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Master of Orion – Interview with Chris Keeling

By on February 24th, 2016 11:04 am

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars

We got a chance to interview Chris Keeling Director of Product Vision at about the upcoming release of Master of Orion. If you have missed the Early Access information article yesterday, you can click here to read up on it. Still, some questions remained unanswered, tactical combat and ship customisation. So it was no wonder I decided to take the opportunity to ask about these from Chris. Naturally, while I had a chance I asked him several other questions to get a better understanding behind the thought process for designing the game.

SpaceSector: What did you feel was the essence of the first two Master of Orion games that you had to capture for the new title?

Chris Keeling: The main thing was that feeling of “just one more turn” gameplay where you suddenly notice the room is getting lighter and you’ve been playing all night. This takes a lot of balance to create the right pacing, rhythm, and flow. The second was the feeling of being back among old friends you haven’t seen in a long time – bringing the races to life with new animation, voices, and deeper diplomacy. The third thing was to make the interface easier to grok, so it would be approachable to new players without losing the depth of interesting decisions that made the original so enjoyable.

SS: We know you’re only using the races from the first game, but overall which of the Master of Orion games do you think influenced the development of the new game the most and what inspiration was taken from the other titles?

Chris: Honestly, we looked not only at the original series, but also at all of the 4X games that have been made over the past 20+ years. We found what we thought were the most elegant systems, the most interesting features, and the ones that we thought fans would expect in a modern incarnation of a 4X space game based on the original series. While we took some from each game in the series, we generally consider MOO2 the peak of the genre.

SS: What did you like the most and least about the original Master of Orion games (picking something bad from Master of Orion 3 doesn’t count, too easy)?

Chris: While I would have been hard put to find anything good about MOO3 a few years ago, working so closely with the original games and even the members of the original team who helped us stay true to the spirit of the original legends has actually helped me to sort out bits of that game that were actually good, if only they weren’t part of a tragically unfinished game. In fact, while we had spent over a year working on a turn-based combat system, it was these consultants who suggested that real-time strategy was really the future of the genre. Anyway, the only thing I didn’t like about the original games was the feeling of juggling spreadsheets and crunching numbers all the time instead of just leading my Empire forward to galactic domination. We’ve done our best to present as much useful information to the player as they can stand in our version of the game, without creating massive lists of nothing but numbers.

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars

SS: What effort have you put into the reboot to help it succeed with the old time fans?

Chris: We still have an extremely deep and rich universe in which to play, and plenty of different strategies and tactics they can use. Hundreds of technologies (including branching decisions) are organized into a searchable tree of tech clusters with clear icons showing what part of the game they affect – Production, Population, Research, Espionage, Combat, etc. The races are differentiated and diplomacy is deep with not only open warfare and espionage, but alliance, pacts, agreements, gifts, and trade. Population can be allocated to building structures, ships, or just cleaning up the environment – yes, pollution, morale, taxation, and similar factors are in there. All of the things that brought the original games to life are there under the hood, we’ve just changed the body style and the paint so it doesn’t look like the old jalopy you drove as a teenager (and had so much fun driving!).

SS: Now for the new players who might have only heard of MOO but never played it, what have you done that you believe will help them get into the series?

Chris: This is another area where we shine, and as I said earlier this was one of our core goals. We have brought the interfaces into the 21st century so they are simple, appealing, and intuitive. We provide more detailed feedback to the player if they want it, using tooltips and sub-pages to keep the information from interfering in their enjoyment of ruling the universe. We want to let them control everything when they are ready, but we understand how that can be overwhelming to the new player, so we are developing both an in-game tutorial and an online FAQ/help system to guide them. Plus, each race has a (voiced and animated) advisor to point out events of interest and give them some assistance.

SS: What mechanics did you feel you had to let go, if anything, because you thought you couldn’t get away with it in today’s market?

Chris: One example that the hardcore fans of the originals – myself included – enjoyed back then was the off-road travel across the galaxy. Fleets could sneak around in space sectors (see what I did there?) belonging to other races and even colonize behind enemy lines. When we went over this movement system, we realized that one of the main reasons it was fun was because you were basically cheating the AI by doing random things they couldn’t predict, forcing them to defend everywhere which, as Sun Tzu said, is really defending nowhere, making them vulnerable. Another problem with this mode of travel was that it left the galaxy too bland and level, with no strategic choke points where you could block an enemy and force them to fight. Other games have used this method successfully, so we gave it a try. As it turns out, it’s quite fun!

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars

SS: What new feature unique to your game are you most proud of and which feature you tried to keep closer to the originals?

