Sid Meier’s Civilization series, where players guide a civilization from the very beginning of its history, is one of the most beloved franchises in gaming. The series also has unusual longevity—the original Civilization was released in 1991. Firaxis’ latest release, Civilization VI, celebrates 25 years of the Civilization franchise, all while being released into a very different gaming world.
In 2016, smartphone games and tablet games have transformed the landscape for strategy games, and Civilization’s makers, Firaxis (as well as parent company 2K Games), face a dual challenge: making Civilization VI into a product that will attract a new generation of gamers, while managing the expectations of Civilization’s hardcore fanbase.
I had the opportunity to sit down for an extended walk-through of Civilization VI at the E3 gaming show in Los Angeles. Although I didn’t get the opportunity to actually play the new game, which is slated for a Q4 2016 release, the demo gave enough context to see what the finished product would look like.
The demo, which featured frenemy American and Chinese civilizations interacting with each other (similar to real life!), skewed close to the classic Civ formula: Players built cities and military units, worked on large-scale projects like the Great Pyramids, explored diplomatic intrigues, and sometimes fought with each other. Although the UI and game design were slightly different, the end product was pretty similar to the past five Civilization games. However, there were two key differences.
First off, cities take up more than one tile in the game—a big change from previous games in the series, and one that significantly impacts the ways players interact with the game. This is the second major modification to Civilization in two games: The previous Civilization V abandoned the square grid worlds of previous games for hex mapping that owed more to board games.
But there’s an even bigger change: The graphic design of the game changed completely. Former incarnations of the game all had unique, specific looks and feels. Civilization V, for instance, had gone for a very specific art deco aesthetic in menus, game play, and icons. Civilization VI has its own unique look, but it’s one that’s surprising for the series: It’s slightly cartoonish and exaggerated, and (at least to this writer’s eyes) gives a nod to the previous mobile- and console-oriented Civilization Revolution series, as well as hyper-successful mobile strategy games like Clash of Clans.
After E3, I spoke with Dennis Shirk, senior producer on Civilization VI, and Brian Busatti, the art director for the game. Both have enviable jobs surrounding taking a long-lasting gaming franchise into the 21st century and using new tools like better game engines and touch-screen monitors to add bells and whistles that they couldn’t before.
When I asked Busatti about the new look, he chalked it up to a combination of game-play requirements and opportunities offered by a new engine.
"One of the biggest design changes was unstacking cities," Busatti told Co.Create. "In layman’s terms, the map is a lot bigger and has a lot more stuff on it. . . . That was a big challenge, letting the player see the hex clearly without using mouse-overs or clicks. We also wanted to have more flexibility in our characters. Since we’re using a new engine, there are a lot more polygons to work with . . . so there’s a lot more detail for the world as opposed to past games. If you have a warrior, it’s a very large body type and build, while archers have a leaner form. You can tell that the massing is different at a distance, and also tell what they look like somewhat."
Busatti and Shirk added that while Civilization V had a more realistic feel, there was a decision for Civilization VI to make it a "little more lighthearted" and to integrate a bit of humor while showing leaders and units in the game.
While 2K is careful to note in emails that the design changes were due to the design requirements Busatti mentioned than to the influence of mobile or tablet games, the newer and more cartoonish look of Civilization VI is part of a sea change in the industry. Mobile strategy games such as Clash of Clans and Game of War have ridden to financial success on a similarly cartoonish game aesthetic; if nothing else, those games have set design expectations for younger players weaned on a generation of Android and iOS games.
Shirk and Busatti discussed something interesting with me in their call. At Firaxis, the company has a philosophy for Civilization games they call the "33-33-33 Rule." The rule? One-third of each game should be completely new, one-third should be revamped, and one-third should be something familiar from previous iterations of Civilization.
"You never want to change something so much that you alienate the audience that loved previous iterations of the game," Busatti added. This is especially important for changes such as unstacking cities, which significantly alters the strategy of the game. In Civilization V, players had the same process with both the transition to hexagonal maps and a decision to ban "stacking" military units (that is, putting more than one military unit on the same tile—a traditional gaming strategy for Civilization players).
Shirk also notes something else: Touch-screen monitors, which were a bit of a novelty when Civilization V was released but have since become standard issue for many laptops and home desktop computers, change the way many players experience the game. Touch screens offer "a natural fit" for 2K, he added.
Surprisingly for such a long-lasting series, the pair told me that no central Civ bible or corpus is used by Firaxis for game design. Rather, the company relies on designers and coders who have been with the series for a long time, and the ongoing influence of the series' creator Sid Meier, who is Firaxis’s cofounder and creative director. As Shirk put it, an awareness and grounding of previous Civilization titles "is baked into" his team.
This also means managing the expectations of longtime players, many of whom spend hundreds of hours playing it.
"There are groups of fans who love the game where it is," Shirk added. "We saw that with the shift from Civilization IV to Civilization V out of gate; it’s challenging when players are used to a certain rule set. All we can do is listen to fans. With Civilization VI, we kept a lot of existing systems in place and made sure those were there for players."
Busatti and Shirk added that the team also reads Civilization forums regularly, watchs how players react to announcements, and keeps tabs on Civilization message boards and wikis to see what fans think of the game.
For 2K and Firaxis, Civilization is the rarest of games: a guaranteed moneymaker and a title that will attract fans for years as long as the proper resources are put into it. For players, Civ is equally rare: A long-lasting franchise that appeals to multiple generations, doesn’t require a long acclimation period to pick up, and can be as simple (or as complicated) as the player wants a strategy game to be. For a computer game, that’s a very good situation to be in.