Civilization: Beyond Earth has been announced. We're the first in the world outside of Firaxis to play it, and you'll be able to read my hands-on impressions in the next issue of PC Gamer UK. While I was at Firaxis, I had the chance to sit down with the two lead designers, Will Miller and David McDonough for a comprehensive hour-long chat about every aspect of Beyond Earth. Read on for details on Beyond Earth's affinities, its dramatic sci-fi tech research web, orbital gun platforms, alien Siege Worms, new high-concept win conditions and loads, loads more.
It's a great big interview, so we've split it into chunks. Here's what you'll find on each page, if you want to skip straight to a bit that interestes you.
Page 2: On building your own faction, merging narrative with game systems, and the three affinities that your civ can pursue.
Page 3: On the planet itself, what the different biomes will be like, alien life, the extreme technologies you can research on the new tech web and the new victory conditions.
Page 4: On AI, diplomacy, extreme espionage, the best units you can research and launching satellites that can shoot lasers.
Page 5: On Beyond Earth's science fiction influences, the design process and the legacy of Civilization.
PC Gamer: When you started designing this, did you design it from the perspective of looking at Civ and trying to make Civilization better, or did you think of it as redesigning Alpha Centauri, or did you think of it as creating something altogether new?
David McDonough: I grew up on the Civ games. Like you, I played Alpha Centauri until my eyes bled. When we very first got the option to make the game, to us it was making a game about the idea of Alpha Centauri, the idea of the future of humanity. That as expressed by a Civ game, we sort of figured out. Part of that was inspired by Alpha Centauri, part of it was inspired by the Civ legacy, and part of it just invented. Civ is about the history of mankind, it travels ground that everybody knows already. This game is about the future, which nobody knows, so we get to make it up. That's where I started.
Will Miller: Yeah, the influence of Alpha Centauri will be apparent, but it's in winks and nods it's an homage to that game this game really is meant to be our version of the place that game sat when it came out. It's our version of this idea of mankind in space, and we started with that perspective of the fiction and the narrative, and also of Civ V. Civ V has enjoyed a huge success. There are lots of parts of that game that people really like, and we're building on the Civ V technology, so we took a lot of influences from that as well. If you're a Civ V player, you'll feel right at home.
PC Gamer: I think it's interesting that you build your own race at the start, you say this is what this corner of humanity is, whereas in previous Civs and in Alpha Centauri there were preset characters that you occupied.
David McDonough: I think Alpha Centauri did set characters very well and I think historic Civ has to, you can't invent the leader for Great Britain, you have to pick from the many they've had. In this game it goes back to the fact that this isn't a story that's been told yet, as part of every stop along the way we wanted the player to be able to tell it. Emergent narrative isn't really something Civ has done before, or is really meant to do in a historic context, but it was ideal for this context. It was just the first and best way of getting the player to decide, to be in control of who they are and who they're going to be.
Will Miller: Replayability is also very important. Just those few decisions you make in the very beginning of the game can dramatically change how your trajectory will be throughout the rest of it. If you can imagine how your playstyle will be changed by that, imagine also interactive AI opponents that are also similarly altered. We really liked the strong personalities of Alpha Centauri. People really latched onto that, we wanted to keep that. Our leaders definitely have personalaties that you can latch onto, both for their fiction and for their gameplay implications, so there's still the Genghis Khan leader that's a little more truculant than the rest of them but he may have taken different loadout options from one game to another, so you can't always predict what they're going to do, but you can get a hint. We never want there to be a critical path through this game. We never want there to be this very quick analysis of the map at the beginning, and I build this and I research that and I build this building, etcetera. We want it to be a much more adaptive, organic experience.
PC Gamer: How did you go about moving the narrative into game systems?
