Choosing the Soundtrack for Civ 4

Kyle Roderick, a master’s student in music at Texas Christian University, recently contacted me with some questions about the soundtrack to Civ 4. I am sharing my answers here for anyone else who might be curious about how it was created.

Q. Why was preexisting music chosen to underscore the game? Why not have a wholly original score?

By choosing preexisting music, we were able to include pieces of the highest quality which also gave a historical flavor for relatively low cost. Creating our own score would have been expensive, required a lot more work, and would likely be much shorter in time. (We had almost no practical limit on how many historical pieces we could include.) Most importantly, Civilization games are improved by real bits of history, even if incidental, such as relevant historical quotations, the names of great people, accurate wonder visuals, and so on. Music was one more tool for us. However, we did write music for certain key parts of the game, such as the classical age, which has no preserved musical pieces. Also, we did commission a piece from composer Christopher Tin (my college roommate, by the way) for the intro screen, which became “Baba Yetu” and actually won a Grammy award, the first ever for a video game!

Q: Why this music? How did you go about choosing the pieces which would underscore the various game periods?

I selected the music based on my own collection of classical music. I spent a few months listening through as many works as I could while listing ones which might work well. I then added them to the game to see how they matched the experience of playing Civ. I discovered that many of my top pieces worked poorly because they had too much dynamic range – a great climax might work well in a concert hall, but it can be a little disorientating as background music during a turn-based strategy game. Thus, much of the soundtrack is built from dance music (such as Brahm’s Hungarian and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances) or middle movements of larger concertos or symphonies (such as the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony). One climactic piece I did leave in, regardless of how it broke the mood, was the final movement of Bach’s Double Concerto simply because I love that piece so much.

Q: Much of the music which accompanies the Medieval game period is from the real-world Renaissance, and the Renaissance game period is underscored by Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. Could you comment on these perceived discrepancies?

Unfortunately, the best pieces (and especially my personal knowledge of them) are not distributed evenly across history, so I had to fudge the dates a bit. Design is a series of trade-offs, and – in this case - sacrificing historical accuracy for the highest quality of music made sense. Giving Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven their own era meant they get plenty of time to shine while still leaving room for the great Romantic composers. I was also unsure of what to include from the actual Medieval period, so this shift strengthened the whole experience.

Q: The modern era is represented solely by American minimalist composer John Adams. Why only Adams, were other composers considered?

The repertoire from modern period is much more varied than that of any other era’s, which meant that finding a consistent style and tone would be difficult. Furthermore, the chaotic structure and casual dissonance of much of modern music would be a difficult match for the mainstream audience of Civ. John Adams is a singular composer from this era; even though he is as well-schooled in minimalism as Glass or Reich, he composes with the heart of a Romantic. His works have a certain movement and thrust to them which makes them a better fit for the less experienced ears of the average player. By using only Adams, I was able to maintain stylistic consistency for the era while also finding a palatable way to stay true to the stylistic innovations of the periods.

I would like add that I will always be grateful to whoever at 2K Games actually approved by request to include so much John Adams. The price was not low, and it was certainly an idiosyncratic choice. I was somewhat expecting them to balk at it, and I’m glad they supported me. (I have similar feelings for them approving the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” as the background piece for the Rock and Roll wonder; so many other cheaper (or more expensive) paths could have given that moment a very cliched tone.)

Q: Saint-Saëns and Rimsky-Korsakov together are an interesting case. They feature one track each in the Industrial game period, both selections from larger works: the “Allegretto con moto” from Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto in A minor, and “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Sheherazade. Why were these two tracks included? Were other composers considered for singular inclusion?

I played the cello from early childhood through college, so I have always been partial to pieces which feature that instrument. Furthermore, the Saint-Saen Concerto was probably most difficult piece I ever learned, so I wanted include something from it, and the middle movement made the most sense. I probably toyed with including something from his 2nd Piano or 3rd Violin Concerto, but the former is a bit too explosive and the latter is a bit too apocalyptic. As for the Rimsky-Korsakov, I wanted to add something from Sheherazade because it would provide just a dash of exotic (or, at least, exotic-sounding) music. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” is a long, slow dance, so it was the best choice to maintain the game’s flow.

Q: Another interesting case is that of the inclusion of John Sheppard’s Media vita. Sheppard is a relatively obscure composer in that his significance is usually overshadowed by Thomas Tallis, whose works are not represented in the game. Is there some reason behind the inclusion of this track?

My knowledge of music from the Renaissance is quite poor, so I enlisted the help of my cousin Erik Anderson, who is a cello professor at Minot State University, and his wife Dianna, who is an accomplished pianist. They created a list of pieces and composers I should consider. As a result, I bought a bunch of music from this period, and the Sheppard piece stuck out to me because of its austere beauty and consistency with the period. I am actually surprised when I look back that I didn’t include any Tallis; I guess they just didn’t stand out to me for some reason.

Q: The recording of “Christian Zeal and Activity” was edited to exclude the sermon. Was this your decision? How do you feel about this significant alteration?

That old recording is an essential part of “Christian Zeal and Activity” (used to great effect by Scorsese in Shutter Island), but spoken dialogue would seriously damage the flow of a Civ game, so I had no choice. Indeed, I edited most of the Adams pieces to take out some of their more climactic or dissonant moments; “Harmonielehre” is missing its shattering opening, for example. Taking these bits out was disappointing, as I didn’t want to damage the structural integrity of the work, but also one of the many steps made to make Civilization 4 fit together as a whole, without any single element demanding the user’s attention over all the others.

Q: If you could go back and change something about the soundtrack to Civilization IV, what would you change? Why?

I am quite proud of how the soundtrack turned out; I often get compliments on it, and I certainly never would have dreamed that “Baba Yetu” would win a Grammy. Of course, I wish my musical knowledge would have been deeper and wider so that I could have built a more varied selection; I definitely leaned pretty heavily on Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Adams. However, if I was to design another Civ game, it would be extremely difficult to go through the process over again and force myself to pick new pieces; I do view the soundtrack of Civ 4 as a piece of myself that sits inside the game, an enthusiastic jumble of my passions and my happenstances.

2010 Media Blast

Recently, I appeared on Three Moves Ahead Episode 76 podcast on modding strategy games, along with Derek “Kael” Paxton of Fall from Heaven fame. I need to do something about my terrible audio quality (and my overuse of the word “um”), but it’s always a blast to be on Troy’s show. Hopefully, I’ll be back sometime soon.

Last month, I also gave a Google Tech Talk on AI and Civilization, examining the difference between “good” and “fun” AI and how that affected the development of Civ4:

Finally, a user on YouTube named Kaszman posted a extensive and detailed documentary on the prototyping of Civ4. This piece is a much more polished version of the talk that Dorian Newcomb (Civ4‘s lead animator) and I gave at GDC 2006, which was a bit of an A/V disaster – the projector would only work at the wrong resolution, some of the demos didn’t work when off the network, and even my cell phone went off. Thus, we were happy to get another shot at it, and the video turned out quite well. During development, I saved a version of Civ4 every couple months with a eye towards using them to show how the game grew over its two-and-a-half years of development. I got a chance to show them off here; for people curious to see how the sausages get made, these videos are a great place to start:

Christopher Tin Inteview

Here’s a good interview with my friend Chris where he talks about his experience with Civ4‘ s Baba Yetu and his upcoming album, Calling All Dawns. Must have been fun to record in Abbey Road! Here’s a good quote:

Liontamer: You’ve actually been to Video Games Live performances at both the Hollywood Bowl in LA and The Kennedy Center in DC. How often have you able to attend shows within the tour? As part of the regular composer meet-and-greets there, do you have any memorable stories of meeting with fans or fellow composers?

Chris: I try to attend the California ones; the only exception is the Kennedy Center show, which I thought was too good of an opportunity to pass up. On the whole, though, I don’t have a lot of time to be going to a lot of the concerts. As for stories from the Meet And Greets, my favorite is when I was sitting between my friend Soren Johnson (designer for Civ IV, currently on Spore) and Will Littlejohn (Guitar Hero). Will turned to us and said, “Hey guys, we just wanted you to know that while we were working on Guitar Hero, during all our lunch breaks we would play Civ IV.” To which Soren replied: “That’s funny, because during all our breaks on Civ, we would all play Guitar Hero!” That was a great little moment, and I think it speaks well to our close-knit community.

