The Master Of Orion Developers Can't Possibly Win

At PAX Australia last year, NGD Studios executive producer Randy King told me that Wargaming acquired the Master of Orion (MoO) IP because the company’s billionaire CEO, Victor Kislyi, wanted his kids to be able to enjoy the game the way he had.

But the fans that grew up with the iconic franchise aren't kids. They're grown men and women who have seen a galaxy of pretenders come and go, full of promise but lacking the flavour or flair of SimTex's games.

NGD Studios can't possibly win.

On October 31, it'll be 20 years to the day since Master of Orion 2 launched in North America. The original, responsible for coining the 4X (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate) genre, will have been out for 23 years by then.

That's a lot of time to love something — and fans very much still love the Master of Orion franchise.

The available modules, and strategies, for your ships were staggering

The level of reverence for the space strategy borders on the fanatical, although not without reason. MoO introduced systems and mechanics well beyond its years: customisable races, a unique research tree that strengthened the need for diplomacy and espionage, a comprehensive ship builder, and nuanced diplomatic behaviours that included the ability to have border skirmishes with opponents without resulting in all-out war.

For a game that's more than two decades old — or almost, in MoO 2's case — the nostalgia factor is exceptionally hard to beat.

Each of the characters and models are voiced, although the VO for the advisors gets annoying fast

So NGD Studios, the Argentinian developers responsible for the latest entry to the MoO name, has opted for a different path. Rather than remaking SimTex's systems carte blanche, they're creating a more accessible, relatable game.

To do so they've had to scrap some of MoO's most iconic elements. The ability to travel to any star system, provided it's within your ship's range? That's gone, scrapped in favour of a linear, more easily understood system of starlanes.

The turn-based tactical combat mode? That's gone too, replaced with a real-time component that allows users to move their ships and activate abilities mid-battle.

MoO's model of research, where technologies were split into separate paths that different races had various affinities for? A model where less creative races were forced to either trade or make difficult choices about what branches of research to explore? That's been replaced with a flat, Civilization-esque technology tree.

R&D is far more homogenised in the reboot

Understandably, some fans are upset. Master of Orion was never a strategy game that you could immediately play and comprehend the same way you could Colonization or Civilization. It was more of a grand strategy game, the father of a genre.

The MoO reboot is almost the inverse. In a world where Endless Space 2 and Stellaris are promising more complexity, more layers of management, and more intricate elements, NGD Studios have opted to strip all of those away.

The micromanagement of your colonies is simplified. The need to manage each colony's food, or the transfer of food from one planet to another, has been removed. That's a concession for modern times, albeit another divisive ones.

The UI is exceptionally clean, although the planets themselves are lacking a little character

Perhaps the most striking criticism of the reboot so far is the lack of character across the board. By diluting the necessity of trading technologies and diplomacy — not to mention the missing espionage system, which hasn't been implemented yet — the races themselves become less unique.

Some of these elements will never change, however. NGD Studios won't overhaul the tech tree into entirely separate paths as was the case with the original MoO games. The races would need specific affinities and aversions to different technologies. Players would have to make a choice every time they researched something (unless you were the Psilons).

It'd be more interesting, but it won't happen.

Similarly, the unrestricted movement from the originals will never be introduced. In an interview earlier this year, Wargaming's Chris Keeling explained that without them, players would be able to exploit the AI far too easily.

"There's no real grand tactical thinking, it's more like if I can sneak in a colony ship behind them and a small fleet then I can take over a planet in their backyard," Keeling said. "Those techniques work; AI's don't understand them, but people do, so it's a kind of trick you can play on the AI."

Which is all well and good if you're just playing the AI; less so if you're playing against human opponents.

You can reload any turn from the score screen, which is a nice touch

But how many gamers in 2016 really want that degree of complexity? I'm almost reminded of time spent binge watching Kitchen Nightmares, seeing Gordon Ramsay stare at befuddled chefs trying to unpack the logic of their thinking. "I'm going to lose my regular customers," the restaurant owners and head chefs would often cry, ignoring the fact they were going broke nonetheless.

