The new game from Firaxis Studios will cease depending on history – Civilization: Beyond Earth will go into space.
The scope of Civilization has always been that of human history. What happened, or could have happened, on this island Earth? It was a game that allowed you to express your will over every era of recorded time, and only hinted at the existence of other worlds, of the possibilities of the mind. Sid Meier created the framework through which we can explore turn-based strategies for our imaginations, not just re-chronicle the past. In Civilization: Beyond Earth, you travel to new worlds and explore your surroundings with very little context of human history necessary. Beyond Earth is a game about discovery, of finding out about the place you have landed upon and the circumstances the human race finds itself. And how you will lead it forward.
I went to the Firaxis office outside Baltimore, Maryland, last week with the ostensible purpose of playing more Beyond Earth in order to write a preview of it. I’ve been on millions of these trips and met countless game developers and they are usually a stuffy bunch. They’ll laugh at your jokes, maybe crack a smile, but they are just there to pimp their games. The people at Firaxis are nothing like that. There are genuinely kind and passionate game designers in every office chair, and studio head Steve Martin and designer-in-residence Sid Meier foment an atmosphere of iterative design while simultaneously respecting and encouraging a strong work-life balance you don’t hear about at other studios.
“Sid embodies the attitude,” said Anton Strenger, gameplay designer on the two Civ V expansions and not working on Beyond Earth. “He’s very generous in giving the reins of projects to young people, to old veterans, and he loves to play and see and talk about the games with anybody that’s interested.”
Meier doesn’t actually design most of the games that bear his name. Instead, he acts as a guiding force behind each major release coming out of Firaxis – a mentor to bounce ideas off of or offer solutions to problems. For Beyond Earth the role of lead designer is filled by two people – Will Miller and Dave McDonough – and they’ve created a game that feels a lot like its predecessors and completely different at the same time. The team is led by producer Lena Brenk, and lead gameplay designer Anton Strenger, with veterans like producer Dennis Shirk and art director Michael Bates, who was an artist on Sid Meier’s Gettysburg back at MicroProse, anchoring the development.
Beyond Earth uses a lot of the same language in its UI and feedback to the player as Civilization V and that is completely by design. You play on stylized 2D map of an alien planet displayed in tiles or hexes. You represent a nation or faction of people that have launched off of Earth around the year 2600 AD. Between then and now, a disaster befell our planet – something the designers refer to as the Great Mistake – and travel to distant worlds began to look more attractive. You start the game answering a series of questions about how your spaceship is equipped, what kind of colonists you’re bringing with you, or what kind of electronic systems are installed. These translate to concrete bonuses in the game, which will impact your play quite a bit. For example, I chose a ship that was a Continental Surveyor that allowed me to start play with all of the coastlines revealed from under the fog of war. Other bonuses include extra population, revealed location of alien nests, and an additional starting technology. You’ll also be able to scan for planets to play on, a clever representation of map selection and natural parameters in Civilization.
How Humanity Continues
Once you make it to the planet, how your faction reacts to discovering alien life will push you in one of three philosophical directions – Supermacy, Harmony and Unity. “Harmony represents you embracing the life that you find on the new plant and figure out how to live in symbiosis with it, reengineering a human organism to be native to the world,” said Will Miller. “Supremacy represents investing doubly in the technology and the tools of robotics, artificial intelligence, computing. Then purity represents an interesting combination of perspectives that revolve around the idea of preserving and safeguarding humanity no matter where they go. Keeping humanity safe and restoring it to its idea, original state as it was on Earth. Keeping track of the beleaguered human settlers and making the new planet that they live on a paradise for them, a new Eden, a new ideal Earth.”
Each of these affinities also have a specific flavor in how they wage war, when the inevitable conflict arises on the new planet you and other competing factions have landed upon. I asked Miller if you can take what worked in Civ V and apply it in Beyond Earth. His answer was ominous: “Do so at your own peril.” Each affinity has different strengths and weaknesses, such as harmony being able to fluidly adapt to danger. “Harmony units are very good about using the terrain and using the map,” gameplay designer Anton Strenger said. “Moving very quickly and attacking with overwhelming numbers. Lots of very cheap units.”
“The supremacy affinity is all about battlefield geometry,” Miller said. “It’s about adjacency, units buffing each other depending on their spatial relationship. It’s a finesse game. It’s much more subtle, whereas purity on the other hand is going to be a brute force solution.”