A History of Fall from Heaven (Part III)

Fall from Heaven is a dark fantasy Civilization IV mod, built by a team headed by Derek Paxton. The first version was released on December 16th, 2005 and last month – exactly three years later – the “gold” version was uploaded. The project is the most successful Civ4 mod yet created, with hundreds of thousands of downloads and positive nods from critics like Tom Chick. I recently had an opportunity to interview Derek and his team on the final release of his the mod, which is available for download here. (Note: Fall requires a fully patch version of Beyond the Sword to play.)

Soren: One standard way to write a game post-mortems is to list things in two categories: What Went Right and What Went Wrong. I’d be interested to hear what you would put under each heading. (Sometimes, things fit in both places!)

Derek: I think we made the right game for the platform, both from the user-base interest and what the Civilization IV engine was able to deliver.  We didn’t come into this with an idea of the game we wanted to make and then tried to make the engine do that – though, at some point, that’s what it feels like.  We started fresh, played and loved the core game, and looked at what we could offer on top of that.  Because of that, new versions/expansions of Civ made our game better as well.

As for what went wrong, if I could go back, I never would have started the design with 21 civilizations.  I would have had much less, maybe as few as 9 or 10. Although people love the 21 civilizations in the game, and I feel like we did a good job differentiating each one, there is a balance between depth and breath that is a real physical limitation on how much detail we can give to each asset in the game.  At this point in the process, I can’t imagine cutting any of the civilizations, and Fall is a better game for their inclusion, but when I consider the amount of detail and polish that could have been given to a game with only 9 civilizations to focus on, it makes me envious.

Tom: This might not belong here with this question, but one of the things that is both right and wrong with Fall is the fact that Derek is running a nearly perfect ship.  He mentioned above that I’ve been involved in numerous other mods, and they all fail in comparison with Fall in many ways, but the most glaring is that they simply don’t have his leadership.  Many times we’ve had discussions that other mods are being unfairly compared to Fall, and – from first hand experience – it’s true.  Other mods simply didn’t or don’t have Derek and his drive to make a perfect mod.  After playing Fall, its unfortunate that players who aren’t involved in modding hold these other mods to unobtainable levels of quality because Derek makes Fall look so easy and polished.  The bar is set very high for Civ4 mods.

Soren: Let’s talk a little about the gameplay itself. What are some of the mechanics that you are most proud of developing in FfH? What ideas turned out to be the most fun? The most original? The hardest to get right?

Derek: Thats tough.  I’d love to hear the answers form the other team members too.  Lets see:

1. The most proud of: Orthus.  Orthus is a unique, powerful barbarian unit that spawns early on and terrorizes any civ unfortunate enough to be near him.  The unit that kills Orthus gets a special promotion called “Orthus’s Axe” that makes them more powerful.  I learned so much from Orthus.  He made games dynamic, players loved the surprise of seeing him coming into their lands for the first time, and loved hunting him down to gain his axe.  It was the first dynamic component of the mod that showed me what could be done, and he had a huge influence on later game design.

2. The most fun: I really like our vampire mechanic.  One civilization, the Calabim, are a society of vampiric aristocrats ruling over a peasant class that they treat as little more than livestock.  The actual vampire unit comes in the midgame for this civilization, and vampires have a few special powers: they can consume population to become stronger (gain experience), they can feast on weak Calabim Bloodpet units to heal themselves and regain the ability to attack, and they can gift other units in their stack with vampirism if they are above a certain level.  Those changes are relatively minor (in the scope of how much code it takes to do), but it does such a great job of marrying the flavor of the civilization with the gameplay.  It’s so easy to play as the Calabim and picture your population as a food resource for your vampire units.  We try to hit that kind of synergy with every civilization, but I think we got closest to it with the Calabim.

3. The most original: The Armageddon Counter (AC).  Turn-based games tend to go into a late game deadlock situation, and there isn’t much reason to have wars outside of specific victory conditions.  The AC begins to have an effect from the mid-game on.  It rises as “bad” things happen in the world – cities are razed, evil religions spread, powerful demons enter the world.  It goes down as “good” things happen, powerful demons are defeated, evil holy cities are destroyed, graves and city ruins are sanctified.  If the player stays in his borders and doesn’t engage with the rest of the world, the AC may not become an issue or may begin to rise depending on what is happening in that game.  However, the important part is that the effects of the AC, powerful creatures appearing, blight and pestilences striking the world, AI players becoming more and more likely to go to war with each other, are shared by all players. So if you hide in your borders, you will still be subject to them.  Because of that, players have an incentive to come out of their shells and try to direct the outcome of the world.

They may set out on an expedition to raze the holy city of the evil religion or to defeat a powerful demon.  They may decide to go to war with a civilization thats performing a lot of AC-raising activities.  The AC keeps the player engaged in the late-game, keeps the game strategically interesting and is, as far as I know, a unique way to handle the slow late-game issues TBS games are subject to.

4. The hardest to get right: The Armageddon Counter.  Trying to balance its effects so they aren’t too punishing, but punishing enough to make them strategically significant, is very hard and still isn’t perfect.  Part of it is the difference in individual taste and part of it is just the nature of a random game.  Anytime negative effects (those that punish players) are added to a game, we have this challenge.

Tom: I think most every unique mechanic that we came up with is something of which I’m proud.  Trying to make each of the civs spicy and different without making it look like we tried too hard was challenging and fun.  From the Khazad vaults to the Kuriotate settlements.

1. The most proud of:  The spell system and filling every sphere.  Talchas did amazing work, and it’s been one of the things that really makes FfH stand out.  Also, the metal system is so brilliant that I can’t play the original game now because it isn’t there.

2. The most fun: The Sidar mechanic of turning level 6 units into wanes and then adding these as great people to your cities and creating super cities is wildly fun.  When we first introduced that mechanic, I playtested them to death, and it really made them stand out.

3. The most original: The metal system again.  Gaining +1 from bronze, iron, and then mithril is a great way to upgrade older units and adds another reason to fight over resources.

4. The hardest to get right: I’ll write Orthus here.  He used to be much more of a badass than he is now.  He used to make me enter the WB or simply restart a game.  Now, he isn’t nearly as strong.

5. Biggest disappointment that didn’t work out:  Multiple maps.  We had such a good idea originally for hell.  Sadly, hell, the underground, or other areas, simply won’t work with multiple maps.

6. Mechanic still hoping for:  The wilderness.  It’s been on the backburner for 18 months or so after the original idea was dreamed up.  I’d still love to see areas unexplorable that have a fog-of-war for long periods of the game.  Or, when you enter them, you can’t see more than the tile you are on.  Very dangerous.

Randy: The Mercurian and Infernals could probably be a fitting answer to all of those categories, I think. These two civilizations enter the game at about the half way point. The player can choose to switch and begin controlling the leader of the new civilization or stay the with their original and have a new partner or rival, respectively. Obviously, starting a civilization fresh midgame calls for some special mechanics that have to be used pretty carefully to avoid overpowering or trivializing that player, in human or AI hands. Also, they are each tied to one of the more polarizing religions as well as the AC. Quite a balancing act, and it’s taken awhile for them to evolve into their intended roles – it was disappointing at times to summon a huge demon who hides out in the arctic circle for the rest of the game, wishing he had room to settle in! At the moment, I think they are in decent shape. They probably won’t be a major factor in every game but should be able to to provide either a challenge, a decent partner, or a new civilization choice often enough.

On a much smaller scale, the Naval Crews are a pretty neat effect, allowing any ship in a city to make a small optimization by choosing a promotion that adds either strength, movement, or cargo space, but each one has a drawback as well. This can be changed later if the ship is in a city or on a Lanun civ-specific improvement. It adds some strategic variety to what is otherwise a fairly small number of naval units.

Eli: I’m most proud of the way the Balseraph (evil clown) civilization turned out. In my opinion, it has the best overall feeling of completeness in artwork, backstories, and mechanics. For example, the Balseraph Freaks are units that can be built very early on, without requiring a building in the city (in FfH nearly all units have a building req), and starts mutated. In other words, the Freaks all start with slightly different stats and abilities, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Cool by itself, but what makes the Freaks really interesting is the synergy between them and the other Balseraph mechanics. After building a freak, if it has potential to be a good unit, then you can send it to fight in the Arena (Balseraph UB). If it wins the fight (50% chance), then it gets bonus XP and should then be upgraded to a swordsman or hunter. If it dies, then you just build another freak. Or, if the freak’s mutation makes it too weak for combat, then you can use it to build a “freak show” in its city, increasing happiness and culture. Either way, plenty of strategy involved, and that’s just one facet of the Balseraphs.

Derek: I have a question for you Soren, understanding that we had the luxury of taking everything you did and then spend an additional three years on our own ideas and changes, what do you think doesn’t work well in Fall?  What things would you change?

