Launching Civilization: Beyond Earth

Lying on its side, it's longer than three 18-wheelers and as tall as a three-story house. It's broken into sections: the F1 rocket engines, the first stage, the second stage, the third stage and then the command module and escape tower — the parts people recognize. The Apollo parts. The parts that took men to the moon.

Eleven-year-old Will Miller stands next to the bell of the F1, the broad business end of the rocket engine. The part that breathes fire. He looks up at the engine bell, then at the relatively tiny command module. He thinks about how much power it takes to send such a small object into space, and how, back here on the ground, there are people who made that powerful rocket, that tiny command module, using parts and tools and their hands. He wonders if he might some day go into space.

Miller is like a lot of kids who dream of becoming astronauts, of soaring into outer space. But unlike most kids, he is going to grow up to make his dreams come true — in a way.

Over a decade after seeing that rocket, Miller and longtime friend Dave McDonough are launching their own space mission. They're the co-lead designers behind Civilization: Beyond Earth, the game that will once again carry Sid Meier's epic creation out of the solar system.

This is their story.

First stage

The game would be made in much the same way as the rocket. It started with a strong foundation — the engine driving Civilization V and its two expansions, Gods & Kings and Brave New World.

"People were ready for Civ to grow up and move into the modern age," says Miller. "When we approached 'Civ in space,' a sci-fi Civ, I think, in my mind, it started from, 'Where is Civ today?'"

Today, Civ is in its fifth iteration, not counting the various expansions. It's evolved in countless ways since the first installment launched in 1991. And it's as successful as it ever was.

Civilization V has sold over 5 million copies since it was released in 2010. Yet for some, one of the greatest Civs ever made was not a Civ at all, but Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri — the Civ II-based "Civ in space," that took players beyond Earth for the very first time.

"People were ready for Civ to grow up and move into the modern age."

Civilization is a game about building a great nation that will thrive through war and prosperity and evolve to eventually become the greatest civilization in the world. One of the ways to win, traditionally, has been to build a starship and launch your civilization into space ... the end.

Alpha Centauri was a game built to answer the question: Then what? It was like Civ, in that it involved building a civilization, discovering resources and negotiating with competing civs. And it was developed by Meier and Brian Reynolds, the lead designer of Civ II.

Alpha Centauri was also an exercise for the developers in navigating business practicalities. Meier, Reynolds and Jeff Briggs founded Firaxis in 1996 after leaving developer MicroProse, but MicroProse retained the rights to the Civilization games. Meier and Reynolds had to make something different, but they wanted to preserve the strengths and successes of their popular Civ-style games. The result: Alpha Centauri.

Although a similar 4X strategy game to Civ, Alpha Centauri was new and different in a number of ways. The units, technologies and civilizations themselves were not based on historical models. It was sci-fi. It was fiction. And although it was praised by critics at the time it was released in 1999, it is widely considered the least commercially successful of Meier’s Civ-type games.

Fast forward to 2014. Firaxis has gained the rights to many of Sid Meier's previous titles, including Civ, but not including Alpha Centauri. EA still owns that IP. But sci-fi games are big business. Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within (based on licenses gained from the now defunct MicroProse), have become worldwide best-sellers. And the Civ team, lead by designer Ed Beach, has beaten all of the historical variety it possibly can into the Civ V engine. It's ready for a new challenge.

Anton Strenger was lead systems designer for the Civ V expansions. When Beach moved on to a new project at Firaxis (something the company won't talk about, but that is still in its early stages), he offered Strenger a spot on his team. But Strenger had heard whispers of a sci-fi Civ, a project being led by a young duo of designers fresh off of Firaxis' mobile game Haunted Hollow. He split off from his longtime collaborator and reached for space.


"I was wrapping up Brave New World last spring," says Strenger. "I heard an inkling about ... this opportunity. I thought it'd be fun to give it a try."

Strenger had first worked with Beyond Earth co-designers McDonough and Miller at an internal Firaxis game jam. The company frequently hosts such jams, closed to the public, just to see what its people can do. It's not a competition, although there are prizes. Everybody wins one.

"They found a category for each one of the games that people made [at the jam]," says Firaxis Marketing Manager Pete Murray. "'Best use of Mongolian music, traditional Mongolian throat singing,' I think was one of the awards handed out. But it was just, people want to try out ideas. Sometimes those germs of an idea turn into finished games."

One example of the types of prototypes that turn into big ideas at Firaxis is Sid Meier's Ace Patrol. Meier, who keeps a large office at Firaxis, semiseparate from the company's design teams, often spends his days tooling on game prototypes. One of those prototypes became Ace Patrol.

Will Miller (left) and Dave McDonough (right)
"It's about having fun. It's about making the game, finding the joy in that and then sharing it with other people."

