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.