The genre of 4X was established by legendary games like Civilization and Master of Orion and could successfully endure more than 20 years thanks to its fans.
There is something inherent to each of us as species in the 4X »eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate« genre. As a human race, these 4Xs were the foundation of great conquerors like Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. Though, what those leaders would have felt about playing a few rounds of Master of Orion or Civilization would require a time machine or phone box. They wouldn’t have called it 4X, that’s for sure, because the phrase was first coined by Alan Emrich in his September preview of Master of Orion for Computer Gaming World.
The early Days of 4X
4X games evolved from board games like »Risk« and »The Settlers of Catan«, with their deep strategic roots and beard-stroking contemplation to build and execute a winning strategy. It’s chess. And from that first click of the mouse, you’ve already put yourself within a niche. While accessible games can be defined by their ability to be picked up and played, 4X and strategy games have, by their very conceit, a higher barrier to entry. That doesn’t hinder their success, but you know that you’re not setting out to make the Minecraft or Angry Birds of the strategy genre. But at the same time, you’re trying to balance the hardcore fans with the newer fans to create an experience that they find equally rewarding.
In 1982 and 1983, when trees were big and games were small, Andromeda Conquest and Reach for the Stars were released. We can call them the first examples of the 4X genre in the computer game world. When the very first Civilization game appeared in 1991, which was a genuine masterpiece and a perfect example of this genre, there still was no such term. At the same time, in the early nineties, VGA Planets and Spaceward Ho!, games that developed the idea of managing a space empire, came into being. And finally, in 1993, MicroProse released the first Master of Orion.
After the release and success of Civilization and Master of Orion that we saw a peak begin to emerge. Ever since then, 4X games have grown in two directions – while galactic conquest games have generally become more hardcore, pushing the limits of size, numbers, and duration, the more historical games like Civ have become more approachable, widening the audience and growing the market. Just like any genre, you build it, and others will start building it, too. In 1994, Stardock brought out Galactic Civilizations; Space Empires emerged. By the late nineties, real-time was king and was even outselling turn-based games. But it was a quick rise and sharp fall. There was Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Civilization III, and Master of Orion III, which all underperformed and encountered development issues.
A successful Niche
A few of the saviors of the 4X genre in the early 2000s, were the remake of Galactic Civilizations and the Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War. The latter would make the 4X genre their bread and butter, releasing a number of critically acclaimed games that stayed true to the »eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate« genre. Civ came back triumphantly with Civilization IV (2005) and Civilization V (2010). Hardcore player loyalty has made a big impact on the market and getting games out there. These are the real champions of the brand. They’ll wait patiently for titles and spend hours upon hours in their worlds, so there is a sense of »debt« surrounding the genre.
PC and Mac platforms (taking into account DOS, AMI, etc.) have been the dominant 4X platforms since those genres existed. With tablet, and to a lesser extent phones, with their touchscreen capabilities, we’re seeing an expansion of platforms which feels more like a natural extension than console. However, that’s more reserved for the table management side of the game; when it gets down to combat, sometimes you simply need the accessibility and response of a keyboard and mouse combo. Not to mention the fact that trying to port a 4X experience to consoles is a really tricky, almost impossible task. To try to boil down the experience to a gamepad can be nigh-on impossible. And perhaps, through that, lies the pass to mass market accessibility? As we’ve seen, 4X is doing rather well.
How Wargaming stepped in
For Wargaming, some may consider that Master of Orion is not quite one of our core areas. But Wargaming’s roots are in strategy games. When the company was in its infancy, with fewer than 100 people, we made pay-to-play games – strategy games. Of course, they were real-time games, dedicated to historical events, mainly warfare. So that genre is definitely home to Wargaming.
Another point was that Victor Kislyi, our CEO and the founder of the company, adores global strategies. In his interviews, he always tells people that some of the titles that had the biggest impact on him were Civilization and Master of Orion. So, as soon as the opportunity to participate in an auction for the right to acquire the intellectual property rights for the game arose, we took part in it. Civilization has been thriving in the modern market, but Master of Orion has been in oblivion for about 20 years. And we gladly took part in its resurrection.
The Evolution of Master of Orion
For Master of Orion, our approach has been to create a space strategy 4X game that is easier to learn and play than the originals, but still retains all of the complexity and opportunities for micromanagement under the hood. As technology has moved forward, allowing us to create fully animated 3D characters with voice overs to replace 2D images with text and orchestral scores to replace MIDI music, we have also been able to expand the game onto multiple platforms and improve some of the design to make the game better suited for modern players. It’s not only for ourselves, who are older now and with less free time to play, but also the younger generation of gamers that we hope will take up the challenge to enjoy these kinds of games into the future.
The 4X game genre evolves and grows along with the development of the whole video game market, which in its turn depends on technology and platforms. In early times, it seemed that the step-by-step approach to arranging a 4X gaming session is a matter of course. However, after the rapid increase in computer power, which occurred in the late nineties, we saw the arrival of a beautiful real-time Imperium Galactica followed by other games that combined the depth of 4X strategies and the flexibility to control the rate of time flow. In Master of Orion, we use one form of this combination, where the strategic part of the game is turn-based, and clashes take place in real-time with the option to control the time flow and to pause.
As for the graphical component, it has never been the determining factor in 4X strategies. A game may be both perfectly ugly and dreadfully cute. All in all, the player will spend their time throwing back and forth imaginary numbers or pictured data tables and implementing their own victorious strategy. We have invested a lot of effort in giving Master of Orion a gorgeous outside filled with interesting content. However, at the end of the day, it’s only the skirmish of wits of real or computer opponents that matters.
And this brings us to the key thing that can evolve in this genre – the artificial intelligence (AI). The more computer hardware evolves, the less game developers need to help AI fight against live players. Games of the past used to deal with the issue of strong AI in a straightforward manner. Most of all, its strength was based on inexhaustible resources and situational awareness superior to that of the player. Frankly speaking, AI was a cheater. In today’s games, developers tend to avoid it. We know that it is honest competition and transparent conditions that are of importance for players in a strategy game. This is the kind of game we wanted to make of Master of Orion.
Alex’ Master of Orion player profile
What is your role in the Master of Orion creation process?
When we just started working on the game, I acted as a link between the Wargaming development team and creative potential, organized meetings of NGD designers and Victor Kislyi, the chief visionary of the game at that time, and took part in such discussions myself. After the project reached the production stage, I remained a consultant on the game design and continued to arrange for the acceptance of the game versions. We call them greenlight meetings in Wargaming and use them for key stages of the development of each product.
What’s your race of choice?
Definitely the Sakkra. They are a kind of crossbreed of orcs and dinosaurs: impossible to resist!
What’s your total hours spent playing Master of Orion?
Well over 140 hours—but that’s just the time I have recorded on Steam!
What’s your greatest achievement in the game?
Controlling and building up most of the galaxy with my own Jump Gates—that’s my favorite achievement.
About the author
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.