Once upon a time, Soren Johnson was the main brain behind Civilization IV. Now he has a mohawk. An indie mohawk. Also, he’s making a game about managing a crazy intricate (yet disarmingly accessible) economy on Mars. Last time around we talked about how a Mars economy simulator even works, boardgames, and the current state of strategy gaming, and today we continue that discussion with the future of strategy (and its alleged “death”), MOBAs, the advantages and disadvantages of working at a company like Firaxis, whether or not Johnson will ever make a game on the scale of Civilization ever again, and why Johnson is *glad* that big publishers aren’t paying attention to strategy games. It’s all below.
RPS: Your setting is Mars, but what kind of Mars? Because there are lots of Mars-es. Wacky Mars, pseudo-realistic Mars, entirely realistic Mars which is completely dead and really boring, Mars bars, etc.
Johnson: I think we’re probably somewhere in the middle. It’s not really hard sci-fi. The reason you colonize Mars is so you can supply food to people in the Asteroid Belt. You have people on Mars. They create water and oxygen and food, and they ship that to the Asteroid Belt, because Mars is a lot smaller than earth. It cost a lot less fuel to get ships off of Mars than Earth. So even though obviously it’s a lot easier to grow food on earth, it takes a larger amount of fuel to escape Earth’s gravity. So that’s theoretically one of the ideas behind the usefulness of Mars.
Though at the same time, we have some somewhat goofy technology. Teleportation, perpetual motion, cold fusion, just some stuff that type of futurism and whatnot. It’s not something I would ever put forward as, “This is an educational game about Mars.” It’s just a nice setting. What I really like about the setting is it’s a plausible empty environment that will get developed quickly with modern stuff. We could theoretically make this game in the new world of 1500, right? But you don’t really have an energy market to produce interesting resources quickly. Things happen a lot more slowly. This is a nice place to be able to start with an empty map, which is always a real nice thing in a strategy game.
Dorian: I think of it a little bit like a Firefly world, where you have sort of the wild west. Where you imagine Mal came from. Where they talk about his journey of having a pirate ship. That idea of it’s sort of the wild west, and it’s an emerging market. What you’ll learn isn’t so much of the actual practical details of space exploration. I think the actual education is a free market situation.
Johnson: To appreciate what supply and demand really mean. What happens when only one person has a specific resource?
Dorian: That’s how I imagine people rushing to California, and a lot of the West pops up. In the Asteroid Belt you have the platinum market, or the precious metals. The newly discovered metals that are now being used for all electronics are being mined in the asteroids. So you have a bunch of guys there that have nothing to spend their money on except the goods coming from Mars. That’s the opportunity.
Johnson: I could probably talk about this for awhile because I have a lot of experience working on Civ, and people looking at it as an educational game. I think one of the big mistakes when you look at games in terms of education is people often think it should be about teaching facts. You get this specific information into the players’ heads. That can happen in games, but what games really do is make you experience something. You get the feeling of what it feels like to be running a corporation that doesn’t have enough food, and the price is going up, and what are you going to do? Just internalizing that feeling, which is something that’s hard to do in a documentary or whatever, but easy to do here.
RPS: I agree with you, definitely. I think it’s kind of a problem with education at large, is that it’s, “Fact. Fact. Fact. We won’t really teach you anything else. Just facts. Now ace that test full of information you’ll never see again in your entire life.”
Dorian: I played the game Papers Please, and completely loved that. None of those are actual states that you could live in, but I felt like I learned a lot more about the plight of someone in a very oppressive but organized society, and it wasn’t because I got more information. It was that they instantly motivated me in a very mundane way, and all of a sudden I was doing my job even though I didn’t believe in my job. And I was like, “I just learned a tremendous amount.” I could go and do research on what had been going on maybe in Russia. And it inspired actual learning on my own. Education should inspire you to self-teach, to self-learn.
