A long time ago, in Galaxy far far away, a man named Brad Wardell created Galactic Civilizations II. It was pretty good: It had galaxies and civilizations and everything. Now he’s making a third game, and he’s using all the power that PC’s have to offer to make it a visual spectacle, coupled with GalCiv’s hallmark depth and management aspects. Not much was known about Galactic Civilization III… until we just went and asked him some questions about it. Now you know a little bit more:
Strategy Informer: So, the possible existence of a Galactic Civilization’s III has been rumoured since 2009. How long have you guys been actually working on the game?
Brad Wardell: We probably started pre-production back in 2009 in terms of starting to think of all things we wanted to do in terms of design and putting together what assets we’d need. But we didn’t start getting heavily into development until I’d guess 2011.
One of the things about these game development projects is that they tend to be very long processes. You don’t have a bunch of people working on it for years and years, you start putting more people on it as it ramps up… you don’t want a bunch of people sitting around right? The artists can’t put their stuff into the game if there’s no engine, for example. We developed a new engine for the game so that we could have prettier visuals and support bigger galaxies and that. We had to wait until that part was ready to go, and then we started moving artists and more engineers on to it.
Strategy Informer: You’ve said that your game is going to only work on 64-bit computers – that’s quite a statement.
Brad Wardell: The vast majority of our users have 64-bit Operating Systems already, so it’s really not that big of a thing. For us… 64-bit is just about memory, we wanted to have a much richer galaxy. Even GalCiv II, back in 2006, we were bumping up against that 2 GB limit. We had people who were like ‘oh, I really wish we could have even larger galaxies with more detail’ and we’d say ‘yeah, we’d love to that too, but we can’t do any more. We’re out of memory’. In a strategy game… I mean I’m playing Battlefield 4 at the moment, which I love, when it’s not crashing… but in that game you have 64 people, but you only see a small part of the map. In a strategy game like GalCiv, we have to keep the whole Galaxy in memory. There’s no way around that.
Strategy Informer: Do you think more PC developers should aim for 64-bit only? Can it provide better experiences in their games?
Brad Wardell: I think that by the time Galactic Civilization III ships, the majority of games in development will be 64-bit. I mean it’s… heck the consoles are all 64-bit, so just as a practical matter, anything that’s being made cross-platform is going to be 64-bit.
Strategy Informer: A lot has changed since you stopped working on Galactic Civilization II, in the past couple of years especially there’s been a resurgence of Space 4X games – what do you think of them? Spotted any good ideas?
Brad Wardell: I’ve played them all and enjoyed them, but all of them have their own idea or direction on how they imagine a space-strategy game should go, and Galactic Civilizations has its own particular idiom on how it works. I find them all very interesting but… ironically, if we’re stealing ideas, they tend to come more from the Civilization games than from the space games.
Strategy Informer: You’ve got a Founder’s Program going as well, what do you think of the new and different ways games can get funded these days?
Brad Wardell: It’s the same thing we’ve done… even the OS/2 version back in … 1993, we’ve done that with every single game, we’ve always had a public beta program. Obviously we believe in this system as we’ve been doing it for all time. I’m a believer of getting the community involved as early as possible. For one, you get a lot more stability, generally, and two; you get a lot more feedback. The one thing that has changed though… now that retail isn’t really a factor anymore, you have the ability…. Like if you don’t feel your game is where it needs to be, you can go “you know what? I know that we said we were going to release in two months, but we’re going to push it back another six months because we can do that”. In the retail days, you tried to do that you’d get sued! I mean Wal-Mart, Best Buy would be like “err, what? No you have a contract with us, you have shelf space, you can’t just… you’ll never have a game on our shelves again if you do that.”
Strategy Informer: In days past you guys had your own Impulse store, and were investing heavily in that, but now that you’ve sold it to GameStop I imagine things like Steam are no longer direct competition for you guys. What do you think of Valve’s initiatives with Steam? Are you going to tie yourselves to them more now with SteamWorks?
