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Since its original launch in the early '90s, Firaxis' Civilization franchise has been a touchstone series for PC gamers, offering a very specific and rich historical vein of historical simulation and creative, strategic gameplay.
As times change, the team still hopes to provide an experience congruent with fans of the series while pulling it in new creative directions, as Dennis Shirk, producer for Sid Meier's Civilization V, explains in this interview.
After nearly three years in development, with a team of 52 at Firaxis, the developer has begun to highlight different elements of the PC strategy game for the public as part of its publicity -- but they aren't all there is to it, as Shirk explains.
As Shirk discusses in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, development of a title like this with a huge in-built fan base is both an opportunity (to make the most of the creative possibilities) and a responsibility (to serve that huge contingent of fans.)
Series like Civilization are becoming increasingly rare in this industry, in that it is enough of an institution that you can afford to spend several years working on it at Firaxis, rather than developing it every year or shuffling it around studios.
That means that every release has to last a long time. How do you approach the scope of change to the design in that context?
Dennis Shirk: Well, Jon Shafer, our lead designer, has been in the Civilization fan community and playing Civilization since Civilization II on up. He created mods for Civilization III. He's been creating a lot of the scenarios, and acted as a designer for Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword.
He's only 26 or so, right?
DS: Yeah. He's our local wunderkind. He does amazing stuff, and is a huge fan of history. One of his influences on Civ V, actually, is [SSI's 1994 wargame] Panzer General. It's just a favorite game from when he was a kid.
Whenever we ship a game, a faction of the team is always going to say, "That was really neat, but what if we did this?" It always happens. When you've got a foundation, like what we have with the Civilization series as a whole, there are so many things that you can build on top of it, so many things that you want to do, even after you've shipped something that you think is ultimately cool and complete. There's always something else that you can do.
A lot of it comes down to one of Sid's cornerstones. When you're actually going through and designing an entirely new game, he came up with his 33/33/33 rule. It's 33 percent new, 33 percent improved, and 33 percent what everybody already expects to be there. I think Jon, under his tutelage, has followed along with that.
It seems like these days, Sid's influence is more in that role of establishing the attitude and framework and tone, more than actually having day-to-day input on the project. Is that roughly the case?
DS: I wouldn't say it's day-to-day, but it's still very frequent. Sid, just because his fingers are in everything at Firaxis, has input and interest everywhere, especially in the Civilization series. We have a young designer like Jon who is excellent at everything he does, but even he needs help. Even Sid needs help sometimes. There are regular meetings every week between the designers and the team.
Sid is always playing the game and giving his input. He's just instrumental in everything we do. He can look at a game, play for five minutes, and automatically pinpoint if something's not quite going to work over a five-hour session. He's just really good at it, so I would say Sid's always got his hands pretty thoroughly in everything.
He's in that executive producer role.
It almost seems like the James Bond franchise, where you have some continuity in the top-level leadership, but the actual director changes from entry to entry, ever since Civ II when Brian Reynolds was a primary designer.
DS: Definitely. Everybody brings their different unique flavor to the game.
I think a lot of people see Civ IV as the pinnacle so far. But whereas it seems like that game refined its predecessor to a high degree, Civ V seems more like a break in a lot of ways. Even the fundamental tileset system is changing. Is this game more of a fork in the road to Firaxis?
DS: It is, it is. We wanted to try some very large things. Combat [in Civ] is traditionally seen as working a certain way. Everybody expects it to work a certain way throughout the whole of Civilization's history. That was one area where Jon said, "You know what? This is something none of the designers have ever really paid attention to, in terms of doing something completely different and new." He saw it as an opportunity to put a whole new layer on. That's when we got tactical combat into the game.
It's scary in a lot of ways for a lot of our fans to see that, just as it was when Civilization IV was first announced. People were demanding we hang [Civ IV designer] Soren Jonson. It was really bizarre. A lot of players read the previews that are coming out now for Civ V, and they're like, "I don't understand how this applies to Civ IV," because they've been playing Civ IV for so long. They're not sure how to integrate this into that game.
That's not what we're doing. We're trying to go in a completely different direction, while still keeping that core gameplay that has come in all Civilization games.