It is with great pleasure that I formally announce this next game. Finally, Arcen is doing a true 4x! People have been suggesting that we do this for years, and I’ve wanted to, but I wasn’t really ready yet. Even so, bits and pieces of 4x infuse a lot of our games, particularly AI War and The Last Federation.
What Is This Game?
The short: 4x, hexes, hex-shaped map, 14 races planned (8 playable), 3 leader options per race, no units (think SimCity), sci-fi but planet based, and (probably) with co-op multiplayer.
The even-shorter: Think Civilization meets SimCity meets AI War meets New Stuff.
Recent Name Change
Until recently, this game was known as Spectral Empire, which was a name that I really came to dislike. It wouldn’t have served the game well. A huge thanks to Draco18s for suggesting The Stars Are Beyond Reach a month ago. We shortened that a bit, and we’ve added the tagline “This World Is Mine” (that’s a tagline, not a subtitle). But the core title is just awesome and really does the theme of the game proud.
The above is a thumbnail of it zoomed very far out to show a large part of a midsize world with a normal map style (continents and islands and poles and whatnot, and all the season zones). The pale green buildings are ones that have been modeled but not yet painted. Note that also the per-race alien flora isn’t yet spreading here, either.
Back when this was still called Spectral Empire, I did a preview of the alien races that will be in the game, and all of that is still pretty well accurate.
Also a bit back, I did a brief tease of the Planet Voice as a video. The second video has a better version of the voice.
More recently, people have been quizzing me on various aspects of the game, and naturally I can’t resist answering (cautiously at times, since a lot of things are still subject to change, but still).
Snippets From The Above-Linked Q&A (Dear Lord It’s A Lot, I Know)
A comment from myself: Hexes are by nature abstract. I feel like the more people try to hide that abstractness, the less the hexes have a point in general. My direction to the artists for our own upcoming hex game was “let’s not hide the hexes, let’s flaunt them.” I feel like having tiles that are merging things like coastline plus ocean are inherently messy and confusing both visually and conceptually (as a player), and so I prefer to have something that is inherently a little more abstract, but proud of it. Hexes can be done in a really gorgeous way, and personally I get excited just seeing them…
Q from relmz32: Regarding how the planet is mapped in SE, how do you guys handle wrapping? The reason why I ask is that cylendrical wrapping, while popular and pretty easy to implement, doesn’t actaully do a good job of representing an actual spherical planet.
Answer: Basically, we originally had both x and y wrapping, and it was something that worked well, except it was pretty confusing. If you went north, you’d pass a pole, then temperate, then tropical, then temperate, then another pole, then temperate, then tropical… wait, was that the north pole or south pole? Etc.
Plus you’d get kind of odd things where you were looking at the “top of the globe” so to speak, but it felt like an island of ice rather than the actual polar ice cap because it’s all being projected onto a flat plane.
Those things were… annoying, but realistically the player would not spend that much time zoomed out and panning like crazy to where that would be a frequent issue of confusion. And adding the minimap would solve the issue of “where am I.”
Well… we added the minimap, and that just compounded the problems. Being able to zoom out crazy far was limited heavily by the need to not have the same tiles repeating on both sides of the screen, and the inherent difficulties of doing that in an orthographic projection rather than a literal top-down view. I’m not aware of any other hex games that are in an iso view, but as Keith will attest it complicates things enormously from a basic viewport math point of view.
Anyway, so the zoom was a problem, but the minimap was absolutely the end of things. Because of the nature of how the hexes fit together, we couldn’t make a square or a rectangle out of the minimap without repeating tiles. We’d always have a gap at the top and/or bottom because of the way the things project. So… yeah, that was a problem.
Adding up all of the problems, the wrapping simply wasn’t a good mechanic. It caused confusion and troubles at every level, so late last week we decided it had to go. Instead we are now using a hex-shaped world, where the internal angles are 120 degrees (as opposed to the sharper 90 degree corners of a rectangular map), and it lets us handle things far more gracefully. It’s an unusual shape to have the world be, for sure, but it works out surprisingly well. And the game immediately felt way more intuitive and so forth.
My big concern, and why I’d wanted wrapping, was to avoid the ability to “hide in corners” or “be stuck in a corner.” But having 120 degree internal angles instead of 90 degree ones really does solve that pretty neatly. The corners really aren’t too much of a corner. And with the way the game has evolved, trying to turtle isn’t really a relevant thing, anyway.
AND, incidentally, not having wrapping lets us have greater distances between points on the far ends of the map than wrapping would. With wrapping, half a world away is as far as anything is. Without wrapping, it can be a full world away. So you get a greater feeling of space without the wrapping, which was a complete surprise to me.
