Beyond Civilization: Discovering Firaxis

By Adam Smith on July 23rd, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

While visiting Firaxis to play Civilization: Beyond Earth, I spent a couple of hours talking to members of the team and learning how the company works. As the current creators and curators of two of my favourite series of games, Firaxis rank among the most interesting studios in existence, and their history is also a large part of the history of PC strategy gaming. With one eye on the future and the other on the past, here are extended thougts on the utilitarian nature of Civilization, the role of Sid Meier and much much more.

If Sid Meier were an element in one of the Civilization games that carry his name, would he be a unit with stats and a specific function, or would he be one of the animated talking figureheads that represent each nation? I spent a day at the strategy studio last week, playing Beyond Earth and talking to the team working on the next iteration of Civ. During down-time, I peered at an ongoing game of Mansions of Madness in the ‘funzone’ (ping pong, table football, lots of boardgames, adjacent gym), and sat down for lunch with Meier and XCOM designer Jake Solomon.

Meier broke the ice by sharing some thoughts about the World Cup, which had ended with a much-deserved German triumph the day before. He approached the topic as an American and as a designer of rule systems – “here’s what I’d change in soccer”. The latter aspect seemed like a performance, albeit one that came very naturally, an appeal to the expectations of the assembled writers. It makes sense that Meier’s ‘hello’ is a conversation about the mechanics of play.

He and Solomon are a good double act. Jake introduces his boss as ‘an up and coming designer with a bright future’ and holds the door for him as they return to work, ‘After you, my liege’. Then, as an aside to the audience, ‘We have to call him that’. Behind the comfortable rapport there is mutual respect. Their path through the industry may have been very different in some ways, but Solomon and Meier have one important factor in common.

As with several other designers at Firaxis, both Solomon and Meier are engineers as well as one-person thinktanks. The ability to translate ideas into code without calling in technical support or gathering a team is important. “Being an engineer means you can fail quickly and privately,” says Solomon, to a nod of approval from Meier who tells us he has a computer packed with prototypes that he sifts through every now and again.

Given how much experimentation Solomon and Meier claim is possible with their skillsets, it seems slightly odd that Firaxis’ core releases are the long-running Civ franchise and XCOM, a reboot. Do so many ideas really end up on the cutting room floor? Later in the day, Civ producer Dennis Shirk mentions Meier’s 33/33/33 design philosophy. “With the Civ series, we work to Sid’s 33% rule. Each new version should be 33% new, 33% improvements and 33% retained from the previous game. With Civ V, we used almost the entire 33% new on one-unit stacks and hexes.” The expansions allowed some of the ‘old’ to be integrated into the new systems.

It’s telling that Shirk describes the 33% idea as a ‘rule’ and I think it helps to explain why so many ideas and prototypes never become games. Meier’s approach to design is strongly iterative and Firaxis reflects that. Many prototypes might contain a single concept or mechanic that makes it way into an expansion like Gods And Kings or Enemy Within. Before the two DLC packs were released, Civ V was sparse in relation to its predecessor, and that’s at least partly because every new system had to slot into a clear role within the grand design.

Civ V has a clear flow now, with fleshed out mid- and end-game systems, and Shirk admits that it represented something of a change in direction for the series. I’ve always argued that it has the feel of a boardgame, with rules, abilities and interactions that would translate well to tabletop. The mechanics of the game are manageable and relatively simple to parse. “We’re a strategy game, not a simulation. This isn’t Crusader Kings,” says Shirk.

It makes sense that Civilization is about progress and working toward an end-point. The series is about the culmination of six thousand years of human activity. Cities are factories, producing science, culture, gold and units. Improvements provide productivity boosts and the awe of a Wonder translates into a meaningful output. The civilisations of Firaxis are utilitarian, even when they do not appear to be. Your Aztec empire may prefer the beakers of science to the hammers of industry, but everything is a resource working toward a specific goal.

Civilization is – and always has been – a game about filling bars, whether those bars happen to represent the contents of a granary, a militant production queue or a utopian win condition. Even when the visual representation of the world that the numbers informed was crude, the sense of accomplishment was a strong enough engine to drive progress. Maps become busy with evidence of human achievement and borders bubble against one another, colours clashing like a layer of petrol spreading across the liquid surface of the world.

Combustible. The world rarely burns in Civ though, at least not the way I tend to play. Enter Beyond Earth, a game that begins on a world that boils with potentially hostile alien life, from larvae to behemoths. Co-designers Will Miller and Dave McDonough are a very different duo to Solomon and Meier. They’ve known each other for years and when I ask how they came to be designing the next game in such a venerable series together, the answer involves a short academic biography.