"One day Sid said, 'I've got this prototype on the network — pull it down and try it,'" Murray says. "It was Ace Patrol, about 90 percent of what ended up shipping. Graphically it wasn't there. It had a lot of programmer art. But most of the main ideas were there.

"That's another example of how he leads and the weight of what he does counting so much for people. It's about having fun. It's about making the game, finding the joy in that and then sharing it with other people. It's tremendously inspiring to be around."

At the game jam where Strenger, Miller and McDonough first collaborated, they and artist Jack Cook spent 48 hours working together on a prototype. When the jam started, they barely knew each other. When it ended, they'd become a team.

"We really bonded," says Strenger. "At the end we were all hugging, like, 'Yeah, we did it!' That sort of stuff. We had this mutual feeling of, 'Wow, we really like working together.'"

Meanwhile, McDonough and Miller had been tooling on their own project. They'd been given the blessing to try their hand at creating what would be the next Civ game, and they'd turned to outer space for inspiration, bashing sci-fi concepts and new gameplay mechanics into the venerable Civ V engine. After months under wraps, the project was ready to move into production as Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, and Miller and McDonough tapped Strenger to be lead systems designer.

"I was a huge Alpha Centauri fan," Strenger says. "The idea of doing something in that tradition was exciting to me."

Second stage

Firaxis is a company made up of dozens of industry veterans, many tracing their careers back to the "early days" with Sid Meier at MicroProse and beyond. The Civ team contains many of those veterans, including some who were among the first dozen people hired at Firaxis in 1996.

And then there's Miller and McDonough. The two designers attended college together in Georgia, at Savannah College of Art and Design. McDonough was a graduate student at SCAD. Miller was an undergrad. They’ve been at Firaxis for just a few years.

Dave McDonough

"We both learned to make games organically [at SCAD], in a department that was figuring itself out," McDonough says. "Sort of a golden age, when it was very experimental and fun and we could just do stuff. We learned to make games side by side."

Then they both ended up at Firaxis. After graduation, Miller took a job at Firaxis as a gameplay engineer on XCOM: Enemy Unknown. McDonough, just passing through to visit his friend, got offered a job as an associate producer.

"I said, 'David, we have this spot open, you should write a resume and come in!'" Miller recalls. "He came in, just on a whim, did the interview, and not only did they hire [him], but they waited for [him] to graduate, which was really unusual. They held the spot for him."

The two young developers worked for two years at Firaxis, but rarely on the same game. Then they got offers from former Firaxis founder Brian Reynolds' Big Huge Games, which had become a part of the ill-fated 38 Studios. They took the offers, leaving Firaxis behind for the chance to do a game project together.

"We worked on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning," says Miller, "the game that shipped."

It was the first time the two worked directly together in the same office. The experience was everything they'd hoped: organic, productive and, most of all, fun.

"Then, fortuitously, right before the studio collapsed," says Miller, "everything was going great, [and] Firaxis came to us and asked us to come back."

McDonough and Miller were invited to lunch with Sid Meier and Firaxis Director of Gameplay Development Barry Caudill. Miller remembers the meeting vividly, as much for the setting as for any other reason.

Will Miller

"Sid loves California Pizza Kitchen," Miller says. "He goes to CPK ... for lunch all the time, like 3:00 in the afternoon. He keeps very strange lunch hours."

The pitch: return to Firaxis as lead designers, but not on separate teams — on the same team, as equals. It was exactly what the two young designers were looking for.

It was an unusual pitch, and not just for Firaxis — which has traditionally developed games helmed by one designer at a time — but for the game industry in general. Design duos aren't unheard of, but they are very, very uncommon. Inviting these two still relatively inexperienced developers back to Firaxis to head up a game project was not just an expression of faith in their talent, but an experiment in their unique way of operating together.

"Firaxis was saying, 'I think for too long our designs have been very narrow at Firaxis. There's been very few lead designers, not a broad team,'" says McDonough. "They said this in the context of: 'We're dreaming big at Firaxis. We want to do big things.'

"XCOM was about to come out. Jake [Solomon] was in the process of making himself an international celebrity. They said, 'We want more of that.' ... It was a bench-deepening sort of move on their part and a career opportunity for us. So it was mutually beneficial, of course."

McDonough and Miller took the offer and returned to Firaxis, together, to work as lead designers on what would become the mobile game Haunted Hollow.

"We had this funny idea for a haunted house combat game that we thought we could make quickly and cheaply," McDonough says, "which we did. ... Based on a good showing there, I think, good behavior, they said, why don't you take the Civ team out for a spin and see what you can do with them?"

Civilization: Beyond Earth concept art

The Bynars

Talk at Firaxis eventually turned to Civ in space. Different people have different recollections of when the idea came about, or by whom. But everyone agrees it was a catalyzing idea, one that sparked interest and excitement from nearly everyone on the team.

