As part of an article SpaceSector.com is working on about Apollo4X, they asked us a few questions about the game, our vision, and goals.
After we got done writing the reply, we thought it was worth replying publicly — because it’s the best explanation we’ve ever given for what it’s all about. So, here we go:
Q: Apollo4X focuses primarily on economic gameplay, what goals and type of play experience is Apollo4X trying to bring to the player? What are you trying to achieve with the game?
A: 4X is stuck in a rut. All these games rely on the Civilization 1 economic model. We’ve had 20 years of it now. “Food, Industry, Science” which leads to “population, build queues, and a tech tree.” There are some really good “MOO-Too” games out there, but nothing that has an economy that considers supply and demand economic forces in a way that satisfies us.
With Apollo4X, we targeted the amazingly under-serviced market for people who like a little “tycoon” in their strategy game. And those tycoon genre games are a pretty narrow selection as well, being mainly theme park, airport business, and city manager type games. Nobody has done this in space until now. Instead of laying down buildings and trying to attract customers, we have the player building trade ports on colony worlds, dictating import demands that they profit from shipping around the galaxy, and leaning on politicians with their money and influence to influence politics in their favor. We’re not into minutiae management here, it’s very top-level delegatory “make this happen, now!” CEO stuff – the player isn’t designing products or stocking shelves.
Apollo4X is all about “It takes money to make money” in that you’re investing in colonial economies and market bending bribery to maximize your income from your shipping business. This is all inspired historically by the East India Company, and its interactions with Imperial colonies and the government, eventually becoming the government because the officials in power were utterly inept. In our fiction, Apollo has about a dozen nations that are all squabbling and unable to unite, the infrastructure is in total decay, and the economy is in shambles. Meanwhile, the equivalent of a Mongol horde is spreading across the galaxy and the Apollo Trading Company decides “Alright, someone has to assume leadership of this rabble and save our bacon.” You need troops, but those cost money. The tools at your disposal are capital gained by trade, political approval earned by resolving colonial demands, and corporate clout that comes from building infrastructure to unite the colonies.
At no time are you worrying about build queues or what to research next and how many tens of turns down the road you’ll see the fruit of it. Apollo4X is played in business quarter length turns, and you’re dealing with commodities that already exist in the market space, which fluctuate in availability based on economic forces you are subject to, but not in complete control of. If you can afford it, it’s yours.
Essentially, you create demand for goods, then deliver those goods at a profit. To make that more profitable and sustainable, you invest in the standard of living of the colonists. Then you take their approval of you and knock the politicians in line to give you more abilities. Eventually you’ve reunited the factions into a global government, rebuilt the interstellar data network, stabilized the banking system, and held back or utterly destroyed the invading savages.
Q: Since Apollo4X seems to walk on the less beaten path, can you tell us what games or works of science fiction inspired the setting and the gameplay for Apollo4X?
A: In Sci-Fi fiction there are obvious influences like Dune and Starship Troopers. In gaming, there are more terrestrial inspirations like Port Royale, Patrician, Merchants of Venice and Paradox’s various historical political sims that we love. Also, Capitalism and The Corporate Machine. But we wanted to abstract away all the micromanagement and keep the game simple yet deep. Those other games are really an intimidating personal investment to approach. We don’t want that barrier to entry, but we do want maximum replayability and an adjustable challenge that will keep players interested for a long time. A very complex riddle for us to solve.
The #1 inspiration for our game is the historical saga of the East India Company. Science Fiction is best used to liberate an interesting situation from surrounding context so you can focus on specific facets of the story by re-framing it. This is what we’ve done here. Allow me to indulge in a bit of history: https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/History/British/EAco.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_India_Company
In 1600, the merchants forming the East India Company were handed a trade monopoly with the East Indies colonies. They pushed out the competing traders, and built ports all along the coast thus investing in colonial infrastructure and creating entirely new demand for products. In the 1700s they had become a military power, assumed political power in the colonies, and maintained private armies. By means of this power, they absorbed and united the various factions of India and forged a unified state which then passed into British rule. During their 184 year monopolistic reign on economics of the region, they used wealth and influence to dictate enough domestic and foreign political agenda in Britain that they were eventually attacked and dismantled for it.