They were students together at the Savannah College of Art and Design, but when Miller wound up at Firaxis working on XCOM: Enemy Unknown he had no idea that he’d be re-united with McDonough at the company. As the latter describes it, his job application coincided with a visit to the area rather than a grand plan – a whim that has placed him in an enviable creative position.

At one point during our interview, a metaphor weaves its way into the conversation. McDonough describes his approach to design as that of a machinist, analysing and breaking down components to see what makes them tick. Reconfiguring them so that they are more efficient or capable of working with other parts of the process. “If Civ V was a car, we’d be removing and reworking most of the moving parts but retaining the chassis,” he finishes the thought.

When interviewing the two co-leads on a project, it’s tempting to split traits between them. McDonough’s machine talk places him in the engineering camp, which means I look to Miller for the broader ideas – the raw material that becomes those moving parts. For a while, he complies to my crude view. “A lot of the units in the game are inspired by the space race. We wanted to capture the romance of that period and those first steps.”

As well as historical influence, there are of course science fiction foundations. “Every book that Brian Reynolds’ cited as an influence on Alpha Centauri, we read. And then more. A lot more.” Miller isn’t shy of drawing attention to allusions and refers to Firaxis as a studio that “promotes the presence of outside culture”. As in culture from outside the office, the specific series in development, the company’s own history, digital games, boardgames and anything else within the bubble.

“There’s a lot of actual science in the game as well,” Miller continues. “The technology is based on existing ideas.” Some is theoretical, of course, and I’m glad that’s the case when it comes to the post-human ideas in particular. I suggest that with Enemy Within and some of the more brutal end-points of Beyond Earth, Firaxis are causing me to fear the future. “We’re excited by human potential but we don’t ignore the dark side. The game is about asking the question, ‘what will humanity become?’”

To answer that question, players will have to tame or neutralise the planet and its native lifeforms. I put the question to Shirk, the lead duo and systems designer Anton Strenger – will Beyond Earth force me to adapt my playstyle? I tell them that I’m normally a pacifist in Civ.

“We want players to be comfortable with their usual playstyles but they’ll find that some things don’t work precisely how they have previously.” Says Shirk. “Strategies will need to be adapted.” With Strenger, I take a more direct approach. “Will the game mess with Civ veterans’ heads?” He finds a diplomatic phrase that I take as a ‘yes’. “We use familiar systems in ways that are occasionally unfamiliar, and when we introduce a rule we often break it later in the game.”

A good example of the latter is the Rocktopus, a unit that exists on the orbital layer. Mostly, objects on that layer are used to inflict a passive status on the terrain below them, spreading across an area of effect that no other orbital unit can occupy. Strenger refers to this as a ‘parallel territorial grab’. The Rocktopus, only available to players of a certain Affinity, rocks the boat, in a metaphor spectacularly ill-suited to a ‘landgrab’ taking place in a planet’s orbit.

As the name suggests, it’s a creature rather than a machine and it can shift between the orbital and planetary layers, vulnerable but capable of unleashing a powerful attack. It breaks the rules and, as per the iterative process, it’s allowed to do so because the wider ruleset is robust enough to accommodate the occasional intentional glitch.

The art team have the tricky task of ensuring that all of the rules and assets, new and old, read well on the screen. As with the teams designing systems and flow, they’re fortunate to inherit Civ V’s user interface, which is as clean and communicative as almost anything I’ve encountered in years of gaming. Arne Schmidt heads up the art department and says the biggest challenge was working with the unknown after years of recreating historical fact.

It’s the first Civ game to be quite so reliant on concept art but unlike the work that goes into the world-building and tech tree, outside influences aren’t quite as visible. “We went out and looked at a bunch of stuff and tried to go away from it as much as we could. Particularly with the affinities. We didn’t want people to come in and say ‘oh, these guys are from the Matrix or Pacific Rim.’ that was the most challenging part of the process – trying to define those affinities and the style of their technology while keeping them away from a specific reference.”

Rather than starting with the Star Destroyer, Beyond Earth’s visuals begin with the hilt of the lightsaber. “We decided to focus on infantry and their weapons, rifles, first of all. This meant we spent a lot of time on something that is extremely small in the game but the pay-off is that a concept artist can extrapolate from that into something larger.” The results of the Affinity design aren’t clear in the early stages but the alien designs are promising. They present unique problems as well.

“Living resources are the trickiest to solve. Glowing rocks look enticing and we expect them to give us energy if we mine them. A pile of grubs? We think, ‘is that going to eat me?’ That was actually trickier in this game than in a typical Civ game. They all look potentially threatening. IF you view a group of pigs, everybody goes ‘HAM!’ With the grubs, we have to try and convey a less threatening posture for them.”

