One of the great success stories in Swedish games publishing, Paradox has captured gamers’ imaginations with the myriad intrigues made possible by Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings. But until now, Paradox strategy games have been largely rooted in history. So when we had the chance to interview Stellaris game director Henrik Fåhraeus, we felt compelled to ask: Why make a futuristic space strategy game? And why now?
“We have always had a long-term ambition to cover the entire “human timeline” with our games, including the future. So, for us, making Stellaris feels like a natural step. It’s something we have both wanted to do internally and that our players have kept asking us for. Many of the features in Stellaris should be instantly familiar to our faithful player base, but we also hope to reach new demographics. The early stages of the game play more like a traditional 4X game, with the player starting out small on a single planet. This allows us to gradually ease new players into the kind of deep gameplay mechanics we are known for, rather than to instantly overwhelm them (which is hard to avoid in asymmetrical games like EU4.)”
No longer shackled by historical realism, Henrik’s team had the freedom to play with game concepts that had previously been out of reach.
“Most obviously, the future is unknown, so in Stellaris we are focusing on the sense of discovery, and doing everything we can to make each new game feel unique. We can go wild with procedural generation and technological progress. When working with historical games, you also have to struggle with the problem of hindsight (like in Hearts of Iron, where we all know that Nuclear weapons were possible and might be a good idea to research, for example) and keeping things at least somewhat plausible. The only constant, I suppose, is human nature (at least if you are playing as the humans!) So, like in Victoria, your population will feature heavily in Stellaris, but how will you deal with, for example, xenophobia when you introduce bug-eyed aliens into the mix?”
The sci-fi setting also gave Paradox the freedom to play with a whole new aesthetic. “Mass Effect is one of our influences for the various alien race portraits, as are movies like Oblivion (think of the GUI they use on the computers in that movie), and Tron: Legacy (for the music.)” Yet with this blank slate came new challenges, not least the problem of how to give the player a sense of controlling a distinct ‘nation’ in space.
“I’d say our biggest challenge is to create enough variety in the procedural content while at the same time providing players with the same sense of identity and immersion they might get when playing, say, Scotland in EU4. That is, keeping everything fresh and surprising, yet somehow familiar. It is, of course, especially hard if you are playing a tentacle faced alien race. A partial solution is to make you discover more about your own species as you uncover the mysteries of the galaxy...”
As the tractless wastes of space are devoid of conventional terrain features like oceans and continents, Henrik’s team had to concoct new ways to make the galactic map meaningful. For starters, players will choose one of three different types of faster-than-light travel for their space civ – Warp, Hyperlanes, or Wormholes – and this decision will have profound consequences.
“The choice of FTL type will obviously affect your expansion in the early game, as you explore and colonise other solar systems. However, it gets really interesting when you start having to think about defending your territory against other empires. If you can predict where enemy fleets will arrive in your own systems, you can build appropriate defensive installations, etc. The only actual ‘terrain’ equivalent we currently have is the Nebula.”
Beyond the nuts and bolts of economic and military domination, each play-through will be unpredictably unique. “Stories can emerge without any scripted content. Basically, anything memorable that occurs in the simulation can make for a little story in your mind (an anecdote). This is a topic of particular fascination to me and something that I think about a lot, particularly when these memorable gameplay situations start interacting with scripted ‘storylets.’
“In Stellaris, this might take the form of a scientist defecting through a scripted event and disappearing into unknown space, only to later show up again at the head of an alien armada from another empire (where he might have arrived seeking asylum and thus involved that player in the same branching story, etc.). This might happen just as your main fleet is off fighting pirates, leaving your home planet undefended... or not. There is usually no need to make these scripted storylets mesh perfectly with each other; interesting situations are bound to occur anyway.”
The game is built on the latest version of the Clausewitz engine, and Henrik was quite proud of how Paradox’s in-house technology will enhance the Stellaris experience. “I think people will be pleased with streamlined and stable multi-player experience. Then there are loads of graphical improvements, of course. Stellaris is by far our best looking game so far. Other improvements include easier mod development, such as automatically reloading script files when they are altered, instead of having to reload the game each time.”
Of course, all this progress is for naught if a developer can’t solve the fundamental conundrum of the 4X genre: how to make the end-game interesting. Just how do you challenge the player once he’s built up enough momentum to crush all opposition?
“That is indeed a huge issue in most types of strategy games. In Stellaris, there are many countermeasures in place. For example, as your empire grows, your population will grow more diverse, and various factions will form that can create internal problems for you to deal with. Perhaps it would be better for you to grant some of these factions semi-autonomy as vassals or protectorates? Civil wars will be common in Stellaris, and a certain degree of decentralisation will be encouraged.
“Then we have the concept of ‘late game crises’ and risky technologies. For example, using robot workers is fine and dandy, but can they really be trusted? Just when you think domination of the galaxy is assured, some major threat is likely to appear and shake things up.”
There are also new ways to take over the galaxy, other than outright conquest – take the new Federation game mechanic. “Federations are a more involved type of alliance, where several empires join together under a common President. While each empire is still autonomous to some degree, they basically share foreign policy. The Presidency rotates between the member states depending on their relative size. There is a special Federation Fleet, which is controlled by the President and designed using the best technologies from all member empires. This fleet is thus likely to have an edge over even huge empires, which will tend to research at a slower pace and with less technological diversity than several federation members can achieve together. The idea is to encourage a cooperative playstyle (and victory) for those so inclined. Of course, not all races are likely to join...”
And will will there be any form of early-access, or community play-testing? “It is likely that we will invite people to a closed beta in the months before release. That model has worked well for us over the years.”
All in all, Stellaris looks very promising. But will it make it to market in an orderly and timely manner? With the cancellation of Runemaster, and the lengthy delays afflicting Hearts of Iron 4, we felt we needed to ask how Henrik was going about keeping the scope and content of the game under control.
“Well, as Game Director, it is my job to come up with all these cool and wild ideas. The other designers iron out the details, the project manager determines the needed amount of time and resources and the budget people then say yes or no. However, having personally worked in almost all project roles over the years myself, I have a pretty good understanding of what is possible to achieve and what should remain on the cutting room floor.”
For more information on Stellaris, visit StellarisGame.com.