First off, MadDjinn, I want to thank you for your input r.e. E:LH, and your efforts to nudge the designers towards a stronger AI by pointing out the defiiciencies that may not be as immediately obvious. I'm sure Brad and the guys are taking note, and taking your suggestions under advisement as they continue to tweak the game. This is very helpful, and I am glad to see you 'on the case' as it were.
However, I must take exception to this post:
Quoting brass1983, reply 30
I think playing any 4x game to win is doing it wrong. Personally i like to roleplay a bit, really get into the story I'm creating within the game. I tend to quickly lose interest if the story gets boring and i'm steamrolling all my opponents. I play lots of games, and the ones where "playing to win" is the only real option get played once and quickly forgotten Games that can be played for the experience, however, like CivIV, Mount and Blade: Warband, Skyrim, Sins of a Solar Empire, CKII ect. all have hundreds of hours of playtime on them.
You've got this exactly backwards. 4X games are meant to be won - the 4 Xs require a win condition and this game has 4 win conditions (as per standard). None of the X's stand for 'experiential story telling', so to suggest that people are 'doing it wrong' by actually playing the game for what it is built to be, is likely the worst response in this thread for the OP's post. 4X games are not sandbox games, they are generally strategy games. Strategy games are meant to be won, and are meant to be a challenge to do so.
As per prior comments upthread -- it's ok that there's 'non-optimal' excesses in the game/tech tree for those that are looking for a slower/more 'experiential' (lower difficulty) game. It also allows for variety in the games so that you aren't doing the exact same thing each time (which gets boring). Choice is good. But that's not a reason to not have a properly balanced game. It's hard to roleplay the Trogs when their primary weapon choice sucks vs. other weapons and is harder to get as well. That's where balance changes kick in. A better AI means you can get some actual 'roleplaying' out of the AI for your experience, which provides more 'depth' to the experience. The fact that the game isn't challenging to people who want to 'win' shows that the game won't last long for gamers, and Stardock will feel the pain for it in future sales (not just for this game).
When people don't even bother finishing a game because it's not providing them entertainment or a challenge, the game won't last.
Seriously though, Skyrim and Civ in the same sentence about 'winning'? They aren't even in the same GENRE let alone game style.
As an example, whenever I fire up Alpha Centauri/Alien Crossfire, for example, my personal goals in the game are not primarily to see if I can win the game in the 'traditional' sense. Sure, the victory conditions are there, but I'm more focused on the 'little things', like maximizing use of tiles, terraforming, clearing out fungus (and then maybe replanting later when the appropriate tech allows 'harmony' with the alien lifeforms), and such. I love exploring the building options, and exploring the world. The whole 'global warming' mechanic is also fun, in that you had to 'harden' your low lying cities/raise elevations to keep them from drowning, or fix your ports if sea levels drop... A lot of this was also in Civ, but there were enough 'extras' in the Alpha Centauri setting to keep me wanting to come back and try out the other options (Aki Zeta/Cybernetic Consciousness being a fave 'baseline civ' of mine of course, being the 'research lover' I am'). As well as longing for a sequel that may never come (thanks to licensing issues).
And a lot of 4x games have a 'OK you won, do you want to keep playing?' Option. While I don't take advantage of continuing a game a lot (the early/midgame interests me more), I have played past the 'win', just to see how big of a city I could make/how to solve that terrain issue I've been having, how can I better maximize resources, etc.. Sure this is another 'way' to win the game, but this is more along the problem solving lines than the 'you have these four ways to win' structure.
Alpha Centauri/Alien Crossfire still have a rabid following, and when GOG put it on sale after a long hiatus, we had another round of players join the Alpha Centauri Civfanatics forum, because there is still interest in that game, over a decade after it's release.
Anyways, to get back to the general point you made, about some of us playing 4x games 'wrong', remember that people play these games for enjoyment, and different people enjoy games in different ways. Sure, balancing is a HUGE issue, but do keep in mind that not everyone has the same priorities when playing these games. The multiple victory conditions help with multiple playing styles, but at the end of the day some people want to 'beat' the game while others just want to 'enjoy/get their feet wet/explore and experience' whatever setting the game is presenting.
A lot of the custom mods you see for games these days introduce some cool feature, that really has very little to do with game balance. An example is spider mounts. Do we need spider mounts for game balance? No. Is it absolutely cool to have them? You bet! Now, if an empire relies on spider mounts for it's cavalry, sure they should be balanced in some way against the other mounts in the game, and I would expect nothing less. But again this is the 'wonder factor' of the game that is attracting interest, and a good number are here for THAT, not just another exercise in 'beating the AI'.
As for replayability and attracting new players, 'running with the pack', i.e. making a game too much like the existing games, runs the risk of having said game 'blend' with the other games in the genre. When Civilization was first released, it was groundbreaking, and is still the benchmark other 4x games are measured against. But it's the 'outliers' that sometimes have the longest shelf life, because they didn't simply 'clone' the basic structure of the other game, put on some pretty window dressings, and released said somewhat unimaginative/cloned design out to the public.
On a related note, I'm not quite sure if Galactic Civilizations was 'groundbreaking', but I love the ship design interface, and this game is sufficiently flexible to allow multiple 'settings' be fairly easily played using the GalCiv framework (Star Wars, Star Trek, B5, etc). I do think that the core of the game is very sound, and it doesn't feel like Civ to me at all, even though it has a lot of similar 4x features. So clone isn't a word I'd EVER use to describe the GalCiv franchise.
For the 'combat/win oriented' players, you are absolutely right in saying that if a game isn't properly balanced/challenging, they will lose interest and move on to other challenges/games. But for those of us that seek a different 'breed' of challenges in the game experience, this sometimes can't be quantified in victory conditions per se, and because of this, some games still have rabid followings years after release despite AI deficiencies and such, partly due to the 'ride' being as much fun as the 'win'.
So, in this sense, there is no 'wrong' way to play a game. If player A (the beat the game types) gets what he wants out of the experience, and player B gets the 'build/wonder/fun time' out of same game, this is a win for the developers on both fronts, and it increases the potential audience. And, once someone buys a game, who cares if they are 'playing it wrong', as long as they are getting enjoyment out of their purchases. This is why some of us love Modders so much!
This is also why I am a huge fan of 'optional features' adding to replayability options, but that's a topic that has been discussed to death in the relevant threads.