Stellaris Dev Diary #215 - Gameplay themes & Balancing considerations

Hello everyone!

First I want to thank you for the overwhelming support that you’ve shown us with announcing the Custodians initiative. It’s been really fun and motivating to see so many positive responses, and for that we’re truly thankful. At the same time, I must admit that it is also a bit scary in the sense that we shouldn’t have the expectation that this will suddenly resolve any issues you might have with the game, or that we’ll be able to deliver large amounts of significant changes with every update. Let’s appreciate this opportunity and make the best of it :)

Species Pack Gameplay Themes
Last week we already talked about what the Lem Update (honoring the author Stanislaw Lem) would focus on, but I’d also like to go into more detail regarding some things.

We mentioned that we would be adding gameplay to the Humanoids Species Pack and the Plantoids Species Pack, and although I won’t talk about the exact details yet, I do want to talk a little about how we approached it, and the themes we chose.

Plantoids was a bit easier, because there are some obvious fantasies. Going around the themes of growth and plants we’re adding some new traits, civics and origin. We felt like it made sense to open up these gameplay additions to both Plantoid portraits as well as for Fungoids.

Humanoids was a bit trickier, because there are no direct fantasies that apply to them in general, so we instead chose to focus on fantasies that align with things like dwarves, elves, orcs or humans. The Civic we showcased last week was an example of how we made something inspired by a traditionally dwarven fantasy.

Let us know about any ideas or thoughts you have regarding those :)

We will be talking more about these in much greater detail later, but that may possibly be in August.

Game Balance
We’re going to take a look at reworking some of the major outstanding balance issues that we’re having.

One example that I want to talk about is the issue with Research Booming, where power players can essentially outpace other empires due to focusing a lot on research. What enables this is usually Districts that provide Researcher Jobs, which is relatively easy to gain access to early on through Origins such as Shattered Ring or Void Dwellers (the latter not being nearly as strong).

For Shattered Ring we are looking into changing the start from a pure “end-game” Ring World, to be more of an actual “Shattered Ring” that you need to repair before you gain access to the powerful Districts of the Ring World. Putting additional emphasis on the fantasy of restoring this ancient megastructure to its former glory can be a fun addition to the Origin itself. Although we haven’t decided exactly what we’re doing, changing the start to be a Shattered Ring that you can restore with the Mega-Engineering technology is a likely route.

Unity & Empire Sprawl
Beyond Lem, we are also going to take a look at Empire Sprawl and Unity. The design for Admin Capacity was never really something that I felt worked out, and we never finished the design that was intended for it. Continuing to use Admin Cap as a mechanic also feels a bit like a dead end due to multiple reasons (ranging from design to technical), so we’re instead going to look into another solution.

I have a design for doubling down on using Unity as the resource for internal management, removing Admin Cap entirely, and to make Empire Sprawl something that you can never mitigate anymore. More sprawling empires will always suffer harsher penalties from Empire Sprawl, and we’ll instead focus on how Unity can be used internally to mitigate some of those penalties. Examples could be Edicts that have a Unity Upkeep Cost, and perhaps reduce the Research Cost Penalty induced by Empire Sprawl. Angry Pops could potentially also have a Unity Upkeep Cost, to represent the drain on your society.

Note that these ideas are very much in their infancy and very prone to change. We will probably start talking a bit more about that once Lem has been released, but I wanted to share some thoughts with you so that we could gather some initial feedback.

------

That’s all for this week folks! We’re in the middle of reviewing our dev diary schedule, so we’re hoping to be back with 2 more dev diaries before we take a summer break. We’ll keep you in the loop as we go.
 
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Unity & Empire Sprawl
Beyond Lem, we are also going to take a look at Empire Sprawl and Unity. The design for Admin Capacity was never really something that I felt worked out, and we never finished the design that was intended for it. Continuing to use Admin Cap as a mechanic also feels a bit like a dead end due to multiple reasons (ranging from design to technical), so we’re instead going to look into another solution.