Soren: First of all, I need to start by saying how impressed I have been by Fall from Heaven. Besides the remarkable level of polish – from the graphics to the sound to the lore – I’ve really appreciated how your team has subverted many of the core Civ conventions to make a compelling fantasy game that is unique from Civ yet still feels familiar to long-time fans of the series. It’s hard to stop playing just to see what other new wrinkles the game is going to reveal. There is a tangible sense of discovery to the game, which is hard for a designer to achieve. Your team should be very proud of what they have accomplished.

As for what I would change, I think my criticisms fall into three major categories: communication, pacing, and density. Let’s start with the first issue – as I’m sure you’re aware, many of Fall‘s features are not fully documented, either in-game or within the Civilopedia. However, the biggest problem is that of the new choices and objects that one encounters during the game, quite a few are not even partially explained by the pop-up help. For example, it’s great that the Pool of Tears is identified with a label on the map, but mousing-over it doesn’t tell me that it makes nearby cities happy or that it cures disease, plague, and poison. Similarly, the Fire I promotion allows Blaze, but the help doesn’t tell me what the Blaze spell does. What about the global March of the Trees spell? I see that I can only cast it once per game, but what is the effect?

For some of these more unique items, I’m surprised that you didn’t use the <Help> tag, which I believe is available by default for all of the XML-based game elements. This tag lets you add an extra descriptor to any item if the normal popup help is insignificant. Because our goal with Civ4 was to have a completely dynamic help system, we rarely used these tags. Instead, I envisioned that they would be most useful for mods and scenarios. On the other hand, if you really want to follow through on making Fall a platform instead of just a game, you need to extend our dynamic help system yourself to cover all the features that you have exposed for modders. I see that you have already done some work along those lines as I saw new, unfamiliar pop-up help while playing but much seems left to be done.

The next problem is pacing – on default, the game is tuned to last 690 turns. That’s a lot of turns! Fall has a plethora of divergent play strategies, which is great, but I would rather play 3 short 300-turn games with a different civilization each time than one epic games in which I’m waiting and waiting and waiting to see if my choices are going to pay off or not. I think the best answer, though, is not just to speed up the game by reducing the costs of techs and buildings and whatnot. Fall simply has too much Civ-like infrastructure busywork – which is not Fall‘s strength – and all that settler/worker/citizen/building-management really slows things down. To solve this, I would fill at least half of the map with wasteland-type terrain that might hold treasures and dungeons and monsters and mana but could not be settled by civilizations (or, perhaps, by specific civilizations). This change would allow for a faster game with more exploration and more variety. The victory conditions also seem quite difficult to achieve – sixteen different mana sources are needed for the Tower of Mastery, correct? I’d prefer easier to achieve end goals that allow for more of a race-to-the-finish instead of a slog.

The final issue is density, by which I mean the sheer number of options available to the player at any one time. At one point, I had 18 different technologies to choose from! The design provides a great number of paths which the player can pursue – many more than in standard Civ4 – but showing them all to the player at once can be overwhelming. I also have a sense that the game has simply too much stuff in it – over 150 buildings and wonders, 200 units, 160 spells, 56 heroes, 21 very unique civilizations. As you mentioned above, with fewer game elements, the polish could have been much higher. I wouldn’t necessarily start by cutting stuff, but I think it would be interesting to have more civ- and style-specific techs that lock away a significant chunk of the game so that the player is never drowning in options and also so that each playthrough would feel significantly different. Your design heads down this path in many ways – by tying buildings and spells to flavors of mana, for example – but I wish your team would go farther.

One thing I find very inspiring about Fall is how many small tweaks were made to the core Civ rules that led to instantly interesting, new gameplay. For example:

  • Buildings are required in each city to unlock most units (such as an Archery Range to build Archers)
  • Some units cannot be built but only upgraded from other, high-level units (such as High Priests from Priests of level 6 or higher)
  • A few Wonders have simple, one-time effects (such as the Pact of Nilhorn which gives three Hill Giants)
  • Hero units can only be built once (including Guybrush Threepwood!) and share their own extra sub-tree of promotions
  • Spell-casting units receive free XP each turn, letting them access higher-level spells as the game progresses
  • Hybrid units, like Acolytes, which can act like Missionaries (spreading religion) or Great Artists (spreading culture) but can also still fight

Ultimately, many of these changes were natural extensions of our data-driven design that eschewed hard-coding, enabling a lot of variety without having to touch the code-base itself. If I’m not mistaken, Hero units were actually possible in vanilla Civ4 just by using the same mechanism that allowed buildings to be Wonders of the World. We never actually used this feature, but the code supported it because we generalized the concept of “single-build items” across the game.

I find it interesting how the design of mods are always, to a certain extent, a reflection of the core technology decisions made by the original development team. For Civ2, the emphasis was on a flexible trigger-and-event system, which enabled some interesting, story-focused mods, based on works like The Odyssey or Fellowship of the Ring. With Civ3, we punted on events but worked to remove all hard-coding from the game. Theoretically, the game/AI engine could handle any number and assortment of game elements. Thus, the result was the popular Double Your Pleasure mod, which doubled (or tripled) the number of units, buildings, and techs in the core game. For Civ4, we opened up the game’s algorithms and interface, which finally allowed modders to create their own, brand-new systems, of with Fall‘s magic system is one of the best examples.

Soren: I am curious how you hit upon the innovation of giving spell-casting units a steady drip of XP each turn. The mechanic neatly solves the problem of how players can explore the spell tree without having to fight – an important question as these units are not always strong enough to win enough battle to reach higher levels. Did you try other XP systems first?

Derek: The initial mechanic idea was that units would have to study in cities in order to gain spells and levels.  But having to leave the units in cities isn’t fun.  Players don’t want to have to not use a unit for it to become effective, so we removed that requirement and allowed them to gain the xp regardless of what they were doing.

Soren: I also would like to know how much you changed the barbarian code of the core game. Fall definitely has more of a PvE feel than base Civ4, with all the lizardmen and goblins roaming the countryside, not to mention the dungeons scattered across the countryside. This extension of Civ‘s barbarian tradition really helps keep Fall combat focused without requiring full-scale war. What are the underlying mechanics here?

Derek: We really wanted that initial exploration to differentiate Fall from Civ.  From that first trip out into the wilderness, we wanted the player to realize he was in a different world, and it was a much more dangerous one.  Civ was always about quick growth, filling your area and firming up your borders against your neighbors before you began to consider wars or other options.  There wasn’t much of a downside to early growth outside of maintenance costs (which typically didn’t become overbearing until you have started taking over enemy civilizations).

We wanted to disincentive early growth.  Early threats did that for us, but it was a pretty difficult balancing act.  The player has limited resources in the beginning, and he needs to decide how to split his earily hammer on defense, growth, exploration or infrastructure.  And as you mentioned Fall‘s focus is moved down a bit from Civ‘s – a bit more focus on the individual units than at the empire level.  If the focus was going to be on the units, we needed fun things for the units to do even outside of war.  The barbarians filled that role.

Soren: I have seen a number of groups try Fall from Heaven as a multiplayer game, often experiencing frustration from technical errors and out-of-syncs. I’m not surprised by this problem – creating a synchronous game is a very difficult challenge as all calculations must operate on all machines in the exact same order. Further, versioning control for mods is under the user’s control, which throws another possible wrench into the works. However, assuming the technical issues can be solved, what do you think the potential is for Fall as a multiplayer game?

Derek: Huge. Out of Sync errors were #1 on our list going into the latest version.  We added a logging utility that writes out the game state on all the computers on the game specifically so we could diagnose and resolve OOS issues.  I’m happy to report that it worked and, as of the latest version, we aren’t getting any more reports.

The reason I love Fall for a multiplayer game is that the core concept of the game – dramatically different factions – lends itself so well to interesting combinations.  A Sheaim player could be trying to bring on Armageddon while a Ljosalfar player tries to cover the world with forests.  A Hippus player could be raiding all nearby opponents while a Khazad player holes up in strongly defended fortresses.  How each civilizations strengths and weaknesses effect each other, along with the decisions of religion and mana sources, makes for very interesting games.
One thing I dislike in other TBS and RTS games is that since the factions are so similar, players begin to adopt a fixed strategy they always employ.  Often specific enough to have the same build orders and such.  Because Fall is so based on the combination of elements and variety a single strategy becomes impossible and players are forced to react to the specifics of the game.

