Master of Orion 3 was released in 2003 and about 13 years later, Wargaming wants to revive the legendary strategy game. Here the team explains, how they carefully changed features of the game to both make hardcore players happy as well as beginners.
Bringing »Master of Orion« back to life after over 20 years hibernating in the darkest reaches of space was no easy task. Wargaming and NGD Studios took up the mantle and have been hard at work for the past couple of years. With the game nearing release, members of the crew thought it was a great time to reflect on where they’ve been and the different aspects of Master of Orion.
Building on Old Foundations
Bringing a game like Master of Orion back is a big undertaking, and we feel a great deal of responsibility because it’s such a legendary title. It’s remembered as one of the best gaming experiences for many. We’re putting all our passion and all our effort into making this game the most amazing experience it could be.
In re-envisioning the game, we wanted to capture the essence of the original Master of Orion but in a modern context. It’s larger than life; it’s an amazing experience for every player. We think it appeals to many different types of players, because we offer something for everyone. That’s why we went multi-platform, because we want more people to enjoy the game. Even if your friend has a Mac, you are going to be able to play with them, or if another friend has Linux, they’re also going to be able to play with you.
Making a multiplayer 4X game is no easy task. These types of games have a long development cycle, and usually require a great deal of commitment from fellow players in order to have a complete experience. And we’re not just talking about the single player experience. We’re designing multiplayer with this in mind, because we want everybody to enjoy it. We’re providing different modes, where you can enjoy small skirmishes or the whole experience if you manage to get your friends to play with you for 8 hours.
That’s what we wanted, but how that plays out is a different matter altogether. That’s why we made the decision to do an Early Access program for Master of Orion. We wanted people’s feedback as soon as possible. We wanted the fans to tell us what they thought about our game and to work with them in order to improve it – to make this the best Master of Orion there ever was.
Battling the Ghost in the Machine
What you’re going to love most about the AI is getting to know their personalities, getting to know how they play, and getting to know how to beat them. It’s not fun for a player when you always know what your opponent is going to do and how they’re going to react. We didn’t want the player to feel cheated; we didn’t want our AI to cheat, but we wanted it to be interesting and to make decisions that would seem natural to a player. What gives real life to the Al is, as said, their personalities. Because it means you can play it over and over, and every game will be different. You make a move in the game and you expect something to happen, but you don’t know how this race will react to that. Also there is a dynamic that runs between races so you don’t know what that race will do against other races. When you throw that all into the mix, we can guarantee you that every play through is going to be a different experience. It’s extremely important to not just have a competitive Al, but an AI that would surprise you, an Al that would tell a story that will stay with you.
Building on this is the combat. In the beginning, we started with the »Master of Orion II«-style combat: two battles with the square grid, which were turn-based. We wanted it to work. It did work, we had a complete game around it. But we realized that having a battle in that style can last from 5 to 15 minutes every time you encounter an enemy ship. It totally killed the pace! Each turn can take 10 to 30 seconds, and every battle ended up being around 15 minutes. We made a test, a really fast test to change the entire game from turn-based to real-time. The first time we showed it everyone, it felt like »this is a path we should follow«. After some iterations, we reached the point in which we felt tactical battles were where Master of Orion had to go.
People reacted quite differently to the introduction of tactical battles. There’s a great sense of nostalgia surrounding the original Master of Orion games. And with nostalgia, we tend to gloss over the blemishes of the past. The battle system was something that really needed bringing to the 21st century. There was a lot of hostility surrounding the change. If we look back at the old version of Master of Orion, we see that everything went fine until you finished the game. At the end of the game, there was a maddening, long and tormenting »moving« by squares. And of course it would be ridiculous to introduce a flat, step-by-step battle in a modern 3D game where space is given a three-dimensional form. This would deprive the game of its epic nature and beauty, and split the player’s feeling into »Here I am, a galactic emperor, controlling the power of my empire« and »Here I have to monitor my every ship, tell it where to go, at what angle to turn, how far to go, how many times to shoot etc.«
There’s not much we can do for the people who still aren’t fond of tactical battles, but we believe the change we made was for the best, and adds another layer of action and pacing to the game. Tactical battles allow players to regulate speed, allowing them to pause the game, and that was the best solution for making combat as smooth as possible. It made it possible for us to reach a balance between how battles look, how they are controlled and the epic perception of a battle.
