Jon Shafer is a gamer who did the impossible. In January 2005 he was a modder and an active member of the Civilization fan community. Today, he’s the Lead Designer on Civilization V, out on the 24th of this month. I met up with Jon today to ask him about boardgames, how he managed to reach this position in just a few years, what alternatives there were to the improvements coming in Civ V, and seriously how did he manage to reach that position so fast. Blackmail? Gotta be blackmail, surely. Jon found out that Sid Meier coded a satantic message into Railroads! or something.
Click through for the interview. The truth will (probably) shock you.
RPS: So what I’m most curious about is your history. You went from modding Civ 3 to being Lead Designer of Civ V in a few years? How does that work?
Jon Shafer: Honestly, I’m still trying to figure it out myself! [laughter] I think it involves brainwashing.
RPS: What were you modding for Civ 3?
JS: The first thing I started with was general rule tweaks. I was a fan who played way too much Civ 3, and I was like [on the forums] “This thing kind of sucks. Fix it!” and they were like, “No.” And I was like, “Alright.” And then I did it myself.
That was the beginning, and from there I started making maps. I’d been doing games since I was young- my father was a computer programmer, so I learned some things from him that got me interested in making things from an early age. So from maps I started doing more complex stuff, like scenarios. I did some civil war stuff and a Napoleonic war scenario.
RPS: Were you in college at the time?
JS: At that time I was in high school, but I was pretty involved online in a number of things online. Then I became a beta tester for the second Civ 3 expansion, Conquest, then I began testing Civ IV, and I kept bugging people. They relented, and I got a programming internship. That was in February 2005.
I shifted from programming to more design stuff because was what I was doing on my own while I was working there. I was officially an intern, but a lot of the maps that shipped with Civ IV were made by me. So I shifted over to design for the expansions, and then became Co-Lead Designer for the second expansion, Beyond The Sword.
RPS: OK. So we’re nearly there! How did that end up becoming lead designer?
JS: Well the thing about design at Firaxis is that it’s fairly unique compared to design at other companies. Most companies have a lot of specialised designers, so for an RPG you’d have quest designers and narrative designers, and area designers and maybe a lead designer that organises them all. The way it works at Firaxis is that there is a designer, and he is also the gameplay programmer who programs all the gameplay rules, and he also programs all the AI.
RPS: Even for the more recent Civilizations? There’s one guy doing the core of the programming?
JS: Yeah. The thing is, that’s always how Sid Meier’s done it. Firaxis is his company, and that’s just the model that we use. The games have been successful, and it’s the only way that we know.
RPS: So one of the bigger reasons why you were made lead designer is because you know both sides. Programming and design.
JS: Yes. Which is becoming more common, but to be proficient enough in programming to handle all the gameplay rules, you have to be fairly experienced. We had other designers at Firaxis who were senior to me, but they weren’t programmers or they hadn’t played Civ. It’s such a specialised role. Our teams are getting bigger now, so on Civilization V I didn’t program all the AI. Only about half. We had a combat programmer doing combat AI, and a programmer doing the AI for the workers and explorers, but I programmed all the game rules and the diplomatic and economic AI.
Honestly, I think this is a big reason why a lot of games aren’t as good. The vision-holder isn’t working directly on the game, he’s just saying “Hey! Please do this and make it work like this.” And it works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t.
RPS: I suppose that’s why we have a focus on iterative design these days. With the lead designer receiving new builds on a regular basis and saying “No, change this, fix this”.
JS: Right. Though that’s an even bigger deal at Firaxis because the guy looking at the iterations is the guy doing the programming. You can be mid-way through writing a feature and you’ll think “Maybe I’ll try this,” and then an hour later it’s in the game. You don’t have to tell anybody.
Especially with a game like Civilization, I think you do need somebody with a vision you can execute all the way through. It’s not something you can segment out and say “You design the combat, you design the economics, you design the diplomacy,” like you might have one guy designing a quest and another designing the combat mechanics. Everything in Civ is so intertwined. You can’t split that up… you need somebody that’s on top of everything.