Soren: Reminds me a little of Alpha Centauri, which also had good multiplayer potential because the factions were so different. However, as with AC, one of the most common criticisms of Fall is that, while the game mechanics are a lot of fun, the AI has little chance at handling them. Do you have any thoughts on this topic? What kind of progress has the team made on that front?

Derek: Some – it’s pretty heady stuff.  In the beginning, we intentionally ignored the AI as it didn’t make much sense to invest a lot of time teaching the AI how to play the game when we were still working out how the game would play.  At best, we would have to redo it later, and at worst, we would make the AI less effective.  During the conversion to the Beyond the Sword code base, the entire spell system was rewritten to be easier for the AI to understand.  It made a significant difference, and in the last few months, we have begun to go through the last major hurdles of the AI and resolve them.  We rewrote the play strategy hash to remove any of the logic that didn’t apply (like waiting for anti-aircraft units before blitzing an enemy with fast moving attackers) and added in a bit of our own where it made since.  Fall has building requirements for a lot of its units, and we spent time modifying the AI behavior to appropriately construct those buildings so it wouldn’t get trapped with the obsolete units.

We still have work to do, and the nature of AI is that it will probably never compare to a real human (one of the reasons that multiplayer is so important to us), but we have come a long way.

Soren: I enjoyed trying out Somnium, the card-based, diplomatic mini-game you recently added. Because the game encourages thinking about probability, I would like to try a version of it where all drawn cards are shown, including the ones underneath the top “banked” cards. Considering that humans are so bad at estimating probability, I don’t think that revealing more information would hurt the game. (To mix things up, you could also remove five randoms cards each game.) Why did you decide to build Somnium, and how was it designed?

Derek: Fall is a huge mixture of options that tie together in a variety of ways.  I wanted Somnium to be the opposite, only one decision, but a lot of complexity in it.  I didn’t want there to be a right or wrong answer but instead to simplify the risk/reward mechanic down to one yes-or-no choice.

I thought about showing the “banked” cards but, in the end, it got cut because I wanted the interface to stay simple, and I wanted the player to be running off of instinct and laboring over the choice.  If we let all the banked cards show, the player who drew the 3 of swords could see all the other swords cards banked and would know that he should draw again.  I wanted to avoid that certainty.

As to why it was designed, we like doing things no one else has done, things people don’t expect from modders.  Functionally, it offers a nice break in long games if you want to jump in and play a few games against the AI or play while your waiting for other players in a multiplayer game.

Soren: The final step of the Fall release process is a selection of scenarios. Would you care to talk about them a little bit? What design ideas are you exploring here that you can’t do with the standard game. What surprises are in store for players?

Derek: The epic random game will always be our bread and butter.  Nonetheless, I wanted the scenarios to give players a unique way to play in the Fall universe.  There are three major series of scenarios following three different characters in a shared world.  Originally I wanted different team members to handle each path, so we could really give them different voices and explore different areas.  Unfortunately, one of the team members wasn’t able to commit to the time required, which is considerable, so I designed two of the series and Randy, one of the team writers, designed the other.

Randy took a different approach than I did, which gives us a lot of variety.  In his series of scenarios, which follow a leader named Decius, the players have the choice to turn good or evil.  They can be good, and become a Malakim leader, or become evil, and become a leader of the Calabim.  Although the scenarios they face are similar, they will be facing them from dramatically different perspectives depending on their choices.  Randy focused on tightly scripted sequences to keep the player very engaged in the story with significant character dialog and quests to perform to get to the next stage.

On the other side I opted to feature unique gameplay mechanics, and the storyline is really just a backdrop to the mechanics.  One scenario, The Momus, has the player fighting in a battle with 6 other players.  An AI player who isn’t in the battle, the Momus, sets all the war declarations and randomly decides to have everyone attack the most powerful player, have everyone attack a random player or have everyone attack everyone every 50 turns.

In the Barbarian Assault scenario, the player starts at a random location in a poor jungle environment with a lot of other very basic civilizations against significant barbarian forces.  The end goal of the scenario is to defeat the only truly settled civilization on the map, the Clan of Embers, who are at peace with the barbarians.  To make it even more difficult, every 50 turns the lowest ranked player is removed from the game until only 5 remain.  Forcing the player to not only survive, but to weaken neighbors to stay out of the lowest rank seat.

In Mulcarn Reborn, the player starts as one member of large team against an equally large AI team.  The AI starts with a much better position, but the real challenge is that the player is always switched into control of the weakest member of his team.  Thus, the player has to be careful to protect all team members and will struggle throughout the game since he will always be playing from the most challenging position.

From an overall perspective, we wanted the scenarios to be able to feature unique mechanics like those described above, all running on the same mod.  We also wanted to be able to store information about goals and decisions made during scenarios so that they could impact later events.  For example, you don’t have to play the Barbarian Assault scenario, but if you do and you beat it the barbarians will be weakened in all the other scenarios.  Likewise, a player that defeats Amelanchier, an elven leader, in the Splintered Court scenario and chooses to give him to a werewolf leader in exchange for their alliance in that scenario will find that they face a werewolf version of Amelanchier in a later scenario.  Allies can be made to help out in later scenarios if quests are accomplished, bonus units can be unlocked, and some units carry over experience from one scenario to another.  The story lines along the three series of scenarios intertwine but so do these quests and events.

Soren: So, the final release of Fall from Heaven is scheduled for December. It’s always hard to draw such a thick line in the ground, so is this really the end? What does the future hold for Fall? Do you expect other modders to pick up your codebase and take it to new places, even if this is the final official version? What are your own personal plans? Will the team stick together for future projects?

Derek: We will continue to support Fall, so we will do patch and art additions after December.  But my plan is to be “done” with the mod itself.  No new features, no major changes.  I’m not going to walk away by any means, but not thinking about new features means that I can spend time on documentation, create some videos to show off some features, and maybe work through my game backlog a bit (I hear good things about this Spore game…).

The team and I have talked about whats next.  We have all been interested in working together again, and we have been really fortunate to find such a diverse and talanted group of guys.  We have received offers to help produce a collectible card game or board game based on Fall from Heaven that we have been thinking about, but as of yet, nothing firm has been planned.  Personally, I don’t know what I am going to do yet, but if it’s something that multiple people can work on, the team will be invited to join.

As for what I expect from modders, I hope that, a year from now, there is an even better version of Fall that everyone is playing.  We have some interesting dungeon-level scenarios in the final version, and I’d love to see someone really take that concept and run with it.  A unit-level, turn-based tactical game would be very interesting, especially with all the cool models the team has made.

See also Part I and Part II

A History of Fall from Heaven (Part II)

Fall from Heaven is a dark fantasy Civilization IV mod, built by a team headed by Derek Paxton. The first version was released on December 16th, 2005 and last month – exactly three years later – the “gold” version was uploaded. The project is the most successful Civ4 mod yet created, with hundreds of thousands of downloads and positive nods from critics like Tom Chick. I recently had an opportunity to interview Derek and his team on the final release of his the mod, which is available for download here. (Note: Fall requires a fully patch version of Beyond the Sword to play.)

Soren: How do you guys handle communication and source control? Are there private development forums? Have any of the members met or talked in real-time?

Derek: Thunderfall, admin of CivFanatics, was good enough to give us access to a public forum and a private team forum.  To date, the team forum has over 16,000 posts and the public forum has about 150,000 posts.

Although I may exchange occasional private messages or emails with a few team members, 99% of everything we do is done in the team forum.  It allows people to participate in the discussion as their schedule allows and for everyone to openly talk or discuss ideas.  Since all the messages are retained, it makes it really easy to go back and pull out ideas that may not have worked well at the time (okay, I’ll admit it, to go back and get ideas that I didn’t like at the time but finally realized that the team knew better than I did).

Source control isn’t a problem since I’m the only one with with access to the source code.  Art and writing assets are posted, and I cut them into the mod.

I don’t think any of the members have met in real-time.  I did talk to Woodelf on the phone once and took remote control of his computer to check out a problem he was having on Vista. I also sent everyone on the team a copy of “The Ultimate History of Mythology” and “History of Ancient Civilizations” books for Christmas one year.  As they correctly figured out, it was actually a homework assignment to help generate ideas.

William: Stephan and I were on the verge of meeting when we were in England at the same time a year ago, but unfortunately it didn’t pan out. I suspect it might be easier for us European contributors to meet as we’re all concentrated in Northern Europe. (Sto is in France, but – with the motorways – that shouldn’t be a problem.)

Soren: How do you keep a group this large organized? I noticed that there are twice as many “content creators” (artists, writers) as “system creators” (programmers, designers). Do you think that this type of ratio is a sign that getting programmers to work together harmoniously is a lot harder than getting artists to do so (who can work on separate assets in parallel)?