How many fans of the originals are there still? And how does that compare to the potential audience for an accessible space 4X, a game perhaps more immediately understood than an Endless Space 2 or a Stellaris?

It's impossible to say. Steam Spy estimates that nearly 50,000 gamers have picked up Master of Orion in Early Access, an impressive figure given the US$49.99 asking price.

That's not a bad start. And there are certainly plenty of promised changes. But much of that original MoO flavour is missing, seemingly to never return, much that was integral to the character of the series.

This is one of the most beloved PC games of all time, only one of two games in Kotaku's readers list to have five separate recommendations.

No matter what they do, NGD Studios can't win.


Comments

    100 solar system cap for the map. Compared to Gal Civ 3, Distant Worlds and other modern 4xs that is pathetically low.

      Have you played MOO2? I doubt a huge-sized galaxy (the max one) would even get close to 100 systems. Given the level of complexity and micro-management required to manage even that many systems, it never felt too low.

        72 was the limit in MoO2, from memory. I agree though, it's not about the number of systems but the quality - what each system adds to gameplay.

        Last edited 15/03/16 2:41 pm

        Yes indeedy I have. I could try and explain to you how much I played it and discussed it endlessly with a circle of friends who were just as devoted but it would sound kind of cultish.

          See my comment below - I have been playing it regularly since it released.

            That's nice. Do you still manually create autoexec.bat and config.sys files to try and load mouse and sound card drivers into high memory or do you accept things have moved on in that area?

            If you want to be stuck with a hard limit of 100 systems fine, but some ppl are a bit more ambitious than that. We have craptons more RAM now than we did back then, and that was what really set the map size limit back then.

              I agree with the comments above, I would rather have 100 systems or less and a well flushed out Strategy game then a 4x nightmare. With things like Sins, Distant Worlds, Stellaris (Really looking forward to), and my latest buy in 4x Space games, Star Ruler 2, a very in depth game that has technology that can literally make as many systems as your computer has RAM/CPU. You can make systems to big it would take your lifetime to get thru. These are games that are already great and fit the bill.

              That aside, I think it's ok they are trying new things, I also think it's shit they are taking the things that made it a unique 4X. But I think saying that if you're 4x game has less than X amount of assets in it than that of other titles makes it "pathetic" is a very, no offence, stupid argument to make, even if I do dislike some of the new features. I mean Star Citizen is going to have a limited amount of solar systems, yet Elite has so many that it would again, be impossible for everyone to visit every single system, yet alone one person, different games with different limitations, most of the time for reason. You can go and compare these games for what they are, but that's just sad and not intelligent, they all have specific things that make them their own. You should select a game you prefer and play what makes you happy and stop bagging on the games that do not fit your expectations of what is fit for games to be based on the year or technology that may take the engine etc. Take Xcom as a prime example, not taken to consoles because they didn't want to compromise on quality, complex AI and systems as well as graphics. Quantity doesn't equal immersive or good, fun, what ever. To any extent. Massive worlds are daunting to a player, and to a developer, it can also affect the game dramatically in so many ways, most of the time not for the best as open world, randomly generated or otherwise need a massive amount of thought put into them to plug up exploitation and other things. There are a limited number of games out there that I can say "That's a great massive open world that really draws me in and has little to no imperfections, code,engine or aesthetically". The only company I absolutely have faith in to build a open world with very little bugs in is CD Projekt RED, Rockstar.

              Look if it's your favorite IP getting shafted, well, blame society for being casuals if you want, I understand how it feels to get a brand/title you followed get massacred. Fact is gaming is going in 2 directions, the unplayable competitive scene like DOTA,CS etc, and the casual quick play for let's plays and streamers. Why? Because there is too much money in both for publishers and devs. Sorry if I went a little off topic, but it's all sort of relevant.

