The Rest of the Interview

The rest of my interview with Kieron Gillen, of Rock Paper Shotgun, has come on-line in two parts.

The “Making of Civ4” part is on RPS. Here’s an excerpt:

Soren: But I don’t think I thought as hard as I should have about the implications of making a strategy game in 3D where the worlds are going to be as big as they are in Civ. Because one of the first things a lot of people do when playing Civ is, “Well, I want to play a game. What’s the most number of Civs I can have? What’s the largest map I can have?” and beyond that “Okay… it’s 200 by 100. Is this in an XML file? Great. Now I’m going to have a map that’s 500 by 1000.” People want to play these giant maps in Civ, and it’s a real challenge to make that scaleable in 3D. To make a 3D game, you have to maintain a certain amount of data for everything that’s in the world somewhere, even if it’s not on the screen. You can make lots of optimisations, but you’re still keeping track of a lot of entities in the world, somewhere. It’s not as if there’s different levels – everything has to be around somewhere. Whereas in a 2D game, it can – in a sense – be as big as you want. You’re only showing X number of tiles on the screen, and you’re just swapping out the graphics for them. So when the game came out we had some major performance issues for that reason. And it’s tough. We needed some sort of streaming solution, but that’s very unusual for a strategy game where the player expects to be able to jump to any location on the map at any time in one frame. 3D is a big challenge, and it’s really important to think through what you’re trying to do with 3D and if it’s really possible to keep that much stuff in memory at a time.

A lot of people said they liked seeing the game in 3D – being able to zoom right in real close, to zoom out, to see the world spin around. It was a good thing for the project, but… sometimes I wonder what it would’ve be like if we had just stayed on the 2D train for 4. It’s weird. The gameplay could be the exact same. There’s no point where the graphics changed the way we would have written the game rules – it’s still a board game inside your computers. With 2D, we wouldn’t have had the same performance issues and we’d have been able to prototype the game perhaps even faster than we did – there’s a lot of stuff we were waiting for because we were developing this 3D strategy engine as we were going along. Further, 2D strategy games are in general more accessible than 3D ones because the abstraction is more obvious when you are looking at some sort of standardized 2D tile system. We had no end of trouble get people to see where the “tile” was in our 3D world for Civ4. So, 2D vs. 3D… It’s one of those things I’ll never know. I mean, I’m glad we went for 3D, just for no other reason than that we were stretching what we were doing with the Civilization series. We were tackling new territory. We weren’t just repeating ourselves. But everything has its trade-offs, and going 3D was no exception.

RPS: So what influenced your thinking with the team game?

Soren: Age of Kings really showed me how good a strategy game could be if they took the time to balance it well. They really thought long and hard how everything stuck together. You really had multiple ways to play the game, which usually manifested itself in you being a cavalry guy or a ranged guy or a melee guy or focusing on a specific unit. Which is just cool. Also, it’s really fun to play teamed multiplayer games.

Which really solved the problem for multiplayer in Civ. There had been some attempts to make Civ a multiplayer game before Civ 4, and I don’t think anyone would look at them as being big successes. Usually that’s because we weren’t thinking very hard about the actual dynamic inside a multiplayer game of Civ. We were looking a a direct mapping of the game. If you play a game of Civ in singleplayer, it’s almost a story . You’re a king, and there’s all these other AI civs. And we write the game rules so it’s fun for you to play. The most important thing is how they relate to you. And if you get screwed, and you have a bad starting location, you’re still in charge – you just have to restart the game, or quit and roll a new map, or whatever. That’s what makes the game work. The player is in control.

RPS: Which clearly isn’t true if there’s other people to think of, yeah?

Soren: If you’re in 8 player multiplayer in Civ, it’s going to be a mess. Obviously, there’s the turn-based issue of waiting for people to play, but most importantly the games are going to take a long time, and it’s going to be fairly clear who are the people who can win and the people who are going to be also-rans. There’s just no motivation to keep on playing at that point. So if you play a game of Civ in MP, one player starts doing really well and takes a lot of time with their turns, and the other guy who’s doing poorly and obviously is going to lose, he’s always waiting for the other guy. It’s just not a really fun gameplay experience in multiplayer. When we started testing Civ 4 in MP – which is something we did right at the beginning of the project and not worrying about singleplayer until much later – it was fun and nice that we finally had the tech to make it work, and it was still kind of engaging to play Civ with a real person across the border… but there was something which always made it spiral out of control.