Brad Wardell: We like it a lot. We’re constantly adding more SteamWorks features into our games. Our last game, Elemental: Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes is SteamWorks, and that allowed us to do a lot of interesting things with it, like having achievements and stuff. With GalCiv… well SteamWorks is what’s making the multiplayer possible. If it wasn’t for Steamworks, we wouldn’t be doing multiplayer for GalCiv III.
Strategy Informer: Multiplayer is something you’ve talked about for this game. I assume we’re talking about something beyond the asynchronous set-up you’ve had for Galactic Civilization II. Has that been challenging for you guys? It’s not something you would have done before.
Brad Wardell: It hasn’t been challenging… I mean it’s a single-player game first. We’re not making any promises to have some kind of multiplayer balance or anything like that. If one race is better than the other in multiplayer, well, that’s too bad! We’re not going to sacrifice the single-player. On the other hand I think that being able to get together with some friends, and play co-operatively against an AI player or just have a duel with a couple of friends is still pretty fun… the main reason why we haven’t done it in previous GalCiv is the bandwidth. As a turn-based game… with potentially giant Galaxies, there is a lot of data. In something like an RTS game, there’s no that much stuff, but for us, all the details… as far optimization, if you’re trying to make a great experience in turn-based multiplayer, it’s about decreasing the amount of data you’re sending.
Now though, if everyone has a cable modem, or at least some kind of high-speed connection, it’s not that big of a deal to send over a couple MB’s per turn. That’s nothing, I download JPEG’s now that are bigger than that. Your phone takes pictures bigger than that. But in 2006, the idea that someone would have to download 5MB’s per turn that was like crazy.
Strategy Informer: I quite like the idea of not everyone being created equal – or rather some races starting off more powerful than others. You see it a lot in Science-Fiction TV and movies, but rarely in games, as they try and give everyone a level playing field.
Brad Wardell: A lot of it comes down to the races, right? We don’t want to get bogged down in… some races are better at warfare then the others. If you’re playing as the Drengin Empire, for example, who are basically these military guys, versus someone else, they are going to have technology that leads to a little bit better military. The humans tend to be better at Diplomacy, better at the cultural part of the game, where they are expanding their influence and trying to conquer players through their T-shirts and shoes! You know you’ve won when you see the Drengin youth running around in Blue Jeans. I don’t want to ever create a scenario where I’ve got my player base going “Well, you better nerf those Drengin Death Rays because the humans are 15% less likely to win the game because Diplomacy isn’t quite as powerful… “ I don’t want there to be discussion of nerfing races. The races are what they are, they are meant to be unique, and true to what they are, and there will be cases where some of them in certain situations are going to be better than others.
Strategy Informer: Galactic Civilization II wasn’t without its oddities. An example I like to use is that you have to research the ability to invade planets, when you can already colonise planets from the beginning, and it’s a very ‘late-game’ tech as well. Are you going to be addressing some of these in GalCiv III?
Brad Wardell: There’s a long list of things... I mean you go back and you play GalCiv II and you go ‘ooo’... I’d disagree with you on the Planetary Invasion thing, as that’s just the game not conveying to you properly what that tech does... players don’t have to research individual elements like air superiority, ground troop weapons, logistics... you know, all those things you’d need to actually conquer a planet. It’s just that...
The tech tree in GalCiv II just comes across as so arbitrary and boring... I was talking to Derek about this, he’s our VP of Stardock Entertainment... GalCiv II is probably the last game Stardock made where I realistically should have been handing things to other people to work on. You can really tell... and it really shows in the tech tree where, I kind of phoned it in. I was starting to get too busy working on the rest of Stardock, at that point, that I really didn’t have the time or energy to put into the tech tree. I go back and I look at it now and I’m like “really? There’s a tech here that does nothing. It’s just a tech! It’s a tech that only allows you to get to the next tech” How did this get past... what was I thinking!?
Tech descriptions in GalCiv II, you can I didn’t have enough time to do it properly. Lasers II is better than Lasers I. Really? Is that it? Why even HAVE Lasers II? Why call it that? It’s just so lazy. That’s one of the areas that’s been dramatically improved on. I mean... The tech tree does its job tactically, it just does it so soullessly and lazily. And so I think you can have your cake and eat it too, you can have a game where these things don’t seem like they’re arbitrary or anything. Today people are a little more discerning.
