Next release is about a week away

The GNN artwork has been completed and Petar is working on one minor GNN artwork item before he’s done. Kaitlin is done with her graphic design work planned for this release. Jeff is furiously working on the race-specific advisor text, and then he’s done.

All that is left is for me to integrate the artwork, finish some polish on the Fleets UI, fix a few bugs I’ve found while testing, and then do some compatibility testing on the Raspberry Pi 3.

After that, I’ll make a couple of brief videos — a “What’s changed since the last release” along with a brief Let’s Play for people new to the game.

It’s all on me now and my calendar is free over the entire weekend, so hopefully it will be ready late next week or just after the following weekend.

The game is still in an alpha state but I think the alpha testers from last summer will see very visible progress towards eventual completion.

The Case for Limiting Complexity and Depth

A lot of times when people talk about strategy games, a discussion about the differences between complexity and depth arise. This is a topic that can give one a lot of insight, but it’s been expounded upon in far better ways than I can offer. For example, here is a great article by Sulla on that very topic. It’s well worth the read!

What I would like to discuss is what realistic limits should be placed on depth and why this should be so. Ultimately, I think it’s important to set limits in order to both avoid overwhelming players or to trivialize the game. Let me elaborate…

There’s a concept in psychology known as the “Rule of Seven”. Although there is a lot of disagreement about how valid it’s specifics are, the concept arises from the common sense notion that there is a finite number of complicated elements that the human brain can juggle at one time. Not exceeding this limit, whatever it may actually be, will be a characteristic of a well-designed game. As a guiding principle, I want to ensure that a player in Remnants has no more than seven of these complicated elements to juggle at any given time.

For starters, what is a “complicated element” in a 4X strategy game like Master of Orion? In my view, it is a functional subsystem of the game that interacts and affects other subsystems of the game, while also requiring specialized knowledge to use that doesn’t apply to those other systems. In effect, these subsystems are like “mini-games” within the game that the player must master in order to win.

Let me clarify by listing what I think are the eight functional subsystems of the original Master of Orion (and therefore Remnants).

1. Scouting and Colonization – this subsystem actually represents two of the 4 X’s on a 4X game: Exploration and Expansion. In MOO, each is simple enough and they are interrelated enough to consider them as part of a single subsystem required to expand throughout the galaxy. Think about the skills you need: optimally target unscouted systems and prioritize which systems you want to colonize first. It’s not always about scouting the nearest planets or colonizing the best planets. Sometimes a player will follow patterns that are less optimal for strategic reasons, like colonizing a well-placed Ultra Poor planet first to ensure that an enemy can never reach an inner region of more valuable planets.

2. Research – deciding what to research and when to rush-research important technologies. A player’s research strategy literally affects every other subsystem on this list. Decisions made here can have cascading effects throughout the game, so a good knowledge of which techs are more valuable for your strategy is essential.

3. Colony Development – while getting your colony up to speed is not as complicated in MOO1 as it is in other games, the player needs to decide when to push for population increase, build ships, build missile bases, or focus on research. These decisions will vary on each colony based upon their maturity, their resources (or lack thereof) and strategic position on the galactic map.

4. Ship Design – one of the most interesting subsystems in MOO involves the design of your ships. Because of interactions with specials, some players try to build lethal combinations of ship stacks. Others focus on brute force damage. There is also the consideration of building dozens of huge ships or literally thousands of small ships. Personal preferences, racial bonuses and your technology base all play into this subsystem.

5. Fleet Deployment – this is the skill of knowing where and when to exert your military power against your opponents. It is possibly the most abstract “mini-game” in MOO and a well-timed surprise invasion (or perhaps the just-in-time arrival of a defensive fleet) can often make the difference between winning and losing. When players come back to win from against long odds, it’s often because of their skill in this subsystem.

6. Ship Combat – maneuvering your ships in tactical combat is another important mini-game. Which fleets should you target first? Should you chase down their fleets or kite them? Is retreat an option? Perhaps a mad but suicidal dash to bomb the enemy planet is the best goal. All of these decisions are unique to this subsystem and important to learn.

7. Diplomacy – this subsystem revolves around the art of manipulating your opponents into doing what you want them to do. Who do you choose as your enemies and friends? Is it worth giving up a valuable technology to get the Alkari to break their alliance with the Bulrathi so that you can take over those bear-infested planets?

8. Spying – the last important subsystem in MOO that I could think of is spying. Espionage or sabotage? Whom to target, what technologies to steal. We don’t really need that computer technology, but it will make future spying a little easier. Can we knock out some missile base on a planet we want to invade? Who should we frame? Although the MOO spying mini-game is abstracted quite a bit, there are still a lot of interesting and meaningful decisions to make. And if you are playing the Darloks, you can control the entire galaxy through effective spying.

Some may have noticed that there are 8 subsystems listed but I have said that a good limit should be 7. It’s important to realize that not all of these systems are active at any given time. For example, by the time that you need to worry about the complexities of “Ship Combat”, the “Scouting and Colonization” phase of the game is almost over.