Chris: Well, I am justifiably most proud of the team and the efforts they made to make this game happen, but I know that’s not what you meant. I think we have come up with some very elegant solutions to the aspect of borders in outer space that have never been adequately implemented in 4X space games. Among the many features we have worked hard to reflect the originals, I would say the art, which has been overseen by the Art Director from the original Master of Orion, and the ambience, to include all of the animations, ships, music, and voices, really reflect the races they represent and bring the galaxy to life, just like it was (mostly in my head) over 20 years ago.

SS: What were some of the challenging decisions and choices you had to make in designing and making the game?

Chris: Every decision was challenging, especially since – as hardcore 4X gamers and fans of the original ourselves – we knew the community would analyze everything we did and let us know exactly how they felt about it. Frankly, we knew we couldn’t please everyone, so we made the game that we wanted to play, not only for ourselves, but also so our children could be convinced to play it with us, so they could have the same kind of experience that we had when we played the first Master of Orion.

SS: Now this is a question that has been on everyone’s mind and I have to ask it or I’ll be quartered, what is your approach to tactical combat or do we have to wait till E.A. release to find out?

Chris: As you have no doubt already figured out from my previous answers, it is real-time combat. You can speed it up, slow it down, pause it entirely, give movement and targeting orders, change squadron formations, view ship information (complete stats and weapon loadouts for your ships, only health and shields for enemy ships), and drag to select new groups and create squadrons on the fly. Personally, I prefer to only engage in battles I know I am going to win, which means I don’t have to micromanage my fleet much. But there is so much satisfaction in just watching the battle play-out in cinematic mode; to crush your enemies and see them driven before you…

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars

SS: Sweet! I won’t be quartered! Now, what can you tell us about ship customization?

Chris: Ship design is detailed with multiple hull styles and skins for each race, different beam and missile weapons, shields, computers, armors, engines, and firing arcs which all have to be chosen carefully based on the player’s desired tactics. This should all be planned out far in advance with the appropriate techs being researched so you can increase the power of your ships. We allow multiple designs to be active in the Empire, but you can upgrade your ships to the most current design at any spaceport.

SS: Thank you for your time and good luck with the launch of E.A.

For those that are interested for more details about the ship customization, you may find this resource on their Steam Community page useful. Yes, they have Stellar Converters. Master of Orion will be available on Steam Early Access on February 26, 2016 for $49.99 USD. The game’s Collector’s Edition will also be sold on GOG.

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  1. For those that want to see more there is a lot of video’s popping up. Streamers got an early taste can showcase it as of today.

    It’s a little less than an hour and goes over the games features:


    This last one is planning to stream it all day till he dies of sleep deprivation.

    • Gary Vandegrift says:

      Cool! Time to watch a video :)

    • thrangar says:

      So I saw a comment about taking stuff from the first 2 games, I did not see anything on Heroes (commanders) are they not going to be in the game?

      Always like those heroes made a particualr game episode feel more like a story. more personable

  2. Xyggy says:

    RTS combat? FFS, Wargaming, you HAD ONE JOB! Make this a real MOO successor. And what do you do? Remove one of the key game play components that made MOO great, and instead put in an RTS system “because devs say RTS is the teh futures!” Turn based is dead, is that what you’re saying, or is it just too hard? Firaxis would argue against that.

    I know, “don’t judge until you try it.” But being an unapologetic MOO(2) fanboi, reading that the tactical combat was replaced with an RTS system just twisted my panties and dumped sand in them, too. I get that you’re doing the whole PRTS trope like in Balder’s Gate & Pillars of Eternity, but I really wish you folks at Wargaming would have embraced turn-based tactical combat. This RTS jump just seems like a huge cop-out and hopping on the myth-wagon of TBS is dead. This one thing is holding me back from pre-ordering. I’ll wait and see what the masses say.

    • neil says:

      I don’t like fast paced real time combat in 4X games, but I don’t see the problem with pausable real time. It gives you the same thoughtful pace of game as turn based, whilst also eliminating the absurdities and exploits that are inherent to turn based combat.

      MOO2s turn based combat was great fun, but it could get silly late game sometimes, with the enemy fleet just sitting there like statues, not reacting whilst you tear them apart.

    • Mark says:

      Worst thing is I heard that it was originally turn based to start with. But the powers-that-be said it was too slow paced and they changed it to RT. Disappointing.

    • Rip the Jacker says:

      I wholeheartedly agree! All the hype, all the hope, and we’re left with something akin to Galciv … eechh! Wait, even THAT piece of trash doesn’t have starlanes!

      What I don’t understand is why are devs so blasted lazy that they can’t do a proper job of coding; if the majority of potential buyers want no starlanes and turn-based combat, why don’t they just cater to them? From a business standpoint it’s ridiculous, because if they don’t meet the needs of the vast majority of the fanbase, someone else eventually will.