Strategy Informer: What do you think about Combat in Galactic Civilization? It was very hands off in the second game – are you planning on doing anything special with it for GalCiv III?
Brad Wardell: We don’t want to turn it into something like Masters of Orion, where you have like fleets of thousands of ships and you have to command every ship in the fleet and tell them what to do every turn because that would be... I know there are plenty of gamers who want that, but at some point that’s what your game becomes about. When it comes to games like this it’s always about what percentage of your time are you spending on what? In Galactic Civilizations, it is about your civilization. You are building fleets, designing ships, running planets, you are not telling which ship to fire at. That’s not what the game’s about.
At the same time, I always found it, in hindsight, the fleet battles in GalCiv II felt a little hollow. You design these ships, and you do all this cool stuff, and then you don’t really have any control over the battle. I don’t know about you but it always struck me as a bit of a missed opportunity, and that’s something we hope to make use of this time.
Strategy Informer: What is your approach to ship design? I mean it’s easily something that can be taken for granted in games like this, but I think games like Minecraft etc. all show there is a massive desire by gamers to create something, to put their own heart and soul in something. It’s more focused in space 4X games because you can then take your creations and use them as you conquer the galaxy. Do you think designing a good ship-builder system is a case of giving players plenty of tools, or is there a way to do something really special?
Brad Wardell: Oh yeah, I mean ship design in GalCiv III is probably the part that’s, it’s one of the most upgraded parts. In fact it’s at the point where we’re making an advanced mode for the people who are really hardcore, and then the normal mode for everyone else because... the hardcore ship designer, you can import your models direct from Maya! I mean, the artist who designs our ships is now describing it as Maya for ships because now you can select your material, you can select all kinds of tools so that you can make the ship you want. With DirectX 10 and, 64-bit, with the high-resolution textures, you can make whatever you want and it looks beautiful. Like something you’d see in a movie.
Now the players can do all kinds of things that we’d only have dreamt of back in 2006.
Strategy Informer: You’ve put a lot of work into creating the lore and narrative of your universe, and you have loads of story-driven single-player campaigns. What would you say is the most important part of the game though? These campaigns or the sandbox experience?
Brad Wardell: Sandbox. Definitely the sandbox. I mean, we provide the narrative story to help introduce players into understanding more about the different races, I mean to me that’s the point of it. In a civilization game, people already know the difference between the Mongols and Ghandi. They already know who Ghandi is, and so know what to expect from him. The campaign is there so that you learn that the Drengin are bloodthirsty bastards, and that the Alterians are kind of snobby but ultimately pretty benevolent, and you get an idea for what their personalities are actually like. So when you play the sandbox, you know what to expect.
Strategy Informer: Are there any features from GalCiv II that you’ve cut going into III? Anything that in hindsight just didn’t work out?
Brad Wardell: There are a couple of things that we’ve changed to the point that you might as well call it cutting. All the GalCiv games have had this nebulous Good vs. Evil thing, which is kind of fun, but who wants to play as evil? You always end up playing as either neutral or good, at least statistically people did, and obviously some people liked playing Evil. We’ve replaced that with what we call ‘Ideologies’ instead. I’m a Star Wars fan, and I much prefer the Sith vs. the Jedi, and even though people are like “no, the Sith are evil!” well no, the Sith don’t see themselves as Evil. If your ideology is evil then yeah, you’re basically evil, but having Ideologies has more flexibility. It makes the game much more interesting.
Strategy Informer: How are you going to approach Diplomacy and Trade in GalCiv III – I’ve found that they can be hard things to get right, or to make ‘special’ in any meaningful way.
Brad Wardell: One of the things about Diplomacy is that, in games, it seems to have moved more and more to being about Trade, right, trade or ‘give me stuff’. But again this is kind of a missed opportunity in the GalCiv and strategy games in general, because Diplomacy is about achieving your ends through non-violent means, and it doesn’t have to be like “give me four rocks for three space diamonds”, how about “I’ll help you do this, so I can influence that, so we both benefit”. It doesn’t have to be equal exchange. I could help some guy fight some insurgency on some planet, in exchange for him allowing my cultural goods into his empire, which spreads my culture. There can be many instances where you’re trading – no, that’s not even the right words – where you’re getting your goals through other people.
