As you may know, I really love games where you build things. And what is the biggest thing you can build?
When I was younger, I was obsessed with 4X games like Civilization, Masters of Orion, and so on. As time wore on, their shine wore off. These days, I still play those kinds of games on occasion, but I prefer games where I build smaller things.
The reason is simple: those smaller things are more people-centric.
Recently, games about building empires have tried to become more people-centric. Civ animates their iconic rulers with loving care. Stellaris gives you a bunch of people with personal traits and names and asks you to assign them to colonies, star ships, factions. Everywhere, people are becoming more common.
The problem is that these games aren't about people. They never were, and they can't be: the structure of the game is oriented around nation-building, not personal dramas. This means interactions are all about bowing to the will of the empire.
Games like Crusader Kings II push this as far as can be reasonably expected, tracking hundreds of distinct individuals throughout lifetimes, letting you push them into service, crush them, or exploit them. This appeals to a certain kind of fantasy, I'm sure, but it's not really very good at letting me build something that means something.
This actively interferes with my enjoyment of these games. Civilization VI isn't about building a nation, it's about beating Alexander the Great as he weirdly and obsessively declares war against you every decade for a thousand years. It's humanized to the point where I don't think of that territory as another nation - I think of it as Queen Victoria's house. Vickie's front yard.
We've been humanizing these games for eons. Everyone remembers Gandhi's words backed by nuclear weapons. Everyone remembers the personality-filled cockpit views in Star Control. But these were very shallow, passive efforts - the difference between anthropomorphic tags and being a person.
Basically, when something is tagged, you can easily slip a personality onto it and ascribe a mood or emotion behind its actions. The Ur-Quan dreadnaught fighting the Spathi? It becomes the grumpy, remorseless Ur-Quan hunting down a hilarious, cowardly Spathi.
When something is portrayed as a person, things are different. The easiest example is Stellaris: a few minutes into the game, you meet a pirate faction made up of your own species in order to inject some kind of military action into the early game. You choose an admiral for your fleet. Do you pick Sara? She has a bonus to attack and a neat haircut. Doug? He learns fast and is wearing a space baseball jersey. Veronica? She can move the fleet faster and looks appropriately grumpy.
Whichever you choose, it's a person, not just a vague indicator. Instantly, you start thinking of your fleet ops as part of their career, part of their personal story. So you go to fight the enemy.
... and they have a fleet commander, too. A person. With a unique name, unique appearance, unique powers.
You kill them. You never learn anything about them. Ironically, you never even have enough info to give them a personality. They are the same species as you, so there's nothing distinctive enough to make you assign them the personalities you give to the other aliens you might meet.
This is distracting. Players naturally gravitate towards densely simulated things. You've taught the player that individual people matter, each one is simulated and tracked independently. Then you show them a person, as dense and complex and promising as the one they chose... and just kill them. Wordlessly, effortlessly, pointlessly.
Worse, the alien species cultures are largely randomized. When you do meet an alien, the anthropomorphic tags they bear don't correlate to their actual characteristics. This turns the emotional responses into mud. You've trained the player to respond to individuals, but then refuse to let them interact with individuals. You train the player to not care about species, because their appearance is unrelated to their traits, but then force them to interact with species.
Civ VI doesn't do as many things wrong. It has very, very strongly personified nations, but they have the correct personalities and feel reasonable. Unfortunately, you can't really interact with those people. You can only interact with their nations. Even that is in a vague, impersonal way.
On the other hand...
Let's say I make a game about building cars. There's a bunch of NPCs, they want cars that suit their personalities and needs. I build them a car. They go "whoaaaa! NICE!" They go drive it. They come back. "It was great, did X really well, thanks a ton!"
The scale is small enough that it feels like a personal interaction even when I don't do social things. The response is personal, about something concrete and part of their life. The choices I make are much more centered around facets of their personality, because each NPC can have wildly different taste in cars without becoming unbelievable.
It is already much more deeply personal than Civ VI, even if the NPCs are just a doodled pixel portrait.
Honestly, even if there were no NPCs, building the car is still more personal than building an empire in Civ VI, because I can easily imagine how someone would use and enjoy the car. That's a big part of why Space Engineers is fun! There's no NPCs, no personalities, but imagining how people would live in space, use my ships - that's fun!
In my mind, 4X games can't survive in this awkward place. They will naturally have to become either more humanized... or less.
"More" seems to be the trend, so how would that go?
The two basic paths are the Civ VI path and the Stellaris path, which is why I used them as examples.
The Civ VI path focuses on a few, highly detailed, carefully designed NPCs. Further down this path lies a game where you can interact with those NPCs in more detailed, complex ways. Expanding your empire probably matters less than establishing a good relationship with your neighbors. This will generally take the focus off the militaristic side of things and play up more complex interactions.
The easiest way to do it would be to make the lands of the empire play the role of the home and body of the other ruler. Rather than negotiate with the ruler as a lump sum, you interact with specific cities or lands in a wider variety of ways.
There's not really any way around this. We can't continue having a bleak, war-focused set of interactions if we keep humanizing the other side. I already have no interest in going to war, even with the relatively weak personalities in these games today.
The other direction is to track an impressive number of people. Rather than the ruler of each nation, you track everyone. Politics constantly evolves and changes who is in what positions. The rulers of each nation come and go.
I have a suspicion this is definitely going to spawn a genre, but I don't think I'll like it much. That many people means that each person will be disposable, temporary. That's not going to scratch my itch.
At the very least, I hope all these people have personality tags, so I can easily assign them a mood and emotion as they do things. At the moment it's all undifferentiated mush, and it's very hard to establish any deep connection to the various NPCs. It'd be interesting to try to improve that connection while still having a large number of randomly-generated NPCs. Maybe use some techniques to inject personalities into the flow of the game.
But right this instant, I have a car-building prototype to create.