Thursday, October 10, 2013

Space strategy games

It's been once again a long time since my most recent blogpost.

That also immediately brings me to the topic of this one: It's often said that it has been a long time since any decent AAA space RTS gaming title has been released save for Distant Worlds: Shadows.

Now, a bit of backstory. I started playing the first games when I was a 6 years old kid. I can recall that the first bunch of games I played around that time were Civilization 2, Transport Tycoon Deluxe, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Space Empires 2, Stars! and Imperium Galactica. Not long after, Homeworld, Far Gate, Enemy Nations and several others were added to that list. Looking back, I am still surprised that the language (English) was no barrier for me to play those games. And I spent many hours on those games, often causing annoyance at my parents (should be unsurprising for most of us).

Now, those games may have looked simple, and some were based on fairly simple mechanics. But those mechanics, even if very simple, interacted in such a way that it made the game incredibly deep and/or versatile. Now, the last space-based games before the time I call the 'Dark age of space gaming' which I consider members of the same category as many classics are put in, such as MOO2, Stars! and Space Empires are Homeworld 2 and Haegemonia. To show you why, here are some videos:

Here above is homeworld 2. Not an unknown sight for many people who have played RTS games. While it looked graphically less appealing when compared to its direct competitor, which was released a year earlier, it did have awesome storytelling (like Homeworld). It was the very good story and fairly versatile gameplay which drew me into this game. And has been a game usually played during lanparties for me. The storytelling is the main thing its direct competitor lacks.

This is a Haegemonia video of the vanilla game. The game has been changed in many ways by its expansions, not to mention big mods. Compare homeworld's singleplayer gameplay with Haegemonia below here:

Now, I think both games have their qualities. Homeworld's battles are usually a smaller scale, but not less intense. I do have to say that mainly the voice is done better in Homeworld. In terms of gameplay, I don't consider any of them the best. Comparing them would be like comparing apples and pears. All you can say is that they're different. But the taste of one can not be universally said to be better than the other. Same with here. They each appeal to a different preference about gameplay.

Now, both games also have had good multiplayer communities. Also, to show each game's capabilities and qualities, I will pick videos with modded games. Homeworld's community far bigger than Haeg's, so more footage of Homeworld is to be found on youtube. So for haeg I blatantly have to pick one of my own videos, but here goes:

Now, once again, I consider not any of them superior to the other. They are both vastly different than eachother. What I do want to show is the quality of these games, their longevity, their immersion, etc.

Now, fast forward a few years. Focus has been mostly on RPG's and shooters for a few years. Also, quite some studios switched over to casual gaming. Deep strategy game releases haven't been seen except for Paradox's Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron on one side and on the other Civilization 4. But suddenly, 3 games shock the gaming market each in their own way. And instead of showing some text, I would rather show you:

This game is one which brought back a "Blast from the past". It made the gaming world once again shake on its very foundations. Big scale, deep RTS gaming with a good graphical touch. An overal well done game has not been seen since above mentioned games in the AAA market. I also consider it the last one in the AAA market currently. It shook the foundations of the gaming market, because it showed what PC's were capable of. What good gameplay really was and should be. And that all of it can be done with some very nice graphics. It in one blow immediately nullified years of propaganda by console manufacturers. RTS's on consoles were from now on considered taboo on many gaming communities, and not just by a sizable group of gamers.

Another game which can be considered a blast from the past. Also, it is one of the few (or only) spacesims having been developed continiously since the golden age of space gaming, which ended roughly after Homeworld 2 and Nexus TJI. This game is also worth mentioning. It was a commercially quite successful space-based game. Also, it had very deep gameplay. It brought space games from being a market niche back into the view of the mainstream. It also has an upcoming successor, named X Rebirth. Be sure to check that one out if you liked this video!

Many will disagree with me putting this one in this list. It wasn't the best game made around that time. By far not. It was also not that visible. But it did change a lot. Many didn't notice, but it started a change in developers. It showed that a complex game doesn't have to be complicated. And that space games do still have a big appeal. So despite it's problems, it provided some qualities which caused things to change later.

Many consider the Dark age of space gaming to be ending by now. Some old blasts from the past returning now (X Rebirth, Star Citizen, Elite Dangerous) and some spinoffs being made (example being Planetary Annihilation) being a clear sign of it. But the signs were there earlier. The end of an era always comes with turmoil, forcing people to rethink. Kickstarter did change a lot, but did not start this end of a lack of good space games. Neither did people like David Braben or Chris Roberts. One must look to times before that. The 3 games mentioned above were signing the coming of an end of an era. But like the printing press and similarly the internet, it takes time for its effects to truly start to change things.

There are 2 games I'd like to mention as true first signs of a coming new age. Both games were not received that well, but both games did deliver on their promise and were improved upon after release.

Distant Worlds. A game which made the gaming market once again shake on its foundations. While the game is not very popular or well known, it did change and still is changing the market. And will still change it for years to come. Why? It has thrown MOO2 off the golden throne of best 4X games when Legends was released. It has received much complaints initially from reviewers, while also having many qualities. But the developer continued to improve it, resulting in several editions, including Return of the Shakturi, Legends and more recently Shadows. Development is still ongoing on it.

For all its problems during release, this title also changed things. It was released quite close to Legends of Pegasus. Both games were shed into the same corner at release. I must say, that at release time this was correct. But the path after it was radically different. Both games had their qualities, even while the majority of them was unfinished or buggy. Legends of Pegasus was abandoned by its publisher, so the developer could not finish or fix it. Sword of the Stars 2 on the other hand did get funding to let the developers fix and finish the game. While not being done yet, Sots 2 is a very enjoyable game now. While still being considered rubbish by the majority of the gaming community, I do consider this a quality title after having played it for an extended time during last summer. And for that, I can only give credit both to Kerberos (the developer) and Paradox (the publisher).

The mentioned games here signalled a change. A change, which was at its core not a change at all. This may sound contradictory, but it isn't. Space games have always had quite a big fan community. If you try to give proof that this isn't the case, I do want you to look at the subscriber amounts of EVE Online for instance. If space games had fallen out of favor at the public, then EVE would have surely suffered. But if it suffered at all, it has been due to decisions from the developers.

For quite some years, I have seen many big publishers dumb down many games. Most AAA games have been quite much dumbed down. It is a shame to see such things happening. But the economic reasons behind them are quite understandable. And as big corporations, they do have to make profit and satisfy shareholders. Which in turn requires large amounts of sales. It is false though that good sales are impossible when you make deep strategy games, especially scifi.

To see good space games being released, I think we are looking and asking in the wrong direction. It won't be AAA publishers and devs. It will instead be a developer which has a dream of a good game and decides to make it. There are plenty of good games out there, just waiting for our scanners to pick them up. And plenty of protostars which are almost going to shine in the gaming universe.

It is the same essence which inspired the developers like Chris Roberts, David Braben and others. And they had their inspiration sources which resulted in them making excellent games. And clearly their games are now doing exactly the same as their inspiration sources did. And you ain't gonna find skilled pioneers in the main trading hubs. You find them in the remote frontiers. In that sense, it isn't any different than exploration in a spacesim.

Someone who dreams about the big universe out there.