Today I thought I would talk more about the process of directing an expansion such as Nemesis.
As we’ve talked about in the past, finding a strong theme is one of the most important things that we do. Whenever we’ve had ideas (and there are many) we usually categorize them in a “box”. Each of our expansions has picked features from different “boxes”; Utopia was about internal politics and customization, Apocalypse was about warfare, Megacorp was about economy, and Federations was about diplomacy.
Along the way there’s usually more ideas in a box than we can fit into an expansion, so many of the ideas we’ve had for previous expansions get moved to a new expansion. For example, the “diplomacy box” contained too many good ideas that we wanted to work with, so Federations focused more on “good” diplomacy, whereas Nemesis focuses more on “evil” diplomacy.
Maintaining a strong theme for an expansion is very important, as it makes it easier for the players to forge strong fantasies and to build up excitement for those ideas. A more focused expansion also has more opportunities for features to interact, so it's also possible to have those deeper interactions in the game that we know many of you appreciate.
Although it is important to maintain a strong theme for a DLC, we also want to make sure that any expansion we create also contains something that caters to different types of players. For example, if Federations has a lot of focus on cooperation and diplomacy, it was a good idea to add the Juggernaut so that players who enjoy the more belligerent side of the game also get some new toys to play with.
Becoming the Crisis, and forming a Galactic Imperium through the Galactic Community, are both examples of ideas we had that were related to diplomacy is some fashion. With the Galactic Community in place, it made sense to allow players to play “the baddies” which aims to destroy the galaxy, and by continuation it made a lot of sense to add a feature that aims to be the counterforce to such threats.
Where Federations focused on cooperation and more friendly diplomacy, the goal of Nemesis was to focus more on building up conflicts between opposing forces. We really wanted to underline how a crisis can threaten the galaxy, and then a champion (the custodian) can rise to attempt to stop it.
We also wanted to create more opportunities for a balance of power to shift, so we wanted to continue with the idea of the custodian and how power can corrupt. By allowing the custodian to turn the galactic community into the galactic imperium, we were able to continue the trend of different types of crises that can occur in the galaxy. Although not perhaps a threat to all life in the galaxy, the Galactic Imperium (and a possible rebellion) was still intended to very much be considered a diplomatic crisis of sorts.
From my perspective I’m very happy with how we’ve managed to take these ideas from earlier and really bind them together in a very thematic sense in Nemesis. It’s not often that we can take so many powerful fantasies and put them together in such a way, so it's very fun to have been able to take this holistic approach.
I’ve wanted to make an espionage system for quite some time, as it's been a goal for me as a designer. I don’t like when espionage systems are too deterministic, or when you just sit and wait on a progress bar, after which you’ll either succeed or fail.
I wanted our espionage system to contain more storytelling and the archaeology system that I originally designed for Ancient Relics really allows for that. I like that the system plays out in phases, similar to a siege in EU4, but allows for a lot more storytelling by inserting random events and stories in the “main story” of the content itself.
With the learnings from the archaeology system, I wanted to make our espionage system work similarly. As a game director, I’m not only responsible for the creation vision of the game, but also for scope (how large a feature can be, and where we spend our development time). I knew that by basing the system on what we did with archaeology, we would be able to save time that could be better spent elsewhere. Implementing UI is actually quite time consuming with the tech Stellaris uses, so any time we can save by not having to make UIs from scratch is a good idea in my opinion. By reusing certain parts, you can also reduce the amount of risk because we already have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the system or feature. Any time we spend reusing parts can be spent on polish, bug fixing or implementing cool new UIs for other features. It doesn’t come entirely free though, and you need to make sure you make enough adaptations where it's needed.
When it comes to what the espionage system itself should achieve, I wanted information gathering to be a large part of it. Espionage systems are hard to get right, because they can feel too predictive or boring, and you also have to constantly be considering the experience of the one being targeted by espionage.
Something we also have to consider when adding a new system like this is that the player only has so much capacity to interact with existing systems. We need to create a system that is fun and engaging when you choose to use it, and be aware that it's quite risky to add new systems that the player is forced to interact with. Cognitive load is definitely something that is tricky when designing for GSG games. I feel like the espionage system has hit a good mark with not being mandatory to play the game, but also being fun and interesting when you want to use it.
We couldn’t achieve everything I could have dreamed of, and although I would very much liked to have seen a more interactive counter-espionage part of the system, I’m very happy overall with how espionage turned out. Although not perfect, the content we have there and the way it works feels very good.
The basic system of espionage, just like the archaeology system, is a part of the free update to the base game, which makes it easier for us - or modders - to add more content later down the line. Trying to make the systems themselves a part of the free update has helped us a lot in the past, and sometimes we’ve even changed systems that were entirely a part of a DLC to become free. Ascension Perks (introduced in Utopia) were originally exclusive to Utopia, but we really wanted to use the system so we made it a part of the free game and changed it so that only some of the Ascension Perks themselves (like biological ascension) were a part of Utopia. We really like this approach, and hopefully you do too. Everyone wins!
