The Fourth X belongs to the player

After a recent discussion I had on the /r/4XGaming subreddit concerning the Stellaris AI, I’d like to elaborate on the role of the four X’s in the development of a good game AI.

As a nascent game developer, one thing I’ve learned is that there’s quite a bit of difference in difficulty between the implementation of an AI to handle each of the four X’s: Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate. Most notably, the first three X’s have been fairly straightforward to model while the fourth X is more challenging. And by “model”, I mean making the AI competent enough so that it can keep up with most players, even the good ones.

There’s a good reason for this, I think. The first three X’s are essentially the “AI vs. Randomized Map” or “AI vs. Game Mechanics”, which gives the AI a relatively stationary target at which to shoot. Once the developer understands how to explore a randomized map, how to prioritize the best colonization locations, and how to efficiently spend resources to develop your colony, then it becomes a fairly straightforward project to write an AI to do those things.

However, it’s also important to remember that the AI perform the first three X’s in a fashion repeatable by the player. The AI should never exploit game mechanics through some form of tedious “micro-management” that would be onerous for the player to reproduce. In other words, if the player wants to micro-manage the game in order to get an edge on the AI, he should be allowed to do so. But he should never feel forced to micro-manage in order to keep up, because that will suck the enjoyment out of the game.

A quick diversion on micro-management

A quick definition: micro-management is the constant and repeated use of minor actions that, on aggregate, provides a player with some tangible advantage that is unavailable otherwise. They often exploit edge conditions in the game mechanics that less competitive players disregard as inconsequential and/or not worth the effort.

Although there has been a concerted effort within this game to remove known micro-management issues from the original MOO1 mechanics, I am under no illusion that the ability to micro-management will ever be eliminated. One thing I’ve realized is that micro-management is not a game problem, but a player problem. Let me elaborate…

The real question is not, “Does this game have micro in it?” but rather, “Do players choose to micro in this game?”. There are three ingredients required for micro to exist and, if these ingredients are present, then there will be players who micro-manage no matter how the game is designed. These ingredients are:

1.  Time

2. A Challenging Opponent

3. Player Desire to Win

Let’s start with Time. Turn-based games have this in spades. After all, you are allowed each turn to spend as much time as you need before pressing “Next Turn”. This enables micro-management and is also why you don’t see real-time games with micro issues.

A challenging opponent creates the necessity to micro. If an AI is easy, then there’s no point in spending all of the effort. This is why you see players resorting to micro-management almost exclusively when playing in Hard and Impossible modes, but not in the standard Easy modes.

The player’s desire to win is also important. Of course, all players want to win, but the reality is that most players are looking for a fun game. If the difficulty level makes it too hard to win, then they turn it down. It’s why the default difficulty level for most games is set on Easy. Hardcore players who want a challenge are the distinct minority and they will ratchet up the difficulty as they get better. By the way, that the majority of players are not hardcore comes from an old Explorminate forum thread in which Brad Wardell of Stardock noted that vast majority (90%) of Gal Civ players never play on anything but the default (Easy) difficulty level. They’re just playing for fun!

So therefore, my goal in Remnants is not too eliminate micro-management (an impossibility), but to create a game where it is never necessary unless players choose to play on high difficulty levels. In those cases, they are intentionally allowing the AI to cheat with bonuses, so they can micro their hearts out!

Back to the Fourth X

The fourth X, Extermination, at some point pits the AI against a human player, who is not a stationary target and is therefore much more challenging to compete against. As a result, it is absolutely crucial that the AI perform the first three X’s very well so that it is well-positioned to take on the player with the fourth X. Even if it can’t keep up and ultimately loses, it will at least have given its human opponent the satisfaction of defeating a well-armed opponent. There should never be a situation where the player captures a few enemy colonies only to discover that the AI is fraudulent and has been cheating to keep up. That would be very unsatisfying.

To me, the ideal situation is where the AI is equal or better than the player at the first three Xs — because it has patience to check and re-evaluate every system on every turn whereas most players do not. This is very possible and I am gaining confidence that the Remnants AI may already be at this point. But afterwards, the player needs to heroically come from behind and achieve his glorious and well-earned victory through better strategic and tactical planning. Of course, the reality is that this strategic and tactical expertise does not magically appear in Game 1… it’s developed over time as the player learns what tactics work better than others.