Producer Lena Brenk recognises the difficulties of the art style, beyond the posture of grubs. “Retaining readability is vital. The colour palette is different – we got really good at mapping Earth and making sure that people know what they were seeing. This was brand new.”

Not all of the problems are new though. “In any Civ game, at turn zero, you want the screen to be interesting but that’s not how busy the screen becomes. Later on, it’s much busier, we need to make sure that it remains readable throughout. It should be interesting when it’s relatively empty and readable when it’s fully furnished.”

This comment about the difference between visibility in the early stages of a campaign brings me back to one of Shirk’s key points. “Most testing covers the opening of the game, simply because it takes so much time to play through to the end-game.” Shirk reckons that’s one reason why Civ V’s expansions moved into those later stages and overhauled them by adding points of interest. The systems, like the visuals, become busier but the player shouldn’t become overwhelmed because the process is gradual.

Strenger neatly encapsulates the difference in approach to systems in the new game. “Beyond Earth is busier from the very beginning. New systems are introduced later on but there are more things available from turn one, which allows us to build on those systems rather than simply introducing new ones.” Not all of Civ V’s features have survived the transition – Strenger says religion went through several wardrobe changes before being dropped – but the ones that are there will grow along with each campaign.

The art director’s approach ties back to the producer’s thoughts, which run back through to the systems and that iterative approach that, many paragraphs ago, I assigned to Meier. I’ve often thought of the Civ series as slightly conservative from a design perspective and there does seem to be some truth in that. Ideas that were first put into play almost twenty five years ago are still an integral part of the machinery.

Speaking to the team, however, there’s no sense of clinging onto the past. There’s a respect for what works but Miller and McDonagh are excited about the future. Civ is the vehicle that will take them there but any parts that need to be scrapped won’t make the trip, and if those outside influences can be repurposed, they’ll have a place as well.

The two lead designers don’t fit into the boxes I tried to build for them. Miller is as much the machinist as McDonagh is the dreamer. Like Meier and Solomon, they’re both thinkers and doers, designers and engineers. And that, perhaps, brings me closer to answering the question that I posed at the start of this article – what is Sid Meier’s role at Firaxis?

I think that in some ways he’s a model for many of the other employees. As large as the company has become – in terms of resources and sales – it’s still a place where two relatively junior employees can lead a team working on a flagship series. It’s a place where people can participate in company-wide gamejams that might contain the latest Sid Meier prototype alongside twenty or thirty other ideas.

Meier’s importance to Firaxis might well be down to the fact that he’s part of a pool of talent rather than the lifeguard. He certainly doesn’t seem like a figurehead, despite his name having become a brand. Like everyone else, perhaps he’s simply gathering resources, filling up the bars and waiting for the next breakthrough.

My thoughts on Civ: Beyond Earth, which is out on October 24th, are here

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43 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    What is the role of Sid Meier?

    It is the universal custom to display Sid Meier only from sunrise to sunset on Firaxis buildings. However, when a “crunch” effect is desired, Sid Meier may be displayed twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness. No other designer or developer should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of Sid Meier. Sid Meier should never be displayed upside down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property

    • Guy Montag says:

      In the event Sid Meier is soiled or tarnished, it should be retired with due respect, preferably through cremation, and replaced with a new Sid Meier. To display Peter Molyneux in place of Sid Meier is to invite the highest dishonor.

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        JR says:

        Gah, blacked out for a moment.

        Thought I was reading something from the SCP Foundation.

        • SomeDuder says:

          I imangine Meier is like 173, but if you break eye-contact, Meier just licks your face.

    • Arglebargle says:

      While Sid Meier is anachronistic, it carries with it the vigour and dreams of a bygone era, ready to nourish the new soil on which Sid Meier is planted!

  2. Premium User Badge

    Gap Gen says:

    The story I heard for why Sid Meier’s name prefaces a lot of games is because back when they were making very different games (flight sims, pirate games, Civ) it was a way of maintaining a consistent branding and mark of quality. I don’t think it was his idea or a conscious strategy to lead a company via personal branding.

  3. Premium User Badge

    J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    “And when the player reaches the endgame –”

    “My Liege, it’s time for your afternoon nap.”

    “–they stumble upon the Statue of Liberty and realize they’ve been on Earth the entire time.”

  4. Premium User Badge

    oggnogg says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Keep up the good work!

    • Frank says:

      Aye. Good writeup there!

