The Making of Civilization V: Brave New World

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Making Civilization is a negotiation. Between the series’ past and its future. Between members of an experienced development team who have had years to think about making it better. Between Firaxis and a passionate fan community for whom Civilization has been a way of life. It’s not always an easy exchange.

“When this team was developing Civ V everyone bought into that vision,” Dennis Shirk, senior producer on the Brave New World expansion, told me. “It’s not the kind of development where the designer is the only voice in the room. The entire team gets to contribute to a game. So it does cut a little bit when we release something like Civ V and you see Civfanatics [a major fan forum] split into two camps, it cuts a little bit. Because you’re kind of like a kid that wants their parents blessing and say, ‘You did a really good job.’ It doesn’t always happen, but you make your decisions, you take your risks, and try something new, and you put it all out there.”

With Brave New World, Firaxis have once again tried to get their fans blessing with daring new changes. It is the game it took Firaxis five years to learn how to make.

“There’s been about 6 years of Civ V development that occurs,” Shirk said. “With all the changes that [original Civ V designer] Jon Shafer made to the base game, you have to temper yourself a bit. Because you’re making these big huge changes.”

WIth Civilization V, he explained, the team shied away from doing too much at once. Firaxis weren’t just changing things from Civilization IV, but were instead reconsidering basic elements of how Civilization should work, going back to the earliest games. The fear with what they now call “vanilla” was that they could confuse the hell out of the casual strategy audience with which Civilization excels, making a game that only the hardcore would really understand.

Those constraints lifted with Brave New World, because both the team and Civilization players have had years to learn the new systems. But that doesn’t mean Firaxis had an inkling of where they would end up with Brave New World when they made Civilization V.

“Because at that point, by the second expansion, you have a very deep, complex game that people need to be able to know how to play,” Shirk said. “Now planning for something like this, that doesn’t happen at all. The bottom line truth is you finish the game, you put everything into it that you think you can with the time that you have.”

While Gods & Kings reintroduced religion and gave players more distinctive early-game situations, Firaxis’ goal with Brave New World was trickier: to make Civilization’s quitters play their games through to the end.

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Lead Designer Ed Beach said, “The number one goal of the expansion was to make sure that people finished their Civ games because they felt like this back half of the game was actually the best part of the game as opposed to previously where everyone just sort of emphasized the beginning.”

Ironically, Beach suggested that one reason Civilization’s end-games have always suffered is that they’re tough to design and test because, well, the early game is always more fun. Even for testers.

“You want to have an empire that you built all the way from the ground up. And so just in testing and iterating on the game, you’re just naturally doing more iteration on the beginning of the game,” he explained. “So it’s just difficult to get the right focus and attention and systems that are working properly into the late part of the game. But now I’ve been working with Civ V for coming on 5 years… and we have a pretty good understanding of how the late game unfolds.”

The major issue with the endgame in Civ V was that it was too restrictive.

“There was a lot of early decision making about victory types and, for instance, the cultural victory pretty much required empires of four or fewer cities,” Beach said. “That was a situation where you had the make that decision up-front. If you started settling a fourth or a fifth or a sixth city, you were going against the victory type. Those were exactly the kind of constraints we wanted to eliminate.”

What Beach wanted to do with Brave New World was push the moment of decision back, which would introduce less predictability to the middle and late phases of the game and allow players more freedom. The new concept of ideology was a crucial tool here.

“If you have looked at BNW, you see that each of the ideologies support three of the four different victory types. So it’s at that point in the game where you have understood the diplomatic landscape, seen what the other players are like, which ones are going to be friendly, which ones are going to be your antagonists, you have a good idea of what type of victory they’re well prepared to pursue. It’s at that point where you can really strike out and decide, okay, this is the one I’m going to commit to and go for.”

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The ideology policy trees might be the most personal touch Beach left on Civ V, because they reflect some of his formative experiences and lifelong interests.

He explained: “When I was in high school right around 1980, I actually took a Russian studies course. It was all about how the Russian nation had developed, how they had gone into communism, and [it] traced all the way from the czars all the way through the Soviet era to where we were at right then.

That was the beginning of the Reagan era. Everything was about the Evil Empire …and the Cold War mentality was firmly in place across everywhere on the planet. And I had the opportunity, my senior year in high school, to do a two week study trip to the Soviet Union. I found that to be fascinating in terms of the cultural differences between the Western world and the Soviet world.”

It helped set Beach on his path. When he went to college, he majored in Russian language and literature in addition to computer science.

“[Computer science] has more day to day application to my work here at Firaxis, but that Russian major came out of a fascination that there could be another place on the planet that was so different than the Western world that I was accustomed to. …I thought it was fascinating to try and understand how that had come into being.”

Ideology had already existed in Civ V’s policy trees in a more limited form, but Beach wanted something more involved that would change how people played the game.

“The idea of trying to role-play as what we call an Order civ that’s trying to unite the workers of the world — that just seemed like a really interesting way to be able to play in the whole arena of a Civilization game. I took the kernel of that idea and just started expanding it and working with it.”

Shirk and Beach don’t rule out the possibility of more Civ V content down the road, but they do say that Brave New World was and is envisioned as the capstone expansion for Civilization V. It is the final product of years of tinkering with and mastering the original design of Civilization V and, just as they did with the vanilla release, Firaxis have put it all out there. The difference now is that Brave New World comes from a wiser and more experienced group of Civilization V developers, one that can fully trust that their audience will understand and embrace the changes they’ve made.

The results speak for themselves.

You can hear the rest of my interview with Beach and Shirk on the Three Moves Ahead podcast this week.