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Civilization IV Feature Preview - A Bigger, Better Civ

We visit Firaxis' Maryland office to get all the gritty details on this new chapter in the legendary strategy series. By Jason Ocampo , GameSpot

Developer Interview

Over the course of 15 years, Sid Meier's Civilization series has come to define turn-based strategy games. And the appearance of a new Civ game is always treated with eager anticipation. That's because few games have managed to combine the sheer addictive depth that Civ commands, and fewer have had such universal appeal. After all, the idea of taking a small tribe from the dawn of history and guiding it through the ages is something that everyone, everywhere can relate to. Yet a new Civ game always brings around some trepidation as well. Can Sid and his team recapture the magic? Can they improve upon the vaunted gameplay? To get the answers, we paid a visit to Firaxis' Hunt Valley offices, tucked away on the edge of Maryland's pastoral horse country, to talk to the developer about the latest Civ. And trust us when we say there are a ton of changes. So be ready to tear up your Civ playbook, because there are a lot of exciting and new things to look forward to.

One of the great ironies about Civ is that there are a lot of complaints out there for such a beloved series. Yet, for all the complaints that Firaxis gets about spearmen defeating tanks and other issues, the sheer fact is that the community discovers these flaws while playing the game endlessly. Civ is a game that's near and dear to many gamers' hearts, and as much as they love it, they also feel it's their right to gripe about it as well. Firaxis literally has thousands of community-submitted suggestions that were considered for Civ IV. But when you get down to it, every change has to be carefully weighed and balanced. "What I often say to team members is that there are a thousand ways to make a great game of Civ," said lead designer and programmer Soren Johnson. "We only get to make one. The mistake is trying to hit everything. We have to pick what our style is."

In essence, Firaxis is rewriting many of the underlying rules of Civ--rules that go back all the way to the original game--with the goal of making the game more about decision making and less about going through the established motions that have built up over the years. To give an example of just how serious Firaxis is, consider that you will no longer be able to transfer production from one project to another, a major exploit since time immemorial. Johnson admits he's a bit nervous about such a bold step, because it will certainly force Civ veterans to rethink their basic strategies, but it's something that needed to be addressed. Here's how the exploit worked. In earlier Civ games, let's say you had been building a great wonder for 39 turns. But before you could finish it on the 40th turn, another civilization finished it before you. No problem, because you could simply transfer all that production to a different project and pick up as if you had been building it for 39 turns. In Civ IV, when you lose a race to finish a wonder, you lose all the production made on it, and you can no longer transfer it to another project, though you will be refunded an amount of gold. (This rule also covers production of regular buildings and units as well, though in those cases, if you suddenly switch from producing, say, a settler to an archer, you simply save the production that's been made for the settler and start the archer from scratch. And when you go back to producing the settler, you'll pick up where you left off.)

Firaxis looked at everything in the previous Civ games and came to a host of other conclusions. For example, the designers realized that the pace of the game had become unbalanced and that you spent too little time in the early parts of a game. The solution? Introduce a lot more variety to induce decision making in the early part of the game...and get rid of a lot of the tedium as well. "The decisions were so uninteresting. Pretty much everyone had build farm, build farm, build farm, and on hills, build mine, build mine, build mine. And that was it," Johnson explained. "Now it's very much, 'I'll have this city focus on food so I can get some great people out of it. Then I'll have this city focus more on production, and this city by the ocean will have more trade routes. So I'll build some more commerce there.'"

You'll also need to pay a lot more attention to the map and to resources in general. "The thing that is going to stick out the most to Civ vets is improvements and resources," Johnson said. "In previous Civ games, you only had a couple of options with what you could do with your land. In Civ IV, you get about 20 options, and a lot of them are specifically tied into resources and technologies. If you have some cows, you can build pastures on them, but only if you discover animal husbandry first. You can discover certain technologies that let you build windmills on a hill instead of a mine. There's a lot more options to do with your land." Of course, talk about resources and you may get nightmarish flashbacks to Civ III, to when your mighty empire ground to a halt because it lacked oil or some other vital resource. Johnson said that key resources are more evenly distributed in Civ IV, which is good news. Other resources, however, are spread out on purpose. For example, there are a lot more food types in the game, and that plays a key role in the city health system. Basically, the bigger your city gets, the unhealthier it becomes. And that can take a toll on the population, as the city will eventually begin to starve. You can combat this by building certain types of buildings, such as aqueducts and hospitals, but what will really help is if you can secure access to the seven different types of food resources, which represent nutritional variety.

Meanwhile, as Civ veterans can attest, the latter stages of a game bogged down into micromanagement hell as you tried to oversee dozens of cities and hundreds of units. On top of that, you had to clean up pollution squares, which cropped up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Well, in Civ IV, pollution is gone and folded up into the new city health system. And one way to reduce micromanagement is to cut down on the size of your empire. This was always a problem in earlier Civ games though, as expansionism, or the rapid spread of cities, was pretty much the only way to go. Well, expansionism takes a big hit in Civ IV. "There was an obvious problem in Civ III, where it was always geared toward expansionism," said Barry Caudill, senior producer of Civ IV. "It felt like that it was basically the only way to play. The game is balanced now to have not as many cities. You can still spread your influence over a broad area, but not have as many cities, necessarily."