    • Arglebargle says:

      Yeah, this was a very nicely done piece. Ramped up my interest, and my hopes that they do a dang good job. Found it interesting about the work on early, middle and later parts of the game. Pretty much coinciding with the DLC releases.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Haphaz77 says:

    Always good to know more my favourite studio, for the same reason it is Adam’s – thanks.

    If I was being conspiratorial, I’d note that not much info other than what Jake calls Sid was offered for that lunch conversation. I’d add that factoid to the fact that after Beyond Earth, Firaxis isn’t working on any announced projects and Jake hasn’t been involved in recent releases. So did Adam discuss Firaxis and Jake’s new project, but can’t report that yet? If so, looking forward to that!

  6. Black Scalp says:

    I lost interest at “this isn’t Crusader Kings”

    • Frank says:

      Heh. I was cheering at that line. I’d rather read history books than learn how to play that sim.

      • HopeHubris says:

        But it’s soooo good, and the mods are amazing

      • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

        @Frank You know, CK2 isn’t exactly complicated. It’s arguably simpler than Civ, certainly much simpler than Vicky or HoI.

        • Frank says:

          Oh? Well, maybe I’ll give it a try (having gotten it in a bundle).

          My prejudice came from seeing EU, with its infinite jumble of menus and systems…and from the fact that every Paradox game I’ve ever played has been woefully incomplete (well, “every” is just Warlock, but it was a huge disappointment).

      • acheron says:

        I’ve tried to get into CK2 a few times because of how many people seem to like it, and it really does seem like the type of game I should love, but I’ve never been able to make it click with me.

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          Vandelay says:

          I’ve often felt the same, although I think it is actually something teenage me with infinite time on his hands would love.

          I feel like I am doing something wrong with it, but I just seem to stare at the screen for ages waiting for something to happen. I imagine that changes later on once you become more powerful through military might and/or political influence, but I have no idea how you reach that stage.

    • Ace Rimmer says:

      That’s what she said!1

      :(

    • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

      I was about to say the same thing. I only played Civ II when I was younger to feel like a historical ruler. Then, when I discovered Total War, I dropped Civ like a stone, feeling it to be hugely abstracted and lacking realism/verisimilitude, call it what you will. Then when I discovered EUIII a few years ago, I immediately switched my primary attention to Paradox strategy games, and personally speaking I’ve never looked back. There’s definitely room for way more depth there (and crap like Monarch Points in EUIV were a huge step in the wrong direction), but Paradox’s commitment to day-by-day pausable real-time and relatively constrained time periods makes them feel much more real in my opinion/

      Different people will feel differently about this, but personally speaking I just cannot fathom the attraction of playing a game that feels like a game. Virtually all of my favourite games (CK2, Deus Ex, Morrowind) I enjoy precisely because I forget that I’m even playing a videogame at all, I just inhabit the mechanics as though they were reality.

      • Afinati says:

        Monarch Points WERE a huge step in the wrong direction. I could not agree more. And all these mitigations like power projection and focuses just underlines that the attempt to inject CK2 personality was half-baked. Granted, EUIV is still awesome. I’ve spent 300 hours with it … just 200 shy of the tme I spent with EU3.
        I’m okay with non-strategy stuff if it’s interesting and feels connected to the world and not arcadey. CK2 is in my top five games; I’ve spent nearly a thousand hours with it … but it doesn’t belong in EUIV unless you’re darn sure it works.

      • FireStorm1010 says:

        Well i got near opposite position:for me a game is a game foremost, realism is really as much welcomed as it makes the game more fun. I used to play quite a bit of chess…

        2 main reasons:
        1-I never tottaly forget i play a game.Maybe when more VR techs will be available it will work for me , but until then…

        2-Reality isnt really my aim in games. In truth in most cases i reach for games to experience something more then i got in reality. I mean i got reality in rl. i want mechnics that make me think and are fun, not necerilly real.

        • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

          Sure, but you’re not playing a simulation of *your* daily life! Unless I am much mistaken, you personally are not William the Conqueror or Henry John Temple, so therefore even the most accurate possible simulation of their lives would not be the same as YOUR real life!

          • FireStorm1010 says:

            Lol yeah, well said. I dont know, i think i also sometmes can appreciate and derive fun from realism in games.Hard to tell really, but i know i dont mind a high level of abstraction in games, if the mechanics ar efun

          • FireStorm1010 says:

            For example I discoveredrecenlty this mad trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0p5KRk_iW8&vq=hd720 .

            Judging from the trailer, it will be as real as a dream after having consumed all of the earth known intoxicants:).I m still looking very much forward to some fun , smart and funny mechanics. (judging from their prev game Sang Froid)

      • alh_p says:

        I’m intrigued by how you can think paradox games (and the other examples) are not, or are less of, an abstraction than CIV. They are all huge abstractions but catering to different focii.

