charging down - it represents light speed travel.

And the result?

Stellaris is suddenly fascinating. Absolutely amazing.

There's a lot of moving parts to examine, so let's get to it.

1) The stars are not our friends
Stellaris' normal play feels... anemic. One big reason is that space itself feels anemic. The number of stars you can touch is immense, only bounded by random enemy empires and beef gates. Similarly, the number of stars that can touch you is immense. Enemies are always less than a month away, and most star empires seem to want to wage war across those stars.

There's no sense of mass, or slowness. You can reach out and touch ten different empires. At an instant, your fragile empire can be taken away by an enemy so far away that their stars are tiny points of light in the sky.

By limiting things to light speed, all of those problems go away. Every star you explore is a multi-year expedition. Every star is a treasure, and the shape of your empire is stamped deep in your brain because of it. Empires are easy to talk to, but wars take years to unfold - easily time to mobilize your defenses.

This gives your empire a sense of mass and weight. It also makes every jump matter, and you quickly learn to schedule predictive jumps. It's a radical change that, yes, slows the game down.

2) Planets are our friends
Now, in most 4X space games, this would make things unbearably slow. But Stellaris is fundamentally well-made and powerful. There are other systems which pick up the slack and absorb the pacing change - and also end up making your empire feel more real and weighty.

The on-planet options you have for managing your empire are deep and interesting. Constructing buildings, managing populations, installing space station modules, expensive building upgrades. Add in some of the additional mods allowing for more complex populations, more complex resources, and buildings with adjacency rules, you have a lot of really interesting literal world-building to delve into.

That said, this is an area that could be improved a lot. Not to blame Stellaris: it was never intended to carry this much of the gameplay load. But there are a few tweaks that could be made to make managing your empire even more interesting and rewarding. I might go with more variations within the population and a lot more on-world events, along with actual environmental evolution based on industry/geo-engineering projects. Interplanetary stuff might also be a lot more interesting and fun, maybe with "micro-bases" on moons and such, managed on the same screen as your main base's population.

All well and good, but all that stuff is theory. What's actually in the game works reasonably well.

3) Look at your hands
The basic result here is that Stellaris goes from being a mediocre game about endless conquest to a really interesting empire-management game. The change in focus arises from a simple change in pacing:

Stop giving the player stuff. Instead, make the player struggle to get anything new. Make them value what they are already holding.

This makes the player value what they have quite highly. As long as the play is dense enough to make that interesting, it makes everything meatier and more important.

Yes, you can make a billion random stars and a trillion random planets. But they only matter if you make them matter, and that means making the player value each one. Easiest way to do that is to make each one very expensive.

4) Moral of the story
The worst part about this story is that these mods are really unpopular.

Almost nobody plays Stellaris with the mods that make Stellaris fun, because most people think "more power = more fun". Millions of mods that make interstellar travel faster, or give you a higher colony cap, or add "sexy space babes"... but the mod that actually improves the game goes unnoticed.

As game designers, this is the heart of the problem. Every part of a player's feedback is going to be about how they want more, faster, stronger. When we take this to heart, we end up with vanilla Stellaris: a game that gives players far too much, far too fast.

Instead, consider that impulse as a source of power. If a player wants more stars, make the stars twice as expensive. If they want more ammo, make the ammo half as common. At least experimentally, for play-test purposes.

Because their urge for more is what makes them value what they have. If they want more stars, that means they think the stars are valuable. Condense that. Put that energy into fewer stars, and they'll treat each one like a priceless treasure.

That's my theory, anyway.