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Science in Strategy Games: Master of Orion series

April 16th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Feature:Science

What this is about, and a list of the games.

I am not going to talk about Master of Orion 3, because I had no interest in playing that again. But revisiting Master of Orion 1 and 2 reminded me of many things I had forgotten about both games, and confirmed a lot of suspicions I had about the series’ importance in setting the science tone.

When SimTex made the first MOO game in 1993, it was probably run with a subtle marketing campaign that made it Civilization in space. Both were Microprose titles, after all, and if people liked conquering the world and discovering new things with scientists in the past, why not in the future? But SimTex wasn’t the type of studio to just cut and paste and MOO elaborated on the empire building subgenre in some very important ways, especially in how research and science were used. There were some big changes between MOO 1 and 2, as well, which I think reflect changes in expectations for strategy games in general.

But let’s start with Master of Orion.

As I noted in the National Character series, the idea of having races with fixed and immutable attributes was not an a priori assumption of strategy game design. In fact, you can probably credit SimTex and MOO with introducing the idea of a racial bonuses that would continue throughout every game you played, every galaxy you conquered. Biology was destiny. And in Master of Orion, these types of bonuses applied very heavily to scientific research. Yes, the Psilons had a generic racial bonus, but each race also had its own bonus connected to specific types of technology, and these were outlined in the manual.

The effect on decision making is obvious. If I have a bonus in researching, say, computer tech, why not focus on that and then trade it for stuff I suck at? You get a comparative advantage economy in research at a universal level. This has a potential, I think, to narrow your game play style (why would I not, all things being equal, push this advantage?), but is firmly in line with MOO’s Star Trek vision of sentient life, where each race is free, independent and an archetype for something else.

Master of Orion initially handled research in a very not-quite-Civ way. There are research tracks for various technological classes and you allocate how much of your research focus to give to each track. If you want to focus more on engines than computers, you can adjust your sliders.

Where does this overall research focus come from? There are no scientists, not really. No libraries, no universities. Each planet has sliders you adjust, and one of these determines how much research comes from its…whatever. It’s easy to forget, but Master of Orion was a game where the planets had no real improvements on them. You didn’t build new structures at all. It was all about population and industry. Yes, Artifact Planets would speed things up very nicely, but research is all budgeting and knowing where your strengths are.

So what were you researching if you had no structures to build? Weapons and armor and targeting systems. There are some economic techs, but these are related to factory efficiency, more or less.

What really set Master of Orion apart, though, was the weird randomness of it all. You would allocate your research points and unlock…something but probably not everything, though you might be able to trade for it. You weren’t really directing discoveries so much as you were saying to whomever your scientists were:

“Hey, we need something that goes ‘Boom’. Like really loud. So loud you can hear it in space. Let me know what you find.”

This is a little disconcerting after Civ, but then, Civ was only two years old so there weren’t any rules yet about what a tech tree was supposed to look like. (You can read this forum post for a discussion of the larger consequences for random MOO research in game.) No game would quite ever be the same even if you did always focus on your racial strength, and the interconnectedness of so many technologies meant that you could never get the one you wanted.

And what fun is that?

Master of Orion II dialed down the randomness a lot without making the tree completely open. Research was still divided into clusters, but there were no sliders over where to focus your energies. Each cluster had a few techs in it and for the first basic levels, you could explore everything in a cluster. Once you got to a certain tech level, however, you could only choose ONE technology per cluster. Everything else had to be acquired by other means. (“Creative” races had the option to fully explore the science tree, but most races aren’t creative.)

This encourages interaction between the races, and also gives the game a certain amount of replayability while also not surprising you with scientists giving you things you don’t need. There will come a time when you realize that your choices have prepared you for the wrong war, and you will have to find another way out. Diplomacy is always an option, better ship design is an option, Hail Mary exploration of Artifact Planets is an option. By not letting you exhaust the tech tree, the MOO series made scientific progress feel like it was progress, yes, but messy and not always the answer you needed.

The Master of Orion series did have one somewhat deleterious effect on science fiction empire building games, though. Almost every technology you researched – both in 1 and 2 – was a ship building thing. The first Master of Orion didn’t even have structures you could build beyond factories. MOO 2 went in a more traditional Civ direction with planetary improvements, but almost all the science tracks were geared to building bigger and better warships.

To their credit, SimTex made ship building fun. The components were easy to understand and easy to upgrade. The first game limited you to only six ship designs at a time, so you had to really commit to scrapping one. But the heirs of this design idea (Space Empire – coming soon in this series, Sword of the Stars) see the ships as more important than the Empire and I think lose the power of science to improve and not just destroy. I am building a Federation out of ash.

OK, that’s a little melodramatic, but in some of the heirs to MOO, the science is so ship centered that the greater complexity allowed by modern power and art makes the fleet such the focus of attention that you need to have the mechanics and payoff to make that all worthwhile. I am not saying that these heirs have not done that, but few have done it with the same parsimony and elegance of SimTex. Those were, of course, simpler times.

Neither of the MOO games have really aged well in terms of interface or look, but they remain models of tight design. The research system was a big part of that. (You can buy both for very little at GoG.com)

Next up, X-Com and why it could be the most scientific strategy game ever made.