Will Miller: We try to take as much as we can from the fiction and put it in the map. When you kill the siege worm, you see its skull, and when you pick the skull up you may find a new quest thread that you can pick up and follow, and each time you complete an objective in that thread, you get a little bit of the fiction. We decided very early that we would imply more than we say. I think that's really important, because the gaps the player's going to fill in with their imaginations is a story that's way more interesting than the one we could write ourselves. I think the more explicit you are about the narrative, the less the player gets to build it themselves. We've tried to strike a balance between content that we write, and building blocks of content that the players get to assemble into something really cool, and it belongs to them.
PC Gamer: So there are three 'affinities' that you can take, which define your relationship to the planet. How will they operate, what do they affect?
David McDonough: They influence not just the way things look, but the way that they move, and the way that they build. The three identities are the combination of who humanity is when they land on the planet, and what they find, and how those two collide for the next two thousand years.. Harmony finds that the planet is a beautiful place. It's a gem, a jewel. Maybe the mistakes that they made on Earth, pillaging, polluting and so on, they don't want to repeat, so they find a way to make themselves belong on the planet. They say 'this is going to be our new home'. We're going to be fully of this world, and not ruin it, not spoil it, so they take a very positive, welcoming, inclusive approach to the planet. Their territory is large, they grow very easily, they have a lot of free movement over the terrain. They're very fluid, they're very nimble.
The Supremacy player says "well, technology is the salvation of humankind. The ability to build a colony ship is what got us off that world, we've got to keep going down that road, it's the only way we'll be safe and keep humankind going. So, robotics, advanced artificial intelligence, machinery, things that are immune to an alien world and the depths of space. They start to leave behind organic ties, including up to a point their own bodies, eventually.
Purity is I think the most interesting thing, because it's not exactly a rejection of the two. It's a very plausible philosophy of what humanity would do if faced with, as the quote goes, "the unimaginable strangeness" of space", which is that they'll hold on very tightly to what they know, and what they recognise, and where they came from. So the player tries to push away the alien, they try to make the planet more like Earth, they try to avoid conflict with the alien life forms by building massive defences, by being tough and very hard to kill, very secure in the territory they've made safe, then at the same time try to devote themselves to the preservation, or you might say the conservation of the idea of humanity, hence the name. If you just think about those philosophically, you can imagine how they start to become playstyles, how they become conflicts, how they become wars when you're the Purity player with your big strongholds and the harmony territories are around you from all sides. That sets up a lot of options for both players.
Will Miller: Mechanically, the Purity player is the one that's going to put guns on things. Giant platforms with lots of guns.
David McDonough: We're going to build a fortress, and we're going to make it fly.
PC Gamer: I think I know which one I'm going to play already.
David McDonough: (laughs)They're my favourite, they're very cool. I was never a fan of Batman, Superman, I like the Hulk. You don't need fancy tricks and gadgets, you just need to hit things really, really hard. That's the Purity attitude - overwhelming force.
Will Miller: Then the Harmony player can take advantage of all the things that are threatening to you in the beginning of the game, even to the extent that they start to design their own alien creatures. You get to play these big alien things at the end of the game, they even ride them. They're not space elves, they're still very tough. In fact, the ground unit trajectory for Harmony, they look like Football players, huge genetically modified guys,
David McDonough: They've got as much influence from the Predator as they do from Avatar.
Will Miller: Then the Supremacy player is very finesse oriented. It's going to be about building units and putting them in a geometry that lets them harmonise with each other. You have units that are very specialised, but if put in the right places relative to others, you get a lot of buffs that way. Each of the three playstyles have an influence on all of the game systems, so they all can use orbital units, they all take advantage of those things, but just differently. They also don't suggest a military one, or an economic one. You can play canonical Civ gametypes with each one. Each are different takes.
PC Gamer: You mentioned the orbital layer, briefly. How does that interact with the ground layer?
