The History of Master of Orion

Master of Orion

The story of how Master of Orion first arrived at MicroProse and how its journey would define 4X gaming for years.

One day, around 24 years ago, an unsolicited submission from an unknown author arrived at the MicroProse offices. Though no one knew it yet, this game, once called Star Lords, would later be known as Master or Orion, a title that laid the blueprint of eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, and eXterminate: 4X gameplay.

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Some screenshots from Master of Orion 2 showing the galaxy map, colonies, battles and other important scenes.

Star Lords was initially being developed by Simtex, a game development studio created by Steve Barcia. Incidentally, Star Lords was also the name for another, earlier strategy game which was eventually named Lords of the Black Sun. When Simtex approached MicroProse, two other major publishers were already competing for the rights to publish the game. It was up to Jeff Johannigman, who was a producer at MicroProse and in charge of external development, to convince Simtex that they were the right publisher for the project.

David Govett

While working at MicroProse, Jeff became the producer for Master of Orion after they secured the option to publish the game.

What’s your race of choice?

David Govett I like the Humans (being human and all) and the new evil human race (Terran Khanate). They were some of the most enjoyable to compose themes for too.

What’s your total hours spent playing Master of Orion?

David Govett Haven’t kept up. Honestly, I’m not the best Master of Orion player so most of what I’m doing is playing quick and dirty games and randomly punching buttons to see how the music is being implemented. (And sometimes that results in a well-played game. Total 100th monkey thing going.). I’ve also watched many hours of game play videos by expert players as well to learn my way around and see how the sound is working.

What’s your greatest achievement in the game?

David Govett Having a successful game without even trying.

Starting out on a small Budget

Jeff started his career at college in 1982, where he wrote a game called Rabbotz! on his 16K Atari 800. The game caught the attention of Atari, who later published it, launching his career as a game creator. After graduation, Jeff began working as a full-time game programmer for Broderbund Software.

His career later took him to Electronic Arts, Epyx, and Origin Systems, moving from programmer and designer to producer. During this time, Jeff refined his strategy chops on titles such as Demon Stalkers, Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire, Ultima: Runes of Virtue, The Ancient Art of War in the Skies, and This Means War.

With the game under the MicroProse banner, Jeff took the reins of Master of Orion. Testing, marketing, sales, PR, and additional contract development talent all fell to Jeff, who now worked on behalf of Simtex. However, despite shooting for the stars with Master of Orion, the project budget brought the team back to earth. Close to bankruptcy at the time, MicroProse had just 50,000 Dollars to fund the game – a paltry amount when compared to the multimillion budgets of today’s AAA titles. To really make the whole process as stressful as possible, the team had only four months to completely redo all the art and game audio, as well as redesign the interface.

While refining on Master of Orion, Jeff kept his mind on three principles from his days working at EA: great games need to be »simple, hot, and deep«. Simple: easy to dive into and have fun within just a few minutes. Hot: dramatic, exciting, and unpredictable. Deep: enough challenge, depth, and complexity to make the game replayable for a long time.

Another piece of advice that shaped Jeff’s role was from game design legend Dan Bunten, who told him, »What makes a game great is not what you put in. It’s what you keep out.« Many strategy games, especially 4X-style games, can be overly complex, whereas Master of Orion was meticulous in not adding unnecessary complexity, but keeping in just enough to make the game fun and challenging.

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The packshots of Master of Orion, Master of Orion 2 and Master of Orion 3.

Defining the Art of Master of Orion

While Master of Orion had solid gameplay, the graphics, sound, and interface were primitive. As soon as the ink was dry on the contract, Jeff reached out to one of the most talented artists he knew, Jeff Dee. Dee had previously worked with Jeff at Origin Systems, and came along to take charge of the game’s graphic design. He’d worked as Art Director on Ultima VII from Origin Systems/Electronic Arts, and left there to do artwork as a contractor on Ultima Underworlds. He also worked as an artist on Blake Stone from Apogee, Master of Magic from MicroProse, and 1830 from Avalon Hill, bringing the right kind of flavor to the project.