You can attempt to pursue an expansionist strategy, but Johnson explained that you'll encounter problems if you do. "In Civ IV, we have this sort of maintenance system that slowly pushes some pressure on civilizations that expand a little bit faster than what might be good for them at that time," he said. The focus in Civ IV is on fewer, but more specialized, cities. This is something that the artificial intelligence will recognize, too, as computer-controlled civilizations won't spam you anymore with settlers, and if they try, they won't be able to cross your empire's borders anymore without your permission.

What Would the AI Do?

Civ IV will also try to remedy the management mess that war has become. Caudill said that Civ IV has some features from Civ III that let you select a specific type of unit from a stack that you can then send to one location, reducing the need to repeat the procedure umpteen times over. Then there are new features, such as the way stack attacks work. "You can actually stack up a bunch of units and send them someplace and give them an attack command. And if you're using combined you have some defensive-type units and you have a tank. The game will automatically look at who you're attacking, who their defenders are, and say, 'We should attack with this guy first. This is what the AI would do.'"

However, you'll definitely need to be careful about stacking your units, because the combat system, like everything else, has received a huge overhaul in Civ IV. Killer stacks, or having dozens of units in a single square, are a perfect example. "This is one of those things that we sort of overcorrected for in Civ III," Johnson explained. "In Civ I and Civ II there was this crazy rule where if you attacked a stack and it lost, the stack was entirely wiped out, and it'd be like, 'Wow, that's crazy.' So we got rid of that in Civ III, but, of course, the natural side effect of that was, 'Well, I'll just build this gigantic stack.'" To counter the killer-stack problem, Firaxis has upped the effect of siege weapons, such as cannons, catapults, and artillery, by modifying them into stack killers. "They have a collateral damage effect, [so] that when you attack a stack, you will also hurt up to six other units in the stack. So you can build stacks if you want, but the correct counter for that will be, 'OK, I'll build a bunch of catapults and cannons, and I'll attack your stack. And all your guys will be hurt, and you'll be in my territory, and you won't be able to heal, and I'll just mop you up.'"

You can't really discuss Civ's combat system, though, without calling to mind those infamous situations where some Stone Age unit manages to defeat a modern tank, or even a battleship. Though Firaxis swears that should only happen about 1 percent of the time, that's still too high for fans. So Civ IV throws out the old attack and defense ratings and introduces a new power rating. "In Civ III, every [regular] unit had three hit points, basically. The issue there was a spearman could beat a tank because it just had to get lucky three times," Johnson said. "In Civ IV, the amount of damage a unit does to another unit is now out of a scale of 100, even though that's more or less hidden from the user. The amount of damage a unit does is relative to its different strengths. So now when a spearman attacks a tank, he may hit three times, but that's only going to take off a quarter of the tank's hit points. Meanwhile, a tank hitting a spearman only has to hit him once or twice, and he's gone entirely."

Of course, one of the biggest new additions to the game is religion, which is something that Jeff Briggs, president of Firaxis, admits is a very delicate subject. However, it's one that's been sorely missing in previous Civ games. "It's a tricky topic, and that's why we never had it in there before. We didn't really want to go there," he said, referring to earlier Civs. "Now you can choose religion, but the religions are pretty vanilla. We don't say that Christianity is better than Islam, or Islam is better than Hinduism. It's just a way to spread culture and another way to win the game. And through religion, we can add a lot more color to the game in terms of historical texture."

In many ways, the static religions are more like the old-style government types from earlier Civs, such as democracy and communism. Each religion is rigidly defined and grants certain types of bonuses. The new government system in Civ IV, however, is going to allow a lot more flexibility than before. "Basically, it's a build-your-own-government," Briggs said. "We've broken down government aspects into a bunch of subcategories. There are five different categories and five or six possibilities in each category. And you pick one from column A, one from column B, one from column C. And by doing that you sort of put together your own government. You can have a communist government that has freedom of the press--one that is very oppressive on one hand but is very open on another hand. So it gives you flexibility on how you want to rule your empire."

The technology tree has also been overhauled...and for the better, from what it sounds. Gone are the eras that divided up the tech tree in previous games, which Firaxis felt created an artificial barrier. "It made sort of a cookie-cutter approach," Caudill said. "You pretty much were going to always research things in the same order, because you wanted to get through this era so you could get to the next one, so you could do whatever you wanted to do. In Civ IV, rather than having to have all the prerequisites to research something, you just have to have one of the prerequisites. So that means that you have a much more customizable tech tree for yourself." As an example, Caudill said that if you pursue a militaristic strategy, you can chart a path through all the military technologies, though at the price of neglecting other areas of the tech tree. Still, that's your decision to make.

