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Civilization V lead designer Jon Shafer takes us on a tour of the foundational strategy series' next episode -- which sees him taking the reins of development for the first time.

Chris Remo, Blogger

August 11, 2010

15 Min Read

Few developers have the chance to work on a game that can legitimately be called an institution of the medium; fewer still are able to lead such a project.

Sid Meier's Civilization is one such series, and Jon Shafer is one of those lucky few developers. The young Firaxis designer, a veteran of the Civilization modding scene, has been given the reins on this fall's 2K Games published Civilization V, following in the design footsteps of Soren Johnson, Jeff Briggs, Brian Reynolds, and Meier himself.

Lead designer Shafer is using that position of responsibility to introduce some of the series' most significant changes yet, including the much-ballyhooed switch to hexagonal tiles and removal of stacking units.

Of course, at the core, the game is still Civilization, a design that has stood the test of time. In an in-depth interview, Shafer discussed his philosophy of Civilization, the approach he has taken to design evolution, where the series sits in the strategy spectrum, and what it's like to work with Sid Meier.

What is your actual age? I keep seeing it reported anywhere from 24 to 28. Roughly speaking, your age is "young, to be holding this position."

Jon Shafer: I'm 25. [laughs] I'm actually 25.

You make me feel fairly inadequate with my life's work.

JS: It's all downhill from here. Don't feel too bad.

How did you end up in charge of the whole game? You came from the mod community, and as I recall you were at Firaxis for Civ IV.

JS: In mid-2007, Civilization V was getting started, and they needed to find somebody to lead up the project. At that point in time at Firaxis, I actually had the most experience designing Civilization-style games. I had worked on Civ IV, as you said.

Is that because [Civilization IV designer] Soren Johnson had already left?

JS: Yes. And as you know, I was in the modding community for a long time, so I had a lot of experience working on things in that context. And I worked on all the Civ IV expansions. At that point, I was kind of the most senior designer [laughs] to fulfill that role. So I kind of slid into it.

How long has the development cycle been now? About three years?

JS: We started at the very beginning in the summer of 2007. That was back when it was just myself and our lead artist Dorian [Newcomb]. It was a very small team at the time.

We were making big design decisions and exploring the rough art style for the terrain in particular. It was a little while later until we had a full team. It's 52 people now.

I started playing Civ when Civ I came out, and to me, Civ V looks like possibly the most conscious shift in the series in terms of underlying design basics, with things like the hex grid and units no longer stacking. What was the thinking behind that approach?

JR: The main thing that spurred a lot of our changes was that we realized Civ IV was an excellent game. It was super highly rated and super popular, and we didn't want to just keep adding more things on top of that. Civ IV was, in a way, a culmination of a lot of things that were happing with Civilization. It had reached a point where we knew we needed to change things if we wanted to keep the series fresh -- not just pile on more stuff.

So, early on we identified some of the big features like no stacking and the hexes. Those were changes made pretty early on in the process. From there, we knew what the base was going to be for the big changes we were going to make.

We also knew we wanted to change things with diplomacy and make it a little more interesting, add more depth there, and that's how the city-states came to be. So, we made some decisions up front on a couple big things, and from there we've been iterating a lot and trying new things.

Dustin Browder, the lead designer of StarCraft II, told me they instituted the rule, "Every time we add a unit, we take a unit out," to keep the complexity from ballooning relative to StarCraft I. With all your new features, do you have that kind of balance in mind?

JS: Yeah. We felt comfortable with the level of complexity that Civ IV had, and we didn't want to change that dramatically, either more or less. It's been one of our goals to kind of keep it at the same level. Obviously, not all the features are going to be the same, but we wanted it to be the same amount of depth. We didn't have the literal "one for one" rule, but that's the idea.

How did you decide to remove religion, for instance?

JS: The main reason is that we wanted to go a different direction with diplomacy. Instead of having specific modifiers and numbers on the screen that affected relations between different players, we wanted a little more mystery and even more rationality behind the AI players. Religion was something that we think didn't really fit with that, because you could just send your missionary somewhere, convert somebody, and then they would be your ally forever.

