A few weeks ago we brought you an interview from GamesCom with Civilization V's Lead Designer, Jon Shafer. Well, we had such a blast talking with him, we decided to go back for round two! Deep in the headquarters of the Illuminati, somewhere in the depths of London, we sat and chatted to Shafer, as well as Project Art Director Dorian Newcomb, about everything from how much we all love Strategy Informer, to Stardock, to Piracy, Cloud Gaming and beyond!
Get comfortable, because this one is just a little bit epic. Enjoy!
Strategy Informer:So Jon, last time we spoke to you, you said you read Strategy Informer. What is your favourite bit about it?
Jon Shafer: My favourite... well I have to say the Interview you transcribed where you mentioned that I read it. *laughs*, I didn't know if you were going to say anything after last time, and then right at the bottom I see a "PS, FACT". The comments seemed to be pretty good too.
Strategy Informer:We also spoke last time about the Mod Tools you will be releasing for the game, although you didn't know when. Do you have any new information on that?
Jon Shafer: I'm afraid not. We definitely have stuff planned but we're not sure on what the release time-table is. I know with Civ IV the SDK came out like, six months after release? I don't know if it's going to be similar, or earlier, or even later. We definitely have plans, but sadly I don't know what they are.
Strategy Informer:Another of the things you mentioned last time is that you were looking forward to the release of Elemental. That had a bit of a disastrous launch, what do you think about that?
Jon Shafer: You know, it's disappointing honestly. Yeah I was really looking forward it, and it's sad to see something like that happen. You know Brad (Wardell, Stardock CEO) cares and that everyone at Stardock cares about the game and wanted to do well and tried really hard... and it's just kind of odd, and kind of sad. But you know with Stardock they're going to continue to support it and that it's going to get where it needs to be eventually, get to where he's happy with it. So it's sad in the sense that it would be great if it was good right now, but you know it's going to be good eventually.
Strategy Informer:Speaking as a developer, how important is it to remain objective in the way that Brad admitted he wasn't? As someone who actually works on the game 24/7, it must be even worse for you guys to try and maintain that distance from what you're creating. How do you maintain that balance?
Jon Shafer: Yeah that's definitely important, but I think it's more of a personality thing than anything. Different people skew different ways - you have people who are naturally sceptical or even pessimistic about their work, and then you have people who are so into it that it becomes difficult to see what it is, and then you have people who are so irrationally in love with it, I think it just depends on the different people.
For me personally my natural inclination is to be sceptical towards my own work. It's kind of funny, because having played so much Civ V and having been so close to it, when I look at the game I see the flaws and it's hard to see the good things sometimes. But then other people are like "this game's good, things will turn out well", and I'm like good, that's how you know. For me, looking at Civ V, it's harder for me to sit down with it and say "Yes! Everything is as it should be!", and think that there's always something more than you can do. I think it's also to do with the fact that it's a franchise, so you always have these other games to compare it too like "Oh, Civ IV did this better" or "Oh I wish we could spend as much time on it to polish it" or whatever it is.
I think the biggest thing is that different developers have different personalities, and I think it's to Brad's advantage that he's so passionate because he owns Stardock and he can make those kind of games. Somebody that didn't care that much probably wouldn't be doing that so... I mean it's tough to make money on games.
Dorian Newcomb: I think I can be naturally negative as well. It's interesting because with design, I mean Jon could be as negative as he wanted with design, but with Art, if I'm feeling negative, I can't let that permeate the team. Individually I'll say "this is great work, this is great work" but often I'd then say "well, there's still so much to do". I think that with being naturally negative, you have people that you trust to give you the positive reinforcement that you need. In a good functioning team, there'll be a good stream of positive reinforcement that comes in. I don't know if Jon got all the positive reinforcement that he needed, but I know that whenever he would come in and I would say "I played the game, this was great, this was great, this was terrible", I'm sure he only heard that this was terrible. I think that the team that we had helped each other out with that a lot. Although, I tend to get snow-blind, and my snow blind is negative. I'm like "who could ever like my stuff". *Laughs*
Jon Shafer: *Joins in on Laugh* To be fair I never liked any of his stuff, so it was never just him towards himself.
Strategy Informer:Rolling on with this Stardock topic - one of their unique points is that they have their own digital store. Blizzard also have their own service for their games as well. Is that something you guys have ever considered?
Jon Shafer: Honestly at this point that would be mainly a 2K thing because Firaxis is very much dedicated to games development. So I would have to field that question elsewhere.
*At this juncture, the (rather lovely) PR lady sitting at the back spoke up*
2K PR: Sorry, what was the question again?