Will Miller: The planet's surface, and what's on it, is the star of the show, and that's been the case with Civ forever. The map is the coolest thing. So the orbital layer is built to reinforce that idea. You can shoot satellites up into the atmosphere, and they project an influence onto the ground. If you wanted to clear the Miasma from your capital, you would send a satellite above it and clear it over a certain number of turns. Satellites are temporary. We're still balancing the numbers, but they won't last forever, and they'll de-orbit, and it's good because they can't overlap, so they have this footprint which is the affected area on the ground, and you can't have two that have overlapping effects, and that's a pretty cool secondary territorial acquisition problem that the player are engaging with in addition to what's going on on the ground. So the strategy might be I shoot down the satellite above your capital, and I might just have time to get mine up there, and you can't - there's this bin-packing problem you're dealing with, and there are offensive satellites and defensive ones and they can't shoot each other, which is realistic, right? But they can shoot things on the ground, so you can have orbital strike platforms, and terraforming and stuff like that.
PC Gamer: Where did you draw inspiration from for the planet itself?
David McDonough: We're big fans of the sweep of the sci fi canon. There's no shortage of strange and incredible worlds out there, from Dune to the Buggers from Ender's Game. There's no new ideas about alien planets out there, there's just fun good ones. It's an interesting balance of making the planet recognisable to the human eye so you can tell what's good, where do I want to live on this planet, and maknig it alien, so it's totally bizarre. A lot of the new things like the canyons, the Miasma, the new resources and so on are ways to do that at the same time. We cleared the decks and rebuilt the very idea of map generation. We have these biomes with whole-world palettes with unique plantlife and unique colour schemes and unique layouts and so on, so when you go to one it feels like a different world each time. Earth version B,C and D, it's like you went to a whole different part of the galaxy where planets are different.
PC Gamer: Will the monsters be different from from world to world?
David McDonough: The actual units will be the same. Their behaviour will be different, because they take advantage - the AI reacts to the terrain it has, so a Vulcan planet, which is all land and a lot of canyons, will probably have a lot more worm activity. The problem you have to solve regarding the alien life will be different than if you were on a nautical planet with a lot of the sea creatures that we have. It was more a constraint of keeping the learning curve down to keep the player from having to relearn the game every time they start a different planet.
PC Gamer: What technological extremes can you explore on the tech web?
Will Miller: That's where the reading list came in. The first thing we did was go on Wikipedia to the Alpha Centauri webpage, and it has the books that Brian Reynolds and his team read, so we read those, and that was our starting point. And we read a lot more, and got a survey of all the weird things we could do and the weird places we could go, and the tech web really reflects that. They cater to each of those affinities as we mentioned, but there's always this thread of plausibility through the whole thing. It was important to us not to start high sci-fi, but to gradually get there through a route that seems very plausible to the player. I don't remember the exact Karl Sagan quote, but he says humans of the future will be quite different from us, fewer of our weaknesses, more of our strengths. We wantes to show this evolution all the way through, and have it be plausible.
PC Gamer: I saw transhumanism as one of the paths, how else can humanity progress?
David McDonough: The web represents the frontiers of science. Your culture can embrace any part of it on the way to where it's going. You can say that the strong arms are, off to the left there's alteration to the human form, so cybernetics, human augmentation, surrogacy, putting your brain in a can, that kind of stuff, that's where transhunanism shows up. Near it is artificial intelligence, super advanced computing, artificial sentience, robotics, machine life and so on. Then there's information and communication sciences, so lots of orbital stuff, data collection storage and analysis. Imagine a world run by the unholy alliance of Twitter and Wikipedia.
PC Gamer: Oh god.
David McDonough: Another analogy would be the Hitchhiker's Guide, data flows freely and the Purity player will find lots there, like human archivism and holding onto what came from Earth. Next to that is planetary sciences starting with alien fauna and alien geology and then moving onto terraforming, all the way to the point of planetary engineering where you can dig into the mantle and mine rare ores right out of the lava. Or you can build machines that shake the very ground under your enemies and stuff like that.
