Sid Meier's Civilization series is leaving home.
This fall on Linux, Mac and Windows PC for $49.99, Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth will take the strategy game beyond the confines of its home turf to an alien world that players will colonize and where they will forge a new future of humanity.
Polygon spoke with four of the upcoming game's developers to learn about the game, the challenges a new venture like this poses for those creating it and how escaping Earth's gravitational pull will change the long running series.
THE GREAT MISTAKE
From its very first incarnations, the Civilization series has always been grounded in human history. Since 1991, it's tasked players with building empires that would survive and thrive the test of time. Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth focuses not on the past, but on the future. And it needed a reason to be different, a narrative justification to take the franchise where no Civilization game has gone before.
Firaxis calls it The Great Mistake.
"The state of Earth a couple hundred years from now becomes rather dire," lead designer Anton Strenger told Polygon. "There's a series of events which we call The Great Mistake."
In the science fiction that forms the foundation of Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth, our home planet is no longer what it used to be. Humanity's future among the stars flows from those events, but Firaxis is making a choice. It knows what happens — everybody there knows what happens, so they can work from a common foundation — but Firaxis isn't going to tell players everything.
"Internally, we've written out exactly what those events are, but for the player, we're leaving it vague and allowing their imagination to fill the gaps," he said.
According to Strenger, the deliberately ambiguous narrative is way to both engage and empower players who will determine humanity's fate.
"We don't take such a strong stance on narrative for the game because we want this to be a really repayable experience, a really customizable experience," he said. "A lot of the gameplay systems we're putting in really address that.
"Players create their own story. If we, as designers, go in and say, 'This is the backstory of why you're here,' I think that's a missed opportunity for the players. I think our philosophy as a studio is to show restraint when it comes to narrative. You'll see the same thing in XCOM. Until the very end in XCOM, you don't really find out about why they're there — and even then, it's kind of left up a lot to the player's imagination."
There's another narrative reason that Firaxis is taking a vague approach to the narrative underpinnings: In the context of Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth, players will literally determine what we become after Earth, and the future of humanity is grounded in a fierce geopolitical struggle that begins back home. Players will need to choose sides.
"We came up with, as designers, this geopolitical series of cataclysmic events," he said. "There's a nuclear exchange that a lot of nations fell under."
Producer Lena Brenk, whose job it is to provide the development team what they need to finish the game, believes that too much story would be counter to the spirit of the franchise, within which Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth sits comfortably.
"If you think about it," Brenk said, "in Civ historically, it's similar. The player has the reference of history and [can] fill in the gaps with their imagination and what their play style looks like. They know the rough outlines. They probably are not all historians. They probably don't all know the specifics and details, but they know the rough outline of what happened with Genghis Khan or who he was.
"We're trying to provide something very similar, except here for the future, where we give rough outlines and the player fills in the gaps with their imagination because that will really be the place that they remember: the choices they made and how that impacted their playthrough."
Leaving Earth allowed the developers to move "outside of the historical context," she said, which excited many on the team. But doing something so different, even if it was founded in Civilization's core principles, also provided its own set of challenges for developers to overcome.
FROM THE FAMILIAR TO THE STRANGE
Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth's artists loved the challenge because it was so new.
"You should have seen the art team and how excited they got," Brenk said. "Not looking up historic reference and drawing a concept from that and designing the units from historical references, but instead really designing a unit — or, in the parameters that the gameplay team told them what the perimeters would be, of course. But dreaming up how the future would look is a great opportunity for an art team, that they really jumped at to stretch their legs and do something different there."
It wasn't always that easy, though. According to lead designer David McDonough, it's easier to begin with geocentric history. You don't have to teach players what gunpowder is or why it's important. Players already know why it's important to sail across the ocean. When it comes up in the game, they get it. Transport Civilization to the future and off-world, and suddenly a developer's job isn't just to introduce something familiar and move on. Now, it's about teaching players.
"In the future, we have to teach the player a lot about what's going to happen to them," McDonough said, "while at the same time making room for them to decide for themselves. I think the feeling that we shot for in this game ... is starting from the familiar and moving forward into the strange. But strange in the way that's enticing, that's simultaneously a little scary and too good to pass up.
"When you play the game, you'll see all these opportunities to grow the very identity of humanity. You'll pick several of them and try to nail them down and try to beat the over civs to it. And then you'll start over and pick a different one."
The decisions players make about what humanity becomes won't take place in a vacuum. The strangers in Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth's strange land have competing values, differing ideas about the proper path forward. And players will come face-to-face with those competing values as they build their civilization.