Strategy Informer:Just about whether Firaxis would ever consider opening their own store, because you know Stardock have one, Blizzard have one...
2K PR: Oh God... Yeah... No... Yeah... that would be a "2K thing", but we don't really have an answer, sorry...
Jon Shafer: Yeah...
*General laughter all around*
Dorian Newcomb: From my perspective it actually makes sense for PC developers to do that. But when you have a larger market that involves consoles, it doesn't make as much sense. As a consumer, one of the things that I like about Steam which we are shipping out on, I like the fact that I can go there and get a lot of games. But for every service I have to sign up for, each one feels less appealing. It's sort of hard you know, Blizzard seem to have a really good thing going with their Battle.Net, and I think Steam is very strong, and I'm probably going to wait to play Elemental until I hear about the upswing about the fixes. But you know just having to install another thing to get another game is like arrggh.
Jon Shafer: Well, to be fair you don't have to install Impulse... but you do if you want to update *laughs* which is probably a good idea... (Ed:Bazinger)
Dorian Newcomb: I'm a fan of the whole package, if you gonna commit you gotta commit all the way.
Strategy Informer:Coming onto Steam now. As you say, Civ V is shipping with Steamworks - how much of that decision would you say was attributed to the problem of piracy on the PC platform? Steam's approach to DRM is considered popular with many publishers, and isn't considered as intrusive as 'other' methods.
Jon Shafer: Well, Steam does several things. Obviously the copy protection is one piece of that and is an important piece. I also thinks things are going more and more in the direction of a central service where you have things like friends and achievements and everything in a central hub, and where you can also download extras for a game. And that's something else Brad was saying, the reason why so many companies are going to Steam is because it's not just one thing, it's many things, and on top of that it's free! Which is nice. So it was a combination of things, if the question was going to be some other form of DRM and a service that manages all these things, or just Steam which manages both, then it's probably better just to go with the one that handles everything.
And you know, there is DRM with Steam, but it's gotten to the point where it's fairly un-obtrusive. I mean you need the internet connection once, but after that you can play offline if you want. Some people will never buy into that model, which is unfortunate, but it has gotten to the point where so many people only buy games off of these digital services like Steam and Impulse, and honestly for me personally it's more of a convenience, because I can install it on my work computer, I can install it on my home computer, and with things like Steam Cloud you can transfer saves you know? So I think it's gotten to the point where, for most people, it's now a convenience, and It's a good place to be I think.
Piracy is a big deal, and even though people argue about how much it actually impacts anything, the fact is people perceive an effect to it, and so a response is necessary. We're fortunate because with Civilization V we believe it appeals to the kind of demographic that won't pirate every game, they're a bit older, which is good because people who are older tend to have more money! *laughs* And are willing to pay for entertainment. It's a complex issue, and I don't think it will ever be something that will really be solved. I mean they just announced that the PlayStation 3 was finally hacked and so you're going to see pirated games on that. It's back and forth.
Dorian Newcomb: I think Piracy's biggest negative is the fact that the money that it takes stops development of certain titles. So Jon's ability to make decisions and another game in the future are very dependent on basic sales. You did this, it sold this well. But if half the copies out there are pirated, even if people really liked it, he wouldn't have the same opportunities to take advantage of that. So I think that piracy, across all formats, hurts the opportunities of the creative people. Unless it's ridiculously bad, it might not be destroying company profits, but it erodes the individual freedom to create.
But from my perspective Steam was just a really good way to get a game out there. Within the company there are a lot of people, including me, who were surprised when I came home and installed steam and it was like "Do you want to install the game here?" And I was like "Whoa, why doesn't everything do this? This is amazing!". This whole idea of taking your games and making them account based seems to be a good thing to be a part off.
Strategy Informer:Following on with this theme then briefly, you said Jon that you feel things are moving towards a more centralised service. Obviously at the moment it's looking like Steam is going to become that service - do you think they deserve this then simply by virtue of being 'first'? Do you think something better could come along? Also, as a side-question, what do you think about Cloud Gaming?
Jon Shafer: I think ultimately everything can be improved, whatever it is - nothing is completely perfect. I think Steam does things really well and Valve was in a really good position. They put Half-life 2 out and Steam had some problems early on - I was one of the victims you could say. But you know they got that sorted out and that's been a big focus for them. I think it's a combination of being first, and going through the growing pains of improving the service. I think it's similar to how Blizzard have approached the MMO market - they are to the point where WoW is so polished, so big and so amazing it's hard to break into that because they've had the benefit of 6 years of time and 6 years of experience.
In terms of cloud gaming, it's always hard to say. I never like to try to predict the future of technology or gaming, you know, you always say something and it comes back to bite you later. I think it's a neat opportunity, but ultimately we'll have to wait and see.
