Civ 6, EUIV and Endless Legend designers on how their strategy games create the illusion of a world

Big, slow, sweeping strategy games expose their rules in a way no other game does. Call of Duty doesn’t have floating numbers above enemy heads, telling you their movement speed, for example. But in most 4X and grand strategy games, there is no attempt to hide exactly how everything works: the stats, their interactions, are all laid out and plain to see. Yet these games are utterly dependent on their ability to evoke a sense of place, scale, and history – they have to be much more than just a fancy chessboard, they have to feel alive, or they’re just not much fun. How can these games survive and thrive under such conflicting pressures? I spoke to three of the world’s top strategy game designers, from Firaxis, Paradox and Amplitude, to find out.

For Romain de Waubert de Genlis, creative director at Amplitude Studios, it’s all about depth and thoroughness of imagination. “When we work on our fantasy games – fantasy universes – we must believe in the place you’re in. That sense of belief we do a lot through the writing and the visuals that we develop around it. So if we look at the visual side of things, it always goes with this whole thing of, ‘how do you create a fantasy world and universe?’ Why are some of them compelling and others not?”

The answer, he told me, is believability. “The fact that it is believable doesn’t mean it’s not fantasy, it’s not crazy. We can make it crazy. But it needs to be logical. It needs to make sense. It needs to refer to things that you know about without even knowing that you know about.”

To create something fantastical, you need to draw inspiration from somewhere: “We try to dig into real-world history a lot. We had in Endless Space 1, and as a minor in Endless Space 2 as well, the Hissho. They’re a warrior faction. OK, fine, what do we think of as players when we think about warriors? Armours, codes, ways of making from ancient Japan, the middle ages – we used that a lot, and we mixed it, to make it very odd and different, with other cultures, especially pre-Columbian South America. And it’s that odd little mix which first made it different yet easy to relate to. Just by looking at the creatures of the Hissho faction, you more or less understand what their motivations are. Although we are talking about, you know, alien chickens in space, basically – strangely enough, it is believable when you look at it.”

Once you have that believable world, the next step for de Waubert is to use it to create characterful twists on the game mechanics. “As game designers, we first set the rules and then find factions that will have just one purpose: to break at least one of these major rules. Normally what we have actually is one faction – most of the time it will be a human faction because we know that‘s what players will tend to play first – and basically with that faction they will define the normal way to play the game. And everything else we’ll design around that is meant to break it.”

Johan Andersson, creative director at Paradox Game Studio, takes a different tack. “I remember playing an old Sid Meier game when I was a kid, called Pirates. The old Commodore 64 version. I saw that cities grow richer and poorer and so I was like, ‘OK, if I attack all the pirates around here, keep it clear, this city should thrive.’ I thought there was this great simulation inside of it.

“And then one day, accidentally, I hit the run stop button, and I was like ‘OK, part of this game is running in Basic, and I can read the actual source code!’ – which you could do on the C64 tape version. And I realised that no, it doesn’t do all these things, it’s just random. And then I lost my suspension of disbelief. It was just a game, it was not this simulation I built up in my fourteen-year-old mind. And I never played the game after that. So for me that’s kind of shaped how I want to make games – I want people to feel that it’s a world there, and I don’t want it to be, when you’re looking behind a curtain, that it’s just a man there with two strings. I want it to be like thousands of strings, at least, so you don’t get fooled.”

This aesthetic of simulation underpins Andersson’s whole game design philosophy. “You know the saying ‘you can’t see the forest because of all the trees’? Human minds work kind of like that: when we get so many things happening, there’s things between them that we fill in. We don’t pay attention to the details, but we know that the details are there, and you don’t really need to have all these details for you to assume that there are things in between.” Paradox’s games embody this philosophy in multiple respects. “If you’re looking at Europa Universalis, we have hundreds and hundreds of different countries, and the amount of different actors there creates so much independent behaviour that it creates this suspension of disbelief,” he told me. “But it’s not just these playable entities or playable actors – we have other things in the background like rebels, you have things that we simulate that are not really part of the actor things but are represented by, let’s say, an event.”

This approach is not without its downsides, though. Ed Beach, lead designer on Civilization VI, is acutely aware of its intrinsic tensions. “I do think you have a richer game experience with more agents involved,” he told me, but “it becomes a tricky challenge to present that information to players in a concise and appropriate way, so they can get all those details on what the diplomatic landscape looks like, without it becoming overwhelming, especially if you have too many agents involved.”