I have a design for doubling down on using Unity as the resource for internal management, removing Admin Cap entirely, and to make Empire Sprawl something that you can never mitigate anymore. More sprawling empires will always suffer harsher penalties from Empire Sprawl, and we’ll instead focus on how Unity can be used internally to mitigate some of those penalties. Examples could be Edicts that have a Unity Upkeep Cost, and perhaps reduce the Research Cost Penalty induced by Empire Sprawl. Angry Pops could potentially also have a Unity Upkeep Cost, to represent the drain on your society.
I personally think the Admin Cap system is salvagable. Even just making at least one (or more) of the categories rise non-linearly (and maybe improving the penalties to make more sense) would imho make the system much better at achieving what it was designed for (balancing tall vs wide). This would make super-wide empires simply impossible to manage (like The Empire in Asimov's Foundation). Instead the player would be forced to create vassals/tributaries that become sub-optimal thanks to AI management but still provide some benefits to the player. As a bonus the player doesn't have to micromanage that area anymore.

Ditching the Admin Cap system and instead making it work through Unity is also completely fine. I see both options equally viable (in terms of achieving the goal) with the Unity option being the more interesting one while also making the game more streamlined and easier to learn if done right.

What you're suggesting could work. But please make sure that the new system actually achieves what it's designed to do.

I would prefer completely reworking how Unity is generated while you're at it.
How I envision the reworked Unity (for inspiration):
- Unity would be generated by every pop regardless of their work position
- the amount of generated Unity would be a combination of the pop's Hapiness and planetary Stability (possibly reduced by Crime / or Criminals could reduce Stability)
- current generators of Unity would become planetary Unity production multipliers (like Energy Nexus, Alloy Foundries, ...) or they could increase Hapiness
- Empire Sprawl would directly affect planetary Stability which in turn would reduce all production and especially Unity (this malus could be ignored or mitigated on core worlds)
 
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Fair point. I only played since 3.0.2 though I was gifted the game years ago. I do think that it may not be fun for everyone, but it seems realistic if it's really, really, hard to mitigate empire sprawl. Think of how divided countries are, how many political parties they have. Now think of colonies several star systems away. You sure that Governor doesn't think they can overthrow your current Ruler? That they promised a large amount of Pops more wages (increased upkeep) if they join. I'd like something like benefits/negatives to going tall. Benefits/negatives for going wide. Not a, if I just have enough of x, I can have my empire take up the whole map without any risk of rebellions, etc. How long did it take for people to communicate before internet, before phones, before vehicles, before horses, etc. etc. Do you think phones can travel immediately across multiple star systems? What we see from the our Sun (Sol) is actually the past. In Star Trek a lot of messages were past recordings if they were too far away. Communication is probably important when it comes to x Researchers on this colony and x Researchers on this other far away colony.
An interesting point. I agree that mitigating empire sprawl being very difficult is indeed realistic, but as I've often said before, realism needs to be balanced with fun. Many players, especially new ones, may not like having their empire crumble too easily after having spent the time and energy to build it up.

So, yeah, maybe make it difficult to mitigate sprawl for large empires but not impossible. An example off the top of my head: if we kept the admin cap system, make it so that as the cap got larger, you get to a point of diminishing returns, where each administrator you add does less to alleviate sprawl . Meaning, yes, you could potentially almost completely mitigate your sprawl, but only if half your empire is dedicated to its administration.

Or an idea more in line with your comment: replace admin cap with some sort of empire cohesion system. Meaning the larger your empire gets, the more you need to delegate matters to local governors. This in turn means that the factions they belong to and their personal ethics are actually meaningful because they would in turn determine how loyal they are to you.
 
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the more you need to delegate matters to local governors
That would be nice idea if not for the fact that the AI is terrible and incapable of managing plaents in even the most basic manner.It would just make wide empires not fun to play at all.

They already tried this in the earlier pre 2.0 patches and had to reverted it in 1.8 so that players could still build on sectors and completely removed it in 2.0 and up.
 
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An interesting point. I agree that mitigating empire sprawl being very difficult is indeed realistic, but as I've often said before, realism needs to be balanced with fun. Many players, especially new ones, may not like having their empire crumble too easily after having spent the time and energy to build it up.

