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# Minimal ship customization in 4X games?

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Hi,

This is meant as a companion to this thread regarding a 4X game I'm trying to develop, but assesses a much different topic.

I've noticed, with puzzlement, that most 4X games are proud to present ship customization as their core gameplay elements.

Once again here, I'm not debating that its fun and interesting, but rather, I'm surprised I'm unable to find any 4X game that has preset ships so to speak.

My reasoning is as follows (once again based on VGA Planets' approach):

If you can customize your ships, you can craft a fleet that resembles you, embraces your playstyle. While this is very fun, and allows for some learning (you learn by making mistakes), I find it less challenging. It often becomes more a matter of how many ships you can bring, or whether you can build the strongest ship rather than how you use each individual ship and insure they fit their role. Ships will either specialized efficiently or tend to go broad, without consistency.

Let's take an example: Chess.

Chess is fun because, while you're not proficient with all of the pieces, you generally win the game by utilizing all of your pieces efficiently. You might be a Queen-lover and be deadly with it, but learning to master the knight will allow you to capture your opponent's queen more efficiently in many cases.

By losing games, you hone your craft of chess mastery through learning how to best utilize pieces you are not proficient with. Over time, opponents will figure what pieces you are not skilled with, and exploit the game by leveraging your shortcomings to their advantage. At such point, it won't matter how good you've become killing pawns with your Queen if you can't sidestep your knights in fork positions.

This, in my opinion, is also why Chess is a lot more fun than checkers. At checkers, you need to learn a single pattern, and apply it everywhere. The game is more a question of awareness than tactic.

Now, think of chess as a game where each piece has a value, and you get to purchase your army up to a total amount of points. You're likely to pick whichever piece you are proficient with, completely ignoring the ones you believe are weak (by lack of predisposition). In other words, you'll avoid the issue of trying to learn and appreciate them. While it makes for a fun game (I'm pretty sure a 4 queens vs 10 knights game would be interesting for example), it also lacks a lot of substance.

Also, if there are seemingly dominant strategies, all players will converge towards the same strategies in such a way that they become too similar (queens vs queens). You'll end up playing the opponent rather than the opponent's playstyle of an established concept.

In VGA Planets, ships are much more organic. When you pick a species, you need to carefully consider their fleet arsenal. They rarely have fully dedicated ships for a certain purposes. A lot of them are well-rounded, but particular traits make them slightly more or less efficient at one thing or another. More importantly, all fleets lack specific components, and this creatures an innate weakness of this species. Strategies often evolve from the conflicting weaknesses, and it becomes fun as this is problem solving for the player: how am I going to perform this necessary task when I don't have an optimal ship to do it? Various players will come with different ways to cope for this, discuss it over forums, look for ways to min/max each ship to their advantage.

All of this because players can interact based on things they all share: ships.

When ships are customizable, players will only share blueprints on how to build them, and the purpose they have, but it won't account for the real problem solving as it won't cater to any specific weakness.

Examples:

A species whose warships are nearly all carriers will find itself at an advantage (they are very strong) and a disadvantage (it costs \$ to produce fighters and replenish them). It will dictate that they will try to fight the enemy in masse where they can quickly dispath most ships in a volley, and will avoid specialists that can either disrupt all of their fighters or target their hull directly (lots of beams, or lots of torpedoes).

If there's one ship in their arsenal that gives them lots of beams and/or torpedoes, no matter how inefficient, it will probably get used. People will complain that it is weak, but they'll be happy they have it to react to some situations.

When a species has 6-12 ship designs, that are all preset, you can bet you'll utilize most of them over the span of several games.

This compares well to an RTS such as Starcraft. In Starcraft, the units are unique for each species, and preset. Players understand how each unit interact on the battlefield, and they learn to counter strategies as efficiently as they can. They also have favorites, but know they can't stick to them throughout the game if the opponent plays wisely.

Now, I can imagine an RTS with customizable units, and it would be fun, but it'd probably less challenging and rewarding.

My objective here is twofold:

- I'd like to open this discussion, as I don't believe I've covered all bases. While I believe this is a good approach, I'm affraid I might have missed obvious pitfalls.