      I honestly feel sorry for anyone who buys this. I predict that many will find ways to play this game without paying for it; after all, one of the truest forms of democracy is “voting” with our dollars (or euros, yen, etc.), or in this pathetic case, not.

      • Mark says:

        There’s a poll at the MOO 4 forum. Currently sitting at…

        Want starlanes: 22.8%
        Dont want starlanes: 70%

        It has by far the most views and replies of any other topic there. But the devs have completely ignored it and not commented even once.

        I get the feeling that older die-hard MOO fans are really not the target audience of MOO 4, but – as usual – its casual gamers they’re really aiming at. Very sad.

        I share your hope that the sales of this game send them a loud and clear message since it seems that the sound of money is all they can hear or understand.

        • Xyggy says:

          The big, overall red flag is that the devs are ignoring the wishes of the people who wanted to play a modern MOO. It’s a case where the devs think “they know better” and the fans really don’t know that they want these “X” features. It’s the same mistake that happened with MOO3. Where’s Quicksilver, now?

          Imagine if Firaxis ignored their fan base and made the latest XCom a base building RTS? Or worse, moved the Civ franchise into an episodic RTS akin to Starcraft?

          I liked that Wargaming originally acquired the MOO franchise because it seemed that the heads at WG were really fans. I guess I was wrong. MOO4 will be Masters of Orion in name only. Makes me sad to find out what else WG will change to “make it better.”

        • Mark says:

          Yeah I dont think I’ve ever seen a game forum where the vast majority of fans were so completely ignored for so long. Good job Wargaming!

  3. Higgs says:

    Let me get this straight,

    – Space Lanes
    – RTS Combat

    Other than the race names, how can this be considered a successor of MOO2 ?

    I wish you success for your hard work, and I truly liked the visual and art you have showed thus far. But I am quite sad at these design decision that are taking you away from the core fans.

    HD remake of moo2 please, thats all we wanted.


    • tiny_big says:

      Besides star lanes and tactical combat, it’s pretty faithful to MoO2. I’m not attached to either (especially with how unbalanced tactical combat was in MoO2), but still the current version needs more work, especially on tactical combat.

  4. Jeff P says:

    I don’t mind pausable RT combat; the original MoO2 turn-based combat took forever late game and two masses of ships shooting at each other one slow ship at a time didn’t add anything to tactical immersion. I hope that the combat screen includes enough area to allow for tactical movement; it is difficult to tell from the one screen shot.

    Starlanes? Well, I didn’t mind them in SoaSE or SEIV and SEV, but starlanes were used in MoO3 and I would rather not be reminded of that disaster.

  5. salvo says:

    well, I haven’t played much but I’m glad I’ve got it. It’s not (yet) the great space 4x I’m waiting for (I think stellaris may fulfil my high expectations, we’ll see), it also may be not what one would have expected to be a ‘true’ MOO successor, but the game, being an EA, is very polished, stable, bug-free, has a wonderful UI, is fun to play and overall provides high value. Of course, there are aspects which I believe could and should be improved, others which might have done completely differently, but alas, such is life, nothing is perfect. In any case, I recommend the game.

  6. Jodet says:

    Jeez, you guys are a hard room. There’s 143 user reviews on Steam as of this morning, 142 of them are positive.

    This is looking to be a huge hit with gamers. If you’re such a purist buy the collectors edition and get the original games.

    • Mark says:

      Lol, we have been a bit harsh. I’m happy to wait for the Spacesector review before making up my mind. Who knows, they may have found a way to make starlanes and real time combat absolutely awesome!

  7. zigzag says:

    Just played the early access version. The game seems like it will be, by far, the best of the MOO2 clones. Tactical combat is workable, if somewhat uninteresting. And, as everyone above has mentioned, the UI is fantastic.

  8. thrangar says:

    Well I have literally spent 2 days reviewing reviews , and I am trying to to remove the Grimace from my face, but I think it might be permanent, I wont go into a argument of symantics on Moo2 clone, but its my opinion that they (developers) had a wider acceptance of the term than me.

    While the appearance of lack of individual race characteristics, and the tech tree, that will force a maximal/minimalist replay every time you replay’
    to the non tactical/ theactrical battle setup, all the way to the bottle neck starlane setups . The main thing that got me Grimacing is the lack of AI I read again and again that it really doesn’t even matter that ships are dumbed down and simplified, the AI can be beat easily!.

    Ist EA and most of what people are talking about can and I hope will be addressed, but the apparent lack of AI (can AI be fixed this late into dev?)
    has me grimacing!