              Don't think I am attacking you, I just think the way you compare it to other games with more systems is a comparison that is fairly stupid.

    The stuff in this article is exactly what I feared would happen with Wargaming's influence over the title. They have zero pedigree with this genre of game, their other products are all arcadey action-fests. I probably won't be picking up this game because of it. I don't want a dumbed down, 'accessible' generic video game that could have been released under any franchise, I want a successor to Master of Orion 2. And from what I've seen so far it doesn't look like we'll be getting that. I find that really disappointing.

      I am a huge MOO2 fan - I think I would have played at least a few hours of the game every month since I first picked it up back in '96 (and some months much, much more).

      I've played about ~20 hours of MOO, so I think I've got a pretty good feel for it, and I actually really like what Wargaming are doing with it. I mean, let's face it - if you want to play MOO2, just play MOO2 - you even get a copy of it when you buy MOO. The simplicity of the UI has meant the game has aged incredibly well, and it's just as fun and challenging today as it was when I first bought it 20 years ago.

      I mean, let's break the changes down.

      Starlanes: The introduction of starlanes is contentious, but I like it. Games of MOO2 would often wind up with enemy fleets roving around your planets, destroying one and moving on before your own fleet could catch up. It was incredibly frustrating, because larger empires would be literally impossible to defend until you researched Stargates (or to a lesser extent jump gates).

      Technology:

      MoO’s model of research, where technologies were split into separate paths that different races had various affinities for?

      Didn't exist. Past the introductory technologies, in MoO2 you got a few choices per research tier, and you got to pick one (unless you were Psilons or had the Creative perk, in which case you got all). The thing is - with a few exceptions, most of the research tiers had a clear choice. The number of genuinely difficult decisions was minimal. The new MOO actually has this - for certain research tiers, you get a number of options and have to choose which one you want.

      Combat - I think the real-time combat is fine. It's more even than MOO2, where whoever attacked first had a MASSIVE advantage (particularly if you went for some phasing cloak / time-warp facilitator shenanigans). You still get to design specific ships and control them, so I quite like it.

      I think the main thing that's missing in the espionage component, and that's clearly coming. I am really optimistic that this game is going to turn out very well.

        Ok this gives me hope. Thanks @cffndncr for writing that up. Everytime I look at the game though, I just want to go and play Civ V again :P

          Don't get me wrong - there are still a bunch of bugs and missing features, so you're probably still better off playing Civ 5 for the time being... but I am quite optimistic that this is going to (eventually) be a great game.

        Games of MOO2 would often wind up with enemy fleets roving around your planets, destroying one and moving on before your own fleet could catch up. It was incredibly frustrating, because larger empires would be literally impossible to defend until you researched Stargates (or to a lesser extent jump gates).

        I never had this problem. You get a significant amount of warning when an enemy fleet is inbound, and you ensure your defence fleets are positioned correctly along your territorial borders to ensure coverage. If your fleet couldn't get to the system before theirs did, you were positioning your fleets badly.

        The thing is - with a few exceptions, most of the research tiers had a clear choice. The number of genuinely difficult decisions was minimal.

        Strongly disagree. If you had settled on a particular playstyle then your choices were obviously in line with that style, but the options for a lot of topics were genuine choices that suited different styles. Psilon/Creative was obviously a way to shortcut that, but I played a lot of games with custom races that didn't have Creative and found the choices to be genuinely interesting enough that I'd try to plan them out beforehand.

        I agree that the bit of the article you quoted isn't a good description of MoO2's research system though.

        Regarding combat, the issue you raised is endemic to any turn-based system, and it was never a particularly serious issue in MoO2. Attackers move first, defenders get planetary defenses. It tends to balance out quite nicely.

        The phasing cloak/time warp facilitator combination was a design balance issue more than a turn-based combat issue, and it was patched so turns alternated. If the enemy also has a time warp facilitator (regardless of whether they have phasing cloak or not) the benefit is effectively cancelled, you don't get two turns in a row in that circumstance.

