As of writing this sentence I have put a combined 2,000 hours into Europa Universalis III, IV, Crusader Kings II, and Victoria II, all of which were developed by the Swedish studio, Paradox. For the uninitiated, Paradox almost exclusively makes incredibly in-depth grand strategy games which place the player in command a nation’s political, economic, military, religious, and social affairs in a wide variety of time periods. If you’re the type of person who loves the Total Wars and Civilizations but you think the AI is too weak and they lack long-term strategic depth, then I cannot urge you more strongly to try a Paradox game.
The company’s latest (assuming you arbitrary ignore Hearts of Iron IV) and arguably riskiest outing yet is Stellaris. Though at first glance Stellaris may appear no different than any other recent space-based 4X venture on Steam, its developer’s pedigree implies a different take on the genre. Indeed, the game’s Steam page calls Stellaris an “evolution of the grand strategy genre with space exploration at its core.” Meaning Stellaris is not merely a space game with more strategic elements than usual, rather it’s intended to be a grand strategy game in the mold of Paradox’s previous endeavors that happens to take place in space.
Imagine the complexity of engaging in dynastic feuds in Crusader Kings, or directing colonial expansion in Europa Universalis, or plotting to start international wars to stimulate your country’s weapons manufacturing industry in Victoria… brought to outer space.
The mind boggles at the possibilities. How will warfare work with spaceships? How will immigration work between alien species? What are the cultural dynamics of intergalactic federations? If an enemy species really pisses me off, can I use the genophage on them? This is an unbelievably cool idea, I am thrilled that a studio as competent as Paradox has decided to take it on, and I am incredibly excited to see where it goes.
But I’m also kind of worried that Stellaris cannot possibly live up to that promise. Not because of any inherent weakness on Paradox’s part, but because the task of capturing the essence of what makes the other Paradox games fun enough for me to invest over 2,000 hours into them, and transferring it into Stellaris’s setting, might be too great of a challenge for any developer.
The problem is one of context. Namely, all of the other beloved Paradox games have a context based in history while Stellaris does not.
Will Wright, the creator of Sim City and The Sims (and unfortunately Spore), made Sim City on the basis of putting the player in control of an endless progression of “stocks” and “flows.” Stocks are accumulated resources and flows are rates of change in those resources as determined by internal or external factors. For instance, in a typical Sim City game, the player will have a “stock” of population which is effected by “flows” like immigration, birth rate, and death rate. The player’s decision making is then based around balancing the stocks and flows to achieve external goals, such as creating more residential space in the city to provide living space for new potential citizens to increase the immigration rate to increase the population stock.
Though Paradox’s modern games are enormously more complex than the original Sim City, the basic stock and flow mechanics still underlie the vast majority of gameplay. Indeed, I think the true genius of Paradox has been their ability to create compelling stocks and flows in an ever widening number of mechanical aspects in their games. For instance, the “manpower” stock and its “recruitment” and “military losses” flows in Europa Universalis successfully mechanizes the relationship between a country’s population size and it’s fighting ability, as well as the ability of a country to continue fighting a costly war in the long run. Likewise, in Crusader Kings II Paradox successfully mechanized interpersonal relationships between literally thousands of individuals in different countries (and social statuses, religions, genders, dispositions, etc.) through positive and negative “opinion point” stocks, and a seemingly endless number of flows (ie. purposeful actions by the player [like starting wars] and randomly generated personality traits and events).
But the mastery of stocks and flows is not enough to create a great grand strategy game. They merely exist in service of the game’s context. For example, take Crusader Kings II…
Crusader Kings II takes place in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India from the 800s AD to the 1400s and concerns the complex political intrigues and wars between the various noble and religious officials of the era. Literally every person in the CKII world who has a noble title or is related to someone with a title (as well as plenty of individuals who don’t and aren’t) is a character with his or her own portrait, personality, and abilities represented by stats. The player controls one particular character within a particular dynasty and can basically do whatever he wants: fight wars of conquest, go on Crusades, get married, seduce people, launch conspiratorial plots, educate your children, convert religions, confer titles, depose overlords, oppress vassals, build infrastructure, etc.
All of that is great and amazing, but Paradox could theoretically strip away the entire medieval European setting and still have the same core game. Instead of having individual characters hailing from different dynasties and cultures, each character would be a simple number (ie. the player is “Person 1,” his wife is “Person 2,” etc.). Instead of ruling over a chunk of Europe, the player could control a couple of squares of varying sizes in a grid. Instead of having interpersonal relationships determined by personality traits (like, “temperate” and “gluttonous” people don’t like each other, but “zealous” individuals of the same religion do), the game could just produce random plus and minus factors for each relationship (it would be RNG-determined either way). Mechanically, this game would be identical to CKII, it would merely have its skinned pulled off.
Obviously this theoretical minimalist game would not be very enjoyable. That’s because the mechanics of Paradox games exist entirely in service of the game’s context, and furthermore, the player’s specifically chosen context within the game’s overall context.