RPS: Definitely. I think the best thing school, or really any form of education can do, is teach you to be a lifelong learner. To be interested in just learning stuff, thinking abstractly, being fascinated by everything. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems like people want the opposite out of games. Or at least, that’s what the mainstream perception seems to be – that people don’t want to struggle with complex systems in strategy games. That they’d prefer to just blast everything and move on to a different corridor with exciting new chips in its gray paint. Strategy’s definitely not dead, but it doesn’t seem as prominent as it once was.
Johnson: It’s a production cost issue, I think. At this point game budgets have gotten so high that the only strategy games we can keep going are the ones that have already succeeded. And every once in a while one of the franchises kind of blows it. I can’t name any names, but there’s some where they had a couple bad ones and that was it basically. Each one of them that goes, there’s only so many left, right? I mean now you’ve got Civ, you’ve got Starcraft, you’ve got Total War…
Dorian: XCOM jumped back into the mix.
Johnson: The rebirth, yeah. So it’s possible. We can tell you from time and practice, it was a long process trying to get that to go. I left before the version of that that came out really started. But even before that it was years trying to get a project like that off the ground. That was still a struggle.
Dorian: Ultimately, it became problematic in my mind when I was at Firaxis, because the president of the company. When XCOM was being developed, I was watching this great game being made, there was a lot of passion. And he does an interview and in a throw away statement he says, I don’t know the exact quote, but basically strategy games aren’t as relevant. They’re not contemporary. And that’s a real kick in the ass to a studio, or to any human being that’s really pouring their energy in to that.
I would watch the XCOM team, and they were spending a lot of hours really trying to make the best game they could. And you’d have the guy that’s in charge leading your way, and he says something that’s a little bit of a downer. But the thing was, I don’t think he meant it mean. I really think he just believes that’s the direction. The direction of games, in a lot of companies minds, is that they’re more action oriented, more experiential, they’re more in the moment, they’re more like The Last of Us. And they’re less like a Civilization title, or less like an XCOM title.
Johnson: People who play strategy games have this common lineage that you just don’t find among big publishers. They don’t get it. It’s not in their bubble. The strategy games that are going to be interesting and important are going to bubble up from unexpected places. They come from indies, or they’re going to be like DotA, which sprung from a mod. They’re going to come from places that we aren’t aware of yet.
Dorian: But the other thing is, usually, there’s a history of genres becoming really popular, and then leaving for awhile. And usually that’s the moment when it’s the best time possible to make them. Games tend to be cyclical, like XCOM came back. There’s a period where people forget, “Oh these were fun games. I remember playing that game.”
RPS: Remember when people didn’t like roguelikes for 20 years?
Dorian: Yeah! And now they’re my favorite thing.
RPS: Now everything is a roguelike. I’m a roguelike. You’re a roguelike. This is Nathan Roguelike, reporting to you live from the Roguelike Center in Baton Roguelike, Louisiana.
Dorian: It’s almost unfortunate because not every game should be. Anyway it’s that idea that I think it’s an interesting time to come back with strategy games as a… well we’re not coming back to it but it’s an interesting time to think about it as important. More important now than ever, because they’re a little bit more than they were in the past. Like studying art history, there are trends in art history like that.
Once a movement is declared as dead, that’s the best time to be doing something in that.
Johnson: We’ll say it straight, we don’t want the big publishers to be paying attention to strategy games. We’d rather them think that no one wants strategy games, move along. Because it just creates a lot of opportunity for us, right? There’s not many people making games for fans, and of course strategy gamers.
RPS: Triple-A has also become increasingly layoff heavy, to a point where I think it has to affect creativity and team-building, if only because it’s frequently so sudden and unexpected. I hear far too many developers say, “We found out when you did.” Having worked for so long in triple-A, what do you think needs to change on that side of things – especially in regards to strategy?