Derek: The second greatest risk to a mod is the “unfixable” error (the first being abandonment by the creators who burn out or go on to other things).  A lot of how we work is based around trying to mitigate that risk.  One way we do that is by forcing all code to go through me.  It’s not that I am any kind of standard bearer for proper programming – Chalid, Talchas and Sto are all better programmers than I am – but it’s important that one person understand all the changes in the mod.  That understanding has to be at the code level.  The reason is that issues will come up.  Issues that occur in a given function are easy to troubleshoot and fix.  Issues that occur between functions (the way two separate functions interact with each other) are much more difficult.  Unless a common person understands both of those functions, it multiplies the difficulty, especially when one of the functions has no apparent relation to the other.

Occasionally, I’ll even ask Talchas or Sto to provide simpler versions of their code before it’s added.  Or I’ll rewrite it in a form that I understand but may not be as efficient or full featured as their version.  They gradually teach me more advanced programming, so I improve, and the code for the mod stays relatively simple, which is one of the reasons I think others like to mod it.

Artists and writers are much easier.  I keep an updated to-do list for them, and they produce assets as it appeals to them.  Though they do a lot of work maintaining internal consistency either in the background or in the art style, it isn’t as critical as it is with code.

Soren: One of the biggest benefits of having all of Civ4‘s game/AI code in a separate project for the SDK was that it was always very clear where the line was between my code and the rest of the team’s code. With the exception of some of the utility stuff – like the XML parsing and the python glue – I wrote every line in the SDK, which gave the code a certain internal consistency that cut down on a lot of bugs. It looks like Fall has a similar philosophy in that all code changes need to pass by a single set of eyes. This level of consistency is very important for modders, I believe, as the code develops its own type of distinct grammar. When you pursued this strategy, were you just trying to keep the project manageable, or did you hope to build your own modding platform to enable “mod mods” based on Fall?

Derek: Just trying to keep it manageable.  I wanted to minimize the cost of losing any member.  There are too many mods that have great ideas but wait for a programmer, get one and do a bunch of good work until the programmer goes on to something else and leaves the project in limbo.  At that point, it’s hard for a new programmer to step in (or if he does you start to run into compatibility issues), and all the effort that went into getting the mod to that point is largely wasted.

I was surprised to see people using Fall as a base for their own mods.  People ran into problems using it because we had hard-coded so many things in the source code.  So for example if we wanted something special to happen when a unit entered a plot with an Ancient Forest in it, we had that right in the code.  It was quick and easy to program and worked fine, until a mod mod removed the Ancient Forest from their version.  At that point, they would get crashes.

When Beyond the Sword was released, we decided to rewrite Fall from the ground up.  I didn’t just copy-and-paste the code over; I started with an empty mod and began adding features from scratch.  I had learned a lot about programming since the project began, and this time we did it the right way.  As we progressed, we removed all hard coding from the mod.

Soren: So, in essence, Fall went through a similar transformation as Civ did, in that much of the open platform philosophy we adopted with Civ4 came at the request of our modding community for more openness. Where do you think modders will take Fall in the future? (For example, I wasn’t entirely surprised that a fantasy RPG mod became one of the most successful Civ4 mods as the XP/levelling system we added to the base game for promotions certainly suggests a classic RPG structure.)

Derek: I suspect “more of” mods to be created.  More units, more civilizations, more of everything.  Fall is particuarly rich for this because the development has been open, so people have access to all the mechanics and ideas we tried.  This makes it particularly easy for them to reimplement things we cut, especially if they can implement them in a way that solves the reason we cut them.  I also wouldn’t be surprised to see modmods based on popular fantasy sources, like Tolkien.

There is a lot of backstory in Fall, and I’d be excited to see if people developed mods based on the Second Age (age of magic) or the Fifth Age (that comes after Fall‘s timeline).  It would be cool to see others take on those time periods.

Soren: By the way, the XML parsing and python glue were late additions to the SDK. I found myself fiddling with that code a lot, so I figured modders would need to as well. How important were those chunks of code? What did we not expose that you wish we did? Were you able to get some of these with Warlords and Beyond the Sword?

Derek: The great thing about releasing that part of the source code is that you allowed us expose things ourselves.  So we created our own XML files, and we exposed our own python functions.  We weren’t limited to just the things you planned for us to be able to mod.

However, the source code doesn’t include everything.  The only parts that I often want to mess with and don’t have control over are in the graphics engine.  Alex Mantzaris, lead developer of Beyond the Sword, was good enough to add civilization-specific unit art to BtS.  Before that, since an art definition was applied directly to a unit, we were carrying hundreds of units in the mod just for their art changes (if, for example, we wanted a Lanun scout to look different than a Malakim scout). He also added a function for the unit art in the source code for BtS version 3.13 so that I could add some code to have promotions effect the units model.  Thus, an orc warrior would look differently than a human warrior regardless of what civilization it belonged to.

I would still like to have more control of the height maps (for creating canyons and cliffs), lighting effects, dynamic ground fog, dynamic scaling and a bunch of other graphic interface functions that aren’t in the source code.  That’s about the only area where I wish we had more access.

Soren: Let’s talk about some actual work figures here, so people can get a sense of what it takes to work on a successful mod. How much time, weekly, do you spend working on Fall? How much time – on average – would you estimate that the rest of the team spends working? How has your team been able to find this time for a fully voluntary project?

Randy: Does playing count as work? Probably, as we are often the first line of defense as far as play-testing goes. I wouldn’t call most of what I do as work, compared with scouring code for hard-to-find bugs or implementing new features as Derek does. But between playing, discussing things on the forums, and creating content, I probably average about five hours a week over the time I’ve been contributing – although oftentimes, that much in a day as well.

Tom: I’d hate to add up how much time I “worked” on this mod.  In the beginning, I played 20, 30, maybe 40 hours a week.  I still playtest over 10 hours a week on average and will continue doing so even after we wrap up Ice.  Who knows how much time I spend on the forums or daydreaming about FfH.

Derek: I spend about 15-20 hours a week on Fall from Heaven.  Multiply that by 3 years and you have a little over 3000 hours.

The initial investment of time was easy because my work sent me to Europe for 3 months to work on a project.  Away from my family and friends, I spent most of my free time working on Fall from Heaven and made significant headway during that period.  Our first version of Fall from Heaven II was released at the end of those 3 months.  Outside of that, even though 15-20 hours a week is a lot of time, I really try to make those hours as productive as possible.  My first major project for the mod back during those 3 months in Europe was in creating an editor that allowed me to easily manage the XML assets of the mod.  Although it took a lot of time to initially setup, that has been a great time saver in the long run.

We also have to be careful about where we spend our time.  There are lots of things we could do, but each has to viewed against the time to create.  Some very good ideas have to be left behind because their value in comparison to the implementation time just isn’t worth it.  I try to be even more conservative when I’m asking for other peoples’ time, such as a cool idea that would require the art team to create a bunch of new unit models.

Soren: Can you go into more detail about what your XML editor lets you do? Have you released it for other people to use? If so, have other people expanded it? I find it interesting to hear that you made the upfront investment to create one because we had a on-going internal debate trying to decide whether or not to build one for our modders. For Civ3, we did build an editor which handled everything that could be modded, but it became a major resource bottleneck because everything we needed to expose required editor/UI work, which ultimately limited the number of things we could expose to modders. More importantly – and this is something we couldn’t really admit in public – we didn’t think we could build as good an editor as our modders could because we would be build for a theoretical spec whereas they would be building an editor to meet their specific and concrete needs.

Derek: Its an XML spreadsheet with Visual Basic macros written to write the xml files based on the spreadsheet data.  I did release a version to the community that doesn’t have any Fall from Heaven attributes in it (http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=231917).  It worked out well for some people, but it doesn’t make modding Civ4 easy, which is what a lot of people want.

This is the dilemma between providing powerful modding capabilities with your game, or making it easy to mod.  Those are two very different goals.  To be easy to mod, the game needs to make most of the assumptions for the modder, allowing the modder to change a few thing and have the game be smart enough to work out all the details.  Each of those assumptions the game makes limits the modder.  The most powerful modding tools don’t make any assumptions and allow the modder to handle all of the specifics on his/her own.  That way, they can do things the game developers never intended, but they have to really understand all of the nuts and bolts of the gaming engine to do it because they have to put together all the pieces themselves.