We wanted you to have tools to affect diplomacy, but not so directly. It was just a completely mechanical system. We wanted something that was a little bit more mysterious. That was the main reason.

We didn't just say, "Okay. We're going to remove religion now." We evaluated ways of keeping it around and seeing if we could make something of it. But it was so tied to the diplomatic model that having that separated just meant that it wasn't going to stand up on its own.

We decided that we can focus on other areas of the game and make it better. It didn't fit within what our goals were for diplomacy, which is a pretty big part of Civ V.

Every Civ game is called "Sid Meier's Civilization," but they've always had a different lead designer. What is your working relationship with Sid? And how does that work when it's billed as Sid Meier's thing, but on a practical level it's more your game?

JS: Ultimately, Civilization is a game that Sid designed up front, and as much as the games have changed over the years, they're still very similar to the original one. With Civ V, people will focus on the changes, of course. That's more interesting than saying, "Hey! This part is the same! And this part is the same!"

But if you play the game, it's definitely recognizable as a Civ game. It's similar to Civ IV, and it's similar to Civ I. In that sense, it is still very much Sid Meier's Civilization. It's not real-time or anything. It's not a completely different game. It is what it is.

In terms of our working relationship, we have regular meetings where we go over topics, and he's the creative director for the studio. So, he has his hand in everything we work on. Even if he's not directly involved day-to-day, he's still very much part of what's going on, and he's aware of the changes that we're making.

Does it seem anachronistic, or maybe a privilege, or a challenge to be working on a game in 2010 that's so out of line with most triple-A games? Civ feels like state rooms, globes, and hard-bound books. Mostly, the game industry is not evocative of those things these days.

JS: Yeah. I don't know. For me, these are the kinds of games I enjoy. I got into Civilization a while ago, and the reason why I'm here now is I loved the earlier games.

I try not to think too much about the rest of the industry, really. They're going to do what they're going to do, and ultimately, we're working on Civilization, which is really exciting. I'm really happy to be working on the game. Because, as you know, it is kind of a rarity these days to have games like this with its production quality and the time we can spend.

It's not something I think about a lot, but ultimately, it is a really good opportunity, and it's exciting to be that involved with something that is still holding that banner up.

One of the reasons I ask is because it looks like Civ V is pushing even further in that direction. It's very elegant and clean, with forward-looking Art Deco themes, in contrast to 2K's own BioShock, which is almost an ironic treatment of Art Deco. Civ V is very earnest -- it's the gleaming future.

JS: Yeah. Early on the lead artist, Dorian Newcomb, myself, and [UI designer] Russell [Vaccaro] had conversations about the direction we wanted to take with it. That was something Dorian and Russ worked out together, and they were excited with that theme.

I was definitely on board, because they were so excited. With all of Civilization, we want to give the impression that you're building something. This is the bright side of human history. This is the good stuff. This isn't all the dirty laundry. And the art style really reflects that sense of a new tomorrow, new beginnings. It's clean, you know? It's something they worked out early and I was definitely agreeable to it. It fit with the whole theme that we wanted to take.

Did that affect design in any way, or were you already on a particular track?

JS: I wouldn't say it so much affected design directly, but the philosophy of Civilization is about building. It's about good things. That permeates everything, so that central philosophy comes through with the design. It comes through with the interface, and with the art, as well.

For example, one conversation I had with our effects artist is that we have fog of war that appears in unrevealed areas. Instead of just a black darkness, it's now made up of clouds. I've gone to him and said, "Okay, lighten it up. Lighten it up. Lighten it up. We don't want these to look like storm clouds. We want these to look like something that is positive in this world. You're revealing good things out there. It's not something scary."

Are you bringing back John Adams' music for the modern period of history?

JS: We are not.


JS: [laughs]

I always thought that was a really inspired inclusion, setting the modern metropolises against modern minimalist art music.

JS: Yeah. In Civ IV, the music was based on era, so as you would progress through the game, the music would change. But it was all Western-based. So, if you were playing China, you got John Adams, just the same as if you were playing United States.

Something that we've done this time around instead is to have a different musical collection for each region. We have four regions: the Middle East and Africa, Asia, Europe, and Mesoamerica. Each of those regions has a different musical score for peace and for war.

