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Historical Outlook: A Civilization V Interview

Dennis Shirk, the game's producer, outlines how bringing new blood into Civilization V's creative positions has allowed preservation of what fans want, while branching out into new directions for the venerable and immensely popular strategy franchise.

Chris Remo, Blogger

June 11, 2010

15 Min Read

Since its original launch in the early '90s, Firaxis' Civilization franchise has been a touchstone series for PC gamers, offering a very specific and rich historical vein of historical simulation and creative, strategic gameplay.

As times change, the team still hopes to provide an experience congruent with fans of the series while pulling it in new creative directions, as Dennis Shirk, producer for Sid Meier's Civilization V, explains in this interview.

After nearly three years in development, with a team of 52 at Firaxis, the developer has begun to highlight different elements of the PC strategy game for the public as part of its publicity -- but they aren't all there is to it, as Shirk explains.

As Shirk discusses in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, development of a title like this with a huge in-built fan base is both an opportunity (to make the most of the creative possibilities) and a responsibility (to serve that huge contingent of fans.)

Series like Civilization are becoming increasingly rare in this industry, in that it is enough of an institution that you can afford to spend several years working on it at Firaxis, rather than developing it every year or shuffling it around studios.

That means that every release has to last a long time. How do you approach the scope of change to the design in that context?

Dennis Shirk: Well, Jon Shafer, our lead designer, has been in the Civilization fan community and playing Civilization since Civilization II on up. He created mods for Civilization III. He's been creating a lot of the scenarios, and acted as a designer for Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword.

He's only 26 or so, right?

DS: Yeah. He's our local wunderkind. He does amazing stuff, and is a huge fan of history. One of his influences on Civ V, actually, is [SSI's 1994 wargame] Panzer General. It's just a favorite game from when he was a kid.

Whenever we ship a game, a faction of the team is always going to say, "That was really neat, but what if we did this?" It always happens. When you've got a foundation, like what we have with the Civilization series as a whole, there are so many things that you can build on top of it, so many things that you want to do, even after you've shipped something that you think is ultimately cool and complete. There's always something else that you can do.

A lot of it comes down to one of Sid's cornerstones. When you're actually going through and designing an entirely new game, he came up with his 33/33/33 rule. It's 33 percent new, 33 percent improved, and 33 percent what everybody already expects to be there. I think Jon, under his tutelage, has followed along with that.

It seems like these days, Sid's influence is more in that role of establishing the attitude and framework and tone, more than actually having day-to-day input on the project. Is that roughly the case?

DS: I wouldn't say it's day-to-day, but it's still very frequent. Sid, just because his fingers are in everything at Firaxis, has input and interest everywhere, especially in the Civilization series. We have a young designer like Jon who is excellent at everything he does, but even he needs help. Even Sid needs help sometimes. There are regular meetings every week between the designers and the team.

Sid is always playing the game and giving his input. He's just instrumental in everything we do. He can look at a game, play for five minutes, and automatically pinpoint if something's not quite going to work over a five-hour session. He's just really good at it, so I would say Sid's always got his hands pretty thoroughly in everything.

He's in that executive producer role.

DS: Yes.

It almost seems like the James Bond franchise, where you have some continuity in the top-level leadership, but the actual director changes from entry to entry, ever since Civ II when Brian Reynolds was a primary designer.

DS: Definitely. Everybody brings their different unique flavor to the game.

I think a lot of people see Civ IV as the pinnacle so far. But whereas it seems like that game refined its predecessor to a high degree, Civ V seems more like a break in a lot of ways. Even the fundamental tileset system is changing. Is this game more of a fork in the road to Firaxis?

DS: It is, it is. We wanted to try some very large things. Combat [in Civ] is traditionally seen as working a certain way. Everybody expects it to work a certain way throughout the whole of Civilization's history. That was one area where Jon said, "You know what? This is something none of the designers have ever really paid attention to, in terms of doing something completely different and new." He saw it as an opportunity to put a whole new layer on. That's when we got tactical combat into the game.

It's scary in a lot of ways for a lot of our fans to see that, just as it was when Civilization IV was first announced. People were demanding we hang [Civ IV designer] Soren Jonson. It was really bizarre. A lot of players read the previews that are coming out now for Civ V, and they're like, "I don't understand how this applies to Civ IV," because they've been playing Civ IV for so long. They're not sure how to integrate this into that game.

