It's strange to think that, after more than 6 years of enduring popularity, Stellaris was once a bit of a gamble for Paradox. Even now the developer remains best known for historical grand strategy, but this weird sci-fi 4X ended up slotting neatly into its dense library of games. Since then, it's been reconfigured, overhauled, gone through multiple game directors and spawned 16 expansions, species packs and story packs. No matter what brand of sci-fi is closest to your heart, you'll likely find it represented in this humungous cosmic conflict.
Given its impressive breadth, surely it's running out of space to explore, at least in this iteration? Before catching up with game director Stephen Muray in Paradox's hometown of Stockholm last month, I was convinced a sequel was, if not in development already, at least at the concept stage. But according to Muray, the future of Stellaris remains focused on the original game.
"There's so much stuff for us to continue working with," he tells me as I try to ferret out details on what the team's post-Toxoids plans are. Even with that being the case, though, I wonder if there's a desire to move to a newer engine and escape the technical debt that accumulated over the last six years. "I have things planned for ages," he explains. "So yeah, it's not something that I'm personally very worried about or interested in right now."
Despite my sequel assumptions, there definitely isn't a sense that Stellaris is winding down. This was especially clear when, last year, Paradox announced the 'Custodian Initiative'. A new team was formed to assist with the big job of maintaining this mammoth game by tweaking the balance, enhancing old DLC, improving the AI and working on quality of life improvements. This allows the expansion team to focus on filling the game with more alien species and features.
Picking up the pace
This is why, only four months after the launch of the latest major expansion, Overlord, Paradox was able to release the Toxoids species pack. It took a year for the Toxoids to go from concept to reality, and it likely would have been longer if the custodians weren't holding the game together in the meantime.
"The custodians are one of the best things that have ever happened to Stellaris," says Muray, "so I'm really happy to keep doing that." And it's a job that never ends because, he admits, the expansion team is always creating more work for them.
"Sometimes the things that we fix actually unfix some of the other things indirectly. They made massive performance improvements to the game, and then we improved the AI. Now the AI is much better at playing the game, so their economies are gargantuan compared to two updates earlier. I joke that they do the performance improvements, and then we stumble."
Paradox doesn't usually announce packs and expansions until it's got plenty to show off, which is why Toxoids were only unveiled a few weeks before launch. So Muray's not ready to spill the space beans on what's coming next, beyond the upcoming free Orion update, but he's not averse to teasing things he's interested in either, like features from other Paradox games. Overlord, for instance, has more than a bit of Crusader Kings in it, with its focus on vassals and fracturing empires. And now Victoria 3 is finally on its way, there's a whole host of new systems to potentially pinch.
Learning from the past
"I steal good ideas from anywhere I find them," says Muray. "I love how [Victoria 3] has interest groups and things like that. I love how it grows dynamically, and over time they've got demands—it all makes sense, it's great. [Tech lead Lorenzo Berni] will murder me if I'm like 'Hey, let's do pop rework number three'. But yeah, there may be parts that we will swipe or emulate."
Sci-fi itself still provides plenty of ideas, too. "That is one of the greatest things about working on Stellaris. Every sci-fi trope and story under the sun is within our purview. So we can grab and pick what we want and see how they interact with each other. You can have these hard sci-fi stories mixed with weird space fantasy, and you just sometimes get really awesome stuff. So yeah, everything, everything, is ours."
One of the issues with the amount of things Paradox can do and already have done with Stellaris is that it can be hard for new players to know where to start. There's $200 worth of DLC at the moment, some of it very broad, some of it very specific. It's good news for me, of course, because it means I get to make things like this Stellaris DLC buying guide, but I wonder if Paradox has thoughts about how to simplify the process of getting into the game.
"It is actually something that is kind of tough," says Muray. "Our players tend to make these tier rating things and lots of posts on Reddit about 'What DLC should I get?' and the answer is always, you know, obviously, buy Utopia first."
Utopia is the one thing most players can agree on: it represents one of the most dramatic and broadest improvements to the game, which is even more impressive given that it was the very first expansion. As Muray says, "Utopia was huge and gargantuanly overscoped." It's the expansion that introduced megastructures, hive minds, ascension perks and fancy, advanced civics. Even with some of its features eventually making their way into the base game, becoming accessible to everyone, it remains essential.
So it looks like new players are going to have to keep relying on the community to guide them towards the best DLC. That said, the studio is still looking for other ways to make things more accessible for both new and existing players, from streamlining some of the overcomplicated aspects of managing vast empires to improving existing features, like ship construction. A text to speech feature is also on the docket, and should appear later this year in the Orion update.
Some of these additions came up in a Stellaris panel at PDXCon 2022, just after my chat with Muray, where the team discussed things like updating the AI ship designer, which is another change coming with Orion. You'll be able to assign roles to ships so that the auto builder can tailor the ships to your specifications. So if you want a more assault-focused ship, for instance, you can tell the AI and it will select modules that are best suited to that role. New ship capabilities are also being explored, so components could have different effects based on where the ship is and what leader you have. For example, a ship might do more damage when it's in a nebula.
During the panel, the topic of Stellaris 2 reared its head again thanks to a question about what the panel would include if they could start from scratch with a sequel. Adding gestalt empires to the base game was on the shopping list, along with more gestalt customisation and roleplaying potential. A population system that scales better once you get big was also mentioned, as well as a more tactical approach to warfare. As a counter to that, automated warfare Victoria 3-style was also suggested. As someone who has spent countless sleepless nights directing wee ships to conflicts all over the galaxy, I second this motion.
As for Muray, he wishes the exploration phase could be longer. "I really love the beginning part of Stellaris where there's so much wonder out there and you're exploring. That's the kind of thing I'd like to explore more. Explore exploring."
A man after my own heart. In pretty much every 4X, that initial phase, where there's untapped potential everywhere and you're still figuring out the shape of your empire, will always be my favourite—especially in Stellaris, where exploration has so much to offer from a storytelling perspective. Hopefully we'll see that extended and expanded in future DLC, following in the footsteps of Distant Stars and Ancient Relics. And if not in Stellaris 1, then maybe in Stellaris 2. It might not be on the cards yet, but I'm still convinced it will happen eventually.