»We had to convince Simtex that our MicroProse players were the audience to target, and that we’d promote it as Civilization in Space. Once that got our players’ attention, the rest was history.« – Jeff Johannigman, Producer of Master of Orion.

Master of Orion’s art direction drew on popular Sci-Fi films and TV series. Particularly, hard »Sci-Fi« because of the game’s somewhat serious tone. A strong comic book influence also shaped its alien characters, which was a combination of the comic background that Dee and Bill Willingham (a colleague of Dee’s) brought to the table. Apart from a 3D sequence in the opening credits (crude by today’s standards, but pretty advanced for its time), all of the original Master of Orion graphics were done by hand using a mouse and EA’s »Deluxe Paint« software. That was both time consuming and restrictive; the ships in original Master of Orion’s space combat did not animate or rotate, and there is only one camera view. That was about all that was possible in those days with simple »sprite«-type graphics.

As a science fiction fan, but also a game artist, Dee wanted to preserve the recognizable, anthropomorphic archetypes we associate with earthly creatures, while also making characters a little more scientifically plausible. On the visual design there were basic concepts in place; Steve Barcia had in mind a catoid race and beariod race, and the mechanical race, and he had names of them and things that were already set. What was lacking was more thought being put into exactly how that would play out. Dee talked with Bill Willingham, agreeing that they did not just want »it’s a cat, but it’s upright like a person«.

In reworking the graphics, the greatest impact he had was in the look of the alien races. The main inspiration for the approach taken with the Mrrshan was the Kzinti from Larry Niven’s novel »Ringworld«. The Kzinti are clearly cat-like, with all that implies, but not Earth-cats by any means.

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The characters of Master of Orion where inspired by a lot of Sci-Fi movies and TV shows and should be easily reference-able to real-life creatures, like the Mrrshan to cats.

So, the team tweaked the look of the aliens to give them a Sci-Fi spin; unusual eyes, strangely jointed limbs, weird ears – anything to make it clear they fit animal archetypes while also conveying these were alien creatures and not Earth animals who evolved into people.

Jeff Johannigman

While working at MicroProse, Jeff became the producer for Master of Orion after they secured the option to publish the game.

What’s your race of choice?

Jeff Johannigman I love the Sakkra. That’s partially because they were named after another reptilian race from another game I was the producer on, “Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire”. But mostly because they are just big, dumb, lovable brutes.

What’s your total hours spent playing Master of Orion?

Jeff Johannigman I lost count of how many hours I spent playing the original Master of Orion twenty years ago, but I can say I have spent over 200 hours playtesting this one (not counting the pre-Steam builds). The original Master of Orion was one of the only games that I could still enjoy playing after it shipped. This version is shaping up in the same way.

What’s your greatest achievement in the game?

Jeff Johannigman My greatest achievement in this game is winning with a diplomatic victory, persuading enough other races to vote me in as head of the Council. While I love the combat of Master of Orion, I appreciate that we also have more peaceful paths to victory.

The ships that Dee designed for Master of Orion were there for the purpose of allowing players to do their customization. Each ship had its own types of engines and weapons and armor, and more. And they came in different standard sizes, Dee’s job was to come up with several different overall styles of ships and then fill out the ships within a general style. There are ships that are spheres with engines attached them and there are ships that are more wedge-shaped.

What may seem a little strange is that the original drawings of the alien races were done with pen and ink on paper, and then had to be »faxed« to Dee’s computer over the phone lines in order to get them into the game. The team even »borrowed« an unused cover painting from one of the MegaTraveller games to use as the cover for Master of Orion.

Setting the Tone

With the Art Team in place, Jeff reached out to David Govett and Team Fat to score the game. Govett was, at the time, composing for Team Fat with George Sanger (The Fatman), Joe McDermott and Kevin Phelan. So, Govett moved his equipment into the Simtex office to work on location, which made collaboration extremely easy and allowed everyone to really get involved in shaping Master of Orion.

Govett specialized in a cinematic style, which was perfect for Master of Orion. With the limited budget, the plan was to take the primitive technology of the time, like FM and wavetable synthesis sound cards, and create something epic. This stripped down sound goal leant itself to more familiar and commercial scores, and Govett paid homage to classics like »Star Trek« and »Stars Wars«.

