Brad Wardell's Blog


GalCiv IV Dev Journal #10 - Do we need a battle viewer?

Published on Monday, October 11, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

Starting with Galactic Civilizations II, we allowed players to go and watch their ships fight it out in battle in a separate battle viewer screen.  But, what if we could show the battle on the main screen? That is, what if we could just zoom in on a fleet and rather than it being the leader ship with a number by it, it actually changed to show the entire fleet?  So if you wanted to watch a fleet fight it out, you would just watch it right on the map.

Thoughts?

 

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GalCiv IV Dev Journal #9 - Onboarding

Published on Monday, October 4, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

The process of getting a new player into your game and making that process an enjoyable experience can be the difference between success and failure for your game.  If you make a game for a publisher, you can assume there will be a milestone that involves the onboarding.  Let’s take a look at how GalCiv IV does it and what has changed since GalCiv III.

Title Screen

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We went through many iterations for the title screen.  How many buttons should there be? Which buttons should be where? How should color be used? 

I would argue that we could have dispensed with the Exit button in the menu here and instead had some sort of X at the top right or something.  And we might still want to do that so we could fit a Tutorial button there. Let us know in the comments what you think.

New Game

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There was a lot of kvetching around this screen (by me) until we got to this version. It’s still not ideal (the tiny tiny scrollbar on the right is a problem). But it is a huge step up from the past. Here it is very clear what you’re getting and it’s an enjoyable experience.

Customize

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GalCiv III included vast customization options, but they were somewhat buried.  This time, we wanted to get these features front and center. That said, still not ready for prime time yet.  The drop-downs need a a tooltip to explain what these other traits mean.

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But again, the player is being guided into what their civilization is about.

Galaxy

This screen should be called “Galaxy”.  Now, ideally, we would have fun, visual ways of changing the galaxy size, the size of your starting sector, and so on.  In fact, all these options, ideally, will get some sort of visual cues rather than be just drop-downs.

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In short, this screen is not ready yet.  But when done, this is setting up the map.

Opponents

So now we’re picking opponents. The point of this screen is to allow the player to really get to know who the various species of the galaxy are.  There’s no real need to show your player in this screen so it’ll likely be going.

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The main difference in GalCiv IV is that we have a lot more screens than we did in previous games.  The reason for this is onboarding.  We know from player research that many players enjoy the setup process and that this can be a fun experience.

The entry into the game

Let's get into the game. We need paragraphs here instead of a wall of text, and this should have VO reading this.  The goal is to get the player invested in their new civilization.

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In a few years, we hope that the text to speech tech will be such that people’s custom civilizations could have auto-generated VO. We’re still far from that.

So what do you think? What can games do to give you a better first impression? Let us know in the comments.

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Dev Journal: The Core Worlds for Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation

Published on Tuesday, September 7, 2021 By Brad Wardell In Ashes Dev Journals

We’re working on a new map pack called The Core Worlds.  They started out based on real world locations and have been subsequently balanced.  Unlike most of our map packs, this one is not really designed for multiplayer but rather designed to make for interesting single player experiences.

Part of the appeal of this map pack is having them be asymmetrical.  This means that the map positions - both in terms of geography and resources - are different from player to player.  So how do we make sure it’s “fair”?  The answer: lots and lots of AI vs. AI simulation.

Here is one such example on a map called Gibraltar which started off based on my home town and has been adjusted almost beyond recognition (I had to use mountains to prevent bombardment rather than basins which reflect the canals of my home city).

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As you can see here, this tiny map is not remotely “balanced” geographically.  Instead, it’s balanced via resources and distances.

Before we do much initial balancing at all, we send it off to our MVP testers to see if the general design of the map is something they find interesting and get overall feedback on the broader strokes.  Once we get that back, we go to town on the serious balancing and iteration.

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We keep a close eye on the resources coming in at various stages and then see who “wins” over a best of 3 to see if there’s an imbalance.  We then try it for different AI types and PHC vs. Substrate.

If you’re really into multiplayer for Ashes of the Singularity, you may not find this map pack your cup of tea (though we had quite a bit of fun during various iterations). But maps designed with the AI in mind that are balanced like this can result in a lot of fun. 