We’re going to be doing a variety of map types, not all of which depict all the zones in the first place. Some just tropical or just polar or whatever other slices we want. So what you’re normally seeing is a slice of the vertical axis of the planet, theoretically.
Q from DrFranknfurter: 1 building per hex is hinted by the first screenshot?
Answer: It’s not always one building per hex. Or rather, one hex per building. Each hex has at most one building on it, let’s put it that way. But sometimes buildings have footprints that are 2 or more typically 3, and one has a footprint of 7. Most buildings are 1 hex, though, to keep things manageable.
Q from DrFranknfurter: What sort of resources will there be to gather/find/fight over?
Answer: As with Civilization, there are kind of two levels of resources. One is the more direct stuff that you manage at a high level. Those are things like money, energy, morale, and so forth. But then there are resources like oil and minerals.
Unlike Civilization, those oil/mineral type resources are not hard gates to things (you can’t have chariots if you don’t have horses), but rather are pathways to greater efficiency. This is one of the key tenets of the design of this game for me: make it so that players have a limited number of steps to do something in kind of the basic way, but so that the optimal way is a matter of debate as well as being more involved. Keeping the civ example, you would not be blocked in building chariots without a source of horses, but when you got horses that would be a “large supply of horses” not “any horses at all,” and having those horses would either make the chariots stronger, or produced faster, or some other effect.
There are also some other “resources” of a sort, mainly involving making the atmosphere more to your liking, or spreading the sort of terrain of your home world. The terrain that you see here is all the “vanilla” terrain that is native to the planet itself. Each race will have 3 different kinds of terrain unique to themselves, though, and there are various benefits to them to surrounding themselves with their kind of terrain. The early game will look very different than the late game, terrain-wise.
Although, I take that back: the Neinzul and the Spire are both flying races, and so they don’t have terrain. Their “buildings” are actually floating living beings.
Q from DrFranknfurter: 14 races is a lot… considering that how are you planning them to look different?
will they share building artwork (sane) or do they get there own (Good but expensive, 14x the work is a painfully large multiplier) Or will the buildings be coloured with your race colour (cheap but effective) or something else to differentiate them? (Like red spiky crystals/forests surrounding cities of different races)
Answer: Some of each thing.
There are 6 races that are not-ever-human-playable out of those 14. Those are the Acutians, the Andors, the Thoraxians, the Spire, the Neinzul, and the Yali. All of these races work entirely differently from all the human-playable races. Each of these races has something like 5-6 unique buildings for themselves, and they use their entirely own economic mechanics, AI, and everything. They aren’t playing the same game as you at all.
The other 8 races are all human playable, and they share possibly all of their buildings, maybe with one or two unique per race. Not sure on that yet. There are some buildings that will be AI-only though (aka only used by AI players for these races), and some that are player-only. Remember that the story is that the players are new to the planet, while everyone else is established. So there are some differences there, and yet more asymmetry.
All of the races that are not flying have their three unique terrain types, which will tend to spread out from their cities. So that kind of informs you that you’re coming in to Burlust territory, when you start seeing their red angry sort of plants and lava pools, etc. You’ll see all those sorts of terrains clumped up around the race, so you don’t have to remember the terrains individually. But in terms of those terrain types, with things like the Andors it’s not even living terrain. Instead it’s these kind of golden robotic forests and fields that are much more mechanical. For the Burlusts, it’s very lava-like, etc. And so on. Each set of 3 terrains has a very distinct feel to it, very different from any other race.
Each race also has a specific two-tone border color associated with them, too. You can see the one surrounding the territory of the buildings in that first screenshot up there. We’ll see if more than that is needed, but at the moment I don’t feel like it will be in terms of identifying which race a city belongs to.
Speaking of races, there are a variety of languages spoken by them, and you have to learn them before you can speak with races that speak that language. Overall there are 8 languages, and which race you start as determines which language you know from the start, versus which ones you have to learn. Starting as one of the races from TLF gives you a bit of an advantage because they all speak Solar Common. Except for the Thoraxians, which are an older group that never visited the solar system in TLF. These Thoraxians still speak Proto-Thoraxian. The other languages are Zenian, Spirian, Neinric, Yalven, Fain, and Kronish.
