Civilization may be so wonderful that we're even prepared to tolerate its use of a "z", but it's hard to imagine building on something that was already so complete. Hard for us, anyway, but then we're not making it.
Lead designer Jon Shafer and producer Dennis Shirk, however, are making it, so when we popped over to preview Civilization V we also took them to one side and interrogated them about hexagons, community, AI and The Gandhi and George Show.
Eurogamer: 2009 was a pretty quiet year on announcements from Firaxis. What were you doing?
Dennis Shirk: Just about the same thing we're doing now. We've been working on Civ V for a little bit over two years now. Normally we'd have something to talk about, but over the course of an entire year now, we've both had to keep our mouths shut.
Eurogamer: This interview won't be published for a couple of months, but it's recent news at the moment: how do you feel about Irrational Games getting their name back?
Dennis Shirk: [Silence.]
Jon Shafer: [Silence.]
Eurogamer: Do you have any opinions on that at all?
Dennis Shirk: I do not. [Laughs, pauses.] That's a tough one. I mean, we're certainly glad that we're still Firaxis. So if Irrational can be Irrational again, I guess that's cool.
Eurogamer: I suppose what I'm getting at is that for me, it felt wrong that a developer like Irrational, who are as established as yourselves, got this sudden 2K branding. Was there never any talk of you becoming 2K Baltimore?
Dennis Shirk: Of course. It always goes around the building. But 2K recognises that Firaxis is one of those brands that are known for a certain thing, and I think they realised that no purpose would have been served by changing the name.
Lovely marketing lady: Sid said eh-eh [makes a farting sound].
Eurogamer: I love the idea that this rumour went tearing around the building, causing panic, until it hit the solid wall of Sid.
Lovely marketing lady: Pretty much!
Eurogamer: So, to tie that into Civilisation as neatly as I can, BioShock was seen as the game that sneaks literary references and philosophy into gamers' brains under the radar - are you doing a similar thing for history?
Jon Shafer: Not necessarily. I think Civ is a game that uses history as the framework. But it picks very specific individual events. We really want Civilisation to be the game that everyone recognises, when they see part of it, and they say, "that reminds me of this book, or this movie".
To do that, we didn't want to get too specific. Because if you do that, you're taking a specific experience and showing it to the player, instead of letting the player make their own experience.
That's one of the differences between a game like Civ and BioShock. They present interesting experiences, and we let the player do their own thing.
Eurogamer: Well, yeah. Everyone knows how BioShock ends. I always thought of Civilisation as humanity's fan fiction, is that something you'd easily reject?
Jon Shafer: Well, everything is grounded. It helps to love history. The starting points of the nations, and the flavours of those civilisations [flavours refers to the preferences a given AI has in its approaches - Queen Victoria's fondness for naval combat and reconnaissance, for example, and also the powers you get at the start of the game]. We're saying this is how you are, this is how you think, but in a certain circumstance that approach might not make sense. That's why it's an awesome game - it lets Gandhi rampage across the globe.
Eurogamer: Well, I'm sure I could find a fan fiction about that, somewhere.
Jon Shafer: And we have the Civilopedia entries, which have been around for a while. We definitely like to encourage interest in history. It's not an educational game, but we do like to promote the educational aspect of it, by sparking interest.
Eurogamer: That's something I love about games. There are words I wouldn't know if I didn't play games, like whetstone, kindling, falchion and phalanx. It just sticks in there. There's probably a lot of people who know about Chicken Itza because of you lot. Speaking of cultures, you mentioned yesterday that different cultures had different tiles. Did I hear that right?
Dennis Shirk: We've got geographic flavours, but they don't necessarily tie in to the Civ. We just wanted it to look, as you explored the globe, that these tiles might have an earthy European tone, and over here you'd see redding Asian tone with brown mountains, instead of the white-capped peaks.
Jon Shafer: You might start as Japan on the European tileset, it's more about tying it into the framework, again without getting bogged down in specifics.