Instead, Beach aims for quality over quantity. “We try to make sure that your opponents in the world feel like they’re distinct personalities, and that they have a lot of personality and character, and that those are wrapped up in who they were historically. So we want people to have an immediate reaction if they meet Alexander the Great or they meet Teddy Roosevelt, like ‘OK, now I know some things about this particular opponent, I’m going to have to watch out for them, either militarily, or through espionage, or maybe they’re an economic powerhouse, or whatever.’” In Civ VI, he said, “what we tried to play up was, we have an agenda system – so that the different leaders work different ways, and that they each have something in the diplomatic landscape that they care about deeply.”

Above and beyond the leaders themselves, Beach sees the opportunity for drama in timing. “I think there are moments in any good game – and definitely in a Civilization game – that are the moments that you want to immediately share with your friends. Something that surprises you, something where there were only a few turns left before something was going to happen, you had to rush in there and do it quickly. Those are the kind of moments that you want to make sure happen not just once – a Civ game is a long game – you want to make sure that’s happening four or five different times.

“One of the things that we did [in Civilization VI] is we added a new status for cities where a city is either under siege or not, and that all has to do with whether or not the six hexes around the city have an enemy unit in now, or at least an enemy zone of control in them. It becomes very, very dramatic because if your city’s under siege it does not heal at all, and that probably halves the amount of time it can hold out. If it’s not healing its hitpoints from the damage it’s taking at the end of the turn, you’re going to lose that city very, very quickly. So we’ve had a lot of dramatic fights around cities, and sometimes it’s just about poking that hole in the enemy besieging lines so you can get the supplies in and your city can heal – that often makes the difference.”

This emphasis on the importance of time extends to the large scale, as well as the small. “You almost have to reimagine and recreate the setting 5 or 6 different times throughout the game, because you Renaissance happens, then you get to the modern world, then you get to the very, very modern world with nuclear weapons and the information age.” This change of setting is not merely cosmetic, but fundamentally changes the gameplay. “We introduce brand new mechanics and systems midway through the game – so, for instance, espionage is not around in the beginning of the game at all. The other thing that we do is we take existing mechanics – like, maybe, combat – and scale them up or twist the way they work.”

This temporal sensitivity is a point of commonality between Beach and de Waubert, along with their focus on differentiated factions. “Our very signature is to try to, of course, surprise the players with stuff [they] don’t believe is possible or could happen,” de Waubert told me. “Stuff that can change the rhythm of the game in some way. In Endless Legend you had the winter coming in – there was a picture that first gave a strong sense of urgency to the game – it’s like, ‘oh God!’, you know, ‘I thought it was, like, everything was beautiful, but it’s dying!’”

The key element in all this, though, is the map, as all three designers agree. “It has to make you dream and find beautiful what you find. You need to be able to read it, understand it, and yet it needs to make you dream,” said de Waubert. “It was pretty clear early in the design [of Civ VI] when we hit upon the unstacking cities concept that all of a sudden there was going to become a lot more gameplay information that was out there on the map,” Beach told me. “But we also felt like if we came up with a consistent style, if we made everything in the game world animate and move and be lit and have a different state whether there was a citizen working that tile or not working that tile, all of a sudden the graphics were going to bring to life exactly what was happening in our game world, and that was going to be a powerful tool to draw our players in and engage them.”

For Andersson, whose games mostly use historical maps, this effect is even more pronounced. “If you play Europa Universalis you get a lot of these things for free if you know a little bit about geography,” he said. “To be brutally honest, I so much prefer having a historical map at the mid- and end-game, because when I’m playing like a Civilization or a Stellaris game, they are all the same or – that’s a bit brutal there – but when you reach like 30-40% towards victory, there’s not much difference afterwards. It’s more like ‘well, where am I, where do I happen?’ But in a real-world map, you’re more like, ‘Yeah, I’m in France. I’m going to conquer the world. OK. That means I have to deal with these things first.’ And I know like, yeah, there was going to be a big huge Ottoman Empire that will control the Middle East most likely, and when I reach Asia, yeah, there might be the Chinese Empire.”

The common theme, though, is that the sense of a world behind the mechanics is as important to long-form strategy games as it is to RPGs. “If [Civilization] was all about mechanics and you weren’t immersed in the world that you were playing in, and you weren’t getting a sense that there was a real, living entity, that has its own unique characteristics and time periods and so forth, then it would get kind of dry,” said Beach. Andersson and de Waubert were more emphatic. “The most important thing for me when playing a game is that I don’t want it to feel that I’m playing a game. I want it to be that I’m playing an experience, that I am actually in that experience,” said Andersson. “The end result is, you deliver a dream,” said de Waubert. “You just want your player to travel far away from their seat. 4X is extremely good at that, in the sense that you will own the story that you are creating. It’s your story. It’s not someone else’s.”

