Interview: Endless Space and StarDrive developers talk about 4X design

PCG: So while you guys are making 4X games—when you're in deep and working on it for a year or two years—do you play other 4X games? Or are you sick of them?

Dan: No, I play all of them. It's research.

Romain: For me, I always play them as research. Sometimes, like StarDrive, I get hooked on them. Hmm, hmm, hmm! I have to tell him to fix that! My kids will come in and say, "hey, dad, come with us!" No, working! Eight hours later it's like, I'm still working! I get hooked on it.

But the games that hooked me on the 4X genre… Not many have been able to do it. StarDrive was definitely one of them. Fallen Enchantress, with the latest additions, I really liked that, but I hated all the previous ones. I think it all came together with those last additions, in Legendary Heroes. I liked it. But you have to play them all. There are interesting ideas and inspirations to find everywhere. It would be a sad thing to make the same mistakes that everyone else is doing. It's better to learn from other people's mistakes, just as we learn from our own mistakes.

The same way, when someone figures out something good, it's good to build on that. It's in our interest, all together, to build on everyone else and move all of our games in a direction where we can get better. If we're not looking at what everyone else is doing, we'll all make the same mistakes.

Dan: For me, playing other 4X games as research, I tend to look for the smaller things. I don't have a lot of experience with things like UI design. It's just seeing how a menu transitions up into the screen and how the elements are arranged. That's the type of thing I'm doing when I look at a game from a research perspective. I need to break it down and understand how they did it, so I can figure out how they did it and at the very least mimic, if not improve on the concept.

Romain: Also, on the code side, you try to figure out how someone did something code-wise.

Dan: Yeah, definitely. It's really hard for me to play any video game now. Only the best video games I can play and not start breaking down, well, how is this constructed? The best ones are the ones where you're so immersed in the world that you don't even think about it. It's kind of a curse, a little bit.

Romain: That's true. We're always focused on what's going on behind it.

PCG: Do you ever go back and play really old games like Civ 1?

Dan: I play Master of Orion II a lot. I was taking a close look at their economy, because I think it worked really well. At least for a starting point on my economy in StarDrive 2, I'm using the same sorts of mathematical figures and formulas. Then I can expand from there. I know what works. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Just try to improve it a little bit.

Romain: For me, it's the same with video games, movies, books, whatever. When I love something, I don't want to go back to it, because I'm afraid of breaking the dream. The more I liked it, the more true that is. Whenever I see something I loved that's getting a bit old, I want to keep it there. I want to just remember the feelings and emotions I liked from it.

Which doesn't mean I can't go back and look for some pictures, or look at… Like, how did they do the economy at the time? Looking at the Master of Orion economy and thinking, oh, that's how that worked, I remember now. So I can still do that. But I'd hate to say, oh, God, is that what it looked like? God, was that the music back then? It would disrupt my dream.

PCG: Are you going to feel that way about Endless Space in 10 years?

Romain: I don't know if it's the same for Dan, but I played the game for hundreds of hours in development. I think I'm up to 1200 hours at the moment. When the game comes out, everyone gets all excited, and it's just… [deep breath] Let me take a break! At least at the end, I'm playing a lot of multiplayer. I'm not the best one at that. There are always community guys that are way better than me, way faster than me. That keeps me playing some more of the game.

But not so much more of the single-player. The thing that sucks is, when the game has finally become what you wanted it to be, that's when you stop playing it, because you've played it so much. But it's good, that feeling where it's like… You put the last stone on and it's finished.

Dan: It's a good feeling, though, to look at your previous work and have that feeling of, oh, that's not very good compared to what I'm doing now. I'm able to use my own work as a reference point, somewhat. When I look at StarDrive, I'm like… It almost seems amateurish compared to what I've learned since then. I hope that every time I make a game in the future, I can feel the same way about the previous one.

Romain: Yeah, I agree. It's true that sometimes… It's funny. In a way, it's bad to look on the past, because you know that everyone loved something, and the reviews were all great on certain elements of the game… But you look at that element that was supposed to be good, and with a new perspective, maybe two years later, it's like, really? Really? You liked that? Okay…

PCG: Were there some bits of your Endless Space design that you were surprised people liked so much?

