Feature Article

Master of Orion Returns to Expand the 4X Genre

Watch the stars.

A visit with Wargaming founder Victor Kislyi is always a delight. At E3 2015, I sat down at a conference table at which Kislyi presided, and he was as animated and excited as he was the first time I spoke with him about World of Tanks half a decade ago.

"So the story goes like this," Kislyi begins, and I prepare myself for a tale of the ages--and you know, perhaps it is such a tale. He is going to tell me the story of how long-dormant space strategy series Master of Orion is getting a new lease on life. The intellectual property was up for auction, and, as Kislyi says, "the competition was fierce." The battle for MOO may not have been won by tanks, but to hear Kislyi share his tale, you might think it was bloody all the same. He was fighting for his company to own a piece of PC gaming's history, and of PC gaming's future.

Kislyi is quick to dismiss fears that the upcoming, Wargaming-published Master of Orion reboot will be a victim of the company's free-to-play tendencies, as represented by World of Tanks, World of Warships, and World of Warplanes. MOO will be a standard retail game without any freemium elements, and is being made not by an internal Wargaming studio, but by Argentinian developer NGD Studios. "They're like me and Wargaming six years ago," says Kislyi, who sees the same kind of passion in NGD that existed in his own. As a result, Wargaming has devoted all sorts of resources--financial and human both--to make the game as good as it can possibly be. Why is Wargaming taking the project on in the first place? It's a reasonable question to ask; Kislyi himself says that the game is clearly not a "financial live or die thing." Says Kislyi, "We're doing this purely from the standpoint of demonstrating our passion, giving back to the community, bringing back the legend."

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Master of Orion has been in development for over a year and a half, and I watched Wargaming Director of Vision Chris Keeling play the game as he crammed in as much description as he could in the 30 minutes that we had. (Aside: We should all be so lucky as to earn the title Director of Vision.) Before we could get started, however, Kislyi gave me a quick rundown of what to expect: "21st-century graphics, professional triple-A voiceover, interface, and of course lots of additions that will make Master of Orion suitable for today's world. Life is moving a little bit faster these days, so the things we tolerated in the early '90s, the younger generation may not."

Kislyi's statement may make you worry that NGD is planning to abandon important features of the original MOO for being too old-fashioned, but to get things right, the developers are involving a number of talents that helped design the original game, including composer David Govett. Also returning: all the races from the original game, including the Alkari, a race of space birds that squawk with gusto at every possible opportunity. Each race has a fully-voiced introduction, and your advisor is a chatty sort; I may have tired of hearing the Alkari consultant screech his lines if he didn't manage to be so charming while he did so.

The Sakkra have never heard of this
The Sakkra have never heard of this "Wrex" you speak of, so stop asking already!

From here, Master of Orion plays out much like many other 4X strategy games, it would seem, albeit with a huge dose of humor and personality, along with character animations captured directly from the actors portraying them. As the game begins, you select a line of research to follow, begin producing supplies on your homeworld, and assign populations to the tasks you most need them for. Doing so is simple: you click and drag the silhouette representing a portion of your populace from one job to another, making scientists out of workers at no resource cost to you, and thus altering how quickly you produce the associated resources. You reap diminishing returns by assigning more and more population to a particular activity, such as farming, however. Kislyi impressed upon me that keeping this interface clean was an important task.

"We deliberately eliminated decimals," Kislyi says. "Like in Civilization, 16.5 production produced, 16.7, multiply this by seven turns left...you have to get a calculator! Here, we want people to be able to calculate quickly, you don't have to pull up Excel. We want you to concentrate on strategic, philosophical, aspirational, diplomatic goals, but math should be easy. Accessibility. We deliberately separated resources into one type. Usually in these kind of games, you have kind of like hexes. You know, one hammer, two food, like that." He points out how those usual hexagonal abstractions are represented differently here, and Keeling adds that if you want to crunch the numbers, you can hover the mouse over the associated icons to reveal detailed information.

The game looks very pretty. Not shown: layered planetary atmospheres, which look terrific.
The game looks very pretty. Not shown: layered planetary atmospheres, which look terrific.

There wasn't time to talk about elements such as taxation, pollution, and morale, but you will have to consider them in Master of Orion. And of course, this is a space strategy game, so while you spend time managing individual planets, you must also expand across the galaxy, meeting new races as you go. "AI races have a long memory, and they're very smart," says Keeling. On cue, the Mrrshon empress appears, welcoming you to the galactic community with a purr, and suggesting that if you scratch her back, she'll scratch yours. (Meow!) In time, you'll run into the Klackon (bug people), Darlok (evil wraiths wearing cloaks), Psilons (big-headed humanoids), and a number of other races, putting too much energy into dominating the competition to wonder why a race of space dwellers looks and behaves so much like earth cats.

As the various races gain control over different regions of the galaxy, you'll have to negotiate your way past other races' starbases, or simply blast your way through. Diplomacy allows you to open up exploration routes, as well as to create different types of pacts, set up trade deals for specific materials, establish treaties, and so forth, though be warned: the AI often has its own interests at heart. (The Darlok is known for espionage, so allowing you through may assist in their current plans, for instance.) In any case, controlling the routes between stars is vital; fortunately, your space factories are ready to produce bases when you need them, in addition to asteroid mines, outposts, and so on. Whether you need to produce materials or establish and defend your borders, space factories manufacture what you need.

The Bulrathi love peace, harmony, and long walks along the beach. Just kidding. They love war.
The Bulrathi love peace, harmony, and long walks along the beach. Just kidding. They love war.

All the while, GNN (that is, the Galactic News Network) is there to report on the drama as it progresses. "Time is running out for the colonies endangered by an imminent supernova," drones the robotic anchor, with just enough mockery in her voice to make you wonder if this network is as unbiased as you'd want it to be. Supernovas may be dangerous, but so are are your fellow emperors--and so are you. Eventually, it might come time to crush the race of kitty-cats that once offered to scratch your back. The only example of combat I saw was the visualization of a planetary bombardment, so I can't say yet exactly how battles will play out--and Wargaming isn't yet ready to share the details. I can confirm, however, that the Mrrshon leader will call you a filthy mongrel for declaring war.

You don't have to focus on war; you can seek a diplomatic victory, an economic one, or a technological one as well. I'm hoping that each path to triumph is as satisfying as the last, and Keeling's promises of an intelligent AI makes me look forward to engaging in diplomacy with these weird and wonderful leaders. I've heard some people wonder aloud if now is the time to resurrect a 4X space strategy series, but recent games like Endless Space, Galactic Civilizations III, StarDrive 2, and many others have proven that the genre never died. It's comforting to know that one of the genre's grand masters still has a place at the table.

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Kevin VanOrd

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.

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