Finally, we learned lessons from games like Age of Kings and Starcraft and all these other RTS. It’s just standard that team-play is a big focus. We started adopting that. We’ve got six people playing and have two sides of three and see what happened… though it took a while for us to figure out what were the right rule-sets to use. Like, they probably should share technologies, and it’ll be silly for them to trade back and forth. And if they’re both researching the same tech, maybe it’ll go twice as fast. And then someone suggested that maybe they should share the effects of wonders… well, let’s try it out and see what happens. Sounds overpowered, but on the other hand we don’t want rivalries inside the teams. “He got the Pyramids! Damn, I wanted that effect.”

RPS: The complete opposite of Defcon. An ally is just who you stab last.

Soren: Which fits the shorter game. Nuclear war, after all. But we thought it was really important in Civ. Obviously, you don’t have to play in teams. You can have unofficial alliances if you want. But we felt it was important in the team game to be permanent – you knew who you were with at the beginning and it wasn’t going to change. Which totally changed the dynamic – it was so much fun. Firstly, people could specialise. I’ll focus on wonders, because I like building, and you can focus on military. People were helping each other out; co-op is a lot of fun. If the tide starts to turn and it’s clear that one side is going to win, well, you just start over. You don’t have to worry about some people wanting to start over and others not. There’s only two teams after all. And actually a lot of the MP I hear about in Civ 4, is like a dad and son playing against the AI at a higher difficulty level. And that’s totally legitimate too. We definitely picked up those lessons from playing a lot of RTS. At Firaxis we were hard, hardcore players of Age of Kings. We figured out every nuance of that game.

The print portion with PC Gamer UK has shown up on CVG. Here are some more quotes:

Why make games at all?

Johnson: It’s a field where you’re writing the rules right now. Some day 100 years from now, they’re going to writing about the stuff we do now, because this is the crucial moment for games. Beyond that… well, 100 years ago, if I’d been born, I think I might be making board games. It’s not just games for me – I come from a real board game, strategy game backdrop.

This is what I’m about. I feel that games are such a broad category. You can do so much with games. People put it up and compare it to… well, are games like music or movies or books? I see games not like a new medium, but a new way of communicating – a new language, so much broader than a specific artistic medium.

It’s so fascinating to work on. Your imagination keeps on rolling when you’re dealing with games. In all the other media, you feel as if you’re eventually going to some kind of limitation, but with games there’s no idea that’s so far off the wall that you don’t think “Hmm, I guess we could make that work some way or another.”

Games kind of hark back to the days before the schism of art and science, in that technological progress can also be artistic progress…

Johnson: I know if I was around 200 years ago… How cool it’d be to have these great scientists who are really into music and whatever, and you could actually have most of modern knowledge in your brain at one time. 200 years ago, that was theoretically possible and is a neat idea.

I find a lot of game designers just have a ravenous appetite for stuff. Will Wright is the classic example. There’s nothing which doesn’t interest him in some way.

And this is another thing I really like about writing about games, especially games which aren’t about some made up fantasy world… when I was working on Civ, there’s literally nothing I can do or experience or learn which doesn’t relate somehow to my job.

You majored in History. That ties in with Civilization too.

Johnson: It’s just very interesting to me. Here’s history… and here’s this new language of interactivity. Can this be combined in an interesting way? Is this the way to jump ahead or to the side of this giant long tradition of history and prose? I found that very interesting. I used to find it a lot more interesting than I do now.

The more you get into designing games, the more you find the medium and language has huge possibilities, but also has specific limitations. The entire idea of player agency means certain topics aren’t going to be appropriate.

For instance, in world history, one of the most important books of the last 10 or 15 years is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel… He’s saying that all history is determined by geography. I read that before working on Civ III, and was all pumped up – there’s all these great concepts which you could put to work in a macro world-history game.

The thing is, if you make a Civ game based off the ideas in Guns, Germs and Steel, it’d suck. The whole point is that there aren’t choices that determine whether a civilisation does well or poorly – it’s whether you have the right crops. Do you have the right animals? Are you in the right place? In early versions of Civ IV, we tried.

Horses will always be on one continent and not another. We’ll show people how this stuff works. But it didn’t work in terms of gameplay. It felt unfair.

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