So, yeah, maybe make it difficult to mitigate sprawl for large empires but not impossible. An example off the top of my head: if we kept the admin cap system, make it so that as the cap got larger, you get to a point of diminishing returns, where each administrator you add does less to alleviate sprawl . Meaning, yes, you could potentially almost completely mitigate your sprawl, but only if half your empire is dedicated to its administration.

Or an idea more in line with your comment: replace admin cap with some sort of empire cohesion system. Meaning the larger your empire gets, the more you need to delegate matters to local governors. This in turn means that the factions they belong to and their personal ethics are actually meaningful because they would in turn determine how loyal they are to you.

That's what difficulty settings are supposed to be for.

Difficulty:
Casual/Easy: Player: less empire sprawl from pops, systems, less upkeep for jobs/buildings, less alloys for ships, faster technology, etc. than AI empires
Ensign: No bonuses or negatives to either AI or Player.
Next: AI makes smarter decisions, less willing to diplo based off government, higher opinion modifier weights (making cheesing harder), etc.
Next: etc. etc.
Highest Difficulty: AI gets more stuff than Player.

It's not impossible. It's just a lot more work. StarCraft exists. On lower difficulties, the bots won't always build units out of the buildings or won't immediately tech up when they have the resources, won't max out unit capacity though they can etc.

Diminishing returns is a good idea, though a tough one on when that happens. You could argue the beaurocrats, researchers, etc. are arguing with each other instead of working. "We should do this this way!" "No we should do this this way!" "No, you're all wrong, clearly we need the signature and date in Times New Roman and size 10 font" Scientists do try different approaches all the time, scientific theory. But depending on the space/equipment, you only have so many choices to do at a time.

A big thing missing for me is that, space, is, actually, space. Vast distances. Communication etc. When you force resettle a pop it instantly goes from source planet to target planet, even if it's on the other side of the galaxy. There's no ship that a spaceborne alien nor an enemy empire ship could shoot down. Resource/Trade Frigates that need to be protected from pirates, etc. when transporting goods. Even a travel time of a month would give more realism and I think fun for the complexity/meaningful decision.
 
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That would be nice idea if not for the fact that the AI is terrible and incapable of managing plaents in even the most basic manner.It would just make wide empires not fun to play at all.
Agreed, the present AI is not up to snuff in that regard. I'm wondering if there are ways that this could be simulated without having to fall back on AI-controlled worlds. For example, a governor could have a local agenda for their sector, such as "increase happiness". Stuff that you build that aligns with the governor's agenda gets a bonus to build speed and/or less maintenance cost. Stuff that you build that he disagrees with gets a penalty, and if the governor is popular enough, a malus to stability because the people are siding with him.

This is just one idea off the top of my head. I'm sure someone can come up with something better.
 

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That's what difficulty settings are supposed to be for.

Difficulty:
Casual/Easy: Player: less empire sprawl from pops, systems, less upkeep for jobs/buildings, less alloys for ships, faster technology, etc. than AI empires
Ensign: No bonuses or negatives to either AI or Player.
Next: AI makes smarter decisions, less willing to diplo based off government, higher opinion modifier weights (making cheesing harder), etc.
Next: etc. etc.
Highest Difficulty: AI gets more stuff than Player.
Yeah, I'd be good with it tied to difficulty, or some other slider. I think we are on the same page here.
 

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I hope it will still be possible to choose a purely cosmetic plantoid/humanoid portrait without any special traits. Necroids pack did this well by having the Necrophage as origin. I would really dislike if the patch changes Plantoids/Humanoids species to have a special traits with no option to just have "normal" pops.

Suggestion: Purely Cosmetic Lithoid would be great, too. Sometimes you just want to look like a rock and not be a rock.
I for one would like my "lithoid" machine empire to be possible.
 

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Fair enough. I hit 'love' on DD#214 because I was just glad to see you (collectively) acknowledge the problem and talk about how you're going to try to address it. Stellaris is a cool experience (otherwise I wouldn't still be playing and posting here), it just needs a bit more polish.