        I find CIV sits very comfortably on my desktop with SMAC, Total war, CK2, EU4, Vicky and Dwarf Fortress. Each caters to a different experience and presents players with decisions according to each context.

        If you want historical accuracy then for sure, don’t play Civ (are there ANY civilisations or countries that have survived since 4000BC?), but don’t kid yourself that any other game is terribly accurate either! Anyway, each to their own…

        • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

          It’s not the accuracy per se, it’s the verisimilitude. Taking CK2 as an example, the actors of the game as well as the tools of agency available to the player have a much more real feeling than Civ. The game takes place in days, rather than turns. National leaders are born, have dynamically changing traits that affect AI behaviour, they die. Does it precisely simulate? Well no, it doesn’t. The ecclesiastical side in particular is woefully lacking in detail. Similarly, Vicky II’s world market comes nowhere near simulating the nuance of a global commercial market in real life. What I like about Paradox games is that abstraction at least seems to relate to the real world, both mechanically and in flavour, whereas in Civ, Age of Empires and the like, it’s really just a set of historical characters and pieces of nomenclature draped over a basic ruleset. The objective of the game becomes to win, to produce good play, rather than to actually inhabit the role of ruler.

          FWIW I like SMAC much more than Civ, because it’s an abstraction of something fictional. I can much better handle something being simplified/abstracted/mis-represented if its the figment of someone’s imagination than if it really happened. If I’m playing a game about early modern monarchy, say, then I want my agency to revolve around proclamations, the rubber-stamp and the contemporary Parliament, not “awesomeness points!” like in bloody EUIV. In a game about space travel, however, I can better deal with abstraction, since there’s no obvious parallel with the reality of instellar travel (since, as of yet, there is none)

          • alh_p says:

            Fair enough, as Adam’s article says, CIV is ultimately about accruing counters of one type or another to achieve something. Civ 5 certainly took the abstraction further away from any simulation than Civ 4 had done (akin to the X-com/Xenonauts and XCOM argument). I play the myriad of games i haev installed to satisfy different urges and cater to different experiences. There’s a time for everything (or at least I wish I HAD time for everything).

            That said, I agree the strength of CK2 is allowing you to inhabit the role of a ruler or other character, but what i really spend my time doing as a player does not feel very “real” or accurate in its motions: filtering a database of prospective spouses for family members, essentially from an encyclopedia of who exists in Christendom, is so far from the human interaction your player character would really ahve gone through. CK2 allows you to do a bunch of stuff calibrated to fit in its context, but the actions and mechanisms themselves are still so clunky and gamey that they remain restrictive and abstract in the extreme. Lets not even get on to the ping-pong warfare…

            I don’t mean to bash CK2, although it may seem I am. I love that game and am currently deeply into a Venice campaign, discovering the Republic DLC’s new freedom’s and strictures (growing a sprawling plutocrat family/clan of midas touched geniuses), but I would not be able to say that it is better at being anything than a game within its own setting.

          • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

            I don’t disagree, but these are failings of Paradox titles rather than virtues of Civ. Yes, the role-playing and tactility of Pdox games could be improved, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling decidedly weary of hexes, eternal Classical-era Bismarck, and so forth! :D

            As an aside, I tend to find Mount & Blade a very good one for that sense of “doing the sort of stuff my character would do” gameplay, certainly as opposed to, say, Skyrim, where every character ends up a draugr hunter at some stage.

      • Frank says:

        Yeah, it’s a matter of taste, I guess. In board-game lingo, I like abstract games while you like thematic games.

        The pretense that that Civ had something to do with the real world used to bother me, but particularly with Civ 5, it is easy to see it as simply a bag of mechanics. I guess the only strategy game I play at least partly for theme is Tropico.

  7. BooleanBob says:

    Well since Adam has so cruelly left us hanging, what do we think Sid Meier would change about football?

    My guess is the players would convene at every nth stoppage to vote on whether to repeal or reinstate one of the Laws of the Game.

    • Vendae says:

      And then everyone denounces you, team affiliation or referee judgement notwithstanding.

  8. AyeBraine says:

    The last sentence is so good.

  9. Groogy says:

    “The mechanics of the game are manageable and relatively simple to parse. “We’re a strategy game, not a simulation. This isn’t Crusader Kings,” says Shirk.”

    Crusader Kings 2 is perfectly manageable, you just have to lose all sense of morals, have sex with your sister, kill your children, send your brother to a monastery against his will, bribe the pope. You know all dat fun stuff!