RPS: Do you play a lot of board games?
JS: …I wouldn’t say a ton, but definitely a fair amount. I’ve played Catan of course. It kills me, but the last time I played, which will be the last time I play, I had 17 turns in a row where I didn’t get anything. There are definitely elements of fun too, but it’s so random with the dice!
RPS: There’s definitely a bit of a renaissance going on with videogame designers turning back to boardgames.
JS: Definitely. Well with boardgames you have to be on top with the design, because you can’t distract somebody with graphics or a big explosion. It’s like, is it fun or is it not? I’d say most boardgames are better designed than most videogames.
The game that we played a lot at work lately is Dominion. It’s actually not a boardgame, it’s a card game, but there are elements similar to Civilization. You start with a small deck or a small hand, then spend money from your hand to acquire more money or these actions cards, and it all gradually builds up into something bigger. And the cards that are available to purchase change every game, so with each game you’re like, “Ooh! What do I buy this game?” It’s an ever-changing experience, like Civ.
RPS: Aha. Here at RPS we spent last winter playing a game called Solium Infernum-
JS: Oh, yes! I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve heard, I mean, Vic Davis-
RPS: -is just a legend, and-
JS: -yeah. You know, I read you guys! And I’m looking forward to seeing more Civ V.
RPS: Right! Well, uh, so the reason I mention Solium Infernum is that it does the same thing. Each game you’ll have different units, officers and items showing up in the bazaar where all players have to buy their forces, so the game’s different every time.
RPS: So, you said your goal with Civ V was to streamline it. Not necessarily making it less complex, but making play smoother and more accessible. To that end, I was wondering if instead of swapping squares for hexes, you’d considered swapping squares for a tile-free system where the movement of units is shown by a circle.
JS: It’s something we discussed, but not something we felt comfortable with. Soren Johnson, when he was working on Civ IV, famously stated that Civ is a turn-based game and a tile-based game, and the tiles, he said, were more important than the turns. Which I would actually agree with.
The thing about Civilization is that it’s a big, complex game, but it’s also a game that can be distilled down into very discreet elements. At the beginning of the game you have a settler. Then you tell it what to build. Then what? Then you pick your research. OK. What now? You move your unit. Oh, OK.
It’s all these small decisions that together become this humongous web of what can happen, but at the beginning it’s very small and simple. And the tiles are a way of presenting the game world in a way that makes it understandable. For example, I look at the map, and I see that in this tile is iron.
Actually, uh, there’s no iron there. Where’s some iron… Okay, there’s no iron anywhere.
JS: Ah, whatever. I look at the map, and in this tile we have some oil. In this tile, we know that a unit can occupy this space. We know that an improvement can occupy this space. We know what the distance is from this space to this space. If I want to shoot, I don’t need to click on the unit to show me the range. I just see, tile tile tile, if I have an archer here he can shoot here. Easy.
Tiles make the game world more understandable. Distances become easy. It’s not a matter of “What pixel can I build my city on that gets this wheat and then gets this fish and oh! If I move it one more pixel down I could get iron.” It’s something that would turn into a difference experience completely. It’s great because you don’t think about it, but really tiles permeate the whole experience.
RPS: Would you agree that single player grand strategy games on PC have never done diplomacy, dealing with the AI, successfully?
JS: Yech. Depends what you mean by successfully. I think there are games that have done some really interesting things with it, but I don’t think a game has ever gotten it perfect. You could look at Alpha Centauri and say that the personalities of the different leaders are one of the things that makes it so great and gives it such charm. You can’t really translate that to a game like Civilization because, Gandhi plays a certain way and has a certain personality, but it’s not like you can make him a ridiculous fanatic the way Miriam [leader of The Lord’s Believers faction] was in Alpha Centauri, because it’s so strong, it’s such a driver in the game. You could predict how faction leaders would react to you in Alpha Centauri, depending on how you approached different things. If you stripped the planet of all its resources, you knew the environmentalists would hate you.