When testing against the AI as a human, I take advantage of things like the artillery and Artemis units and then can crank the AI up higher than normal to see if it can overcome some of my strategic advantages.

When doing balance and AI vs. AI, it’s amazing how just a single additional metal deposit can make a huge difference.  It’s challenging but quite rewarding to see one of these maps come together.

Let’s take a look:

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Starting position 2 is a bit OP still.  And so we give one more metal to position 2’s starting location and try again.

Now in this series, Team 1 does much better but the Substrate struggles in position 1 because of this:

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The guardians are able to kill off a radioactive early on pretty reliably which essentially prevents them from expanding.  So we go back and tweak the positions of the resources to prevent this.

And so we do it all over again.  And again.  And again. And this is just one map.  You can imagine how time consuming it is, but that’s the point of a map pack DLC.  The player wants to know that some care and effort has gone into this to make sure that it’s balanced.

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By moving these, you end up with a much better result.

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Now, what we want to do is end up with team 1 having a slight advantage (location 1) because location 2 actually is a better geographic location when played by a skilled human.  So ideally, team 1 will win most games.

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Once it seems reasonably balanced for the AI, it’s time for me to do more testing.

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I can pretty reliably win until Tough AI is picked, at which point I have to be very careful.

This map DLC should be out this month! Hope you like it!

New Screenshots:

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GalCiv IV Dev Journal #8 - Rise of the Commanders

Published on Wednesday, September 1, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

“This is just GalCiv II but with better graphics,” was a comment some GalCiv fans made when GalCiv III was first released. That was no more true than saying Civilization V was just Civilization IV with better graphics, but we understood where they were coming from.  There weren’t a lot of big bullet item changes from the previous version. That was because most of our time and budget was spent building a brand new space 4X game engine.

As good as GalCiv II was, it was built on the same engine as GalCiv I, which in turn was built on the same engine that The Corporate Machine was built on, which was from the same engine that Entrepreneur for OS/2 was built on.

GalCiv IV is so ground-breaking with what came before it, because this time we're starting with a state-of-the-art engine and moving on from there. Some of these features are obvious in hindsight like…Commanders.

A Quick Recap on Citizens

Specific numerical populations of colonies is gone in GalCiv IV. Even in the OS/2 version, we had a hard time explaining how Earth - with its 9 billion people - somehow wasn’t massively better than colonies with a population of 1 million. We did some hand-waving to explain how colonies would eventually reach Earth-levels in just a handful of years. Now, we focus instead on Citizens who represent the population of your civilization.

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Every citizen has 4 stats:

  1. Intelligence
  2. Social Skills
  3. Diligence
  4. Resolve

Different species tend to have different biases in these areas.  For instance, Drengin tend to have terrible social skills but very high resolve.

Citizens have different jobs in your civilization such as Worker, Colonist, Scientist, Diplomat, Administrator, Engineer, Leader, etc.

Leader Citizens

Leaders are that rare citizen capable of helping you run your civilization.  A leader can be recruited (or later promoted from the rank and file) and then assigned to a job like diplomat, governor, minister, and now, commander.  The stats, intelligence, social skills, etc. determine how well a given leader will do a particular job. So, it's probably not a good idea to make a leader with poor social skills into a diplomat.

Unique Ships of your Civilization

Each civilization has a handful of unique ships.  These ships are unlocked through research or various other accomplishments and are only available to that civilization.  A leader can be assigned to one of these ships and voila, you have a “free” ship (if you don’t count the cost/effort of getting the leader).

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Each civilization’s flagships reflect the type of civilization they naturally are.  The Drengin, for instance, tend to have ships that favor conquest, militarism and forced productivity. By contrast, the humans have ships that tend to focus on diplomacy, commerce, culture…with one surprising absolutely lethal ship later on…(what? The humans being secret masters of war? Unpossible!)

