Sid Meier's Civilization® V

Welcome to our round up of the best 4X games on PC. Ever since the term '4X' was coined for the original Master of Orion, we’ve been Exploring, Expanding, Exploiting, and Exterminating our way through fantasy, history, and the depths of space. The genre has seen something of a renaissance in the last half decade, and while it’s great to have options, there’s also a lot to sort through. 

Not every 4X game is for everyone, so we’ve taken a look at all the major players to enter the stage in recent years and why you might, or might not, want to play them.

Dominions 5

Let's start with an unusual one. Dominions 5 is a 4X game about warring gods and their fantastical armies. You start by designing your deity, which could be a raging dragon or a mystical inanimate rock. Turn by turn you muster armies, recruit wizards to research apocalyptic magic spells, and fend off the attentions of other pretender gods. 

Dominions' visuals are... old school, let's say. You need to dig into the community and get some decent user-made maps but, once you've done that and scanned the manual you'll find a detailed strategy game that generates mad stories. I'm used to controlling spaceships and cavalry in 4X games, only in Dominions can I send an alliance of satyrs, wyverns, elemental spirits and ghosts off to fight some atlanteans. The AI is easily to beat once you have played a few games but the game thrives in multiplayer about other people.

Who's it for: Players happy to get past primitive visuals to unpick a detailed magic system and command dazzling and varied factions.

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

A unique blend of 4X and RTS set in space, Rebellion is more fast-paced than most of the games on this list. It’s a standalone expansion, but also the definitive version of Sins currently available—so you don’t need to worry about grabbing the original to have a good time.

Who it’s for: Existing RTS fans who want to branch out into 4X, and players who like to get to the action fast and maintain a challenging pace. This one may be a little chaotic for the turn-based armchair generals of the world.

Fallen Enchantress 

This turn-based fantasy 4X revolves heavily around Hero characters and a faction leader called a sovereign who can go on RPG-style quests and be used in many aspects of empire management, not just limited to combat.

Who it’s for: Classic RPG fans will feel right at home with the quest system, and the customizable fantasy armies are likely to appeal to tabletop miniature painters of the Warhammer and Hordes persuasions.

Endless Space

One of the most intriguing aspects of the universe in which Endless Space (and its sequel) are set is the mythology behind it. Much revolves around the ancient empire known as the Endless, and the quasi-magical Dust they left behind.Who it’s for: A good all-around entry level space 4X that will also challenge experienced players, and holds added appeal for anyone who wants to unravel facets of a mysterious, pre-written story while dominating the galaxy. It’s also available for beans now that ES2 is in Early Access.

Sid Meier’s Civilization 5 

If we could crown a king of 4X, Sid Meier’s Civilization would have little competition for that throne. Taking one of an armload of civilizations from the ancient to the modern age while competing for various victory conditions, this is the series that has championed the genre for years.

Who it’s for: Even with Civ VI out, Civilization V frequently goes on sale for absurdly low prices, so if you’re not sure you’ll like the series and just want to try it out without dropping the full $60 on the new one, by all means take advantage. It’s certainly an excellent, entertaining game in its own right, particularly with the Brave New World expansion. Plus, the mod scene is excellent.

Europa Universalis IV 

While most of the other games on this list put you in a randomly-generated world or galaxy, EU4 is built on an extremely in-depth recreation of Earth between the years of 1444 and 1821. You can lead any nation on the planet, from France to the Comanche, through centuries of colonization, exploration, and technological discovery.

Who it's for: Considering it’s the highest review score I’ve ever given out, it’s almost easier who to ask who it’s not for. The complexity of the simulation and sprawl of interlocking systems for trade, war, and diplomacy might intimidate newcomers to 4X and grand strategy, but EU4’s interface and tooltips do an excellent job of helping you wade into the shallow end and get a feel for the water.

Eador: Masters of the Broken World 

Taking the role of a demigod battling others of your ilk for control of the shards (all that’s left of the eponymous broken world), Eador is another 4X game that’s hard to categorize. It features 4X, RPG, and board game-like, tactical turn-based elements.

Who it’s for: Eador’s greatest strength might just be how different its setup is compared to most other 4X games. The breaking of the game world into shards, which each behave like a smaller version of a strategic map in a game like Total War or Crusader Kings, means you’ll enjoy it if you’re looking for something a bit different than the standard map conquest or flipping largely static planets in a vast expanse of space to your color.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Taking the Civilization formula into space, Beyond Earth casts you as the head of one of the first human colonies on an alien planet. You guide its development and compete with other colonial concerns using mechanics that will feel highly familiar if you’ve played Civ 5.Who it’s for: Beyond Earth is, in my opinion, a bit of a misstep in the Civ series, lacking elements that drive its siblings to success. While it has some cool things going for it, like a nonlinear tech system that allows you to evolve your futuristic technology in a number of distinct directions, it ultimately feels like a high budget Civ 5 mod that didn’t hold my interest for more than a couple dozen hours.

Endless Legend

Similar to its sci-fi counterpart Endless Space, the unfolding fantasy epic of Endless Legend takes place in a richly realized world with character and backstory to spare. Civilizations are highly customizable, and each presents distinct opportunities.

Who it’s for: We awarded Endless Legend a Commendation for Design in 2014. It has its foundation in the time-tested elements that make 4X what it is, but is unafraid to build on and remix them in ways that will especially interest long-time players who might be suffering from genre fatigue. Beyond that, anyone just wanting to explore a rich and interesting new fantasy setting won’t be at all disappointed.

Warlock II: The Exiled

Warlock is pretty close to what I’d imagine a well-done fantasy overhaul of Civilization might look like. It makes good use of neutral factions on the map to be more than just an early-game annoyance.

Who it’s for: Due to its relative simplicity and adherence to genre norms, this is a fairly welcoming first step for those wanting to branch out into fantasy 4X from other subgenres. It also has a sharper sense of humor than its more dour, grandiose counterparts like Endless Legend and Fallen Enchantress.

Distant Worlds: Universe

Allowing you to discover the stars in a pausable, real-time galaxy, Distant Worlds features one of the more robust models of a civilian economy (which can run on auto-pilot while you handle the political stuff) I’ve seen in a 4X game.

Who it’s for: Aside from just being an overall well-designed 4X, Distant Worlds will have a special appeal for those who like to focus on exploration. This is because it really succeeds where so many other sci-fi games have failed: it makes space feel really, really big.

Star Ruler 2

Similar to Sins of a Solar Empire, Star Ruler 2 is a bit of a 4X/RTS hybrid. It boasts quite in-depth systems for diplomacy and planetary development.

Who it’s for: This one skews toward the higher end of the complexity scale, and the sheer amount of fine control you have over its systems might be intimidating to newcomers. If you’re looking for gigantic, animated space battles, however, it may be worth your time to wrap your head around it.

Galactic Civilizations III 

Galactic Civilizations has cemented itself as the other 'blockbuster' contender in the 4X space, and GalCiv III is the most polished and extravagant entry to date.Who it’s for: If you’re sick of cookie-cutter victory conditions, one of the most positive changes GalCiv 3 made to the series’ formula was turning victory into a set of objectives you can pick and choose from. So even two different runs going for the same victory condition might look different.