Eurogamer: Ah, that makes more sense. Because you said that you're going, again, for a higher level of approachability, and I was worried that having lots of different tiles for the same thing might look a little chaotic. Is that the kind of thing you have to bear in mind, when adding these loving details?
Jon Shafer: Oh, definitely. We focus quite a bit on making sure that it's recognisable. I spend a lot of time with the artists, who like to go really far in a particular direction. That's great, because that's what their job is, but sometimes you have to rein them in and say "no no no, that grass looks a bit too much like plains - if you put that guy's grass next to that guy's plains, it won't work."
Dennis Shirk: And they're generally separated by an expanse of water, so it's not like they're all mixed up. Gameplay trumps everything.
Eurogamer: With that eye to approachability, Civ Rev came out in 2008, as you probably know. Have you bought anything back from Civ Rev, and into Civ V?
Jon Shafer: Definitely. There are a couple of things. The biggest one I'd note is the focus on the interface. You spoke with Russell and Mark. Russell, in particular, worked on Civ Rev, and that gave him useful experience with pulling the UI back to the necessities. That's definitely something we want to carry into Civ V, and going onward. We don't want to cut anything, but we do want the presentation to give the player only as much as they need.
Eurogamer: Like when you said highlighting the Settler's Build City command, and hiding the "delete unit" button in a sub-menu.
Jon Shafer: Absolutely. In terms of gameplay, we've pulled back the focus on large bonuses and effects. We want to you finish building a wonder, which can take a long time, and when it's done, you really feel the effect. That's something that Civ Rev really embraced, and that's something we're definitely putting into Civ V.
Eurogamer: Moving onto the Facebook version - you're clearly a company that knows the value of goodwill, but how is that going to work, financially? Is it an exercise in goodwill? Or the first free hit of crack?
Dennis Shirk: Put that on the box.
Lovely marketing lady: What we've learned in recent years is that it's a great game experience, and we want to deliver that in as many different areas that makes sense. That's what took it to consoles and the iPhone. Social networking seemed like a great fit for us.
So we want people to be able to play for free, but what we're hoping to build into it are micro-transactions. This hasn't been fleshed out yet, but we're considering letting people pay to have units built more quickly.
Sid will make sure it's all balanced, so it's not people spending all the money who'll win all the time.
Jon Shafer: It's obviously no fun if someone can just drop two hundred bucks and win the game, we definitely want to avoid that.
Eurogamer: Just let them buy purple fences, and nice frilly headdresses.
Lovely marketing lady: If there are ways to monetise it, as a corporate goal, that's something we like to do. Maybe it is a gateway drug! [Some alarmed shushing follows.]
Eurogamer: The idea that Civ was getting dumbed down for consoles was terrifying to your most loyal and entitled customers - are you nervous that anything you bring back might fuel those fires?
Jon Shafer: You never know exactly how these things are going to go. But in my time in the community myself, I was a critic. I understand how it can be.
Eurogamer: Is that was drove you into modding?
Jon Shafer: Pretty much. I was all like, "I can do that", now I'm like [screams in a manly whisper]. And people are like, "what are you doing", and I'm like, "same thing you'd be doing!" Drawing on that experience lets you see a lot of things that might not be obvious if you hadn't.
Eurogamer: When you add a new feature to Civ, are you aware that it's a pretty dense game anyway, and something has to be taken out?
Jon Shafer: With Civ V, we've recognised the need to keep the complexity the same as Civ IV. Of course, you can't just keep adding things, it wouldn't be manageable for the players. We want to keep the hardcore players, but we also have to keep expanding the number of players who're going to enjoy Civilization.
Eurogamer: Civ's always been the game that ratchets the player from placid simplicity to brain-sloping chaos, is that one of your weapons to rope in the newcomers?
Jon Shafer: Yes. Our goal is to keep the levels of complexity, but to ramp up the levels more easily for new players. We want to grab you in the first game you play.
Eurogamer: So, hexagons. Why did it take 20 years for that?
