Master Of Orion: A Project Of Love That Became A 4X By Committee

As soon as Wargaming began openly slotting Master of Orion into emails about PAX Australia, I was immediately intrigued. There were so many questions to ask: why did Wargaming pick up Master of Orion in the first place? How does a free-to-play model even work with a 4X? And would they stay true to the original?

As it turns out, the answer is yes — exceedingly so.

“That will jumpstart my population, I’ll then come back and give them other things to do. This is all the same micromanagement from the original game, you can go down, you can choose where your population needs to be for every single colony that you have,” Randy King, NGD Studios executive producer, says as he shows me the basics of colony management.

“There’s nothing unfamiliar about this whatsoever,” I replied.

It’s the same familiar setup gamers have become accustomed to since Civilization 2. It’s quintessential Microprose design. It’s turn-based city/planet colonisation 101. It’s familiar.

As King runs me through the rest of the MoO basics, it’s hard not to spot all the modern influences. The spider-web tech tree has been scrapped for a clean, left-to-right, Galactic Civilizations-esque format.

Some tech options have trade-offs, offering only one of two specialisations to the player. That’s been done for a while, but most recently players would have seen that mechanic in X-COM and Civilization: Beyond Earth.

Certain technologies require rare resources, resources that can be traded and bartered with other parties. Trading with those parties can boost your influence with them; if you enjoy the risk and exceptional difficulty, you can aim for a diplomatic victory whereby the other players vote for you as Galactic Leader. I wonder where I’ve seen that before.

Oh and, as an aside, there are NPC factions that offer the players quests — and those factions also have a vote on the Galactic Council. They’re basically city states. Again, another Firaxis item.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Any of it. Or all of it. It’d be hard not to though: it’s basically a laundry list of mechanics from every other fantasy and sci-fi turn-based strategy game or 4X in the last few years.

I put it to King: would the developers, who have the benefit of weekly reports and conversations from a host of original Master of Orion leads including the EP, had more agency if the game wasn’t called Master of Orion?

“You’re probably right, but we still would have done focus testing to see if it’s accepted by our player community,” he said. “We have a huge focus testing group we use, and we’re testing this thing all the time. Love it or not, one of the things Wargaming loves to pride themselves on and we take great strides is, customers number one.”

“No matter what I want, I want to please the customer, and I would have made the choice that the customers are actually pushing to the best that we could. If we weren’t doing [MoO], would we have done this a little different? Probably so. But the more important thing is that for [MoO] we’re trying to do the right thing for the product itself, staying true to the original as much as possible, but present something that players would expect for today.”

It’s refreshingly upfront from King, a warm, gregarious American who previously worked as the EP for America’s Army and as a producer on Epic Mickey. But it’s also exceptionally safe. In a way, it’s crowdsourcing design, although I’m wary of becoming too critical about a 4X within the space of a short period of time.

But it’s not the only time King mentions focus testing in our interview, which begins to run over time as we start to discuss the building blocks of 4X games and turn-based strategy. The time constraints, and a small misunderstanding about my knowledge walking in, meant that much was missed: I only got to see one simulated battle play out (tactical battles aren’t patched into the game yet), and I wasn’t able to fossick around with advanced units, the deeper tech tree, the performance of the Unity engine during the late stage of the game, or investigate the depth of the diplomacy and espionage systems.

It would be remiss, however, not to acknowledge that MoO has everything you would want from a reboot. A ship designer will be patched into the game at some stage (before release, I understand). There are five victory conditions, all of which will be available on release. 10 races from the original MoO will come with the standard edition of the game, and an 11th, the Terrans, will be included with the collector’s edition.

The entire project is very much a labour of love: the first thing King told me upon sitting down was that the only reason Wargaming purchased the franchise was because Victor Kislyi, Wargaming’s energetic CEO, wanted his kids to be able to enjoy MoO the same way he did as a child. And everything I saw in my brief, hands-off experience with the game left me with that impression: the MoO reboot would play, for all intents and purposes, like the original, but with a much more modern presentation.

There are nice little improvements here and there. You can free-text search the entirety of the tech tree, for instance, if you get lost among its spreadsheet-like (clean though it is) nature. The traditional taxation, research and industry percentages for your empire has been pared down to a single taxation cap, although you can manually tweak the production of all three through micromanaging individual colonies.

It’s one of the few changes that are vastly out of whack with modern games, like Endless Space, Galactic Civilizations and Beyond Earth, but again King went back to the focus testing. “We actually tested several — I keep saying we tested this game immensely — we tested the original way that they did it, which involved all of the [resources],” he explained.

“So in the background [of the MoO reboot] that is all being influenced, but the players actually enjoyed the ability just to set a single number. And we capped it at 50% just because we’re testing it right now, we may not stay at 50%, we may go higher or even lower.”

“So just having that single tax rate makes the game more accessible,” I probed. “It does.” The same logic applies to starlanes too. Some die-hard fans might lament not being having the control of tying flight movement to fuel, but King noted that not being able to plan your defence ahead of time was immensely frustrating for many, and so the planet-to-planet, starlanes system of movement won out.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few tweaks here and there: black holes act as teleporters, and stargates (that’s not what they’re called, but that’s how they function in practice) can be researched down the track.

But even then this is still in keeping with what appears to be the entire directive: make MoO more accessible for a modern generation. Don’t bugger something that isn’t broken. Just polish it up, fix the UI, make it clean, make it work for 2015.

What exactly the MoO reboot does to bring the Microprose classic, 4X games or turn-based strategy in general into 2015 is unclear. So far it just seems like 4X by nostalgia, a love letter to all the mechanics of the past. And while that certainly isn’t bad or poor design by any stretch of the imagination — particularly if that’s what gamers and the original developers are crying for — for those who have moved on, it might not be enough.

But wherever it goes, even if the end destination is the same path others have tread, I want to find out. In that sense, Wargaming has at least succeeded.

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