Johnson: Well I definitely think it’s detrimental. I mean that’s why I don’t want anything to do with it. That’s why we started a small company, and we’re going to be very hesitant to grow much larger than we are now. If we need extra resources there are great people you can work with, who live somewhere else in the world, that just want to work on your project for a while as a contractor and contribute what they do, and then they can do multiple things at the same time. There are a lot of people out there who are doing that between major projects.
But when you’re taking about these huge games, the one’s that require two, three, four, five hundred people, and to be clear it’s almost beyond what I see or experience myself. Spore was maybe about a hundred people, and that seemed needlessly large at the time. That’s not even a team anymore. It’s kind of mind boggling to me, and I still don’t have an answer for that.
I think the studios are trying to do the best they can. I don’t think anyone wants to be forced to lay off people in this kind of cyclical nature. But the reason you have that many people is you have a lot of content to create, and there are moments in a games development when it’s ready for that. You’re like, “Ok, we’ve got something for all of these people to do.” The problem is there’s someone else out there who’s laying the tracks, and you’re ahead of time, trying to figure out what those guys are going to be doing next year. What are they going to be doing the year after that?
It’s very easy to slip into the situation where you’re like, “Wow, we’ve got 50 artists and we don’t really have a use for any of them right now.” It’s tough. The Hollywood model works for them because you get everyone in one place, and it’s kind of an assumption that you join one project. Everyone is a contractor.
Dorian: But it’s also that, Hollywood has unions, there’s the knowledge that you’re working for hire, and the work is smaller scope. Unless you’re in the special effects industry, and that has gone through a similar cycle as with the game industry, almost everyone else on a film production crew is there for 6 weeks to 6 months. That might be the scope. So you know, “Here’s my gig. In the future I’m going to line up this other gig.” And good directors have crews that they tend to work with exclusively. If a director has a special film, he always checks out that same crew, and they might make twice as much, three times as much because they’re contractors, not salaried.
In the games industry you have the problem where you’re hiring people on salary, so they’re not really set up as contractors. That means their insurance is tied with their jobs. There’s not a union that protects their wage things, or negotiates that stuff. A lot of times it’s a long term project, it’s a 3 year project. It’s usually a surprise when it happens. Part of the makeup of corporations are they sort of want to surprise people with layoffs so people wont think they’re bad to their employees. So all of those things combined create a very different environment than the one in Hollywood. But, the special effects industry is going through the same issue, because there are no unions, there’s no protection. You can have an effects company that gets an academy award, and they’re closed down the next week.
Johnson: It seems obvious to me, talking about having 500 person teams, and people doing very very specialized jobs, yeah there probably should be a union. That’s kind of a situation where you need one. But you know, the truth is, if that happens games are just going to get more expensive. Which , I would prefer for there to be a union. I want for the game developers to have a good situation, but that’s a challenge for the industry right now. Games are already expensive. That’s limiting their diversity, and that’s limiting their ambition.
Dorian: Ultimately the fear of not making money is greater than the fear of laying people off. And I almost feel like entertainment companies inherently shouldn’t be publicly traded, because there’s a huge risk. And a lot of times, is you look at movies that succeed or don’t succeed… No one really thought Avatar was going to be a top selling movie, nor did they think Passion of the Christ was going to be a top selling movie. Like no one would say, “Blue things in space, or the retelling of Jesus’s last 12 hours. Those would be the ones that are going to be solid gold.”
Because of that the risk and reward is so asymmetric, investors like predictability, and entertainment at it’s nature is hard to predict. Or the more predictable you make it the less entertaining it is. So we have a situation where the only way to really raise capital is to go public, and there’s a lot of incentive to push people into the public. So that’s also a big problem as well in the industry itself. That’s why staying small and independent is very desirable because you’re, “Ok, that game didn’t work as well as we liked. But no one has an investor who’s really mad about that.”
