(These thoughts were originally posted on http://www.eXplorminate.net, but they are my own and I’ve updated them to reflect my current thoughts.)
The 4X strategy genre has, for the most part, had a very difficult time keeping its momentum going into the final act of the game. The games tend to become bogged down in a planet/city management hell. The exploration phase has long-ago ended and, as such, nothing truly new awaits the player, since your technology has either already reached its pinnacle or is almost there.
In most 4X games, you’re in the “mopping up” phase. That is to say, you’re basically making sure that you finish off each of your enemies (or they’re finishing you). Some of the most well known early examples of the genre suffered from this. The early Civilization games and the original Master of Orion suffered especially, but we were so new to the 4X genre that it hardly mattered. Nowadays, however, the issue has become increasingly profound as our collective patience begins to wear thin.
The late game, with its various AI players and their multitude of units, can become extremely time consuming as your opponents painstakingly move each of those units, while also making their calculations and managing their assets. This process takes a toll on turn speed, even on newer machines, and wears out your desire to keep playing into the late game. Not to mention the fact that most games are decided well before the end game takes place. It’s simply a matter of sticking with it to conclude the game.
It’s a very large part of why I almost never finish a full 4X game. Not because I’m so good at them that the end game is merely a formality, but rather because that the likely winner, whether that is me or an AI player, sits in a position that is clearly very difficult to overcome.
There is a very obvious and clear “snowballing” effect in the genre and very few games attempt to combat it. Before we can fully understand why the end game is so lackluster, perhaps it’s best to first analyze why we enjoy 4X games to begin with?
I had named eXplorminate as such because it’s a portmanteau of my favorite aspects of the genre: eXplore and eXterminate. For me, the act of eXploration can be very exciting. You move your scouts out to discover new and exciting resources, anomalies, colony locations, quest sites and, eventually, your neighbors. Meanwhile, you are making your way through a research tree that brings about better units, buildings and bonuses. It’s all new, fresh and constantly evolving.
The eXpansion phase comes shortly after the eXploration phase really starts to unfold. You’ve finally found that spot where your second city/colony/settlement makes sense and you build your settler or colony ship. In the early game, this location is even more important as its usually very crucial to find a spot that will be a major boon for your empire. Those early-game strategic resources or that location that has awesome output for future units and city upgrades can be crucial. While it becomes less important as the game plays on (especially if you’ve been playing the game well), eXpansion remains a critical mechanic for most of the game.
The eXploitation phase, in many games, acts like a bit of a puzzle. You have all of the pieces and you’re responsible for figuring out how to make them all work together for the betterment of your empire. What buildings will best help me achieve my goal? How can I shift my population to effectively get a leg up on the competition? How do I balance building my empire with my need for strategic resources or chasing down research topics? Every aspect of this phase can be equally important – or equally damning – if the game is worth its weight. As such, being able to effectively balance and manage this portion of the game can be challenging and rewarding.
Finally, eXtermination can occur at any point of the game. Sometimes it makes sense to take out a neighbor early and absorb their hard work into your empire. Other times, it makes more sense to go about your business until someone gets in your way. Regardless, in almost every 4X game, conflict is inevitable. Whether you initiate it for the sake of taking resources or whether you’re defending your own territories, the eXtermination phase of the game can be fun, rewarding, and at times frustrating, but rarely boring (though some tedium slips into most games). With new and exciting units to discover through the eXploration portion, eXtermination usually retains its appeal throughout each stage of the game.
However, it is at the end game that these elements combined together begin to bog things down. You’ve usually explored the whole map by now and, if you haven’t, you’re very close to it. You’ve completed the majority of the research available to you, although some games, like the Civilization series, tend to leave some of the more exciting techs for this portion of the game.
By now, it has become a game of watching the inevitable winner finish (whether that be you, the AI or another player in multiplayer) via the various victory conditions present in a modern-day 4X. On the other hand, a multi-front war, as either you or your opponents attempt to overcome all of their rivals through force in a last push to victory, can bring some life back to an otherwise certain conclusion.
How can developers fix this? It’s long been an issue and though it seems many developers have tried to add original ideas here, they haven’t always been successful. The problem is that some of what makes the genre so interesting, the eXploration and eXploitation phases, tend to either become a moot issue (there is only a finite amount of eXploration to be done) or have snowballed to become either an immovable object or a disasterpiece of irredeemable proportions.
Let’s take a look at specific examples of games that try to add features and flow to the 4X end game. The game that comes to mind first is a relatively recent entry – Civilization 5. The base game followed the Civilization formula of providing a few different ways to win the game and, as technological progression would have it, some rather exciting powerful units at the end of each game.
