Civilization V has long been a leading name in strategy games, especially turn based. Deep, complex, addictive, this franchise has been at the fore-front of the genre for the past twenty years. Now the fifth iteration, is nearly upon us and with it will come some major changes to an area that doesn't traditionally take change well.
Strategy Informer sat down with game designer Jon Shafer and talked to him about all things Civ in the run up to V-day.
Strategy Informer:So the game is releasing in mid-September, we're getting close to that now – how do you feel?
Jon Shafer: It's relieving. It's been a long ride... we've spent three years on this game and its finally coming to an end. It's kind of a surprise, well, not a surprise, but it's interesting when a project wraps up because you've spent so much time on it, you've seen It from beginning to end, to the point where we're showing off everything. It's really cool, it's relieving... and a little weird, all at the same time.
Strategy Informer:Not many games, especially strategy games, make it to their fifth iteration and still remain fresh. What kind of challenges did you face when approaching the initial planning stages?
Jon Shafer: Definitely it was a challenge with the fact that Civ IV had so much of a following and was so popular. That was a huge obstacle for us because we wanted to create a game that was worthy of being called a Civ game. For that reason we didn't want to re-hash what was already there, we didn't want to say “Hey, here's Civ IV plus... zombies!” or whatever. We wanted to be respectful of the series and step back and re-evaluate some big concepts that we felt needed some attention.
In particular the combat system we felt we wanted to change up, things like diplomacy and the addition of city states to really make the game more interesting. Additionally there were areas where we had easy opportunities to expand on the game – Modding in particular, we have a stand alone Map Editor that's really powerful. We had a guy working on it for about a year, and it's in really good shape, really awesome, people who enjoy that sort of game will be really happy with it I think.
We have the in-game mod browser which is a way for people to download mods into the game from our central upload service. So there were some opportunities in different places where we could expand, and other areas like combat, diplomacy, economics where we really had to think whether something was really going to add to the game or not. A lot of people are paying attention so we want to make sure that everything we do is worth while.
Strategy Informer:Touching quickly on modding: will the Map Editor be shipped at launch?
Jon Shafer: I'm not certain. It will be around launch, but I'm not sure exactly when.
Strategy Informer:Civilization V is shipping with Steamworks, how have you integrated modding with regards to that system?
Jon Shafer: The mod service itself is actually separate from steam, so that's all handled externally. The game itself is able to load and read mod-packs using this special tool. So if somebody wanted to make a mod they run it through this special tool and it creates a package that the game can then read and load. It's something where, instead of like in Civ IV where you have to take the files and change things manually and figure out what to do, the whole process has been streamlined now, and it works with Steam a lot better than other games.
Strategy Informer:Modpacks and officially supported mod-tools are all well and good, but basic modding is 100% flexible because you literally have all the files at your disposal. With these mod-tools and mod-packs, is there anything modders can't do? Any limitations?
Jon Shafer: Good question... the game can pretty much do anything Civ IV could, there are no added restrictions. Things will be a little bit different, but if you want to directly modify the files you can do that, if you want to load packages to your website instead of the central service you can do that as well, we don't restrict that. We're even going to set up feeds so that people just want to latch onto the service that way can. We tried to make sure that anyway we tried to streamline or improve didn't take away power.
Strategy Informer:Coming to combat then – obviously it's a drastic evolution. Forgive me for being a bit glib but, take for example ranged units being able to fire at range, seems a bit “well, duh?”. Has this evolution been a long time coming?
Jon Shafer: I'm certain you're familiar with Panzer General? it was actually the first game that I ever bought, and it's something that stuck with me and I'm a big fan of that game. I felt the combat system in it was a really good system that they had. It wasn't until later that I then found Civilization and then started playing that. One of the things that I'd always wanted to do was create a game that had the scope of Civilization but the combat mechanics of Panzer General, so that was kind of the inspiration behind what we ended up with in Civ V. We started off with something very similar to Panzer General, but it changed and evolved over time as we worked out what the details were. The general thinking was though that what was in Panzer General was a good start and we can expand from there.