15 Comments so far ↓

  • Feature Series: Science and Technology

    […] Civilization series (1991-2010) 2) Master of Orion series (1993-2003) 3) X-Com (1993) 4) Age of Empires series (1997-2011) 5) Imperialism series (1997-1999) […]

  • Owen

    Alpha Centauri also inherited some of this DNA – you couldn’t really direct research as much as you could sheep dog it.

    Great post.

  • Procyon Lotor

    One of the things I loved about MOO was how ship components miniaturized based on your gross tech level in the appropriate category. This made ship design even more interesting, as you had to make a tough choice between fewer-and-more-expensive cutting-edge components versus more-but-older components.

    God, I also loved the strategy guide by Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes. I spent almost as much time reading that thing as I did playing the game!

  • Greg S

    Great series so far, looking forward to more (I am a scientist)! After listening to the Crusader Kings 2 3MA podcast I am curious what the research mechanic actually is in that game and whether it is original.

  • Procyon Lotor

    After reading this, I purchased MOO 1&2 from gog.com last night, and began a game of MOO. The science/technology system really is quite awesome, for all the reasons touched on in the forum post you linked to in the article. Why don’t more games use the combination of sliders and “choice from randomly available techs” model?

  • Shahab

    The MOO series was epic, besides MOO3 of course. I still play MOO2 sometimes, LOVE that game. I used to play a lot of MOO1 too. They really should have left out the “creative” trait, it totally unbalances the game once you hit mid-game. If your creative race doesn’t lose in the early game it will be hard to beat.

  • Michael A.

    Models of tight design is the perfect description for MoO2 and especially MoO1. It is true that the tech was mostly ship building stuff, but I think that is really a side-effect of the tight design focus. The first two MoO games knew what they were – and what they were not.

  • ShadowTiger

    I like MOO2 very much. My main problem with the game is that the racial bonuses are unbalanced. Repulsive is a no brainer in all the min/max builds, except it diminishes one of the nice elements of the game: leaders.

    As for the research, having to choose one technology certainly is a nice constraint, but it is easy to leapfrog and get it next time.

    For example, you can skip all the missle technologies until the last one, Zeon missiles. Regardless of how realistic that is, it really lessens the impact of tech decisions unless you are passing up one of the rare unique techs.

    Other problems with the techs are sometimes you are choosing between 2 choices that are very similar.

    For example, you can choose between a building that increases tax revenue on a planet by 100% and a building that increases morale by 20%.

    Well, morale also increases tax income significantly, especially if you are producing goods. It also improves research.

    More money means you can buy stuff instead of building it, which also lets you put more citizens on research projects.

    One probably is more efficient mathmatically, but its an arduous calculation that will vary game to game. I wish they would have re-arranged the tech tree a little better so the choices are easier to make and more meaningful.

    Many lessons to be learned from that game!

  • Peter S

    Hm, I think MOO2’s interface still holds up today. UIs — and, for that matter, 2D graphics — improved a lot between the late DOS era (MOO1) and the early Win95 era (MOO2). Its gameplay definitely does!

    Good point about 4X space games tending to emphasise military technologies over peaceful ones. I’m not sure Space Empires is the best example, though; SE4 had some spectacular late-game civil engineering projects in the form of ringworlds and Dyson spheres.

  • Rob C

    Would trying out MOO2 be much less painful than trying MOO? I think I picked up both of them for $5 a while back.

  • Spacey Snippets – 4/23/12 | Space Game Junkie

    […] excellent website Flash of Steel has an article entitled, “Science in Strategy Games: Master of Orion series” talks about the research in the first two games of this iconic […]

  • Peter S

    @Rob C – I don’t know how MOO1 is (I’ve only tinkered with it, never seriously played), but I can vouch that MOO2 is painless. Well worth a shot.

    While I’m here, I should correct my earlier post – MOO2’s graphics improved a lot over MOO1’s, and UIs _in general_ improved a lot over the period (compare, say, MOO2 to XCom) but I can’t comment as to MOO1’s UI.

  • Rob C

    Thanks Peter, I’ll give it a shot.

  • Rob C

    Well, I tried MOO2. It wasn’t bad and felt familiar enough to play without reading the whole manual. The one thing I didn’t like was the super alien invasions. I never really liked random type events that come along and kick you in the nuts. Luckily they can be turned off. Now that I tried it though I think I will be content putting it away. There are enough good current games so I don’t have to play one in a DOS box at 800 x 600 resolution.

    As the humans I was able to make friends pretty easily (I don’t recall what difficulty I had the game set at). This made tech trading pretty easy, so I could fill in what I needed. Troy hit the nail on the head with, “This encourages interaction between the races, and also gives the game a certain amount of replayability while also not surprising you with scientists giving you things you don’t need.”

    It is funny how similar it felt to playing Galactic Civilizations (even though research is more typical in GalCiv).

  • jj

    I think the interface in MOO2 is actually worse, because the game has a lot more micromanagement and there’s no real way to automate or simplify any of it. MOO1 is a very spartan game in comparison.

    In any case I think both games hold up pretty well now. There isn’t a modern 4x space game that I can say is objectively better than either. They’re certainly a damn sight better than GalCiv.