However, its expansions attempted to add some flavor – and some would say time-consuming filler – to the mid- and late-game through the introduction of religion, archaeology, and the World Congress. Archaeology, in particular, attempted somewhat successfully to provide an added eXploration feature to the later portion of each game. When discovered through research, archaeological sites would pop up across the map, usually in relation to battles previously fought or other map features previously discovered in antiquity.
Once an archaeologist dug up that site, a permanent tile bonus was applied as well as other passive bonuses, too. While nothing game changing ever takes place, it was still somewhat exciting to find these sites and dig them up since often this would lead to diplomatic tension and possibly war. The feature could have been made better with a chance to unearth very strong bonuses or perhaps, in other games, that same mechanic could be used to unearth ancient technology or other hidden tangible units or bonuses.
Another recognizable example would be Master of Orion 2. The Antarans (an independent AI threat) start appearing in the middle portion of the game and are very difficult up until the very last turn. They aren’t playing the game by the same rules as the other players are. They have but one mission: destroy all of the galaxy, and they’re well equipped to do so. As a result, the game never stalls. Its drama and pressure are ever present up until the very end.
Warlock 1 had a different take on this mechanic with the Dremer threat, a more recent attempt at a final menace, while Galactic Civilizations II had the Dreadlords to create pressure on turtling players.
Endless Legend introduced Guardian units in a DLC that were incredibly strong, and incredibly difficult and time-consuming to build, that were capable of taking on numerous enemies and made the late-game combat more interesting and fun. The problem with these units, however, were that the AI rarely built them and the AI didn’t do enough to combat player-owned Guardians.
What else can the genre do that developers haven’t tried yet? Aside from changing the way the game is played in almost every way, while retaining some familiar tropes, as Jon Shafer’s At The Gates or Stardock’s Sorcerer King are trying to do, I can still think of some exciting things to spice up the latter half of our favorite genre.
First, let’s preface all of this by saying that options are good and that most of what I suggest should be an option that can be chosen or not. Getting that out of the way, I’d love to see things such as the last player having a chance of discovering a super weapon that significantly closes the gap between them and those factions that are currently close to winning. Think of the way Europa Universalis handles the late game. You’re never safe in EU4; even when you’re powerful and large, nations are still capable (and often, very willing) to ally with one another when their combined strength is greater than yours.
Somehow, that didn’t quite translate to the closest that Paradox has ever been to 4X: Stellaris. While Stellaris does try some really cool mid- to late-game crisis events, Stellaris does something that really offsets those cool mechanics, in humble opinion. It doesn’t have a true end game, because it never ends. There is only one victory condition. Some people might like that, but I don’t. I need a variety of attainable goals that end the game. An option to keep playing seems like a perfect fit for those that enjoy endless games. I think I’ll talk more about this another time.
Another example that I like, but think can be improved upon, can be found in Colonization (The original, not the Firaxis reboot, as it didn’t quite hit the same notes). Throughout most of the game, you play more or less like you would in a traditional 4X (although it does have some very unique mechanics). You’re interacting with the various nations that are also colonizing the New World and you must compete with them for space and resources.
However, to win the game, you must declare independence from your parent country and win the subsequent war of independence. Your ability to play the first three-quarters of the game factors heavily into how well you are able to defend yourself and win this revolutionary war. Of course, variations of this mechanic could be implemented in other titles, like preparation for an alien invasion in a science fiction 4X, but it could also be solidified through various ways to win that ultimate war, like allying with powerful friends, uniting them all under one banner through diplomacy, global war, or other means.
In the end, however, it’s painfully obvious that the 4X end game has become rather bland. In days past, some games made a big deal of your winning ways. End game movies showing your rise to power were more common and the end of a game felt more fulfilling. I would love to see future 4X games bring these cutscenes back, showing how your race/faction/country came to power with cool flavor text about how its future unfolded. Things like this really help make the end game fun and encourage players to finish games, rather than just start a new one once the winner has been quasi-determined (usually about one half to three quarters of the way through).
Now that we’ve seen a resurgence of the genre, my hope is that more and more of its weaknesses are addressed in each new entry. Games like Endless Legend, Sorcerer King, Endless Space 2, and even Stellaris (to a lesser extent) are all trying new ways to make the late game just as exciting as the beginning. However, I still see room for improvement and hope that the genre, moving forward, can find ways to keep exploration a part of the game throughout. The Civilization 5 example that I mentioned above is just one of many ways to do that.
I’d much rather see people embrace what is best about our favorite type of game and create additional ways to engage the player through new and exciting mechanics and gamplay hooks. I just want someone to revisit the end game and figure out a way to keep us as involved – and excited – as we are in the first few turns until the very last time you hit “End Turn”.
There’s too much talent out there to be anything but hopeful that this could become a reality.