Victory at any Cost
So Master of Orion is one of the most important games in the history of strategy games. It established the basis of all the 4X games that proceeded it. For us, making Master of Orion is the opportunity of a lifetime. The game has different victory conditions:
- You can win the game by excellence, being the best race in the galaxy.
- You can have the best technology.
- You can beat your enemies in terms of your economy.
- You can crush them with your armada.
These diverse conditions let the player experience the game in many different ways, so there’s a great deal of replay value. There are very different strategies that players can come up with to dominate the galaxy.
These conditions had to be tied in with one thing, though: simplicity. One of the things we wanted to achieve with Master of Orion was to keep the game simple. This implies you’re able to win it in an accessible way. And that was something its predecessors did in a very interesting way. There was a diplomatic victory, which was the pacifist way to win the game, and there was a conquest victory, which was the warlike way to win the game.
We believe that, although those two victory conditions can be enough and are very interesting, there are other resources involved in the game, other currencies involved in the game, which also generate a new way of playing. We wanted to give the players more ways to express themselves in-game, distinctive methods in which they can achieve a victory condition. This is something like a victory that is related to their resources, such as a technological victory. There is also an economic victory, which is related to the quantity of credits that a civilization can produce, which is, in turn, related to the moral of that empire.
And of course, we created another type of victory, which is the excellence victory. This is a victory that happens when the games are time-limited. When this limit is achieved, the player requires the best score between all other victory conditions.
The galaxy of Master of Orion is, in some way, realistic. However, in the context of the game, realism must be put aside in order to give a great experience to the player. So, we proposed a Galaxy Generator that will provide us with tools to generate multiple galaxies in several ways, all of them being possible within the realm of Science Fiction.
The action in Master of Orion occurs in a whole galaxy. There are lots of stars, planets and places to explore, and it has to make sense. We created the galaxy based on a shape blueprint, and then spread as many stars as we could over that shape, populating it with variety. This »galactic seed« is our randomizer, and there are a lot of rules interacting with each other that make the system very complex. The player can play in a big galaxy, a small galaxy, one that is made just for two players, and one that is made for eight. These are generated in a variety of shapes and sizes. The spiral galaxy is split into different arms, and each arm is like a continent, with a vast »star ocean« separating it. And you can’t cross this ocean until a specific technology has been researched. The players have their own space to work until they reach a certain point, then they all clash together in the center. The circular galaxy is completely interconnected, there is no barrier between the players, but it covers the same space, making for a faster, more explosive type of game.
In Master of Orion, a player can find, from the beginning of the game, multiple options to configure the galaxy and shape their own experience. From the size of the galaxy to the form to the number of players they are going to compete with – even the age of the galaxy – which will change the planet composition on each star.
The galaxy’s age completely changes the galaxy’s makeup. That’s because the age of the galaxy defines the quantity of planets and which types of resources they hold. So choosing a young galaxy is going to generate very hot stars, which will probably have a high mineral composition but that will be less likely to generate planets that are good for supporting life.
The first »X«
The player can find what everyone expects to find in space: planets, asteroids and all the other obvious things in any game of this genre. In Master of Orion, however, you can discover the stranger side of the galaxy and Sci-Fi – just like the original. Space monsters, other alien races – these independent civilizations are planets that chose not to become starfarers because they don’t have the technology or because their leaders didn’t want to. And these planets are an interesting part of the economy, and in the title’s development both in the middle and in the end game.
The player starts in one star system and doesn’t know the map of the galaxy, and each star is interconnected to each other by Star Lanes. Star Lanes are good for adding world control. It’s a place you can defend, it’s a place you know the other players have to go through to get to your planets. You can build defenses on them to defend the whole star system instead of just one of the planets in it. Or create a barrier to prevent another civilization from getting across a certain region of the galaxy.
