Stellaris: Synthetic Dawn lets you play as Skynet, the Borg, and other space robots

The next expansion for Stellaris is Synthetic Dawn, focused on the galaxy’s killer robots and the humans they oppress, destroy, or turn into batteries. While it’s been possible since Utopia to upload your people into robot bodies, the new options for this story pack (for which the price and release date are still unannounced) allow you to begin your campaign as a robot empire that has already overthrown its organic creators.

Machine Empires are a lot like Stellaris' biological hive minds—they are united in purpose, don’t have factions or elections, and they can’t integrate organic pops as normal citizens. This type of empire is distinct from the Ascended synthetic empires already in the game, and can’t embark down any of the three major Ascension Paths.

Each of the four types of Machine Empires has different ways of dealing with organic pops, which contribute to their core identity:

The “base” machine empire Ethos represents generic machines who overthrew humanity for generic reasons and are generally pretty chill, I guess. They have normal diplomacy, and can choose to either purge or expel organic pops on the worlds they conquer.

Hey, at least they're staying warm.

Taking the Exterminators civic makes you the machine equivalent of the Fanatic Purifier and Devouring Swarm empire types for organics. They represent a Skynet-like robotic defense system that rebelled, and sees organic life as a plague to be wiped out—though they tolerate and can engage in diplomacy with other synthetic empires (including organics who have completed the synthetic Ascension Path). Their special way of dealing with organics is straight out of The Matrix—plugging them into pods and using them as batteries. Or, you know, you can just exterminate them.

Assimilators are for the players who want to go Full Borg (in defiance of the old saying that you never go Full Borg). They design both their machine over-race, and an organic creator race, beginning with both machine pops and cyborg versions of their creator pops who have been subsumed into their consciousness. Their unique way of dealing with organics is—you guessed it—assimilation. Just add brain chips and those previously rebellious mammalians will become an army of loyal Locuti to do your will.

Finally, there are the frankly hilarious Rogue Servitors. Like the Assimilators, they consist of a ruling class of machines and a subjugated, organic creator species. These organics are given a new citizenship type called “Bio Trophies”, and live under the “Mandatory Pampering” citizenship law. This is something along the lines of the civilization of lazy chair people in Wall-E. They created robots to serve them, and said robots eventually took over all meaningful functions of government while providing a docile, utopian existence for “The Masters.” Any new races you conquer will be inducted into this life way, whether they like it or not. Rogue Servitors gain Unity from their fleshy pets, and their influence output increases based on what percentage of their population is organic, to make up for the fact that sedentary chair people don’t produce a lot of resources.

The story pack also includes a reworked AI Endgame Crisis called The Contingency and a new Fallen Empire that may spawn in your galaxy—the Ancient Caretakers—made up of machines with a mysterious purpose. Both of these will include unique interaction options for machine empires (and ascended synthetics). I sat down with Stellaris game director Martin Anward over Skype to learn more.

PC GAMER: Can the Ancient Caretakers fallen empire awaken and participate in the War in Heaven?

Martin Anward: They can Awaken in pretty unique ways. They work pretty differently from all the other Fallen Empires. They have no interaction with the War in Heaven. They are very much tied to other parts of the lore.

I know you guys are introducing Tradition swapping so not every empire type will have access to the same Tradition trees. I’m assuming Machine Empires have their own, unique ones?

Yes. They have a lot of swapped Traditions. Which type [of Machine Empire] determines how many of the Traditions are swapped. But all of them have their own tree instead of Diplomacy. Some are a bit more different. So, yes—you will not get Traditions that aren’t appropriate.

So I understand robot uprisings are being reworked, since they’re no longer restricted to the AI endgame crisis. What is that going to look like?

Okay, so this is a new mechanic which is not a replacement for the old AI crisis, because that’s [been replaced by] The Contingency. This is actually a part of the story pack, because it ties into the Machine Empires. So what can happen is that, if your empire has synths and you are treating them badly, you can actually get an AI uprising where the synths rise up, form a Machine Empire, and start a civil war in your empire. A bunch of planets turn against you, you have to fight, and there is a sort of big battle to see whether organics or synthetics will rule.

And one of the parts of this is actually, when the civil war starts, you get to choose which side [to lead]. So if you have mistreated your robots, they rise up, and you actually want to play the robots, you can do so. And this will also happen in [non-player] empires, which means new Machine Empires can spawn during the course of the game.

We wanted to really put a focus on making the Machine Empires as different as possible.

—Martin Anward, game director

Can Machine Empires spawn as part of the starting galaxy set-up? Wouldn’t that be unbalanced?

