Franchise Festival #91: Master of Orion

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be crunching the numbers of Master of Orion. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Background

Austin video game development studio Simtex was founded as a side project in 1988 by Steve Barcia. He had spent much of the last decade playing role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons alongside other complex tabletop games produced by industry leader Avalon Hill, according to a 1994 video interview, and was particularly interested in titles featuring a fantasy or science-fiction style. During the early days of Simtex, Barcia continued to work as an engineering programmer in the world of computer-aided design.

Microprose had emerged from similar corporate origins only six years earlier. As discussed in Franchise Festival #65: Civilization, founders Sid Meier and Bill Stealey met one another at a 1982 aviation industry conference and built their studio around military simulation and action games. Financial success allowed Microprose to branch out into more niche subjects by the end of the decade, including the ‘golden age’ of piracy (with 1987’s Pirates!) and railroad management (with 1990’s Railroad Tycoon). Though competitors like Bullfrog and Technosoft existed overseas, in the United Kingdom and Japan respectively, Microprose established itself as the name in North America’s strategy game community by the start of the medium’s third decade.

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Master of Orion (1993)

Steve Barcia and a small team – including Maria Barcia and Kenneth Burd – developed a prototype under the name Star Lords and submitted it to publisher MicroProse in early 1993. Computer Gaming World editors Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes offered thoughtful criticism of the game’s preview build to its producer, Jeff Johannigman, who put them in touch with its development team. Emrich and Hughes ended up collaborating with Barcia and his staff to refine the rudimentary Star Lords into Master of Orion over the next few months. A preview article written for Computer Gaming World Issue 110 by Emrich, which makes no mention of its author’s role in developing the game, stoked excitement for Master of Orion and introduced the 4X/XXXX strategy sub-genre name (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) to the world; this sub-genre had been popularized by Civilization (1991) following its arguable debut in 1983’s Reach for the Stars and would come to define much of MicroProse’s output in the decade ahead.

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This is the screen you’ll be looking at for most of the playtime in Master of Orion. It depicts a zoomed-out view of the galaxy’s star systems. Source: MobyGames

Master of Orion was released for MS-DOS operating systems in September 1993 and for the Macintosh platform two years later. Players take on the role of a spacefaring civilization attempting to rule the galaxy either through peaceful unification or elimination of all rivals. Each civilization’s strength is governed by its technological prowess and military might while interactions with other civilizations is run through a diplomacy mechanic. Gameplay is turn-based and viewed primarily from a distant third-person perspective, though the player can inspect planets or ships in a close-up view.

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Combat, like planetary customization, is viewed from a close-up perspective. Source: MobyGames

After choosing their randomly generated galaxy’s size and number of rival civilizations, players begin with a single planet under their control. Two initial scout ships are used to explore surrounding star systems for habitable planets. Once a habitable planet is found, the player can use his or her initial colony ship to establish a foothold on its surface. Planets serve as resource centers from which the player can extract population and/or industry, with any given planet’s maximum capacity for each determined prior to the player’s arrival. Players terraform the surface of planets to enhance their output, choosing whether to prioritize population or industry based on current or anticipated needs. The titular Orion is a planet guarded by a powerful warship which serves as the galaxy’s most advanced outpost if colonized.

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Diplomacy, like most other elements of Master of Orion, is handled through a menu. Source: MobyGames

The player’s empire gradually expands to include multiple planets in multiple star systems, bringing them into contact with rivals. These rivals can be battled using an armada of spaceships – with each ship class customized by the player – or engaged in diplomacy. The AI is much more complex than that of Star Lords, as each rival has its own objectives and personality type. Actions taken by the player are remembered by rival civilizations, making later negotiations easier or harder depending on how the player has behaved. Though battles can be manually or automatically controlled at the player’s preference, their outcome is typically determined by the difference in fleet size and technology level.

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GNN’s charming news anchor keeps the player apprised of galactic goings-on. Source: MobyGames

Scientific advancement articulates as a technology tree in which the player uses his or her resources to innovate within six fields: Computers, Construction, Force Fields, Planetary Science, Vehicle Propulsion, and Weapons. Each branch of the skill tree eventually ends, though further resources can be poured into the branch to improve miniaturization. Miniaturization makes adding technological components to ship classes cheaper and enhances the likelihood of victory in combat.

Master of Orion was a critical darling of the era. A Computer Gaming World review in 1994, thankfully written by M. Evan Brooks rather than Alan Emrich, praised the game for its graphics and replayability. Retrospectives were equally kind, regarding the game as the standard by which space strategy titles were judged even six years after its initial publication. Strong sales, at least among the growing world of strategy game enthusiasts, ensured that MicroProse would support a sequel that further refined Master of Orion’s elegant fundamentals.