Multiplayer Civ That Works

Development on Civ IV began a little more than two years ago, and from the very beginnings, multiplayer was on the mind of the designers. Multiplayer is something that Firaxis has been tinkering with since Civilization II, but it's never really been able to figure out how to properly translate what is essentially an 18-hour single-player game into something that multiple players can enjoy. The fatal mistake with its previous efforts was that Firaxis designed a single-player game first, and then it tried to tack on multiplayer after the fact. For Civ IV, Firaxis went ahead and designed a multiplayer game first, which has paid off dividends for the single-player game. "We got all the rules set using the multiplayer engine, and then by using that, we learned what players would do. And that helped us write the AI," Briggs said.

Multiplayer Civ IV will have many of the concepts from earlier Civs, such as simultaneous turns, which means you won't have to wait forever for your turn to come around again. But perhaps the most interesting new multiplayer mode is the pit boss, a persistent, stand-alone server that may be the answer that Firaxis is looking for. Basically, the pit boss will let you play a game of Civ online like normal. However, when someone has to leave (and usually someone has to leave over the course of a 10-hour game of Civ), the pit boss will save the state of the game. Then you can log in every now and then to see if your turn has come up. If it does, you can make your moves and save the progress to the server for the next player. This will keep a multiplayer game going, sort of like play-by-email. And when everyone is back online at the same time, you can resume the game at full speed. Moreover, you can participate in multiple pit boss games at a time. So if one game is proceeding slowly, you can start another to keep you interested. Then there's team play, which lets you buddy up with another player, or players, so you can try to crush the opposition. You can benefit a lot from being on a team, as you share technologies and wonder bonuses with your ally or allies. As Dan McGarry, the multiplayer designer for the game, explained, this means you can pool your research so you can research a single tech faster, or you can divide the research so each player focuses on a specific field of technology.

Firaxis has other improvements in store for multiplayer. McGarry said that the server browser in the game will include buddy list functionality to keep track of your friends easier. Meanwhile, Firaxis will cull all sorts of statistics from multiplayer matches, which will let it rank players, which is aimed to avoid some of the frustration when you find yourself in a multiplayer match with ruthless Civ pros. The game will also ship with a number of prebuilt scenarios with different sorts of victory conditions. For example, a World War II scenario will start you with all your cities and military units already built, and instead of conquering the whole world, you may have a more focused goal, such as taking or defending Paris. Firaxis hasn't nailed down how many players will be able to participate in a game, as that's a balance issue, but its testing so far has been impressive. "We are playing with the idea right now of up to 18 players, which is the number of civilizations in the game," McGarry said. We'll have to wait and see what the final number is.

In terms of technology, Civ IV uses the Gamebryo engine, which is the same graphics engine behind Firaxis' last game, Sid Meier's Pirates!. And Civ IV does bear some resemblance to Pirates!, mainly in that it takes place in such a bright and colorful world. "One of the high-level goals that Sid and I talked to the team about was that we wanted the world to be living and vibrant," Briggs said. The 3D graphics engine does allow for a living, breathing world to play in. Gone are the static, lifeless maps of previous Civ games. Now when you zoom in to Civ IV's world, you'll see elephants roaming, you'll hear waves lapping onto shores, and you'll see trees swaying in the wind. Everything you need to know can be gleaned from the main map. For example, look at a city carefully, and tiny cottages with smoke coming out of their chimneys indicate which neighboring terrain squares are being worked. Or you may see workers pushing a mine cart out of a mine. Yes, you can still zoom in to a city screen, which is great for micromanagers, but you won't need to.

The idea of making Civ a lot more user-friendly is certainly one of the goals behind Civ IV, as well. "There's a certain level of detail that will always be in a Civilization game, but we want single-player to be something that's easier to jump into for people that aren't familiar with the way Civilization works," Caudill explained. The graphics help in that "you can look around, and you can see the kind of stuff you would expect to see. If the Pyramids are in the world, you'll be able to find them. If your tile is being worked, you'll see it." Moreover, the game is getting a new user interface that's a bit unlike previous Civ games, though it's one of the last pieces of the game to be put in place, so we didn't get a chance to see it. "With Civ IV, we are acknowledging the fact that a lot of people have played real-time strategy games, and so a lot of the stuff that we've done to the interface acknowledges that," Briggs said.

Firaxis is also including three different game speeds to Civ IV. There's the standard game, which plays at about the same pace as earlier games, as well as a quick and an epic game. "The quick game is very much for that one-night experience," Caudill explained. "We don't want it to feel like it's all compressed and jammed together. We want it to feel like you're playing Civ, but it just happens to take less time. So your tech costs are reduced, your unit production costs are reduced, your building costs are reduced. There are less turns to worry about, but you still have this huge sweep of time that happens in a Civ game. The epic speed is the same idea, just the opposite end."

There's simply just so much to talk about when it comes to Civ IV that we've hardly scratched the surface of the game. But make no mistake, Civ IV represents the biggest advancement in the series to date, and it promises to make you rethink Civilization all over again. And if you're anything like us, that thought alone should have you excited. Admittedly, it's easy to get cynical about sequels, especially when you get around to the fourth iteration of anything, but after spending some time with Civ IV, we simply can't wait to get our hands on it at this point. Firaxis is entering the final stages of development on the game, but rest assured that we'll keep you updated with all the latest details. Civilization 4 is scheduled for release this November.

Jul 19, 2005

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