18 Comments

  1. Someoldguy says:

    All of the above apply, without question. Like Johan though, I lose interest if it’s revealed that the AI isn’t playing by the rules it purports to be and this realism is a facade. I don’t mind the AI getting extra resources, tech points or whatever, to raise the difficulty, but when it becomes evident that e.g. it knows where all your troops are despite fog of war or can pop a wonder out of thin air without having been building it the turn before, I stop playing.

  2. morganjah says:

    Doesn’t the DLC policy of Paradox directly contradict what Johann is claiming here?
    Specifically, how can there be a suspension of disbelief when the systems change so often that it is impossible to keep track of why action x in one game causes y, but causes z if DLC 12 is installed, or v if DLC 13 is installed, and w if DLC 13 is installed but not DLC 12, etc to DLC infinitum?
    The sheer quantity of DLC makes it impossible to keep track of the systems. How can one remain immersed if action x causes widely different and changing effects depending not on historically plausible reactions, but on which one of a thousand possible combination of DLC’s are installed?
    Not to mention the sloppy programming. I remember one patch, a year or so after the game’s publication, correcting a mistake by a factor of 100.

    • Creamice says:

      Sorry, but that’s total nonsense.

      The DLC adds new features and changes stuff, sure. That’s what allows PDX games to become the great and unique experience they are. Partly by DLC and free updates included with them providing the additional systems and simulation that Johan refers to.

      If there were not any additional DLCs you would be stuck with the original, often kind of bland game, because DLCs pay for the additional development.

      Other companies give you the bland game and leave it at that.

      You really prefer that?

      • Harlequin says:

        I understand criticism to Paradox’s DLC policy, but I can’t imagine it ever comes from someone who plays their games. Anyone that plays EU4 or CK2 regularly is well aware that the only reason their playtime in either game has three or four digits is because these are games that were released four to five years ago and still have developer support.

        • morganjah says:

          Harlequin,

          Thanks for actually responding to the text of what I wrote.

          The question is what happens if a person doesn’t play the game every day for four hours? All the patches and DLC’s change so many things, which Paradox is eternally amused to ‘document’ in obtuse, esoteric changelogs, that it is impossible to play the game with any idea what is going on without devoting hours to perusing the forums, attempting to parse which information is relevant to the combination of patches and DLC’s installed on your system.

          Spoiler Alert. About 95% of the information you come away convinced is applicable will be incorrect.

      • morganjah says:

        Creamice,

        The cut and paste response from (paid) Paradox fanboys has gotten really old.

        You absolutely, completely failed to respond to what I stated in my post.

        Too many DLC’s results in loss of immersion.

        Do you want to try again? Or are you just going to post the same crap you fanboys feel compelled to post every time someone brings up a legitimate issue?

        • andytheadequate says:

          But it isn’t a legitimate issue. ‘Realism’ doesn’t matter across multiple games, what’s important is that the game is convincing whilst you’re playing it. As long as the games systems are convincing during the game then that’s all that matters.

          I’ve not played the DLC yet so can’t comment on the specifics, but I’m the kind of casual EU player you’re referring to and I don’t mind the game changing with DLC, as long as it’s done well.

    • TrenchFoot says:

      I agree more with you than the DLC’s don’t harm immersion responses. If you play the game like I play Football Manager, that is, almost every day, and to the exclusion of most other games, I’m sure you’re fully immersed. For the rest of us … we often need to relearn systems from previous DLCs before we can learn the new bits.

  3. Rainshine says:

    I’m trying to parse that last Andersson quote; is it just about how the games can seem to blend together after the exploration is done? I haven’t really felt that way in Civ much — although it is typically the collection of civs that distinguishes one game from the next for me. That game where Rome was encircled by Greece and completely subject to them. That game where the Huns and Mongols were perpetually at war and letting the Inca basically colonize the rest of the world. The game where the Aztecs got the worst starting placement I’ve seen in a long time, on a barren arctic island in the north sea, and the Ottomans and Danish fought a battle for naval dominance over the straits.

    Complete aside — do any turn-based strategy games you know of let you put names/text on the map, apart from cities? So you could name things the Mount of Fire or the Straits of Desparation, as a player?

    • Premium User Badge

      BlueTemplar says:

      Alpha Centauri allows you to do that.
      Also IIRC Civ4, though it might be only while using the BUG mod.