That's not what we're doing. We're trying to go in a completely different direction, while still keeping that core gameplay that has come in all Civilization games.

Do you think the revised tactical combat, along with the decision to abandon stacked units, will become more of a challenge for players who are less interested in the combat side of the game? Has it been difficult to ensure all of the methods to achieve victory in a Civ game receive the proper weight?

DS: I think a lot of people are going to be surprised. Right now we're talking about combat because that happens to be the section we're discussing right now, and it's the most interesting.

When you come out of the gate [doing publicity], you show something that has a lot of flair. The combat system is probably the biggest addition to the game, but for the city builders out there, of whom I am one of, combat is just there to serve the rest of the game.

We've showed this overwhelming military game in our public demonstrations, but the peaceful players, the cultural players, and the science players are all going to be able to play just as easily without having to focus on the combat game.

In terms of the ease of use, we like to look at it from this perspective: For anybody who even enjoys Advance Wars on the Nintendo DS, it's the same sort of principal combat gameplay. It's just a shift from how you're used to thinking about it.

What was the rationale behind removing religion from the game?

DS: Jon did an enormous number of changes to diplomacy. Religion was a really cool mechanic in Civilization IV. It allowed you to tack on bonuses to that diplomacy. With what Jon is doing to diplomacy, with the agendas that these new diplomacy AIs use, with the city-states in play, [religion] added a variable that didn't quite make sense.

Now, aside from that, although we are removing religion as it was in Civilization IV, we're never removing something completely from the game, especially something that fans liked, and leaving an empty hole. There are other systems coming into play that we're not talking about yet that are going to make people very happy.

In Civ V, there's only one choice of leader for each civilization, and you've indicated you want the civilizations and leaders to have more of their own unique character. I think there's a spectrum when you look at games themed around world history.

You have Civilization, which is very much a blank slate. As Washington, you can take the United States in a direction it has never gone. On the other end, you have the Total War series, which is much more about specifically what it's like to be Napoleon, for example. Are you trying to move that needle a bit by asserting more of the character of these leaders?

DS: I don't think we're trying to move that needle. People still have their civs be whatever they want it to be. If you're going to play as Gandhi and then take over the world, that option is there. Jon did like [multiplatform console entry] Civilization Revolution. Instead of just subtle number variances and traits, Sid gave each Civ a unique flavor. When you were playing against Napoleon, you knew that he was building churches and cathedrals -- playing that cultural game. Jon wanted that same flavor.

We're not trying to keep people absolutely accurate. They're still going to do random things. We're still going to make them mad, and they're going to do things uncharacteristically, because that's part of what makes Civ fun. If you're playing against Gandhi and he doesn't declare war randomly on you at some point, then we haven't done our job.

I think that's where we still want to live. We like that in the past versions of Civilization. I think Jon's just trying to give them a little bit more flavor.

You mentioned Panzer General. Are there other games that Jon or anyone on the team looked at and thought, "That's an interesting angle we might want to look at"?

DS: That's definitely a question for Jon. Panzer General is the one he talks most. But Jon is a strategy gamer in general. He plays real-time; he plays turn-based. He loves it all. He loves any historical strategy game. That's one of those Sid cornerstones he teaches all of his designers. He says, "You don't have to come up with it all on your own. There are good ideas out there. If you find something that you like that's interesting, then go in that direction."

Even though Civ is more about revisionism, there's something interesting about any historically-themed game, which is a certain level of accountability you have. Gameplay is the priority, but you're representing things that have happened or could have happened in world history. You've talked about going and finding linguists who speak long-dead languages so you can represent those cultures properly in the game. How much do you think about those issues?

DS: We're always thinking about that. At Firaxis, it's an ongoing argument with the fan community: we always have to put gameplay above historical accuracy, but we always want to start out at a square that's accurate. Before players actually make their first move in the game, we know that everything in the world makes sense. Then it goes all over the place from there.

So you ruin it, but you're starting at the core at least. (laughs)

DS: Yes. We want to start it in the right place. (laughs)

How difficult was it to find people who could accurate speak languages from these extinct civilizations and historical figures?

DS: Obviously a lot of the European languages were very easy. They just sent us over many variances, and we chose somebody that kind of fit our particular characters. We did big character studies. We sent out concept art. We sent out what we expected these people to look like.

