On the face of it, Wargaming.net might seem like an odd company to reboot of Master of Orion. It is practically the poster-child for free-to-play multiplayer success. Master of Orion is a big deal—a huge deal—in the land of 4X strategy and space games. But it's not anywhere near World of Tanks-level big. It seems like an odd business decision.
That’s because it's not a business decision, according to designer Chris Keeling, the Austin-based project lead for Wargaming's Master of Orion. "This is a passion for us. This isn't 'let's make $100 million on a strategy game.' We understand no one is going to make $100 million on a 4X game. You're not going to make ten million on a 4X game."
What Master of Orion represents to Wargaming is twofold. First, it's a chance for the company to return to its origins as a strategy game company.
"This game is us," Keeling said. "Most people don't realize it, but before WOT became the super megahit it's been for the past several years, we spent a dozen years making strategy games. Turn-based strategy, RTS [games]... that's our first love."
There's a more personal connection for Wargaming as well. CEO Victor Kislyi cites the Master of Orion as being a formative experience. It was the series that opened his eyes to game design, and it was also the series that helped give him the skills and vision he'd one day need to run his own company, according to Keeling. Master of Orion, Keeling explained, was Kislyi's "MBA program".
With that as a part of Wargaming's DNA, making a new Master of Orion is partly about giving back to a series that had such an outsize impact.
"This is a game we want to be able to re-do, to give this to a new generation," Keeling said. While they hope it will appeal to longtime fans of MOO and 4X games, "We want new players to pick this up. We want this to be the same kind of experience that we had growing up. But for this new generation."
That's probably the trickiest part of this whole project. It's hard to overstate the shadow MOO and MOO2 still cast over the genre. Go to the Steam page for any recent space 4X and do a text search for "MOO" or "MOO2" and see how far down you have to scroll before they come up in the user reviews. Rebooting Master of Orion is like saying you're re-shooting a new version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You're remaking a foundational creative work. And heaven help you if you get it wrong.
Master of Orion has been copied and imitated for 20 years, yet it still sets the bar for the space 4X genre. Is that the effect of rose-tinted lenses, the fact that every space 4X is being compared to an idealized memory of perfection? Or was there something qualitatively different about the original Master of Orion games that nobody ever captured?
Wargaming are gambling it's the latter. A big part of Keeling's thinking about the new Master of Orion is that authenticity matters. It can't just be an old brand slapped onto a new game. Wargaming want to make something that's connected to the originals. That's why they made the effort to get the rights to the game.
"Because we own the IP," Keeling said, "we can actually use all the original storyline, all the original races, completely freely. ...[We went] back and contacted the original [SimTex] team. We brought in several of them as consultants. Their job is to make sure that we stay on point. We got the original producer, original art director, the original composer is doing the music for the new game, a couple of designers as well. So yeah, we've got people onboard that are very relevant to the process."
Many of the old SimTex developers were stunned when Keeling tracked them down with consultancy offers for a new Master of Orion game. Some of them took him on a field trip to the old SimTex offices, which are on the same street as Wargaming's Austin location. The cradle of Master of Orion, it turns out, is now a mall restaurant.
The goal is not to perfectly re-create Master of Orion or MOO2, Keeling said. "It's more like, what would MOO have looked like if they'd had access to modern technology, the ...resources to make a game of this scope and scale and magnitude, and also had the last 20 years of experience with 4X games?"
The day-to-day development of the new Master of Orion is being led by Argentina's NGD Studios. At first-glance, they seem like a strange choice to make a new Master of Orion.
"They have a very similar background to Wargaming," Keeling said. "They've been in business for 17 years, just like we have. They've been overlooked quite a bit. They have the passion for this project, the expertise, and they really wowed us with their demo."
NGD were "friends of the Wargaming family" when Wargaming quietly asked around about studios that wanted to make a new Master of Orion. NGD came up with the best demo and the best pitch.
"They really caught Victor's attention because that's exactly what Wargaming was like before we hit it big with World of Tanks," Keeling said. "Victor saw in them the same potential we had back then."
One of the reasons Keeling is confident that he and NGD will get this right is because they're not treating the original games' design as holy writ. He uses ship design and tactical battles as an example.
"I think that was a mistake made by some of these [later 4X] games," he said. "They thought that was a key feature that was going to bring a lot of people in. [But] you can only focus on so many things. If you focus on everything, it becomes too complex. It's unmanageable. Unwieldy. If you do a deep-dive on only a few things, they have to relate directly to what the player is doing. So while there are a lot of players that played tactical battles, there's not that many. It's about 10% of the players. So if you deep dive on that, you're wasting a lot of resources [that could have gone] to something that's really more important to the gameplay."
The new Master of Orion should be a little more streamlined and focused than some of the games it inspired. Which is fitting: Master of Orion was a series that inspired people because there were so many different ways to connect with it. This is the version that resonated with people at Wargaming.
"We wanted to focus on those things that are are more strategic, core aspects of the game that will help you do those things that Victor learned from the game," Keeling said. "Strategic planning. Resource management. The 4Xs, right?"