    I wont be getting the game at this point it seem like its just another 4x attempt and I have 3 of those, I have to draw the line somewhere…at least for now.

    • Gary Vandegrift says:

      Argh! I don’t care about starlanes or pausable RT combat, but bad AI is something I can’t accept. It doesn’t have to be great, but it has to at least be good.

    • Mark says:

      Just confirming that I’m also hearing a lot of extremely negative reports about the state of the AI in MOO 4. Apparently its about as dumb as a potato, in fact a potato might be preferable.

      So much for the claim that starlanes make it easy to program fantastic AI. Never seen a starlane game with even mediocre AI yet.

      • neil says:

        I’ve never seen *any* space 4X with remotely competent AI.

        I very much doubt anyone is seriously claiming that “starlanes make it easy to program fantastic AI”.

        The problem of bad AI in 4X games is a major one. The fundamental reason is simply that 4X games are way too complicated for our current AI techniques. If symmetrical non-cheating AI opponents are desired, then the only solution is to design the game, from the outset, to make it easier to write an AI for. AI game playing algorithms that work well are mostly based on graph searching. The more aspects of your game that are amenable to that kind of strategy, the more likely it will be that a decent AI.

        • Mark says:

          Maybe not “fantastic” but they do claim that starlanes make AI easier to program. You’d think that easier to write AI would result in better AI or at least not-horrible AI, but there appears to be no supporting evidence for this at all, especially with MOO 4 which by all accounts is even worse than average.

          Gal Civ II (a free movement game) *was* critically acclaimed in many reviews for its above average AI. You’re otherwise right though, AI is not a field that 4x games generally get complimented on.

  9. Johann Gambolputty says:

    “In fact, while we had spent over a year working on a turn-based combat system, it was these consultants who suggested that real-time strategy was really the future of the genre.”

    Let me guess, these consultants are marketers or donors?

    We are living in the world of timelines, feeds, TLDR-ers and fast food. Why on earth do they think that we are unable to think in more deep and organized way?

    Do not forget that strategy games are successors of the mighty chess game.

    • neil says:

      I enjoyed the tactical combat in MOO2, but let’s not try to pretend it was a deep experience akin to chess. It was trivial to beat the AI in tactical combat on any difficulty. Early game – just build dirt cheap missle boats and a fast scout to hide in the corner. Late game – upgraded phasors + structural analyser + achilles targeting and kill the entire enemy fleet before they can do anything. There is plenty of real time space combat with far greater depth ( FTL, Sins of solar, homeworld ).

      The joy of turn based combat in MOO2 was about getting to try out all the new toys you’ve researched, not that it required deep and organised thought, because it really didn’t.

      • Johann Gambolputty says:

        You are right Neil, but my statement about TBS as a superior form of gaming concept was general. We all know that good BAI and CAI is the Holy Grail of strategy gaming. Sometimes and I am afraid this is another example, real time choice is driven by the diffuculty and the lack of good turn based AI concepts.

        Of course I am also sure the RTS influx across the genre has a mainly marketing and accessibility undertow.

        • neil says:

          I can’t agree that turn-based strategy is inherently superior (or deeper), than real-time. To me, that position is just as flawed as viewing turn-based games as old fashioned. There is plenty of well implemented tactical space combat in real-time. A gave a few examples in my previous post.

          Now, with regards this game, assuming your quote is genuine, I don’t like the idea that they have switched to real-time just because it’s the “future of the genre”. Again, the idea that turn-based is out of date is, to me, just as wrong headed as the idea that real-time strategy must be shallow.

        • Johann Gambolputty says:

          We can argue which game concept is more deepness friendly. So, personally I think in most cases RTS has too big arcade (the click bonanza) profile. But ok, de gustibus non est disputandum.

          But we still have the qoute from the interview above:
          “In fact, while we had spent over a year working on a turn-based combat system, it was these consultants who suggested that real-time strategy was really the future of the genre.”

          For me this is unfortunately the general approach to make games more accessible nowadays and I take it as pars pro toto casus.

  10. Meprun says:

    I bought the alpha version of MOO and its very good.
    After all those years of mediocore 4x games i thought the feeling of MOO never came back. What makes this game great is not only the MOO gameplay and copies but also for once good graphics for an 4x game. Improvements over MOO2 for me are planet populations management, where you can chose to grow but at a very slow rate without fearing that if you grow bigger you constanly needs transport to colonize new planets. You can chose for it thought. Some of the old space monsters (plus orion guardian) are back!

    In my view it has no weak points in alfa its better that most games i played in full version. I would like to see multiple universes, more planets and a little more monsters. Tech needs some tweaking to maybe and espionage still needs to be added. Next to graphics it has no real new points next to Moo2 though. But that can wait for the expanse!

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