And again speaking of factions, there are three possible leaders for each faction. Each of these leaders has different bonuses, but also a different personality. Taking the Civ analogy, basically Gandhi would not always be the leader of India. Sometimes he would, and he’d act like the nuke-happy guy that people are used to. Other times you’d encounter India under other rulers. Overall that gives you 42 different leaders in the game, 24 of which you can directly play as. This helps us to have differentiated sub-factions, only one of which is present in any given game. So the Burlusts act one way in Game A because they are under Leader 1, and a different way in game B because they are under Leader 3. Etc.
Q from DrFranknfurter: Will you be trading things with the AI? (assuming you know their language). I can imagine not knowing the other players languages could slow down diplomacy (5 turns to unlock breathing, 5 more to unlock grunting, 5 more to unlock talking) and push you towards ignoring it entirely in favour of conquest. Especially if the other players are actively damaging your terrain through hostile terraforming. That said, it would be interesting to have the diplomacy text be more and more detailed/unambiguous as you understand their language better, much like the spire conversations do in AI War. But perhaps having a little bit of diplomacy available at all times would be enough to prevent that worry from becoming an issue. (firing a warning shot is a solid form of non-verbal communication, giving a gift shouldn’t require anything more than dumping valuable gems near their border etc.)
Answer: Conquest in a direct fashion is something that is abnormally difficult here, or that’s the plan. There are some other mechanics that I haven’t really mentioned, such as Planet Mood, which gets to the freaky guy you heard in that teaser video. The languages are literally transcoded text, so as you use linguists to unravel the languages you don’t know (if you care to), then you can better piece together what is being said. At the moment my intent is to make it so that you can take a guess at diplomatic discussions by kind of mashing buttons in languages you can half read. ;) And then see the results if you want to take that sort of gamble. That may not work out in practice, but I have some interesting ideas there that I want to play with, anyway.
Regarding diplomacy, that’s something I’d rather not talk about just yet. That sort of thing is always one of the most unsatisfying parts of most 4x games, and attempting a traditional route is likely to lead to the same sorts of bad feelings for me at least. Keith has had some excellent ideas about “implicit diplomacy” where your interests align with other races based on circumstances, and it’s really compelling stuff that I feel certain will make it in.
But then there’s also another layer that I want to have in order to give a sense of life and personality to the races and their leaders. It’s a risky sort of potential time-sink, and so I’m trying to figure out a way to handle that gracefully. If you want to talk about multiplicative math, THERE’s the real challenge in terms of coding and particularly writing. But in particular after reading the Civ:BE reviews, the need for really strong personalities makes itself abundantly clear to me. And honestly, thinking back to my time with Civ V, even there the less recognizable leaders were a problem in terms of me not feeling any connection to them. So I have my work cut out for me in that area. It’s not directly on my plate yet, though, as a lot of that boils down to vertical content rather than horizontal mechanics.
Q from DrFranknfurter: I’m a little sad that the player doesn’t get his hands on giant spire floating cities… But as both the Spire and Neinzul weren’t the main races in AI War either (by dint of their awesome power) I’m not completely surprised.
Answer: The main reason for certain specific races being AI-only is the way that they work so differently. As much as I’d like for the player to be able to play a completely different game from the base one in terms of having floating cities of unique buildings, that’s just incredibly beyond scope, heh. But having AI factions do that is really fun. And being able to ally with them and get them to help you is something I plan (the opposite too, of course — naturally).
In terms of expansions… who knows! I haven’t remotely gotten my head to that sort of space yet, but there’s plenty of room for more beyond the base game. In the sense that the world is a wide one, and the mechanics are broad — not in the sense that there’s something planned to be missing!
Q from DrFranknfurter: Will there be any orbital stuff? I’m assuming there’s a reason they’re all stuck on the planet together… perhaps a reason that interferes with satellites/spaceflight.
Answer: There is not likely to be any orbital stuff, but I’m not sure if I’m really ready to say why just yet. I’m not sure yet at what point in the story that reason is going to be revealed. Possibly right upfront, or possibly as a reveal further into the game, not sure. One of the victory conditions will be escaping into space, at any rate.
Q from DrFranknfurter: Are the flying spire and neinzul the orbital equivalent – how high do they float? I’m assuming it’s just an artistic representation of their buildings… is there any mechanical differences from them floating? (can they move, build over oceans, float over your cities?)
Answer: These are basically antigrav “buildings” that are still in the atmosphere, but high. They can’t be positioned over the territory of other races, or above mountains, but they can go over water. The Yali are actually completely water-based, incidentally. And the Thoraxians dig tunnels all over the place, under water and land. Aside from looking for resources with sonar, you also have to watch out for tendrils of Thoraxian tunnels.
