May 4, 2010 12:00 PM |
[Keys to the Kingdom is a GameSetWatch column from freelance writer and blogger Rob Zacny. This month he looks at Diplomacy the third and most evolutionary expansion to Ironclad Games' Sins of a Solar Empire.]
I assumed we were working together. Despite the fact that we were in a free-for-all match of Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy, my partner MK and I planned to cooperate. After all, we were sitting five feet apart, telling each other what we saw happening in the game. It seemed like an alliance to me. It had always worked that way before.
The original plan was that we would work our way toward one another, crushing anyone between us, then expand across the map. Unfortunately, we got off to a rough start. More aggressive players surrounded MK in the opening, and she quickly realized that she would never have the strength to take additional planets. On the other side of the star system, I was bogged down fighting another player for some periphery planets. With enemies pressing from every side and my help looking doubtful, my girlfriend decided to cut me loose.
MK quietly scuttled most of her military research stations and fleet, freeing up space for civic research stations and envoy ships. Then she launched a charm offensive against her neighbors. Before too long, they ceased hostilities with her. Next, she started leading them with simple missions and reliable payouts, and their relationships swiftly improved. In no time at all, she was signing pacts with the strongest player in the game, and he was using the bonuses they conferred to overpower his neighbors. I was one of his victims.
To borrow a phrase from Penny Arcade, Diplomacy is the "divorce mode" of Sins of a Solar Empire. Whatever relationship exists outside a Diplomacy match, it has a hard time surviving inside the game. This is unusual for a real-time strategy game, a genre where you typically find teams, not alliances. In-game relationships are usually fixed before the match begins, and are not subject to revision through game mechanics. Even though most RTS games allow players to form alliances and betray one another, I hardly ever see someone actually change allegiance in serious play. Side-switching and betrayal is a griefer's game. The Diplomacy expansion attempts to change all that, and bring player relationships under the governance of Sins of a Solar Empire's rules.
Prior to Diplomacy, Sins of a Solar Empire was a more traditional RTS. It's interplanetary scope and intricate tech trees may have made it look like a cousin to Stardock's Galactic Civilizations, but the resemblance was theme-deep. Interstellar relations boiled down to, "Let's kill those other guys."
Still, the skeleton of a diplomatic system resided within the core game. Every player had a relationship score with every other player: the lowest scores denoted hatred and the highest scores denoted close friendship. Players could assign missions to one another in exchange for a resource reward, and completed missions would improve the relationship. Missions could vary from, "Give me credits" to "Raze a planet belonging to Orange."
However, the system never fostered diplomacy. AI players might have cared about relationship scores, but human players did not. Human players' real relationships were the important thing, not the game's imaginary and irrelevant scoring of those relationships, because the real relationship was the only one with consequences in the game. Sins might have thought my friend and I hated each other, but that never stopped us from winning.
Diplomacy remedies that problem, and makes Sins of a Solar Empire more genre-blending. A new branch on the tech tree changes how players interact, and encourages players to work within the game's diplomacy system.
With Diplomacy, the relationship score becomes a valuable resource. The strength of an in-game relationship determines what agreements players can strike. Even if players desperately want to cooperate, their ability to do so is dependent on how the game values their relationship. The only way to improve that value is to play the diplomatic game: complete missions for one another, send diplomats, and avoid conflict.
There are good reasons to invest the time, attention, and money on building a good relationship with another player. Residing at the highest levels of the diplomatic research tree are pacts. Pacts provide force-multiplying bonuses across several areas, from science and economics to fleet weapons. For instance, the Advent faction has powerful beam weapons aboard some capital ships and frigates. They also have the option of signing a Beam Weapon Pact with another player, which will significantly increase the performance of beam weapons for both.
Pacts are even more potent between players of different factions. Each faction has unique pact options, but they can sign these pacts with anyone. So an Advent player can sign a Beam Weapon pact with a TEC (human) player, and the human player can sign a Missile Pact with the Advent player. Now they have two weapons systems operating at much higher efficiency, something they could not get with a player from the same faction. This makes it worthwhile to overcome the game's built-in faction animosities. Lethal combinations open up in the end-game.
However, diplomacy carries a high opportunity cost. For one thing, pacts come late in the diplomatic tech tree, which means a lot of spending on research. Furthermore, the most reliable way to improve relations is to send out diplomatic cruisers. These vessels sit near other players' planets and provide relationship bonuses for as long as they remain there. Unfortunately, they are pricey and they occupy population slots that could be filled by military craft. If the diplomatic strategy doesn't start to pay off, brute-force players are likely to have an advantage.
The case I described above reveals a lot about where the Diplomacy expansion succeeds and falls short. MK found herself shut out of a conquest victory, but was able to make herself so useful to another player that he found it more valuable to work with her than to eliminate her. As she began making pacts available, he started working harder to improve their relationship, which meant doing more of the missions she assigned.
Ironclad has not forced players to take this route. Rather, positive consequences persuade players to utilize this system. If you want, you can ignore the entire diplomatic part of the game and play the same Sins game you always have. However, your military and economy can be even more robust if you play along with the diplomatic system. You don't even have to do very much with it, you just have to be willing to accept overtures from the players who are actively using those options.
On the other hand, because players have the option to ignore diplomacy, a good many of them do. MK's strategy worked so brilliantly in large part because nobody else in her game was employing it. Everybody was busy matching economic and military strength and ignoring diplomacy, so she never faced any opposition in her rise to power as the Godfather of the solar system.
It is not hard to imagine what a brilliant game Sins: Diplomacy would be if a half-dozen or so players were using diplomacy in a struggle for strategic advantage. The diplomatic model hints at an economy of violence, where players weigh the damage a limited attack mission might do to one relationship against the benefit accrued by carrying it out. Rivals could find themselves forced into awkward alliances, dependent on crucial pacts with players they must ultimately defeat. The possibilities are tantalizing. Unfortunately, they mostly remain that way.
Perhaps this is a consequence of Diplomacy's role as a late expansion to a mature game. Players can use it, and Ironclad have given them many reasons to do so, but it is not integral to the design the same way the economy and the military are. The economy, especially, requires near-constant attention, and a major fleet engagement is full of micromanagerial tasks. Diplomacy, however useful it might prove to be in the later stages of the game, is the one thing that you can usually let slide. Human nature being what it is, many players do.
[Rob Zacny is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, Mass. He is a frequent contributor to The Escapist and a panelist on the Three Moves Ahead strategy podcast. More of his work appears on his blog.]