From a game-design standpoint the current official backstory has a couple problems:
- We don't know how it ends, and the one person who does has left.
- The story is utterly disconnected from gameplay, it doesn't "set the stage" for play.
- It centers around "the Orions" which makes it seem derivative no matter how much else is original
So, rather than try to graft onto a foundation i didn't build and don't really understand, I will present my own ideas as the design for at minimum a future Mod or Campaign. Some of the ideas may be found useful as a narrative framework to build the game content around. Or at best the whole thing can replace the current backstory.
Some ideas have been adapted from Drek's expansion of the backstory, which had some similar motivations.
Instead of the Orions & Antarans there are several ancient highly advanced races/civilizations that once inhabited the galaxy. These "Precursors" possessed the ability to travel between galaxies, and appear to have left the gameplay galaxy a long time prior to game start.. Each game is understood to happen in one of the unknown number of galaxies effected by the Precursors, thus each game can be different, but belong to the same reality. Thus the general content descriptions can work for a wide variety of campaigns as well as a normal game. Various different campaign stories could be built on this foundation, but for the purposes of "standard" gameplay, there are different ways the various Precursors might get involved in the player's galaxy.
Some Precursors placed all the playing species in this galaxy at about the same time as a non-technical but sentient species. Some may have a mythical/legendary account of this while other's may believe they always lived there. As the game unfolds the players may uncover clues that they were purposefully placed here, and the reasons for doing so (not necessarily the same in every game/galaxy), and to the identity of some of the Precursors.
How the Game Starts
A standard (non-campaign) game opens when a "monolith" falls the the surface of all the playing species' homeworlds. When deciphered, it provides the secret to Star-lane travel, something so mathematically arcane, that they otherwise could not expect to discover it for millennia. The Monolith provides no information on the identity or intentions of the monolith-builder, but states that other similar monoliths are falling on the homeworlds of other species.
Thus it is plausible that all the player species would start the game at approximately the same tech level at the same time, and a bit of dramatic urgency is added.
Other suggestions have been made about what touches off the beginning of the game. The monolith idea itself isn’t as important as having a good dramatic event that logically would kick off the game and start the various species on the path to conquer the galaxy.
The commonality between all standard games is that all the Precursors seem to be gone, and they left a lot of stuff. There's no better way to enhance the exploration X of the game than including lots of useful, interesting, mysterious and/or unique stuff for the player to find. The rarity of different items should vary, so that some special items don't occur in every game, while others occur multiple times. Yay Loot!
Basically the galaxy is riddled with these leftovers, many far in advance of the starting player species. The starlane system itself is believed to have been constructed by the Engineers. Also there are:
- Archives containing:
- Local Star-charts
- Clues about Precursor involvement in this galaxy
- Stasis-chambers: containing monsters, useful units, or even lesser species
- Stalled trans-galatic cryo-sleep ships (provides a species)
- Mothballed ships (sometimes superior to what the player can build
- Abandoned colonies (some with advanced buildings, or still active defensive weapons)
- Old Manufacturing plants, that have the ability to crank out a few more special items on demand
- Ravaged planets of various kinds indicating ancient battles with very advanced weapons
- √ Moons of solid computronium
- Gaian planets, (of various kinds)
- Planets ruined by lingering late-game weapons
- Stockpiles of various resources
- √ Planets with useful "native" Indigene species (not necessarily a precursor thing)
- Automated defense systems (still operating)
- And clues to the identity of some of the Precursors and/or their plans for this galaxy (if any)
- More Planetary Special Ideas here: http://www.freeorion.org/forum/viewtopic.php?p=25706#p25706
Some of the most interesting/valuable discoveries should be examples of late-game tech (like the Gaians) this way the player gets a small taste of the cool stuff he may be able to do by the end of the game, and thus the player species may come close to taking it's place among the powerful Precursors.
An important element in preserving the excitement of a 4X game is keeping a sense of uncertainty and mystery. If each game that you win involves solving the same galactic mystery, or face the same sinister power, it becomes predictable and thus less interesting.
However, with multiple Precursors to draw from, we don't need to have the same thing happen in every game. With default settings there might be several "Orion" Planets to discover and conquer, or none at all. And even when you discover an "Orion" planet with its guardian(s), you won't necessarily know which Precursor left it, and so you won't know what is inside. With default settings, Precursor incursions might occur as the game progresses or they might not. An there are several possible precursors with different tactics and powers, so you can't prepare in the way experience has taught you is best to beat the Antarians.
There might be clues that the player can collect which will lead to knowing which Precursors might come back, and since the answer is always different, discovering the clues stays interesting. Though the clues shouldn't be so vital that a player must pursue them every game. Clues might be shared with your allies (so together you can prepare for the Precursor threat), or you might keep the info to yourself so that your empire alone is prepared.
Identity of the Precursors
The Precursors are not a unified group. It's a catch-all term for any extremely old and super powerful species/civilizations. They are so powerful that survival is more or less guaranteed, so the focus and unifying factor of each Precursor group is ideology. They generally don't trade or communicate with player species, because they have nothing the Precursors want.