But it’s not just about the cognitive capacity of the players. After all, as players get more familiar with the game it becomes easier to juggle more subsystems since they are proficient with the others. We see this all of the time in the 4X genre as experienced players ask for more and more features while new players are often overwhelmed with the game.

Another thing to consider is that increasing the number of strategic subsystems in the game has the unappreciated effect of devaluing them all. For example, if you have 7 well-balanced subsystems in a game, then each one should arguably contribute 14% to your chances of winning against another player or a very competent AI. But if a developer adds too many subsystems, they become increasingly irrelevant. Twelve subsystems means that each one contributes only 8% to your chances of winning. This means that a player is free to completely ignore some subsystems and still win against any AI except perhaps the strongest.

Allow me to make a sports analogy to illustrate further…. football vs basketball. What is the relative merit of a scoring event in basketball vs. a scoring event in football? Obviously, the difference is huge. A basketball team may score 50 times in a game while a football team scores 4 to 6 times. Every scoring attempt in football is potentially critical to attaining a win, whether it’s in the 1st quarter or the 4th. In basketball, however, many fans don’t really tune in until the last 5 minutes of the game because that’s when the important baskets count. You never see a sports replay highlighting the big 3-pointer made early in the game (because no one cares).

In the same way, it’s important for a strategy game to have enough subsystems so that there is enough interaction between them (i.e. “depth”) to make the game interesting, but not so many that they become trivialized. A player who can win consistently without even bothering with seemingly important systems in the game will often conclude that the game is too easy.

So what does this mean about incorporating additional subsystems into a post-MOO1 version of Remnants, such as Leaders, Strategic Resources, Colony Improvements, Golden Ages, new Victory Conditions, tactical Ground Combat, etc, etc etc. It means that great care must be taken to ensure that these changes provide enjoyable variety and replayability, but don’t create so much interaction that they increase the complexity and depth of the game. We often forget that too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing. So many developers seem to give into the urge to throw in everything but the kitchen sink that, while players get what they wanted, they nevertheless often walk away from the game with a vague “meh” feeling (see: Stellaris?).

Every 4X game designer has arguably over a dozen well-trodden strategic elements and tropes to choose from when making his game. My position is that the best-designed 4X games are those where that developer picks the 6 to 8 elements he thinks should be in his  game and then makes those work as well as possible.

Those are my opinions on this topic. Thanks for reading!

Sakkra GNN almost done…

Below is a static image of what the Sakkra GNN screen will look like. The Sakkra are environmentalists by nature and shun the idea of making robotic copies of themselves. Thus, their GNN Host is an actual Sakkra. Also, seeing the paradise that they’ve created for themselves almost makes me want to be a Sakkra!

The Silicoid host is also not a robotic version of their race. It’s more of an animated cube that displays the news. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good representative image of it to post, but I’ll post a screenshot once it’s incorporated into the build.

Here’s the Sakkra!

9 Ways that 4X AIs disappoint us

Every fan of 4X strategy games knows the disappointment of suddenly realizing that his impending and crushing victory, made against seemingly insurmountable odds, turns out to be against a bunch of hapless AI opponents. Below are the top 9 AI flaws that I recall 4X fans complaining about in various game forums.

As a developer of a 4X game, these shortcomings weigh heavily on my mind. Since my pet theory about how to write a good AI starts and ends with “Don’t do stupid things”, the items listed below are those I have either already fixed in Remnants or have concrete plans to address in the upcoming developer release (just weeks away).

Without further ado, here’s my list:

1. It doesn’t know how to play the game

This is a broad category but applies equally to almost every 4X title. For some reason, the AI doesn’t understand fundamentals about the virtual universe in which it inhabits. It doesn’t know how to explore nearby systems. It doesn’t expand well. It doesn’t understand how to develop its colonies. It can’t build a decent warship. These are all very common and cover every X in 4X!

In a release crunch, developers often conceal this shortcoming by giving the AI massive bonuses, but the curtain is soon pulled away when the player starts conquering systems and realizes that he’s playing against simpleton cheaters.

How I addressed this: Don’t wait until the end to write the AI. Lock down the basic 4X game mechanics early and get a basic AI going. Then as features are added, expand the AI to use them.

2. Love-Hate relationships

This is a common problem that makes diplomacy almost impossible. The Psilon love you so much. Oh wait, you sent an unarmed scout to explore a system — now they hate you! It was the scout, right? Or was it because we didn’t sell you our latest technology for pennies? It’s hard to tell because the root cause of diplomatic relations is often kept opaque to the player.

How I addressed this: Diplomatic events and their effects (good or bad) are tracked, and those effects decay slowly over time towards zero. This prevents the whiplash effect. The player can review these events in the Races UI, allowing him some agency in building relations with the AIs.

3. Empty threats

How many times has an AI declared war on you and done nothing? You lay in wait, bracing for an inevitable attack, and then 10 turns later that same AI laments, “This horrible war has gone on too long” and asks for peace.

This most likely happens because of some predetermined condition to trigger war (i.e. low diplomatic relations), but the AI is often too preoccupied with other things (like other wars) to muster a fleet against you before some turn counter expires and it re-examines its relations with you. We’re at war? Oh, let’s stop that.

How I am addressing this: When provoked into war, the AI will now enter into a silent “Cold War” stage against the player instead of announcing its intentions. During this time, it will prepare and launch attacks as if it had openly declared war. If the attacks never materialize and the AI changes its mind, the player is none the wiser. But if the attacks do launch, the AI will publicly declare war on the player right when the attacks begin. This way, there is an immediate connection for the player between “We are at war” and the enemy attacking on his colonies. This is how human players operate, so the AI should act no differently.

4. Suicidal tendencies

There is a breed of player who wants to control the galaxy without committing genocide and they see this a lot. Imagine that you have the Psilon cornered to a signal colony on a hostile planet and finally decide to cease the war and offer peace. Of course, they totally hate your guts right now and refuse, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. But they’re mad so, OK, let’s give them a bunch of stuff. No, they continue to attack you. So you have to exterminate the dumb AI.

This most likely happens because AI does not consider relative power levels in diplomacy, just the gradations between love and hate.

How I addressed this: Relative power levels are factored into decisions about declaring war and accepting peace. If the AI is more powerful than you, it will be more willing to declare war — even if it likes you. But if the AI is much weaker than you, it will be more willing to accept terms of peace — even if it despises you.

5. Knows who the player is

Have you ever noticed that you, the player, are often singled out for special treatment by the AIs? Perhaps they want to gouge you in every trade transaction but nevertheless trade freely among each other. Or maybe they declare war on you en masse while ignoring their own diplomatic squabbles.

Obviously, this is the developers trying to give you a challenge. Letting the AI know that you are not one of them and deserve special treatment is a lot easier than creating a competent AI.

How I addressed this: The player and the AI empires are represented internally so that they interact with each other through identical interfaces. As a result, the player is treated equally because no AI knows who the player is. This, of course, requires the AI to be relatively competent to provide a challenge.

6. Unable to concentrate attacks

Many times when the AI is attacking you, it does so in a particularly ineffective way by not concentrating its attacks. For example, it decides to send an armada of 100 ships to attack from multiple systems but they all arrive in different turns, meaning that you easily defeat each wave as they dribble in.

This is an understandable problem because writing code to plan large and coordinated offensives is pretty hard. However, it must be a solvable problem because we humans do it without expending a lot of brain power.

How I am addressing this: Attacking fleets use a nearby friendly system as a staging point. Only once the requisite number of ships have arrived does the invasion commence. For attacks that cannot be staged (e.g. transports for ground combat), travel speeds of individual transports will be tuned down so that they all arrive in the same turn. In the spirit of fair play, players will have this same option when they are launching transports as well.

7. Easily bribed

On the diplomatic front, it is often easy to abuse the AI by showering it with worthless trinkets. This makes it easy to keep potential enemies pacified without actually giving up anything. In the MOO series, for examples, technologies that have become obsoleted or unuseable are often still prized by the AI as if they had value. Players are quick to recognize and exploit this.

How I addressed this: There’s no way around this except to teach the AI the relative values of trade items, especially when those values can change drastically over time. For example, if the Sakkra have discovered Improved Terraforming +60, they need to know that Improved Terraforming +10 through +50 are now worthless. This even applies to special cases like realizing that Subspace Teleporters are worthless if everyone has Subspace Interdictors.

8. Short-term memory

Remember that time when an AI made a request or an offer to you, that you refused, and then they asked again? And again? And again? Diplomatic spamming does not occur in every game but, when it does, it’s extremely annoying. Some players solve this problem by turning off diplomacy entirely and waging all-out war

How I addressed this: AI diplomats have a memory. If one asks to trade the Deflector Shields IV technology for Controlled Radiated Environment and you refuse, it permanently stores that and will never ask again. Your refusal may not have a negative diplomatic effect, but it force you to re-initiate that particular request if you change your mind. This applies to all diplomatic requests.

9. No Personality

Getting insulted by an warmongering AI belongs in every 4X game. Listening to a defeated AI grovel or plead for mercy should also exist. But many 4X games focus more on the types of diplomatic transactions available (Declare War, Offer Alliance, etc) and less upon the distinctive verbage that actually makes an AI seem like a real opponent.

How I am addressing this: I bit the bullet and hired a writer to write custom dialogue for each of the races. I thought I could write well enough to do this until I saw what an actual writer could create, so I figured that I should defer to the competent one.

I hope this list was enlightening and enjoyable to read. I couldn’t think of a good tenth item but I am confident I forgot quite a few. Feel free to add your own in the comments!