- I'm looking for reference 4X games with preset ship lists with relatively small or no customization capabilities. My researches this far have been rather poor. I've isolated VGA Planets (core reference) and Star Knights as avenues I can further research and base my work upon. Any other title I should look into?

Thanks.

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Are you limiting your search of "4X" games to space themes? Look at how games such as Civilization handle things.

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I have a design for a space based 4x game for development in the future and ship design means a whole hell of a lot more than it does in other space 4x games. The player would be able to design ships completely from scratch. They would be able to decide every angle of every piece of armor in every dimension (2D or 3D). They will be able to set up the layout of each room if they want. Everything would also be able to be saved as a template so they can reuse a design whenever they wish. Everything is extremely modular and made in a compositional manner.

When a ship gets hit, a great many things are taken into account to determine the effect of the hit. Damage is localized to the different parts of the ship and a ship doesn't have an HP value like in most other games. It will do what it's parts allow it to do, nothing more nothing less. Destroying a ship wouldn't be just a matter of pounding it with ordnance until it's HP hits zero. It would be a matter of taking out key systems such as power and crew so that the ship can no longer function.

It also ties in greatly with the complex research system. It is very likely that two sides doing battle will, simply because of the nature of the research system, not have the same technology, and if they do, not on the same level.

It is also turn based in battles (which the player won't actually control 99% of the time, but that is aside the point). Each side takes turns activating a ship and doing things with it. A fleet with a lot of little ships would gain a great advantage because they will get to make a lot of coordinated moves all at once when the other side is done moving their ships that turn. If you have 20 ships against 5, that will give you 15 uninterrupted moves against your enemy, which is a decisive advantage.

I think most battles in 4x games (and most of all 4x games) are WAY oversimplified, especially turn based ones, and this leads to the problem you point out. I think it has a lot to do with how shallow the strategy and tactics really are in most of those games, at least the ones I've played.

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I see how your design decisions are coherent. You want to emphasize the battle itself, and thus focus on the design of ships to support this.

I want to focus on the economy and remove most of the micro-management of battles to focus on micro-management of the logistics.

I'm basing my work on Sun Tzu's teachings mostly, where logistics thrumps battlefield tactics.

I see how your effort can be interesting, but it is directly linked with subcomponents of gameplay I chose not to focus on.

I'm building a game that should feel a bit more like chess, whereas, you're making it 'more realistic' from the perspective of the captain (I'm more in the Admiral's shoes).

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For me, most of the fun of designing my ships is that I can make up an objective and play with different combinations of parts to see how well I can accomplish that objective. It allows for emergent gameplay and creates some really interesting strategic decisions. I can't just have a big fleet of all top-of-the-line models. I'll either need to produce fewer but higher quality ships and be really careful with them, or compromise and use some older components to keep the production and maintenance costs down.

Removing the ship design aspect, and the tactical control from battles, really locks in play styles for species. There's flexibility, but (to continue with the StarCraft example) it's more a matter of using a specific build and successfully identifying what builds your opponents are using. What makes this work is that the game is really tightly balanced. In a 4x game, the balance seems like it would be even trickier because each faction will have a broader set of variables than just a unit list. Plus, a StarCraft match is ~45 minutes at the outside. A 4x game might play out over weeks. The "locked in" feeling might be worse if you're stuck with it for longer.

What might sell me on it is removing nearly all of the tactical portions of the game and replacing them with a good set of strategic considerations. If instead of worrying about individual battles I have to worry about fronts, supply lines, reinforcements, and so on, there could easily be enough to keep me engaged without worrying about individual ship-to-ship combat. And even if my fleet had certain predilections that were hard to get around they would mostly influence what strategic objectives I would pursue. Using my ships for something they aren't well suited to would have to be worth the risk. I'd have to really want that objective.

I'm reminded of the differences between a JRPG, like Final Fantasy, a tactical RPG, like Final Fantasy Tactics, and an "SRPG", like the SNES Battle Ogre or Soul Nomad. In the SRPG's there's little or nothing you can do to influence a given battle, but you can try to control factors like where battles take place, when, and the specific composition of your squads. It felt weird to me at first, losing the direct control over battles, but I really enjoyed the newer strategic elements.