Above it is genetics, starting with what the human genome is and what the genome is we find on the alien world, and then extrapolating, blending them, hybridising, breeding new life, reverting humanity to an earlier genome stripped of all its flaws, like the promethean idea of the ultimate idea of human, and then in between body modification and genetics are the xeno-sciences, about the alien world you find, things that are unique about the Miasma, the alien ecosystem, the bizarre resources you find and what that means for new technologies. You'll get some combination of those, maybe about 75%, and you can decide which one's the most important to you. Whatever you want to do, those techs are how you do it. They're the engine of the game.
PC Gamer: How do victory conditions work in Beyond Earth?
Will Miller: They're quite different. We decided early on that we wanted victory in the game to be something you start a little bit earlier, and a bit of a gamble. This is it, you're taking your shot, you're making your run and be very dramatic, so the victories are couched in our quest system. So you get these four victory quests at the beginning of the game and it tells you step by step what you would need to do them, and they're reach tailored to one of the affinities, and then there's one that anybody can do. This is the contact victory, you get a signal through some means, either by researching it and finding it in a transcendental number, the ?mentissa?, or finding it in an alien ruin, or getting it in space when you put a radio telescope up there, and then you build a beacon, and then you have to turn it on and protect it while it's on, then several turns later the aliens, the progenitors, turn up and then you win.
There's the transcendence victory, this is the Harmony victory, this is a nod to Alpha Centauri of course. In this victory you discover that the planet is a living being, like Solaris almost, a living thing, and find a way to communicate with it, and integrate yourselves into its consciousness.
Then there are the promised land and emancipation victories, and these are my two favourite. You reestablish contact with Earth. You leave Earth in a very ambiguous state. They're on the mend, but resources are running low, and you're not really sure, so you re-establish communication with Earth and then you build a warpgate and if you're the Supremacy player and go for the emancipation victory, you send military units through the warpgate to conquer - to emancipate earth, to bring it in line with you. If you're the Purity player you bring settlers through and settle them, so that's a cool victory to go for because you have to plant these settlers and protect them until you have enough to sustain a new human colony.
PC Gamer: So once you've built the warpgate, there's more play after that?
Will Miller: That's where the gamble starts. You build the warpgate, which is a planetary wonder, which is a new concept in the game. It's a wonder that takes up an entire hex, and you have to give up that hex as part of your city to build this thing, and it takes a while and a lot of resources to build, and then if you're sending things through it or taking things out of it you have to protect it, they're very weak, so there's a military presence that has to be there, and there's a certain number of units you have to send in, and a certain number of units you have to pull out, and it it's the same with all of the other ones. It's not just "I build this thing and I win," it's "I build this thing, and you turn it on, you have to protect it and all the other players know you're gunning for it. It's a neat twist on winning Civ.
PC Gamer: It sounds less abstract than previous victory conditions in Civ when you'd just research the technology at the end of the tree, and you don't quite know where everyone's at.
David McDonough: The way we designed them philosophically is that, it's a little easier in historic Civ to point to what makes a civilization great, because we already know. In the future, you're all going in these different directions and you have these different affinities, and what is the end point? Well there really isn't one, it's just the beginning of one, right? So we pointed to the victory conditions and said this is going to represent humanity taking the next leap, leaping into a new epoch where they've met another sentient alien race, or they've achieved a transcendent level of consciousness because they've discovered this other level of lifeform, so the victory conditions are all funnelled around that, and they're exclusive, right? If you want to wake up the planet, the guy who's trying to settle Earthlings on it probably isn't, they're not going to be harmonious, so you put humanity to another turning point, and it's either going to be the one you want, and you win, or the one that your opponents want, and you have to stop them.
PC Gamer: So you're always the first one to land on the planet you're colonising, and then other ones land afterward? How will that unfold?
David McDonough: Yeah, you're playing, you're exploring and then you'll get a popup, a communique, and you'll zoom over to see the ship for your opponent land, they'll establish their capital, you'll get first diplomatic contact with them, and you're free to go from there. It'll happen at some point between the first 40 - 50 turns.
PC Gamer: Have you taken another look at diplomacy? How will interacting with other factions work?
