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!

Colonization Returns

Firaxis has just released a new version of the Brian Reynolds classic Colonization, built upon the Civ 4 engine. I’m excited to give the game a try as I never actually played the original back in1994. I remember seeing it on store shelves and being somewhat confused – was this game a smaller subset of Civilization or something? I only found out more about the game – and how it was quite different from the standard Civ formula – after joining Firaxis many years later. (Ironically, Alpha Centauri has more in common with vanilla Civ than Colonization does.) If you want a detailed primer on Colonization, check out Tom Chick’s currently running Game Diary as he goes into great detail.

Congratulations to the team, as well! The game is racking up great reviews.

Dear Paul Barnett

I am curious which parts of Civ4 you would describe as “cuckoo-land“? In fact, our overriding goal was not to go down the standard sequel path and overwhelm the player with too many choices. Civ4 actually has fewer technologies in the base game than Civ2 does. We even had a rule-of-thumb – if you put something new in, take something old out. On the other hand, if you haven’t played Civ4, you should give it a go. You might be surprised.

Mod Mods

Apolyton’s PolyCast has started an excellent new Podcast dedicated to Civilization modding called ModCast. Episode 11, in particular, is worth listening to as it details the development history of the excellent and ambitious Fall from Heaven mod, easily the most popular Civ4 mod yet. Project leader Derek “Kael” Paxton details how the mod evolved (and continues to evolves), and I was especially interested to hear how they rewrote the entire code base from scratch for the second expansion, Beyond the Sword, in order to remove all hard-coding (which means direct references to specific units or buildings or spells within the code) from the mod. By taking this step – which is an extremely unusual one for an “amateur” team – they enabled other modders to use Fall from Heaven as a base to build upon for their own mods. This change actually mirrors the development practices within the “professional” Civ4 team – we viewed the product not as a single game but as a generic turn-based strategy engine.

The impact of this change should not be understated – Fall from Heaven is now a platform in its own right, which should give it legs for years and years to come. Accordingly, CivFanatics has given FfH “mod mods” their own sub-forum for modders to share their work. One interesting mod mod, Dungeon Adventure (shots below), turns FfH into a Rougelike! Watching this sub-community grow over time will be interesting…

Sid’s Revolution

Civilization Revolution is out! Sort of. Europeans have it, but – strangely enough – Americans still have to wait until July. CivRev is often incorrectly described as the first console version of Civ. However, a more important (and actually true) first is less often mentioned – CivRev is the first Civ since the original to be designed and programmed directly by Sid. Every line of game and AI code (and probably quite a bit more) inside the game was written by Sid himself, for all three versions: 360, PS3, and DS. CivRev is a rare chance nowadays to see one of our industry’s first great designers still making games the old-fashioned way.

Congratulations to the team at Firaxis; they did a great job of bringing the franchise to new platforms and, hopefully, to new audiences as well.

Ancient Strategy Games

Games journalist Troy S. Goodfellow just completed a very comprehensive retrospective on strategy games based in the ancient era. The scope is great as it extends all the way from Chris Crawford’s Legionnaire (1982) to Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War (2004). (It’s telling, of course, that the first title belongs to a person and the last title to a company.) These are extensive pieces from a consistent point-of-view, including interviews with some of the older developers – exactly the type of series which would have been impossible to write before the Internet.

Here’s a good sample from the entry on Slitherine’s Legion (2002):

Most gamers are familiar with the uncanny valley – the idea that as photorealism and CGI get more convincing the more the human mind focuses on what is “off” about the animation. Strategy gaming has an uncanny valley, too. If one part of a system is persuasive, then it gets more difficult to accept generalizations in the other parts. Games can cross this valley, but they need to distract the user either with visuals or descriptive text – just enough to cover up the sleight of hand. By making the battle engine so compelling and period appropriate, Slitherine couldn’t help but draw attention to the cookie cutter cities, the weird unit recruitment system and how uninspired the strategic map looked most of the time. Then, given a chance to cut loose with a 3D battle engine in Legion: Arena, they stick on a really lame role playing segment where you level up troops and spend “fame points”.

If I had to choose the hardest thing in game design, it would probably be the decision about what and when to abstract. There is always a temptation for historical themed games to push hard on the realism on the stuff that designers are interested in and to punt the rest. Too much abstraction, of course, gets in the way of what Bruce Geryk has dubbed “touching history” – the reason why so many people are drawn to these games in the first place. Being more of a strategic than tactical mind, I think I’d prefer it if the battles were more general than the big picture stuff, but the trick is finding a nice balance somewhere in there.

We certainly ran into this problem quite a bit in the Civ universe – trying to make sure that the level of detail is consistent across all of the sub-systems (technology, diplomacy, resources, etc). In general, the problematic system is combat as the design challenges tend to suggest greater complexity, especially when compared with other, more tactical turn-based wargames.

For example, in the original Civ, Sid included Zone-of-Control rules lifted directly from hex-based games. They were an strange fit, both with Civ‘s broad audience and an already over-taxed AI. The extra complexity was at odds with the rest of the game, which split an entire nations production into three simple values: food, productions, and trade. Eventually, ZoC’s were dropped from the series.

Nonetheless, the simplified combat system has not been an overall success because – with infinite unit stacking and single city tiles – the game strongly encourages single-minded “island hopping” offensives, where the player concentrates their entire force on taking city A, then city B, then city C, and so on. The abstraction breaks down. Ultimately, Civ has succeeded over the years in spite of its combat system, not because of it. Overrunning knights with tanks is still enjoyable, of course, but the core fun of Civ comes from executing an over-arching strategy, not from the tactical military game.

I believe that we solved some of the franchise’s stickier problems with Civ4, but – I regret to say – not this one…