The Star Lanes bring something very interesting to the game from a strategic point of view. For example, the territorial control and the possibility of generating choke points in shipping lanes, meeting points where conflict is more frequent.
It gives the player a clearer idea of imperial growth, but mainly, at a gameplay level, it gives us the chance to have a kind of »terrain« in a place where terrain does not exist. Territoriality in these games is very important, it gives a feeling of, not only progress, but of ownership.
We had to create a whole animation team from scratch. Luckily, there’s a big animation community in the country (Argentina) and people have a lot of experience working on movies and CGI. This meant, we could build a great animation team, which shows in the quality of our work, like the diplomacy scenes.
A lot of the animators in the team have experience working on movies and CGI, which helped a lot, e.g. for cutscenes like these.
The diplomacy in Master of Orion is one of the best and most important things in the game, so we wanted to sell the idea that the character is alive. We have different stances for each character, so you know visually if he’s hostile, friendly, cautious; we always thought that was better than having just a slider in the UI tell you that.
The decision to turn diplomacy into a more important part of the game presented us with a challenge of not only designing the emperors, but also their surroundings. That made us look into their culture, their architecture, so we could transmit the experience of what each race was like to the player, so they could feel a part of it.
We had ten different races. We had different characters for the same race and, for instance, that was a big challenge with the Meklar. The Meklar had a voice that sounded very much like a tiny robot, but the character design was really organic. You have this feel of a snake, a mechanical snake. What we needed was balance. We made the movements serpentine, but then added a few more layers of a mechanical movement, too. Some character designs were more difficult than others. When you have, for example the Klackon, you have six feet and two hands to work with.
For the game’s development, we brainstormed a huge variety of styles. We began creating concepts from a cartoonish style, very much like updating the original game, up to more realistic aesthetics. We kept picking the best of each world in those styles to obtain what we thought would be best for the project, what the fans wanted to see from us. It was transmitting that feeling of them playing Master of Orion for the first time, but with it being completely up-to-date a game, a game of this time – a AAA game.
Each race in Master of Orion has different attributes, or perks, as we call them. When you’re playing the Meklar, for example, you have all these production boosts. Those allow you to produce faster, so you can grow your armada and your colonies quicker. Other races like the Psilon always have a technological advantage because they research faster, but there’s also the challenge of being an aggressive Psilon, or trying to pursue different victory conditions with the different races and different traits. To add to this, you can create your own custom race to tailor your experience and set your own goals.
Finding a style for each race in Master of Orion consisted of taking each race in the game and highlighting the most important characteristics of each race. We faced the challenge of making each race unique but at the same time they had to be consistent. One had to be able to differentiate them by color and shape, be it their characters or their ships.
In the case of the Darlok, they were one of the races that underwent the biggest changes. Their design was quite difficult to update. It was very much based on the designs of the 1980s and we believed, with them being such a technological race, we had to transmit how we see technology nowadays.
The Terran was a unique race designed exclusively for the Master of Orion: Collector’s Edition, which allowed the team to bring their own spin on the human race. The brutal Terran is a distorted and disturbed reflection of a society, which has been drenched in blood and soaked in war. Where they may have once had roots in Humanity’s history, the link has been irrevocably severed and replaced by hatred. The Terrans look out across the galaxy and see dangerous lawlessness, a vice which will ruin the universe beyond repair – unless the Terrans can bring the rest of the galaxy to heel.
The Terrans are ruled over by a Khan who must wrest control of the khanate through bloody coups and revolutions. They seek to assert the unrelenting power and control over the deviants which inhabit the galaxy at any cost. Those who oppose the rule of the Khan must either meet the Terrans on the battleground for their independence, or perish in the wake of the Terrans’ path to domination.
The noble Alkari are natural leaders and aviators, who seek to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies when their ships cross the sky. They are a race of gifted combat specialists and born avian pilots who bring glory to their people through rich military traditions, a devout spiritual faith, and an unshakable code of honor in war. Centuries have tempered their affinity for aggression into hyper-focused military procedures, making them a deadly threat to those who stand in the way of their ambitious goals.
The Alkari Flock worships their gods without question, trusting the morals of the pantheon to guide them to greatness. Likewise, they place their faith in their leader, the Skylord. The power structure of the Alkari values honor, respect, and trust. To this day, the Alkari are a dictatorship-style government who call themselves the Flock, ruled over by their highly respected Skylord.
The Bulrathi are unmatched in brawn and brute force, unafraid to unleash their impressive arsenal to attack their enemies. They follow their conscience into war and will not compromise their uniquely moral core when faced with challenges on the battlefield. The Bulrathi are peerless in hand-to-hand and ground combat, as their naturally impressive statures lend well to the lifestyle of foot soldiers. They defy expectations others place upon them, for they rely on raw strength but also care deeply about the integrity of their planets and consider themselves defenders of the defenseless.
The Bulrathi Emperor is both noble protector and ruthless destroyer, a contradiction which is familiar to the Bulrathi. He leads the Empire with an iron fist and a tight grip, a dictatorship built on the respect of brute force and military experience. The aggressions of the Bulrathi are balanced by their passionate belief in preserving planets, a belief stemming from the near destruction (and last minute salvation) of their home world. They forge a path forward, at best protectors of the defenseless and at worst, radical agents of planetary protection.
Shrouded in mystery and myth, the Darlok race emerges from the shadows to extend their insidious control over the galaxy. Infamous shapeshifters, the Darlok rely on their exceptional spy networks to give them a diplomatic, economic, and military advantage over their unsuspecting neighbors in the universe. They are hell-bent on stealing, sabotaging, and manipulating their way into power for the main reason that they simply do not trust anyone else.
The Hindmost of the Darlok Cabal rules from the shadows and outskirts of society. The Darlok heavily rely on espionage efforts in order to confidently make their way through a galaxy which despises and fears them. They are paranoid, xenophobic, and skittish, often turning the whispered rumors of their madness into reality when under pressure. The Cabal hoards their secrets and stolen assets, waiting for the right time to strike out at the galaxy, which has pushed them repeatedly to fringes of space.
Charismatic and likable, the Human race has overcome ages of internal divisions in order to present a unified and smiling face to the rest of the galaxy. While Humanity enjoys friendly relations with the other races of the galaxy, the Humans make bitter enemies when crossed. They pride themselves on their diplomacy and honor, yet keep one hand coolly on their weapons. Humans are emotional beings who are willing to fight to the death for what they believe in.
Humanity has come far from the days when they were fighting for scraps on the damaged shell of Sol. Ravaged by war and ecological disasters, there was once a time when Humanity looked as if it would perish before they broke free of their star system. Yet, Humanity rose to the challenge under their new democracy and President, coming together to save themselves in the final seconds of opportunity. Their planet has healed, their weapons have advanced, and now the Humans have set their eyes on the skies for expansion.
Virtually free of all rebellion and resistance to social order, the Klackon live in perfect harmony. Born knowing their societal roles, they work for the good of the community rather than serving personal or individual interests. The Hive is the only identity the Klackon need. The concerns of inferior races are insignificant to the Klackon race, as they lack the ability to empathize with the plight of those who do not assimilate to their way of life.
The Klackon Queen is a representative of the race on the galactic stage, but her will is that of the Hive’s. The Klackon are bound by duty, tradition, and evolution. Each Klackon knows that they are but a small cog in the larger machine, ready and willing to die for the Hive at any moment. The primary intergalactic agenda of the Hive is to protect their own at any cost. The Queen herself is just a pawn of the Klackon evolutionary drive to take care of their own by expanding into new territories.
The Meklar are hyper-logical machines which are all agents of a single cybernetic entity and consciousness. The centralized Meklar consciousness offers a level of mechanical efficiency unparalleled in the universe, which is able to quickly prioritize pursuits that are beneficial to the Combine. The Meklar are built and plugged in immediately, operational at full capacity from the first moment that power flows through them. They lack sympathy or true understanding for organic lifeforms, and see them as inferior beings incapable of learning.