The abilities of the ship benefit from the skills of the leader:

  • Resolve = better weapons and defenses
  • Diligence = better planetary production bonuses when stationed above a planet.
  • Intelligence = Faster movement and better planetary research when stationed above a planet.
  • Social Skills = Influence bonuses and economic bonuses for the planet when stationed above, as well as bonuses for ships with the capture ability

Asymmetry

Life isn’t fair - and Galactic Civilizations IV really goes out of its way to make sure that the civilizations aren’t symmetrical. There are simply some big differences in capability between the different species in different areas.  The commanders provide us another tool in this area.  For example, we can give a civilization that reproduces slowly some unique ships that lets them colonize worlds that no one else can.  We don’t have the same number of special ships per civilization.  It’s a game design tool we are able to use to really give more personality and strategic depth to either civilization. 

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Start11 v0.55 beta update delivers centered taskbar

Published on Tuesday, August 31, 2021 By Brad Wardell In Start11

Cool feature update in the latest beta build of Stardock's Start11 (www.stardock.com/products/start11).  

This is on Windows 10.

 

This is on Windows 10.  

Here's the option:

Features for Windows 11 will keep rolling as well.  Since Windows 11 is still in beta, it's a moving target so we're trying to make sure we don't add something that gets obsoleted right away.

 

Star Control: Origins - v1.5 Preview

Published on Wednesday, August 25, 2021 By Brad Wardell In Star Control Journals

With more people coming back to the office work on the console version of Star Control: Origins has picked up.  The first part of this has been to do a pretty thorough revamp of the game’s underlying systems in order to optimize it for the XBOX One, PS4 and also next-generation consoles.

During this process we greatly improved the quality of the texture maps throughout the game which includes aliens and ships.

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[click on thumbnail to enlarge]

The team was also able to substantially reduce the memory footprint during many rounds of optimization.

We’ll have a full change-log soon with the public update next month.

Elemental: Fallen Enchantress - Legendary Heroes 3.0 Release

Published on Wednesday, August 18, 2021 By Brad Wardell In Elemental Dev Journals

It has been awhile since we’ve visited the world of Elemental.  The last update to the expansion to Fallen Enchantress (AKA: Legendary Heroes) was in 2019. Hardware has continued to evolve, and with that comes the opportunity to further improve the game.

Our story so far…

Elemental: Fallen Enchantress – Legendary Heroes is a fantasy strategy game in which the player builds a civilization in the world of Elemental.  This world was nearly destroyed by the War of Magic, and it is up to you to rebuild it.

Unlike most civilization games, the Elemental games put you into the game directly as a character. 

 

The beginning

When the game begins, it’s just your character.  You are greeted with land tile information that displays the food, material and essence of that tile. Food determines how fast the city built there will grow, Material determines how fast it can build things, and Essence determines how many magical spells can be placed on the city. 

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In version 2.6 we have added a new faction structure called the Tower of Knowledge. It generates 1 knowledge per essence and can help jump start research.

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The Tower of Knowledge is above for reference.

To be honest, most of the work in this update has been in fixing bugs.  Players have graciously sent us saved games over the past year and we’ve used them to find lots of edge case crash situations or stuck turns.  Of course, when it happens to you while playing it doesn’t feel like an edge case, so it’s nice to get these found and fixed.

I have always loved how you can zoom in and see the people working on your cities.  It helps explain what’s going on and fleshes out the world.

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We also made a number of unit AI improvements, which should make tactical battles even more interesting.

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We also wrote some new code that should improve the turn times pretty substantially, especially on larger maps. 

 

The performance gains we had combined with the greater stability made us decide to increase the map sizes a bit as well.