For instance, for [German Chancellor Otto von] Bismarck, we wrote it exactly how he's supposed to act in the game. He's a slightly bigger guy, a little overweight, with a deeper voice, that kind of thing.

The hardest one that we had to find was Montezuma of the Aztecs. That took the longest. It took until, literally, four months ago that we finally found an actor down in Mexico who actually spoke the language.

We had to have this remote recording session from Mexico to get that voice, and it was spot-on. We were really happy about it, because it's not only about finding somebody who can speak the language. It's about finding somebody who can speak the language with gusto.

When you're playing Montezuma, there's fire, and arm-waving -- he's got to be able to bring the character forward. One of the more interesting parts of the project is sitting in on those recording sessions, listening to them bring out these dead languages alongside the stuff that we already know.

How did you determine where to fall along the spectrum between the very serious and the tongue-in-cheek? Civilization, across the various games including Civ Rev, has been at different points on that line.

DS: Definitely. Obviously, with Civ Rev, we wanted to go much more tongue-in-cheek -- characters just push everybody else out of the way when they're coming to the screen. [For Civ V] we wanted a more somber, realistic approach.

We still have tongue-in-cheek material in some of the dialog -- sometimes, when a leader is picking on you or wants to declare war, it's fun to be a little snarky. But generally, we're going in a more somber direction, more so than even with Civilization IV. We want players to be in a believable, real world, so it's got to translate into diplomacy, as well. We want it to be a serious place.

Even though Civilization is a relatively complex game, it's always been fairly mainstream; unlike a lot of complex strategy games, it sells millions of units per game. The general mainstream game industry, right now, I would not say is conducive to a more somber or elegant tone -- dark or extreme are the touchstones, maybe. Has it been difficult showing that to your publisher and saying, "This is what we think people want"?

DS: Particularly with Jon coming from roots in the series' fan community, Civilization V as a whole is a big thank you to that community. For our hardcore PC community, Civilization Revolution wasn't necessarily up their alley. It was to an entirely different audience. It brought a lot of new players into the franchise.

But existing Civ players are hardcore players. They want that realism. If you've been on the fan sites, you hear about that, even to the point that if there's a [in-game] Civilopedia entry that's [historically] incorrect, they want to tell you how it's incorrect. Civilization V as a whole, with Jon designing it, is a big call to them, to say, "Thank you. This is what you've been asking for."

They've been asking for full-screen leader screens for a while. They want to be part of those moments. They want to be part of that realism. They want to believe that they're in the scene. That is definitely fan-driven.

You have a really elegant Art Deco art direction going on through your marketing materials, your website, and I assume the game UI. How did you end up with that?

DS: Our new UI designer's name is Russell Vaccaro. He did the UI in Civilization Revolution as well. We think he did an excellent job of boiling down the whole UI into something that's actually manageable for a game pad, and we wanted that same thing with Civ V, because there's a lot of UI in play in a Civilization game.

You want the Civ V UI to be workable with a game pad?

DS: No, no. Not playable with a pad. He just did a really good job of boiling down what people need to see at any given time. We can always have stuff that's under the hood for the hardcore players. That's all still there, but when he first went about designing the UI, he really wanted this forward-looking theme to it.

With the Art Deco, he wanted to evoke that prosperous time in the country, when everybody designed beautiful, forward-looking steel mammoths in cities. He did this whole layout scheme with lots of pre-renders for what scenes would look like.

What's killing him the most now, though, is that everybody in our office has been playing BioShock 2. He's still avoided playing BioShock 1 because he hasn't wanted to corrupt what he was doing, because they went with "Art Deco gone bad," so to speak, for the whole theme.

I was going to ask if BioShock was an influence at all, because you guys are part of the same publisher.

DS: He actually wanted to stay away from that. He wanted it to be a gleaming future, that beautiful outlook that the game allows.

So 2K Games didn't come to you and say, "Hey, everybody loved this in BioShock, so..."

DS: No. It's what he himself really wanted to convey in the feeling of the game.

Speaking of Civ Rev, do you expect there to be many people who played that as their first Civ game and now want to take the plunge into the full-scale experience?

DS: We really hope so. Obviously, Civ Rev did very, very well. There are a lot of people who played it and loved it. Some of our hardcore fans played it and loved it too, just because it was something where they could sit down for an hour instead of ten. We really hope that's our gateway drug, so to speak, into taking the plunge into the PC world. Hopefully, we will make it happen.

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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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