Imagine starting a game in CKII as the king of a small Viking state based out of Norway in 800AD. There’s a great wealth of historical significance to that starting position. You’re not just some randomly colored team in a strategy game, like picking black or white in chess. You’re the head of a kingdom which will wreak havoc on the British Isles for hundreds of years. You’re the progenitor of the briefly unified and powerful Scandinavian states of the late Renaissance, as well as the modern high income countries of the region today. You’re the stronghold of old Paganism in a land quickly being subjugated by Christianity. Your country matters.
If you decide to follow history and raid the British Isles (which CKII allows through country-specific mechanics), you may find your country become far wealthier than it ever could organically. Maybe you could even become wealthy enough to buy a mercenary army and try Harald Hardrada’s gambit of claiming the English throne and trying to invade the kingdom (or you can just literally play as Harald, CKII uses lots of real historical figures). Maybe you’ll succeed where he failed. Imagine how different history would be if a Viking took over England in 1000AD…
(For a much longer and more detailed walkthrough of procedurally generated narratives in CKII, see here.)
A player doesn’t start a game in Europa Universalis to watch a number arbitrarily tick upwards as a couple of shaded grid squares expand into a slightly larger number of shaded grid squares while some other differently shaded grid regions become slightly smaller. He plays Europa Universalis because he wants to see if he can manage to get the historically insignificant (at least in the modern era) city-state of Pisa to overcome the influence of the Papal States, beat the northern Milanese power, maneuver around Venice’s mighty navy, and stave off the looming threat of Austria long enough to form a unified state of Italy by the 1700s AD.
The stocks and flows are the gears turning behind the scenes, but the procedurally generated narrative is the real show. It’s what the player comes to see. The dizzying number numeric counters, maps, charts, and graphs displayed on a typical Paradox game’s interface tell a hundred little stories that all add up to the tale of your given nation, dynasty, or individual.
It’s no surprised that Paradox games tend to attract history buffs. (On the one hand, it’s extremely obvious that history fans are going to play history games, but still, judging by Paradox forums, having at least an above average knowledge of the political and social structures of a game’s particular era seems like almost a prerequisite to playing it. This is as opposed to say, the necessity of knowing about modern military hardware to play Call of Duty or Battlefield). The more the player understands the time period, the richer his experience. Whether it be trying to change the course of history by playing as a historically weak state, or taking an existing power in a radically different direction (ie. a Scandinavia which never converts to Christianity, or a Russia which never expands eastward, etc.), Paradox games act as a laboratory of fun historical experiments.
In this sense, Paradox games are kind of like puppet shows. The serious work and effort is there, but it’s all hidden, cloaked, dressed up with entertaining trappings, and therefore largely unrecognized by its audience. And while the mechanics are extremely important to Paradox games, especially in terms of differentiating them from shallower fare like Civilization and the Total Wars, they are ultimately not the “secret sauce” which makes people like me pour literal months of our time into these digital worlds. It’s the settings, with their implied politics, economics, legality, personality, and straight-up drama, that’s at the core of Paradox’s success.
To finally bring this all back to Stellaris: how can Paradox make one of their signature games without an exciting pre-existing setting? No matter how refined or balanced the mechanics may be, they won’t have the power of a real life historical setting to ground their meaning and capture the player’s imagination.
I mean, human beings have been to space, but only around earth’s orbit and to the moon. Besides that, we’ve only managed to send probes to various locations across only our own solar system. The first manned mission beyond the moon to Mars, and later to an asteroid won’t happen for at least another ten years. Perhaps one day all of the super awesome broad mechanics of Stellaris, like uplifting primitive species, forming intergalactic federations, and managing inter-species immigration will be a reality, but for now it’s nothing more than science fiction.
Thus the danger that Stellaris faces is that without an established context, all of its stocks and flows could get reduced to their most basic elements. In other words, the puppet show could be revealed to be nothing more than a bunch of hands and strings.
How much emotional drama is implied when a player colonizes a made up solar system with a made up sun, made up planets, and made up moons. Or when a player creates an intergalactic federation between a bunch of made up species with made up characteristics based out of made up corners of a made up galaxy? Perhaps the sheer novelty of the actions will create contextual drama for a while, but that can only last so long. For some reason I can’t imagine swallowing the twentieth fictional solar system in a round of Stellaris will have the same impact as finally conquering a chunk of India with the Ottoman Empire in Europa Universalis.
If the mechanics of Stellaris are too detached from its context, then it risks pushing the player into a reductionist game mode where the player sees nothing but the mechanics. The player may feel like all he is doing is making his differently colored blob of grid squares slightly larger at the expense of another blob of grid squares. Indeed, this can happen in other Paradox games after excessively long exposure, or when playing the game at a heightened difficulty level. But those are the most extreme elements of other Paradox games, Stellaris has this issue at its core.
Paradox’s response to Stellaris’s challenging lack of innate context seems to be to rely on sci-fi tropes, which isn’t a bad idea. There may not have been any intergalactic federations in known human history, but humanity has certainly seen them imagined in Star Wars, Star Trek, Starcraft, Mass Effect, Metroid, Halo, Men in Black, The Fifth Element, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, etc. This provides some sort of shared cultural touchstone on which players can create their own imagined context, and it might even be the case that most players know more about these fictional tropes than the actual historical events upon which the other Paradox games are based.