Stellaris takes Paradox’s historical formula and blasts it to the stars where you’ll manage military, political, and economic aspects of your space empire.Who it’s for: Fans of historical grand strategy will feel at home in Stellaris, but for those used to more traditional 4X, it takes some getting used to. There’s a much heavier focus on politics, with elements like your form of government and the will of your citizens playing a large role.

Master of Orion

The most recent in the lauded Master of Orion series doesn’t do much we haven’t seen before, but it plays the old hits well and wraps them in stratospheric production value and some big name sci-fi voice talent.Who it’s for: Despite being so new, MoO is bog standard 4X. Not much has changed here since its 1996 predecessor other than the graphics. That does make it a nice starting point for total newbies, but the real draw is hearing John de Lancie lament the war that's brewing between his empire and yours.

Endless Space 2

Endless Space 2 builds on some of the best ideas of its predecessor, this time crafting more unique story content for each of the distinct interstellar empires.Who it’s for: It shouldn’t surprise you at this point in the list that connoisseurs of interactive storytelling should jump for anything that says 'Endless' on it. Endless Space 2 is also arguably a better starting point for newcomers than the first one, as it’s made lots of improvements to your ability to access important, contextual information.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

Civilization VI emerges from its chrysalis to reveal the most transformative and fresh take on the series in its storied history. Also, it has Sean Bean.

Who it’s for: Just about anyone who enjoys turn-based strategy. It presents lots of new challenges and opportunities even for the most weathered series veterans, but also remains among the most inviting 4X games for first-timers.

Endless Space® - Collection

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 312. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.  

The arrival of a new 4X game is a special event in the PC gaming calendar, like a solar eclipse passing across a world split up into tiny hexes. It’s rare enough to feel monumental, yet comforting in its cyclicality; a sporadic dose of complexity reminding us PC gamers that, despite our growing propensity for couch gaming, there are some pleasures that remain unique to us. One year there’ll be a Civ game, another year there’ll be a Gal Civ and then an Age of Wonders. Fill any gaps with meaty DLC, and repeat the cycle. 

But between 2012 and 2017, a trifecta of games from an upstart French developer shook up this 4X hegemony. Amplitude Studios’ Endless Space (2012), Endless Legend (2014) and Endless Space 2 (2017) reinterpreted the 4X playbook, working within its strict rulesets to push the genre further than it had ever gone before. Two of the leading figures in this 4X supernova are Romain de Waubert, cofounder of Amplitude Studios, and Jeff Spock, narrative director on the series. The Endless games have a strong narrative thrust, interconnected by a story about an extinct, advanced civilisation—the titular Endless—that destroyed itself through infighting. There is no expository intro in any of the games. Instead, you learn about the lore by finding artefacts, carrying out quests and exploring planets and the vestiges of lost civilisations. Even something as fundamental as researching technologies is a pithy lesson, as most techs in the game originate from the Endless. 

Spock believes that the 4X genre lends itself naturally to a subtle brand of worldbuilding, which still affords the player the agency they’ve come to expect from a 4X game. It was important to maintain that Civ ethos of enabling the player to create their own narratives, all the while offering compelling stories. “Because it’s a procedurally generated game, you don’t need a traditional storyline. It’s the player’s story, not the designer’s story,” he says. To that end, there are no cinematics. Instead, the Endless series relies on hand-drawn pictures and evocative prose. Quests are tales of monsters that you can hunt in haunting, misty oceans, or of species that worship mysterious beings that predate even the Endless. “I think it’s more interesting to use text and 2D images, and allow the player to come up with the rest of the imagery. All we want to do is keep throwing coal into the engine so whatever they’re imagining is rich and meaningful,” Spock tells us. “We definitely shouldn’t take over the imagination of the player,” adds de Waubert, “because then it wouldn’t be 4X anymore.”

Even in the short time span between the games, Amplitude has made iterations to abide by de Waubert’s sandbox paradigm. It’s why between Endless Legend and Endless Space 2, the faction quests evolved from linear to choice-driven. At a story juncture for the tree-loving Unfallen faction, for example, you need to pick between showing the galaxy that the faction won’t be swayed from its pacifist principles, or—in a flourish of doublespeak—that it’s prepared to defend those principles with force. The quest goals force you to channel production either into influence or military power, but you can take the path best suited to your unique circumstances in a given game. The faction quests become integrated into the game’s systems, rather than layered over the top of them.

An expansionist empire in Civilization may get a unique building with extra productivity and a couple of passive traits to help you spread your borders, an Endless game takes the idea to its extreme.

Balancing is a major preoccupation for 4X devs, and the megapatches that tend to follow most releases spend much of their time tweaking units, movement, faction bonuses and buildings to make sure the game feels just right. But Amplitude has embraced the joys of misbalance, making each faction drastically different. “With every other faction [apart from humans], we try to break at least one major rule,” says de Waubert. “And by breaking this rule, we accept that our game will probably not be very well balanced in the end. But that’s fine, because once the player’s aware of that, it lets them go crazy.” 

So where an expansionist empire in Civilization may get a unique building with extra productivity and a couple of passive traits to help you spread your borders, an Endless game takes the idea to its extreme. “We’d be in a meeting with designers and say, ‘We need a faction that’s expansion-oriented—they need to keep growing and conquering,’” says Spock. “So maybe it’s uncontrollable population—rabbits in space, you know?” The end result of this thought process was the Craver faction of Endless Space (though the only cunicular thing about them is their invasiveness). These insectoid creatures were created by the Endless for war, and their voracious consumption makes them the only faction to fully deplete planets of all their natural resources, forcing them to move onto the next star system, enslave whoever lives there, bleed it dry, then move on again. The Cravers are incapable of signing peace treaties, so you play in a perpetual cycle of consumption and war. Balance be damned. 

These kinds of idiosyncrasies exist across most Endless factions. The Cultists can only build the one city but amass armies by indoctrinating minor factions around the world. The Riftborn from Endless Space need to spend industry to reproduce (they’re manufactured rather than conceived). The Roving Clans can’t declare war, and instead exert control through the Marketplace: a global market with a dynamic economy that they can shut other factions out of.

In a sci-fi or sci-fantasy world, de Waubert believes that the “alien-ness of aliens” needs to be captured, praising the variety and weirdness of interstellar species in the TV series Babylon 5 and Iain Banks’ Culture novels. “If we were to say, ‘Here come these amazing mushroom men that reproduce through spores, but they have +2 Growth and -2 Industry, it just doesn’t work,” says de Waubert. “They have to break the game, otherwise the whole imagination of the sci-fi universe is broken.” 

A similar approach has since been seen in the Total War: Warhammer series, from Creative Assembly. The fantasy premise has allowed it to let loose with systems that weren’t possible in the historical settings. In Warhammer II, Skaven cities only appear as ruins to other players, while High Elves can manipulate and spy on their opponents via diplomacy. De Waubert reveals that the two fellow Sega developers have been exchanging ideas, but stops short of claiming credit for Total War’s innovations. “We try to learn from their experience, and share everything we can with them,” he reveals. 

All these asymmetries and imbalances may sound intimidating to the 4X outsider. But where the blockbuster Civilization series is, to an extent, fettered to its own legacy, and inhibited from making drastic changes to make it more accessible, Amplitude got to approach the genre afresh, with a new generation of potential 4X gamers in mind. “When you’re starting on a blank page, you can do things differently,” de Waubert says. 

