My Sunday morning browsing led me to this thread on the Interstellar Space: Genesis forums. In it, players were discussing how faithful ISG should be to Master of Orion 2, a game for which they hope ISG to be the “spiritual successor”. It’s not a particularly noteworthy thread if only because some variation of this discussion appears any time a new space 4X game is being developed. This is indeed both a very common discussion and lament among space 4X fans!
A brief history is in order so we can understand sentiments like this. With apologies to earlier space 4X games, it’s generally well-received wisdom that the original Master of Orion in 1993 established that brand as iconic within the 4X genre. It was an extremely popular game for its time, contending with Civilization (1991) as the best 4X on the market. In fact, the term “4X” was originally coined to describe this game!
In 1996, a sequel was released (MOO2) which ascended to even greater sales heights. Although it was functionally quite different from its predecessor, it made a tremendous impact on the genre, setting the standard for what a space 4X game should be. The disastrous launch of MOO3 in 2003, which left the “Master of Orion” brand in tatters, further cemented the iconic status of its predecessor as the “greatest space 4X game ever made.”
The debacle of MOO3 created a void in the genre for years that many indie developers have since tried to fill. They often postured their games as “spiritual successors” of MOO2, perhaps as a way to gain traction with MOO2 fans who simply want an updated version of their beloved game. In a way, this is analogous to the effect that World of Warcraft had on the MMORPG genre for years and the continual creation of “WoW killers”. And, if MOO2 is WoW, then that makes MOO1 the Everquest of the genre since it paved the way for its more popular successor.
What is a Spiritual Successor?
This is a subjective term but I think that most people will agree that a “spiritual successor” is a game that evokes the original while making improvements. It’s not just a graphically updated version of the game, but a different and hopefully better version of the game. This is why you often hear developers describe their “spiritual successor” games as “MOO 2.5”, implying that it’s definitely not MOO2 but instead a properly iterated version of that game.
So why do so many of these spiritual successors disappoint? This is a common outcome, after all, and is often tinged with allusions to developer betrayal. The problem, in my opinion, is about the iteration. 4X games are complicated beasts with many interlocking subsystems, and every gamer has different opinions about which subsystems are the “weak links” and most in need of improvement. If the developers believe differently, they often will modify systems that some gamers consider vital and untouchable. This ultimately leads to a broader disappointment with the game as gamers flock to the next title claiming to be the “spiritual successor”.
The importance of Lineal Legitimacy
You may ask, “ok, so how do any strategy games improve without alienating their playerbase?”. I think the answer to that is the notion of lineal legitimacy. Like nerdier versions of George Lucas, the creators of a franchise are often considered the writers of canon for the series no matter how good or bad it turns out. I think this is a very real thing and why, for example, many MOO fans occasionally ask if races from the disastrous MOO3 will ever be added to these various MOO2 “spiritual successors”. Why would they do that if MOO3 was terrible? It’s because, as bad as the game was, the additional lore and races surrounding it still carry the legitimacy of canon. MOO3 is akin the Star Wars prequels in that it can’t be ignored no matter how hard we try.
Reclaiming Lost Legitimacy
The example of Civilization
The Civilization franchise, created by Sid Meier, has an interesting bump in its early history that many gamers forget about. The first two titles were created by Meier and Brian Reynolds (Civ2) at Microprose. When Meier left and formed Firaxis Games, Microprose licensed the Civilization title for a sequel to be created by Activision. Called “Civilization: Call to Power“, this was a genuinely good game that I played for hundreds of hours. It had a lot of very cool and interesting feature iterations that made it interesting to play which, for brevity, I will not list here.
Despite this, CTP was rejected soundly by many players because of those changes. I propose that the primary reason is that the game did not have lineal legitimacy in the eyes of many gamers because it was not a Sid Meier game. This makes sense when you realize that every Civilization game was not called “Civilization”, but rather “Sid Meier’s Civilization”.