David McDonough: Diplomacy fundamentally is the same as in traditional civ when you call them up and you talk about whatever it is you want to talk about, but there's a lot more to talk about. IN addition to where you're settling and where your borders are, there's your attitude towards the aliens, you're riling them up and attacking my settlements, or there's a lot more covert ops, there's black hat ways to undermine your diplomatic relations. There's the orbital layer, 'don't put sattelites over my territory', and there's the divergence of affinity. As you choose Supremacy and your opponent chooses Harmony, those are not - attitudes are going to mesh, so that's going to lead to increased tensions, increased competition for resources. Your opponents are more oppositional by definition I think, because of the way your trajectories diverge over the course of the game.
PC Gamer: How does the AI choose which path to take? Are there set behaviour types?
David McDonough: Actually, that's a really good questions because, as Will was saying about the affinities, we don't want them to be synonymous with a certain way to win, or a certain way to play. Supremacy doesn't always mean military. So the civ with the more militaristic bent, which is Brazilia? may pick Supremacy, but they may not. Harmony would be just as good, Purity would be just as good as an expression of military strength. So the AI will make the same adaptive choices that you will. So if they start with a certain situation with alien neighbours, the terrain, they may find that their easiest path is one of the three affinities and the next time you play it'll be different. We also give them a little curve to their ball, so they tend to pick things that you don't. It's not like one big world of Harmony. If you go Harmony, they're going to go something else. That's a little bit of a designer device just to make things fun.
PC Gamer: Will there be a galactic or planetary council, a la Alpha Centauri?
Will Miller: It's much more oppositional. There's no world congress or galactic council or anything like that. I think there are avenues for that sort of play through the diplomacy system. One of the systems we're really excited about is the white hat black hat covert ops. It takes espionage from Brave New World and expands it quite a bit. You can do many, many more things with spies when you get them in cities and things like smuggling from them and stealing their research and technology to things like planting the Dune thumper device in their city and having worms pop out. Only the Harmony player can do that. Or setting off a nuclear explosion, a dirty bomb in their city. There's some stuff that's white hat stuff that's done peacefully, that's not detrimental to the other player but is still clandestine, so if the AI catches you doing it they're not going to be pleased about it, but it benefits you and doesn't harm them as much. Then the more clandestine activity happens in a city, we call it intrigue, there's an intrigue level that increments. Once that gets real high you can start doing things that are more directly offensive, like detonating a bomb or sending the aliens to attack. That's a pretty cool avenue into the diplomacy system that's not "I'm going to talk to you now, let's have a conversation tree."
PC Gamer: How do you defend against that?
Will Miller: Well, we telegraph. It's not like you'll never know stuff is going to happen. You telegraph that the - there's a part of the HUD that's your intrigue. It's kind of like the stars from Grand Theft Auto. When you get five of them the cops are after you, you kind of understand what that means. Once it gets to a certain threshold you can see, you don't know who's doing it, but you can see that there's a lot of intrigue going on, so I'd better put counterspies in here, or I'd better build the office of homeland security to clamp it down. There's several ways, virtues, buildings, even satellites can assist you in defending yourself against covert action.
PC Gamer: What kind of units can you build?
David McDonough: Since obviously without the historic context there's no such thing as going from archers to guns. When you land on the planet you've got pretty good stuff contemporary military plus. One of the favourite features from Alpha Centauri is the unit workshop, which everybody really likes, even though in our opinion the design of that could have been improved, so we did!
We decided on a different way to make your army customisable, and also feed back into your affinity, your cultural identity. So you have a catalogue of generic unit types that will upgrade as you level up. As your dominant affinity goes higher you'll be able to stack these guys with perks, with special abilities that are themed to that. Your marines can start out as normal marines, and then you play a little while and they level up to level two marines and you give them the anti-alien perk instead of the anti-city perk, because that's the kind of army you want to field. Then they have more abilities beyond that, so your stock types upgrade throughout the game.