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Changelog

  • Tile yield update on screen aborts immediately if the terrain is invalid for a city (perf)
  • Fixed crash bug where garbage characters could get inserted into a scene node
  • Increased the map tilt further so you can see more pretty stuff
  • 0Calc Military Might now longer force updates the battle rank of units. (perf)
  • AI city updating is now multithreaded (perf)
  • CalcBattleRank changed to automatically cache the battlerank of the unit (major perf boost)
  • Units now always get a battlerank of at least 1 to ensure caching of battlerank
  • Sub-units of an army are no longer recalculated unless expressly ordered
  • Thread safe city count method added
  • Fixed a crash deadlock
  • AI monsters less likely to attack a city on lower difficulties
  • Monsters now use a cached combat rating to determine city strength (performance)
  • Fixed multiple crash deadlocks
  • Unit vector sized at 10 at start to reduce increments. (perf)
  • Timer update increased from 1ms to 0.5ms
  • Conclaves provide more research but less production and money
  • Fortresses provide more production but less money and research
  • Towns provide more money but less production and research
  • New improvement: Tower of Knowledge. Provides +1 research per essence
  • Tiny map size increased to 5x3
  • Small map increased from 5x4 to 6x4 (20 to 24 sectors)
  • Medium map size increased from 6x5 to 7x5 (30 to 35 sectors)
  • Large map size increased from 7x6 to 9x6 (42 to 54 sectors)
  • Huge map size increased from 8x7 to 12x8 (56 to 96 sectors)
  • Wrote a replacement for toupper() that is much faster

 

Screenshots

 
 
 
 

 

GalCiv IV Dev Journal #7 - The Changing Face of Space Robots

Published on Monday, August 2, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

Somewhere around here I have the original image of the Yor from 1992.  They don’t resemble the modern Yor very much.  When I wrote the Yor origin story back in 1987 (when I was in high school) the Yor followed the common trope of AI servants who rose up against their masters.  Their masters, in this case, were a race of beings known as the Iconians (who are also in the game).

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The Yor of 1995

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Yor of 2021

As time has gone by, I’ve thought about making the Yor be less Cylon like and more like a post-singularity hive mind.  The argument could be made that humans just 50 years ago might end up “Post-Humans” ala Ashes of the Singularity.

The reason I bring this up is that GalCiv IV has the concept of “achievements”.  These are essentially quests that when completed, allow the player to gain prestige which is one of the victory conditions.   According to the data we get, the Yor are the #2 (after humans) civilization that people play as.  And so in this thread we’d like to hear some things you’d like to see with the Yor (what sorts of quests would you like to see?).

 

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GalCiv IV Dev Journal #6 - Those First 20 Turns

Published on Monday, July 26, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

One of the challenges we have in setting up maps is the question of how quickly should players be meeting other civilizations in the game?  How quickly should things show up? How much should the game direct you?

I decided to take a hard look at GalCiv II and GalCiv III to see how different those first 20 turns worked out.

GalCiv II: First 20 turns

Turn 1:

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  • No on-screen direction but the UI is pretty clean and My ship is already selected to move.
  • Selected ship has an automate button visible so I press that.

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  • There is an anomaly right away so I get to see what it does.

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Ooh money.

  • There is a second one nearby that gives me money.
  • The Stellar Miner has an automate button too so I press that.
  • I send the colony ship out to explore
  • There is no guidance that I should do something on my planet.
  • I click on the planet and press the view button.

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  • Because available projects is blank I am clued in to click on the green tiles.
  • List of things to build are very clear:

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  • The build ship part is not easy to find.

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  • It has a very large colored bar telling me how long it will take to build. Because it’s 29 weeks it’s orange which makes it stick out. This makes me look for other buttons like Purchase.

 

Ship build list comparison:

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Way less screen dirt and simple explanations.

There is a button that says purchase on the screen:

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So I press that. I notice this versus the tiny buy button in the queue in GalCiv III which I didn’t notice because ther’es only a few buttons on this screen to notice.

The first turn also gave me a bunch of money which trained me to think that money must matter.

Survey ship has a lot of moves:

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We are still on turn 1.

  • Got a bunch of money
  • Got a new ship
  • Very obvious benefits

News announcement:

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Turn 2:

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Loading ship.

I send my ship to Mars.

I am asked to name it.

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Text is pretty terrible but it’s pretty.

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Mars sucks.

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Got my third planet (on turn 2)

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Ugly ugly text. But Good, Neutral and Evil are pretty clearly spelled out along with funny text.

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I choose evil.

This bit of personality helps with engagement.

Survey ship finds more stuff.

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This sort of text is engaging.

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Research screen has the tree and the list on the same screen. The benefit of each one is pretty obvious.