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Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares (1996)

Between the first and second Master of Orion, Simtex produced a turn-based 4X game set in a high fantasy milieu called Master of Magic; the numerous bugs plaguing this game at the time of its launch led to less uniformly positive reviews, though it was as influential on fantasy strategy titles as its spiritual predecessor had been on strategy titles set in space. Patches made available over the still-novel internet during the year after its release resolved its technical problems.

Most of the staff at Simtex returned to form the core development team on Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares (under the working title Master of Antares), though Steve Barcia performed an oversight role and left much of the day-to-day management in the hands of lead programmer Kenneth Burd; several additional programmers were also brought on to augment Master of Orion’s veterans during the course of development. MicroProse UK’s Terry Greer was sent to Austin to create the game’s impressive opening cutscene while Laura Barratt, who had previously contributed audio to Origin Systems games Wing Commander: Privateer (1993) and Wings of Glory (1995), composed its score. Though Master of Orion programmer Maria Barcia is not credited with any work on the game, her name does appear in the 1995 incorporation of Simtex under MicroProse by MicroProse owner Spectrum HoloByte.

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Planetary development looks nearly 3D, in contrast to the rudimentary side-view of the prior game. Source: MobyGames

The studio’s work on Master of Magic seems to have informed the longer development process associated with Master of Orion II, as the latter arrived on store shelves in November 1996 with none of the former’s issues in spite of its major expansion of the series’ scope. Its initial MS-DOS and Windows versions were followed by a Macintosh port developed by MacSoft in 1997. All versions represent iteration, rather than revolution, polishing Master of Orion’s strong core experience into a masterpiece of the genre.

Its basic gameplay is largely unchanged from that of its direct predecessor: players choose a civilization (or create their own) and vie with rivals for galactic supremacy through the colonization of planets and the cultivation of futuristic technology. Space is generally perceived from a distant third-person view, though players respectively make alterations to their resource allocation or planetary terraforming using a menu interface or zoomed-in perspective. As in Master of Orion, occasional random events prevent the player’s long-term goals from being achieved as planned. Time again advances through turns rather than proceeding in real time.

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Races in Master of Orion II, like the Cthulu-esque Trilarians, are depicted with greater detail and character than those of Master of Orion. Source: MobyGames

In spite of Master of Orion II’s conservative design ethos, enhancements are palpable at every level of the experience. Star systems can now have up to five planets rather than being limited to one, as they had been in the preceding title, making contested regions possible for the first time. Planets can likewise be destroyed if the player or a rival civilization researches and then develops the associated technology; this upends diplomatic relationships and prevents any further use of the planet for resource gathering, but can be a useful strategy if a well-defended planet reliably proves to be a thorn in the player’s side. Three new civilizations – each with its own stat bonuses – and two new fields of technological research offer new ways to approach the game. Massive space monsters often guard the most resource-rich star systems and must be defeated by the player to colonize that region.

Master of Orion II’s plot is more complex than its predecessor, if still light by the standards of other genres, and has a direct impact on win conditions. In the ancient past, a war between Orions and Antarans led to the former abandoning the galaxy after imprisoning the latter in a parallel dimension. During the events of the player’s game instance, the Antarans regain their freedom and begin harassing the galaxy’s other civilizations. In addition to diplomatic and military conquest victories, the player can now complete the game by accessing the Antarans’ home dimension and defeating them.

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The presence of multiple planets in a given star system is conveyed through a pop-out window on the galaxy map. Source: AbsoluteZero

Perhaps most importantly, multiplayer is available for the first time in series history. At its simplest, hotseat play sees up to eight players taking turns using a single computer. Modems and serial links allowed two human opponents to remotely play against one another. Network play, like an advanced version of hotseat, opened up the possibility for eight simultaneous players on eight separate machines. Versions of the game available on modern hardware using digital distribution services like Steam and Good Old Games (GOG) do not ship with multiplayer enabled, but can be configured to emulate 1990s connections using fan guides.

Happily, the game is strong enough to stand out as a classic with or without its multiplayer components. It built on virtually every strong element of its predecessor without cutting any of that game’s complexity. Its graphics were similarly brought up to the rapidly evolving standards of the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, despite widespread recognition among contemporary critics and more recent retrospectives that Masters of Orion II represents a significant milestone for the genre, hard times were ahead for Simtex and MicroProse.