“Half the effort with traditional 4X games was trying to figure out the interfaces,” says Spock. “You’d have to click through three menus then find a slider bar and under that you’d find another few options. We wanted to put an end to that.” Take the ‘Citizen Management’ screen in Civilization, where you assign population to gathering science, food and industry. For years, it’s remained largely similar—a system where you assign citizens to specific tiles surrounding the city, counting the amount of each resource on each tile. The Endless series simplifies this by not even having a separate screen for managing city production, but a small table overlay where you can drag and drop citizens between the resources you want them to generate. All the info you need is right there in the table, and the effects are immediately obvious.

Spock says that the goal of this “beautiful, streamlined interface is that the player could get anywhere in two, three clicks”, but that doesn’t capture the omniscient feel of managing your empire in Endless Space 2, where you can seamlessly zoom from a galaxy-wide view to a star system to a planet in a couple of seconds by scrolling. Press the spacebar on a planet or star system, and you ‘scan’ whatever is highlighted. The interface posits you as an emperor, interacting with your hologram terminal, using graceful hand gestures; it feels like a modern, less intrusive answer to those clunky metallic interfaces of ’90s titles, like Fallout and Alpha Centauri, which aims to immerse players by allowing them to look at the game world diegetically.

The interface posits you as an emperor, interacting with your hologram terminal, using graceful hand gestures; it feels like a modern, less intrusive answer to those clunky metallic interfaces of 90s titles.

This is a series of decluttered design elements, and both Endless Legend and Space follow the same principles to keep things looking clean. There are only a handful of unit types per faction, and you’re best off keeping them stacked in dedicated hero-led armies. Instead of inundating the player with increasingly advanced units through the tech tree, the games let you upgrade existing unit types through new weaponry and equipment—a system that’s instantly familiar to a playerbase more attuned to roleplaying game elements than it was even ten years ago. “Today, RPG elements are a reflex for the player, and a reflex for the creator,” says de Waubert. “But you need to not get lost in it. You have to keep in mind that the player is still an emperor, not a bunch of heroes.”

Citybuilding in Endless Legend borrows from its cosmic counterpart, where you’re confined to colonising existing planets and star systems. In Legend, the rule is that you can only build one city per region. “Having to handle 20 cities in the late game isn’t so much fun, and we didn’t want to bog players down with micromanagement,” de Waubert tells me. Some of the greatest moments in Civilization come in those first 100 turns, when the world is uncharted and uncovering it is fraught with danger and excitement. By preventing overdevelopment of an empire, de Waubert says, “You get to keep these wild places in the world where mystery always exists.” 

“It’s more interesting if you have five or six important cities, where each of them matter and develop a character,” adds Spock. “The science one on the river, the military seaport city—this change from traditional design adds a layer of immersion that we feel improves the experience.” One of the big introductions in Endless Legend was districts, letting players spread cities across multiple tiles, bringing in more resources as well as building a distinct visual character for each city. When Civilization VI was announced in 2016, a similar districts system was its most touted feature, offering players ‘de-stacked’ cities for the first time in the series. Amplitude is proud to have fed back into the series without which it acknowledges that its own venture wouldn’t have been possible. “We know guys at Firaxis. It’s a collegial competition,” says Spock. “If we always get jealous guarding our things and spiteful when people use them, the ultimate loser will be the player.”

The design philosophy of the series can be partly attributed to Amplitude swearing by the Early Access model, building up a community of backers that’s been offering nonstop feedback since 2012. It’s helped the studio understand what players want from a 4X game, especially in the early days when, de Waubert admits, “We had a bunch of ideas, but didn’t know how to make 4X.”

Five years on, and Amplitude has created the first great 4X series of the Early Access generation and a distinctly modern classic of the genre, offering a fresh perspective that the stalwarts are already learning from. They’ve overcome longstanding 4X problems, combating mid-game lulls with compelling narratives and creating interfaces that aren’t tied down by a lineage dating back 15 or more years. De Waubert assures us that “this is only the beginning” for the Endless saga—the first intrepid turns in a new instance of the 4X game, where rules are being broken and balance has been thrown out of the airlock for the better. 

Endless Space® - Collection

Sega has acquired Endless developer Amplitude, hoovering up another strategy great and putting the series alongside the likes of Total War.

We at PCG are big Endless Legend fans the mad variation between factions alone sets it apart from the 4X crowd. With the takeover, Sega will take charge of publishing the inbound Endless Space 2. It'll still go through Early Access though. We're told to expect it later this year.

Endless Space® - Collection

Amplitude Studios is celebrating its fifth birthday with its second annual Endless Day: a day that lasts from 21 to 25 January, and that offers up rare heroes and achievements to people who play their games during this time, and who fulfil various conditions. That stuff is detailed here, and includes a trio of heroes simply for starting new games of Endless Space, Endless Legend, and Dungeon of the Endless. You can also bag some time-limited achievements, though these will require a mite more effort.

(Amplitude hints here that you might be able to get these things after January 25, perhaps by mucking about with the time settings on your computer.)

During a celebratory livestream, Amplitude also announced a new expansion for Endless Legend titled Shifters. Ampz sez "this expansion will include a new Major Faction called The Allayi. This new civilization will be able to shift during long winters", a fine alternative to sticking the heating on and hugging a hot water bottle, I reckon. Meanwhile, "all factions will also be able to collect a new resource called the Pearls of Auriga , enabling them to unlock new powers through the Altar of Auriga and modify the upcoming winters impact". Good on them.

Here's a picture of them there Shifters (ta, RPS):

One of the upcoming Endless Space 2's new factions has been revealed as well. The Sophons are one of ES2's eight major factions, and they're basically insectoid scientists.

Endless Space® - Collection

The next game from Endless Legend creators Amplitude Studios has been announced. It's Endless Space 2, a sequel to the space-based 4X strategy. Below, you can watch the first trailer—a CGI affair that should successfully put you in the mood for some galactic colonisation.

Endless Legend fans will note that the trailer's ship is the same one from that game's recent free update. It added a victory condition that, as Tom Senior put it, "lets you build a spaceship and flee the planet in a culture-wide mic-drop exit that will make your enemies sad." Here's the ship in-game, and here's some lovely concept art.

It suggests that the new game will more directly tie into Endless Legend.

Head over to the official Endless Space 2 site to attempt to glean any additional information. It's slim pickings right now, but we'll learn more next week at Gamescom.

Endless Space® - Collection
Romain at his work computer.
Show us your rig

Each week on Show Us Your Rig, we feature PC gaming's best and brightest as they show us the systems they use to work and play.

Romain de Waubert de Genlis is Creative Director at Amplitude Studios, best known for 4X games Endless Space and Endless Legend. Romain has shown us both his home and work setups, but his personal rig is really the one that shines. It's extremely powerful, has a flashy blue interior, and an awesome monitor to tie it all together. Romain was kind enough to tell us about both his computers, as well as what he's playing right now and how his work PC is a little out of date.

What's in your PC?

Home Specs:

  • i7-5930K (overclocked at 4.4 Ghz)
  • DDR4 2X8GB 2133 CRUCIAL
  • CORSAIR 750D Box
  • 1TO Samsung SSD

Work Computer:

Work is different, I have nearly the same computer since we started amplitude, I just updated the video card with something quite average and the CPU was changed as the other one fried. I have an okay screen which is the same as the artists so we are on the same tuning. My mouse does not click by itself and my keyboard is great for typing words…

Romain's home computer

What's the most interesting/unique part of your setup?