"The Civ team gets the opportunity to shake off the dust after many years of making historic games," says McDonough. "Everyone just came alive with the idea of getting to try that. And so that was a huge tailwind for us, to come in and say, 'You want to make sci-fi Civ? Here's all our cool weird ideas. How do you see this? You the artist, you the engineer, how do you imagine this?"

Civilization: Beyond Earth

For most members of the Civ team, making historical strategy games has been their focus for decades. No matter how much they may enjoy the process, the opportunity to step outside of history and create concepts from scratch proved intoxicating.

Senior Artist Mike Bazzell took his enthusiasm a bit farther than most. As soon as he learned a sci-fi Civ was even possible, he set to work with modeling clay and a camera and created a concept animation for what would become one of Beyond Earth's signature enemies: the Siege Worm.

In a large, central space at Firaxis, a whole wall has been covered with sketches and concept animations of the various leaders and enemies in Beyond Earth. And there, in a prominent place of pride, is Bazzell's Siege Worm. Not only did the creation inspire much of the rest of the team, once it was in the game it became one of the largest single units ever put into a Civ game, second only to the aquatic enemy: the Kraken.

This high level of enthusiasm, as energizing as it was, also came with a price. Although the Civ team may have been anxious to spend some time away from historical Civ, the fact that it had been living in that world, and with each other's production styles, for so long meant that adapting to a new way of doing things might produce some challenges. To face these challenges, Firaxis turned to another relative newcomer, Producer Lena Brenk.

"I came here for Civ, basically," says Brenk.

Originally from Germany, Brenk worked for three years as a QA lead at 2K's UK office. She moved to the United States to work at Firaxis, first on the Civ V expansions, then as a lead producer on Ace Patrol. But for her, it was really all about Civ. "I moved to the states for Civ. When [the Beyond Earth] project started, I got very excited about that, when I heard there would be an opportunity to work on that as a producer. That's not something a sane person should decline. It's Civ. It's sci-fi. It's awesome."

Brenk's first challenge: bending the organic, two-heads design style of McDonough and Miller to fit with the more regimented, traditional style of the veteran Civ team.

"Half of the team is used to certain processes," says Brenk. "The other team is very used to and very efficient at another process. They've worked that way for a long time. Finding that happy balance and what works best for everybody — everybody learning some new things — I think we found a good place."

The job of merging the different production styles of the two halves of the Beyond Earth team would get its most rigorous test when it came to art production. Miller and McDonough have art degrees, and tend to get hands on with that aspect of production, more so than some of the other aspects of creating the game. This can often lead to brilliant convergences in design and art. It can also lead to confusion.

"Some members of the Haunted Hollow team used to call [McDonough and Miller] the Bynars, because they'd talk gibberish to each other and then turn and give the answer."

"Will and David have ... ideas and visions already in their heads," Brenk says. She had to find a way to allow the two to have critical input early, and then get them out of the artists' way.

"There's an art director for a reason," she says, with a smile. "We found a good point where they would go through the concepts just with the art director, just between the two of them and Mike Bates, our art director. They would go through, discuss the concepts and their thoughts. To the artists, it was one voice ... that took some time, to get that loop right."

Strenger helped in that effort. Steeped in Civ, and familiar with the Civ team’s ways of doing things, but young and nimble enough to quickly embrace Miller and McDonough's quirks, Strenger quickly became the bridge between the two worlds. He and the two SCAD graduates now share an office, and have spent the past several months sharing equally in the responsibilities of developing the core concepts and systems for Civilization: Beyond Earth. Slowly, over many weeks, each of the three has settled into areas of speciality, but as far as the overall game is concerned, they are almost sharing a mind.

Murray recalls approaching the team with a question about one of the game's concepts.

"I came in with a question at one point because I was writing something for the Civlopedia," Murray says. "I asked a question, and the three of them looked at each other and immediately had a conversation 'up here,'" he indicates a place somewhere above his head, "and then came back and gave me the answer I was looking for. It was really odd. ... All three of them spun around in their chairs and looked at each other, and then just — it's a neat process to watch."

Strenger credits the effect to McDonough and Miller's longstanding partnership, comparing them to an alien race from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who spoke to each other in a form of rapid-fire binary code no one else could understand.

"Some members of the Haunted Hollow team used to call [McDonough and Miller] the Bynars," Strenger says, "because they'd talk gibberish to each other and then turn and give the answer."


"We're only the most visible part of a very well-oiled machine," Miller says. "This game was a tough one to make, because it's a lot different from core Civ. But we did so with confidence, because we had this awesome team working beside us to realize it. ... To be given this opportunity, I think, was not such a risk, because Firaxis has been making these games for a long time. We were very fortunate to be given a shot and to get to work with these guys that do this job so well."

Miller says the enormity of what he and McDonough had achieved finally hit him during a voice recording session.

