For 25 years, the Civilization franchise has set the bar for 4X turn-based strategy games. It charted the courses of thousands of virtual civilizations. It established the mantra of "one more turn" as players feverishly learned the intricate systems of establishing, growing, and steering their own sprawling empires.
With the upcoming release of Civilization VI, developer Firaxis faces a daunting task: maintaining the overall skeleton of the series, while also replacing a few bones here and there. In other words: maintain the loyal player base, but evolve the series for newcomers as well, shaping something altogether new and challenging for both camps.
Senior gameplay designer Anton Strenger is no stranger to the Civ series -- he worked on Gods and Kings and Brave New World, the Civ V expansions widely acknowledged to have improved the game tenfold. Now, with his first numbered entry in the Civilization franchise on the horizon, we sit down to talk with the series veteran.
The team that created the lauded expansions to Civilization V, Gods and Kings and Brave New World, is making Civilization VI. How did development on those expansions influence what you're doing now?
Strenger: In Civilization V, we noticed though that players started to fall into certain patterns, especially more experienced players. I think a lot of them had certain routines that they fell into, like "I'm always going to try to build the Great Library wonder, or I'm going to try to research this technology path every single time."
So, starting very early on from Civilization VI, we thought about ways to mix things up and have players think on their feet more. And a large part of that were these two big design pillars of unstacking the cities and of active research. With unstacking the cities [onto different tiles], you can't just build your science buildings in any city you want--you have to find a nice district for them to go into, and the bonuses you're getting from that really depend on the terrain around you.
You're trying to make the game different every time we play. Is that the main goal with Civ VI?
Definitely. Unstacked cities and active research are a huge part of that. Depending on what's around you on the map from the very start, you're going to have different things encouraging you to go in different directions than you might be used to. There will be shiny things that we're going to dangle off to the side. So players can try something that's new to them, and there's not going to be a golden formula every time.
You said earlier that every Civ is potentially someone's first Civ game. Tutorials are the obvious answer, I guess, but how are you making sure that all this information isn't overwhelming? How do you make such a deep franchise accessible?
It's a challenge, but it's also one we take very seriously. Tutorials are definitely one of our answers, but I'd say we take a layered approach in several different ways in the way we teach the game. Once you're in the game, you also have advisors come up and tell you about certain things that happen in relation to what's going on in your empire.
So you might make your first trade route or finish your first Civic and an advisor will come up and say, "This is what's new now. This is something that's a new part of the game."
We consider this when we're designing the systems themselves. As you play more games, you can peel back the layers and dig into them and find out exactly what's going on and exactly how you want to be tactical about different situations.
The map itself seems like much more of a character this time around.
That's actually not far off from a phrase we use internally which is, "The map is the star." It's the thing that's on-screen the most of the time, so we want to make it fun. We want to give it character. We want to have it be different every time. Not only the map, but the cities that you make on it, and where you choose to place that science district, where you choose to place that Wonder. It's going to form a very memorable configuration. I still think back on games I played six months ago and I remember, "Oh yeah, there was this city where I had it on this weird peninsula and I built the pyramids across the way."
The game itself just seems to have much more style than its predecessors -- between the artwork, the distinct cities, the leaders and their individual behaviors.
That's been one of our big goals, too, with the agendas and how all those work, and the gossip and the diplomatic visibility that you increase over time. We want to have a rich cross section of history.
But I'd say with VI, we were particularly interested in choosing characters from history that had this colorful and vibrant personality, and these cool and historical traits that we would latch onto and give gameplay for. Like Teddy with his big stick, Pedro with his Great People, and Emperor Chin with his almost monomaniacal "I-must-build-the-best-Wonders-ever" attitude.
How do you balance making each play-through different with the fact that these leaders are a little more predictable?
That's where hidden agendas come in. Every leader has their historical agenda, and that's the same every time, but they also have one hidden agenda that's going to be different every game. You investigate those through careful observation, or by getting diplomatic visibility, or by sending trade routes and delegations and spies later on in the game. So in addition to being the Wonder-obsessed person Emperor Chin is, in this game, he might have this city-state agenda where he wants to become friends with city-states and he dislikes people that are competing with him.
So that's another example of a ripple effect.
Yeah. One of our QA [quality assurance] testers who works at the studio with us, he loves building Wonders. He's a big cultural player and always piles up all the Wonders. But if he starts next to Emperor Chin of China, he might think twice about it. It's like, "Well, I could do this, but I'm risking him being very angry at me and potentially ahead going to war with me. Or maybe I look for a different direction instead. Maybe I go on a path that I haven't really been on before."
My last question is kind of loaded. But what do you think Civ VI will mean within the context of such a storied franchise? Looking back, what will its legacy be in hindsight?
I've got two answers. The first one is the more direct answer. I really think it's the unstacking the cities. I've seen how much it ripples across all the different game systems. If you think about the transition from Civilization IV to V, part of it was moving maps from tiles to hexes, and that was pretty significant. But perhaps even more significant was the unstacking of units. So no longer having these single-tile armies of doom that are walking around. It made combat about tactics and placement, much more so than it was about raw production.
The second answer is more aspirational and it'll remain to be seen, but I'd like to think that Civilization VI is where we open the doors to new players more than ever before. I learned Alpha Centauri over my friend's shoulder when I was in middle school, and it was like a rite of passage. He had to explain it to me, and there were a lot of systems to penetrate. I feel like every time we do Civilization, we get better at teaching new players. But it's a challenge. It's a very deep game. There's a lot going on. It's very fun for a lot of people once they get to that point where they're seeing the "one more turn" feeling, and they understand how things are fitting together. We've been trying really hard in VI to bring that to the forefront and to get player to see that more transparently than ever before. I'd like to think that this is where our audience grows.