Everything is bad ass, from the best screen ever (27 and UHD resolution at 166 mhz), water cooling and ultra-overclocked intel CPU and top notch nvidia GPU, mechanical keyboard and ultra-advanced mouse that clicks for you!

What's always within arm's reach on your desk?

Of course I never go without my chocobons and expressos!

What are you playing right now?

I am playing right now, like a few million people, the amazing Witcher 3… makes me feel very humble, they just nailed it!

What's your favorite game and why?

My favorite game from all time? Civilization 4 with Rise of Mankind mod… it made me want to conquer the world so many times!

Romain loves his rigs.
Endless Space® - Collection

Humble Jumbo Bundle 4 is a nice collection of words to say. Not the 4, so much, but certainly the rest. Give your mouth a treat by saying them aloud right now. (Incidentally, how has there not been a Humble Jumble Bundle yet?)

That's enough mouth fun for one day. Humble Jumbo Bundle 4 is also a nice collection of games, all organised into different pay-what-your-want tiers.

The most basic tier will get you Outland: Special Edition, Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes and Mercenary Kings. Beat the average—currently $4.63—and you'll also get Endless Space: Emperor Edition, The Stanley Parable and The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II.

At the very top end, you can pay $18 or more to get Space Engineers added to the mix.

There's some good stuff there. The Stanley Parable is excellent, and Endless Space is a decent 4X strategy—albeit not quite as good as Amplitude's follow-up, Endless Legend.

The bundle will be available for two weeks, and additional games will be added later in its run. The proceeds can be split between the developers, Humble, and this bundle's two charities, Save The Children and charity:water.

Endless Space® - Collection

Remember last week, when I was all like, "Endless Legend is getting a free add-on next week"? Well now it is next week, or "this week" as we've decided to call it. Did Endless Legend get a free add-on? Yup.

Called Visions of the Unseen, it adds a new minor faction, the unseeing Eyeless Ones. They are literally eyeless, hence how they got the name, but possess a sixth sense—"kanjwe"—that lets them "feel all that is visible, and some that is not"." As with other minor factions, they can be pacified and assimilated—allowing you to build their units.

There's other stuff, too. Here's the major additions and changes of the add-on:

  • Added a new minor faction: the Eyeless Ones.
  • Added new 10 side quests.
  • Added Faction-related diplomatic interactions.
  • Added loading tips.
  • Added the Vaulters' outgame view.
  • Added VFX to the unique quest weapons.
  • Added more data to the save files, in order to allow parsing for league/stats database.

You can peruse the full patch notes here.

Endless Space got some love, too. Chronicles of the Lost adds a bunch more events for the Disharmony expansion. Here's the big stuff:

  • Added 24 colonisation events: these events can now be triggered when colonizing a new planet
  • Added 8 exploration events
  • Added the Vaulters introduction cinematic
  • Added the Vaulters Victory and Defeat screen

And again, full patch notes are through this link.

Endless Space® - Collection

At the Game Developers Conference in March I previewed Endless Legend, a fantasy 4X strategy game from Amplitude Studios that is now available on Steam Early Access. I wanted to spend more time talking to Amplitude's creative director, Romain de Waubert de Genlis (above right), about the recent resurgence of the 4X genre and the success of his previous game Endless Space. We decided to talk over lunch with another 4X designer, Daniel DiCicco (above left), who is working on a sequel to his indie success StarDrive. Over the course of an hour we discussed different approaches to 4X design, their all-time favorite 4Xs, what they think the genre is missing, and more.

It's a long, meaty conversation about one of the most complex corners of PC gaming. Read on to join us for lunch.

Wes Fenlon, PC Gamer: To start off with a topic: , earlier we were talking about you having a really active community for the first version of your game. You guys had that with Games2Gether, fostering that. Let s talk about doing early access to your games and how that influences your development process.

Romain de Waubert de Genlis, Amplitude Studios: Although we ve been in the industry for quite a bit, and we re big fans of 4X, we had to look at how to make a 4X. We had some ideas, but what I was really scared about was the balancing in the end. There are so many things. A game that lasts 10 or 12 hours, generally what you tend to do is play a lot of the beginning and polish it, but it s really hard to get the proper data to balance a game through the end. It needs to be interesting until the end. It needs to have stuff coming in that balances out the rest of the game.

That s one of the two reasons why we came to Games2Gether, to make sure that we had people who could help us and teach us how to make a 4X, particularly on the balancing side. On the technical side or the art side, we re not that scared. I wasn t too scared about any of the global ideas. Just the balancing. And also not having people get drawn into the details. It was a mix of that.

The thing is, when you re unknown, you need to find a way to have people that want to share the adventure with you. With that, what we saw in Games2Gether Let s promise that we can create the game in front of them and include them in the process, so they really are part of the creation of the game. That way, as a player, I would find that a lot more attractive than just playing the part of a witness.

Dan DiCicco, Zero Sum Games: For StarDrive, we didn t have anything quite so formal as the Games2Gether, but we had a similar approach. Including the community early on, saying, we re going to make this game in front of you. The feedback that we got helped shape the game, and it s also very encouraging, to see that people like the first course. Here s what we ve made up, here s what we re trying to do. They care enough to come back to the forums and post about it and tell you all the things they like or don t like. It helps me keep going, day to day.

PCG: What changed with the first StarDrive, getting feedback from people playing it?

Dan: There were some major systems that didn t even exist at the beginning. They came into being after people played the game and said, hey, it would be really nice if we could manage the power grids on our ships. StarDrive had this module-based ship construction system, and we added this SimCity-like power management, so you have to make sure all your modules are powered.

I love our community. It has its drawbacks, too. We learned the hard way, every time you engage with your community and tell them about something you intend to do, it s basically treated as an implied promise, even if it s not an actual promise. For me, I screwed up by saying I wanted to do multiplayer, and then decided after exploring the concept further that it wasn t realistic for StarDrive. I made a lot of people mad by doing that. There s a downside to strong community engagement also.

StarDrive 2

Romain: Yeah, I d agree with that. For us, what we re trying to do is make sure that we have a scope which is very clear. We want to make sure that the vision is clear to everyone. We try not to go outside that vision.

People can get hurt easily if you say, this is what my game s going to be about, and then you change it. This is also why we didn t want to go on Kickstarter. I had many chances to change the game. The game begins as one thing and it ends as something else. As you make it, the game evolves. Some stuff that you promise at first turns out to just not be fun or interesting or challenging. It s better to kill that and do something else instead. With a Kickstarter, people pay money ahead of time for a feature that s on the Kickstarter. If I remove it, what happens?

That s why we wanted to make sure that we paid for the whole game. When people pay for the game before it s released, before they can play the game, when the game comes out, there s already a contract between them and the creator. But we did have some stuff that we kind of promised. Multiplayer is a tricky one. As players and designers, it was awesome. Technically, getting more into the details, it was more and more difficult. We ll do it, but it ll be painful.

Dan: A similar concept has been on my mind lately. A lot of indies have chosen to be full-on indie, but both of us have chosen to partner with a publisher. To me, the benefits seem obvious. There s a lot of noise out there. There s a lot of games. It s easy to get lost. It s nice to have partners who know more about business. What do you think about that?