Romain: The music? I had people doing development on the team saying they didn't like it. And yet people seemed to love it.

PCG: I liked the music, yeah.

Romain: But until the very end, that wasn't very obvious. It was a choice of style. It had a lot of references to '80s music, old synth music from the '80s. It's very particular. But it worked, and I'm happy about that. Game design-wise, what people liked… There was stuff I wasn't sure about, like the battles. Not everyone loved that. 50 percent of the community hated it and 50 percent loved it. A few people were in between, which was interesting. But I was happy that so many people liked it.

What we wanted to show and prove with that was that the battles weren't at the center of the game. The battles were just one of the elements of the game. You were a leader, not a general. I was happy that so many people understood that. You always want to please everyone, but you can't. You have to admit that you can't please everyone. You want to please the majority, of course…

Dan: In StarDrive, one thing I didn't expect was, I put in some throwaway quest types of things. I had this concept where I wanted to have some events that you could encounter and some quest lines you could follow. I put one or two in there and I thought, okay, maybe this isn't the best. But actually, people really latched on to it, and they were kind of angry that I didn't follow it through so much. Which has really informed my design on StarDrive 2. It was kind of shocking. It took me by surprise. I was like, here's this crappy little thing, and people were like, no, I really like that, give me more!

Romain: It was kind of the same for us with the events we did. We did maybe 10 or 15 events and moved on. We didn't expect so much… For me, the things I didn't like about it… One, it was totally random. There was nothing you could do to encounter it. So I wasn't so sure. It does add some variety to the game, which is interesting.

Dan: I think it goes back to what I was talking about with 4X games letting you live out a fantasy. The events, although they're incredibly trivial as far as design and coding goes… How much they can immerse you into the fantasy, providing more context and giving you a place in the universe. So, lesson learned.

Romain: Yes. That's why we did the quests this time in Legends. In Legends, the quest system is basically an event system. You can go questing, because we know that people want to be more immersed in the game. But for me, it's still too directed. I love just having bricks I can play with.

Dan: I'd like to make some of these features optional. Even some of the hardcore features… There are some features that are non-optional in a strategy game like this. You have to explore and expand. You have to get out there. But if you come across an event and just think, aw, I don't want to deal with this, usually I just let them have a way out.

Romain: Yeah. You should be able to go and do something else.

PCG: When you're designing a game, how much of the design are you trying to pull straight from your own interests? I love this in a 4X. I love being able to do whatever and not have anything scripted. How do you balance that versus what you think might make for a better game for people who have different opinions? How much of it is kind of the auteur theory versus working together.

Romain: It's interesting. It's true that we're working on the game all together. This is a deal I'm making with the players. In the end, I can't forget that. I'm not just making this game for me. I'm making it for the community, for all the players. But I have to make sure that I define the limits, the constraints. We'll never go here, we'll never go there. As long as… I have my babies here. I have stuff that I want to keep and follow and see growing.

I also get those kinds of seeds from the community, and I'll make sure to grow them with them. They'll teach me. I'll learn from them. Having to adapt to that is a good thing in the end. The thing is, a lot of these things I probably wouldn't have done at all, like the quest system. If I didn't know there were such big expectations for it. But it pushed me to do it in a way where… If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it in the right way, what I believe is the way to go. That pushes me to be creative around something I didn't expect to do at all. You become even more creative that way.

I'm making sure that every quest is a sandbox quest. It's not just, pick up this sword and go kill that demon in so many turns, where it's all scripted out for you and you don't make any choices. For me, it's just one big goal for the quest, and it's up to you to find a way. It's kind of a puzzle that you have to solve as a player. And then you use the tools of a 4X to be able to solve it.

Dan: I think it's important for a designer to stay pretty true and consistent with their original vision. It's fine to get input from the community, but it's a tough balancing process to figure out.

Dan: I feel like gamers...If you ask them what they want, what they'll tell you they want is something they've already had. That can be a reality. Sometimes they just know what they like, and so they're not going to advocate, in a community-type setting, for massive innovation. It's our job as designers to try to bring innovation while still meeting their needs.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).