An editor like you describe would have allowed people an easy first step to get into modding.  A front end that allows them to tweak and customize a bunch of set parameters.  It would have been a great tool for “casual modders,”  but it wouldn’t have been any value to total conversion mods like Fall because of how much we customized the game.  I know that the first step into modding is a big one, so I can’t say how much a Firaxis-created utility would have helped grow the community.  Even though modders can create editing utilities on their own, the problem is that most modding begins in isolation – someone playing around with their own game.  A typical modder won’t go out and grab modding tools for a game he doesn’t know how to mod; he will stop when he can’t find a way to do it himself.  An editor may have been a good first step to allow someone to create a basic mod, then come into the community to find out everything else that is out there

Soren: By the way, what is your day job? And do they know about your extra-curricular activities?

Derek: I work for a business software company in support.  I’m assigned to a few major accounts, and it’s my job to quickly resolve problems they have and to make sure problems don’t happen in the first place.  I work from home, or occasionally on-site, if someone has a specific need, and I’m on call at all times.  My schedule is largely determined by my customers needs – if an issue comes up, I may be working on it non-stop for that day or over the course of several days.  That makes it difficult to plan my life, but it’s the perfect job for modding.  I need activities I can tinker with when I have a few hours free and then drop if I get a call.  I could never play online games where other people are expecting my help at specific times or pursue a career as a costumed crimefighter with any sort of elaborate costume that I would have to get into and out of if I got a call.

Because of my job I have a very support-focused mindset to modding.  My code is not complex, partially because I’m just a beginning programmer, but also because my job is to help my customers remove the risk and complexity from their systems.  One of the amazing things about the Civ4 source code is that it is so simple and readable, even for a guy with no programming experience.  Simple systems working together in complex ways is the foundation of Civilization, and that was reflected in the code as well.  I tried to maintain that in our additions.

A few people know I made a mod for Civ4.  Everyone has their hobbies though, to be honest, since I don’t go into an office, I don’t have the watercooler moments like I had in former jobs.  So, it’s a pretty small group, but I occasionally hear from people I know in real life who ask me if I’m the Derek Paxton from Fall from Heaven.  Usually, as a result of them googling my name and finding the IGN interview about Age of Ice.  In real life (as compared to my virtual Fall from Heaven teammates), my family is very supportive and has endured endless hours of brainstorming and ideas over meals, walks or drives.  To their credit, they always offer good ideas and really think about what I’m saying, which is probably better than I do when my wife starts talking about something in which she is interested (note to self: be nicer to my wife).

Soren: It’s interesting to read that a couple members are using Fall as a pathway into the “real” game industry. How much of a motivation is that for modders in general?

Stephan: Right now, I am writing my diploma thesis in Chemistry, but a year ago, I have been considering finding a job in the gaming industry as an artist. I was seduced because I discovered this passion for 3D art, painting textures, etc. and everything felt so easy to learn. However, I think it is a bit dangerous because if there had been an offer from someone, I would have dropped my studies (3 years of chemistry) and moved.

While modding, you have endless freedom, which makes it so much fun. With a mod like Fall, you also have something like “semi-professional” status, with fans, publicity, etc., which gives the whole work another level of excitement. But you can´t compare this to the pressure one has to withstand in a professional company, influenced by publishers, monetary thoughts, etc. Most skills a modder have are self-taught, which is amazing if you think about it. However, to keep up in speed and quality with someone who had professional training and a degree in arts/programming is a challenge.

So I think hiring a modder will give you certain benefits – he has already proven that he is willing to learn a lot of stuff by himself to achieve what he wants. He will come with a variety of other attributes and knowledge not related to gaming (because he usually does gaming/modding in his free time, not as a primary course of study). He will most likely show a good degree of creative thinking and self-organizing skills. The major drawback is that he is lacking professional education and might be overwhelmed with new tasks, which require a profound understanding of all the details taught in professional 3D modelling/programming classes, and the routine developed in the course of working the whole day in this field (and not in a lab, an office, etc.).

Tom:  From the moment I played Fall, I wanted to try and contribute graphically somehow.  I had never touched a 3D modeling program, or GIMP for that matter, but that didn’t stop me from ‘skinning’ some ugly hellhounds and turning Great Prophets into wizards.  With the help of some very talented members of CFC, I finally learned how to model, texture and put my own custom work into Civ4.  Without Fall, I don’t think that ever would have happened.

I don’t have any plans on quitting my day job to join the gaming industry, but it is nice creating stuff and instantaneously being able to see it used in-game.

Soren: I’m curious where you guys got some of the static assets for the game, such as the leader portraits or some of the extra music. How much stuff have your “plundered” vs. built yourself?

Derek: Almost all of the 2D art and music is copyrighted material that we are using without the artists permission.  If any artist ever disliked how we used their work, I would remove it from the mod.  These artists are more than filler, they inspired the D&D game it is based on, and the art of Justin Sweet, or the music of Cirque du Soleli, inspired the Mod.  So I have great respect for them, and I hope the mod highlights their talent.

The artists, like Jason Engle, that have returned our requests, or that I’ve had the pleasure to talk to, have allowed us to use their work.

For music, we’ve drawn the line at only including small samples (10-15 seconds) of copyrighted music.  Anything longer will only be included if the artists gives us their permission or the artist makes it freely available on their website.  We’ve been particularly lucky that Joseph Vargo, leader of the group Nox Arcana, has been kind enough to allow us to use their music.  It’s an amazing mix of Gothic fantasy music that fits Fall well.

See also Part I and Part III

A History of Fall from Heaven (Part I)

Fall from Heaven is a dark fantasy Civilization IV mod, built by a team headed by Derek Paxton. The first version was released on December 16th, 2005 and last month – exactly three years later – the “gold” version was uploaded. The project is the most successful Civ4 mod yet created, with hundreds of thousands of downloads and positive nods from critics like Tom Chick. I recently had an opportunity to interview Derek and his team on the final release of his the mod, which is available for download here. (Note: Fall requires a fully patch version of Beyond the Sword to play.)

Soren: Perhaps a good place to start is to talk about the current reception of Fall from Heaven. What is your fanbase? Do you have a sense of their size and what type of players they are? Who have been some of your most important public champions?

Derek: Fall has been distributed on the CD/DVD of 4 gaming magazines, and it is hosted by numerous sites.  The most popular of these, CivFanatics, has recorded 200,000 downloads and over 150,000 posts about Fall.  Fans have hosted their own forums, including those in Russia, Germany, Israel and Japan.

Our target audience is the guy who loves Civilization IV, but wanted more.  Since these are the most likely players to go out looking for mods it was a good fit.  Because the players already knew Civilization IV, we were able to create a game whose complexity would have been overwhelming in an original title.  In essence, we piggy-backed on Civilization IV‘s learning curve.

For the first year of development, this worked well and we continued to march forward implementing the items in our design document and adjusting them based on community feedback.  But as Fall become more popular we began to appeal to players who weren’t interested in posting in the forums and reading the thousands of posts about Fall.  Designing a game for the vocal die-hard fans and the growing silent majority forced us to consider both the benefit and the cost of our complexity.  In the end, we stayed true to our mandate, that we were making a game that was significantly more complex than Civilization IV, but we tried to find every available way to make that complexity as elegant as possible.  And certainly cut any complexity if it wasn’t providing enough value.

So now we have a mix of casual players that may play a game or two without reading the rules or even being that familiar with the mechanics of Civilization IV, the short timers who enjoy Fall for a few weeks and then go on to something else and the die hard fans who have been with us for years enjoying the development process.

Fall has had a lot of help getting the attention it has.  Most notably Firaxis allowed us to include a Fall from Heaven themed scenario in the Beyond the Sword expansion.  This really got us over the biggest hurdle mods face, just getting people familiar enough with your mod to try it out.  Thunderfall, the administrator of Civfanatics, has also been invaluable by allowing us to host our own website on his servers and granting us our own public and private development forum.  The media has also treated us well, especially the editor of fidgit.com, Tom Chick.

Soren: So, where did this all start? Did you first want to make a fantasy mod, or did you first want to make a Civ4 mod?

Derek: In my opinion fantasy is just the setting, it doesn’t make the game any more or less fun.  I choose the Fantasy setting because it was something different than Civ4 offered, and I had a fairly deep back story already developed from years of running Dungeons and Dragons games.  But what really excited me about the potential for a game on Civ4 was 2 of its new features, promotions (the ability to level your units and have them gain abilities) and religions.  Both features had a lot of potential and I wanted a setting that would let me really develop them.  Promotions and leveling was already a standard of fantasy role-playing games, and creating a fantasy setting allowed us to have a lot more fun with religions than we could in a real setting, where applying various advantages and disadvantages to real religions makes it hard to talk about the game over the political concerns. So I wanted to make a Civ4 mod first.  There turned out to be a lot of good reasons to make it a fantasy mod, not the other way around.

