Galactic Civilizations is not Master of Orion

Published on Saturday, October 8, 2005 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv Journals

Back in 1992 I was in college and was writing a computer game called Galactic Civilizations for IBM's OS/2 operating system.  I hung out on Usenet's and almost like a collaborative design team, the users on that news group, where I was (and still am) a regular put together the features for this game.

I had started a little company called Stardock Systems in order to help pay for school and this game was being done under that umbrella.  IBM was very kind and sent me some software and tools and "red books" to help me write it. I also had bought Teach Yourself C in 21 days in order to program it.  The game also started a tradition that lasts to this day -- open betas.  Users who pre-ordered the game could participate in the beta program and tell us what they wanted changed or tweaked in the game. 

 for {product/platform} screenshot 1The betas were released in late 1993 and 1994.  But unknownst to us, we weren't the only ones interested in making a space-based strategy game.  Another new company had been started called Simtex and they had made a game called Master of Orion.   It was released at Christmas 1993. 

Because they were separated by OS platforms, the two existed side-by-side.  One might argue that we made the wrong choice in choosing OS/2.  After all, Master of Orion is considered a classic while Galactic Civilizations on OS/2 was a technological footnote.  But in reality, could a game written by a 20 year old college student in his spare time have gotten the kind of coverage that Galactic Civilizations received if it weren't for OS/2?  The publicity Galactic Civilizations received helped build the momentum that takes Stardock to where it is today.  Or put another way, Stardock exists today, many game developers in that time have long since vanished.

Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations wouldn't tangle again so directly until 2003 when Galactic Civilizations for Windows and Master of Orion 3 would face off.  Since I made the original and was designing the new one, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  Master of Orion 3 was made by a different company - though on a much higher budget.

This time they were both on the same platform and during development, there were heated discussion by fans of each (which typically involved people on slagging GalCiv).  Since GalCiv had an open beta, and anyone who's been in one of our betas knows how crappy our games are until the very end, the MOO fans could rightly point out how ugly GalCiv was looking.  We were competing against something that had no open beta, just a few choice screenshots that looked, admittedly pretty good.

Then Master of Orion 3 shipped and things changed.  Regardless of ones feelings on Master of Orion 3, it was not what fans were expecting. What I think many fans wanted was Master of Orion 2 with some tweaks and better graphics.  Master of Orion 3 was many things but it was not Master of Orion 2 with some tweaks and better graphics, it was very different.

Master of Orion 3 actually sold better than Galactic Civilizations -- a lot better.  3 years of pre-ordered ensured it had a massive foot print at retail.  When it came out you could find rows and rows of Master of Orion 3 boxes and then would have to dig around to find a box of Galactic Civilizations.  Still, the game sold well with nearly 100,000 sold in North America either directly from Stardock or through retail via Strategy First.  Some unknown number (probably around 50,000) was sold overseas.  Not too bad.

The reviews of Master of Orion 3 and sales (when compared to its budget) made it unlikely that Atari would be doing a Master of Orion 4 any time soon.  GalCiv, whose budget was about 1/10th of MOO 3's, was ready to do a sequel with a bigger budget and a more vigorous marketing strategy.

So what about all those Master of Orion 3 fans who wanted MOO 2.5?  If my email inbox along with forum posts are any indication, they would have Galactic Civilizations II be that game.  But it isn't.  It's not supposed to be.  The forums really only give a taste of the nit-picking that MOO fans submit but it's there.  Whether it be demands for players to do orbital bombardments without having to invade the planet to demands for tactical combat ("I should be able to select which weapon fires on which ship!").

That isn't to say we won't put in good ideas when we hear them.  But Galactic Civilizations has always been a strategic game.  It's never been a game about tactics.  It's literally a class of civilizations.  You're building a civilization and you want to see how it is able to compete against other civilizations.  Ship design was added for the sequel not to be more like Master of Orion but to help extend the clash of civilizations story-arc: Players can take different weapons and defense technology paths and it would have become ridiculously complicated to stick with the "Technology gives you Ship X" methodology that GalCiv I gave you.  We had to have a way for players to choose what types of weaponry and defenses to put on their ships.  The 3D engine made it too tempting not to let people visually design their own ships.

Fleet battles in Galactic Civilizations II carries forward the clash of civilizations vision as well.  Because fleet sizes are limited by ones logistics ability, it forces players to decide whether to focus on a few huge ships or fleets of smaller ships.  Ultimately, the game revolves around whose civilization can adapt best technologically, culturally, industrially, and militarily to a given random galaxy with a given random mix of aliens controlled by carefully designed AI algorithms.

Master of Orion is not designed to be a clash of civilizations in this sense in my view.  It's a clash of militaries.  In MOO, at any level, cranking out the ships was rarely an issue. In the original, fleets of 30,000 ships was not uncommon.  The game down to being able to design the most effective ships and match them to your own tactical battle strategy the best.  The end-game typically revolved around a genocide run with each player zipping into a system with a massive fleet (held back by how large a USHORT was -- 65,535 ships in a group) and wiping out the planet.  The player with the faster ships could annihilate faster and thus win the game.

A fairly well known story about me and Master of Orion involves the birth my first son.  I played Master of Orion 2 in the delivery room on a laptop while waiting for my son to be born.  Hence, I know when MOO2 shipped because I was playing it on November 30, 1996 when it was still very new.  Or put another way, I'm a MOO fan too.  But that doesn't mean I want to clone it anymore than I want to clone Civilization (which, after all, has a very similar title). 

At the end of the day, we have our own ideas on what makes a fun game and want to pursue that.  And I can sympathize with Master of Orion fans who, ten years after MOO 2's release, are still looking for what they see as a "true sequel".  But please stop trying to push MOO on us.  We don't see being different from MOO as a flaw.