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Humanity takes to the stars in Civilization: Beyond Earth (interview)

Above: Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth.

Image Credit: 2K Games

Most Civilization games have ended with mankind moving to the stars. But that’s just the start of Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, the next installment in the 23-year-old strategy game franchise. Take-Two Interactive Software’s 2K Games recently announced that Firaxis Games is working on the new title.

We caught up with the lead game designers for the project, Will Miller and David McDonough, to talk about how Beyond Earth will differ from predecessor Civilization V as well as the last big space-based Civ game, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.

The big difference is that this Civ experience will have more science as its foundation. Earth will become uninhabitable because of global warming. Humanity will have to move to other planets in the galaxy for survival.

You can design your mission to the stars by picking your leader and your resources, but after that, it’s up to you to customize a lasting civilization in the face of enemy threats. You’ll fend off aliens, other groups from Earth, and your new planet itself.

The title is coming out on Windows this fall. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Miller and McDonough.

Will Miller and David McDonough, makers of Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

Above: Will Miller and David McDonough, lead game designers on Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth.

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: Can you guys tell me how you got started on the title?

Will Miller: David and I are huge fans of space, just space in general. The history of manned space flight, science fiction, anything space. We’re also big fans of Alpha Centauri, of course. Since we’ve been here, we’ve always romanticized about doing a Civ in space. It was the right time, and we had the right team. We just started working on it.

GamesBeat: Why would space be a better choice than another earthbound Civ?

Miller: It’s a fascinating area to explore with the Civ franchise. Our fans have wanted it for a very long time. Like I say, we’ve always wanted to revisit this area. We just got the opportunity to do it.

GamesBeat: I remember playing Alpha Centauri pretty obsessively back in the day. I don’t recall there being as much science behind that game as there seems to be in your game here.

David McDonough: That might be fair to say. I think Alpha Centauri was actually a pretty fun blend of science and science fiction. It was maybe a little heavier on the fiction side. But we’ve had a good time making that blend, too. We’re different people, and we have a different level of fandom for the various branches of science and sci-fi.

One of my favorite things about this game is that it starts off very rooted in science and builds these threads of plausibility all the way through to its wildest, most ridiculous fiction. We sort of trick you along the way — “Oh, this is totally real, we can totally do this” — and, by the end of the game, you’ve gone totally sci-fi. But an emphasis on real science is part of our enthusiasm for the game. It’s an opportunity to have some fun.

Miller: It’s also functionally. The reason why we chose to take that approach is because we really care about the suspension of disbelief. We want to maintain that in the player throughout the whole experience. You do end up in a very sci-fi place at the end of the game. You’re changing the physiology of the human species. You’re making these fantastical vehicles and units. The face of the planet is changing based on what you’ve done to it. But to get there, we want you to go through these incremental steps that all make sense. When you finish a game of Beyond Earth, you can say, “Yeah, I understand how that, in some future, might happen.”

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

Above: Artwork from Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth.

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: It seems like you have a very plausible beginning for reaching to the stars, with all the new research on global warming. It provides a pretty good backstory for you.

Miller: We talk about the Great Mistake as this kind of catalyst that tips the balance a little bit, in a lot of different areas. There wasn’t really an apocalypse, a world-ending event. It was an event, but it just pushed many of these things that we’re dealing with today over the edge. Like you say, global warming, a very tenuous geopolitical landscape, things of that nature. Even drought can cause wars, over a period of 10 or 15 years. That’s what we imply, that lots of different intervening factors ended up sending mankind into this dark age.

The optimistic part of it is that we all came out of it OK. It’s at that point where we decide to go to the stars.

GamesBeat: Is this part of the game told in 30 seconds or do you see a larger cinematic beginning?

Miller: Some of it’s told up front. We have a bit of exposition. But the story about Earth’s past and what happened and all of that, the player is going to do a much better job making that story than we will. What we like to do is tell that story through hints and through suggestion and mystery. We let the player fill in the gaps.