Soren: I often forget that the current version of Fall is technically a sequel. This can, I’m sure, lead to confusion at times. As probably much fewer people have played the earlier version, can you explain what are the biggest differences? And why did you guys decide to branch off into a sequel instead of just iteratively improving the first version?

Derek: The first was really just a proof of concept, to see what could be done.  It only involved a few minor source code changes that were used in the final version to clean up some issues.  By the time it was complete, we had a few members on the team, and we had a ton of great feedback from the community.  When we sat down to do the high level design for Fall from Heaven II, everything was reconsidered.  It really was a new project from the ground up, not just a further iteration on a common design.  I like to say that I designed the first version of Fall, but Fall from Heaven II was a team effort.

The biggest difference is that the original Fall from Heaven doesn’t have any unique civilizations.  They are either just the standard leaders/civilizations from Civ4, or some placeholder fantasy leaders that a fan made that use the standard Civ4 traits.  Not having access to the source code forced us to concentrate on a smaller prototype version for the first fews months.  In hindsight I think that was a very good thing.  We really played with the model and the game a lot before ever digging into the more technically challenging and time consuming parts of mod design.  I know professionals prototype their games, but it isn’t done very frequently in the mod community.  It really allowed us to develop the whole picture before delving into the details.

Soren: Could you actually give us a year-by-year timeline of the project, from the very beginning to present day? I’m interested in how the scope grew over time, and in what order you tackled the various game systems.

Derek: Civilization IV was released late in October 2005.  I loved the game and was excited by the modding capabilities.  At the time there was very little out there to tell us what we could or couldn’t do, so I sat down and wrote a design doc for a fantasy turn-based strategy game that I wanted to play.  I had no programming or art skill, so once I had a vision for what the final game would look like, I started to implement features as I learned how to do them.  The first version of Fall was released about 6 weeks later on December 16th  2005.  By today’s standards of what is happening in the Civilization IV mod community, that version would not have compared well, but at the time it was enough to stir up some excitement.

I found out early on that there were a lot of things in the design doc that I wouldn’t be able to do until Firaxis released the Source Code.  Those things were pushed to Fall from Heaven II, and we concentrated on what we could do without the source code.  I think it was very important that I originally designed without regard to what was possible, and when we got together as a team to do the high level design work for Fall from Heaven II, we kept any practical technical concerns out of the conversation.  There would be a time where we would have to drop or curtail features because of technical limitations but not in the initial high-level design.

By February of 2006 Fall was complete, and we started working on Fall from Heaven II.  Firaxis didn’t publicly release the Source Code until April of 2006, but I was fortunate enough to get invited to beta test it, thanks to you, a few months early.  That allowed Talchas and I to start doing proof of concept work for some of the more ambitious functions we had planned.  We needed to make sure that a Spell System was possible before we started Spell System design.  We needed to make sure we had the ability to really distinguish the civilizations before I asked the team for ideas on what to do with them.  Once we saw what was possible, it was time to invite the team to start design work, which happened on February 15th of 2006.

We came up with a huge amount of things that we wanted – too much to tackle at once.  So we broke all the features into 4 big phases and ordered them so that the game would remain playable throughout.  At a very general level, this is the list we came up with:

“Light”- The base 16 Civilizations and the spell system (on top of the FfH1 features that were maintained)

“Fire”- Infernal and Mercurians civilizations, the Armageddon Counter, Hell map, rituals

“Shadow”- Svartalfar and Sidar civilizations, equipment, 2 new religions, unique features and wilderness areas

“Ice”- Illian civilization and 18 Scenarios

This way, we kept the team focused on what we were doing at the time.  If ideas came up that fit better in a future phase, we just noted it in the thread for that phase and let it go.  This was important so that the game stayed playable, we had enough loose threads just in the phase we were working in we didn’t need active work on a few dozen features all at the same time.  It also allowed us to focus test since we changed only one part of the game at a time (at a very high level).

Also, in February, my work sent me to England for 3 months.  I was there without family or friends, but I had a nice little house to bounce around in, Internet access and plenty of time to mod when I wasn’t working.  This was the most time intensive part of the project for me; I learned how to program by reading the source code and copying what I saw (so if I have any bad programming habits, they are really your fault!).  By May 19th of 2006, I was in my final few weeks in England, and we released our first version of Fall from Heaven II.  As the phases went, that was the first version of “Light”.

Since then, we have been releasing new major versions every 8-10 weeks.  I wanted each version to feel like a significant upgrade, to help generate interest.  But it was really important that they were frequent because the best way to fight burn out is to get positive feedback form the community, and to do that you have to release.  Also, I didn’t want to make too many internal changes without getting some public play testing to find any new issues we had introduced.  The first version of “Fire” was released on February 16th, 2007.  The first version of “Shadow” was released on December 16th, 2007 (our 2 year anniversery), and the first version of “Ice” will be released on December 16th, 2008.

I always wanted to release frequently, and I’m very proud of the fact that Fall from Heaven II never missed a release date.  However, that was stacked in my favor.  I never announced a release date until I knew we were going to hit it, and release dates were never determined by having to have certain features, only that they would have whatever features were ready by that date.  We didn’t have a plan from the beginning on how long each phase would take or even when the project would be done.  I was pretty aggressive about pushing it forward – you could spend months perfecting any system but at some point you need to call it and move on to the next step.

Beyond the Sword was released in July of 2007.  That was the point where we needed to reevaluate everything we had left to do (we were just finishing up the “Fire” phase at that time), and if it was worth converting to the Beyond the Sword code base.  We decided to do it, and that was the first point where we really began to look at what was left, the light at the end of the tunnel, and started talking about a December 2008 end date.  Even though we didn’t have an end date from the beginning – because we just didn’t know how long it would take – we always had a vision for what the final version would look like.

That vision was so important to making sure every contribution was valuable.  One of the major requirements to becoming a team member is they had to understand the vision.  There are a thousand great games that could be made, its important that we are always moving toward making the same one.

Soren: Ha, I think I’ve heard that phrase before somewhere. We should spend some time talking about who the major contributors to Fall have been. Who are they, and what roles have the played?

Derek: Fall would not have been possible without the team.  They were all hand picked based on their talent whether as programmers, artists or writers.  And we often say that everyone on the team works on design.  There is no doubt that they are producing professional quality unit models and other writing and art assets.  They are doing it for free in their spare time, and most of them have been contributing for the entire length of our 3 year development.
The members are:

Derek “Kael” Paxton – Team Lead, I hadn’t done any programming before Fall from Heaven and started this project both to try to make a fun game and to teach myself a little programming. My chief contributions are in establishing the direction and organization of the project, making sure everyone knows what still needs done, so they can find things to do that interest them.  I also spend a lot of time in writing, designing and programming tasks.  I’m not an advanced programmer by any means, but with the help of guides and the members of the team with programming skill, I have gotten better.

Ben “Talchas” Segall – Programmer, Ben is the lead programmer for Fall.  The first version of Fall had very minimal programming.  I had written a design document for what I wanted in Fall from Heaven II but there were some things on the list that were well past my capability.  At the time, Ben was making his own smaller modpacks (mods providing new functions to be used by other modders instead of being played).  His work was so far ahead of the rest of the community at the time that no one really knew what to do with his designs.  He was the first member I invited to the Fall from Heaven II project, and for a few weeks, he and I just worked through some early prototypes to see if what we were considering was even possible.  Ben was able to provide functions for everything I needed to do, allowing us to invite the rest of the team and get to work on the specific design work.

Stéphane “Sto” Nadry – Programmer, Stéphane is our newest member.  He is a programmer who has been creating external resources for Fall for a while and was invited to join the team after programming a mini-game that we wanted to add to the mod.  Since then he added a Trophy system to the game that will be the core of the upcoming scenarios.

“Chalid” - Programmer/Artist, Chalid created our most challenging monsters, including the Dragons and Giant Spider, as well as programming several key features and modeling other units.

Eli “Loki” Markham - Designer, Eli is the guy we go to when we are out of ideas.  A typical request to him is that we feel an area is lacking, and we need a few ideas to improve it. He usually provides 20-30, so we are never at a loss for ideas.