When Sid Meier and Firaxis reclaimed the right to make a Civilization title, all of the functional improvements introduced in Call to Power were washed away, and they released Civilization 3 as an iteration over Civ2. There were no social works projects, no future technologies, no distinction between ranged/melee combat, no separate map layer for air units, etc etc (haha I just listed them). But Civ3 was wildly successful because it was a great game.
So we have an example here where the original creator returns to a title and reclaims lineal legitimacy.
Not reclaiming legitimacy
The example of Master of Orion
After the MOO3 debacle in 2003, most MOO fans considered the franchise completely dead and moved onto other space 4X games like Galactic Civilization, Endless Space, StarDrive and Distant Worlds. But 2014 created waves in the genre when Wargaming.net announced a reboot of the iconic franchise with Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars. But how could they claim lineal legitimacy when they were not the original creators of the franchise?
They presumably recognized this dilemma and subsequently made a great show of bringing the original creators onto the project as consultants. We were shown videos of these creators raving about how this sequel, created by NGD studios, was true to the original series. This was all a transparent, albeit necessary, attempt by Wargaming to bring legitimacy to their version of the game.
Ultimately, despite the vocal backings of the creators and a AAA budget, their reboot failed to gain acceptance mainly for the same reasons as so many indie efforts: their changes to the original formula were simply not accepted by the MOO2 loyalists that they needed for success. Rants about changes, for example, to their ship combat system peppered their forums and Steam reviews.
The example of X-Com
X-Com was another extremely popular strategy game from the 90s that languished many years without a sequel. In fact, most fans gave up and assumed a sequel would never occur. Imagine their surprise after a decade-long drought when Firaxis acquired the rights to the title and announced a reboot.
X-Com: Enemy Unknown was released in 2012 to widespread critical acclaim and fan acceptance. An expansion arrived a year later and a sequel joined the franchise in 2016. If one accepts the importance of lineal legitimacy, how did Firaxis pull this off?
Well, there are two answers. One is that there is really no notion of lineal legitimacy and that players just want good games. But if that were the case, then space 4X gamers would have stopped pining for a MOO2 sequel after the many, high-quality AAA titles were released including Galactic Civilizations, Endless Space, Stellaris and yes, even Wargaming’s MOO.
Like Wargaming, Firaxis wanted to reboot the series and called it a “reimagination” of the original X-Com. But, unlike Wargaming’s effort, Firaxis’s reboot was very true to the mechanics of the original game. It even included the turn-based mechanics of the original game, showing that the old game mechanics were still perfectly viable in 2012.
In this case, Firaxis essentially created their legitimacy for X-Com out of whole cloth by first demonstrating that they could remake a modernized version of the original game. And once they have established their legitimacy, anything they do with the X-Com series is going to be considered canon by the players.
Testing the Theory
The example of Remnants of the Precursors
This is a game development blog maintained by a game developer discussing issues related to his own game. As such, it’s fair to wonder if I’m “putting my money where my mouth is”. I think that I am. Although I would love to create a “spiritual successor” to MOO1 with some of the cool things added in MOO2 (Antarans+leaders, anyone?), I really don’t think that I’ve earned the right to make that kind of a boast about any game I’m developing.
As a result, my plan has been from Day One to recreate MOO1 with aesthetic modifications for current times and try to convince gamers (and myself) that I actually know what I’m doing – and that I even belong on the stage. Once I’ve achieved that sort of acceptance from the MOO1 playerbase, then and only then will I begin work on a successor to the game with additional features.
This will be a good test of the theory because, unlike Firaxis and X-Com, I do not possess their technical wizardry to create a AAA game. Any game I create will have to stand on its less flashy elements.
Claiming to make “spiritual successor” for a popular game is a risky proposition for developers and seems doomed to disappointment. While you will certainly gain a larger early following, it is one that also brings with it a set of expectations and a perceived responsibility to meet those expectations.
Unless you can claim some sort of lineal legitimacy to the game you are drawing inspiration from, you will find that those expectations are a figurative mine field that brings with it a very vocal backlash of disappointed gamers if you make a wrong step.
Thanks for reading!