About a third of the way into the game they start to get augmented by unique units, which are unique to affinities, they're not unique to affinities. So if you play the Supremacy path you will have access to Supremacy uniques there's a catalogue of them, and they are themed along Supremacy ideals, so the first two are robots, basically droids, and they get more sophisticated from there. So there are robo-soldiers for Supremacy, using alien lifeforms as herds, or as cavalry, or breeding new creations for the Harmony player. Then the Purity player has the aforementioned flying fortresses. They're the tough guys, so they specialise in the float-stone, and they figure out how to mill it into a particular kind of ore that they can use to levitate truly massive objects. Their highest levels are the lev-tanks and the lev-destroyer, which is essentially a battleship that flies.
So depending on your playstyle you can look at these different styles of armies, and by the end of the game they're going to be totally different. Your army will be totally different than your neighbours, but balanced, so it's more like which of you is better at using your particular strengths?
PC Gamer: Does that separate the military tree from the tech tree, so you're not actually researching new units?
Will Miller: They're kinda tied. The central ring, the first simple techs you'll be able to get to quickly unlock the generic they're not really generic, we call them the classes so you research your tech to unlock the cavalry and the siege units, and the battleship and stuff like that. Then, once you have those categories unlocked, you can go into our version of the workshop, the unit upgrade screen, and that's where you see their progression tree. It starts out linear and then it branches depending on affinity.
So as you research affinities in the tech tree, the various branches unlock along that. Then each time you unlock an upgrade you get to pick one of these perks, so even within that selection, the affinity-based selection, you still get to specialise even further with the perks.
PC gamer: It feels like the factions are quite emergent. From their military, to the way they behave and their aspirations. There's a lot going into that mix, so when you meet another player, you really have to figure out what their deal is by looking at them, I imagine, and spying on them.
Will Miller: Covert ops is a good way to do that. One of the lower level things you can do is gather intelligence. You would send a spy to their city, gather intel, then you would get an intelligence report that says 'here's their level'. Depending on the level of the spy you'd get more detailed information here's what they're researching, here are their affinity levels.
David McDonough: It is true that their actual aesthetic will change. The art team has done a lot of work to bring the affinities into the game visually, so the units will look different. Your high level Supremacy marines will look like these lithe, robotic gleaming things, versus the Purity marine, which is really heavily armoured with a heavy bore gun, so yeah. And their cities. Their building composition will change. Their leader will change. Everything about them will get coloured by their dominant affinity. It'll be impossible to miss.
Will Miller: It was really cool when our art team got spooled up. We started getting these concept art pieces in and we were like 'oh my god, we get to put that in Civ? That's awesome! The robot samurai guy, the giant alien walker thing. This is going in a Civ game? That's so cool. They're used to a more research-oriented art process. When we said 'you guys just get to invent this' they had a lot of fun.
PC Gamer: Has it been liberating not being tied down by history for this project?
Will Miller: Absolutely. Both from a player's perspective it's a really refreshing take on the Civilization formula, but from a designer's perspective it's even cooler because we get to do things like, have the seeded start with the customisable civs, or the tech web, or the unit upgrades and the fiction and all this stuff. It's really, really cool. It's an exciting game to work on.
PC Gamer: I know you guys have been reading a lot of sci-fi and watching a lot of science fiction films. Are there any influences you'd pick out in particular?
Will Miller: Yeah, I'd say we went through the classics, the Arthur C. Clarke, the Carl Sagan, the Greg Bear, Dan Simmons is a big influence. The Great Mistake is a nod to him in one of his novels. Lots of sci-fi movies. You name it, we've probably seen it.
David McDonough: Yeah, it's little bits of everything. There's a fair bit of Dune, obviously, with the worms. And Ender's Game with the bugs, and the hive mind idea.
Will Miller: Even Nausica of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki's Manga, for the fungal biome. The inspirations come from a lot of places.
David McDonough: Some are more obvious than others. Like the contact victory, and Carl Sagan's book of the same name.
Will Miller: (laughs) Right, like it isn't obvious enough. This is our love letter to the genre.
