Stellaris Dev Diary #206: Directing Nemesis

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grekulf

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Hello everyone!

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.

Nemesis
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.

Espionage
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!

Intel
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.

Rounding up
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.
 
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grekulf

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Thanks for the insights, it's interesting to read how you approach creating an expansion from a high level.

Do you think the "alternative forms" of Becoming the Crisis like subjugating Marauders could ever make an appearance in the future? Or do you think you're likely to leave that to modders and move onto newer and better things going forward?

Hard to say. The direction we chose for the "Become the Crisis" feature is more static than dynamic at the moment, so its certainly harder to achieve, but I still wouldn't rate it as a very difficult addition.
 
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grekulf

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Question: Can you say something more in detail about espionage, especially in case of it's offensive power? Can we proceed with the next operation if the first is done but keep the final step of the first one on hold for a simultanious use?

No, that is currently not possible, but I can't think of any case where that would be necessary with the Operations we have either. A good idea to keep in mind for the future tho.
 
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grekulf

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Is the roadmap you posted way back when still current? And if not, is there a plan to revisit the roadmap and let us know what your current thinking is?

It'd be great to see the vision for the future of Stellaris as it currently stands!

EDIT: For reference, the roadmap is here: https://forum.paradoxplaza.com/forum/threads/stellaris-dev-diary-141-exploring-the-future.1155962/

Still left to go, I'd say is:
  • Civic flavour: Spend more time on making the civics feel more unique and fun
  • Institutions: Define which institutions make up your empire’s internal departments (such as Diplomatic Corps, Xenology Bureau etc.), and their funding, size and power.
  • Religion & Cults: Similar to factions, cults could appear in your empire during certain circumstances. Spiritualist empires would most likely have “imperial” cults. Worship of powerful entities etc.
  • Primitives: Allow for more interactions with primitive pre-FTL species
  • Subject contracts: Allow overlords to better customize what type of subjects they have, tribute levels, benefits to subject etc.

It's very likely that I'll make a new post to outline and update the roadmap after Nemesis is out. It's not a good idea to shift the focus of the discussions until some time have passed after a new release.

The devs called utopia the internal politics expansion several times now. It makes me fear we won’t ever get the internal politics expansion many players are asking for that deals with actual internal politics and reworks factions, gives us back civil wars, makes stability and happiness more meaningful, gives crime any reason to exist ingame and maybe even Updates pirates and trade a bit.

We have plenty of ideas for internal politics, like the Institutions mentioned in my earlier roadmap, so there's no shortage of ideas for that topic.
 
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Eladrin

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I have a question, Could we get some info on the "Transit hubs" that moved unemployed pops? it has been a couple months since the last bit of info we got about them

It hasn't changed since Dev Diary 192 - the Transit Hub doubles the automatic resettlement rate from planets in the system. (There's a base chance without it that's higher for Democracies.)
 
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Enfield_PDX

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We've had pretty generic "filler" DDs for a month or more, and now we have a DD that makes a point of pre-apologizing in advance for the DLC not being everything it could be. Every paragraph mentions how the team wanted to do more... but couldn't. Couple this with the fact that the entire DLC is about endgame crises and it becomes very noticeable that nobody from the team has answered a very simple question:

Has the Crisis AI been fixed?

Based on this DD, I'm going to say no.
I'm not quite sure why you'd think a dev diary talking about the design of new content should mention AI Crisis issues.

But depending on your definition of "Fixed" we have made improvements.

Our commitment to doing so should be visible, as in parallel with Necroids we released an open beta patch with AI changes that the community helped us iterate on. Those changes then made there way into the latest patch.
 
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grekulf

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The "archaeology event system" (which needs a shorter name lol) is a cool concept.
If you had unlimited time/resources etc. What other game functions would you want to adapt to use a pseudo-random storyteller?
  • Terraforming? (showing the world developing over time, letting the player make decisions that spawn different features or sets different climates, issues with the logistics, new unexpected life-forms arising etc)
  • Colonisation (the bit before the first pop appears)?
  • Army invasions? (turning them into more formulaic affairs)
  • Dangerous scientific research? (Stuff like AI going nuts in labs etc. It currently does nothing special vs any other kind of research?)
  • With primitives - somehow?

Good question, and ironically enough, it's army/invasion.

I originally designed (early/rough design) a new invasion system for apocalypse, but we never had the time to implement it. The army/invasion design actually predates the archaeology one (and archaeology was based off of it). As fun as it could be to redo invasions, it's very low on my list of priorities. With the kind of game Stellaris is, I don't really see the value in spending a significant amount of development time to improve the invasion system. The whole rework would need to be in the free update, and when you compare it to other things that could be added for free (like the Intel system), it just doesn't come out on top.

My stance is, and as sad as it is to say it, invasions and ground combat are not a priority for Stellaris. That doesn't mean I will exclude any attempt to improve those areas, or to make content that lies very close to it, it just means that I don't think its worth putting a very significant amount of effort into overhauling it entirely. It's the kind of thing I would probably aim to overhaul completely for a sequel. I think building armies and sending transport ships to invade is quite tedious and not very rewarding. We all know it would feel better if you could attach assault troops to your ships, and use them either for invasions or boarding actions. We'll see what the future entails, but it's unlikely to be a priority in the near future.

Outside of that, I think a similar system for primitives could be very fun, and could provide a good amount of value for less development time cost.
 
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grekulf

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Do you design new systems having in mind that you want to reuse them later? In that case, how do you design such system?

Are there other newly added systems that you would want to reuse in old or new systems? (For example, the new CG or Federation systems).

I wouldn't say we outright design things to make them reusable, but its more so the opposite. Look at what existing systems exist within our games and see what can be reused/borrowed. There's advantages to having systems work similarly across different game titles, as it makes the process of learning a new system less difficult when you recognize parts of it.

We do consider the long-term when designing a system though. You generally don't want to take on too much risk at once, so sometimes it's good to design a more robust system and keep your more specialized ideas for future opportunities. Have a plan for what you want the system or feature to achieve, but also consider how you may expand upon it in the future, after you've gained your learnings from it being live for a while.

The system for Becoming the Crisis (the progression itself) is in some ways similar to the federation system. Unlock a level and gain access to a list of perks that are linked to that level. On a technical level, unlocking crisis levels & perks is therefore quite similar to how you unlock federation perks through levels. The process of gaining "XP" or Menace, is entirely different however.

I think there's a lot of interesting aspects of the federation system and the galactic community that could, if put into one system, be quite interesting.
 
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