"Every time it's a different story, a different imaginary tale about who humanity grew up to be over the next 5,000 years on this strange, alien planet," he said. "[It's about] starting from a place of safety and taking a journey that's both dangerous and invigorating into a strange new future and the revelation of wonder along the way, the feeling of gradual mastery as you start to take control of the planet and feel like you've found your footing, reacting to the different choices that you're AI opponents make. Friends and enemies start to take on a whole new meaning when your enemy has transformed itself into a robot. What does that mean for your civilization? How could you ever get along? That sort of thing: putting interesting decisions like that in front of of the player, all the way through the game."
Humanity's evolution is reflected in the gameplay. According to lead producer for the Civilization series Dennis Shirk, players will take their first 50-60 turns in the game alone. As each civilization grows, however, the game behind to change.
"When you cast off the historical context that we're bound to in a game like Civilization, you can go to some strange places, if you just let yourself go wild," Shirk said. "[The developers] showed a remarkable bit of both restraint and imagination in creating some very believable yet completely out of the ordinary places for the player to go through.
"When you're going through this game, you might start out talking to other leaders or factions or other leaders who've landed on the planet, and you still feel, "OK, these still feel like people from earth that I'm relating to.' But as the game goes on and these factions and these people start to change — they're adapting to the planet — the game becomes new all over again as this whole experience changes."
FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON
After it upended the idea of where a Civilization game could be played, Firaxis then upended the idea of how a Civilization game could be played. That begins with Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth's new loadouts.
As the game begins and players are leaving Earth, they choose a national identity, which sponsors the spacefaring expedition. Players have more choices to make, though. They need to choose their their spaceship, its cargo and the colonists that will join them. Each of these decisions impacts gameplay.
"Each of those creates this interesting, not-quite civilization, but really this a la mode faction that you get to start out the game with, and I think it'll make for some really interesting stories," Strenger said.
Previous Civilization games gave players a linear tech tree to seed, based on the course of actual human events. But in Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth, players will be making history, not creating an alternate version of it. Exit the linear tech tree and enter the non-linear tech web.
"We were thinking, 'How does this progress from here out?,'" Brenk said. "The design team came up with this really neat solution where we have a tech web instead of a tech tree. It's not linear anymore because we don't exactly know where humanity will be going from here." Because it's no longer saddled to history, there are multiple different theories about how humanity might develop, and the tech web contains three broad affinities that help players assimilate to their new surroundings. The harmony affinity is for players who believe that they should become part of the new alien world. The supremacy affinity is harmony's opposite and favors technological advances like robotics and environmental domination over assimilation. The purity affinity uses "science and research," according to Brenk, to look back at humanity's past and culture and want to preserve humanity as it was and treat their new planet as a new Earth.
Affinities aren't all or nothing choices. Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth will, at least at the beginning, compel players to make choices that lead them down certain paths, but those choices will remain throughout the campaign.
"It's just like in the Civ games," Brenk said, "your surrounding when you start colonizing, in your first colony is settled on the planet, you'll look at your surroundings, and your surroundings will probably dictate or give you hints as to in which direction you should research. They'll probably nudge you in a certain direction, so often your tech choices are somewhat reactive. But basically, you're accumulating points towards each of these affinities, and your tech choices will make it so that you don't choose one of the three affinities at the start, but instead, you accumulate the points over the course of the whole game and advance in that direction, depending on where you're going."
According to Strenger, Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth will have three distinct victory types — one for each affinity, which reflects what each civilization understands success to be.
"The arcs for the affinities and the units both reflect the affinity that each player has chosen," he said. "So if my neighbor has gone down the harmony path, his cities and his units will start looking a certain way. Each of the affinities has a very defined aesthetic that we spent a lot of time connecting and developing on the art side of things."
OUR SHARED FUTURE
With Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth, Firaxis is hoping to move beyond building a civilization out of nuts and bolts. It wants players to build humanity with their own mixture of the past and the future, a combination of ideology and religion — to build an ethos to sustain homo sapiens among the stars. Whatever we become will be up to players to decide. But whatever that winds up being — passive or aggressive, human or cybernetic— humanity is primed to change. After all, they're building a different kind of civilization for a different kind of Civilization game.
"There's a lot of things, from the wonders to the most advanced military units, that are very much beyond what we today could conceivably build," McDonough said. "That's by design. We want the future to be futuristic."