At PAX Australia last year, NGD Studios executive producer Randy King told me that Wargaming acquired the Master of Orion (MoO) IP because the company’s billionaire CEO, Victor Kislyi, wanted his kids to be able to enjoy the game the way he had. But the fans that grew up with the iconic franchise aren’t kids.
They’re grown men and women who have seen a galaxy of pretenders come and go, full of promise but lacking the flavour or flair of SimTex’s games.
NGD Studios can’t possibly win.
On October 31, it’ll be 20 years to the day since Master of Orion 2 launched in North America. The original, responsible for coining the 4X (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate) genre, will have been out for 23 years by then.
That’s a lot of time to love something — and fans very much still love the Master of Orion franchise.
The level of reverence for the space strategy borders on the fanatical, although not without reason. MoO introduced systems and mechanics well beyond its years: customisable races, a unique research tree that strengthened the need for diplomacy and espionage, a comprehensive ship builder, and nuanced diplomatic behaviours that included the ability to have border skirmishes with opponents without resulting in all-out war.
For a game that’s more than two decades old — or almost, in MoO 2’s case — the nostalgia factor is exceptionally hard to beat.
So NGD Studios, the Argentinian developers responsible for the latest entry to the MoO name, has opted for a different path. Rather than remaking SimTex’s systems carte blanche, they’re creating a more accessible, relatable game.
To do so they’ve had to scrap some of MoO’s most iconic elements. The ability to travel to any star system, provided it’s within your ship’s range? That’s gone, scrapped in favour of a linear, more easily understood system of starlanes.
The turn-based tactical combat mode? That’s gone too, replaced with a real-time component that allows users to move their ships and activate abilities mid-battle.
MoO’s model of research, where technologies were split into separate paths that different races had various affinities for? A model where less creative races were forced to either trade or make difficult choices about what branches of research to explore? That’s been replaced with a flat, Civilization-esque technology tree.
Understandably, some fans are upset. Master of Orion was never a strategy game that you could immediately play and comprehend the same way you could Civilization. It was more of a grand strategy game, the father of a genre.
The MoO reboot is almost the inverse. In a world where Endless Space 2 and Stellaris are promising more complexity, more layers of management, and more intricate elements, NGD Studios have opted to strip all of those away.
The micromanagement of your colonies is simplified. The need to manage each colony’s food, or the transfer of food from one planet to another, has been removed. That’s a concession for modern times, albeit another divisive ones.
Perhaps the most striking criticism of the reboot so far is the lack of character across the board. By diluting the necessity of trading technologies and diplomacy — not to mention the missing espionage system, which hasn’t been implemented yet — the races themselves become less unique.
Some of these elements will never change, however. NGD Studios won’t overhaul the tech tree into entirely separate paths as was the case with the original MoO games. The races would need specific affinities and aversions to different technologies. Players would have to make a choice every time they researched something (unless you were the Psilons).
It’d be more interesting, but it won’t happen.
Similarly, the unrestricted movement from the originals will never be introduced. In an interview earlier this year, Wargaming’s Chris Keeling explained that without them, players would be able to exploit the AI far too easily.
“There’s no real grand tactical thinking, it’s more like if I can sneak in a colony ship behind them and a small fleet then I can take over a planet in their backyard,” Keeling said. “Those techniques work; AI’s don’t understand them, but people do, so it’s a kind of trick you can play on the AI.”
Which is all well and good if you’re just playing the AI; less so if you’re playing against human opponents.
But how many gamers in 2016 really want that degree of complexity? I’m almost reminded of time spent binge watching Kitchen Nightmares, seeing Gordon Ramsay stare at befuddled chefs trying to unpack the logic of their thinking. “I’m going to lose my regular customers,” the restaurant owners and head chefs would often cry, ignoring the fact they were going broke nonetheless.
How many fans of the originals are there still? And how does that compare to the potential audience for an accessible space 4X, a game perhaps more immediately understood than an Endless Space 2 or a Stellaris?
It’s impossible to say. Steam Spy estimates that nearly 50,000 gamers have picked up Master of Orion in Early Access, an impressive figure given the US$49.99 asking price.
That’s not a bad start. And there are certainly plenty of promised changes. But much of that original MoO flavour is missing, seemingly to never return, much that was integral to the character of the series.
This is one of the most beloved PC games of all time, only one of two games in Kotaku’s readers list to have five separate recommendations.
No matter what they do, NGD Studios can’t win.