As for games similar to what you're describing, maybe Sins of a Solar Empire? It's not quite a 4x, but it's 4x-ish.

Edited by Khaiy

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I can see where you are coming from. I personally even used to think that ship customization was the way to go.

However, a few more elements I've left out of this discussion so far: Design Space for starters.

The more of the player's attention you use for ship customization, the less you can use elsewhere. The game can only be so complex.

My personal choice is to focus more on logistics and economics, and ship customization is a module that takes the axe as a result.

For me, most of the fun of designing my ships is that I can make up an objective and play with different combinations of parts to see how well I can accomplish that objective. It allows for emergent gameplay and creates some really interesting strategic decisions. I can't just have a big fleet of all top-of-the-line models. I'll either need to produce fewer but higher quality ships and be really careful with them, or compromise and use some older components to keep the production and maintenance costs down.

I can relate to this problem-solving appeal. However, it would probably feel diminished in an environment where the eXterminate is back where it belongs (the same size as the others Xs of 4X).

it's more a matter of using a specific build and successfully identifying what builds your opponents are using

4X tends to be less about what your opponents are doing. Its true, you'll need to eXpand a lot early on, and your strategy will demand that you focus on certain ships, but the thought occured to me that you might want to try different approaches.

What makes this work is that the game is really tightly balanced. In a 4x game, the balance seems like it would be even trickier because each faction will have a broader set of variables than just a unit list. Plus, a StarCraft match is ~45 minutes at the outside. A 4x game might play out over weeks. The "locked in" feeling might be worse if you're stuck with it for longer.

I'd be tempted to agree had I not read Donovan's list of racial tutorials for VGA Planets. Its quite funny to see comments from players that are very similar to Starcraft. Some complain a species is utterly bad, or that specific units are OP, etc. In the end though, they've managed to nail playstyles efficiently, and some players will willingly pick the weaker race if it fits their playstyle just to prove a point, or to find a way to compensate. From what I've seen, there's no such thing as an unbalanced species, just species that are harder to learn and master.

If 4X games were 1V1, I'd agree that a particularly bad matchup could ruin the game, but over time, another opponent might just take over your opponent, or you could just blitzkrieg to the nearest sector and re-establish mining colonies, abandoning those that your opponent is really looking for. In this case, I believe that being a turn-based game much longer than 45 mins is actually to the advantage of this type of gameplay and reduces the potential issues at hand.

What might sell me on it is removing nearly all of the tactical portions of the game and replacing them with a good set of strategic considerations. If instead of worrying about individual battles I have to worry about fronts, supply lines, reinforcements, and so on, there could easily be enough to keep me engaged without worrying about individual ship-to-ship combat. And even if my fleet had certain predilections that were hard to get around they would mostly influence what strategic objectives I would pursue. Using my ships for something they aren't well suited to would have to be worth the risk. I'd have to really want that objective.

That would be my goal. While battles (simulated) would be important, the real decisive factor would be: how far do you need to travel to resupply and repair? Spread of your ships to defend more planets would often matter more than sheer concentration of forces (fleet vs fleet). If you use the defender's advantage well (planetary defenses) chances are you could gain a military advantage by losing a planet (economic blow) based on the amount of ships the opponent sacrificed to get there. This would even things out a bit.

Donovan's guide to VGA planets species is very interesting. It advocates the use of specific ships for specific missions, generally discarding half of every species ship arsenal as 'useless ships' but somehow managing to find a use for the other half (armored transport, freighter-line skirmisher, carrier smoothener, etc). Most interestingly, the seemingly weaker ships of nearly every race appear to have a use even in the late-game, either because of their mobility advantage, or an overlooked element that makes them good to sacrifice in order to prevent losing better ships.

Given the mapsize, it gives a lot more emphasis to special tactics. In a game of Starcraft, a bold move is incredibly risky: moving your main army through a backdoor is a manoeuvre that can really leave you open. Backdoor drops are also very 'cheesy' and hard to use efficiently. But in a game where planets are spread out and time flows much more slowly (and not in real-time) planning an incursion in enemy territory and harrassing 'worker-lines' (freighters) becomes much more interesting. Its somewhat similar to putting your opponent's king in check to retain the initiative so to speak.