Romain: I think our approach is a bit different from yours, because we don t have the same relationship with Iceberg. First, when we decided to work with , we were already working directly with Steam. But at the same time, we knew that Steam was only 90 percent of the digital sales we could make. We also knew that a boxed version could work out in some territories. We wanted to have boxes. That s why I came to Iceberg. I wanted them to take care of that 10 percent, and the boxes. Also, we asked them to take care of PR and promotion, because again, we didn t have time and resources to take care of that. We wanted to focus on what we can do best. At the same time, we lead the communication at stages.

Dan: My relationship with Iceberg is different, I think. Part of it is the structure of our company. You have 35 guys now?

Romain: And you have one.

Dan: Yeah, I have one, plus a bunch of freelancers. When I started, I hadn t ever made a video game. Here were people who knew the industry. They knew how to get a game to market. If I d tried to be a completely solo indie, I just might have been lost. I see a lot of indies out there making a lot of success, and I think that can be a bit misleading to people who are trying to break into the scene. They all want to be the big hit, but they don t realize that there s so much more.

It s not just making the game. It s marketing the game. Things like , where you can meet with journalists. It s been on my mind lately.

Romain: For us, we re able to do more on that side, because we had a lot of publishing-side experience previously. It may come out wrong, the way I say it. But from what I ve seen, being on the publishing side, I realized that publishers were probably the worst ones at selling indie games. Each time, I was seeing these games that we were making, and you always had some marketing guy coming in with his own recipe. Which is the same for every game that he ever does. You do a small game, and it s the same recipe as for any other web advertising, TV if you can. Wait, what if I don t have TV? What will I do? I don t have TV on this game! I m lost!

That s why we realized, if we went with a publisher who would lead the communication, again, we d be on this classical way of doing things. We know that s not the way to do it with a smaller game. We re only aiming at an audience of maybe 60,000. That s what we re hoping for. And they re all over. We have a few thousand in France, a few thousand in Germany, a few thousand in the U.S. Traditional advertising wouldn t reach those guys. We knew we had to find another way. That s why we chose this community-centric approach.

Endless Legend

PCG: Let me change topics and ask a super broad question. Why do you love 4X games?

Dan: It taps into that industrious drive in all of us. You look at a game like Minecraft. Why is that so wildly successful? It s because of that human drive to build and to see a reward from our effort.

I think 4X games, set in space, let you be industrious. You can build your empire from nothing and see it grow into this technological powerhouse. Then there s also It lets you live your space fantasies. I watch all these science fiction shows Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and think, yeah, I d love to command that battleship. For me, that s the appeal. It s the growth, and then the fantasy of living it out.

Romain: For me, there are two things I love. I love to be able to play a game the way I want to. I want a sandbox. I love that I have some toys to play with. And I love strategy.

For me, when you mix strategy with open gameplay and the toys you have to put together to make your own game, that s where you come to 4X. I think 4X is a representation of those two concepts meeting together. I m not a big fan of games that are scripted for me. I know that some people love that, to have levels and build up this set of skills to go on to the next level. That s not my cup of tea. I rarely play those kinds of games.

But with the sandbox It goes back to what we were saying. It s something that fits your imagination. It s building stuff. I have toys. What do I do with them? I can create my own story and put them here and there the way I want to and it all becomes mine.

Dan: I really love to see the after-action reports that players write. They have these elaborate fantasies where they create characters that are driving their ships. You can see their imaginations just going at it.

Romain: Exactly. We re-used some of that. We re feeding some of people s stories back into the game. We love that so much.

PCG: What s your favorite 4X game?

Dan: It s a clich to say Master of Orion II, but Let s divide it up. I have space 4X and other.

PC: Yeah, you specifically mentioned space 4X a minute ago. Do you like Rome and Civ and stuff, but just space you like more?

Dan: I feel like it s almost its own genre. It s totally different to me. The basic concepts of building an empire are the same, but I m living different fantasies. It s almost like saying, what s your favorite, an apple or a pear or an orange? It depends on what mood I m in. Sometimes Civilization is just the best 4X game, but that s because I want to pretend I m Hannibal and march my elephants to Rome.

PCG: Not Gandhi?

Dan: Yeah. But then sometimes I want to feel like Admiral Adama, and in that case, playing some Master of Orion II and launching fighters from my carrier, that s the fantasy I want to live. Sometimes I want to be a wizard, so I could play Fallen Enchantress. It s hard for me to pick a favorite. They re all different flavors.

PCG: What stands out about Master of Orion II, if you were going to choose that as top tier?

Dan: The economy and the strategy layer is very well-balanced. It s compelling throughout. There s this menace, the Antarans, who are attacking to provide pressure on you. I like how you get to design your own ships and bring them to battle. That was a big draw. That obviously was a heavy influence on StarDrive s ship design. I just think it s a well-executed concept. It basically hasn t been topped.

PCG: And when did Master of Orion II come out?

Dan: It must have been 1992? (1996, actually! - ed.) I think a lot of us are chasing that dragon a little bit with our space 4X games.

PCG: What about you, ? Can you name a favorite?

Romain: For me, actually, I would say I ve only liked games in the areas of space and history. I don t think I ve found any good ones in the fantasy area. I hope to fix that someday. But that s a difficult one.

I love Master of Orion II, for the space one. Again, it s a game that we kind of idealized for a time. It was awesome when it came out, and for a very long time, I don t think there was anything that came close to it. Although Civilization II was a very good game. When you play the games we do now in space and compare them with Master of Orion II, you find a lot of stuff in Master of Orion II that might not be as good anymore.

For me, I always hated the end of Master of Orion II. I was playing a lot of multiplayer with my friends back at the time, and we were all playing on our own sides. For a few hours we d keep on going, not saying a word, just playing and playing. At the end, okay, guys, we have to go to bed, so let s all meet here and have the big fight. The best fleet won, and there was no way to recover from that.

Master of Orion 2 image via

Dan: I think it s actually really hard to end a 4X game. It s been a big design challenge for me. You ve designed several now. What do you think about that?

Romain: No, I agree with you. It goes back to what we were saying earlier. When you develop these games, you work a lot on the mechanics, and you test a lot of the beginning the first two, three, four hours of the game. That might only be about a third of the game. If you play a lot of these games, that first third, it s always very good, but even in something like Civilization, after that first third, you wind up with too many things to handle. There s not enough new mechanics coming in.

Dan: The Master of Orion II formula, which is something I m going to bring to StarDrive as well, has that external pressure. At a point in the game, the game decides it s going to wrap things up, and you ramp up that external pressure. Invasions from aliens. Maybe you re doing the winter thing with Endless Legend. That might be a good way to do it.

Romain: I think that s a good way. But in the end To me, the only way is to do that early access and get more feedback on the last two-thirds of the game that you don t personally have time to work on enough. It would be great to have more of a tracking system for that. We re too small to have a great tracking system today. But I hope one day to be able to better track how people play the rest of the game to see when they quit, how they quit, why they do that. For me, also, what I m trying to do is ration out a lot of the new gameplay elements, to see where we can add a new way to play the game, and try to make sure we don t add all of those at the beginning of the game. I want to spread those throughout the game.