 

Turn 3:

I meet an alien on turn 3.

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Survey ship finds more neat little stuff.

 

Turn 4:

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Turn 5:

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Turn 6:

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I definitely want Universal translators now

 

Turn 7:

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Second alien:

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I like that I can see how long it will take the ship to build from this screen.

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Turn 8:

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  • This is cool because it means early game there are 1 per galaxy things that are another thing players might want to build instead of other things. GalCiv III has nothing like this.

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  • Survey ships get 5 moves
  • Colony ships get 4 so things get around a lot faster

Turn 9:

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Turn 10:

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I choose warfare next.

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Minor civ:

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Strategic map is clean looking.

 

Turn 11:

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I am feeling collective pressure.

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Humans are diplomats so they start with the ability to get good techs.

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I’m getting fun trades right out of the gate.

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Turn 12:

Nothing

 

Turn 13:

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Look how noticeable the mines on the asteroids are? I also like that there is a ship going around building these.

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Turn 14:

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Another colony:

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Turn 15:

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All this money helps me jump start my planets.

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Espionage?

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Turn 16:

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Takes 20 weeks to build a ship unless you rush it. But I get a bunch of money from plentiful anomalies which I’m scooping up fast because so is everyone else.

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Turn 17:

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Yay us!

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Turn 18:

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Turn 19:

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Turn 20:

Nothing.

 

Conclusions

There’s a reason this game is considered the best space 4X game of all time by many. Clean UI. Great pacing. Obvious gameplay (especially for the time).

My ratings for GalCiv II:

  • Engagement: 5/5. Great flavor text. Stuff is making my civ improve quickly.
  • Intuitiveness: 4/5. It’s usually obvious what to do because there isn’t a million things happening on the screen. But no Shafer button and no tooltips.
  • Pacing: 5/5. Within a few turns there’s other civs, lots of interactions, and a feeling that things are building up.
  • Desire to keep playing: 4/5. The game doesn’t fully hold up ove time. But I still want to play it.
  • Overall: 4/5. Was easily the best 4X space game of its time. These days it would be in the top rung.

Now, let’s look at GalCiv III.

GalCiv III first 20 turns

I realize I’m pretty critical here, but this is so that we can make sure GalCiv IV is better.

Turn 1:

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  • No on-screen direction on what I should do.
  • No on-screen explanation on how to move anything.
  • No on-screen explanation on what the ships do.
  • No anomalies or other things for my survey ship to interact with so I just move it.
  • I order constructor to build a starbase. No hint on that it affects things in range.

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  • Starbase is off centered by default.
  • No on-screen direction on what I should do.
  • I construct an ascension ring and an economic lab.

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  • Research screen pretty decent.
  • Choose artificial gravity.

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  • No direction on what I am supposed to do here.

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  • No direction on what I am supposed to do here.
  • Pretty terrible UI.
  • No guidance that I should rush building something so I don’t.

Turn 2:

Nothing

Turn 3:

Nothing

Turn 4:

Nothing

Turn 5:

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  • I next choose space elevators.
  • By Survey ship has reached its destination so I send it to another star system.

Turn 6:

  • Colony ship built. I load it up and send it to another star system.
  • Earth has built the improvements.
  • I really wish I could see how fast the ships being built in the shipyard were being built based on my choices here.
  • I order another colony ship to be built. I wish he game gave me direction on what I might want to do.

Turn 7:

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This is nice. But it would be cooler if this was presented as a cut-scene. Meanwhile..blah blah.

And then this came up. This UI is really ugly and hard to read.

I take the free ship.

Turn 8:

Nothing. Ships move.

Turn 9:

My survey ship is attacked.

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Super ugly confirmation screen. I’d rather the game camera panned to the action and showed me the battle.

Turn 10:

More pirates attack.

I wish my survey ship leveled up and got goodies.

  • Colony ship built. I order it to another system.
  • Space elevators researched
  • Choose military tech since I’m dealing with pirates.
  • I order a constructor to be built.

