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The Strategy Paradox: How ‘Stellaris’ Might Shape a Genre’s Future

 

If there’s one thing that can be said about Paradox Interactive, it’s that they’re not content to sit on their laurels. They’ve achieved virtually unmatched success in grand strategy by developing a litany of complex titles, and then doing what so many others fail to do: listen to their fans. The Paradox faithful will attest to the company’s willingness to implement new features into their games long after new titles have emerged, often in the form of free patched-in content. When they’re not releasing or patching their in-house IPs, or the significant amount of DLC that’s sure to follow, they’ve taken to publishing such successes as Cities: Skylines or Pillars of Eternity, and even bought the rights to the beloved Vampire: The Masquerade series last year. As you might be able to tell, they’re an ambitious bunch.

So when I heard Paradox’s plan for Stellaris, a space-empire game that would take nods from their previous work, I shouldn’t have been too surprised; Paradox seem as though they want to chart the course of history, having already covered most of the Early Middle Ages to World War II, so as Stellaris game director Henrik Fåhraeus put it in a recent interview, the progression to space is “quite a natural thing.” While space strategy games are by no means new, and the relative successes of recent outings like Civilization: Beyond Earth and Galactic Civilizations III show interest certainly isn’t disappearing, the desire for a Paradox-brand take on the genre has circulated among fans at least as long as I’ve been counted as one. This is all to say that Stellaris should be more of an inevitability than a shock.

And yet, the more that comes out about it, the more I am surprised…and concerned. To start, this will be both Paradox’s first venture into the related, but undoubtedly distinct 4X genre, and their first attempt at making a hybrid 4X/grand strategy game; Stellaris is poised to begin like a 4X and grow into focusing more on long-term strategy and large-scale management as the player grows and settles their empire. In a break from Paradox tradition, late-game will not only feature scripted shake-ups to counteract the “blobbing” that occurs once the player has decimated or annexed most of their rivals, but there will also be specific win conditions, showing that the 4X influence will persist throughout.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the entire galaxy is procedurally generated, along with all the races in it and a long history of “fallen empires” that now litter the cosmos and have their own unique mechanics.

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Needless to say, Paradox is making quite the gambit here, and I don’t think the relevance of what they’re trying to do can be stressed enough; not only are they taking on one of the few issues that has consistently plagued many of their games — late-game drag that, given, affects many more games in the genre than those developed by Paradox — but they’re doing so in completely uncharted water. It’s great in theory, and if executed right, it has the potential to be their magnum opus. That’s putting a lot on the line, and unfortunately, it’s not the first time they’ve attempted this.

A few weeks ago, Paradox released an expansion to their Crusader Kings II franchise, titled Conclave. The main focus of this expansion is to give your subordinates, known as vassals, “bite” – undoubtedly in order to stem the “blobbing” mentioned earlier. Powerful vassals would demand seats on the Council, whose mechanics had also been reworked, forcing you to make tough decisions regarding inheritance (the defining function of Crusader Kings), your personal forces within the realm, and the administrative power of the Council. Much as with the ideas espoused in Stellaris, this is all fine and dandy on paper. In-game, it can be defined as nothing less than completely botched. The extremely aggressive (and arguably arbitrary) AI update causes people to join plots and factions against you for no real purpose and with no gain. Anyone with the slightest complaint will immediately join a revolution, and the new system of “favors,” itself again a good idea, makes it such that a particularly conniving vassal can force others to vote or act in opposition to you even on the off chance that not every person wants you dead. Combine this with a new alliance system that forces everyone in an alliance to join a war without an opportunity for strategic abstention, and constant war becomes an inevitability.

This kind of balancing nightmare is not uncommon to Paradox, who, despite their best efforts, sometimes fail to address the root cause of the lack of balance in favor of adding new mechanics to be sold as DLC. That might be alright, if it actually did manage to fix the problems, which often it does not. Another example of this is Paradox’s recent love of coalitions; after devoting much of March of the Eagles to them, they decided to include them in both Europa Universalis IV and now, with the recent DLC, Crusader Kings II. In both cases, the result has been varying degrees of disaster; at the time of release in Conclave, it’s not an uncommon event for an ambitious leader to face down the combined forces of the Pope, Byzantine emperor, and Sunni Caliph (regardless of your religion). Who knew all you had to do to unite the world was invade Italy?

Still, even with a mountain of circumstantial evidence, it’s nothing to be concerned about on that basis alone. That’s why it wasn’t until the recent dev diary update — a wonderful tool to both inform ravenous fans and receive useful feedback — that I felt the need to talk about this. Last Monday, when talking about the idea of Alliances and Federations, there was one line that stuck out to me. After finding out that Federations, an optional upgrade to Alliances, would be led by a president on “rotation” who can “act with impunity” — in other words, rather than forcing everyone in an Alliance to agree before going to war, a president can drag everyone in the Federation into war automatically — one user asked if there would be an option to choose a method of election other than rotation, ostensibly because rotation leaves little room for strategic play. Henrik, the game director I quoted before, gave a concerning answer: “For release, it will most likely be rotation only.”

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This is concerning not so much because Federations will be a determining factor for the game’s success (although it doesn’t bode well for their late-game prospects), but rather because of the first two words: “For release.” This implies that not only are Paradox aware of the limitation, but intend on expanding it later…undoubtedly with a $20 price tag attached to it. I could be wrong, of course, and as I mentioned before, Paradox isn’t afraid to release free content if they think it’ll improve a user’s experience. But looking at the sheer amount of DLC they’ve put out for their other games, the sometimes-catastrophic state they’re released in, and the ungodly price tag that many games come to attain, let me put this simply Paradox: this has to be a complete package. Of course not everything can be implemented at the start, your fans more than any know that, but seeing the damage coalitions can do to balancing, this has to be done right from day one. No one wants to work their way to an empire only to see it crumble due to lack of strategic options, and the fact that this is going to be 4X-inspired will only mean that grand strategy purists will be looking for any wiff of watering down the gameplay. Take the time, do it right, and Stellaris might just be Paradox’s crowning achievement.

  • Michael Negron

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