The goal of Master of Orion’s music was to be as melodic and stirring as possible. While today game scores are on par with film and TV, if a person attempted it back then, it simply became white noise. The key to great sound design was to keep the score moving.

In the original game, Govett was creating MIDI-files, which would eventually stream whatever the user had for their synthesis. If they had FM-wavetable synthesis – fantastic – but most people simply had FM synthesis, so it sounded like, as the Govett called it, »farts and squeaks«” the majority of the time, and it was his job to make that as cinematic as possible.

Feedback for the finishing Game Design Touches

Alan Emrich was another piece to Master of Orion’s puzzle. A journalist for Computer Gaming World magazine, Emrich was visiting the MicroProse office at the time, when Jeff grabbed him and excitedly promised him that they had just signed »Civilization in space«. Though skeptical at first, once Emrich had a chance to log some playtime with the game, he became Master of Orion’s biggest advocate. It was his glowing reviews that gave the game a real boost to get noticed at the time.

Jeff Dee

Before joining Master of Orion, Jeff had been the Art Director on Ultima VII from Origin Systems/Electronic Arts.

What’s your race of choice?

Jeff Dee I prefer the Psilons. The research and exploration parts of the game interest me the most, and with the Psilon research advantage I find that I’m usually well capable of defending myself from the other races should the need arise.

What’s your total hours spent playing Master of Orion?

Jeff Dee Including hours spent on the original game, which I worked on back in 1993? Many hundreds of hours.

Through playing the game, Emrich learned about Simtex, Steve Barcia (programmer and the company founder), and Simtex itself. As an outside observer, he saw the hands-off approach that MicroProse took with the title, allowing Barcia and his team to drive the project.

With a copy of Star Lords, Emrich then sent out the game to his friend and designer Tom Hughes. The two put the game through its paces and had a ton of suggestions. At first, Jeff acted as the middleman in the process, but he soon got tired of it all and just let Emrich and Hughes speak with Barcia directly. During this time, Master of Orion was shaping its theme and focus.

Hughes helped Barcia in automating the colony slider bars with some AI to streamline the often harsh micromanagement aspect of what was Star Lords. This allowed the player to spend less time on each colony, and the AI would then reassign resources automatically logically. A seemingly small feature, it went a long way to make Master of Orion the experience it was.

Another important aspect that Hughes contributed to was ship design. In the original iterations, a ship only had three weapon slots and two special slots for its systems. The feature seemed pretty limiting so the slots were eventually increased and made universal. Now a weapon or special could potentially go in any slot. However, while this was impossible to do at the game’s current stage, Barcia was able to increase the slots available for ship systems to four weapon slots and three special slots, allowing a rich variety of ship designs.

Successful Release creating a Legend

Eventually, with design, art and sound ticking over, it was time to seriously think about changing the game’s development name. Part of this is a trademark search to ensure the game name is not too similar to anything else on the market or that a name is not in use by another company.

There was, at the time, a very obscure comic which had already trademarked the name »Star-Lord«. »Guardians of the Galaxy« was its name. Back to the drawing board, then, which spawned several alternates. The team finally landed on Master of Orion, which was a fitting title clear of any other trademarks. Because of this name, Simtex added Orion, an ancient planet with powerful artifacts, to the game itself.

Screenshots from the race selection screen in Master of Orion 3.

Then it came time to release Master of Orion into the galaxy. In his 1993 preview for Computer Gaming World, Emrich would go on to call it »the best that galactic conquest can offer«, in the process coining the type of gameplay as 4X: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. Master of Orion was quickly considered the standard by which turn-based strategy games were measured.

»I often worked late at night and remember listening to fuzzy AM radio while taking a nap on the floor.« – David Govett, Composer for Master of Orion

The game was named Computer Gaming World’s 33rd best game of all time, as well as making it into GameSpy’s Hall of Fame and GameSpot’s list of greatest games of all time. Then, in 1996 Master of Orion: Battle at Antares was released.

Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares

Steve Barcia and Ken Burd of Simtex returned for the development of Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares (originally called Master of Antares). MicroProse still acted as publisher, and partnered with MacSoft to bring the game to the Mac. While Barcia was not as entrenched as before – having been promoted to VP of Product Development at Spectrum, he still oversaw the project and design. Burd stepped in to code, along with his team at Simtex.

Much like the reimagining of Master of Orion, community feedback helped shape the project. Players wanted more automation and detail. As part of this, Barcia went for a »layered« design concept, letting players focus on what they choose. While this was not fully realized in the game, it did lay the groundwork for Master of Orion III. In its release year, Master of Orion II took home the Origins Awards for Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Computer Game of 1996, as well as being well-received by critics.

»I grabbed him [Alan Emrich] and excitedly promised him that we had just signed Civilization in space. His glowing reviews were critical to getting Master of Orion noticed at the time.« – Jeff Johannigman, Producer of Master of Orion.

With the (slight) upgrade in technology, at least by today’s standards, Master of Orion II breathed a lot more life into its space opera. The graphics and overall presentation of the second game was a large upgrade. Diplomatic encounters were richer than ever before. Races projected a real sense of individuality, monsters guarded planets, and the powerful Antarans were just waiting to take the player down a peg or two. The diverse cast of races also put more emphasis on different species affecting play style. You could unlock new gadgets, build new toys, and there was even the introduction of multiplayer.

Master of Orion III

It would be a while until the third installment of Master of Orion came to fruition. It was a pretty disruptive time at MicroProse. In 1998, after trying and failing to buy GT Interactive Software, the studio became a subsidiary of Hasbro Interactive. Then, the following year, its development studios in Alameda, California and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, were closed. A little later, in 2001, MicroProse closed, and Hasbro sold the company’s IPs to Infogrames Entertainment.

So, Master of Orion seemed over with. However, Michael Mancuso, who was a producer for Hasbro’s west coast offices spoke with Quicksilver Software’s President, Bill Fisher, at E3 1999. The two of them hit off, finding their ideals of what makes a game great aligned. At the time, Hasbro was looking for developers, which eventually led them to Quicksilver Software.

»A definite Game of the Year candidate as well as Exhibit A in many divorce cases.« – Alan Emrich, Editor for Computer Gaming World on Master of Orion.

One of the biggest changes in Master of Orion III was that space combat went real-time. Previously, Hasbro execs had evaluated whether the product would even go ahead, and said that space combat must be turn-based. However, after speaking with Tom Hughes and another designer, Floyd Grubb, they changed their minds. At the time, Hasbro wanted Master of Orion III to be nearly massively multiplayer, which, around 2000, was a big deal. Computers back then couldn’t really handle those kinds of requirements, so space combat had to be limited or made real-time.

Unfortunately, Master of Orion III had a lot of design ideas that never saw the light of day, and the game never became the breakout hit that the two previous titles had become. But there was light at the end of the star lane. In 2013, the Master of Orion IP was snatched up by Wargaming.

With its new lease on life, Wargaming assembled a crew to work on Master of Orion, with the input from members of the original team, like Jeff, Dee, Emrich and others, while teaming up with NGD Studios to bring the legend back to life. Very soon, everyone will be able to head out and conquer the stars.

Jeff Johannigman, Jeff Dee, David Govett


About the authors

05Jeff Johannigman
was Producer for the original Master of Orion and is Advisor at NGD Studios.

Jeff started his career at college in 1982, where he wrote a game called »Rabbotz!« on his 16K Atari 800. His career later took him to Electronic Arts, Epyx, and Origin Systems, moving from programmer and designer to producer. Later he joined Microprose as producer.


06bJeff Dee
was Lead Artist for the original Master of Orion and is Advisor at NGD Studios.

Before joining Master of Orion, Jeff had been the Art Director on Ultima VII from Origin Systems/Electronic Arts.


07aDavid Govett
was Composer for the original Master of Orion and is Advisor at NGD Studios.

The original composer for Master of Orion, David also worked on Wing Commander I & II and Ultima Underworld.


Sebastian Weber
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Sebastian Weber

Managing Editor at Webedia Gaming GmbH
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