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Master of Orion 3 (2003)

Simtex began work on a tactical squad-based combat game called Guardians: Agents of Justice following the completion of Master of Orion 3, but development was cut short by the studio’s sudden closure in 1997 amid financial losses. Steve Barcia joined Retro Studios at the time of its 1998 foundation and was elected to replace its disgraced president following a 2000 corporate buyout by Nintendo, spearheading development on Metroid Prime (2002), while the Master of Orion intellectual property (IP) rights passed to MicroProse. MicroProse included a mode called Master of Orion Jr. in Civ II: Fantastic Worlds (1997) before being bought by Hasbro Interactive in 1998.

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Master of Orion Jr. scenario in Civ II: Fantastic Worlds. Source: MobyGames

Two years passed before Hasbro Interactive began to explore what could be done with one of the 1990s’ most critically successful strategy properties. It would contract Quicksilver Software, which was simultaneously producing training tools Full Spectrum Command and Full Spectrum Leader for the United States and Singapore militaries after a string of reasonably successful commercial strategy games in the late 1990s, to create a third Master of Orion title in August 1999 following a chance meeting between Hasbro producer Michael Mancuso and Quicksilver president Bill Fischer. Much of the next two years of development is documented in a still-extant developer diary published by Quicksilver’s Alan Emrich, the former Computer Games World writer who had informally steered the development of Master of Orion back in 1993.

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Master of Orion 3 would ship with an extensive manual that notoriously provided extensive lore but little insight on the game mechanics. Source: PicClick

Alongside fellow Computer Games Weekly alum Tom Hughes, Emrich was responsible for producing the project’s foundational 100+ page design document and then fleshing out its details once it was submitted to Hasbro in May 2000. Master of Orion III’s original subtitle was The Fifth X, in reference to eXperience, though this was cut at some point during development. Quicksilver heavily consulted the Master of Orion online community during the development process using message boards and would eventually bring on many enthusiasts from around the world to fill key roles on its team; three such fans – David “Stormhound” Craft, Harel Eilam, and Alejandro G. Belluscio – would respectively contribute to the game’s writing, ground combat, and religion mechanics. Real-world naval warfare and board game Twilight Imperium 2nd Edition (2000) would prove to be two other major influences on the project’s development.

In contrast to Steve Barcia and Civilization creator Sid Meier, along with what he infamously described as “leftist historical revisionism and political correctness,” Emrich was intent on incorporating slavery and religion mechanics to the third Master of Orion game. Hasbro did not support this initiative at first, but Quicksilver was successful in the end. Along with his description of artist Irene Macabante as “cute” but “unavailable,” the designer diaries paint a problematic portrait of the studio’s corporate culture. Emrich was then dropped from the team in April 2002, for reasons that still remain opaque, compounding development hurdles associated with the acquisition of Hasbro by Infogrames in 2001. The remaining staff worked on the game for one more year following the departure of its original concept designer ahead of its February 2003 release on Windows PC and Mac OS X.

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Space combat is now depicted from a 3D isometric perspective. Source: OldGamerStuff

The final game is both more and less than its two predecessors. It iterates upon the basic formula of Master of Orion, integrating more civilizations (16 this time) and mechanics while attempting to give the player more agency than was previously possible. Taking control of a fleet in turn-based battle, for example, can now increase the odds of winning against a conventionally-superior opposing force. The various micromanagement components of running a vast space empire are likewise more granular than before. Finally, maps of the galaxy and individual star systems are now rendered in 3D and can be manipulated by the player rather than being viewed from a “top-down” perspective.

Unfortunately, much of what made the series successful seems to have been lost in the seven years between Master of Orion II and Master of Orion 3. Civilization management is so complex that many processes can now be automated. The game even encourages automation of its earliest hours until the player’s civilization has branched out from its home planet and established itself as an empire. This is an interesting inversion of the genre’s sometimes front-heavy design philosophy, in which later hours often devolve into allowing one’s empire to prosper with little direct intervention, but makes it less immediately approachable than earlier franchise entries. Its graphics represent a similar step forward and backward, as they are broadly advanced to the third dimension but lose much of the distinctiveness of earlier titles’ 2D art design.

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Master of Orion 3‘s UI is staggeringly cluttered. Source: MobyGames

While the technology tree retains much of its direct predecessor’s functionality, ground combat and espionage are significantly expanded. The former involves planning the units and maneuvers used to invade a hostile planet; even so, numerous environmental conditions which impact the likelihood of the player’s success are only made visible once the battle has commenced. Spies are now broken out into six different types – including diplomatic spies, government spies, military spies, political spies, scientific spies, and social spies – which sabotage the associated efforts of rival powers. Unassigned spies work to undermine rival powers’ espionage efforts in the player’s empire.