If you were the president of the East India Company, and Genghis Khan was rumored to be on his way to burn England to the ground — that would be our situation of inspiration right there.
Q: Can you elaborate more on where you got the inspiration or how you came up with the idea for the combat in the game?
A: Combat is heavily inspired by Games Workshop’s “Warhammer” series. We wanted something that had the depth of chess, but looked approachable like checkers. There’s a lot involved in creating a tactical electronic board game where they player moves little tanks and soldiers around on a map and that was frankly beyond the scope of this game, and would be a distraction from our economic simulation goals. So, we adopted a familiar looking card combat mechanic that just about everyone is immediately familiar with conceptually. However, unlike contemporary card games there aren’t a huge number of different units, but each unit can be given orders that make it behave in completely different ways.
There are units that are good for scouting what the enemy strategy is. There are units that heal or protect friendly forces, or inflict debuffs on the enemy. Orbital strikers have freedom to choose what targets they will engage, and can bombard, disrupt, or support other units. Marines can hunker down defensively, assault directly, or attempt to place a flanking debuff on the enemy that makes other marine attacks much more effective. One political faction grants a special Praetorian unit that exists primarily to assassinate enemy champion units, which are otherwise rather difficult to kill with standard troopers.
Finally, we also model battlefield morale, which you aren’t going to find in any other card combat game. Fighting a giant alien monstrosity tends to be a psychological contest as much as one of attack and defense. You’d better kill it fast with concentrated fire, or your troops are going to break and run. Historically, so much of warfare is more about making your enemies unable to continue the fight rather than killing them to the last man. We simulate that with battlefield-wide morale calculations.
Q: Can you tell us what sort of challenge you expect to bring to the player in the economic layer and with the combat system?
A: Traditional 4X titles are subject to a variety of pitfalls specifically because they attempt to provide AI simulacra that play the same game as the player, via peer opponents. That opens a door to observations of ignorant AI behavior, which is frustrating. We prefer to provide the player with a very strong AI opponent in the tactical card game, where it is merited and in a scope where an AI can engage smartly. For the planetary economics and trade portion, consider golf. You may have other players on the course with you, but the struggle internal. You’re trying to better your performance, not measure it competitively against another player.
Given the historical metaphor of a true trade monopoly, there is no direct peer competition. This is a conflict of player vs nature (in the form of the market) instead of player vs player. But remember that nature isn’t kind, and there is a horde of bloodthirsty “force of nature” spreading like a countdown to your doom – and that should serve to quicken your pace a bit.
We didn’t want anything to be a “build it and forget it” system, so the desired imports of your colonies shift constantly and force you to reconsider the optimal trade route pathing every single turn. The bigger your empire becomes, the more intense and interesting that puzzle gets. However, city-spam is curbed by the socio-economic impact of introducing more needy colonies, because it drives up your obligations and overexpansion can lead to unserviceable expectations and political or financial bankruptcy – which is a game ender. So, the player will learn the fine balance of vertical vs horizontal expansion and the value of investment in existing infrastructure while considering diminishing returns on investment which promote expansion into new territory.
You’re going to learn a lot of economic theory without directly realizing that we were teaching it. We’re a bit economics obsessed, and want to share and inspire that educationally without explicitly stating it as such – because frankly that sounds dry and dreadfully boring. You’ll integrate the understanding of it naturally, because it’s a sandbox for experimentation and observation of your theories, without being a preachy classroom experience. Goal #1 is “be a fun, easily engaged and long term interesting game”, and if you suddenly realize how economic forces work then it’s a win-win situation.