There's a lot of talk about how there are too many sequels knocking about these days, and how too many of them are too similar to their predecessors. But there's also an argument in favour of sequels which deliberately don't muck about too much with the original formula - if it worked well the first time, why not simply try to improve on it, rather than change it? After all, when you make a nice cup of tea, are you disappointed if it turns out to be very similar to the last one you drank? Are you tempted to, say, replace the milk with soy sauce, just to make it a bit "darker"? Why not just serve it in a nicer cup, perhaps with a saucer and everything?
That seems to be the thinking behind Caesar IV, the latest instalment in the hit city-building series that's due to arrive on shelves this autumn. You can expect the same basic gameplay, essentially, but it's served in a brand new engine built from the ground up. The Caesar series is going 3D for the first time, and doesn't it look pretty? High dynamic range lighting, bump-mapping, procedural shadows - you may neither know nor care what all those are, but they're all in here, and you'll be grateful when you see the game in action.
But while the new 3D engine and super spanky graphics are the most obvious differentiators between Caesar IV and its predecessors, they aren't the only ones, as we found out when we sat down with designer Tony Leier for a chat recently. He began by taking us back to basics and explaining how the whole thing works.
When the game begins, you find yourself in the role of a provincial governor in the Roman Empire. You'll receive orders from the senate, or in some cases from Caesar himself, which revolve around city-building. There are between 20 and 30 missions, and they're divided up into two types - economic and military. So, you might be tasked with building a city in Sicily to produce grain which can be shipped off to Rome, for example. Alternatively, you might have to build a city in Northern Italy to fend off the enemies of empire who are mucking about on the border.
"You can make your own way through the campaigns, choosing a more economic building scenario or a more military building scenario depending on what you want to do - until at the end, at the height of the empire, you finish the last scenario and become Caesar yourself," Leier says.
But there's a lot of work to be done before you get to rest those laurels on your very own head. At the start of each mission, you're faced with an empty map, and your first key decision - where to start?
"A lot of what makes the city-building different between scenarios is the different conditions we give you to deal with," Leier explains.
"So you'll have different land areas to build on, your water may be in a different spot, there may be different amounts of farmland, you may have iron available or you may have to buy it by setting up a trade route..." In other words, the spot on the map where you begin your city could be key to its future success.
To get things up and running, you'll need some good hard workers to move in - the plebs, as they're known. Build homes and they will come, and work in your farms and factories. Once basic infrastructures such as a consistent supply of food and water are in place, poncy middle-class types such as priests, doctors and entertainers will start to turn up. They're a bit more demanding than the workers, though, so you'll need to provide them with better houses and a means of obtaining fancier goods.
Then will come the upper classes, known as the patricians. Much like modern day posh people, they won't go to work, but they will pay you taxes - which is fundamental to the survival of your city, according to Leier.
"As a governor who's out to make a profit and keep Caesar happy, you're very interested in taxes. Because if you run out of money, or if you don't send Caesar the things that he asks for, he'll get angry with you; he may end up attacking you and forcibly removing you from office." And forcibly chucking you to the lions, most likely.
Helpfully, the citizens in Caesar IV are more intelligent than those in previous instalments, which Leier says is all part of an attempt to make it more accessible to those who might not be familiar with RTS games.
"We expect that players who are familiar with this genre will really like this, at one level. On another level, we're making it much easier for a new player to come in and sit down and play it, because they don't have to figure out how the game model works - other than saying that if you want food, you put a grain farm down, and then that goes into a granary, which markets get, which then your citizens get.
"You've got people walking around delivering it and you don't have to deal with figuring out how that works, or any arcane systems we had to deal with in the past when we didn't have the ability to make the walkers very smart."
But while your citizens might be clever, they can be a bit lazy, which you'll need to consider as you lay your city out. There's colour-coding to help you, so you can see in an instant how far people are willing to travel. Generally speaking, they don't like to go too far for basic stuff like food, but they'll be willing to travel further afield to, say, watch a chariot race. (Along with a circus maximus, you can also build a hippodrome and a colosseum. In the build of the game we saw, they hadn't done the lions yet, and were using man-eating cows as placeholders. Here's hoping they don't get round to replacing them.)
If you like, Leier says, "You can extend the roads and try to make a better road network to these services. That creates the conflict of, can I use the space for a road? Can I stick the healthcare, the entertainment, the markets and everything else near all of the homes that need them?
"That, with the limited budget and resources you have, forms the core of the building game. You're a Roman governor; you've got to manage your budget, get the people happy, keep them happy, then get Caesar happy by achieving your goal. And that's what Caesar IV is about."
There are other factors to deal with though, such as the new weather effects. If your city is in Northern Europe, chances are it'll rain a fair bit, which means there's less chance of it catching fire and burning to the ground - but more chance of disease spreading quickly. If you're in Africa you'll have sandstorms to deal with, and so on. It makes you wonder why the Romans didn't just stay in Tuscany, really.
There's also a bit of combat to be getting on with, but Leier says it's not likely to take up too much of your time. "You'll be able to build up some armies and fortifications for your city, and then Barbarians or Greeks or Carthaginians will attack them, but that's kind of just the payoff for building up the army and the defences in the first place.
"So yes, there is combat, but we don't try to make that a big part of the game - it's really an extra thing, because it's a building and a management game at its roots."
The emphasis on construction rather than destruction is one of the game's key advantages, according to Leier: "The core gameplay is building the city. It's a constructive game, unlike so many of the other real-time strategy games out there that are about fighting and destroying. We think that's a great feature."
Of course, building cities has been the core of all the Caesar games - so what are the key differences in Caesar IV?
"Well for one, there's eight years of technology development... [The previous games] were all 2D and much smaller, so that's a big change. Another is the smart people. Before, they just randomly wandered around; here, they're doing very specific things. We've also improved the interface to make it easier to use - the feedback's clearer, the advisors have more information, it's easier to organise.
"Actually we've got a lot of similarities. We've got the same composer who worked on Caesar III and Pharaoh, for example, who's composed another 60 to 80 minutes of original music. So really, other than what I said before, there's not a lot of big differences - but we've taken everything from Caesar III and made it better."
So how long till we find out just how much better, exactly? Well, the game's due out around September-October time, and according to Leier, it's coming along very nicely: "We're in really good shape. We've got a couple more systems to complete, then it's just polishing, testing and getting it out.
"We're very excited because we've done so many city-building games with a 2D engine. This was a great opportunity to make the game we've always wanted to make, because we could use a 3D engine, make the people a lot smarter, and just make the world more real; and at the same time, get the gameplay we wanted."
Caesar IV is facing some stiff competition, though - fellow city builder CivCity: Rome is out this summer, and so far it's looking rather good. So who will rise and who will fall? Just have to wait and see...