Johnson: It’s just such a great time right now to be indie, because the tools are good enough now that we’ll never be able to make our game look as good as a Blizzard game, but we’ll be able to get close enough that it doesn’t necessarily matter. And when you’re comparing 5 people to 500 people, the differences that come into that are so enormous.
Dorian: When companies get larger, inherently they get a little bit slower.
RPS: So many people are flowing from triple-A to indie, as you’ve said, there are clear reasons why. Do you think the tide will ever turn back the other way? Will triple-A regain its footing as a place where creativity and job security, er, exist?
Dorian: I think it’s still a viable option for talented people. The real issue is, the majority of people who make games, that’s where it’s an issue for them. I think that if you’re recognized as being a top talent, someone will let you come in. You may not have the ability to decide what you do next, but you will be paid to do what they want you to do really well. If you’re starting out and you’re portfolio is hot, you’re from a design school, you’ll get an entry job.
But it’s the people that are in the middle that don’t really have a hold on their future, don’t necessarily have a sail for what they’re doing, have dedicated a lot of their time and energy, and are quite good, but they’re not quite recognized as the decision makers. Those are the folks that the game industry really burns out. And those are the people that you really want to connect with. Those are the people that I’d try to hire. I want someone who loves games, is really good at what they do, and hasn’t had a huge opportunity to help make decisions. They’ve been kept out of the loop.
In some degree that’s the kind of person that Valve hired. They hired amazing people that didn’t have a say over what they wanted do, and they said, “Why don’t you join us, and make games with us?” It’s unfortunate that the largest companies can’t offer something similar. That is the predicament that a lot of people fall into. And I don’t know if the large companies want to actually pivot to give people more control.
I think they could pivot to make different types of games, better games, but the question is what does the game industry look like? Every industry has a decision to make every generation, and in games the generations are about 5 years. The decision is what do we want to look like five years from now? At the moment we have a group of people, I don’t know if they’re deciding this, larger teams, bigger budgets. If the game doesn’t sell five million copies it’s a failure.
And then there’s a bunch of people that are placing these small side bets. Small teams, independent games, and in five years this is great regardless of what happens, because you sort of need that diversity. When everyone puts all their bets in the same location, it sort of sucks for everyone. In five years we should have a really interesting swathe of games. The thing though is at the end of that cycle, where are the people going to want to work? Where are the environments they’re going to want to commit to? You want to make things that are beautiful, but you also want to have a life that is meaningful outside of your job. So the question is, how sustainable are those two models? Is the indie model going to be sustainable long term? I’m betting that it will be. Is the large company going to be sustainable? Yes, but how is working there going to be? And that’s the conflict.
RPS: You’ve gone indie, and you’re working with a smaller team, is there any desire to eventually do something of a larger scale, having worked on things as immense as Civ? Is there a part of you that misses that?
Johnson: Yeah. I mean I think we can work on things that are of a larger scale, in terms of game design, not necessarily in terms of game production. Especially since we’re strategy games. If our background was more of a content based game, like a Walking Dead game, someone’s got to write all of that stuff, and someone’s got to build every level and design all of the interactions. They consume it maybe once, maybe twice. There you have major production problems, if you want to do a larger scale thing. But Sid [Meier] made Civ 1 by himself back in 1990. So if that’s possible we should be able to make a pretty large scale game with the team we have, with the tools we have, in 2013.
Dorian: On the scope, a lot of it is symbolic in how you decide to portray that information. Interestingly enough, one of the advantages that strategy games have is the environmental scope is small compared with most games. You make a version of a world, and you make it so it’s procedurally driven based on the art that you decide to do, but you can make a lot of different worlds without having to hand craft every scene, building every trash can and streetlight.
Johnson: At it’s core, Civ is, the code is not necessarily all that big. It just generates a lot of interesting situations.