It feels like Plantoids should be game-mechanically different somehow, like with Lithoids. Isn't it a little strange that they currently consume food just the same as other pops - wouldn't that be cannibalism for them, or at least becoming animals rather than plants? I hope one of the new traits can address this somehow.

Thanks for the updates,
Carnivorous plants are a thing.

And perhaps the "plantoid" is (nearest to) an animal, despite looking leafy? Some of them certainly appear to have mouths for eating, what with the massive thorn/fangs around them.
 
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I hope plantoids gets some abilities directly into their species trait, like lithoids currently do. Having "photosyntesis" or similar be a normal plantoid exclusive trait means that randomly generated AI plantoids will rarely have it. Similarly, I'd love to see ALL species have unique traits like that - avians, arthropoids, etc. I find the Necroids portraits very cool for "villain" races, but unless you pick one of the three undead-themed civics/origins, there's nothing in those portraits that makes them "undead-ish" from a gameplay perspective.

Also, this haven't been mentioned or even suggested anywhere, but I sincerely hope we can eventually fulfill the theme of a fully nomadic empire - massive generation ships that collect resources from the systems they pass throught, without laying down starbases.
I *detest* the idea of tying things that tightly to species group.

Not all the species in a group *necessarily* have something that should make them the same.

Forcing plantoids to be photosynthetic would ruin several of my races, as they're clearly carnivorous (at least in part) to get around the "must sit and bake in the sun all day, every day just to survive" problem.

Necroids have some very nice portraits that work for non "undead" races - I quite often use "Ascended #5 " as an additional humanoid for example. Or I'll use "Fungoid massive 16" as a necroid origin or civic, because they *feel* right for it. It's animating a corpse for crying out loud.

By all means have thematic origins added to the packs or portrait groups, but make them accessible to as many groups as possible so that people can play a wider range of ideas, without being forced to play X group if they want Y trait, and also having the downside of making other empires predictable (It's such and such, so without researching it/infiltrating it I know it *must* do X and Y).
 
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Personally, I STRONGLY disagree with gameplay tied to character portraits. If mechanics are added to certain types of portraits, the only way to get that mechanic is to play that portrait. Sounds obvious, but that means if you want to really customize your empire, you're stuck using a species either because it has the stats you want, or it DOESN'T have the stats you don't want (looking at you, lithoid growth penalties).

I think the better implementation is to add the new content (it can even be locked to the same DLC!) but allow it to be used however players want to use it. An example would be biological gestalt consciousnesses. Regardless of picture, they're all functionally the same which actually gives you the most customization and personalization. (Changing the currently existing systems to make them more accessible is a talk for another day)
Do you want to get mammal AI empires with the lithoid trait?
 
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Or an idea more in line with your comment: replace admin cap with some sort of empire cohesion system. Meaning the larger your empire gets, the more you need to delegate matters to local governors. This in turn means that the factions they belong to and their personal ethics are actually meaningful because they would in turn determine how loyal they are to you.
We literally moved away from this. Just look up old sectors and how they worked. It. Was. Horrible.

On topic. We had the old hidden modifier that slowed down tech but was ultimately meaningless, now we had admin cap which is mandatory to fix and after some tinkering with the values basically the same situation as before. I don't see any way where any change to the current system won't end up in the exact same situation once again. Why? Because this at the end of the day the golden middle.

As for new edicts. Can we please for the sake of all that is Stellaris, get an option to auto refresh temporary edicts, or at the very least edict duration increase techs for Gestalt Consciousnesses?
 
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-Marauder-

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Do you want to get mammal AI empires with the lithoid trait?
He didn't say any such thing. He seems to primarily ask for these traits to be optional. Necrophage is an optional trait for Necroids for example.

As to answer your question. Sure, why not? Maybe they're made out of teeny tiny crystals that are barely noticeable till you touch them. Let people RP what they want.
 
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DreadLindwyrm

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Do you want to get mammal AI empires with the lithoid trait?
Personally I've got no problems with it.

Perhaps they're silicate based (somehow), since the universe now allows for silicate life in general.

