Interview by Matt S.
I’m about 100 turns in when I realise something is going very wrong with my little galactic empire. My rate of production was slowing down. I was spending a lot of my time chasing space pirates around, and they were taking advantage of my disorganisation and dropping nuclear missiles on my population. I had expanded to five planets, sure, but at least two of them were developing too slowly to be of much use; one because the gravity conditions didn’t suit my population, and the other because I mistakingly assumed that I’d be able to effectively mine a life-devoid rock planet by using science to artificially sustain the population.
And there were other races of people that were starting to make contact with mine, and could surely see my weak position. I could feel the sharks starting to circle…
This was my first experience of Master of Orion, an upcoming 4X strategy game, and the first to be published by WGLabs, the publishing arm of development giant, Wargaming.com. As a reboot of a classic and venerated franchise, it has had a rocky start in Early Access on Steam as the developers work to try and marry fan nostalgia with modern design principles, but the team behind the game is confident that they’re getting there.
“You look at these other games and their availability is limited. They’re like ‘yeah we’ll do Mac later,’ but we’re not taking that approach at all. We’re going really wide, I think at a general level that’s really important.”
Nonetheless, it is going to be a challenge for WGLabs and the developer, NGD Studios. Civilization is back this year with its sixth edition, and Europa Universalis IV remains a compelling choice for 4X fans. Koei Tecmo is back in the ring for the first time in many years too, with Nobunaga’s Ambition last year, and a new Romance of the Three Kingdoms landing this year. The 4X genre is crowded, and deep, so Master of Origin is going to need to develop a distinct voice of its own.
Building character, not story
Thankfully, the game does seem to have a distinct flavour to it. Playing Master of Orion gave me a strong sense of nostalgia for the older 4X games like Civilization 2. The presentation had been updated, but the way in which cut scenes and diplomacy worked, as well as the menu system, all gave the game a distinct nostalgic pull. Where new Civilization and Europa Universalis games can be alienating to me in their complexity (even if I do eventually end up loving them), Master Of Orion is doing an excellent job in burying that complexity under clean, simple menus and science trees.
Equally fitting to that sense of nostalgia is the way it expresses its narrative. There’s no overt story to Master of Orion, but the short cut scenes as a plane lands on a planet for the first time, or the look and behaviour of the other races that you run into, gives the universe a lot of personality. So, a little like in Civilization 2, you’ll get to know each species after a couple of games, develop favourites and hated enemies. It’s basic storytelling through gameplay, but it’s effective nonetheless.
“What’s more fun than telling your friend what you did to the space bears and what the space cats did to you?” Beucler said. “That’s the experience that I want to hear about. I want players to be saying to me ‘hey, did you know that I did this one thing at this one time and that’s cool’ – the player narrative is an important thing,”
Each race of characters is fully voiced, and the game boasts some impressive talent, such as Mark Hamill, and the original Freddy Krueger, Robert Englund. As a nice touch for long-standing fans of Master of Orion (and to provide yet another hit of nostalgia), the character artist is the same that worked on the original games.
Despite having little intention on introducing explicit plot into the game itself, Beucler said that Wargaming and Beucler see plenty of opportunity to build on the newly rebuilt universe and start to give players narrative beyond what they get in the core game.
This is something that Wargaming proper does, too. World of Tanks in itself is a deathmatch shooter game, with no narrative in itself. However, at TGS last year the Wargaming team, in understanding that Japanese players do like their narratives, had printed tie-in manga to help contextualise the action of the game itself.
“We’ve already got some fictional pieces that you can find on the portal and Steam that give you a bit more backstory,” Beucler said.
“It’s something that we are actually working on, to get some more fiction stuff through for the IP. In general terms the game is feature complete and we’ve got what we’ve got, so you can get a good feeling from where they come from. But if we do that we’ve got all this cool room for growth in traditional media and books and comics. We just have to deliver an inspiring product first.
Casting a broad net
If you think of Wargaming, you are thinking of World of Tanks or World of Warships – action games based on real military vehicles. But Master of Origin is a very different game, which led me to wonder if WGLabs would be experimenting further beyond the Wargaming canon. Beucler wasn’t able to give me further details, but he said that was the case.
“Bringing back Master of Orion under the WGLabs label is a good start, but it doesn’t mean we’re singularly focused on strategy gaming,” Beucler said. “It’s about new gameplay experiences. It’s about innovating in the gameplay space, and it’s about finding a platform for hungry young developers to get their products out.”
The first goal, however, is to get fans further on board with Master of Orion, which is steadily improving with the response that it has had under Early Access, but has a ways to go yet, Beucler added.
“We knew we would be judged going Early Access – if you’re taking people’s money it’s your product launch, and people were pretty fangs out about it. We had to be open about that and honest about what that feedback was, and that’s why we’re working in Early Access,” Beucler said.
While Master of Orion is currently not planned for console release, it’s also not something that WGLabs has completely ruled out. As I was play testing the game, the simplicity of the user interface was something I felt would work adequately with console controllers – and having played Nobunaga’s Ambition I know that the user interface is everything in determining whether a 4X strategy game can work on console. Beucler agreed with me.
“One of the best things about Wargaming is that we often say “why not”? I can tell you that we’re not focused on consoles currently, but I can see it working,” Beucler said.
“I play the game on my Surface using the touch screen, so shoot, if it works on that it can work on all sorts of things.”
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld