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Behind The Scenes Of Sid Meier’s Civilization V

The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, available now for subscribers and for digital purchase, includes an exclusive, in-depth postmortem of Sid Meier’s Civilization V, written by lead producer Dennis Shirk.

Released in September 2010, Firaxis Games’ latest iteration of the classic turn-based strategy franchise implemented a number of changes that fundamentally changed the way Civilization looks and plays.

New elements such as a hex-based grid and tiles that only hold a single unit might not seem game-changing on the surface, but these modifications to the series’ formula significantly altered the way players make their way to global victory.

These excerpts, extracted from the March 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine, reveal various “What Went Right” and “What Went Wrong” highlights from throughout the creation of this flagship strategy title.

Along the way, Shirk outlines how the team approached the game’s design when dealing with all-new tech, and how the game’s ambitious scope led to some severe bottlenecks during production.

Clear Boundary Between Gameplay And Engine

In order to best manage resources when working on the game’s new engine, Firaxis implemented a number of gameplay changes using the Civilization IV engine, allowing the studio to focus on design without waiting for newer tech.

Two of our major goals for the project were to support ambitious new gameplay changes (one unit per tile, hexes, and so forth), and to elevate our target for the visuals. The first priority was obvious. We were going to need to create an entirely new graphics engine to take advantage of features we wanted to use from Direct X 11. Given our schedule, this plan meant that our new engine wouldn’t come online until 18 months before release—far too late for us to start testing these gameplay ideas.

Our solution was to enable a parallel development track for gameplay using the existing Civilization IV engine as the graphics component. We needed to keep a very clear interface between gameplay and the engine so that we could do a quick swap of engines without having to halt development on either side.

In the end, we were able to run gameplay with both engines for a few months as the swap took place, which ensured as seamless a transition as possible. Once we had everything back together in the new engine, we already had a game that had been refined for almost two years in its Civilization IV incubator.

Clash between Design Changes and Completing Expected Feature Set

With so many drastic changes to the game’s design, Firaxis could not possibly bring over every gameplay system present in Civilization IV and its expansions, forcing the team to leave some features on the cutting room floor.

Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword was as fleshed out a Civilization title as one could hope for. Expectations for a new version of the game would be extremely high, especially among our hardcore fan base. Since this was the fifth iteration of Civilization, our team came to the drawing board looking to do something profoundly new with the series. Our vision for Civilization V included many risky changes that would require a significant amount of new tech, and an even larger role for design and gameplay than in past versions.

The design radically changed three of the four types of victory from previous versions, and while this was exciting to us on paper, the challenges of designing and balancing it were numerous considering the schedule we had to keep.

One unit per tile was perhaps the biggest, most noticeable change. Whereas a player in previous versions would work with large stacks of units, one unit per tile was more about expanding the tactical game to make it more interesting and engaging.

While I think we succeeded in this concept, the time commitment to this system needed by our design team was fairly costly, and it had a very real impact on the other core components of the game. An entirely new AI system also had to be created, and while great strides were made, we underestimated the time needed to make such a large system work in a consistent, competitive manner.

The reality is that the more we focused on brand-new systems to create a brand-new experience, the more we had to trim systems that players had come to expect from previous versions. We ultimately had to focus on making sure our core systems and new concepts were working well, sacrificing some of the less critical features. Some of our hardcore fans have been disappointed by the lack of certain features, but this prioritization has given us a solid foundation to build on, and we’re restoring or improving most of that functionality and more, as we continue to support the game moving forward.

Critical Positions were Still Missing Entering Production

Gathering a sufficient multiplayer team in a timely manner proved a challenge during development, which forced Firaxis to work quickly to finish the game’s multiplayer modes.

Today’s game development environment is heavily focused on the multiplayer component. Facebook is huge and MMOs are going strong. As a result, finding qualified networking programmers has become akin to spotting a unicorn in your backyard. One of the biggest challenges we had to overcome was not having a staffed-up multiplayer team until well into production.

We were fortunate to have a solid example with Civilization IV, but the amount of gameplay changes coupled with a completely new engine meant that much of it had to be coded from the ground up.

This is an area where 2K QA and our internal QA team and engineers adapted very well. With the compressed timeline, we had to put together an aggressive testing schedule to get multiplayer functioning well and ready to ship. Once we had core functionality set up, the multiplayer play sessions became extremely important.

We organized a strike team composed of our networking engineers and two gameplay engineers to float around the office during the sessions. This way, as individuals ran into out-of-sync issues, we were able to identify the exact nature of each problem, correct the problem, and deploy new builds quickly.

While this successfully got us to a point where we were able to ship the game, the multiplayer experience was lacking many features that were present in previous versions of Civilization. We absolutely do not consider Civilization V’s multiplayer to be a “closed book,” and as with other aspects of the game, we are continuing to improve the experience to meet our standards, as well as those of our fans.”

Additional Info

The full postmortem of Sid Meier’s Civilization V explores more of “What Went Right” and “What Went Wrong” during the course of the game’s development, and is now available in the March 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine.

Also in this issue, Housemarque provides a postmortem on its PSN shooter Dead Nation, designer Simon Strange presents a decision-making approach for identifying and defining low-risk design changes, and Arcade Berg takes a look at the use of exploding barrels in Epic Games’ and People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months’ and a year’s subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of March 2011’s magazine as a single issue.

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