RPS: I feel like part of the way you implement diplomacy successfully when dealing with AIs is to allow the player to imprint their own vision of a personality onto the AI. With Civilization, where you have these almost-caricatures of the famous leaders, I feel like you’re stopping the player from imprinting a personality or history. Like you’re putting up a barrier.
JS: I think it runs both ways. You gain certain things, and it also costs you. On the plus side, it gives you something to recognise. People will ask “Why even have leaders?”, or [suggest] Build Your Own Leader mode, where you can… pick attributes and, like… move his eyebrows down to his chin or whatever.
But you’d lose a lot of what makes Civilization what it is, I think. You saw there [in the demo]- “That’s Ramses, that’s Catherine the Great”. It’s not a game-changing experience, but it still allows for, like- “I’ve started between Napoleon and Montezuma, oh God.” Whereas if you just start between Leader A and Leader B…
RPS: You’re talking about a tradeoff. You’d be sacrificing instantaneous colour for the chance to create characters.
JS: Which I think is kinda important, because the rest of Civilization is so open and so broad. If we didn’t have the recognisable leaders, all we’d have is [Jon zooms the game’s camera in on a tiny cluster of infantrymen] these guys. And they’re not exactly memorable. But you see Ramses on his throne, and that’s a cool scene.
We want to balance out both sides. We want to add colour and flavour to the game, and the leaders are the best way to do that. If it’s just a completely open, empty experience then you can fill that, but for a lot of players there’s gonna be something missing that they won’t be able to fill in for themselves.
RPS: Who owns the intellectual property of Alpha Centauri right now?
JS: Electronic Arts.
RPS: Argh. Does that break your heart a little bit?
JS: I can’t talk about that.
JS: You’d have to ask them about it.
RPS: I’ll send them an email when I get home. The subject line will just be “Why” with like, fourteen “y”s. What was Sid’s input on Civ V?
JS: [Adopting an outraged voice] He doesn’t do anything anymore! No, seriously though, he’s the creative director for Firaxis so he’s the overseer for everything that goes on. He has projects he oversees directly, like Civilization Revolution where he was the lead designer, and he’s also the lead on Civilization Network, which is Civilization for Facebook.
But we have meetings where he plays the game and can say, if anything’s really out there, “Ahh I don’t know about that.” It was interesting bringing in the hexes, because with the first Civilization he purposely made it not hexes when everybody else was doing hexes.
RPS: Why didn’t he want to use hexes?
JS: I think he didn’t want it to be perceived as a wargame. At the time, hexes were a statement, like, “This is a game for grognards only! Casual players need not apply!” And Sid’s always made games that appeal to a lot of people. He’s always provided the accessible spin on whatever it is, even something like the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s not a game where you get in and have 50 stats for each units, it’s about positioning and taking the high ground.
RPS: What is it about Civilization that you love so much?
JS: Huh. Well, I have a history degree. I originally got into history because of WW2, as so many people do, and branched out from there. You work for Rock Paper Shotgun, of course you’ve heard of Panzer General. That was actually the first game I ever bought.
RPS: Really? That’s definitely going in at the deep end. Face-first.
JS: [Laughs] Yeah. I was 11.
RPS: Did you figure it out? I grew up playing so many games I didn’t understand.
JS: I was able to figure it out! Because I was really into history, and I’ve always had this love of maps. You can see so much of history’s influence through maps, with how the borders change. So Panzer General was like, “Ooh! Maps! WW2! This has gotta be good!”
The combat system in that was actually very, very similar to what we have in Civ V. We ended up branching away from Panzer General through iteration, but yeah. [At the time] I thought that Panzer General was cool, but I wished it could be bigger. That’s how I got into Civilization. It was like, “This is it!” But I wished it had the combat from Panzer General.
RPS: Wow. I love the idea that for Civilization fans, you playing Panzer General has completely altered Civilization V’s combat.
JS: [Laughs] Yeah.
RPS: Thanks for your time.