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How Did You Screw This Up? Pt. I

When one gets word that a favorite game of their's is going to get a sequel, it often triggers a flood of conflicting emotions. The thrill that you'll get to once again enjoy a certain game world, or reach the conclusion of a story long left hanging. Yet, there is also fear tinged with doubt; will it be as good as the first? Will it not be as good as the many intervening years have made me hope?

Often, unfortunately, the final result still causes the same mix of emotions. Good with bad, hopes fulfilled mixed with desires denied. Sometimes, though, the source game is so amazing, so fantastic, that you say to yourself that there is no possible way anyone could mess it up. And when the day finally comes that you get your hands on the final product, you are literally stunned to discover that not only did they mess it up, they messed it up in ways you couldn't even imagine.

In this series, I will take a look at some of my own personal worst disappointments in the world of the sequel, and try to figure out where it went so terribly, terribly wrong.


The Original: Master of Orion II

Master of Orion II originally hit the DOS gaming scene back in 1996 (Developed by Simtex, published my Microprose). For those who have never played it, it was a 4x space game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) where the player took the reigns of one of a handful of space-faring civilizations and set them on course to conquer the galaxy. Every one of the 13 basic races had a series of advantages and disadvantages to make playing each of them unique; the Bulrathi were expert ground warriors, Psilons were research geniuses.Starting with just a single home planet and a few weak ships, players explored the surrounding stars for new worlds to colonize, managed the production of their worlds to build new facilities and ships, and invested in science and espionage to gain technological and diplomatic advantages over other races.

Once you'd branched out into the galaxy and started meeting strange and exciting new races, you would make the decision that almost all players made, that being to scour them from the universe. Combat itself took place between fleets of ships, switching to an "overhead" space map. Each player got a turn to move all of their ships and fire all their weapons, and whomever was left standing at the end was the winner of that particular battle. Beams shot across the map at light speed to their targets, missiles would take several rounds depending on how advanced they were, giving time for the opponent to try and shoot them down, and a huge multitude of other special devices could be employed to different ends depending on your research (nothing says fun like sucking your foe's fleet into a miniature black hole!). Battles were flashy, tactical, and, most importantly, fun. In this battle system, superior tactics could defeat superior technology and superior numbers, and every battle gave the sense that it was important.

Oh, did I mention you could design your own ships? I probably should have, since that's where I, personally, spent most of my time. From tiny scout ships with extra fuel tanks to Death-Star-esque flying battlestations with enough firepower to not only destroy a planet, but to destroy it so thoroughly from time and space that it never existed in the first place. I might be exaggerating that last part slightly, but that's what it felt like.

Of course, for those of you not so combat-inclined (sissies), the day-to-day operations of a space empire provided more than enough riches to keep you entertained. Planets needed to be settled, alien dignitaries needed to be appeased (or displeased), and research paths needed to be chosen. It was detailed, but it was never overwhelming; every turn had something to do, but never so much that you felt like it was a chore doing it.

All of the features I have described so far make up the skeleton of the game, but when all put together they created a whole that was capable of sucking an innocent gamer into a temporal black hole, draining away hours into the inky blackness of the night.

But damn if it wasn't a fun ride.

The Sequel: Master of Orion III

Fans of MoO2, once they managed to stop playing after lengthy interval of time, of course began clamoring for a sequel. Simtex, developers of MoO2, has ceased to exist in 1997, so it was pretty clear they wouldn't be working on it. Microprose, who published it, were going through their own financial and legal troubles, and actually only managed to publish three games after MoO2, until they were eventually scooped up by the devil Infogrames in 2001 and ceased to exist as a separate entity.

Still, demand was still strong for a sequel, and Infogrames, always interested in making money, handed off development to Quicksilver Software, who at the time would've been most recently known for Star Trek: Starfleet Command and Conquest of the New World. Word got out that development had begun, and instantly the chins of fans around the world began to shimmer with a faint layer of saliva.

Over the next couple of years, details slowly leaked out about the project. In fact, most of them weren't actually leaks, as Quicksilver took a very open view of development and actively solicited fans for input as to what they would like to see in the game. It was an exciting time to an Orion fan, and each new tidbit of information only built up expectations higher. There was talk of massive space battles, huge research trees, and a strange little concept called "focus points." The idea here was that if you were really leading a huge space empire, you wouldn't have time to directly deal with every problem that came along, so instead you would appoint your underlings to deal with most issues while you yourself only bothered with what you decided was truly important. In essence, it was a way of limiting the player to only make a few decisions per turn and leaving everything else up to the AI. This seemed a little odd, but at the same time kind of interesting; a new way of dealing with the concept of empire building.

As release day drew closer, rumors started flying about what features were in, what features were out, and how totally awesome this was going to be. The first project release date came... and went. Then came another... and another. Yes, the mighty delay beast had hit, but most people were used to that. Soon it was heard that the focus points had been scrapped, which seemed a pretty fundamental change to the game that had been planned. No matter; it was MoO3! Coming soon!