Single-mindedly bent on the destruction of all other beings. Ash is all that is left behind after their passing. The other Precursors are able to a degree to hold them in check. There is uncertainty if the robotic ships are the Final Ones themselves, or merely their tools.
The following is their only known communication: "Only the strongest deserve to exist. We alone will watch as the Universe fails. End your existences, or the Final Ones shall end them violently."
The least predictable of precursors. For reasons known only to themselves the Experimenters will swoop in and alter the balance of a planet or empires. They may change specials, move planets, or drop powerful devices that may help or hurt. But after a time they will "reset" the galaxy, by knocking every civilized planet back into the stone age.
The Unifiers seek to include all sapient life in a single group mind. They do not ask permission. Unifier colonies have 100% loyalty.
The Curators are fascinated with the diversity of life, especially sapient life, and attempt to preserve it, though not necessarily according to the life-forms wishes. It is thought the Curators are responsible for constructing Gaian worlds and for seeding sapient life in fallow galaxies.
The builders are primarily interested with making stuff. It is thought the starlane networks were created by the Engineers.
The observers avoid interaction with the universe and instead accumulate knowledge and information.
There are several ways the Precursors may become involved towards the end of the game, though these may be predetermined at the beginning, the player will not generally know which (if any) crises will occur at the beginning of the game, though he may find clues as the game progresses. It is even possible that some of these crisis-situations may be in the same game. At universe set-up the player will probably be able to de-select some of these possibilities, in the same way a player might disable the diplomatic victory condition.
If a Major Incursion is set to occur, the first solid indication will be about mid-game when a relatively small, but significant fleet enters the galaxy. The players should be able to defeat it, but not without cost. A second incursion will occur in the late game, this one larger, and more powerful relative to the current tech, still it should almost always be defeated, though some empires might take a fatal blow. Finally in the end-game the last incursion breaks out, and that precursor has a reasonable chance of taking over the galaxy. The tactics of each Precursor however are quite different.
"Final One" Incursion
They make no attempt to take territory, but attempt to do the maximum amount of damage to the strongest player, and once sufficient damage is done moving on to the new strongest player. There is no diplomatic action possible with the Final Ones. The last wave should have a decent chance at cleansing the galaxy of all life. In the middle of the final wave is a massive mother-ship, superior to anything the player could build. However, it can be captured, and thus provide an extremely powerful weapon which almost guarantees victory.
Similar to the Final One Incursion, except the tactics of the Unifiers are very different. The Unifiers are primarily interested in capturing population. They also have formidable espionage abilities (goes with mind control). Diplomatic contact may be possible with Unifier civs, however it increases the risk of subversion by Unifier mind-control. The player that conquers the capitol after the third incursion, gains access to some of the subversion techs of the unifiers with again almost guarantees victory.
Their initial incursions are not entirely hostile. They change things, often in a non-harmful, sometimes even beneficial way. But when the experiment is over, the final incursion is directed towards "stone-aging" the entire galaxy. Again defeating the core of their power gives the player access to something really cool.
Most of the Precursors (excluding the Final Ones, who only destroy) have a chance of leaving an "Orion Planet" in the player's galaxy. Like the Original "Planet Orion" these would be strongly defended. If mastered each would contain a different selection of very powerful tech, ships and/or goodies which provide a big boost towards victory.
Note that winning an "Orion" Planet is not a victory condition as in MoO1. I don't want to clutter the game up with too many victory conditions, and also it is more fun (in some ways) not to be directly handed victory, but to be given a very-super-weapon instead. Of course its possible that a player may squander all his resources gaining access to the "Orion" treasure, and thus be unable to win.
Various Precursor's "Orion" Planet
Any Orion planet is protected by an impenetrable, opaque force-field, you can only find out which precursor the planet belonged to by defeating the guardian, or possibly by collecting enough clues about the precursors.
Some ideas probably unbalanced ideas about the prize inside each precursor's "Orion Planet":
- Final Ones: A Death-star (though not as powerful as their mothership) that blows up planets.
- Experimenters: ???
- Unifiers: A mind-control ship that can make any planet 100% loyal to the owner (as long as the ship is there.
- Curators: Several single-use “Genesis Device” ships which can turn any planet into a Gaia, and/or a useful species with 100% loyalty.
- Observers: The ultimate espionage tool. It provides “vision” over the entire galaxy, and possibly a research boost.
- Engineers: A starlane construction ship that can make and unmake an adjacent starlane each turn.
Other precursors, such as the Curators or Experimenters might make smaller single forays into the galaxy. These may or may not be harmful and do not indicate an end-game confrontation.
If the number of species drops too quickly, the Curators might come in and “transplant” a new empire in some empty systems. Obviously this shouldn’t happen with enough regularity that it makes winning as the sole survivor impossible.
Other Sketchily considered Possibilities
- Precursor vs. Precursor conflict: (quite trickily to pull off properly). The players empires may join with a Precursor side, and earn a diminished victory, or try to play one off the other and get them both destroyed for the full win.
- Summoning a Precursor: Some of the Precursors may leave various artifacts behind which would allow the worthy player empire to eventually send a message to asking to join them.