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July 15, 2006

ApolyCon '06

ApolyCon was last weekend here in the Hunt Valley region north of Baltimore. The convention was organized by one of the major Civ fan-sites, Apolyton. It was interesting to find out how far many people had travelled for the event; I believe that we had at least four from Europe (two from the UK, one from the Netherlands, and one from Greece). A number of Firaxians (including Sid, Barry Caudill, Dorian Newcomb, Alex Mantzaris, and Jon Shafer) dropped by to talk with the community. I really enjoyed the event - it is very interesting to meet people who know all about the issues that have been floating around my head for the last five or six years.

Dorian and I gave an extended version of our GDC presentation on prototyping Civ4 - "extended" meaning that we were no longer constrained to fit it into a 50 minute time-frame. I believe it was recorded on video, so I suppose that will probably surface on Apolyton at some point. I'll post a link when it does... until then, here is a link to the original slides from the GDC site.

Posted by Soren at 10:50 PM | Comments (431)

July 12, 2006

A Moveable Interface...

Our Civ4 interface programmer, Pat Dawson, was a big fan of World of WarCraft. One of the most impressive things about that game is the flexibility it gives users to create their own custom interfaces. The interesting thing about that decision is that while it taps into the incredible resources of the user modding community, it is also a tacit admission that a game's interface is best developed in concert with the players.

I first started playing WoW over a year after the initial launch. Thus, I assumed that a number of modifications had been made to the official interface since then. I noticed that the system for updating the progess of your quests (SHIFT-clicking on them so they appear permanently on the right side of the screen) seemed a little hacky. The text, for example, didn't have a background and sometimes overran other interface elements. Also, the limit of only showing five quests seemed quite arbitrary... but it sure was useful! I asked my hard-core WoW buddy about this feature, and he said - sure enough - it was added in a post-release patch. Now, I have no way of knowing, but I strongly suspect that a user-created interface mod inspired them to make that change. The on-screen quest display seems like a classic case of showing what the user cares about as opposed to what the designer thinks the user should care about.

At any rate, getting back to Pat... he pushed hard late in the project for us to move all of our interface into Python. This decision really paid off in the long run as the amount of interesting and useful Civ4 interface mods is growing rapidly. In fact, a couple of these mods were rolled into our last two patches, such as ulfn's Proper Score Graph and the health bars from 12monkeys's Plot List Enhancement. Quite simply, they fixed things we could have done better - no one knows how best to make an interface than someone who uses it day after day after day. We play our games a lot, but we can never play them as much as our fans do.

I have no idea if this is happening in the mod communities of other games, but I also enjoy the "compendium" mods that seem to be popping up, which merge together all of the useful interface mods out there. Guarav's Yet Another Unaltered Gameplay Mod is a good example. There are lots of good changes here - a Foreign and Military Advisor, a Civilopedia with a persistent menu "pane", Great People quotes, triggering diplomacy reminders and messages, showing turns left for Culture and Great People Points, a customizable Domestic Advisor, and so on. These changes are very interesting to see as a designer because they meet the informational and aestethic demands that the community has for the interface.

Posted by Soren at 3:14 PM | Comments (439)

July 11, 2006

Interview Round-Up

I just finished a lengthy interview with the AIAS in which I talked about a few things that there usually isn't room for in the typical press interview, so I wanted to post a link. It also includes just a tiny, tiny hint of what's coming next for me.

Here's a more by-the-book interview in which I oafishly talk about Christopher Tin, the composer of Baba Yetu, without actually mentioning him by name. Sorry, Chris!

This interview was an off-the-cuff piece that came from just bumping into Gamespy's Fargo at D.I.C.E.

Here's a recap of my E3 panel on game franchises as well as a write-up of my GDC lecture on prototyping Civ 4.

And then there is this. I hope you'll forgive me for posting it - I'm sure it's the only time I'll ever be on such a list.

Posted by Soren at 5:57 PM | Comments (261)

July 7, 2006

Watching the PitBoss...

This is pretty cool. I'm not sure how it works exactly, but it's probably just grabbing whatever info it can (turns, score, years) from the PitBoss app and then spitting it out to the Web. I love to see these types of "secondary" utilities appear - they provide a strong argument for using non-proprietary data and scripting (such as XML and Python for Civ4). By choosing standard formats, it becomes much, much easier for modders to create tools that extend the functionality of the original game. The CivStats site provides a great service for PitBoss games - allowing all users to get a quick overview of the game's management and pace. It also provides a neat voyeuristic feel - I like lurking to see if all those 18-player game can acutally work.

Everytime I see an 18-player game, I am also reminded that, for better or worse, the limits we set as developers truly matter. If we made the limit 32 players, those would all be 32-player games... and would probably be progressing four times as slowly. These decisions are always tough calls.

Posted by Soren at 12:34 AM | Comments (401)