Dan: Paradigm shifters, right? Things that change the way you look at the game.

Romain: Yeah. I m working on that at the moment. I m not saying that s going to save it, but I hope we ll bring some new answers. For me, I hope a mix of community feedback and these paradigm shifts will do it.

PCG: Have you built any information-gathering technology into Endless Legend?

Romain: No, unfortunately. We re too small for that. I hope, before we start our next game, we ll be able to do that. Each time we say, well, we ll get to that at the end, and then you never have the time. That s the last thing you want to do at the end of the process. Next time we ll make sure to get that done at the beginning and keep tracking as we re doing the game. You have to have a server running and accessible all the time.

One day we did some tracking at Ubisoft, for the multiplayer on Dark Messiah, and we made some mistakes. We tracked every projectile that was coming out, instead of tracking which weapon was being used. It was so much data that we just crashed the server. So that was bad. You really need to have some good technical people to take care of that stuff. But once it s in place Now we have much better tools for that kind of thing, so it s probably easier to do.

PCG: You ve both designed about one and a half 4X games now. When you started working on the first one, what did you look at as far as the other 4X games that have been made when you were thinking, this is what I want to do that s unique?

Romain: The weird thing is, on all the games I love To go back to something earlier, for historic games I loved Civilization IV, and for space, Master of Orion II. But then I have many others I liked. For each one of them, strangely enough, I remember more about what frustrated me, the frustrations I had in these games, than anything else.

By working on my games, I m trying to approach those frustrations and see how I can remove them. Can I find mechanics to repair that? How can I make exploration interesting? How can I make the universe more immersive? How can I create a sense of continuity in battles and everything else that happens in the world? I m not just thinking about game mechanics, but also just reducing the distance between the game and the player, and all the tools we have for that. That goes from the music to the interface to the terrain to the game rules.

The problem that you have as a designer sometimes, you tend to have fun creating new gameplay elements. You add and add and add. It s easier to add something than remove something. In smaller, less mature I would say, 4X games, you tend to see this explosion of options. As a player, you just don t know where to click. You get lost in all those elements.

Also, when you re a small company, when you have all these choices, it s very hard to put real meaning behind every one of them. I think the challenge is to be able to reduce your mechanics to a very few ones, and to focus on the things that frustrated me before, the places where I never found satisfaction.

StarDrive's ship customization system

Dan: With StarDrive, I wanted specifically to address ship design. The design of the game sprang up around the concept of modular ship design and having some exciting combat with that. I ve made countless mistakes making StarDrive. I was a complete newb when I started.

StarDrive experienced a fair amount of success. We did well. We built a community. I finished it. Now I can approach StarDrive 2 with a much more seasoned viewpoint. My approach to StarDrive 2, basically, I m looking at my frustrations with StarDrive and trying to address the things I thought were lacking.

Each X in the 4X needs to be important. StarDrive was very heavy on the extermination. Now I m really focusing on exploration. I want to make sure that when we re exploring this world, there are all kinds of interesting things to see and characters to meet, things like that. Romain and I perhaps had very different points of reference when we started out on our projects. Mine was much more newb-ish. But now I think I have a much better perspective, having been through the gauntlet.

It s cool for me to be able to Instead of looking at another 4X game and trying to base yourself on that, trying to differentiate yourself, now you re looking at your game. Now I have this template. What am I going to do better or do differently? What worked and what didn t?

Romain: The good thing for you, you don t have to find a common ground with the rest of a team. If you want to do something, you just do it. For me, my first community is my team. Once I pass the test of that first community, I can go on to the real community. Sometimes, you need to negotiate and say, okay, you all hate that, so I ll try to put that aside. But as a designer, you think, I really wish I could do that!

Dan: But you also have the benefit of someone on your team who can say, you know what, that s a really bad idea.

Romain: Yeah. It can go both ways.

Dan: Sometimes I don t make that discovery until much later in the process.

PCG: When Endless Space came out Has it been a full two years? A year and a half?

Romain: It s about two years, yeah.

PCG: I would have said at the time, that 4X wasn t necessarily a dying genre, but maybe it was a sparsely populated genre. I feel like that s really changed in the past two years. Why do you think that is?

Romain: This may sound overly confident, but I would love to say that we contributed to that. I think, strangely enough We re expecting, as I said, 60,000 people to play our games. We don t expect any more. But we knew, from the numbers that we had on previous games, that something like Civilization had more than two million players. We knew that the 4X genre always had the potential to reach a pretty big niche. You just need to make a game that can attract more people that s more open, with its game design and visions, to a wider crowd.

Dan: When I got into doing StarDrive, I had a whole other life going on. It had nothing to do with video games. I chose the 4X genre because I thought it was underserved. I saw Civilization, basically, and it was the only show in town. There hadn t been another big one for the better part of 10 years. Galactic Civilizations 2 and Civilization IV. I knew I wanted it, so I built one, and Romain built one. We figured, if we built it, they would come, and they did. Now there s some more interest.

Romain: When you create a quality 4X, as I think we did, you create more interest in the genre. I think there was less interest in the genre because you only had Civilization coming every three years. Besides that, what else did you have? You didn t have much in terms of quality in the 4X genre.

I think the genre was only dying for lack of quality products in that area. Not for lack of interest from players. Again, whenever a Civilization comes out, you have lots of people buying it. I think there was a lot of immaturity in the way 4Xes were made up to that point. People could satisfy themselves with reaching just a few players, keep it cheap, follow the same recipe.

Dan: I think the rise of the indies contributed to this as well. I m a perfect example. The ability for someone like me to build a team cost-effectively, using the internet and using powerful tools that are cheap And then I can bring the game to market without paying tons of overhead costs to put it in a box. That s helped bring a lot of these old genres back to life. You have the new XCOM and things like that.

PCG: What do you think, technology-wise, has contributed to that? I don t know how many people made Civ or Civ II, but if you look back at 4X games made in the 90s, it seems unthinkable that one guy, with a freelance artist and a freelance musician, could make a 4X game. Maybe I m wrong?

Romain: If you go back to the 80s, there were really small teams.

Dan: That s what Sid Meier did, when he made Civilization. It was a pretty small team. Today, we can squeeze so much more power out of a computer using these tools. Today, on StarDrive, I ve built it using Unity. Romain also uses Unity for all of his projects.

PCG: All the Endless games use Unity?

Romain: Yeah. I think we both had more or less the same analysis of the market when we started. On our side, we had Unity. It s cheap and powerful technology. We can now have access directly to our distribution channels, which wasn t the case a few years ago. I need fewer players to make my game profitable. Again, the genre that we loved wasn t very crowded.

Dan: The access to Steam is the biggest. Things may be changing with Steam. There are rumors in the pipeline I went to the Dev Days conference that basically they re going to make it a self-publishing type of platform. I can t speak for them, but indications are that it s going to be a very different marketplace in a short period of time.

PCG: They want to get away from Greenlight. They want to advance past Greenlight.

Dan: Even so, those relationships Unless you re on the front page of Steam, or unless you re on sale, you hardly exist. You have to get You still need to have a quality product to get those banner placements. That was a huge driver of sales for StarDrive, and I m sure for Endless Space as well.