Strategy Informer: Stardock has had some rocky releases over the past few years – like the first Elemental game, for example. How are you going to reassure players that this won’t happen with Gal Civ III?
Brad Wardell: The first Elemental game was a case of... a big part of that was we had never done a land-based game, as a result we really didn’t understand what we were getting into, and in terms of now we had to deal with terrain and now we have animation systems for that. It was too much. We didn’t have anywhere near the QA we should have had, we were too dependent on too few people, and one of the things we probably can’t ignore was the Impulse factor. We were heavily investing in Impulse, and in any company you have your best developers and I put them, the GalCiv II team was largely on Impulse, so we had a lot of younger, less experienced (still great talent) developers making Elemental.
We’ve greatly expanded since then as well, and the GalCiv II team is working on GalCiv III. The blame shouldn’t be placed on the developers; ultimately it was my fault for not realising... I mean, it’s funny, we’re a software company too, and we have a very engineering-like design process there. Project Managers, deadlines, clear goals etc... but then it comes to games we’re all like “yay! Let’s have some fun!”.
So after Elemental that’s where we changed things, games now have official Designers, they have official Producers, Associate Producers... and these are all positions that just didn’t exist back in Stardock pre-2010.
Strategy Informer: What can you tell us about the Founders Alpha and the Beta?
Brad Wardell: We expect to be in public beta for like a year before release. Even then, we have two things going for us – we don’t have retailers, and we don’t have shareholders telling us what to do. We’re free to indulge ourselves this time around. I remember back with GalCiv II, even though the game turned out fine, holy shit, that had to ship by February 2006 or we were screwed. Now though it’s like ‘eh’.
The Alpha and Beta will be playable when they come out, but it’ll be good year before and they’ll be pretty rough as well, it’s not like they’ll be pretty. Most of art assets won’t be in by that point, and the gameplay will still be pretty rough. Certainly the A.I will be rough as I will have only put in the most rudimentary stuff by then.
Strategy Informer: I’m trying to get a sense of what kind of feedback you’ll be looking for though, especially in the Alpha. Theoretically speaking a game that’s still in Alpha can still be changed quite significantly, whereas when you get to Beta all you’re really doing is testing, bug-fixing and balancing. You’ve already said though, for example, that you don’t want to build a serious tactical combat mode. Obviously then you’ll ignore anyone in the Alpha asking for that – so what ARE you looking for?
Brad Wardell: Well you always have to play it by ear, right? One of the challenges with any game is that there are always going to be a certain amount of people who just don’t want that game, they want a different game, and someone who didn’t like GalCiv II is probably not going to like GalCiv III. If they really hated it... obviously it depends on why, but if someone who wanted GalCiv II to be a tactical combat game is probably not going to like any GalCiv game. The one that always comes up is, someone who wants GalCiv to be more like Masters of Orion is probably not going to ever be satisfied as we’re not making a Master of Orion game. I love MOO, and I wished we tried to pick it up, as I would love to make a game like that, but it’s a different game.
Strategy Informer: Just to wrap things up then – you’ve mentioned you’ll have more announcements coming in December. With such a long testing and dev time, you’ll need to keep the interest up as well. What can we look forward to in future announcements?
Brad Wardell: Certainly the screenshots will start coming out by December, so people will start to see the UI, the design and stuff. Here’s an ironic thing in terms, so, I was looking at the early Galactic Civilization two artwork, and back then I did a lot of that myself. We hired the lead character artist from Obsidian who did the Fallout: New Vegas creatures and stuff, and it’s amazing how much better the artwork overall has gotten, because of the enhanced team. I think that’s one of the things people are going to be surprised by.
Many thanks to Brad for agreeing to talk to us. It’s a shame really, because as excited as we are by the prospect of Galactic Civilizations III, it sounds like it’s a long way-off yet. Still, with a Founder’s Alpha AND a public beta phase, it’s not like we won’t be given plenty of opportunity to try it out. Stay tuned for more information as we get it.