Mine, all mine!
The sense of progress and success means different things in different genres. In an RPG, progress might mean better loot, increasing stats, or a new and dramatic plot point. For fighting games, progress is better measured in the player’s ability to execute moves and defeat opponents. For the 4x genre, progress is often best represented in the feeling of expansion. Tiny, single city empires hurtle outward into unexplored lands and, ultimately, enemy territory. Inherent in almost any 4x game is the obvious and visual sense of conquest and loss. Unfortunately, most 4x games stop there and so limit the many avenues for a sense of progress. The result is that success rarely feels like empire building.
One of the most common stumbling blocks is the visual representation of empire and expansion. Most games choose to show major cities and planets as the focal points of a player’s realm with little concern for the land in between. The result is that the player’s empire feels less like a singular entity and more like a collection of semi associated cities. The sense of empire is fragmented across the cities without any real connection between them. The worst offender of this kind of visual failing is the Galactic Civilizations series. In addition to placing large voids between each planet, the game also has absolutely nothing to do with all that space. The occasional space station or fleet does nothing to knit together the vast emptiness of the empire. The Civilization series overcomes this issue with the inclusion of terraforming, but even the most cultivated land is obscured by the city beacons that dot the landscape. Singular points, be they cities or planets, dominate the player’s view and reduce the feeling of a united empire.
Visual failings are joined by technical problems. In many games, the cities are replaceable cogs in the machinery of an empire. Remove a city and resources are lost, but rarely is that city a vital part of a given civilization. Most 4x games do not allow cities to become specialized entities serving the larger empire the player is building. Imagine the loss of New York City to the United States. The results would be economically and culturally devastating despite the city only taking up a comparatively small (under 5%) percentage of the total US population. New York City is not just another city, but a key part of the idea of the United States. Compare that to the loss of New York City in Civilization 5. Yes, it’s probably important to an American player, but its loss could be overcome by taking a similarly developed Paris or Amman. The unique place it holds for the American player can be reproduced by another civilization’s city without the sense of cultural, economic, and infrastructure whiplash that should result.
To fix this problem, developers must move beyond the city-centered landscape and into the sense of an empire as a unique entity the player is building. To begin with, cities should develop natural connections over time that are outside the player’s control. Trade, cultural exchange, and sprawl should all occur without the player’s direct input and should consider things like terrain and recent changes in borders. Cities should further develop unique identities within the context of a given empire that relies on the creation the player is building. Also key is the visual representation of this growth. Roads, festivals, and landmarks should pop up organically across the landscape to fill out the barren spaces in between. Watching as a once bustling stream of trucks dries up when land is taken with have a much greater visual impact than the sudden disappearance of territory.
More important than any of my suggestions is that 4x games should help the player create something unique. Each empire should have a feeling tied to the circumstances of that particular round. A sense of progress isn’t tied to merely the expansion of territory, but instead to creation of a special land inside that territory.