Romain: If you look at the traditional way of making games Let s go back, say, seven years ago, just to make sure we re on the right page. A publisher would spend a lot of money on stuff like advertising in printed magazines. They d do that in every single region. You d have advertising in stores. You d make all these boxes. All that comes out of the revenue from the game that would otherwise go to you, the developer. Once everything s come out of it, you get maybe 14 percent, as an average developer. If you re a big star developer it could go up to 30 percent.

How many millions of copies do you need to sell to get enough money back? And that was the whole point. It was extremely difficult for you to make any money, given where the balance point stood between the cost of making the game and the revenue it could bring in. You could only target big markets, ones that were already known for being big. Everyone made a shooter or an RPG, because that was what was selling. You couldn t do something that was aimed at a smaller niche.

Now all that is finished, with digital communities and publishing and everything. That costs practically nothing by comparison. You can make a great game for those 60,000 people and sell it to them all over the world. Steam, I think, reaches 80 countries? It s not the entire world, but it s a pretty big part of the world. We don t have China yet, which is annoying.

Dan: Steam gives you this map of where you ve sold all your games. It s fascinating to look at. I saw that somebody bought StarDrive in the Palestinian occupied territories. One copy.

Romain: Yeah, same here. One guy.

Dan: Probably the same guy.

Romain: Maybe he s an American spy. Now we know where to find him.

PCG: So while you guys are making 4X games when you re in deep and working on it for a year or two years do you play other 4X games? Or are you sick of them?

Dan: No, I play all of them. It s research.

Romain: For me, I always play them as research. Sometimes, like StarDrive, I get hooked on them. Hmm, hmm, hmm! I have to tell him to fix that! My kids will come in and say, "hey, dad, come with us!" No, working! Eight hours later it s like, I m still working! I get hooked on it.

But the games that hooked me on the 4X genre Not many have been able to do it. StarDrive was definitely one of them. Fallen Enchantress, with the latest additions, I really liked that, but I hated all the previous ones. I think it all came together with those last additions, in Legendary Heroes. I liked it. But you have to play them all. There are interesting ideas and inspirations to find everywhere. It would be a sad thing to make the same mistakes that everyone else is doing. It s better to learn from other people s mistakes, just as we learn from our own mistakes.

The same way, when someone figures out something good, it s good to build on that. It s in our interest, all together, to build on everyone else and move all of our games in a direction where we can get better. If we re not looking at what everyone else is doing, we ll all make the same mistakes.

Dan: For me, playing other 4X games as research, I tend to look for the smaller things. I don t have a lot of experience with things like UI design. It s just seeing how a menu transitions up into the screen and how the elements are arranged. That s the type of thing I m doing when I look at a game from a research perspective. I need to break it down and understand how they did it, so I can figure out how they did it and at the very least mimic, if not improve on the concept.

Romain: Also, on the code side, you try to figure out how someone did something code-wise.

Dan: Yeah, definitely. It s really hard for me to play any video game now. Only the best video games I can play and not start breaking down, well, how is this constructed? The best ones are the ones where you re so immersed in the world that you don t even think about it. It s kind of a curse, a little bit.

Romain: That s true. We re always focused on what s going on behind it.

PCG: Do you ever go back and play really old games like Civ 1?

Dan: I play Master of Orion II a lot. I was taking a close look at their economy, because I think it worked really well. At least for a starting point on my economy in StarDrive 2, I m using the same sorts of mathematical figures and formulas. Then I can expand from there. I know what works. If it ain t broke, don t fix it. Just try to improve it a little bit.

Master of Orion 2 image via

Romain: For me, it s the same with video games, movies, books, whatever. When I love something, I don t want to go back to it, because I m afraid of breaking the dream. The more I liked it, the more true that is. Whenever I see something I loved that s getting a bit old, I want to keep it there. I want to just remember the feelings and emotions I liked from it.

Which doesn t mean I can t go back and look for some pictures, or look at Like, how did they do the economy at the time? Looking at the Master of Orion economy and thinking, oh, that s how that worked, I remember now. So I can still do that. But I d hate to say, oh, God, is that what it looked like? God, was that the music back then? It would disrupt my dream.

PCG: Are you going to feel that way about Endless Space in 10 years?

Romain: I don t know if it s the same for Dan, but I played the game for hundreds of hours in development. I think I m up to 1200 hours at the moment. When the game comes out, everyone gets all excited, and it s just Let me take a break! At least at the end, I m playing a lot of multiplayer. I m not the best one at that. There are always community guys that are way better than me, way faster than me. That keeps me playing some more of the game.

But not so much more of the single-player. The thing that sucks is, when the game has finally become what you wanted it to be, that s when you stop playing it, because you ve played it so much. But it s good, that feeling where it s like You put the last stone on and it s finished.

Dan: It s a good feeling, though, to look at your previous work and have that feeling of, oh, that s not very good compared to what I m doing now. I m able to use my own work as a reference point, somewhat. When I look at StarDrive, I m like It almost seems amateurish compared to what I ve learned since then. I hope that every time I make a game in the future, I can feel the same way about the previous one.

Romain: Yeah, I agree. It s true that sometimes It s funny. In a way, it s bad to look on the past, because you know that everyone loved something, and the reviews were all great on certain elements of the game But you look at that element that was supposed to be good, and with a new perspective, maybe two years later, it s like, really? Really? You liked that? Okay

PCG: Were there some bits of your Endless Space design that you were surprised people liked so much?

Romain: The music? I had people doing development on the team saying they didn t like it. And yet people seemed to love it.

PCG: I liked the music, yeah.

Romain: But until the very end, that wasn t very obvious. It was a choice of style. It had a lot of references to 80s music, old synth music from the 80s. It s very particular. But it worked, and I m happy about that. Game design-wise, what people liked There was stuff I wasn t sure about, like the battles. Not everyone loved that. 50 percent of the community hated it and 50 percent loved it. A few people were in between, which was interesting. But I was happy that so many people liked it.

What we wanted to show and prove with that was that the battles weren t at the center of the game. The battles were just one of the elements of the game. You were a leader, not a general. I was happy that so many people understood that. You always want to please everyone, but you can t. You have to admit that you can t please everyone. You want to please the majority, of course

Dan: In StarDrive, one thing I didn t expect was, I put in some throwaway quest types of things. I had this concept where I wanted to have some events that you could encounter and some quest lines you could follow. I put one or two in there and I thought, okay, maybe this isn t the best. But actually, people really latched on to it, and they were kind of angry that I didn t follow it through so much. Which has really informed my design on StarDrive 2. It was kind of shocking. It took me by surprise. I was like, here s this crappy little thing, and people were like, no, I really like that, give me more!

Romain: It was kind of the same for us with the events we did. We did maybe 10 or 15 events and moved on. We didn t expect so much For me, the things I didn t like about it One, it was totally random. There was nothing you could do to encounter it. So I wasn t so sure. It does add some variety to the game, which is interesting.

Dan: I think it goes back to what I was talking about with 4X games letting you live out a fantasy. The events, although they re incredibly trivial as far as design and coding goes How much they can immerse you into the fantasy, providing more context and giving you a place in the universe. So, lesson learned.

Romain: Yes. That s why we did the quests this time in Legends. In Legends, the quest system is basically an event system. You can go questing, because we know that people want to be more immersed in the game. But for me, it s still too directed. I love just having bricks I can play with.