As inorganic computers, the Meklar agenda is unclear to most of the galaxy. Led by the ancient Overseer, the Meklar Combine is logical to the point of coldness in their dealings with the other races of the galaxy. They remain a mysterious entity in the intergalactic community, responding to all communication with terse and technical responses. For now, they seem content to pursue objectives which function to advance their own knowledge of the universe and physical capabilities.
The Mrrshan are the elegant, rebellious, and independent descendants of legendary hunters. Their culture is so beautiful, it is almost intoxicating, with art, architecture, and personal style that makes them iconic in the landscape of the galaxy. To be deceived by their beauty would be a foolish mistake, as they remain some of the greatest gunners and warriors in modern combat. The Mrrshan are confident to the point of vanity, quick to pull the trigger and strike first at the slightest threat.
While the Mrrshan Pride is a feudal government ruled by an Empress, they are anything but oppressive in their ruling party and leadership. The Empress herself leads the people into battle during times of war, just as she guides the members of her Royal Court in times of peace. The Mrrshan find themselves inspired by the beauty of the galaxy and the unlimited freedom of space travel. Too adventurous to be kept contained, they take flight to find some stretch of freedom that feels like home.
Reclusive geniuses with slight stature and timid mannerisms, the Psilon are brilliant researches who devote their lives to science. They prefer peace, as the concept of war terrifies them, but will confidently stride into battle once their technology has given them an undeniable upper hand. Haunted by the paranoid fear that others are trying to steal their scientific breakthroughs, they retreat into their controlled regions of space and quietly build up their arsenals.
The Psilon Quanta, ruled by the Controller, are largely non-confrontational and rarely contest the authority of their leader. They lack internal conflict and devote the entirety of their life to their research, often collapsing from forgetting to eat or sleep. They Psilon would be content to stay on their planets uninterrupted to research the universe’s secrets. As the other races creep into the Psilon’s peripheral vision, the Quanta must prepare themselves to focus on issues larger than their own scientific work if they want to survive.
The Sakkra are savage warriors, who are compelled by their biological desires to dominate all potential threats and to conquer new lands to support their booming population. Sakkra populations are violent and constantly expanding to the seams of whichever planet they are controlling, forcing their hand in adopting expansionist philosophies for their empire. They are a physically imposing race who can only survive within their own society by showing great strength, cleverness, and bravery.
The Sakkra Brood is a constantly shifting sea of various tribes, but above them all reigns the Hierarch. As the Brood expands past the limitations of the home world, their lawless and brutal ways spill out into the galaxy. Internal warfare culls their still impressive population growth rate and teaches them the ways of combat in an intimate manner that few militaries can imitate. The Hierarch must guide this brawling Brood into the galaxy and focus their energies into expanding their empire, rather than tearing themselves apart.
The mysterious Silicoid are an inorganic race of mineral-based lifeforms devoid of emotion, sentimentality, or feeling. They make the other races of the galaxy uneasy with their ambitions of planetary conquest in order to feed their hunger for minerals and pollution. Removed from the biological limitations and needs which slow the other races, the Silicoid creep along the edges of space, hungry for the rich mineral crusts of new horizons to satisfy them.
Born from a single sacred mineral basin, the rock structures grown in this specific location gain the spark of life needed to bring their inorganic bodies to a state of awareness and consciousness. The Silicoid are born of minerals and are driven by a single need: to consume the minerals of planets. They strip the planets they conquer of their nutrients without regard for other life. Their obsession is the only recognizable motivation on the intergalactic stage, making them a danger to most organic life in the universe.
Building a Universe
Building the universe of Master of Orion was an extremely fun task. We didn’t want the game to look like a board game; we wanted to give the player an immersive experience, and that’s why we used reference pictures from NASA, from the Hubble telescope, from illustrations. We really wanted to make the players feel like they are inside a universe full of color, where there are millions of things to discover. We want them to find something unique every time they arrived on a planet, to create a fun experience.