PC Gamer: I like seeing those little nods and winks to classic sci-fi concepts. It's kind of rewarding, as a sci-fi nerd.
Will Miller: There's tons of little nods in the quotes, and the stories, the quest stories. We've tried to work as much in there as we can.
PC Gamer: How have you dealt with the massive legacy and expectation attached to Civilization in this new context? What are the things you've had to do because it's a Civ game?
David McDonough: The bones of the experience are very much recognisably Civ. The idea of the cities, city-base progression, leaders, the passage of time, tile-based, turn-based, building improvements, technologies. A lot of them are very familiar themes to the Civ player. The opportunity was not to say 'how does the legacy of Civ limit us, but once we strip all of the flesh off the Civ idea and get to its bones, what new creation can we put on top of it, that is ideal for science fiction, not for history?' I think the legacy of Civ really enabled this game to go where it's going because we can take these things for granted. We don't have to explain what cities and buildings and technology are. We can say to the player 'here are some things you remember, now forget everything you know, it all means something else'. The influences are different. The stories are different. The themes are different.
Will Miller: It's a tough balance to strike because we want to reach a new audience. We want to get to those XCOM fans who may not have played Civ because history wasn't their thing, or strategy gamers that are playing a lot of these strategy games on IOS, that haven't tried Civ before. We want to reach those people, so we're trying to make the game more accessible for them, but also catering to our hardcore fans. We think a lot about 'oooh, what would they think if we took this out and put this in'. We try to listen to that, but we really want this product to stand on its own, and we've taken some risks, and made some changes that are surprising I think to fans, but I really think that they'll like it. David and I are relatively young designers. This is our first big Civ product. We've worked in Civ a little bit. We've done our time on Civ stuff, but it's really a testament to Firaxis to trust us and let us take this chance and make this new thing.
PC Gamer: How long have you guys worked for Firaxis?
Will Miller: Five years, with a sabbatical in the middle. We met in college and we learned to make games together in college. I came here first, and Dave was visiting just to catch up and I said 'hey, we've got this production position open at Firaxis, why don't you come by and do an interview?' and he got the job shortly thereafter, so it's serendipitous. We worked here for two-and-a-half years, then I went to Big Huge games to work on Amalur and Dave followed shortly thereafter. We were both systems designers, so Dave made the transition from...
David McDonough: I was an engineer at Firaxis first, and we both made the transition into systems design at Big Huge, then we were invited back to do this. It was a really cool thing. We're best friends and we get to work on this cool game.
PC Gamer: I like that you're both lead designer, it's quite unusual, a lead designer unit.
David McDonough: People around here seem to really enjoy it. I think it's amusing to the company to be able to present us like that.
Will Miller: The Matt Stone, Trey Parker collaborative.
PC Gamer: The hive mind.
David McDonough: We're very different. Our personalities are very different, and our perspective on the game is very different. We design through dialogue, and I think we do a pretty good job.
PC Gamer: What kind of design ideas do you argue about when putting together a Civ game?
David McDonough: I mean, everything's up for grabs. (laughs) That's part of it. There's conflict in every way you interpret what this opportunity means. Very traditional Civ, very not-traditional, shedding even the strongest of conventions. Trying to justify the presence of every mechanic that's in the game. How does that enable new ones? That's where affinities came from, this hammered-out forge of different influences. How do we represent the idea of post-humanism mechanically, with numbers? There's no shortage, large and small, from 'I think that military should move three instead of two' to the very concept of technology as a web, rather than as a tree. It's a huge moving part. You put that in and it changes everything.
Will Miller: One good example of that is that, in my mind, there are two kinds of Civilization games. There's Civilization 4 and Civilization 5, then there's Civ Rev. Civ Rev is my favourite, it's the last Civ that Sid Meier himself has designed, that's in the Civ canon. It's a much more asymmetrically balanced game, whereas Civ 4 and 5 where symmetrically balanced games. There's a lot more drama in Civ Rev, for me as a player. The game can swing very dramatically one way or the other, and that's been an issue, resolving the desire to get that sort of drama in the game, while at the same time not upsetting fans of Civ V too much. There are different voices in our office for each of those perspectives. Anton Stringer, is our systems designer. He's done a tour on every expansion, I think, and is one of those hardcore Civ players, so he represents that voice. We talk I don't think fight is good (laughter). Contentious conversation, perhaps.