Perhaps their peculiar mineral based diet indicates that they're obligate feeders on something found in rock, and that they can't survive on purely plant/animal protein.

But there's an easy solution here - don't have the random AI empires pick traits from another category/portrait pack, but *do* allow them not to select the one associated with their portrait pack. So AI would never generate a mammal portrait that has the lithoid trait, but it might generate a lithoid *without* the lithoid trait, perhaps representing a meat-based alien with a rock and gem carapace.
 
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Spartanlemur

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However you deal with empire sprawl, I just hope the solution isn't to have an "optimal empire size" that every player will try to play to each time, this being the admin cap.

It would however be interesting if empire-building involved different challenges to tall play, and might be more suitable for different types of species.
 

Everpro

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Very cool! I'm very very excited to see what you all come up with!


re:

Thought: if unity is going to play a bigger role, integrate it with factions as well? Pops from happy factions generate more unity, and pops from unhappy factions less. This could then lead into spy operations to "poke the beehive" of unhappy factions in other empires and make them even more unhappy, which then leads to less unity which then leads to unstable empires duo to unity shortages.
The thought I have with this is, if your unhappy factions are big, and other empires actively rile them up with spy operations you could see rebellions (which almost never happen in todays game).
With this many mechanics integrated this would be a pretty good idea.
 

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Unity & Empire Sprawl
Beyond Lem, we are also going to take a look at Empire Sprawl and Unity. The design for Admin Capacity was never really something that I felt worked out, and we never finished the design that was intended for it. Continuing to use Admin Cap as a mechanic also feels a bit like a dead end due to multiple reasons (ranging from design to technical), so we’re instead going to look into another solution.

I have a design for doubling down on using Unity as the resource for internal management, removing Admin Cap entirely, and to make Empire Sprawl something that you can never mitigate anymore. More sprawling empires will always suffer harsher penalties from Empire Sprawl, and we’ll instead focus on how Unity can be used internally to mitigate some of those penalties. Examples could be Edicts that have a Unity Upkeep Cost, and perhaps reduce the Research Cost Penalty induced by Empire Sprawl. Angry Pops could potentially also have a Unity Upkeep Cost, to represent the drain on your society.

Note that these ideas are very much in their infancy and very prone to change. We will probably start talking a bit more about that once Lem has been released, but I wanted to share some thoughts with you so that we could gather some initial feedback.

Could this lead to empires fracturing into separate nations or civil war?

I think governors and empire leaders should have more of an impact here for empire sprawl and unity. More experience the leaders the better the governance/unity etc and then you take a hit when one dies and is replaced with a less experienced leader.
 

DC E1G

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Some interesting ideas in here for changes to how the penalties for expansion could work.

I saw a few comments referencing the Civilization 5 problem of settling new cities making your technology costs higher and how that prevented expansion.

I think Civilization 6 handles this issue much better. There's no inherent penalty to settling more cities, in fact you generally want lots of cities, but it takes either time or effort to build up new cities to the point where they're able to produce much of anything. Furthermore, focusing on expansion means your existing cities will be focused on producing settlers, slowing down development of those cities during the expansion phase.

I'm not sure how exactly this could be handled in Stellaris, but given the past comment to the idea of less developed fringe worlds and very developed core worlds, it might be an idea worth exploring.
 
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ImaTomato

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I'm not sure how exactly this could be handled in Stellaris, but given the past comment to the idea of less developed fringe worlds and very developed core worlds, it might be an idea worth exploring.
That's a non issue since concepts like core and frontier worlds don't exist in Stellaris.After the early game 99% of a players new worlds are conquered from other empires.Who ever wanted this just doesn't play the game enough to actually understand how it is played.
 
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DC E1G

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That's a non issue since concepts like core and frontier worlds don't exist in Stellaris.After the early game 99% of a players new worlds are conquered from other empires.Who ever wanted this just doesn't play the game enough to actually understand how it is played.

The comment I was referring to was made by the game director when discussing issues growing newly settled planets in the late game in 3.0.1.

Also, while conquering is certainly the most efficient way to gain worlds, I would wager that the majority of players aren't conquering aggressively in most of their games.
 
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