Jon Shafer: Part of it is the technological aspect. We wanted Civ V to look really good. Hexes make the maps look more organic, like I was saying yesterday. But hexes are more difficult to work with. Pretty much anyone can divide a sheet of paper up into a grid, but do the same with hexes.
Dennis Shirk: In the past, with the type of games we were making, squares served the design. Sid's been working on games like Civ a long time, and squares made sense. But with the switch to the new kind of combat, that made the jump to hexes easier for us, because it actually helped the game, makes the movement of units more interesting.
Eurogamer: Was it suggested for Civ V, but someone said, "no, we've got religions this time", save it...
Dennis Shirk: It comes up a lot. But it's in combination with the new one-unit-per-tile system that makes the new system really work, and it's that combination that's the reason we've only just introduced hexes.
Jon Shafer: We've also got a brand new terrain system that's been built from the ground up for Civ V. It's not easy to make a system that can build a truly random map that always looks good, it's something that hexes have helped us with.
Eurogamer: Sorry to ask a purely functional question, but there's something I'm not clear on - how do you decide what archers can see and what they can shoot?
Jon Shafer: They can shoot over things, if they're up a hill. The range is the same, but if they're in a jungle, all they can see is the jungle. But if they're on a hill and there's a forest between them and the enemy, they'll be able to shoot over it.
Eurogamer: Ah, for a while I though you might have introduced altitude, like in, er, Starcraft II... or... Populous. So, back to the one-per-tile thing - how does that work with great people and spies?
Jon Shafer: Have you played Panzer General? It's kind of a similar situation. You have ground units, and air units. You also have hexes and one-unit-per-tile. We've got three layers of units - civilian units can stack with military together. You can have a worker unit and a warrior unit on the same tile, but not two of either.
Dennis Shirk: Units take longer to build now, they're more expensive, and they're a lot more important to you, because you need to keep them alive. You can't just spam tons and tons of units. You could before, but we wanted to make it more interesting. So you have to make more decisions, advance in technology faster, and work towards building stronger units.
Eurogamer: Is this all part of some hippy mission to nudge players towards co-operation?
Dennis Shirk: Yes. That's something we really wanted to do, to foster that policy. War is fun, and blowing stuff up is awesome, but Civilization is about building. War is still a part that equation, obviously, but other options make more sense now.
Jon Shafer: We wanted to add depth to the combat system, but war isn't more advantageous as a tactic. If you like war, there's more depth for you there.
Eurogamer: So you're not discouraging war, just making it less of an obvious path to victory.
Jon Shafer: We're trying to equalise as much as possible. It speaks to different people's playstyles. Some people only play it as a war game, some people only conquer. On the other extreme, you've got people who never fight at all. We need to cater to both these groups, and we need to balance those approaches.
Dennis Shirk: And in making the war game more interesting, it's more tempting to get involved with that side of things. Really, you can play how you like.
Eurogamer: I always play like a good guy, because I'm paralysed by the idea my computer might think I'm an arsehole. And you've given some of the leaders a heartbreaking look of disappointment when it finally comes to war.
Jon Shafer: We spend a lot of time on the leaders and their AIs. And they'll call you out - if you take the City States around you, they'll call you a bloodthirsty warmonger. We've spent a lot of time on the visuals, as you've seen, but we always want their actions and reactions to reflect an important aspect of the game.
Eurogamer: It's such a peripheral thing, though - do you feel privileged, or indulged even, in the amount of time you're allowed to sink into these things?
Jon Shafer: It's great, it really is. A lot of it goes back to my time in the mod community. You earn a lot of respect for the art guys - I've got no skills in that department, my stick men are embarrassing. The amount of time being spent in these departments is what distinguishes a really good modder who makes a fun scenario, and somebody who has a full time.
Eurogamer: You mentioned that the leaders have an agenda now. What did they have before, if it wasn't an agenda?