“Purity is about raw strength and power, having some of the highest combat strengths raw numbers of any of the affinities, but having less utility if they get cornered or something like that and being hard to move around quickly,” Strenger added.
But it’s important to recognize that these affinities are not analogous to that other sci-fi strategy game. “Don’t think of them like races in StarCraft where they are so different in style that if you’re good at one, the others just are never going to appeal. I think of them more like, I tend to think a little bit like colors in Magic,” Dave McDonough said, showing his designer cred with a casual reference to the collectible card game Magic the Gathering. “If you like Magic, you’ll like any of the colors. And if you like the basic problems of Civ and figuring out that riddle and besting your opponents, all three of the affinities are really interesting ways to do it.”
More than one designer tried to dissociate Civ: Beyond Earth from StarCraft. It almost felt like the team had a complex. Not StarCraft … Not StarCraft … “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s like a mantra, but it is a thing that has come up a couple times,” Strenger said. “It’s science-fiction, it’s the future, it’s a strategy game, even if it’s turn-based versus real-time, there are three factions with different visual aesthetics, and yeah, we are very conscious of the fact that we didn’t want to become the three races of StarCraft.”
“We always want the affinities to be a reflection of what your choices were,” Miller clarified. “I think if you pick a race in StarCraft, that influences what your strategy will be, but in this situation it’s kind of the opposite of that. Your choices are reflected in the affinity that you end up as.”
In practice, I didn’t get to experience all three of the affinities in the short time I played. Pete Murray at Firaxis and Jessica Lewenstein from 2K PR were nice enough to let me and two other journalists play for a few hours, but the alpha code had a hard limit at 100 turns. I did start to go pretty heavy into supremacy, though. I benefited from an early trade deal with a neighboring outpost (think City States from Civ V) that netted me a new military unit every few turns, as well as robust science rewards from killing aliens, netted me the technologies I needed to progress in supremacy. It was just a taste, but I could see immediately how that progression impacted my strategy and diplomacy with the other factions. I look forward to playing with more of the affinities to really test out the system.
Scratch My Back
One thing that did strike me in my dealings with rivals on the planet was how the diplomacy had a new features called “Favors.” Your relations with other factions or civs in other Firaxis games has always been a pretty simplistic affair. You’ll trade or not, and maybe go to war over religions or something. But there was always more meaning attached to your dealings than the system could model. “When I was playing I would go and make lopsided deals and I would impart all these meanings like, ‘I asked you for gold to help me out and you didn’t say yes, so now I clearly have to go to war with you and conquer you for being petulant.'” Anton Strenger said, mirroring how I would put all kinds of meaning in deal that was never codified. “What happens in a lopsided deal? What’s really going on? Do they owe me a favor now? Do they think I’m indebted to them?”
“In a nutshell, a favor is the promise to repay for things that you do good for them,” McDonough said. When you trade something to a faction, and they have nothing to give you in return, they may offer you a unit labeled as a favor. You can accumulate multiple favors from a faction, and trade them back to them for something later down the line like resources, money, science or even declaring war on a third party.
“Favors give the player the ability to manipulate, in the long term, the balance of power in the diplomatic landscape,” McDonough said. “You can literally make your opponents do things that fit your plans.”
The additional feature was only added into the code fairly recently – it wasn’t present in the build I played in May for Pre E3 – but it was so simple and good that the team did all it could to get it working and balanced in Beyond Earth. “Dave [McDonough] came in one day and he’s like, ‘I got it, this idea. We can put it in and we don’t have to change any code. Very little and we just put it in and see if it works,'” Miller said. Strenger was the one who had to code it all, and he confirmed that it was pretty straightforward. Even the producers Dennis Shirk and Lena Brenk were OK with the new feature because it felt right.“It’s not something we had in Civ V and it’s more of a modern concept of ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ and we thought it was a really good addition. That one was just out of the blue,” Shirk said.
Perhaps McDonough was watching too many movies at the time. “I was playing or watching something that had to do with gangsters,” he told me, and he started to consider what leaders valued. “What’s the most valuable thing to have? It’s not money or wealth or guns or thugs. It’s the promise to repay, it’s having leverage over somebody else. Power over them. So that you know that no matter what happens, some of the unpredictability and danger of the criminal enterprise is removed. You can operate a little more safely.”
