And the Answer is…

The answer to the question from my last postwhy was the Unit Workshop from SMAC not seen as a success within Firaxis? – doesn’t actually have anything to do with the game mechanics themselves. The problem is the graphics.


The Unit Workshop allowed the player to create new unit types. Of course, in order to make such a system work, you need certain limitations. In this case, the player creates a new unit by choosing parts from a list of Chassis, Weapons, Shields, and Reactors. The unit’s graphics were then dynamically generated based on the choices made. The problem is that all the units ended up looking very similar, even if they had quite different game values. The game had to cover all possible combinations, which led to generic-looking units because the graphics came from generalized algorithms instead of the imagination of the artists.


For Civ 4, we didn’t want to have one basic warrior model that could carry either a club or axe or spear or sword. Instead, we wanted to emphasize the difference between the units; a spearman would look a lot more shiny and metallic than the rougher, more barbaric axeman, for example. Being able to distinguish units is a key graphical issue (perhaps the key graphical issue) for strategy games, and the Unit Workshop tied the hands of the artists trying to make the game’s sci-fi units look distinct.

The Unit Workshop was undoubtedly a cool feature (in fact, it has certain parallel with Spore). However, game design is a series of trade-offs, and it’s not clear if the plus of creating your own units outweighed the minus of the units all looking the same.

11 thoughts on “And the Answer is…

  1. Soren:

    Indeed it’s very interesting – I myself had not imagined the graphics and the problem of combinations! Can the problem of combinatorial graphics be solved with better technology? Is there something being made in order this SMAC feature could be applied onto later games using such a unit workshop? Any technological evolution for the benefits of game designing on that matter?

  2. Fascinating. I remember having this “what is that thing” problem but it was a different time, when lots of games had things that looked the same but did different things. Clearly it’s a failure of design since player feedback is essential but IIRC I just rolled with it.

    My problem with the unit designer was that there were few units I could design that would be markedly superior to the default units than those that were were so overpowered that the AI just couldn’t compete.

  3. I can’t agree here. Yep, I also had problems telling units apart in SMAC, but at least I could see their stats and abilities in the interface. SMAC had horrible graphics, possibly the worst I’ve seen – not because they’re ugly, but because they actually impact the gameplay in a negative way, making it hard to tell things apart (a popular complaint).

    However, I firmly believe that gameplay > graphics in game design and, by extension, gameplay flaws > graphics flaws. So while I definitely agree that it’s a problem, I can’t agree that it’s the worst part of the Workshop feature.

  4. While it’s not a “hard” design issue like whether or not a feature is balanced, this is really more an Interface problem than a “Graphics” problem. And Interface is definitely within the realm of what a Designer should be concerned with.

    Last week I fired up Civ 2 for fun and I have to say: the Interface in that game is GNARLY. I believe that good Interface is one of THE most important issues a Designer should be focused on when making a game. Ensuring that the player clearly understands what’s going on and has the ability to fluidly interact with the game is vital. In many ways, I feel that’s the greatest improvement Civ 4 has over previous versions of the series. I believe that’s the reason why it’s so hard to go back to older games. It’s not that the underlying mechanics are that much worse, it’s just a lot HARDER to play the game. See: X-COM UFO Defense for an excellent example.

    Not to say that the Unit Workshop didn’t have other issues. 😉 In actuality, it was a very flawed system that won points with a lot of people for its novelty. Which is worth something too, but not at the expense of the rest of the game.


  5. I dunno Jon… in my less-professional view, an “Interface” problem would be the inability to find out stats of enemy units on the map, or that requiring too many clicks. Whereas the usually being unable to tell them apart visually is a “Graphics” problem.

    But yeah, Civ game interface has gone a long way. Civ4 improves on the previous games, but my single favorite interface improvement comes from Civ3 – displaying turns until city growth and production completion from the main map. That’s the one thing I can’t play without anymore, and what makes earlier games a pain. I can’t play Civ4 without the Detailed City Info option, either.

    The workshop’s flaws being what they are, I still like it in retrospect. It did have its fun aspects, and it did play a role in coming up with the Civ4 promotion system. It’s the same customize-your-unit idea, just a much better implementation.

  6. To categorize things broadly, you could say that just about anything shown on the screen is “Interface.” What’s significant is how well (or poorly) information is being conveyed by what’s on the screen. Just as not knowing the stats of a unit via text is a issue, not knowing a unit’s identity via its graphical representation is also problematic. A pure “Graphics” concern would be whether or not the color palette or the look of a unit is aesthetically pleasing – it has no bearing on how well a person understands the game, only how much they like the look and feel of it.


  7. Call it what you want, but the game needs to be as intuitive as possible. There’s a huge relationship between graphics and interface. Unfortunately, when a lot of companies hire an interface designer, they usually hire a graphics guy. A lot of graphics guys might make great work, but it doesn’t mean that they’re good at thinking about how to make the game easier to understand. On the other hand, lots of interface guys aren’t particularly concerned with art. It’s a blurry debate.

  8. Graphics is really an issue in several games. In strategy games, units need to be very unique, so players can look at screen and say in one second: “it’s a swordman” or “that’s a maceman”.

    In RTS, it’s a must. That’s why Blizzard games are so popular: people can tell quickly which units are in the screen, because they are very different each other, so people can make their strategies very fast. Some old C&C games had problems to differ their units and maybe it was one cause to make them so unpopular.

    In TBS, it’s also important to make units look so unique, as it can speed the game up. In Civ4, there’s a huge difference between a horseman, a knight and a cavalry. Imagine these units having similar bodies and just changing their weapons: people wouldn’t tell quickly what unit they’re seeing in screen.

    It was a big problem in SMAC, as we couldn’t differ the units so quickly and we had to know stupid things like “which colour armour is stronger”, “what kind of stick that unit is holding”. Chassis are fast to identify, but we can’t identify weapons and armours so quickly. The funniest thing in Units Workshop was to create “gravformers”.

    Some open source games also have problem with graphic, because the units are so similar. Some games also don’t make distinction between units and ground (!!!), tanks are green even if terrain is green. There’s a huge distance between “reality” and “playability”.

  9. I agree with Soren’s assessment of SMAC’s unit workshop, but I think to some extent Civ4’s “promotion” system falls prey to similar issues. Specifically, I still have to mouse-over everything to check the weird bonuses again this or that. In some ways, the problem is still there.

    It’s funny, because I generally think that 3D graphics are completely superfluous for a strategy game, but here they offer a new solution to this old problem. Specifically, animation and postures are greatly simplified–what used to require custom interchangeable sprites can now be done with animation files. You’re no longer just replacing the weapon sprite, you’re also changing the posture and animation of the unit.

    Of course, this gets harder with fantasy/sci-fi units. With “historical” weapons we already know that guns beat swords, but how am I supposed to know that impact weapons beat laser weapons?

    In short, I think there are interesting new ways to make a unit visually “distinctive,” but they still rely on the player to learn what the cues mean. That part isn’t going to change. The trick is to make it manageable, both for the players and the developers.

  10. That’s absolutely right, Alan. We did actually hope to add some 3D elements to the units to represent promotions, but in the end, we didn’t have the resources. I think Sid may actually come up with a solution to this problem with Revolutions.

  11. Quite an interesting angle there. I never thought of it before but you really do have a point. This is going on the growing list of problems with the old SMAC workshop. Still such a badass game

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