How important are graphics in a 4X game?

Ewanchyna: I think graphics are important to all games, given how visually oriented humans are. With that said, it then just becomes a question of what you're trying to represent with the graphics. I think that a 4X game needs the graphics to serve the interface. It's the presentation of information that's important in a 4X game. If the graphics don't aid the player, then they're of little use but as eye-candy. Of course, the vast majority of people prefer eye-candy to gameplay and action to thinking, so one has to hope the 4X audience is more sophisticated than the casual game player. Basically, the more you can maximize eye-candy, gameplay, action and thinking, the wider the appeal for the game.

Emrich: Pretty significant if you want to evoke what we’re after, which is a 5X game, that 5th X being “eXperience.” If we’re really going to pull you into the whole breadth and scope of this epic, the graphics cannot let us down. Graphics are the road a player travels on his way toward a suspension of disbelief.

Hoseley: It depends on whether or not we want the 4X (or 5X, to use Alan’s parlance) genre to grow and be seen as a viable option by publishers. My two cents on it is that one of the major reasons that the 4X genre doesn’t attract more gamers is the art doesn’t allow for you to lose yourself in the game. The tables, information, and stats can allow for the grognard to get lost in his own head, but immersion in the ‘world’ of the game itself is pretty difficult at best. There are more intuitive ways to present this kind of game. There are more visually pleasing ways to do it, and our goal is to really have the players lose themselves in the world of MOO. We want the players to lose track of time playing it. Graphics and an intuitive interface go a long way in helping to facilitate that.

Fisher: Graphics are key, but perhaps not in the way that would be obvious. Rantz [Hoseley] has carefully crafted a very clean, elegant user interface that's also strikingly attractive. The ship models and aliens are several steps up from what has been seen before. And the cinematics are going to be wonderful. But this isn't a game about eye candy and flash. It's a more understated game, in keeping with the genre. After all, we don't want all sorts of blinking, flashing, pulsing color bursts on the screen constantly. This isn't MTV. Nor will we be showing you the combat from over the shoulder of the individual warrior. We're bringing the scope of the game up a level, so you're not looking at individuals very often (diplomacy being the major exception), but rather spending your time watching entire fleets or examining complete solar systems. There's a lot of craftsmanship in the art for the game, but we're not going to come out and hit you over the head with it.

Your own project excepted, what is currently your favorite 4x space game?

Ewanchyna: Do you really think that I'd be interested in playing another 4X space game after developing and endlessly playing Starships Unlimited for the last 3 1/2 years? The truth is, it's been months since I last got into any computer game. I find myself sampling games from the internet, just like everyone else.

Emrich: Well, it should surprise no one to learn that it’s Master of Orion II, but also Twilight Imperium 2 (that boardgame I mentioned earlier). Awesome games, both.

Hoseley: There are nice bits that I like from various games. I like Alpha Centauri because it’s Sid Meier and it’s Civ in space. STARS! Supernova has some really nice ship design, and there are various games that have nice little bits in them, but one that’s my favorite? That’s hard to say.

Some people criticized Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri for having funky sci-fi technologies like Super String Theory, Ethical Calculus, and Applied Relativity. Is it possible to create your own sci-fi universe and avoid being alien to the player or do you have to use the conventions established in popular science fiction?

Ewanchyna: That depends if you want to be successful or not and what your definition of success is. You can have a very original game that only a few people will love, thinking it's the greatest game ever created. On the other hand you can have a more conventional sci-fi game with broader appeal. If you deal with issues that are too academic or impractical, then you're going to alienate most people. Sci-fi is too small a genre to risk that.

I think a better approach is to base the game on the standard conventions of popular sci-fi, but expand it slightly in the direction you want to go. In this way people will connect with you game right away. If successful, you can grow a franchise by continuing to move the game in the direction you want.

I think the rules of creating a good sci-fi game are the same as creating a good sci-fi story. If you were to take the elements of your game and try to write stories from it, then you could get a sense of how good the game is based on the stories you could write from it. In the case of SMAC's heady technologies, you'd have to write a story with a pretty clever hook, as most people would be too disconnected from the technology to see it's relevance. This in turn may lead you to change the focus of the game.

Emrich: You could go either way. For MOO3, we’re sticking with popular conventions (and adding a few twists of our own to extend that convention just a bit).

Fisher: You need to stay rooted in the familiar. One of the most appealing things about the Star Wars or Star Trek universes is that they're more like our own than different. Sure, the wallpaper is new, but people still live in houses, pilot vehicles, and have relationships that mirror the variety in our own society. In the same way, our technologies begin with that which we know about our own universe and then extrapolate in as "realistic" a manner as possible into the distant future. If we created our own universe, it would feel far more alien. And we'd probably have one heck of a time play-balancing it, since we'd have nothing real to compare with.

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