The Geryk Analysis
Master of Orion 3 rebuttal

By Bruce Geryk

Now that the fiasco that is Master of Orion 3 is out, a lot of people seem to be asking how it could possibly have ended up as such a mess. The game is more than just micromanagement Hell - it's micromanagement Hell where someone else (the AI) does the initial micromanagement and you then have to go back in and micromanage the mistakes. Totally, completely nuts. Or is it? If you look at all the game's pieces, you can clearly see the spectacular evidence of failed game design that eventually exploded. It all makes sense, and I'm surprised that Tom didn't recognize it in his review. After all, the key piece of evidence is on his own website.

I've always agreed with the game design theory that anything below the level of the player's control should be abstracted. The original Master of Orion did this beautifully. Each planet had a slider that let you set what proportion of a system's resources went for what purpose. How many organic robots were really working in the Cryslon system when you set the Industry slider to 57%? Who cares. Their hopes, dreams, love lives, and need to go to the bathroom were all abstracted into some percentage of the planet's overall capacity, which you controlled directly.

This kind of obsessive micromanagement can obviously devolve into spreadsheet optimization. One way of getting around this is to design a system where everything is theoretically under your control, but your ability to get involved in the details is somehow limited. This is what some real-time strategy games do when they force you to micromanage every single unit. At some point, you have to concentrate on the most important units. Choosing where to focus your attention becomes part of the strategy. It's also frustrating because if you have to get involved in the first place, the unit AI has to be bad. It's a cheap gameplay tactic, although it does technically work.

In a Tito-esque Third Way of Game Design, what if you could create a system in which the AI was just fine, but you sometimes had to get involved anyway because what it was doing, while it made sense, wasn't what you wanted? And what if you couldn't always get involved, because your ability to do so was limited by something other than a frustrating inability to click fast enough?

From everything I've read about Master of Orion 3's development, this is exactly what Imperial Focus points were supposed to do. Designer Alan Emrich said as much in an interview posted on this very site:

Imperial Focus is the Leader's ability to get things done during a single one-to-two year Game Turn. During a turn a Leader can only focus on so many issues. To simulate this, each player has only so much Imperial Focus each turn. With it, he or she reviews the current standing orders throughout the Empire and spends Imperial Focus Points (IFPs) only when he or she wants to change the status quo. With Imperial Focus, the player can choose to do anything but cannot do everything.