In the SRPG's there's little or nothing you can do to influence a given battle, but you can try to control factors like where battles take place, when, and the specific composition of your squads. It felt weird to me at first, losing the direct control over battles, but I really enjoyed the newer strategic elements.

I think you're touching on the substance of what I'm trying to achieve. This is essentially a more managerial type of game where battle-level decisions are taken by capable commanders that you don't need to micro-manage. Your level of control, essentially, is to insure they will have what they need.

An interesting concept I've read about previously mentionned 'areas of influence' in regard to tactical warfare.

Having a large ground of units at a given place does not guarantee an area of influence. It could be cut-off from reinforcements and resupply for example. To extend an area of influence, you really need to build a network of infrastructures and logistic that supports a given group of units and somehow link it to your core. The Romans were known for doing that with roads for example, which allowed them to speed up reinforcements and supplies being dispatched to the four corners of their empire. You could compare that to supply and repair ships being stationed a few lightyears behind an assault, or a strong defensive outpost or mining colony that can somehow assist a fleet.

The interesting aspect I like most about this is that, while conventional games would treat an instrusion of several ships to be a threat, it could be just a decoy to take a nearby planet and boost its defensive capabilities to max. While you'd lose potentially half of your fleet in the decoy-battle, letting your opponent feel like he's accomplished something, you'd be left with a proxy-base at the door of his empire's outskirts, able to withstand pressure from his fleet all the while deploying your own litterally in his backyard.

The closest thing I've seen to this in an RTS is the Protoss Proxy-Pylon in SC2.

As for games similar to what you're describing, maybe Sins of a Solar Empire? It's not quite a 4x, but it's 4x-ish.

I'm not really a fan. Besides, I've already played the obvious ones (MOO, Galciv2, SE4, etc.) They are, unfortunately, overshadowing the other titles making it very hard to find non-mainstream games. I've just stumbles across Anacreon today in fact, despite the fact its been around since back in the 80s! While it definitely not what I'm striving for, I've seen tangible resemblances with some of the concepts I'd like to expand upon, namely a relatively uncustomized fleet. Unfortunately, they've replaced that by an economical race and large numbers of ships so that tactics are less important than economical advantage. Regardless, it was a refreshing study.

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Balance is the key.

ship customization is not bad, though not everyone's cup of tea.

a poorly balanced ship customization system IS bad. one that leads to a dominant strategy or renders unit specialization meaningless.

4x's traditionally have certain features such as ship design for space based games, and economy systems. nothing says a 4x MUST include these features, or emphasize and model them in great depth. This allows for of a variety of difffernt 4x styles, with emphsis on different features or aspects of gameplay such as combat tactics, vehicle design, or economic systems.

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Starcraft is a bad comparison, it has no technological/era progress. It's a very short game where basicly nothing changes in the middle (just a few units unlocked/upgraded). In 4X games the progress (the units you started with being outdated several times as you go) is extremely important. Personally, I think that things that worked in RTS would not work in 4X game, too many differences.

Unfortunately, they've replaced that by an economical race and large numbers of ships so that tactics are less important than economical advantage.

But isn't it what your goal was? You mentioned somewhere that you want the game to be focused on economy, so winning with number of units (instead or customization/research) is the way in the direction you wanted... I'm a bit confused what is the general direction you want to go here.

How about partial customizastion? Like in Galactic Empires or Reunion? You have predefined units but these can carry weapons (produced separately and assigned separately, like some sort of subunits). These could be used as some sort of customization while keeping the units fixed.

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4x's traditionally have certain features such as ship design for space based games, and economy systems. nothing says a 4x MUST include these features, or emphasize and model them in great depth. This allows for of a variety of difffernt 4x styles, with emphsis on different features or aspects of gameplay such as combat tactics, vehicle design, or economic systems.

Do you have any example of a 4X game without (or with very little) ship customization though? I'd really appreciate it.

It's a very short game where basicly nothing changes in the middle (just a few units unlocked/upgraded). In 4X games the progress (the units you started with being outdated several times as you go) is extremely important

I'm going to assume you're not playing competitively with SC then?

