Wednesday 19 June 2019

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - 'We are going to make fans of space'

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth
Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

David Crookes

Since 1991, the turn-based strategy game series Civilisation has hit upon a winning formula. In flinging players back to 4000BCE and asking them to build a dominant empire spanning the ages, the game has always had one eye firmly in the past.

For series creator Sid Meier and the games' many fans, it was a perfect situation; Meier was able to indulge his own passion for history - “it's such a robust and fascinating subject”, he says – and the fans have been able to broaden their knowledge and micromanage their way through worlds that have been grounded in some sort of reality.

Along the way, the series has been lavished with scores of awards. The franchise has sold more than eight million copies and, in the early days, managed to single-handedly keep the games' former publisher MicroProse afloat. There have been five main games released for computers and two that have been developed for consoles and tablets. There have also been many expansion packs.

But now the series is about to truly take off. On 24 October, Sid Meier's Civilisation (Meier has always had his name on the box) is jetting into space. Beyond Earth will be the first game to take place entirely in the future with an emphasis purely on space travel and the colonisation of extraterrestrial planets.

While that may be one small step for a developer, it's a giant leap for the series, as current developers Firaxis know only too well. “There's plenty of pressure on us,” says co-lead designer David McDonough. “Civilisation is more than 25-years-old so it's a huge deal. We're dealing with our company's flagship product loved by fans all over the world. We have to get it right.”

Not that McDonough and his fellow designer Will Miller have shied away from the challenge. They say their first thoughts when discussing the move from the past to the future was entirely positive. By introducing far-flung planets and aliens, they have been able to widen the scope of their imagination. Rather than keep the game grounded in history and plausibility, they have been able to explore ideas surrounding technology, progress and culture. For perhaps the first time, imagination can be let loose on a Civilisation game.

“We've been able to come at it with a perspective of irreverence,” says Miller. “We're young guys and we have our own ideas of what a Civilisation game means. David and I have played Civilisation games for a long time and we think we know what is fun and what we can bring to the table to move the series on. And one thing we have always believed is that Civilisation, regardless of the era, is a wonderful simulation. We describe it as a “what-if scenario” generator and now we can open the possibilities.”

It is not the first time Firaxis has brought in fresh blood to bring new ideas to the franchise. Designer Jon Shafer may have pitted players in a barbarian kingdom at war with rival tribes and an ailing Roman Empire in Civilisation V but much work was carried on on the game's city warfare. Social policies could also be bought at the expense of earned culture. Miller and McDonough worked on Civilisation V and say they were inspired by Shafer's approach.

“Like Jon, we have been able to approach this new direction with confidence because of all of the support that Firaxis provides us,” says Miller. “We're only the most visible part of a wonderful team and there are people at the company who have been making Civilisation games for a long time.”

In order to win over the fans, the designers have been liaising with hardcore gamers to get their opinion on certain aspects of the game. They have also had the full support of Sid Meier, they say, trying carefully not to uproot the series' core ethos. Civilisation has had space elements before but this the first time the game has started in the future and there will be many players who will undoubtedly hark to the past.

“To make any game inside the legacy of Civilisation is to be a steward of something that is very important,” says McDonough. “I grew up on the Civ games and I appreciate the series' longevity and potency. I appreciate that what caught my imagination as a 10-year-old playing Civ 2 was a grand game that made me feel smart and celebrated the bookish things that I like. I found that those who played Civilisation games tend to be a fan of history and if they are not at first then they soon become one. What we are going to do is make fans of space.”

For those still unconvinced, both Miller and McDonough insist there will be the building of cities, battles to fight and an all-encompassing grand experience (which can be clearly seen by the narrative opener of the game's trailer). And yet the is set to be more accessible to newcomers than ever before. “One of the problems with games like this is that they can be brutal in their learning curve,” says McDonough, “and that's how it was with the earlier Civilisation games. But in the recent past, we've done a better job of layering the experience so that it feels smoother and is easier to get into and absorb. We certainly can't expect gamers to read manuals any more. Games have to do a lot more work to teach themselves to the players.”

Miller agrees. “The way we hope people approach this new game is to immerse themselves into the situation, make mistakes and figure things out. I remember Civ 2 when everything was blinking and I didn't know what to click on. It was so difficult but now we respect the player. We may not be in the past with this game but the core thesis is that we still want the player to feel awesome.”

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