This is a thought I've been kicking around in my head for a while. I'm fairly certain it could be at least partially implemented via mod, but as doing so is several orders of magnitude over my expertise, a suggestion it must be.
Disclaimer: All numbers used in this post are for illustrative purposes only. I am NOT suggesting them as the perfect solution.
Basically, I think a central issue with the AI balance in the game comes down to science. Specifically, four major elements:
- Science is required for everything. Your economy, your military, your unity production, your pop growth rate, your government, your diplomacy, even your ability to produce more science
- Science, unlike other resources, cannot be attained without making it yourself. You can't buy technology, you can't upgrade your ships via diplomacy, the closest you can get is mercenaries and federation fleets and neither of those can make up for lacking technology of your own
- Science is effectively unlimited and has no real balance on it. Energy, minerals and through them, alloys and consumer goods, are limited by the resources you control and later, can produce with megastructures. For research, you only need pops and the economy to sustain them. Admin capacity exists, but is a weak check considering how obscenely powerful dedicated science worlds can be.
- Science can never be lost. If you lose a mining planet, you lose mineral income. You can lose every world you had and your existing research will be intact
The TL;DR here is this. Research is indispensable. You can be bad at managing your economy, awful at designing your military and not have a fucking clue what unity is for, but if you can out research the AI, you'll stomp them into oblivion.
You can't play a solid unity game (all the best things you can get with unity are themselves frequently locked by research gates or require research for a special project), create a massive horde of low-quality ships that can reliably beat genuinely high tech fleets and can't opt for an exclusively economic focus because the best investment for economic growth is to research and get those techs that get higher tier buildings, faster growth and more resources to exploit.
This presents a couple of major issue with the overall balance of the game:
- Once the player gets ahead in science, the AI has virtually no chance of ever catching them or challenging them unless they fuck up or a crisis lands right on top of them
- The galaxy tends to become extremely static because larger powers will get so far ahead in research no lesser power can ever catch them
- Primitives reaching the space age or vassals released early on will never be relevant galactic players because they are so far behind on research and so ill-equipped to make more that they're a non-factor
Different Paradox games have different details on addressing this issues. For Vic 2, there are hard lines where you can't make certain advances until a certain year. For most others, there is a time ahead penalty which slows the relative research speed of people who are too far ahead. This, however, is inelegant and for Stellaris, an arbitrary line. Which brings me to my suggestion (only took me 3000 characters).
Rather than time ahead penalties, I think there should be a gradual reduction in cost for technology. Rather than basing it on the year (which wouldn't work all that well with varying playstyles and research speeds), my suggestion is a simple cost debuff for every technology as a higher percentage of empires in the game unlock it. So if you have 10 empires, the first empire to research a tech pays full cost. The second pays full or near full cost. But as you get down to the 9th and the 10th, they are paying a fraction of the initial cost, maybe as low as 10%. This would mean that if a primitive empire crops up 20 years in, rather than staying perpetually 20 years behind or falling further back as the other empires unlock tech boosts, they can actually close the gap.
A few caveats:
- For obvious reasons, Fallen Empires, marauders and so on shouldn't be counted
- Repeatable technology shouldn't have this, keeping it as the reward for a research-focused empire
- The reduction would likely not be universal, higher drops should come if you border an empire with the tech, for example
Now, I'm not going to claim this will make the AI into tactical geniuses or fix their economies. It will, however, reduce their tendency towards death spirals and since it also applies to players, would slightly reduce the dominant nature of a research-focused empire, without just giving the AI another cheat. It allows for technology to essentially proliferate, becoming easier to get access to as more empires figure out how it works. It will also make vassals more useful (as right now, even with their research help, they can rarely catch up enough to be useful). With the right triggers, it could even make extended conflicts slightly more dangerous (say by giving an increased bonus on technologies for empires you have a truce with, to represent their focus on competing with you).
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