Ultimately, the fourth X belongs to the player.

Thanks for reading!

 

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500 downloads

The Remnants alpha has been downloaded over 500 times now. It’s a minor milestone, to be sure, but a milestone nonetheless. If I had to guess, I’d say this represents 250-300 unique users after considering multiple downloads based on updated alpha versions.

I’m pretty happy about that since the game is still in Alpha and over a year from being feature-complete for the Beta. It means that the word is getting out about the game!

Thanks to everyone who has tried out the game and provided feedback. I listen to it all!

New Tech UI completed

Here is the newly redesigned Tech UI. It has all of the information of the previous, plus a little more, PLUS it has a nice, draggable, visual tree for each of the technology domains.

I’m very happy not just with the way it looks, but how it is much easier to navigate and use than the original Tech UI. In this particular screenshot, you can easily see which technologies have been learned, which are available, and which is currently being studied along with all of the RP costs for each one. You can drag the tree left or right to see more or less advance techs (or use the arrow keys).

You can mousewheel not just over the sliders as before, but also through the six technology domains.

I’ll probably make a short video tomorrow night detailing a lot of the UI changes that have already been made in preparation for the next Alpha, sometime in July.

NewTechUI

Well, it’s almost completed… I need to still draw some connecting arrows between the technology tiers, but that’s purely cosmetic.

Looking for Translators

This project is looking for fans willing to create additional foreign language translations of the game. If you would like to see Remnants translated to your native language and have a willingness to do this kind of work, please contact me for details at ray.fowler.email@gmail.com

We currently have translators for Polish, Greek and Spanish, but that leaves a lot of others!

The Roadmap: “Pick Two”

There is a truism in the software industry that undoubtedly applies to many other industries as well: “You can have it cheap, quick or good — pick two”

Every MOO1 fan who is interested in this project, and especially me, has been waiting 24 years and counting for a remake like this. I know that it kind of sucks that I am the only guy who has been willing to bite the bullet, open up his wallet, and make this game a reality but somebody has to be that guy. I guess it’s me.

My full-time job as a software developer is funding this project and I’m not asking for anyone’s money. That means I can only work part-time on it and also that I don’t have the financial capability to fund a team of artists and developers to flip this game in 6-9 months. If we want this game to be worth the wait, then it is going to take longer than we’d all like. I guess another truism is that good things always take a long time.

Fortunately, I have been blessed to find a talented artist, writer and graphic designer to professionally do the things I am not good at, which is everything except writing code. In the end, it will be worth the wait. This game is the only one I will ever make, so it is not going to be some random indie effort where the dev gets in over his head and gives up, or runs out of Kickstarter money and disappears in shame, or rushes to make a deadline and delivers a crappy product. This is going to end up as a really good, if not great, 4X game. I mean, it is literally going to be a modernized recreation of what is arguably the best space 4X game ever made. You can choose to disbelieve now if you want, but I fully intend to prove you wrong!

The completely optional boxed set is going to exist because I am not really a big fan of leasing content, nor of purchasing content that is only available through online access. I believe that if you purchase a game, you should have some physical object (i.e. a boxed set) that you can pull out and install on any random PC at any point in the future, with no requirement that you have an internet connection and a valid account with a 3rd party like Steam. I just need to work out whatever terms are necessary with Wargaming.net to make sure they don’t feel it infringes on their intellectual property — something I’ve conspicuously tried to avoid in the game so far.

Anyway, please stick with the project. Wait it out and especially get the word out to those MOO1 fans who haven’t heard of it yet — I hope they will thank you. Most importantly, enjoy the Alphas as we progress to the final version.  I’m trying to be as transparent as possible, and the Alphas are my promise to you that I know what I’m doing. As both a developer and a gamer, this project has already given me a tremendous amount of satisfaction and I want to be sure that everyone who plays the game enjoys playing it as much as I am enjoying making it.