Jon Shafer: The main difference with Civ V in the AI side is now separated into different levels. That's something that's new. Previously it was a lot more situational. The previous designer also wrote the AI by himself - now, we're benefitting from a larger team.
Jon Shafer: In the sense that it was looking at what was going on at the time, but it didn't project forward. So if it was an aggressive warmonger stranded on an island, it wouldn't be able to re-evaluate, and think that warmongering isn't such a great idea when you're by yourself.
Eurogamer: So will difficulty be based more in behaviour now, instead of numerical bonusses?
Jon Shafer: We're definitely pushing in that direction, but there are always going to be some players who are so good, we just couldn't write an AI that'd beat them.
One thing you'll see in Civ V, leaders will occasionally target other players really early in the game, depending on their personality. You can target that with diplomacy - give a gift, and so on - but it's something that'll keep you on your toes. Some people won't like that, but if you're playing on Deity difficulty, you get what you get.
Eurogamer: Will there be Sid, above Deity again?
Jon Shafer: We haven't sorted out the higher end, yet.
Lovely marketing lady: He wants to call it Jon.
Eurogamer: You mentioned modders. Knowing how online communities can be, have you met any online jealousy from your former peers?
Jon Shafer: None that I've come across yet. That's not to say it doesn't exist.
Eurogamer: It's probably a dumb question. It's not like you're going to say, "yeah, I've been meaning to get this off my chest, there's this guy who's a real DICK."
Jon Shafer: And his username is... [laughs]
Dennis Shirk: We have a large test group made up from the community too, and they've been a part of the process, playing the game 24 hours a day.
Jon Shafer: And this game hasn't really been announced yet, so come back to me in a couple of months.
Dennis Shirk: We recommend you take a look at the forums when this is announced.
Jon Shafer: Oh, I'm ready. I know what's coming. I've dished it out in the past, now it's my turn to get it dished.
Eurogamer: You've talked about the modding tools you're giving away - what will people be able to do now that they couldn't do before?
Jon Shafer: The main thing is, in terms of the creation of maps we wanted to make that a lot easier. We have an individual that's been working on the world builder tool for a long time now, and one of the first things I said to him was to include an undo and a redo fucntion. I've made a lot of maps, and something as simple as that makes a huge difference.
What's really new is a complete level of polish and dedication into that map-making process.
Dennis Shirk: My 15-year-old son could make a map now. That's not to say we've simplified the process, everything is still as moddable as it was before, just that the toolset is so much more streamlined and simple now.
Jon Shafer: We're going to have a utility that packages up the mods you make, too. In Civ IV, there were hundreds of files, tons of directories, and you toss in a readme, and hope people read it, and don't install the mod into their system directory. This utility puts it all into one file that you can distrubute, and unbundle with Civ at the other end.
Eurogamer: Is the submission to Firaxis for distribution a moderated process?
Dennis Shirk: We're still working through the system that'll be used for moderation. For the user, it'll be invisible - they'll submit, and it'll show up in the directory.
Jon Shafer: They'll be able to upload directly from within the utility.
Eurogamer: But modders will still be able to distribute their work in the chaotic old-fashioned way of the internet...
Dennis Shirk: Oh yes! People will be able to download from mod sites, of course!
Jon Shafer: We're definitely not looking to replace the community, here. We're just here to provide a showcase for people who expand the game.
Eurogamer: Is it just maps, or will people have access to other aspects of the game? Like the leaders?
Jon Shafer: [Blank look.]
Eurogamer: I guess what I'm asking is, will I be able to make a sitcom where Gandhi lives with Washington?
Jon Shafer: We're still finalising the plans about what we'll be releasing. But the art stuff is a little tricky, because of the complexity of what goes on there.
Dennis Shirk: People will be able to retexture the leaders, because that kind of thing is a lot easier, but when it comes to creating new animations, that's a little trickier.
Eurogamer: I'll take that as a no.
Dennis Shirk is producer and Jon Shafer is lead designer on Sid Meier's Civilization V. Check out our Civ V preview for more.