GamesBeat: It’s also maybe familiar because it’s a natural ending to a lot of Civ games. You overbuild and you have flooded cities at some point.

Miller: Right. Roads everywhere and half the world’s irradiated and all that.

GamesBeat: There’s also an interesting design approach here in allowing players to do a lot on Earth before they take off. They design their spaceship and figure out who they’re going to take, who their leader is going to be. There’s a lot of strategy in that part of the game, right?

McDonough: There’s a lot of strategy in it, but we don’t want to misrepresent ourselves. The choices you make at the very beginning of the game are presented abstractly. You decide who you’re going to start out as and what you’re going to take with you, but the whole game takes place on the new planet. There’s no gameplay on Earth, so to speak. You’re just setting the starting conditions for your colony expedition, and then there’s a bit of backstory with the intro to the game. When turn zero starts, it starts with you landing on the new world. From start to finish, it’s about your next chapter, the chapter on the new planet.

GamesBeat: What kind of variety will you see as a result of some of these decisions you make in the beginning?

McDonough: Plenty. They have a huge, sweeping impact on your play style and your advantages. It affects all kinds of circumstances. Everything from diplomacy to city management will be affected by the particular blend of starting loadout choices you make. One of the most interesting things about the game so far, that we’re already having a good time with, is how just one change can make for a very different experience. If you change those circumstances even a little bit, the story you’ll tell on the new world and the way that you’ll face the problems you encounter … your strengths come from different places, so the story is different.

Miller: We talk a lot about eliminating the critical path in Civ. We never want there to be a definitive build order or technology-research order. We want there to be thought in every decision you make, based on the specifics of this particular playthrough. Where you landed, how the aliens are reacting to you, who your neighbors are, what kind of quests you get, things like that. The loadout options are one more way that we mix the game up.

There are still personalities to the civilizations. You still have the warlike ones and the economically focused ones or whatever. But because of these loadout options, you can never really know the leaders you’re up against until you’ve interacted with them through the game, through diplomacy. You have to build your strategies around discovering who they are and what they want. Your games are infinitely replayable because of these choices you make in the beginning.

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

Above: A screenshot from Beyond Earth.

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: What’s different about the gameplay versus previous Civilizations, and what’s very similar?

McDonough: The phrase we like to use is, “Beyond Earth is built on the bones of Civilization.” Civilization V, specifically. It belongs in the Civ franchise, and a lot of the things a Civ player likes about Civ and has come to expect about the Civ style of gameplay, they’ll find at the heart of this one. That’s things like one unit per tile, hexes, cities, buildings, improvements, wonders, warfare, and so on … . Lots of things.

But after that, we’ve created an entirely new blend of experiences on those bones. A different flesh for the body. Everything from how your technology emerges and what value you place on it to what governs when and where [you want] to build cities and what cities do for you. How do you interact with your neighbors on this alien planet, when all of you are trying to figure it out at the same time?

To describe the differences is basically to describe the game. It’s a new experience designed around the kernel of the Civ idea but for a context that it belongs in — the future, the advancement of technology, the alien planet.

Miller: A couple of specifics will stand out to players. The first thing you’ll notice — beyond the first beat of the game, which is that loadout and landing process — is the alien world. The aliens are characters, and the world is a character, just as much as the other civilizations are. You don’t interact with them diplomatically, but they certainly react to what you’re doing. Figuring out how to negotiate their presence is a big deal.

The tech tree is now a tech web. It’s nonlinear tech advancement. In traditional Civ, you sort of move from left to right, researching tech along the way. You research all of them by the end of the game — maybe in different order or at different paces, but everyone gets the same stuff at the end. In this game, you research some subset of the tech. You’re not going to get to all of it. You have to make choices about what you want to prioritize.

The way that unit progression works has been totally redone to emphasize these three technology affinities, these post-human manifestations of our future. That’s a big system that’s pretty exciting. There are lots of things like this that Civ players will appreciate as being very new, but they’ll still feel comfortable because it’s built on a Civ game that they’re familiar with.

