Lately, Stellaris has been going through a series of changes. The 4X game is widely considered a satisfyingly fresh take on Paradox's customary historical strategy titles, bringing a feeling of exploration and freedom to what is usually a pretty restrictive genre.
However, the new direction the game is taking seems to be polarising the community, mainly because it is steadily replacing creative freedom and player agency with doubtful mechanics, moving the sci-fi epic more and more towards Paradox's version of "Europa Universalis in space".
In June 2016, original Stellaris game director Henrik "Doomdark" Fåhreaus stepped down, leaving Martin "Wiz" Anward in charge of the team. Fåhreaus is an experienced game director who worked on Hearts of Iron and Crusaders Kings 2 before leading Stellaris, and his team was responsible for the implementation of Paradox's current business model where games are built with expansion in mind and supported after release for years on end. Anward, meanwhile, was an AI programmer turned project lead of Europa Universalis IV, and fans were initially excited to see what he could bring to the sci-fi epic.
A year and a half later, that excitement is turning into concern. While Stellaris successfully shipped two expansions since Anward took charge, players' creative freedom has consistently suffered with every successive update. Each new patch brings with it restrictive changes to existing mechanics, relentlessly adding hard and soft limits into what was previously an expansive sandbox, and lately, Anward's attitude has started to polarise the community.
In July, when Paradox released a number of new themed voice packs for the in-game advisor interface, Anward accused the community of disliking the militarist version solely for being a female actress. Hundreds of members retorted, arguing that the problem was not the gender, but that the aggressiveness and lack of restraint sounded "more like some tribal savages than any properly organized military", but Anward kept accusing the players of sexism and closed down any thread that tried to discuss the subject.
Recently, Paradox has been working on a major new update meant to fix several longstanding issues with the game, including war and diplomacy. Dubbed the "Cherryh" update after famed sci-fi author C. J. Cherryh, the intended 2.0 patch started on a good note by expanding the role of starbases, before quickly taking a turn for the worst and slowly eating away several mechanics a major portion of the playerbase loved.
Stellaris' main draw was always its free-form nature, where players were free to create their own race from the start of its galactic expansion to its inevitable demise or supremacy. That genesis involved designing the look, appearance, and government of your species, alongside crucial technological aspects such as faster-than-light travel and weapon types. For the past two years, Stellaris has given players three choices of FTL travel at the beginning of a campaign: the slow omnidirectional warp drive, the quick linear hyperlanes, or the unpredictably instantaneous wormhole; while armament included missiles, laser, or kinetic weaponry.
Those are all gone. As revealed on the latest developer diaries, FTL options are being completely removed from the game. Forcing every single race into using hyperdrives in order to flatten Stellaris' galaxy and allow the creation of chokepoints, the choice to remove what was one of the unique selling points of the title caused massive upheaval in the community and disappointed a large portion of the playerbase.
A month later, further changes were announced including the removal of the choice of starting arsenals when creating races -- all species will now start with all three weapon types -- and a controversial new mechanic called "force disparity", a highly artificial and immersion-breaking bonus that increases the damage smaller fleets due to larger fleets which outnumber them. This new bonus is part of a rework of the fleet system with the intend to prevent the use of a single extremely powerful group of ships known as "doomstacks" during warfare (which by all intents, apparently fails in addressing the real causes of the issue in the first place).
Furthermore, Anward uses Europa Universalis terms in latin that have never appeared in the sci-fi game, such as "casus belli" and "terra incognita" - fundamentally human concepts that date back to medieval times and Age of Discovery - that have no place in a sci-fi opera packed to the brim with vastly differing alien cultures. Stellaris' direction seems to be moving away from a unique take on space exploration that respects alien cultures, and more and more towards a human-centric view of how interstellar empires work.
Those series of changes aimed at transforming Stellaris into a space-themed version of Earth's flat world map are not sitting well with a large portion of the community, and even those which agree that developers know best are highly skeptical that these are actually the best solutions for the game's problems. Allied to the myriad of restrictions and limits constantly imposed with every single update, this cast serious doubts about the future of the 4X title.
While Stellaris' flaws have long been documented, a good portion of the community seems to be at odds with the ways the team is planning to fix the problems by adding more and more restrictions. It seems like to an Earth hammer, every problem is an Europa Universalis-shaped nail.