Tom “Woodelf” Snyder – Designer, Tom is our resident play tester.  He was the first person I invited to the team and probably one of the few people that has played every version of Fall.  He has also worked on several other mod teams and plays a huge amount of mods, making his feedback invaluable for what can be improved and ideas from other mods that may work for Fall.  He understands Fall in and out, and his instincts on what will be fun or not fun are always dead on.

Jon “Corlindale” Duus - Writer, Jon was our first writer and started the process of creating a voice for Fall by adding flavorful tech quotes to the mod as well as creating the backstory for several of the leaders

Randy “Niki’s-Knight” Miller - Writer, Randy took the scattered fragments of back story that we had written and tried to smooth it into one consistent story.  He matched up people quoted in various areas with great people in the mod and wrote background entries of his own to tie together sections or fill out parts that captured his interest.

William “Wilboman” Nordan – Writer, William was one of the early members to join the team and has been contributing stories, entries, quotes and other writing assets ever since.

Michael “AlazkanAssassin” Hall – Artist, Michael developed the “Puppet Mastery” technique that allowed us to easily use models from other games, such as Pirates!, in Fall.

Philippe “C.Roland” Côté-Léger - Artist, Philippe was our first artist and took an interest in Fall well before anyone had figured out how to create new art assets.  He developed and shared many of the processes he pioneered.  Philippe is currently attempting to get a job in the gaming industry as an artist.

Martin “Ploeperpengel” Zutz - Artist, Martin is the lead developer of the Warhammer mod, which was our sister mod, and is a talented modder and artist on his own.  He does a lot of our animation work and has created some very unique units for the mod.  Martin recently got a job in the game industry.

Stephan “seZereth” Weiß - Artist, Stephan is our lead artist.  He has contributed more art assets to Fall than anyone else and is responsible for making sure that Fall maintains a consistent, unique and interesting visual style.  There aren’t many original art assets left in Fall as Stephan has redone the units, terrain, and the interface to really give Fall a unique look.  Stephan came to Fall with the goal of making every civilization visually distinctive.  So that an Amurite warrior didn’t look like a Grigori warrior.  With the amount of units in Fall and 21 different civilizations, I honestly didn’t think it was possible.  But he has been slowly chipping away at the art list and amazing everyone with both the quantity and quality of the work he has produced.

Ilia “White Rabbit” Draznin – Artist, Ilia developed many of our early special units such as the werewolves and worked extensively with us on the Age of Ice project for Beyond the Sword.

Dave “Hexagonian” Sobotka – Artist, Dave joined us on Age of Ice specifically to develop some storyline slide shows for the project.  He also went on to create media for the main Fall mod that kept that distinct style for the creation of wonders and the founding of religions.

Philippe: Just a precision, I am not attempting to get a job in the gaming industry (I don’t consider myself ready for this). I’m only considering a 3D modeling program for my study. This is a career that I never thought of before joining the team, and I must say that Fall from Heaven is the thing that revealed to me the passion I have for gaming art and all the digital art industry.

Soren: That’s a pretty diverse list. How have most of them joined the project? Were you recruiting them, or did they come and seek you out?

Derek: I recruited every member of the team.  Although we have been fortunate enough to receive offers to join the team from many people, we have never accepted anyone like that.  If you have the talent and drive to contribute to a project like this, you are probably already doing so (Fall from Heaven has an active community already modding for it).  There are a lot of major contributors who aren’t team members and haven’t been invited just because at some point, having too many people on the team makes it more difficult to manage.  We want a team big enough to spawn good ideas and discussion but small enough that everyone can stay focused on a common goal.

See also Part II and Part III

Reader Mailbag #1

I recently received the following question from reader Kevin Edwards:

I’ve been a Civ fan for awhile but ever since I bought Civ4 I have always wondered about something. Why didn’t they use the actual countries’ flags for the game? America is a blue banner with a white star???? What was that all about?

There is, in fact, a very specific answer to that question. Can anyone guess why we didn’t use actual country flags in Civ4? To help narrow down the set of possibilities, I’ll add that the answer doesn’t have anything to do with political correctness or historical sensitivity. Here’s screenshot to demonstrate what Kevin is talking about.

(UPDATE: The answer is now available in the comments.)

Baba Yetu

The Stanford Class of ’98 Ten-Year Reunion was last weekend, and I got a chance to catch up with Christopher Tin, composer of the Civ4 theme song, “Baba Yetu.” We couldn’t help but talk some about the piece’s remarkable run. Since its release three years ago, the song has taken on a life of its own – you can even buy sheet music now!

I don’t think we’ve ever told the tale about how the song came into being. It actually all started at the Five-Year Reunion, which was, of course, five years ago! At the Class Party, I bumped into Chris – we were roommates at Oxford my junior year – and he talked about his work so far as a composer, and I talked about the early days of Civ4. We thought a little about how great it would be if we ever got to work together on the same project but left it at that, essentially.

At the same time, I was looking at intro music for our Civ4 prototype to help give it the right “feel.” I chose a track from a CD Chris had given me long ago – a Talisman album called After Silence. Talisman is a Stanford a capella group that specializes in African and African-American music, and the track, “The Rainmaker,” was perfect for them. A sweeping Hans Zimmer vocal epic from the movie The Power of One, the piece has a spectactural climax that I edited to emerge as soon as the sun crested over the Earth on the into screen. The piece just fit perfectly, establishing the game’s tone. Everyone on the team knew immediately that we needed a piece just like it.

My first instinct was to just get the actual piece itself, so I e-mail Chris, who was the producer on After Silence. He said that the group would love to let us use the piece, but that geeting approval from Zimmer would be very difficult as he doesn’t generally license his music to video games involving war. The next step was obvious – why not have Chris write a piece of music for Talisman inspired by “The Rainmaker” to be Civ4‘s new theme song? The rest is history, I suppose. Chris decided on his own to use The Lord’s Prayer in Swahili and to add an orchestral accompaniment. My only contribution was encouraging Chris to put in a bridge, which I though would help frame the song’s peak. Needless to say, Chris did a masterful job.

On the game’s release, “Baba Yetu” was a stand-out moment for the product, receiving positive mentions in many reviews. The song’s popularity grew when Video Games Live began using it as a standard part of their repertoire. Here’s an early example from the Hollywood Bowl:

Since then, videos have been consistently popping up on YouTube of choirs performing the song all around the world. Here’s an excellent version from the Valencia High School Choir (and Orchestra!):

The Veritas High School Choir does a solid version:

This version from the Worth County R-3 Choir is quite pretty:

Hillcrest Christian High does a good job too (and looks like they’re having fun!):

Wake Forest Rolesville High School Master Chorale adds a couple dancers:

Spokane Valley University High School does a big version with some good soloists:

This intimate version from a Berkeley A Capella group named For Christ’s Sake is a nice, alternate take:

Ditto for the Horace Greeley High School Madrigal Choir:

My favorite version, though, is by Värmlandskören from Sweden. I love how they really lean into the piece – not the standard tempo, but it works:

Of course, let’s not also forget the piano version. Or the interpretive dance. Or the half-time show!

“The best music game ever made”

Well, this op-ed is certainly flattering. I personally enjoyed reading the article quite a bit as working on the music side of the game was probably my favorite part of the project. Along with helping our great composers (Christopher Tin, Jeff Briggs, Mark Cromer, and Michael Curran) put together the new music, I got the privilege to select the historical pieces that comprised the background music from the Renaissance to the Modern era, giving me a great excuse to examine and expand my music library. I learned that many of the pieces that first spring to mind – say Beethoven’s Ninth – don’t work very well as soundtrack because they draw too much attention to themselves. Orchestral dances and middle movements, with more constant tempos and fewer climaxes, tended to work much better. (I couldn’t resist, however, adding Bach’s Violin Concerto because the climax is just that good…)

As for the John Adams, I always felt that he made a good choice for matching the inherent compromises and inconsistencies of the 20th Century as – though he is fully versed in the developments of Modernism, especially with regards to Minimalism – he remains a Romantic at heart. For Adams, Minimalist techniques are simply another tool as opposed to an end in and of themselves, giving his music a broad, expansive feel unique to the period. I did have to edit many of his pieces significantly as his dynamic range is enormous. Another piece I wanted to include for its impossibly beautiful and haunting tone – “Christian Zeal and Activity” – has a moving spoken word section which I had no choice but to leave out. Filling the entire Modern era with just one composer was, I admit, a fairly idiosyncratic decision, but I like games which evoke the feeling of having a unique designer on the other end.

Having said all that, I definitely want to thank Jeff Briggs and 2K Games for going out on a limb for me with this somewhat pricy decision. It was one of many things I asked for with Civ4 (such as releasing the AI SDK) without actually expecting to get them!