Finally, in February of 2003, the delays were done, and the game was unleashed unto the world. I ran out to the mall during lunch at work that day, rushed into the EB, and snagged my copy as quickly as I could. Sneaking it back into the office, I tore it open and spent the rest of the day reading the manual. The 160-odd pages manual. Yes, it was a weighty tome, printed in the size type normally reserved for library cards, but I was undaunted. I love long manuals! Though, something about this one was bothering me. Sure, it was chock full of interesting fiction and backstory, but something about the actual instructions just didn't sit right. Perhaps it was the fact that even after two read-throughs, I still didn't have a good sense of how I was supposed to play the game...

It turns out I didn't have a good sense of how to play the game because the game was a lot like trying to do some astronomy through a telescope filled with nacho cheese: poorly conceived, unclear, and ultimately unsatisfying. After several hours of play on that first day (and many, many crashes), I really honestly felt like I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Gone were the clean menus of MoO2, replaced with what seemed like endless pages of spreadsheet-esque screens of data and buttons that seemed to change function from moment to moment. No longer could I actually manage my colonies on my own, but instead I was supposed create "development plans" and turn over management to the AI. This wouldn't seem to be so bad, if not for the fact that AI really only took your advice for a few turns, at best, then started to do whatever the hell it wanted. Planetary governors that were supposed to be churning out military units would, if left unattended, soon be growing corn out the wazoo and sending colonists off to planets that couldn't even support your race.

At least, I thought, at least I've still got combat and shipbuilding under my control. Well, that was sort of true. Ship design itself was a morass of confusing options, and once you got frustrated enough, you usually ended up hitting "Auto" and just letting the computer assemble a new ship for you. As for combat, well, it's best envisioned like this: Two fleets of mighty warships speed towards each other silently in the inky blackness of space. They charge their weapons, readying for the ensuing conflict. At least, the two fleets pull within range of each other; the battle is joined! Suddenly, the camera pulls back to about 500 miles away, so all you see are a few small silver shapes against a half-assed starfield. The ships (if that is indeed what those little blobs are) move of their own accord, drifting towards each other. Then, a few colored lines blip back and forth, and some random particles flash here in there. In a few seconds, the battle is over, and you really aren't even sure if you won.

Quicksilver took the bold step of making the battles both real-time as well as visually incomprehensible. No longer did each side have large, distinct ships that they could move at will. No, now there were silver blobs moving (crawling) in real time (no pausing!) and some stuff that I guess was weapons fire. To top it all off, the orders you issued to your AI ship commanders seemed to function more or less at their whim. Once again, the easiest, least frustrating thing to do was to just sit back, hit "Auto" and keep your fingers crossed.

For those of you paying attention, you might have noticed by this point that, all these different factors are added up, the best way to play MoO3 was to turn it on, set everything to auto, then go outside and enjoy a nice walk. When you got home later, well, maybe you won, maybe you didn't. No skin off your back; you got some fresh air!

Yes, Master of Orion III was a buggy, complicated, botched-AI mess. Above and beyond all of that, though, it was a heartbreaker. Seven years of waiting and this is what the fans got. As many have said, we would have had more fun doing some spreadsheets in Excel, and probably would've understood a heck of a lot more of what we were doing.

Where It Went Wrong

The biggest issue here is one of micromanagement vs. macromanagement. Yes, MoO2 did have a certain level of micromanagement, but when you got right down to it, it wasn't so bad. Spending a few moments selecting build queues for your worlds isn't such a chore when the fundamental choices are pretty basic. You want a production world? Build the best mines. You want a research world? Build some labs. People unhappy? Build a holostadium or somesuch.

In attempting to strip out what they viewed as too much micromanagement, Quicksilver instead opted to go for the macro view of things, creating more of an "empire simulator" than MoO2 ever aimed to be. Of course, the tipping point is that once you decide to take most of the minutiae out of the hands of the player, you are then feel free to start making things more and more complicated because you assume the player isn't going to have to deal with it. Compare images of II and III's planet management screens and you can see the difference; MoO3 hurls information at the player, all of it relevant in some way, but most of it ultimately meaningless because the computer is going to make most of your decisions for you.

MoO2 Colony Listing

MoO3 Planet Management Screen (If I tried to scale it down, it would be even less comprehensible...)

On top of that, anyone playing a game like Master of Orion or Civilization is there because they want to get involved in the decision-making process. They like a certain level of micromanagement. MoO3 created a system where direct interference by the player was actively discouraged. That by itself, beyond any of the bugs or lousy AI, was enough to doom the title from the start.

It comes down to a lack of understanding of what made the original game so great, and a misunderstanding of what the fans loved (you'll be seeing this theme a lot in this series, so get used to it!). Combine that with dreary gameplay and what was no doubt a rushed release, and Master of Orion III consigned itself to be the subject of that eternal question: How did you screw this up?
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About ZargonXone of us since 2:37 PM on 10.19.2007

Since the day my daddy handed me an Intellevision, I was set on the path of the gamer. I've got a special home for gamers with history that you can check out right now: Spectacle Rock
Mii code:[email protected]


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