It’s like that scene in The Godfather Part II where Vito Corleone helps out a shop owner and asks for nothing in return other than saying “Someday I’m going to ask you to do something for me.” It’s all about power, prestige, in the neighborhood. “That’s what he wants,” McDonough said. “He doesn’t want his money back. It occurred to me suddenly, why can’t you do that with the leaders in Civ?”
I didn’t get the chance to play with favors too much, or at least to see the long term effects. In the first few turns, other factions did indeed ask for gifts like 100 gold in exchange for a favor. I accepted, but I didn’t get to see how the power of holding that favor impacted the rest of the game or if I could cash it in when the faction had grown a little more. There’s also the danger of the faction getting conquered by another, losing everything you’d invested in protecting that faction. Even worse, going to war with the faction that owes you favors clears the slate, so you’re incentivized to keep them happy with you. Still, I’m interested to see how favors change the political landscape to make it seem more real.
“That’s one of the cool things about Civilization is that little changes like that in the machinery create these really dramatic changes in the whole game experience,” said Miller. “It’s a big machine but it’s made out of very simple parts that all work together and overlap in interesting ways. So, small changes can result in big differences. That’s a strategy game.”
A Rocktopuss Emerges
Another feature that I’ve only scratched the surface with is the orbital layer. You’ll have satellites you can launch into the atmosphere of the new planet in Beyond Earth which will provide bonuses to your units, or improve yields on the tiles in your territory for resources like science. The one I found as a random reward for finding a supply pod on the surface was a solar collector, and launching it improved the energy output of the tiles around my capital for a short while.
“The orbital layer is actually pretty straightforward to code, I was surprised,” Strenger said. “It breaks a lot of the rules of how units work, cause they kind of stack in a way. They float above units on the ground, units on the ground can coexist on the same tile. They have wide range of different effects. Some are military, others are more economic or peaceful focused.”
There’s one orbital unit I can’t wait to get my hands on using in Beyond Earth – the Rocktopuss. “Yeah, it’s called the rocktopuss,” Strenger said.
“There’s a story there,” Pete Murray said, who was sitting in on my interview with Strenger.
“What’s the story?” I said.
Anton Strenger took a deep breath.
We wanted a flying, harmony alien-inspired unit and we were thinking dragons or something but we ended up deciding to do something different. We had the idea that we have float stone [resource] in the game. What if there’s this alien life that floats above the ground using this float stone. It kind of latches on the float stone and floats around almost like a jellyfish. And I was like “What if could float up so high that it actually becomes an orbital unit temporarily?” It can rain down acidic ooze death on its enemies and then float back down and reposition itself. Normally orbital units can’t do that. That was a really compelling concept. As for the name, we’re just like, well yeah, it’s got the float stones and it kinda looks like an octopus, has a lot of tendrils and stuff so I think it was Will or Dave had said, “Rocktopuss” and I was said, “Yeah, that’s really cool.” As time went on, I was like, “We’re not really calling it the rocktopuss, are we guys?” But everyone was like, “Yeah, we are.” It’s like, “Okay.” I realized I was taking it way too seriously. It’s called the rocktopuss and it’s amazing. There’s actually a fun fact too. The technology that unlocks it is called Designer Life-forms. Which is like, yeah they’re curating the genes and whatever, but it’s also kind of a joke because it’s the life-form that we, as designers, were like, “yeah, this will be really cool.”
Murray added: “Designer’s life-forms.
“It’s our ‘pet’ project,” Strenger said.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is definitely not a Alpha Centauri remake or even a spiritual successor, really. The changes, additions and life that’s being fed into this “Civ in Space” has a very different character than the game Brian Reynolds made 15 years ago. The team certainly rejects direct comparisons to Alpha Centauri. They wanted to make their own mark on the world with this game. “I think we’re sort of selfish designers,” Miller said. “We wanted to come up with those new characters instead of using old ones. And that’s an opportunity that we didn’t want to miss.”
The visible leaders of this project are all relatively young – Miller, MacDonough, Brenk and Strenger all appear to be under forty, if not under 30 years old. These designers are taking Civilization beyond human history to new worlds. Part of the fun will be in discovering the mysteries of the new planet. What is the green gas that covers certain tiles? What affinity will you pursue to deal with adversity and attacks from a hostile native lifeforms? Will the massive siege worms take out my capital? Will that alien kraken unit I saw move away from me on that alien ocean be as big as an iceberg? Guided by the veteran voices of Shirk and Meier, these designers are making their mark with Civilization: Beyond Earth. I can’t wait to spend more time with the systems to see how deep that mark becomes.