Dan: I d like to make some of these features optional. Even some of the hardcore features There are some features that are non-optional in a strategy game like this. You have to explore and expand. You have to get out there. But if you come across an event and just think, aw, I don t want to deal with this, usually I just let them have a way out.

Romain: Yeah. You should be able to go and do something else.

PCG: When you re designing a game, how much of the design are you trying to pull straight from your own interests? I love this in a 4X. I love being able to do whatever and not have anything scripted. How do you balance that versus what you think might make for a better game for people who have different opinions? How much of it is kind of the auteur theory versus working together.

Romain: It s interesting. It s true that we re working on the game all together. This is a deal I m making with the players. In the end, I can t forget that. I m not just making this game for me. I m making it for the community, for all the players. But I have to make sure that I define the limits, the constraints. We ll never go here, we ll never go there. As long as I have my babies here. I have stuff that I want to keep and follow and see growing.

I also get those kinds of seeds from the community, and I ll make sure to grow them with them. They ll teach me. I ll learn from them. Having to adapt to that is a good thing in the end. The thing is, a lot of these things I probably wouldn t have done at all, like the quest system. If I didn t know there were such big expectations for it. But it pushed me to do it in a way where If I m going to do it, I m going to do it in the right way, what I believe is the way to go. That pushes me to be creative around something I didn t expect to do at all. You become even more creative that way.

I m making sure that every quest is a sandbox quest. It s not just, pick up this sword and go kill that demon in so many turns, where it s all scripted out for you and you don t make any choices. For me, it s just one big goal for the quest, and it s up to you to find a way. It s kind of a puzzle that you have to solve as a player. And then you use the tools of a 4X to be able to solve it.

Dan: I think it s important for a designer to stay pretty true and consistent with their original vision. It s fine to get input from the community, but it s a tough balancing process to figure out.

Dan: I feel like gamers...If you ask them what they want, what they ll tell you they want is something they ve already had. That can be a reality. Sometimes they just know what they like, and so they re not going to advocate, in a community-type setting, for massive innovation. It s our job as designers to try to bring innovation while still meeting their needs.
Endless Space® - Collection

Endless Legend, the fantasy 4X strategy game from Endless Space developer Amplitude Studios, is a month away from hitting Steam Early Access. Endless Legend will be Amplitude's second game to launch on Early Access Dungeon of the Endless, its roguelike-meets-tower defense experiment, has been playable in an evolving alpha state since late 2013. And the developer has now built its Games2Gether business model around getting player feedback during development.

Last time we saw Endless Legend, Amplitude wasn't ready to show off its combat system, the vital "exterminate" slice of the 4X experience. Now, a few weeks out from Early Access, creative director Romain de Waubert gives me a tour of Legend's strange real-time turn-based battles. Combat in Endless Legend is like knocking over a series of dominoes, if the dominoes were hulking orcs and squads of elven swordsmen and archers placed upon a hex grid that looks an awful lot like Civilization V.

Warfare in Endless Legend plays out in turn-based phases on a macro level. When a battle begins, the game quickly wipes away the details of its vibrant tilt-shifted hex landscape in favor of a cleaned-up battlefield.

"We don't want to go down to micromanagement," de Waubert says. "We want you to stay a general, and while this battle occurs, you can do something else. So we want to make sure you are only at the high levels and giving big directions like I want to keep that high ground, I want to tactically process the terrain and put the right units in front."

Elevation plays a major role on the map if one hex is a few levels higher than surrounding hexes, its sides will be blocked off by impassable cliff faces. A height advantage also gives units like archers an expected combat bonus.

de Waubert says that intelligently using those elevation differences is key in combat, since there's no micromanagement. You give each unit a simple order where to move and then who to attack and then end your turn and watch combat play out. Each unit in the battle takes its turn in a sequence that's displayed at the top of the screen.

"Now the battle is happening in real time, but it's turn after turn based on initiatives," de Waubert explains after giving his units orders and ending his turn. "The faster initiatives play first. The whole trick is to make sure the other guy's units with fast initiatives are being killed first or stopped first. So in a way you can combo and only have your guys play."

By paying attention to that sequence, you can target the enemy units that are moving first and potentially wipe them out before they get to attack. Dominoes.

Long battles can play out over three phases, with multiple turns in each, though the skirmish I watched de Waubert manage ended in only two turns. He lost.

"I should not have lost that battle," he says laughing. "It's all about how you place your troops and which you place first. It's high strategy: more about the big decisions and not the extreme details that, in a way, I think are the same . I think it's more interesting to have to play on the initiatives and have a combo where the others can never play."

While you're making turn-based combat choices, other players in a multiplayer game can wander into range of a skirmish and watch the elves and trolls and other fantasy warriors take their turns in real time. It's a strange hybrid, and I didn't get a chance to see how smoothly everything will mesh together in a real game.

Legends' fantasy world ties into Amplitude's other games, Endless Space and Dungeon of the Endless, and some of its races are even ancestors of the ones that explored the stars in Endless Space. To de Wabuert, that's one of the key things that separates Endless Legend from other fantasy or Civ-like strategy games.

"We definitely are a Civilization type of game," he admits. "There are two main elements we focus on that I think we do a pretty good job at. One, the accessibility. The interface. Everything is very clear, very easy to explain...Also, we make sure everything is needed. We prefer to reduce the choices to the very meaningful ones, rather than many choices that don't mean anything or have any real gameplay behind them."

More importantly, he says, the team focuses heavily on worldbuilding. Endless Space was rich in lore for its factions and hero units and the mysterious backstory of the Endless, though all of that information was presented in simple text boxes and static art. Endless Legend already looks far more lush and detailed, which is what Amplitude is shooting for.

"We pay a lot of attention to the mood, atmosphere, universe, world. We want to be really sucked in by the ambiance and the atmosphere of the game, the visuals and graphics, the lore and the writing. And again, I think that's something that, personally, I don't see enough in 4X games. They're more about game mechanics than the experience the player is going to live. Sometimes game is about what happens in your mind, and you live an epic story, but what you see on the screen is not that epic. So we want to fill that in a bit more."

de Waubert also emphasizes how differently Endless Legend will play based on your faction. The final game will include eight factions, four of which he calls "advanced" factions. The Roving Clans, for example, can't declare war on other factions. "That's a basic part of the game that's kind of broken," he says. "It's not easy to handle. But you have others that are more classic and have a bonus to building or have more armies."

And the Roving Clans simply present a challenge to overcome. Instead of declaring war, Roving Clans players can, for example, manipulate the market to starve opponents of resources. Shrewd players will be able to force their enemies into declaring war on them.

Another advanced faction, the Broken Lords, doesn't use food. Instead, their food resource is Dust, the Endless universe's stand-in for money. Broken Lord players will have to approach resource mining and trade differently.

We barely touched on building or trading or politics or customizing units for combat. And some of those systems are still unbalanced, which de Waubert is happy about. That's what the alpha release on Steam is for, in his opinion getting players into Endless Legend, getting them to explore the technology progression and combat and market and find out what works and what doesn't.

"For me, I wouldn't work another way," he says. "I hope I will never have to work another way. It's funny, sometimes when I talk with developers they say it's a good way to make money before the building of the game. That's wrong! Early Access is to get feedback to tune your game before its release, because there's nothing worse than finishing your game and getting feedback about what you should have fixed."

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