GamesBeat: With Alpha Centauri, we had one planet and we played on that. Here you give the opportunity to have many different kinds of environments that seem like they’re different planets. How much variety is there?

McDonough: There are two ways we differentiate the planets. The first way is with [biomes]. The game ships with three very distinctive biomes. There’s a lush biome — very green, lots of jungle, and all of that. There’s a fungal biome, which is very strange — fungus and lichen all over the place, a very cool color temperature. Then there’s an arid biome … very little water, sand everywhere.

Each of these is additionally augmented by our map scripts. We have a lot of map scripts that tell the game how to generate the environments — what the distributions of resources are, what the land masses look like, things like that. Those have been rewritten to take advantage of our new resource types and new terrain features. Within those three biomes, you have a lot of variation in terms of the kind of map you’ll be playing on.

Civilization: Beyond Earth

Above: More gameplay from Beyond Earth.

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: When you’re in a state of warfare, how would you describe that?

McDonough: It’s warfare along themes you might recognize. The civilizations on the planet are vying for control of a variety of things. They’re also trying to fight against the aliens who precede them and aren’t necessarily going to be their friends. So, you fight on the planet’s surface with units, focusing on themes you’d recognize from Civ V.

The biggest difference is that the construction of your army is totally overhauled. Previously, you might [have had] a historical prerequisite and an advancement through the ages of military tech. In this game, you have a core cadre of units and classes, and you customize and upgrade them over the course of the game. You get new technologies and various perks from all kinds of activities.

By the end of the game, your army reflects a unique blend of advantages and styles that represent all the decisions you’ve made. No two armies will be the same. You could be fighting head to head against your neighboring civ with armies that are radically different. They look different, operate differently, represent different people. But you’re still having a balanced war. It’s still tactically interesting and challenging. The warfare has a totally different feel to it, with unit customization as its foundation.

Miller: The other noticeable difference, a feature that we’re really excited about, is the orbital layer. What would a space game be without some gameplay in space, right? So, you send aloft these satellites, which project an influence on the terrain below. They’re stationary, but they’re floating improvements. You can send up a tactical satellite and buff all the units underneath it. There’s this kind of spatial territorial-acquisition game that players play in the orbital layer. It’s a separate conquest game where you’re vying for control of the airspace. That’s a neat twist on Civ combat. It’s been a lot of fun to play with.

GamesBeat: Are you getting some input from Sid Meier [director of creative development at Firaxis] on this as well?

McDonough: Definitely. Sid is sort of the guiding light of every project at Firaxis. As lead designers, we talk to him and get mentorship from him on pretty much everything we do. This game is no exception. He’s been a wonderful asset, great to go and talk to about the various design ideas and directions we’ve been taking. He’s a fan of the game, which is high praise. It’s been fun working with Sid.

GamesBeat: What’s a thing you think people are going to obsess over?

Miller: There are so many things to do in a Civilization game. There’s this rolling progression of choice and reward and feedback. That loop, that compulsion loop, is what keeps people in the game. I started researching a tech 15 turns ago. I want to see it when it’s finished. Then, it gives me these things I want to build and see the results of. It’s very easy to get sucked into this game and lose a lot of time.

One of the things I think is most compelling is when you start to establish your affinity. There’s a point in the game where the visual identity of your civilization starts to take on the characteristics of the affinity you’ve chosen. That moment, where it feels like the decisions you’ve made really start to have a significant impact on your imaginary people, that’s a moment that really … I don’t want to stop playing. As soon as my cities start to reflect my ideology or those troops get that first taste of the new ideology style, that’s a fantastic hook to keep going.

1 comments
Paul Meekin
Paul Meekin

I love these games but wish they had a more personal feel. I think games like Rollercoaster Tycoon are so popular isn't quiiite because of the premise (though building roller coasters is fun), but rather the personality. Being able to drill down to a single NPC and see what kind of rides they like and tracking their life in the themepark adds an awesome element to a sim game. In that regard my favorite game in this kind of civilization building genre is actually Settlers 2.

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