Because we wanted information-gathering to be such an important part of the espionage system, we also thought a new Intel system would be necessary to make that a really good experience for the player.
I never liked how you’d find out so much about another alien empire as soon as you established communication with them. I wanted alien empires to feel more mysterious, and just as you explore the galaxy, you have to “explore” these alien empires to learn more about them.
The focus of the Intel system was very much to enhance the early- and mid game by focusing on this new angle of “exploration”. Even if you are not a warlike or diplomatic player, it should still be fun to learn more about the galaxy and its inhabitants. Because of all the things that the Intel system touches, and how it interacts with other features, it needs to be a free update to the game. The entire Intel system is a part of the free update and should be quite moddable.
From a scoping aspect, Intel definitely ended up being way more expensive than we had originally thought due to all the edgecases and all the small places in the game where the new system would interact with current existing features. Reworking UIs to sometimes hide information is not as easy as it may sound, especially in a game as large as Stellaris.
As a game director I also need to consider where I spend my development time, and if I put too much development time on working on a free feature like Intel, then the DLC features may become too thin and that players may consider the value of the DLC to be low. It’s a careful balance between adding enough new features in the free update vs. adding new features to a DLC, because both are important for different reasons.
In the end though, I think it was definitely worth spending the extra time to make the Intel system as it currently is.
Become the Crisis
The idea to allow players to become the crisis is not a new one, but it's one that has been with us for quite some time. It’s not until now that we’ve finally been able to give it a go, and I can’t think of a better expansion for it than with Nemesis.
The goal with the “BtC” feature was to allow the player to perform “evil” deeds and unlock more powerful rewards along the way to galactic domination.
The system went through a couple of different iterations, but it wasn’t until we added a more clear progression path with “crisis levels” that I felt like we were truly on the right track.
The new UI for BtC feels very awesome and with a very visible progression path it also feels better as a more explicit challenge. Within game design, explicit challenges are those that are posed directly to the player (like a quest), while implicit challenges are those that the player can make up themselves (like befriending all other empires as the Blorg).
An inherent weakness with many of our GSG games is that we do not have a lot of explicit challenges, which can make it hard for new players to figure out what they are supposed to do. If you are entirely new to the game, it can be hard to come up with implicit challenges yourself. National Focuses in HOI4, Missions in EU4 or Imperator are examples of features where we’ve successfully added more explicit challenges to our games. Implicit challenges go hand in hand with replayability, and they can also be more powerful experiences to the player, because the player is the sole reason behind it.
With the BtC feature, we’ve added objectives to help lead the player in becoming more menacing and an increasing threat to the galaxy. Although not as direct as perhaps a quest or a mission, they should help a lot and hopefully motivate the player.
We originally had ideas for the BtC feature to come in multiple shapes (ranging from a destructive force like an end-game crisis, to a subjugating force like the marauder, or a manipulative force that preys in the shadows), but due to time constraints we had to make the choice of either making one fantasy stronger and more engaging, or to have multiple versions that felt more watered-down. I had to make the choice, and focusing on the destructive fantasy made the most sense to me, due to multiple reasons, but simply put it's also the fantasy that makes the most sense.
After the dust has settled I’m very happy with where the Become the Crisis feature is, and I hope you will all enjoy deploying your Star-Eaters to consume the galaxy, going from one star to the next.
Custodian & Galactic Imperium
With the risk of sounding like a broken record, I want to highlight how much I enjoy the cycle of electing a custodian to fight a crisis, and then for the custodian to take power and become a new, diplomatic crisis. It’s very thematic, and it's a fantasy that we’re very aware of from popular culture (and to some degree, history).
I don’t have as many insights to share for these two features, as they were largely handled by one of our trusted and senior content designers. The idea and rough design for the Galactic Imperium was borne in association with the Galactic Community, and we’re very happy for the chance to add it to the game in Nemesis.
Although the Galactic Imperium is perhaps not the most ubiquitous and common feature to come across while playing, it's very evocative and fits like a glove when it comes to player fantasy.
In the end I don’t think you can ever really create a perfect expansion, and it takes a lot of experience to know what gives you the best chance with the resources you have. There’s a lot more detail that goes into all of the things I talked about, but I hope this dev diary was somewhat interesting to you, as I tried to give some more insights into how to direct an expansion and some of the thoughts one may come across while doing so.
I also want to thank my team for doing such fantastic work with Nemesis. Without them, none of this would have materialized.
That’s it for this week, folks! We’ll be back next week on April 1st, the day most famous for being exactly 2 weeks before the release of 3.0 ‘Dick’ and Nemesis.