So, we don't have modern age music, but we do think this is pretty cool, especially when you go to war and it gets all dark and moody and the drums start beating. I think it pulls you in a lot more than if you have, you know, John Adams as you're nuking people.

I loved the juxtaposition there, but I see where you're coming from. On another note, what do you think it is about Civilization that attracted you to it in the first place? What is it that attunes you to that franchise?

JS: There's one big thing, I would say. The biggest reason is that it allows you to control everything. You're in charge of the whole scope.

One of the games I first played on the PC is called Panzer General -- you may have heard about that -- and it had a really cool combat model. I enjoyed it, but it was very disjointed. You played through a single mission, and then you would win that mission, you go to the next mission, and they have all your units in different places in a completely different front. And that was something that kind of turned me off to that game because I like the idea of everything on one play space, I guess you can say.

The cool thing about Civilization is that you take something from the very beginning -- you build it up completely from one or two units, through all of history, you make the military decisions, you make the economic decisions, you make the diplomatic decisions, all the way until the near future. Covering the whole scope and getting to see something grow from nothing into something amazing was the coolest thing to me.

Civilization is about as open-ended as it gets in terms of historical strategy. What do you think about the sort of partially-directed games, like the ones from Paradox? Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis, and so on.

JS: I love those games. Hearts of Iron was actually one of the only games that was able to pull me away from Civilization for a little while, and I really enjoyed it. In some ways, it captures that same sense of being in charge of everything. You kind of have a pre-made setup, but from there you're in complete control up until the end.

That also touches on the same desires, I think. They're a little bit more hardcore and a little more focused on the historical side of things, but it's still something that I think is great. And I still play it, so... [laughs]

Do you think much about historical accuracy in your game? Sid Meier is known for saying that gameplay always comes first.

JS: Historical accuracy, per se, is not really a goal. We definitely try to use history as a framework. One good example of that is the social policies tree, which are part of the game for the first time.

There are ten pathways you can take, and each of them is roughly historical in the time that it appears. So, late in the game, there's the autocracy branch, which is focused on the rise of fascism and dictatorships. That was something that we knew we wanted to put in the late game, because it doesn't fit earlier.

It's something that draws you into the game: "Oh, this is what happened in that time period. It's 1880. It's 1920, and these are the things that that are happening." It draws you in, and you say, "That seems familiar. I remember hearing about that." It's not historically accurate per se, but it does draw upon the history to be interesting.

You know, if you took out all of the history of Civilization, it would be a very bland experience. You might have great gameplay, but it's just not going to be the same as when you recognize things.

That's one of the reasons having the leaders is great. You recognize the characters. "Oh, that's George Washington. I know George Washington." If you just had nameless, faceless characters, it would be a very different experience. History is very important, but not the most important element. You need both.

One of the funny things about Civ is that often that ends up creating amusing historical dissonance, where things are just so far from what would actually happen in the United States or India or wherever. That entertainment value is still reliant on history, but in a different sense.

JS: Gandhi nuking people. Yup. That's always the good one.

In Civ IV in particular, I also really loved when you had situations that actually do mirror real-world events, in ways that are clearly by nobody's intentional design. Is that something you ever have in mind as a designer?

JS: In a lot of ways, it just comes about by accident, but it's also tied to the mechanics and the framework that you create. That's kind of what I was talking about. If you have the characters, if you have these mechanics, and if you have those social policies that are based in history, they can weave together in a way that is familiar.

A couple a months ago, I was playing a game as Rome, and near me was the city-state of Venice. It's like, "Oh yeah, that makes sense. Venice is near Rome." And then it turned out Florence was nearby as well. "Oh, that's cool. Maybe I should go conquer them. I mean, it makes sense."

Did you?

JS: Yes. [laughs]

There you go.

JS: They loved it, though.

We don't set out up front trying to craft those experiences, but they do come about by way of the mechanics that we're trying to add. If there's something that you recognize in that manner that does occur, we're definitely aiming for that. But we don't have focus tests for that, where we're saying, "We need this to happen or else we have to change something."

We try to make it open enough that people can see a lot of different things in their games that maybe somebody else wouldn't if they had different experiences or a different view on history.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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