As to whether or not the Neinzul and Spire “floating buildings” can move or not, I’m not yet sure. I’ve considered it, but I’m not yet fully convinced either way. There are pros and cons, given the other game mechanics. At any rate, there are lots of flying craft that can go over mountains and whatever else, including the floating buildings.
Q from DrFranknfurter: What is planet mood? Will the planet get annoyed with your growth/wars/terraforming? Interactions with the planet was a core feature of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC, the beloved 4x of yesteryear) In it certain buildings and policies harmed the planet – which could then attack you with mindworms- and certain victory conditions involved communicating with the planet. Will the player be dealing with the planet in a similar way? How much of a similarity is there?
Answer: I’m honestly not prepared to fully comment on this one yet, as my designs on this have yet to be integrated into the prototype and thus I don’t have a good sense of what might have to change. I don’t want to say something on this that might turn out to be woefully incorrect, particularly given the high standard that SMAC sets. All that said… yes, you will be interacting with the planet in several ways, and the planet responds back in kind.
The broad concept right now, without getting too specific: To some extent, it is like SMAC. In other ways, this is actually like AI Progress from AI War — even reverse AI Progress, depending on how you play. The mood can be a force that is helpful or harmful for you and other races as well, and unlike AI Progress isn’t something that just works against you.
Take the above with a big grain of salt, because things like interface clarity, fun and understandability, etc, may cause revisions. I’m familiar with how SMAC did it, and I think that was great, but I’m interested in a more robust system. The trick there is making it more robust without making it complicated for the sake of complexity, if that makes sense. That’s why I’m reluctant to talk too much about specifics prior to actually having a prototype I’m happy with on that part.
Q from ElOhTeeBee: (Relating to Terraforming) YES. About how much of this post do you at least want to try to make work?
Answer: No satellites, but there are some ground-based buildings you can use to adjust the temperature on the planet, as well as the atmospheric mix.
Temperature fluctuations cause deserts to expand and contract, same with ice/snow, and for sea levels to rise and fall. You can flood out coastal buildings with rising seas if you drive up the temperature enough.
You can’t raise mountains, and there’s no concept of height in the game (unlike SMAC, and like Civ:BE). I know that bothers some people, but representing that in a way that was attractive and clear was something we tried and failed to do. And in the end, we’re able to get at the same sort of resultant gameplay without that.
You can clear forests and certain other kinds of terrain, but you can’t raise back up natural forests. However, depending on your race you have one of three kinds of terrain that is unique to your race that you can seed. So you can draw all the phallic obscenities you want. ;)
I’ve thought about having land expansion onto water, but I’m not sure yet. I have a couple of models in which it could work, but I worry that it would trivialize certain aspects of the game. At any rate, if you find yourself stuck on an island, you can expand your empire via docks, airstrips, and helipads with ease.
In terms of making yourself resistant to atmospheric poisons, that’s an interesting concept, and not one I’ve thought about. Although, I guess I kind of implicitly have. The atmosphere is by nature going to be hostile to at least some of the races, because the races have a mixture of partially-compatible or completely-incompatible requirements. Those that are ill suited to the atmosphere don’t just die, but it will slow them down a lot because of their need for rebreathers and other things. So you can push the atmosphere in ways that will help you (and implicitly some other races that have some similar needs), while pushing out other races. I suppose that part of that would be to potentially have some expensive tech to increase your tolerance of specific atmospheric elements, although I don’t want that to get in the way of the primary push and pull too much.
Bear in mind that I haven’t had time to actually prototype any of the environmental stuff yet, except for the temperature changes and how that affects coasts/deserts/snow/ice. And basic clearing of land, of course. But the more sophisticated atmospheric manipulation, and the planting of your own native flora/terrain isn’t something I’ve gotten to yet. I have plans, many of them quite detailed, but it’s a matter of making sure that they actually survive the prototype intact based on them turning out to, in fact, actually be fun. SOME form of those things will survive, I’m certain, because that’s really a cornerstone of how you can compete with the races non-militarily in this game.
Having other ways to interact with the races other than just military blows and cheap diplomacy is something I’m definitely driving towards. So many strategy games focus on the military above all else, and kind of let the other elements wither. Heck, with AI War I made the conscious choice to do almost nothing BUT military — there’s nothing wrong with that approach. Here I wanted to make the military no more attractive of an option than any of the other playstyles, but at the same time not making it so that the factions are isolated — they should be in constant competition even when not militarily engaged. Even if you never actually fight anyone in an entire game, it should be a bitter “battle” the whole time on at least a couple of fronts.
Here’s a link to the discussion on the official forums for this post.