Yes, they will. They work very much like [regular empires]. Think of it like, they aren’t [ascended] synth. They don’t have synth pops with all the synth bonuses. They are more like a fairly primitive sort of robots. Something like Skynet that is using a lot of simple, robotic drones to expand.

What exactly determines which sort of Machine Empire is formed if you have an AI uprising?

It varies. You can’t get the Rogue Servitors. What you can get is a regular Machine Empire. You can get Exterminators—and the worse you have treated your synths, the more chance of them rising up as Exterminators. There’s also a little twist where there’s a special trait [you can add to your synths] called Domestic Protocols, where you can have robots that sort of just work and serve you, and they are a lot more likely to become Exterminators. There’s also a small chance that they can become Assimilators depending on a few different factors.

So you can’t just willingly turn all of your lazy organics over to the care of the machines and peacefully transition into a Rogue Servitor empire?

No. There is no mechanic for that right now. Maybe something that would be cool to have in the future.

So all of the different types of Machine Empires function like a hive mind, more or less?

Yeah, but they are pretty distinct in that they all have new mechanics. They are fairly different. [The similarity] is more that they don’t have Happiness, they don’t have factions to worry about, these sorts of things. Even like, the organic pops are handled in different ways. So they all play pretty distinctly from normal hive minds. They also have unique buildings, unique technologies, other technologies have been renamed. 

We wanted to really put a focus on making the Machine Empires as different as possible, whereas the hive minds in Utopia were a little too much like a regular empire fluff-wise. And actually, we went back and put a lot of work into the hive minds to make them feel more distinct as well. We kind of did these things at the same time.

Can you tell us anything else about the unique events for Machine Empires?

It’s mostly related to the big event chains. For instance, The Contingency—Machine Empires have to specially deal with The Contingency because The Contingency will try to hack them and mess with their empire. And you have to sort of develop countermeasures against that. You also have some other special interactions with, like I said, the Ancient Caretakers. And various spins on old events. So it’s mostly about integrating various features to fit the Machine Empires rather than adding a bunch of new, Machine Empire-related events.

Is there a difference between how a Machine Empire interacts with a synthetic Ascended empire, versus how they would interact with a normal organic empire?

There is some special dialogue. There are some diplomatic effects. For instance, Exterminators will be okay with Ascended synth empires while they wouldn’t be okay with biological empires. Because, you know, they have wisely decided that flesh is bad. So yeah, to some degree, the synth empires occupy a spot between Machine Empires and regular empires and have some special stuff. This also applies to Ascended synth empires and the Ancient Caretakers and The Contingency. They also have their own interactions there.

Are there any new Ascension Perks for Machine Empires to make up for the fact that they can’t follow the Biological, Psionic, or Synthetic Ascension paths?

At the moment, no. But we are talking about adding it before release.

So you’re changing how planet types work, where certain climates will spawn more of specific resource tiles like energy and minerals. Are you concerned at all that this will lead to there being one “correct” planet type to start with in the meta?

In our balance testing, not really. I think the effect [has been exaggerated by the community] considering it’s only the three starting planets, which is going to be a couple tiles’ difference or something along those lines. It is more of a flavor thing than anything else. The more important thing about it is the planets you find in the galaxy. And since there is no particular preference to spawn a particular type of planet just because [you chose it as your homeworld], and since we have opened up the colonization of different planet types, I feel like it more or less evens out.

[Note: Martin is referring here to the fact that, as of the next major patch, any species will be able to colonize planets of any climate type They will just be far less happy on planets with climates drastically different from their homeworld until technology makes them more tolerable. So the climate type of a planet is turning from a hard colonization barrier into a soft one.]

What’s being added in terms of visuals? Are all Machine Empires going to look the same?

No, there are a lot of new robot portraits. There are robot portraits for every species class. So you can have fungoid robots, for instance. And you can build different robots models using different portraits. Some portraits are meant for specific roles. So they will look like, you know, a worker bot or a protocol droid.

Between the story pack and the patch, it seems like you are adding a lot of stuff for the synthetic and the biological paths. Are there any plans to give some love to psionics?

Nothing major, but probably some general boosts. Maybe make The Shroud a little more reliable. We’re doing balance passes on it, so I can’t comment on any specifics. But obviously we don’t want psionics to get nothing while everyone else gets buffed.

Oh, and I can give you a small exclusive on something I just decided on today. Biologically Ascended empires that have finished the path will be able to portrait-swap organics. But yeah, this pack is very focused on robots.

Thanks, Martin.