David McDonough: Debate!
Will Miller: Impassioned debate. But it's not design by committee, that's important to note. We really do convince each other and go forward with conviction.
PC Gamer: It's interesting, there are different types of Civ, of course, but so many types of Civ player. I'm very militaristic, so I'm not going to care about whole systems in that game. How do you design to those different needs?
David McDonough: It's a very strong influence. A lot of the systems in the game are designed with exactly that thought process at the beginning. How are the full spectrum of Civ attitudes going to be able to use this? Is it going to be fun for them? We had a design meeting the other day which was specifically about the peaceful player. We put a lot of effort into making these military units really cool, and these aliens are really cool. Only if you fight with them. If you don't fight with them, what are you going to do? Making sure that that player has fun too, and their game is no less rich. Once again, from the biggest to the smallest mechanic, it's always with a view of 'how does this trickle into every dominant way to play the game?'
Will Miller: We're also very aware that this game may give rise to new ways to play. We want to embrace that. We have to be careful about designing too much around the conventions of play surrounding Civ V. There's a concept of wide and tall in that game. There's definitely a concept of wide and tall in this game as well, but we're always thinking 'what is the next approach? Is there a different approach?' we don't have to be shackled by these gameplay approaches that have developed in Civ V. We want to set the stage for new ones to arrive, and foster those as well.
PC Gamer: I'm curious about the very start of the design process, when there's no art. What does it look like, is there a stripped down screen with hexes everywhere and formulas dangling off them? How does it actually come together?
David McDonough: There's a lot of placeholder assets. We get a minimum level engine going, then there's a lot of really crummy looking stuff, programmer art, as it goes.
Will Miller: A lot of it from Civs of past, we'll just pull in.
David McDonough: We have these things, we call them 'gummy bears', these are units from old Civ that are coloured pink, which represents placeholder, so if there's a screenshot nobody will try to use it, because it's obviously wrong, so there's gummy bears all over the game. The UI is in pieces, the text strings are all mashed up and the button's over here. Well, it's working, kind of.
PC Gamer: But you can prod it, and see if it works.
David McDonough: It's also the job of the designer to play the game in their head a bit while it's busted, and it'll come up to meet you, eventually.
Will Miller: Our team is wonderful, they've been making Civs for a very long time, so this stuff comes online fast, and the game is always very stable unless we break something. (laughter) Which happens something. We had it playable very, very early, and we went through a lot of iterations on the early systems. Yeah, it looks ugly for a while.
PC Gamer: How do you hope Beyond Earth will further Civilization as a series?
David McDonough: We have the greatest of all ambitions for it, that it will go on, that it'll be a hit, and we'll get to make more stuff for it. Who knows. We have a game to finish right now, we'll worry about the future later. I think everybody in the studio is really excited to go here with Civ. We're so good at making historic Civ. We've got it down to an absolute art. It's been a breath of fresh air for us and the team to say 'alright, let's try something else, let's take the Civ idea into the future'. This is our interpretation of that. Even if Beyond Earth comes out, and it's good, and we never come back to it, it's almost for our own selves, we've decided we can take Civ wherever we want to take it. Who knows where it'll go from there.
Will Miller: I think it's a great demonstration of how well the mechanics of Civ hold up in different contexts. The mechanical beauty of the game, stripping out all of the fiction, the history, is very cool. It can be applied in lots of different ways. It's exciting to get the opportunity to not just take the core of Civ and put it in space, but also to take the core of Civ and change it, and evolve it in ways we couldn't have done before. As designers, that's one of the most exciting things.
PC Gamer: Thanks for your time, gents.