Also, I fully disagree with the last statement. I don't see why units must be outdated at all.

As a refenrence, if you look at the Star Trek Universe, you'll see they rarely decommission ship classes. It occurs, but its a VERY slow process (centuries). If you can retrofit a ship class with the latest engine every half century or so, I don't see why you'd need to decommission the model because it has become weak.

Also, I don't see why a ship with months/years of service would need to be decommissioned.

I'd like to point out BattleStar Galactica here. If you are familiar with the series, you'll realize that the Galactica was actually the oldest ship of the entire fleet (and is precisely the reason why it survived the original strike). Despite not having improved with several technological advancements (electronics mostly) it remains a sizeable ship that can sustain a lot of pressure from the Cylons. It sure as hell can't take their fleet head-on, but it remains a relevant ship regardless, even several decades after being built.

Personally, I think that things that worked in RTS would not work in 4X game, too many differences.

Well, you're coining genres here. Design shouldn't emphasize how 'similar' it is to a genre to be good. If design makes it work, no matter how, whether it feels or not like a classic 4X game or a crossover, then its good. Now, this is obviously not an RTS we're talking about, but the relation to chess exists quite distinctly, and this is a gameplay that does translate to several different types of games.

But isn't it what your goal was? You mentioned somewhere that you want the game to be focused on economy, so winning with number of units (instead or customization/research) is the way in the direction you wanted... I'm a bit confused what is the general direction you want to go here.

I meant, the game used magnitudes more than the level of focus I seek to attain. All ships were exactly alike (no ship classes at save for 3 groups) and you'd have thousands of each. I don't want to play the StarWars card where each empire has a fleet with insane numbers. I'd rather play the card where the entire fleet of an empire is roughly 30-40 ships, all of which are manned by 10-1000 crew each.

How about partial customizastion? Like in Galactic Empires or Reunion? You have predefined units but these can carry weapons (produced separately and assigned separately, like some sort of subunits). These could be used as some sort of customization while keeping the units fixed.

VGA Planets had some customization, and I don't want to refrain entirely from using customization (hence the light customization approach). I don't want to go into the detail of locating where each component will be onboard, but I do want to choose the systems from a list.

For example, you can have offensive, defensive and support components and slots you can fill with them. I'm still gauging the exact level of simplicity I'm trying to achieve there, but I'm sure its less complexity than the average 4X.

Galactic Empires

I've found many games bearing this title. Can you link me to the one you're referring to?

Reunion

Does it qualify as a 4x game? My memory is hazy and I always felt like it was a lot of simulation elements put together with a form of RTS for ground combat?

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I'm going to assume you're not playing competitively with SC then?

Nope. It just occured to me that it might be about single player vs multiplayer? I don't play 4x games/RTS vs humans only vs AI. My knowledge of VGA planets is purely theoretical and I play SC mostly for the campaign mode. Do you plan your game to be mostly player vs player or player vs AI?

I agree that customization is not that fun/useful in multiplayer.

Well, you're coining genres here. Design shouldn't emphasize how 'similar' it is to a genre to be good.

Well, don't forget I have a hidden agenda here :) I like 4X and don't like RTS, so if there is a new game being made I would try to convince the designer to make it to my liking so I can play it too :D

All ships were exactly alike (no ship classes at save for 3 groups) and you'd have thousands of each. I don't want to play the StarWars card where each empire has a fleet with insane numbers. I'd rather play the card where the entire fleet of an empire is roughly 30-40 ships, all of which are manned by 10-1000 crew each.

All ships the same... Well, maybe that's a bit too low (maybe like 5 kinds of ships you use all the time), but as a player I find this approach OK. As for many weak ships vs few big ships I'm indifferent, I could go both ways.

But the best would be to allow both, one player could go for hordes of small ships and the other for few battleships (both being balanced and valid strategies). I played this way with a friend and it was enjoyable for both of us.

Reunion

It's a bit like storyline based 4X (adventure like strategy where you conquer things but first you need to unlock an event to access other sector). Anyway I meant the ship construction part (and how you assign weapons/missiles/shields to the fleets instead to the ships).

Ignore the Galactic Empires if you recall Reunion, these used the same system.

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