        I appreciate that you're enjoying the game, but I don't like the look of any of the stuff I've seen so far. I may revisit it later down the line if it looks like the areas I care about have improved but right now I just don't see what I want from a Master of Orion game.

          If your fleet couldn't get to the system before theirs did, you were positioning your fleets badly.

          Or, you're trying to fend off attacks from multiple races across several fronts and don't have the fleet strength to cover all of your planets. This is how most of my games play out.

          Strongly disagree. If you had settled on a particular playstyle then your choices were obviously in line with that style, but the options for a lot of topics were genuine choices that suited different styles.

          Sure, there were some hard choices. The remake has some too. Do I think it could use more of those hard-choice scenarios? Definitely! But saying that MOO2 had only hard choices and the remake has none is very misleading.

          Regarding combat, the issue you raised is endemic to any turn-based system, and it was never a particularly serious issue in MoO2. Attackers move first, defenders get planetary defenses. It tends to balance out quite nicely.

          The planetary defenses were only really relevant early in the game - once you got a semi-serious fleet, it could demolish you whenever it went first regardless of what emplacements you had. That's why I quite like the move to starlanes and real-time combat - being able to create chokepoints and removing that attacker first-move advantage means that playing defensively is actually a legitimate strategy, whereas in MOO2 if you concentrated your defenses on the border the enemy would pull a Hitler and be all like 'lol what maginot line?' and go around.

          I mean yeah, it's different. I'm not 100% sold on the changes, and I really hope they can nail the espionage component (which was one of my favourite parts of MoO2). But I'm still optimistic that this is going to get quite a bit better before it gets to full launch, and think there's a lot to like there already.

            I had to compartmentalise the explanation of MoO 2's research system a bit. Ended up rewriting the whole piece four times because I kept going into too lengthy an explanation of how ahead of its time MoO 2 was.

            Mind you, if you had the uncreative buff in MoO 2, you didn't get a choice -- you got a technology at random. And the new MoO has very few technologies where you'll have to choose one or the other; you pretty much get all the tools with most techs.

            It's Early Access and there's a lot of work to be done. Interested to see how the inclusion of espionage will play out, and what kind of impact that might have on defending/breaking chokepoints, technologies, alliances and what not.

            At the moment the thing that bugs me the most is that any conflict immediately results in all-out war, and if you don't accept absolutely absurd offers (GIVE ME YOUR HOME PLANET OR NAH) then you're also destined to go to war. It's irrelevant because the AI is trash at this stage and you're always guaranteed to have a massive advantage, but meh /end vent

              Yeah, it's very obviously still not a polished game. I'm hoping they change considerably more of the tech tree to that pick-one decision... at the moment, espionage wouldn't seem to be that powerful since, as you said, everyone can research almost everything. I used to love playing MOO2 with solid spying buffs, and just stealing all the technology I needed.

              And yeah... diplomacy definitely needs some fine-tuning, and a decent AI wouldn't go amiss.

    I hate statements like "more accessible" - meaning "we went from an easy to understand, strategise and control turn-based-combat system to a chaotic real time action shootem up system where you have no real control over anything and will be constantly frustrated by the individual unit's AI's doing crazy stuff more rapidly than all but the most uber micro players will have any chance of controlling".

    "But how many gamers in 2016 really want that degree of complexity?" This is my other lament with the current state of gaming. The age old "bucks vs quality" issue. It seems like all the big companies are rather more interested swimming in money vaults than making good games. It's not enough to make a great game that appeals to < 1 million audience and sell it for a reasonable price.. now it's all about marketing to everyone it's possible to get to play a game, including gamers who think Solitaire and Minesweeper are the pinnacle of AAA gaming.

    Please don't take that the wrong way if you include yourself in that group. I use it purely as a point to say "Publishers/Developers, if you're making a game that traditionally has features X/Y/Z and falls into genre A/B, please don't change everything about it just to also rope in people who like genre I/J/K in the hopes of increasing profit by 10000%".