The game performed poorly among critics and fans at the time of release. Though Quicksilver tried to emphasize what had been popular in earlier titles while advancing new ideas, the lack of support from former series developers and conflicting internal goals (as suggested in Emrich’s designer diaries) undermined the production. The final product even shipped with game-breaking bugs that were never resolved by publisher Infogrames. Not even extensive involvement from fans during the development process had been enough to keep this once-popular franchise alive in the 2000s. Retrospectives have been kinder, ensuring that the series’ low point remains an important part of its story, but poor commercial performance would put Master of Orion on ice for the next ten years.

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Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (2016)

Infogrames’ North American subsidiary was rebranded Atari Inc. in 2003, adopting the name of another company Hasbro had acquired at the same time it bought MicroProse. In 2008, amid economic turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic, Atari Inc. was bought out by Infogrames’ European headquarters. The two companies merged and were renamed Atari SA in 2009. Neither these corporate acquisitions nor the hiring of original Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell as a board member in 2010 could staunch the studio’s financial hemorrhage, however, and it sold off numerous properties in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stay afloat.

At the time of Atari SA’s 2013 bankruptcy, Belarusian video game developer Wargaming Group Limited (famous for 2010’s massively-multiplayer online tank combat simulator World of Tanks) outbid Uber Entertainment and Stardock Systems to acquire the Master of Orion IP. Wargaming Group Limited announced in 2015 that it had hired Argentina’s NGD, whose staff had produced real-time strategy games Regnum (1995) and Regnum 2 (1996) along with massively-multiplayer online role-playing game Regnum Online (2007), to reboot Master of Orion for a new generation of players. The resulting revival made its way to Windows and OS X platforms worldwide in August 2016.

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The UI is somehow more detailed and clearer than that of Master of Orion 3. Source: MobyGames

In spite of this rather circuitous route to being made, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars is a strikingly conventional entry in its franchise. It studiously emulates the first two games’ mythology and gameplay systems while stripping out much of Master of Orion 3’s unnecessary complexity. Automation and micromanagement are still possible, but the scaling back of playable races from 16 to 10 stands out as a symbolic representation of how NPD sought to avoid the mistakes of their predecessor.

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Alien races have more charisma than ever. Source: MobyGames

The unique identity of the series reboot primarily shines through in its victory conditions and audio/visual presentation. In addition to the three win states featured in earlier series entries, the player can now win his or her game instance by controlling the galaxy’s economy, developing three key scientific structures, or having a higher score than all rivals on the game’s last turn. An impressive level of graphical stylization and polish sets the game apart from contemporary 4X space games like Galactic Civilizations III (2015) while a clean user interface prevents the confusion faced by players of Master of Orion 3. A cast of popular voice actors, including Mark Hamill and Alan Tudyk, lend the leaders of rival civilizations more personality than they had had in any prior Master of Orion title.

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The tech tree is very similar to that of Civilization IV (2005). Source: MobyGames

Critics tended to perceive Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars as an effective if undistinguished return to form for the franchise, with Rock Paper Shotgun memorably describing it as boring while Game Informer drew attention to its high production values and player-friendly interface. Fans could have no doubt, though, that the game was squarely directed at re-establishing what had worked about its franchise’s most popular elements ahead of a wider revival. A collector’s edition which included an additional race alongside re-releases of all three earlier titles served as a reminder of where the series had been even as it moved into the future.

Conclusion

Aside from the aforementioned bonus mode in Civ II: Fantastic Worlds, no Master of Orion spinoffs have been produced. They hardly seem necessary, as the series’ dedicated fans have created numerous mods to enhance each entry’s basic functionality over the last 27 years. Given the rich world-building of Master of Orion II and Master of Orion 3, though, it’s interesting to speculate what an action-adventure or role-playing game set in this universe might look like. Now that the series is active again under the stewardship of Wargaming Group Limited, we may yet find out.


What do you think about Master of Orion? Which is your favorite title in the series? How about your favorite civilization? What is the ideal level of granularity for a user interface? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #92: Mega Man Zero – May 29
    • Includes an interview with GameXplain‘s Ash Paulsen
  • #93: Panzer Dragoon – June 5
  • #94: Animal Crossing – June 12
  • Break – June 19
  • #95: Dragon Quest – June 26