Turn 11:

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  • Would be cool if this allowed me to customize my Civilization in some random way giving me 3 choices.
  • Also first new colony:

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So ugly. There’s no tooltips to even explain what benevolent and such means. What does +10% influence mean?

I choose the malevolent one because +10% research sounds best.

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  • I order a space elevator to be built.

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No direction on what I should do here.

I choose the one that gives me a ship.

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No suggestions given. The thing on the right should be a tooltip. I choose the scientist.

Turn 12:

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I choose weapons.

  • Constructor built. I build another.

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Turn 13:

Nothing

 

Turn 14:

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  • Constructors being built pretty fast. So I build a colony ship. Which will only take 2 turns. This feels unearned.

 

Turn 15:

Colonized another planet.

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These bonuses mean nothing to me. I choose the benevolent one since it’s just plain better.

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I choose the tech which gives me stuff.

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There are 9 players on this map and I still haven’t met any.

Finally!

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Turn 16:

Colony ship built. I send it to one of the good planets I’ve found. The strategic zoom UI is really good making it easy to manage my empire.

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I don’t feel like I’ve earned being able to crank these ships out in 2 turns.

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Now I choose universal translator.

I think faster moving scouts (and the AI making them aggressively) would really help. But a scout takes 2 turns just like a colony ship!

Turn 17:

Nothing

Turn 18:

Nothing

 

Turn 19:

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Earth is fully built up in 19 turns!

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Rex has a shipyard too. Planet is barely developed but can crank out a colony ship in 4 turns!

  • Colonized another planet.

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Pretty.

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Got another culture point.

 

Turn 20:

I want to build military ships but they are hidden:

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So I wouldn’t notice them.

Conclusions

It’s still a good game despite my complaints.  But the pacing and UX needs work.

My ratings:

  • Engagement: 3/5: It’s OK but I’m not very invested in my civilization. It feels a lot like work. The UI is very sterile.
  • Intuitiveness: 2/5: Pretty bad. No sort of guidance given.
  • Pacing: 3/5: Stuff is happening but every ship costs 2 turns basically which reduces choices. Took way too long to meet anyone else. And I never had any interactions.
  • Desire to keep playing: 4/5: Yes, it has that one more turn feeling which saves it.

Applying Lessons

The most recent GalCiv III update coming out (v4.2) includes some improvements in these areas.  But again, how quickly do people want to meet new players? IMO, this is where minor civilizations might be interesting as a middle step.

As a player, how would you like to see your setup screen improved (specific options) to help cater to your personal pacing preferences?

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GalCiv IV Dev Journal #5

Published on Monday, June 14, 2021 By Brad Wardell In GalCiv IV Dev Journals

During the development of a game, many ideas will look good on paper only to be found to not work out in practice.  Normally, these ideas get killed off before implementation and even fewer ever get seen by the public.

In the case of Galactic Civilizations IV, because we’re going out in ALPHA, you will get to see some ideas fully implemented that we have already decided didn’t work out. Today’s example for discussion: The Ideology compass.

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Here’s how it works:

There are 4 axis’s:

  1. Collectivist
  2. Libertist
  3. Authoritarian
  4. Individualist

Through the course of the game, players will encounter situations that give them awareness points in a particular area.  You can’t spend these points they simply unlock the ideology perk.

Later, players can earn culture points through completing missions (quests) in the game.  THEN they can spend a point to unlock something where their options are based on what perks they have awareness of.

Unfortunately, this is proving to be quite limiting and begs for political compass memes.  So even though it’s fully implemented, it’s going to get scrapped.

In its place are going to be Cultural Spectrums.

 

Cultural Spectrums

With cultural spectrums, players will have several different spectrums to choose from such as:

  • Individualism <---> Collectivism
  • Traditionalism <---> Innovation
  • Xenophobia <----> Xenophilia
  • Harmony <----> Honesty
  • Shame <----> Guilt

It also opens the door for us to keep adding more.

When a player makes a choice, they will increase their stance on the spectrum.  However, now, gaining +1 stance in individualism means losing a point in collectivism.  As a result, when people unlock culture points, they will generally only have access to the ones that are near the “middle” unless they are playing pretty extreme.

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