Master of Orion 3 was the third title in the series and was considered an all-around disappointment. The setting was heavily retconned, the interface unwieldy, and the game mechanics suffered from a rushed development, resulting in poor game balance, many severe glitches including crash-inducing bugs, and promised features ending up not implemented. The rushed nature of the game was reflected in its manual, which was full of typos and grammatical errors and was also ever updated.
Twenty thousand Galactic Cycles have passed since a supernova annihilated the diverse, multi-species culture of Center One. Over a hundred million sentient beings are believed to have left Center One before its destruction, whether willingly or unwillingly. These exiles and travelers spread out across their arm of the galaxy, and planted the seeds from which many powerful spacefaring civilizations evolved.
Over the course of eons, these civilizations explored vast ranges of interstellar space, expanded, and fought bitter wars of conquest. Many have fallen, and to those who remain the tales of the Elder Civilizations such as the Orions are mere myths, distant echoes of what might have been.
Yet the footprints of the Orions do remain, waiting for those inquisitive and persistent enough to find them. Artifacts of great power, and secrets powerful enough to transform entire civilizations, await those who explore this storied part of the galaxy. Other Elder Civilizations also exist, and beyond them, deep in the Galactic Core, another power grows slowly but surely. Are you prepared to become the Master of Orion, and to discover the truth behind the Orion Sector and its inhabitants?
Differences with previous games
Master of Orion 3 diverged from its predecessors in many ways. Contrarily to Battle at Antares, it was not an evolution of the previous game, but something entirely new, built from scratch by a different team, with very different design sensibilities.
The most drastic change was the introduction of the "starlane" system. In Master of Orion and Battle at Antares, fleets travel from star system to star system directly, based only on the distance between them. A ship's destination merely needs to be within a certain radius from a colony or outpost to be reachable from anywhere. In Master of Orion 3, however, each star system is connected to certain other star systems, and ships need to travel across these lanes, potentially requiring to go through several other star systems when there are no direct connections between their current position and their destination. On the other hand, ships can travel infinitely far from their home systems. This completely changes the nature of the game's strategy, which becomes focused on controlling chokeholds instead of building outposts to extend your empire's logistics capabilities.
Diplomacy was a frequent bugaboo for players of the previous versions, who complained that the AI would never mention simmering complaints (such as one's ships straying too close to their borders) until they reached a tipping point and suddenly declare war without saying why, even going from an uncomplaining ally to bitter opponent without notice. To avoid this, players had to painstakingly keep track of any potential complaints their AI friends might have, to avoid falling on their bad side.
Another radical design change was to make fleet battles take place in real time, instead of turn-based tactics. Controversially, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars also adopted these two changes from the original formula.
The Antarans, now calling themselves "New Orions", conduct diplomacy with other races and start the game holding the presidency (and a sizeable majority) of the galactic senate. The Antarans were made to survive the Battle at "Antares" by retconning the location; it is now explained that it took place not at Antares itself but at a major Antaran base called ConJenn, allowing them to play dead until they could rebuild their strength and take over the galaxy. Nearly all races are said to have been created by other races through genetic engineering, sometimes to an absurd degree. For example, the Trilarians and the cephalopod-like Nommo were created by the Antarans, and later the Sakkra emerged from exiled Trilarians who sought to make themselves able to live on the surface.
Nearly half the playable races were demoted to non-playable "magnate" status: the Alkari, Bulrathi, Darlok, Elerian, Gnolam, and Mrrshan. This was justified in the backstory by having their homeworlds destroyed by the New Orions, but the motive for this was supposedly to remove races that were not "alien enough". To replace them with more original aliens, they added two more lizardman races (Grendarl and Raas), another giant bug race (Tachidi), and of course a blue-skinned human race (Evon). The Meklar were changed into pure robots devoid of organic parts, which meant adding back another race of cyborgs (Cynoids) to fill the Meklar's original niche. More interestingly, a couple of "etherean" races (Eoladi and Imsaeis) were added with the particularity of living on gas giants. Finally a race of parasitic puppeteer bioweapons was added, the Ithkul, created, like everyone else, by the Antarans.
All these changes contributed to give MOO3 a very different feel from the original games. Going to great lengths to try to explain things that did not need explaining just so as to tie everything back to a reinterpretation of the Orion-Antares conflict makes the MOO3 universe feel like a fanfic of the Master of Orion universe.
Reasons for Master of Orion 3 Failure
Executive meddling by Atari is probably the single biggest factor in MoO3's failure, as management blunders at both the design and executive level caused problems both before and after its release. Among these:
Rantz Hoseley's "Realistic" Vision for MoO
Art director Rantz A. Hoseley reportedly hated the look of the aliens used in previous MoO games, labeling them as "cheesy" and comparing them to actors in rubber suits (except, ironically, he changed MoO II's cool-looking Trilarians into humanoids that looked like guys in rubber suits). He pushed for the inclusion of more realistic, non-humanoid creatures, while cutting several of the established races, many of which were fan favorites. The in-game explanation for their absence is that they were bombed to extinction by the Antarans (except for a few who apparently became hirable Leaders), who then performed hideous genetic experiments upon all of the surviving races.
The Departure of Alan Emrich
Rantz also clashed with Alan Emrich, one of the original MoO designers (and at the time, lead designer on MoO 3), over which direction the game should be taken. Emrich favored a traditional approach similar to the previous games, while Rantz again wanted a more "realistic" depiction of how a complex galactic empire would really be managed (this at one point resulted in a build of the game which used over 100 different GUI screens to keep track of everything). Emrich was eventually forced out early in the game's development, the various gameplay mechanics he had proposed (such as including systems of religion, government corruption, and the ability to explore neutron stars and black holes) were cut, and things went downhill from there.
Overly Aggressive Anti-Pirating Software
Software piracy was a big concern around this time, and Atari took steps to prevent it; unfortunately, the copy protection software they packaged with the game was so draconian that it actually prevented the disk from being read on optical drives that were capable of burning CDs, which meant that a number of paying customers who had legitimately purchased the game couldn't even install it.
Two Patches Into Oblivion
After the game was released, Atari created two bare-bones software patches that addressed only the worst of the outstanding technical issues; afterward, support for the game was quickly dropped. The developers claimed this was because many of the programmers who had worked on MoO 3 had either left the company immediately after the game was finished or had since moved on to new projects; as a result, the staff who were brought in to replace them didn't actually know how most of the game code worked, and were unable to fix any bugs.