Stellaris Vs Your Digital Rights

Posted on Tue 31 July 2018 in Blog

Stellaris is a 4X like galactic level RTS released in 2016 by Paradox Interactive. The game was received by a mostly positive audience, and commended for continuing Paradox's tendency to release titles with day one Linux support. To me the game had a flair I had not seen since childhood, making this game feel like close a spiritual successor to Galactic Civilizations II (Also published by Paradox).

But like any product Stellaris is not without problems. Stellaris is one of the most bug-free games I have ever played, and in 50 hours of game-play it has not crashed on me. Not once, not ever. (Are you listening Squad, makers of Kerbal Space Program?) Stellaris' main problem was that it was hard. The game actively rewards micro-managing your entire galactic empire, and the mechanics at launch promoted smash and dash combat. None of this is new, but unlike it's predecessors this game is played in real time. It was common as a new player to get frustrated when you're attacked in the middle of managing your internal politics, and loose everything for not having a careful eye on the border.

With all of the above said, the game was rewarding and deeply engaging. I found that the loss of an entire empire with loosing the game was a deterrent to starting a new match immediately, but that's very much a personal problem.

So Stellaris 2016 (Reviewed 2017) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, Would recommend if you're willing to put down the money for this very expensive game.


Yea... It's not 2017 anymore, and this article is not over. We've got a problem to talk about.

If you haven't bought Stellaris yet and are looking for an up to date and honest review here's the TLDR:

"Stellaris in 2018 is a unique and innovative RTS experience. The game has been lovingly re-balanced over the last two years to create a challenging but fair flow. The game's story engine has also received attention, adding a natural, and immersive story to every play through of the game. Unfortunately Paradox have gone a little DLC-Mad in the last few years with this game and others. While most of the content packs are irrelevant to new players and not having them will not remove from the game-play, I would consider "Stellaris: Utopia" and "Stellaris: Leviathans Story Pack" vital to getting the full game experience. This brings the total cost to €70 (European region at time of review) At this price it is still a rewarding game, and highly recommended." - My review of Stellaris on Steam.

A strong review, so where is the problem?

Paradox set its self up for failure in early 2018 with the building hype around "Stellaris: Apocalypse" the second major expansion for the game and the 6th DLC overall. The previous Expansion "Stellaris: Utopia" set a high bar with the, admittedly expensive, add-on providing enough content to satisfy most players. Utopia was followed up by 3 small and mostly cosmetic content packs which failed to capture the hearts of the audience. So at the announcement of Apocalypse players were hungry for the new content, and hype mounted quickly.

Unfortunately Apocalypse failed to meet expectations. The advertisement of major additions to game-play, and a completely new experience, was realized as major changes to game-play with a familiar but jarringly alien experience.

The problem is everyone got this jarring experience. Even when they didn't buy the upgrade.

Stellaris can also be played as a multiplayer game. So ever since its first expansion Paradox has released an update alongside each expansion or DLC to keep everyone playing essentially the same game. This has the marketable side effect of the base game benefiting from mild feature creep, but critically maintained compatibility between all games. The game never really changed much, and game updates are a regular occurrence on the Steam platform, so no one cared, and I didn't even notice.

As I previously mentioned Apocalypse made substantial changes to the base game-play. I think the change log from official wiki, maintained by Paradox, summaries it best:

DESIGNERS' NOTE

Stellaris has changed quite dramatically for 2.0, and in our experience, for the better. Overall you can expect the game-play to have been slowed down a little, and you now need to make active decisions on which star systems you want to expand into and control.

[...]

How you use your fleets will be different as well, [...]

The war system has changed as well, [...]

We hope you are ready for the Apocalypse.

Yeah, they actually stuck a warning in their change log, you get a notice in game too!

This free update was pushed to all players, and contained all of the new game-play changes, for compatibility as well as the corporate image of continuing to support the game. If you use Steam it was automatically installed.

This raised a key issue about what rights we have over the games we pay for.

If you're not a player of Stellaris I will give you a moment of context. The 2.0 update changes game mechanics as fundamental as how the game map is structured and how a player's ships move within it. Higher level changes exist to resources, diplomacy and military structure. If a game is defined by it's rules and its strategies then this is a different game.

Ultimately this is not the product I paid for, regardless of its overall quality. That leaves me feeling cheated by Paradox, but more so by Steam, who delivered me the change. There are a lot of ways Paradox could have handled this compatibility change better. For example a "2.0 Upgrade DLC" that is free to all players would keep everything working, but at the player could choose to return to the old content using the toggle in the Steam DLC menu. A button in the game would also work, but from a UX standpoint may be no better.

The problem is both both of those options are Paradox's responsibility. While I don't believe there is any malice in this decision we as a customer base need to ask what the implications are for a developer with bad intentions.

Actually this is Valve's fault!

Steam, run by Valve, is the content delivery platform used by Paradox(1). Steam by default automatically updates games it has installed. The Steam Update Service is a mostly positive feature, with the intent of always keeping your game ready to play. There is however a dark side to it; Steam will only ever let you access the latest version of a game(2), so it is entirely possible for a developer to poison a game. Possibilities include:

  • Removing content and re-adding it as a DLC.
  • Forcibly updating a game to contain some form of malware or add-ware.
  • Even bricking the game completely.
  • It might be more profitable to install a Cryptocurrency Miner

Evidence suggests Valve do not require game developers to submit updates for audit before pushing them to customers, so all of the above are easily possible. The only thing preventing this foul play is that most game companies do not have an incentive to damage their products.

But it's proven repeatedly that publisher reputation doesn't really effect video game sales. (See Battlefront 2 - 2017) With that it's a matter of time before someone decides boosting sales of a sequel is worth bricking it's predecessor. It's up to us as consumers to put pressure on Valve and other distribution platforms to allow us to download whatever version of a game we want. Rationale for this builds when you factor in early access titles, that can quickly suffer a painful death, and the modding community, which is eternally leapfrogged by the game it is trying to support.

Valve has taken some big steps to providing piece of mind when purchasing a game, like the addition of a generous refund policy. But still little assurances exist about the long term health of the products we let them control. It is time we voice our expectations about this and other life cycle issues. What do you expect of your Steam library when valve goes bankrupt, or gets bought out? There might be something about that in the subscriber agreement, but did you re-read it the last time it changed, which was recently?(3)

Demand access to every version of the product you paid for...

... and transparency on the future of your digital purchases!

As for poor old Stellaris 2.0, well I guess I have no choice but to love you, or go back to playing Galactic Civilizations II. But in my heart I will always feel that Paradox should have put more scope and grandeur into Apocalypse, merged it with a shader update, and shipped it as Stellaris II... and I guess charged me another 40 bucks for it...


(1) Paradox does offer their games though other platforms, including their own store.

(2) Steam has beta programs which allow early access to newer versions of a game. - After writing this I learned that Paradox abused this feature to make each patch level of the game also accessible. This is the only case I have seen of this behavior, but apparently they aren't completely deaf to their fans.

(3) Not at time of writing, but now when you're reading it. Seriously, they update that thing about once every three months.