Dorian: But it’s about the experience. The scope is what people feel like they’re going through. We’re definitely equipped to do it, if we have the right symbology we have the right game play, scope isn’t going to be a huge issue. A lot of times strategy games are a diving board for people’s imaginations. They’ll play the game that they really want to be playing. The art is a little bit symbolic. Not that the art is all iconography, but it’s just enough to get you going so that you then know what’s happening, and you develop your own narrative in your mind.
RPS: You mentioned DotA as sort of within the RTS lineage, which I agree with. But it’s interesting in how much of a life of it’s own it’s taken on, because now everyone’s making a MOBA. There was a time when people were like, “Hey let’s make a strategy game of Franchise X.” Now it’s, “Let’s make a MOBA of that.” So what do you think of that? MOBAs definitely contain a lot of strategic appeal. They just centralize it more, whereas before you were juggling multiple units and multiple bases. You get to feel like a strategic mastermind without juggling quite as many factors.
Johnson: Well to me, MOBAs basically ate RTS games. And beyond that kind of exposed on of the big core problems with RTS games, which is that it’s really a miracle that they ever work to begin with. The demands that they put on a player are so high. But at the same time people love playing these large scale strategic, competitive, team based, multiplayer games, right? That’s this wonderful format. You’ve got cooperation, you’ve got competition, you have all this stuff going on on screen. It’s an interesting, deep, complex experience, and by simply making that one shift of. “We’re going to keep a lot of us, but you’re just going to be controlling one character.”
It’s that radical change, that order of magnitude change in the player experience. So it’s kind of an open question of what happens to the classic RTS now? What are it’s purposes? What is it’s point? Because yeah. MOBAs have taken over.
Dorian: But you know, it’s a very different feel. Like learning them. I’m terrible at them. But I felt like it was an exercise in repression. Like my instinct was, “Oh I wanna just go a little bit further!” And everyone was like, “Nooo! Don’t go that far!” So I was like, “But I just want to… Ooooh gosh. I just went and killed someone!” And they’re like, “Stop it. You’re an idiot.” “Ooooh ok.” But you know, with an RTS the instinct is, “I’m just gonna make 50 things and throw them here.” And MOBAs are a lot more restrained.
I think there’s room for both, since the experience is so radically different. The problem is that MOBAs were much newer, and they innovated in some ways that were really strong. They managed making learning things not just a wall of garbage. It made it a little more like football. It’s got a very football feel. “We’re gonna get the first down, but not too soon. We’re gonna use all our downs before we get our first down, and we’re gonna run it in.”
I think the cool thing is it is a different experience, but that different experience then becomes, “I’ve played that a thousand times.” And at some point really good players that love it will have played it a thousand times. Then they’ll play it two thousand times. Then there will be small little innovations made along the way and they’ll be like, “Well, I’d like to try something new.”
Johnson: There will definitely be an opportunity for RTS games, a few years down the road, as they sort of disappear. And whoever tries to make those types of games really needs to think what’s that core part of an RTS that’s really important, and what are the parts that we can leave behind?
RPS: You’re focused on RTSes right now, but do you think you’ll ever go back to making turn-based games? I actually feel like they’re right on the verge of a renaissance right now, given how well they lend themselves to asynchronous play across long-distances, boardgame-like experiences, and tablet/mobile interfaces. Might not be the exact sort of TBS I want to play, but I can’t deny that the makings of widespread appeal are there.
Johnson: I expect at some point. We’re going to make strategy games, and turn based, and RTSs. I love both, so I’m sure.
RPS: Lastly, you have a mohawk now. Have people treated you differently?
Johnson: Ummm, not as much as I expected. I mean we are in San Francisco, so…
RPS: Yeah, you do see a fair number of them around here.
Johnson: Actually I think I saw about 4 or 5 mohawks the other day. I was like, “Awww…”
RPS: You look even more normal than you used to, basically. You can blend in anywhere.
Johnson: That’s my plan.
RPS: That’s what you should do next. You should make a real time strategy game about having a mohawk. Real-time mohawk management. Thank you for your time.