"We had this situation set up where [the actor] was being recorded in South Africa ... [and] a director who could speak many languages — Somali among others … was talking to us over Skype across the world," Miller says. "And we were trying to get a performance out of this actor. I remember sitting there in Dennis [Shirk, the production director]'s office ... listening to all this happen and it's just, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it's a guy in South Africa recording this voice because we're making the game, because we're making our game.' I guess for me, that's when it really dawned on me that this was a totally different league."

Civilization: Beyond Earth

For McDonough that realization came when he heard that Firaxis was talking with PC Gamer about putting Beyond Earth on the cover of the magazine.

"I was like, you just blink at that," McDonough says. "When I was a kid I bought PC Gamer off the corner store shelf. It had all my favorite games on the cover. It was like, 'Wow, our game is going to be on the cover of PC Gamer?' If we were in PC Gamer at all, that would have been astonishing. ... This is a major league diamond. We're at field level, surrounded by the stands. They're empty right now, but you can appreciate how loud it's going to be in just a minute."

Apart from simply having been granted the keys to one of the most beloved game franchises, McDonough and Miller are also aware of the unique place in time they currently occupy, as part of a growing movement of humanity's interest toward space. And not just fictional space.

Last year daredevil Felix Baumgartner made history by leaping out of a space capsule from high in the Earth's orbit, in part just to see if he could. He not only logged the highest balloon flight on record, but also the highest survived parachute jump by a human.

But Baumgartner's accomplishment was just one of the most visible in a swelling wave of commercially-driven space projects. The Xprize Foundation awarded $10 million to inventor Burt Rutan in 2004 for his successful flight of a reusable space vehicle, SpaceShipOne. That contest led to a rise in investment geared toward getting people into space without needing the government's money (or bureaucracy). Many of the fruits of those investments, like Rutan and Paul Allen's Scaled Composites and billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, are now coming to fruition.

"We're not scientists. We'll never ride a rocket. But ... this is our little contribution, as game designers, to what we hope is a movement."

A new generation of government-funded space efforts is starting to catch fire as well. In December 2014, NASA will conduct the first launch test of its new Orion spacecraft, designed to carry American astronauts (eventually) to Mars. And other projects aimed a little closer to home are being developed, some with an eye toward returning to the moon, but this time for good.

Miller and McDonough believe this is all part of a younger generation gearing up for space, one that grew up after the Apollo moon landings, watching as the space shuttles reached for the stars — and as some came crashing back to Earth.

"When we were kids, probably, I feel like the heyday of the shuttle era, people still felt pretty awesome about space," McDonough says. "We were making stuff like the Hubble Space Telescope. I remember when that came online and we started to see deep field photographs and stuff. And then they mothballed it.

"It started to feel like everything falls apart. There's no point anymore. Why bother? ... Little kids are hopefully going to be able to grow up with something new to be excited about, like the shuttle for us and the moon landing for others. Something to point to and say, 'That is the coolest thing. I want to do that. I want to ride that or build one of those.'"

"So we're not scientists," says Miller. "We'll never ride a rocket. But ... this is our little contribution, as game designers, to what we hope is a movement."

Of course, even if Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth doesn't spark a swell of enthusiasm for going back to space, it will still be an achievement for the entire team to have created a new chapter in the Civ universe.


McDonough describes walking into the QA department at Firaxis and watching someone playing the game, engaging in diplomacy with a rival leader who's used advanced technologies to evolve himself into a part man, part robot.

"He looks like a mutant Klingon," McDonough says. "His eyes are glowing yellow and he's angry at you. That's Civilization. That is now part of the definition of Civilization. The franchise is forever changed. It's kind of like when Dan Quayle got elected vice president. It's like, well, the definition of vice president now includes this. And on the opposite end of awesomeness, Civilization, this great franchise, now includes cyborg leaders with glowing yellow eyes threatening you with laser beam death and giant Siege Worms."

Miller, standing in front of that rocket as a child, might not have imagined making something as Earth-bound as a video game could become, in its own way, as monumental an achievement as going to space. And, to be fair to those who risk their lives straddling rockets for a living, it's really not. But it's still a pretty big deal.

"I want to make a game that people remember," says McDonough. "I feel like this could be it. ... The thing that would make my career would be to meet Pete's son or my own son or some kid, 10 years old, who gets to play Beyond Earth and grows up to love it the way I grew up to love the old Civ games, the ones that are in my permanent canon. If it could go into a hallowed slot in some kid’s mind, that would be all the fame and glory I think I would need."

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is now being polished. Soon it will be finished, put into boxes, on discs and in digital stores. And some young boy or girl might one day look up at that game, at that giant worm, at that yellow-eyed leader and think about the men and women who put their hands on those creations, who came together to build a game out of a dream and a few years labor. What that child dreams of doing next might change the world.

Images: Firaxis, 2K Games