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'We should have been more audacious' - A  Civilization: Beyond Earth  retrospective

'We should have been more audacious' - A Civilization: Beyond Earth retrospective

March 5, 2015 | By Simon Parkin

March 5, 2015 | By Simon Parkin
More: Console/PC, Design, GDC

Firaxis was too concerned about alienating players of previous titles in the Civilization series when creating the most recent, science-fiction themed entry, Beyond Earth, the game's lead designers said during an open and honest retrospective on the PC game at GDC 2015 in San Francisco today. "We should have been more audacious," said Will Miller, co-lead designer on the game.

David McDonough, Miller's co-lead designer, agreed: "In moving Civilization from a historical setting to a science fiction setting we had a real opportunity to do things differently. But we were too conservative." McDonough ascribed this conservatism to the team's anxiety about alienating long-term players of the series, "We wanted to find a compromise between the game being like Civilization V and something entirely new. But in the end we were caught between the two poles. This left players feeling a little short-changed and flat, especially with aspects of the sci-fi that we kept close to our chest."

Miller gave the example of the diplomacy system as an area of the game which was borrowed from previous Civilization titles, but which failed to work in the game's new sci-fi context. "The diplomacy system is when a famous historical leader pops up and engages with the player directly," he said. "We figured it would work exactly the same in our game, but because we didn't have the historical foundation for the game, the system didn't work." Miller claimed that the psychology of interacting with historical figures is different to that of interacting with fictional leader, and the leaders Firaxis wrote for the game weren't strong enough to carry the mechanic. "If we could go back we would provide players with more fiction to hold onto," he said. "We actually wrote a lot of this material, but we held it back from the game."

McDonough also talked about how the way that Firaxis operates caused some problems for the design team. "The studio doesn't grow and shrink as projects come and go," he said. "We keep a steady staff." He explained that this way of operating offers employees security, and allows the studio to prepare art and code even when there isn't a live project. "But this meant that the design remained gooey for a while, even while art and programming were steaming ahead. It’s a testament to their skill that they managed to pull off a terrific game despite the burden of having to change so much to accommodate the changing game design."

The pair also explained that it was a mistake to not run an Open Beta phase for the game, during which they could have gained valuable feedback from players before final release. Miller gave the example of "Wonders" as an area of the game that would have benefited both from a more daring approach from the design team, as well as player feedback during a Beta phase. "Wonders are exclusive buildings and structures from history," he explained. "They’re things that players covet for their emotional and historical value as much as anything."

The team designed fictional wonders for Beyond Earth and simply borrowed the same underlying mechanic for them as seen in Civilization V: Brave New World. "We figured it would more or less work," said Miller. "But players complained that they were not wonderful and failed to provide a sense of awe. We'd had a perfect opportunity to bring out the sci-fi and flavor of the game that people could integrate into their own story. But we completely missed it. Here was an opportunity to allow players to do things that you could never do in a traditional Civ; but we just held ourselves back because we were too afraid."

The pair explained that these lessons have been learned and that, as Beyond Earth continues to evolve as a live game, they are working to fix what they perceive as shortcomings.

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