But I think the strength of these tropes has its limits. Stellaris can’t just be a Frankenstein of existing sci-fi ideas, lest it be derivative. It will need a few ideas of its own. And that means Stellaris will need its own world building, which may not be a bad thing, but it’s not in Paradox’s traditional wheelhouse, and any sort of set plot structures are anathema to the freedom inherent in all Paradox games.
I’m not saying a Stellaris based on a context made of existing sci-fi tropes can’t be done well, I’m just saying that it will be extremely difficult, and I can’t think of any game which has ever tried anything like it.
If anyone reading this article now thinks this it is absurdly out of date because Stellaris already came out a few months ago, so all of my concerns and questions can now just be answered by playing the game, well… that’s not how Paradox games work.
How Paradox games work is the company releases a base game and then adds to it for years with various patches and expansions until the final product is almost unrecognizable from its initial launch form. Crusader Kings II first came out in 2012, but has since had thirteen expansions, the most recent of which was released February, 2016. In other words, Paradox games are always a work in progress.
Having put about 15 hours into Stellaris in its current form (as of August, 2016), to me the game has largely gone the route I expected. Stellaris’s context is lovingly constructed from existing space sci-fi trends which give it a ton of great design ideas and mechanics, but ultimately don’t add up to a full and coherent game. The current Steam reviews repeat the same exact story over and over again: the early-game is fantastic, the late game is okay, and the mid game is an incredibly boring slog.
I completely agree with the consensus. The early-game works the best because it has the deepest grounding in sci-fi tropes. It’s all about starting up your intergalactic empire. From a humble beginning on a single planet, you explore your local solar system, looking for other hospitable planets and potential resource generators from mining operations. Then you take the great leap to another solar system and look for more potential homes for humanity (or whatever your chosen species may be). Along the way you’ll run into eerie anomalies which can be investigated at great peril but for equally great potential gain. You’ll meet other civilizations of diverse biological and ideological backgrounds. You’ll manage diplomacy, economy, and even warfare within the early intergalactic structures we’ve all watched, played, and read about in dozens of wonderful sci-fi worlds.
And then the mid-game starts.
By that point you’ll have explored all of the relevant solar systems within your vicinity and further exploration is largely superfluous, so most of your activity will be economic and diplomatic. The economics are a simple matter of resource balancing between energy, minerals, and three types of research outputs all of which adds up to a system which is strategically shallow and rather uninteresting. The diplomacy is criminally underdeveloped and lacks any of the long-term strategy of Europa Universalis and the personality dynamism of Crusader Kings. I suppose there’s warfare too, but it’s current optimal strategy seems to be teching up as much as possible and building doom stacks. All three mediocre systems are exacerbated by a painfully slow pace, which was likely a necessary byproduct of the game’s absurdly huge galaxy map.
Basically, the mid-game is boring. It’s really, really boring. It was boring enough for me to stop playing a mere 7-8 hours into both of my playthroughs (which in Paradox time is the blink of an eye).
I blame the lack of contextualization.
The early-game works well because the overriding theme of exploration is well established in sci-fi tropes. The mid-game doesn’t work because resource collection and long term diplomacy is not as well established. I stopped seeing the neighboring space empire of mushroom people as a fascinating alien civilization with its own unique biology and ideology, and started seeing them as another slightly differently colored blob on a map. I didn’t feel like the Dominion’s policy of closing its borders to my ships and invading the bird people on the other side of their home solar system was motivated by any recent political tides or innate bio-cultural tendencies, but by some algorithm created by Paradox to determine the likelihood of its AIs to take certain actions.
In case you think I’m just being dismissive or am too lazy to learn made up sci-fi names, I invite you to try to remember the nuanced differences between the Confederated Uva-Xavani Commonalities, the Raxycodium Imperial Worlds, the Soverign Tezekia Suns, the United Vivisandia Hegemony, and the Queptillium Assembly, all of which were independent factions with their own species (mammal, bird, arthropod, reptile, fungi, or even plant). And that’s just five of the twenty factions in my mid-sized galaxy. I admit that upon meeting each one of these factions for the first time, I was fascinated by the truly bizarre creatures and (RNG stat-based) cultural/government/biological background of each group. But it did not take long for this myriad of interstellar species to blue together until I literally could not remember which blob on the big map was controlled by which sci-fi monstrosity.
The stocks and flows had revealed themselves to me. Stellaris stopped being an imaginative space opera, and started being a balancing act between a handful of arbitrary number counters as I watched my colored blog grow slightly larger every thirty minutes.
(I would also discuss the late game but as I said, I stopped playing during the midgame out of boredom. However, Steam reviews seem to indicate that it’s better than the mid-game but not as good as the early-game.)
So Stellaris is not a good game at the moment. I truly hope Paradox will figure out how to build a compelling sense of context based on either exiting sci-fi tropes or on their own crazy, original world building, but I’m not optimistic. Of course, I’m such a Paradox addict that they’ll get at least dozens of hours of my time and hard-earned money anyway.