  4. mtomto says:

    When Ed Beach said “quality over quantity” I stopped reading. What an idiot…

  5. Chris says:

    Ed Beach is the proud designer of the game that made me give up on Civilization. Playing Civ6 is rather like having carnal knowledge of a dead sheep. Expansions will just add lipstick to the wooly corpse.

    • Premium User Badge

      BlueTemplar says:

      For those that haven’t played Civ6 yet, why?

      • Chris says:

        Like the sheep the AI is brain dead and entirely passive. It’s clunky, and doesn’t make any sense.

      • FGRSentinel says:

        The AI is probably the lowest quality of the entire franchise to date. To start, the AI has a set of factors affecting their opinion of the player (being on good terms for a while, favorable trades, promising not do to things that annoy them, etc) and each other that are shared between each civ in the game, but are quite literally one of ONLY three parts of their programming and behavior that are undertandable, predictible, and something the player can actually do something about in most situations. After that you have their “Agendas” which are a pair of personality modifiers that determine how they act and what they like/dislike. One of these is constant every game for a specific civilization while the other is (usually) randomly picked and kept secret from almost everyone uless you’re on good terms with them. Some of these are easy to deal with while others are impossible to satisfy if you start in a certain place or too early (France can get mad at you in the Ancient Era for not conducting espionage when the earliest you can start building spies is in the Renaissance, and Norway becomes hostile towards nations with a weak navy, regardless of if they have access to the coast in the first place) and others officially limit the AI in ways that they don’t really work (Ghandi’s AI is TECHNICALLY barred from declaring war, but he can get around it by getting a third party to accept a joint war in a trade deal). The result of this is an AI where no matter what you do, the AI’s relation with you will fluctuate wildly without you knowing WHY 70% of the time and even if they’re friendly with you they’ll still declare war without any real reason for it. The only time they CAN’T declare war on someone is when they’ve declared that person their friend or are allied, but even then I think the game can sometimes bug in rare instances and you’re left in a state of endless war with someone the game records as your ally. They also have no problem declaring war on people 2+ eras ahead and with a larger military than them. The only time they won’t declare war on someone, even if they hate them, is when the other guy has nukes and the AI doesn’t. So altogether, the Civ VI AI is so incomprehensible and so difficult to manage (the “quality over quantity” remark doesn’t really work since Paradox games have far more things that are controlled by AI but still come across as more organic and managable) that it’s the main reason many people don’t like the game.

  6. TrenchFoot says:

    What people want out of their gaming worlds determines which of these developers’ approaches will appeal to them. It becomes a matter of taste.

    What doesn’t work for me personally is Civ’s half-measure of generated maps and stereotypical leaders based on people who lived hundreds of years apart. Just give them random attributes that occur regardless of “race” or “culture,” in the same way that male and female attributes are potentially the same in an RPG. Civ’s makers avoid any sort of crass racism or bigotry of course, but picturing a native american tribe leader surrounded by skulls is selective, even if the tribe practiced human sacrifice. Is that essentially what the tribe was about? It’s perilous. What happens in Civ is the artful and historically informed version of war propaganda. I’m not saying this is a big social justice issue, just that I personally find it weird and the very opposite of immersive. Essentially, it’s not smart enough. Add in the linear aspects of development and research and … the Civs can be addictive but for me aren’t that interesting (which can be two separate things.)

    I prefer the Paradox games and look forward to trying one of the Endlesses soon.

    • FGRSentinel says:

      I’m pretty sure Endless Legend may have been where Civ VI’s dev team came up with the idea of Districts since the cities in Endless Legend expand the area they can work by building more residential areas on the edges of existing districts (they even added in wonders that are built as districts before Civ VI came out).

  7. Jovian09 says:

    I kind of get what Andersson is saying, when he talks about having the advantages of a familiar world map. I think the Civ games are fantastic, but I struggle to get into them. The effect of having its real-world historical factions in random places on a random map, and of having anachronous leaders who live for thousands of years, is utterly immersion-breaking to me. Yes it’s cool to have Aztecs fighting with Greeks in the middle ages, for a minute or two. But after the facade of the historical setting is two-thirds removed already, what’s the point in pretending they aren’t just AIs with slightly different algorithms applied? The game is saved by the “gamey” aspects of it, which are top-notch, but hobbled by every attempt to disguise them.

    EU and Endless Legend solve this problem in opposite ways, the former by comitting to the historical setting fully and the latter by discarding it completely. I find myself able to enjoy each of them a fair bit more.