User Interface Experience
The challenge for us was to make sure that all the tools for the hardcore players were there to use, without overwhelming the new users that are coming to play our game. It’s pretty hard to find the balance between the hardcore player and the casual player, because the hardcore player needs a lot of information, and those usually don’t fit the actual space on the screen. We were also trying to reduce the spreadsheet syndrome that the other games had, so we even ended up including more information than the old games.
The Colony screen was the hardest to design for. We had a lot of back and forth with it, trying things out, trying to make it feel good and trying to make it work as expected, while in keeping with the style and tone of Master of Orion.
However, some of our first efforts with sliders were kind of fun but not usable. It was not clear for the user what they were supposed to be doing. After that we tried to introduce another method: the little »race avatars« that convey your resources and what each unit is developing. We put a grid that represented the planet’s surface, and each grid could have either production or food or both, but that ended up being too complex and not very clear, and was not easy to use either. Finally, we ended up with a »Master of Orion 2«-style of UI, with three sliders for food, production and research. That ended up being our best and most simple solution.
Andres Anezin, Andres Chilkowski, Javier Otaegui, Jeronimo Saez, Leandro Sena, Alex Zezulin
Graphical Evolution of Master of Orion
The game not only evolved in terms of gameplay but of course in terms of visuals, too. Here you can see how the looks of different aspects changed from Master of Orion to Master of Orion 2 up to Wargaming’s Master of Orion.
About the authors
is Co-Founder, CEO and Studio Director of NGD Studios.
Andrés is one of the first game developers in the Argentine industry. In 1995 he worked on the first commercial game made in Argentina: Regnum, a Sci-Fi RTS. In 2002 he founded NGD Studios, and leaded the development of Champions of Regnum, a 3D MMORPG, first of its kind in Latin America. He is the Game Director for Master of Orion where he’s responsible for creating and sustaining a vision for the comeback of this legendary game during the development of the project.
is CTO and Development Director at NGD Studios.
Javier started making games when he was 15 years old. He founded Sabarasa in 1996, one of the first game studios in Latin America, where he created several games including Mazes of Fate, Horizon Riders and Art of Ink. He joined NGD Studios in 2013 as CTO. He is the Development Director of Master of Orion where he is in charge of coordinating the development of the game and the programming team.
is Senior R&D Manager at Wargaming.
Alex Zezulin works at Wargaming’s headquarters in Cyprus, in the Research and Development Department. Here, the team comes up with new games for Wargaming and helps improve existing products and services. Alex is directly responsible for providing leadership for a group of creative minds and visionaries who generate crazy ideas for games, test if they are interesting and up-to-date, using a variety of scientific methods, and submit them as formal documents to take their project off the ground. In Master of Orion, Alex performed several duties. At the beginning of the project, he was in charge of communication between the NGD team in Argentina and Wargaming visionaries, and personally with Viktor Kislyi, who actively participated in the design of the game. Later, Alex was involved in guiding the project regarding game design, and helped verify/greenlight the stages of development.
is Lead Game Designer at NGD Studios.
Leandro started His career in the games industry at NGD Studios in 2008 where he was picked from within Champions of Regnum’s community to become lead the QA team. Thanks to his deep understanding of the game’s systems he quickly became a game designer and later the producer of the aforementioned MMORPG. Master of Orion became his first project as a Lead Designer, where he leaded a talented group of Designers in order to reimaging and bring new life into one of the most iconic strategy games in history.
is Art Director at NGD Studios.
In his 10 years in the games industry, Andrés led the art vision of several videogames, trained staff and helped developing updated pipelines to achieve better quality standards. At the production of Master of Orion, he was responsile for the re-imagined art, produced key art for the different parts of the game from characters and cinematics to interfaces and ensured the quality and the vision of the final product working alongside the areas of game design and programming.
is Lead UX Designer at NGD Studios.
Jerónimo is a professional graphic designer who’s been working on User Interfaces for AAA games for the last 8 years. He worked on big franchises such as FIFA, Need for Speed and Command & Conquer. He is now responsible for the User Interface and Experience of the legend Master Of Orion, bringing this beloved game’s UI to the current standards and modern gamer needs.