The curiously simple vision behind Stellaris

May 27, 2016 by Todd Mitchell

Paradox exhaustively documented the development of Stellaris with a series of developer diaries.

Grand strategy powerhouse Paradox Development Studio (Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings) released Stellaris to wide acclaim among enthusiasts earlier this month, resulting in a happy conclusion for a story some eager players have been following since September. In a series of 32 developer diary posts at the Paradox Plaza forum, the team—including Game Director Henrik “Doomdark” Fåhraeus, Lead Artist Fredrik “Aerie” Toll, Music Composer Andreas Waldetoft and Audio Director Björn Iversen–described bringing the game to life based on just a few uncomplicated ideas.

Spirit and Ambition

According to Henrik Fåhraeus, Stellaris plays an important role in Paradox’s ambition to cover the entire human timeline (future included) with their combined collection of strategy games. Once the studio reached a decision to make a space game its top priority, it was up to Fåhraeus, as the game’s director, to write the design outline.

“The vision statement for Stellaris is: ‘The galaxy is ancient and full of wonders,’” Fåhraeus said in the first diary post. “That sounds pretty vague eh? However, I think it captures the spirit of what we are trying to do, when you recall the type of games we make at PDS…”

Beyond the need to live up to a series of successes at Paradox and compete with other offerings in the genre, Fåhraeus had a strong desire to focus the project on exploration—which he felt was neglected in the 4X space—and to make Stellaris Paradox’s most replayable game to date.

“The early game is thus characterized by exploration and discovering the wonders of the galaxy.” Fåhraeus said. “We have put a lot of effort into making this part of the game feel fresh and unique every time you play.”

With a vision and objectives in place, the Paradox team set out to bring Stellaris to life.

Exploration and Fantastic Things

Lead Artist Fredrik Toll needed to use Fåhraeus’ design to establish a visual style for Stellaris that would not only dictate the art direction, but would also inform and inspire the rest of the studio. Fåhraeus’ upbeat vision statement meant Toll had to achieve realism without what he calls “dirty sci-fi.”

“So much of game art recently has achieved realism and detail by adding dirt and damage to everything, and in general it does a good job, but this worn down style was not what we were aiming for,” Toll said in the art direction post. “We wanted detailed and realistic, to have a large sense of scale, but without resorting to these tricks. Clean art can be really hard to make…I did not want it to end up looking like toy armies in space.”

Toll describes researching sci-fi reference material, old and new, finding that the team preferred imagery with high contrast and strong colors. This, they hoped, would urge the player to seek out the wonders of the galaxy instead of creating unease. This research led to a deal with Concept Artist Kentaro Kanamoto, whose commissioned images in this style served as a reference for the team as well as members of management throughout the development cycle.

Making Stellaris’ 3D models pop, particularly the ships, required more sophisticated solutions.

“One of the things that really helped out here was adding PBR (Physically Based Rendering) to our engine,” Toll said. “This was implemented in Runemaster, and with this we were able to get more detailed and realistic looking ships by having a large range of material properties on the surface, it adds a lot of detail, and it helps keep ships from having too much of a plastic feeling.”

These fine details certainly help make Stellaris beautiful, but they serve a functional purpose as well. Rotating ship turrets, for example, help visually represent space combat in real time. The battles players see in space reflect the behind-the-scenes data exactly. The art team’s work conveys the mysteries of the universe while making life easier for players—an essential ingredient for a successful strategy game.

Otherworldly Sounds

Paradox tasked Music Composer Andreas Waldetoft and Audio Director Björn Iversen with creating audio that would stand apart in quality from its existing offerings as part of the studio’s very first project with an in-house audio department. The pressure was on; Waldetoft and Iversen needed to contend with the long shadows cast by sci-fi giants like the Halo and Mass Effect franchises.

Waldetoft took to the task with enthusiasm, saying his childhood included fond memories of reading comics, listening to his father’s records, and pondering the mysteries of space. The music for Stellaris, he said, would go back to the feelings he had as a kid—of infinite possibilities among the stars and galaxies. His vision lined up with Fåhraeus’ perfectly.

“There was a lot of experimentation before we found the right vibe for the music,” said Waldetoft in the Music & Sound post. “To make the feeling of exploration and journey across the galaxy I decided not to make the music too static and ambient. I wanted melody and a beat to push us forward to the unknown, sometimes with odd time signatures to really emphasize that push.”

For Iversen, the path was less clear.

“It’s a challenge to work with Sci-Fi from a sound designer’s perspective since basically everyone will always compare your work to the great classics such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Starcraft, Mass Effect, and much more,” Iversen said. He describes asking his team for references and ideas about the sounds they wanted to hear in the game, while looking for ways to add his own touches to the overall design.

Iversen set out to build a large project library including selections from the studio archives, recordings of himself hitting lockers, desks, and doors, and elevators in the building as they went up and down. He then experimented with digital synthesizers to add even more unusual sounds and effects.

Eventually, many of Stellaris’ sounds were captured using a hybrid combination of digital and recorded sources.

“After finding the “neat-sound” resources I loaded them into my program and started modulating them all with various effects,” said Iversen. Ambient sounds were designed to create a sense of motion without fighting for the player’s attention. Multiple iterations of GUI effects were developed to find the right feel without becoming a nuisance. Iversen eventually succeeded in creating a deep soundscape worthy of a galaxy full of wonders.

The Unknown and the Surprising

Meeting Fåhraeus’ gameplay objectives required the combined design and development teams to implement dozens of features focused on variation and replayability. The traditional “tech tree” system was abandoned, late-game events and crises aimed to keep players guessing long after comparable games might have rolled credits, and considerable effort went into providing intuitive modding support. These weren’t cosmetic pieces of flair; they were major features with deep roots. The laundry list of new initiatives for Stellaris sent the Paradox team on an exploration journey of their own.

Stellaris AI Lead Martin Anward describes the randomized nature of the game as “a major challenge.”

“With thousands of different combinations of ethoses and traits, there’s a risk that every AI empire ends up feeling the same to the player, or fall into a very basic categorization of ‘aggressive aliens’ and ‘peaceful aliens,’” Anward said in one diary post. “I as the AI programmer I might know that an AI with Fanatic Collectivism makes their decisions differently from one with plain old vanilla Collectivism, but it might all look the same to a player who doesn’t have this foreknowledge.”

As a result, Anward’s team had to develop an AI Personalities system, capable of incorporating any combination of ethos, government form, and other traits, used to dictate virtually all of that player’s decisions during the game. This solution was highly complicated, but they used a clever trick to promote a sense of familiarity to players. Anward explains, “To feel recognizable to the player, all of the personalities are rooted in sci-fi tropes, so that you’ll immediately know who the Klingons are to your United Federation of Planets.”

At the time of writing, around 90% of over 5,400 player reviews for Stellaris are positive, with no shortage of buzz for Paradox’s upcoming patches. Few would make the case that the game is not replayable nor full of the unexpected. Though Fåhraeus admits his vision was vague, it’s difficult now to imagine what the game might have looked like if it was built according to a lengthy vision document.  Instead, the team’s open-ended approach may have inspired precisely the creative touches and innovative features needed to make the Stellaris experience worthwhile.

Todd Mitchell is a freelance entertainment journalist who accepted strategy games as a way of life in the days of M.U.L.E. and L’Empereur. Follow him @Mechatodzilla.