Historically in the Civ series, combat hasn't been that much of a focus because so many other things were the focus,. The thing about Civilization is it isn't just a wargame, and the combat was one of the areas where we felt we had the most opportunity to expand, purely because it wasn't ever really one of the most loved parts of the game. There were a lot of other things that everyone were fans of. So it was an area where we felt most comfortable really changing things up a bit.
Strategy Informer:The Civilization series has been around for nearly twenty years now (Note: John has actually only worked at Firaxis for 6), how does it feel to have been at the fore-front of the genre?
Jon Shafer: Personally I think its really cool, because I'm a massive strategy fan. Now that Civ V is nearly done the games I'm looking forward most to playing are Victoria 2, Starcraft 2 and Elemental – definitely looking forward to those. It's been very neat to have this opportunity: there are very few strategy games that get as big a budget as ours or as much time as ours, or have the opportunity to make a game that will be played by as many people as ours. It's something that I personally took very seriously, and I know the team took it seriously, and I know that we're carrying the banner in some ways. We wanted to make a game that was worthy of being Civilization.
As a turn-based PC strategy game with Hexes, we wanted to say that this is the type of game that can live on, this is a series that can keep on going. We're not going to turn our backs on the people who keep playing and buying our games. It was a neat opportunity and we really wanted to embrace it.
Strategy Informer:Civilization IV had the two expansions plus the Colonization remake – what plans have you got for Civ V with regards to post release content?
Jon Shafer: We will have post-release support, I can't talk about what that will be though. I'd like to but Marcus would yell at me laughs but... there will be more. This is not the end.
Strategy Informer:Obviously I'm sure Firaxis can keep innovating this franchise if they wanted to, but at what point do you think you guys would need to move on to something new as opposed to just re-inventing what you already have?
Jon Shafer: I think every studio considers different ways to grow and change what they're doing. Even within the umbrella of Civilization... I mean Civilization is the whole of human history, and there's a lot of room there to change things and try different things. I think that's what Sid is currently doing with the Civilization Network which is the project he's currently heading up – he's trying to explore what Civilization can mean in a social gaming space. As something where you are on Facebook, but it is a game. Some of these 'games' on Facebook aren't really games at all, and what he's trying to show is that you can make a game, a strategy game, a Civilization game in that space. We think about a lot of different things and this is the next opportunity that we're interested in.
Strategy Informer:When it was first announced, Firaxis made sure to list some of the major changes to the franchise. What was the community response to all of that? Was there any negativity? Did anything surprise you there?
Jon Shafer: Surprised? Not really, but it was nice that the reaction I think across the whole internet was really strong. I think people were happy, particularly because it IS Civilization V, it is turn-based, it is PC-only, hexes... you know, it was one of the things we wanted to make clear, we're not turning our backs on PC gaming. There is a market for this: other people may be leaving it behind but that's not something we have any intention of doing, and Civ V is still a deep strategy game. I think people picked up on that from all over, from the official fan sites to the NEOGaf forums, people who are really excited about the game. It's been cool. Honestly, if anything surprised me it was how positive it was across the board. Usually in a strategy game you won't get that kind of attention so it's nice to see.
Strategy Informer: We've been playing the beta build a lot, and something I've noticed is that, whilst you haven't completely made it as accessible as Civilization: Revolution was, you have stripped out some elements and made it more aesthetically simpler, I feel. Some of the deeper meta-features have been stripped out, for instance. Was there a concious choice to make it more accessible to new audience?
Jon Shafer: Making it easier to get into was definitely one of our priorities, a bit goal was to try and keep the same level of depth and complexity but in such a way that wasn't in your face. When you start a game of Civilization V we don't you to be like “oh wow! That's a lot of buttons! Maybe this isn't the game for me...” we wanted to be more inviting, we wanted you to see the landscape and see how beautiful it is. We didn't want you to be overwhelmed by interface elements. That's something that we think we've done a good job with, but that's still a balance that we try to strike: a game that's accessible but at the same time still a successor to Civ IV and not overly simplified.
And there you have it folks. Marcus is the one to talk to if you want to know about post-release content. Don't forget to check out our preview, and we'll get our review up as soon as we're able. This is one game you won't want to miss.