Dorian Newcomb: The biggest concern for me at the moment is how much data can Cloud Gaming handle, and what happens if something screws up. I think it's very possible that in future, depending on how cloud gaming is handled, that it could be the clearest way to do things. But I know that looking at the graphics for Civ V on higher end systems, there's just a huge amount of stuff, that I don't think the bandwidth is there yet. I mean if I watch a small movie, and it lags, what's the situation going to be with this huge game? I dunno... I like something on my hard drive, you know? It's old-fashioned, I know.
Strategy Informer:I still like owning boxed copies as well.
Jon Shafer: Are you going to get the 'Special Collector's Edition' of Civ V?
Strategy Informer:(To 2K PR) Can I have a Special Collector's Edition of Civ V?
2K PR: Of course you can.
Strategy Informer:(To Shafer) Then yes, I'm going to be getting the collector's edition.
*General laughter ensues, followed by a conversation about Lanyards*
Strategy Informer:Coming back to Civ V now - obviously motion control is becoming a big thing, and if you look at Ubisoft, you could say they've successfully brought strategy games back to the consoles with Move & R.U.S.E. Would you want to do anything like that? Did you ever consider Move or even Kinect for Civ V?
Jon Shafer: Well with Civ V in particular - that's PC exclusive, and will always be. You're not going to be seeing that on any other platforms, that's where we designed the game. And because of that we were able to take advantage of the latest tech stuff, Steamworks, DirectX 11, Multi-core etc... We didn't really want to compromise that and say "Now, how can we make this work somewhere else...".
My personal preference, and I'm not a policy maker or anything, but personally, I think that if you're going to make a game for PC, then that's what you should do. I definitely play console games, I mean the last thing I played is Dragon Quest IX, which is definitely NOT a PC historical strategy game, but It's nice to see games that are specifically tailored to individual platforms. My personal inclination has always been towards PC strategy, because that's the first thing I learned. I may one day think about exploring other spaces if an opportunity comes up, but we'll see.
Dorian Newcomb: I think for me, I just think that there's an entirely different kind of game that comes out for PC, than for consoles. I think if there's an idea that's appropriate to transform a strategy game into the consoles, then that would be cool. When we started this, there was a question about why would we make a PC title? I mean I love PC's, and it's nice to be able to focus on one platform, regardless of the ills associated with it. I mean I joke around with people and point out that Facebook is a PC application, and all those Facebook games are played by PC players, and there's quite a lot of them.
I think it's a great market, and it seemed like there wasn't as much competition - so many people wanted to jump on the successes of the console, and they left this huge market behind, and I hope we've taken advantage of it. I'd like to follow game designers if they have an idea on how a games going to be played, and it seems like that's THE way it's going to be played. If you're just tagging on a certain control scheme or platform to try and take advantage of market momentum, then it's going to be harder to make a good game unless the designer is a believer in what they're doing.
Strategy Informer:Just one last question then, this one's for you Dorian: Are you aware you look like the guy from Jurassic Park?
Dorian Newcomb: *laughs* That's how I got my job at Firaxis! They were working on a dinosaur game and I came in for the interview and they were like "Ah! It's Jeff Goldblum! Oh he'd be perfect for this game!".
Jon Shafer: *Also laughing* True story!
Dorian Newcomb: I think that weighed heavily on the decision.
Jon Shafer: He's not actually Jeff Goldblum though, although he might be the evil twin or something.
Strategy Informer:Do you get that a lot then?
Dorian Newcomb: I've heard it once or twice... even at my interview!
Strategy Informer:Oh by the way, do you read Strategy Informer? So we can add it add it at the end as a FACT.
Dorian Newcomb: Unfortunately I've taken a break from... everything! *laughs* but it's one of those things that, I share an office with Jon and Brian Wade who's the programmer, and I can promise you that I will read it. It's funny though, there's conversations that only artists have with each other, and there's conversations that only designers have with each other, and you know Jon and Wade will natter back and forth. So... I've seen the website, over Jon's shoulder, and I've overheard discussions resulting out of articles.
Strategy Informer:So... it's a FACT then that you read Strategy Informer?
Dorian Newcomb: Well, I will now! I will make it a fact.
Jon Shafer: Retroactively!
There you have it folks, one final chat before the game is released in a few weeks time. Thanks go to Jon and Dorian for a great interview, and we hope to see them again sometime soon. We're certainly excited about this game, and we hope you are too. Civilization V releases on PC on September 21st for North America, and September 24th for Europe. Stay tuned for our review.
And Dorian Newcomb reads Strategy Informer - FACT*.