    Yes, we all like money. Yes, businesses exist to make money.. but surely there's room for "make a great game with the features people expect and live with oodles of money from sales instead of potentially squillions (but fall flat on your face because you didn't make the game people actually wanted).

    /rant over.

    Sounds cool to me...but all games in this genre sound cool until I try them. Guess it's just not a game genre for me, seems like there's too much time investment to understand it before playing. I know that's what some love about it but it's a big barrier to entry that I just can't climb.

    I bought Endless Space in a steam sale...think it clocked me at around 10 mins playtime before I uninstalled.

    Last edited 15/03/16 3:49 pm

    I played MoO (Microprose) on my Mac when it was first released (1993). Loved the game.
    I'm now 41, and even if a game managed to recapture what it and MoO2 produced, I would find myself wanting.
    I'll explain briefly; In the 90's graphics cards were woeful. 64k to 2 meg of memory, very little hardware compute. The game developers had to squeeze everything they could out of them- and even then- it wasn't much. They had to make up for the graphics with gameplay design.
    Today though, if a game doesn't look good enough and has great gameplay- it generally will get "mixed" status. It means we as gamers are our own worst enemies. We want great gameplay, and great graphics. The thing that is unrealistic about this- the 90s were all about gameplay- so many great innovations came from this era that it is really hard to top. It's like trying to come up with a new cartoon comedy plotline that the Simpson's haven't already done.

    Last edited 15/03/16 4:15 pm

    Anyone ever play MoO 3?... yeah exactly... pretty sure that had 'starlanes' too.. Terrible, terrible game.. So far its shaping up to be as good as MoO3 was.....

    After the disappointment that was the first trailer I saw for this version of MoO, the fact they appear to have dumbed it down, and this version does not appear to have nearly the same level of customisation the old one did (especially with racial picks), its an easy pass.

    Gotta say, its surprising they feel the need to streamline and dumbdown aspects of the game. While MoO2 was initially overhwhelming with the amount of options, I feel there are better ways to introduce that sort of complexity rather than dumb it down and claim that 2016 gamers don't want complexity. It is apparent from the amount of feedback this reboot is generating, people actually do like (and appreciate) games with a bit of depth...

      It's in early access. Custom races are coming, as are espionage, and from what I can tell they are listening to feedback.

      I'd say at least wait until the game gets a full release before you pass judgement.

    billionaire CEO, Victor Kislyi, wanted his kids to be able to enjoy the game the way he had.

    Couldn't he just have gotten the original game then?
    Sounds like the game being made is nothing like the experience of the original.

    If Wargaming does for MoO what Firaxis did for XCOM, I'll be all fucking over it.
    Modern sensibilities are not a bad thing. Many of the things we did in the olden days were not as good as nostalgia might make us think they were.

      That oldschool model for the research and the way various races played into that would have been pretty interesting though. The flat technology research tree is pretty boring these days.

        Simtex had the tech trees nailed, they were compelling things to learn the ins and outs of and that was part of the fun. Even Master of Magic essentially had a tech tree, though it was magic research rather than scientific.

    Oh goodness, no turn based combat? That was one of the main things I loved about MOO 1 & 2. The whole tactical battle field where I could plan things out. I do like Galactic Civ and Sins of a Solar Empire,but the formers hands off combat, and the latters RTS just didn't grab me as much as sitting back and planning out each move, deciding what ship was going to attack who with an unrushed pace.

    Last edited 15/03/16 11:01 pm

    As the only person in history who seemed to like MOO3 going by these comments. I find the latest one to be overly simplified.

    you know master of orion 3 had star lanes and realtime combat... plenty of games in the genre have... this isn't a choice really to change things up... I feel like the author of this article doesn't follow the genre very closely.... moo4 being based partly on moo3? wow, big shocker. sure moo3 was unpopoular but that was largely due to the game not working. star lanes and real time combat are quite popular in the genre just look at stardrive2 or sots1.

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