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ARTICLE

Jon Shafer on Civilization V

Martin sat down with Civilization V lead designer Jon Shafer, to talk about the changes made to the Civ formula and the state of PC gaming.

I haven't played all of the Civilizations, but I felt this one looks a lot different from the last one?

With Civ 4 it was the first one in 3D and you could change the views around. Each Civilization game has had a different designer, so everybody has had a different philosophy and approach to the game. I played a lot of Civ 3, so that's the one that's closest to me.

What was the main reason for switching to hexagons?

There are two really big reasons. The first is the gameplay reason. As you know, you've played a lot of Civ, when you have the square grid there are corners that connect tiles. Units can move along these corners and that can be kind of confusing sometimes, because where land and water meet or you have mountains then you can't move unit through them anymore. It can be hard to tell when a unit can move somewhere and when it can't. The move to hexes means that every tile shares a whole tile, there are no corners anywhere. So it's very clear when a unit can move somewhere and when it can't. Additionally there is also no distortion in terms of distance. If you move diagonally along the corners you actually cover more distance than if you move along a straight line. For people who are really into the game, that's kind of an exploit that was in there. With hexes that's not an issue anymore. It's a subtle change, but it's one that adds up over time as you are playing the game, and it's definitely a good move.

In addition, it helps us on the graphics side as well. Because we don't have those corners, like I was talking about, the game looks less blocky, it's more organic. The hexes are circular than squares, and we don't have those corners. We have coastlines that are more smooth and organic, we have mountain ranges that are more organic, they don't have that zigzag look. So they help us in a couple of really big ways. Some other things as well, but those are the really big changes that are caused by the hexes.

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How important are graphics for a game like Civilization V? Do you think there will be a lot of fans, just playing the mode in the strategic view, which looks a kind of old school?

We definitely feel that this is a game appeals to a broad enough audience, so there are going to be a lot of different interests in the game. Some people think that the graphics are the most important part, while some people don't care at all.

Because the game has such a broad audience, the graphics are something that we do think about. The gameplay is always going to be most important. But especially now with how much technology has advanced in different types of games that are out there we want to appeal to more than just the really hardcore fans. We need to expand out beyond that, and one way we can do that is to make it look more appealing. Also that the graphics are part of the experience. An example of that would be, when we were starting to work on the game we built the gameplay from Civ 4. So, we used the Civ 4 code for a while, and we moved that over into a new engine that the graphics and engine programmers had been working on. But what was interesting is we had the exact same gameplay from one end to the other, but the game felt different after moving it over. It's very strange because you wouldn't think that would be the case. The game's rules were exactly the same. But it did feel different, it felt like a new game. It had impact, and I think every part is important and I want to make sure the looks good and plays good.

Civilization Revolution reached a more casual audience, is that an audience you are aiming for with Civilization V?

We definitely want to pull some of them in. The game is not going to appeal to all of them, some of them won't have an interest in it. But we do think that's a good group of people that we should bring in.

With Civ 5 one of our goals was to keep the same amount of depth, same amount of complexity as Civ 4, but then focus on the interface and the advisers making it easier to learn, easier to play. We know that there is a lot of people who are either not that interested in Civ or have tried to play Civ but just couldn't get into it because of how difficult the learning curve is at the start. So a big focus for us has been trying to make the game easier to get into, if not necessarily to keep things out of the game to make it easier to play.

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Civilization has a strong fanbase. You always have to be aware of not changing too much. Is that difficult?

We try to balance everything. Like I said I played a lot of Civ 3, and I played some Civ 4, I worked on Civ 4 as well, and I definitely recognize that the game has a big fault line in that it needs to appeal to them. That is honestly our biggest goal is to make a game that follows up the earlier Civ games for the PC. That's the number one goal. If we had to pick any audience to go for it's the people that loved Civ 4, who loved Civ 3, and loved Civ 2. We have to be mindful, we have to be careful with what we change and what we do. And a good example of that is the changes made in combat, if anything it's more deep, there is more strategy, more to consider than ever before.

In a lot of cases people will change their games and make them simpler so that people will understand them. But this is something where we feel that, this is a PC strategy game, we want to make sure that there is still that content, still that depth in there. And not just say "you know what, we're gonna remove stuff just because we want to appeal to more people". We do want to appeal to more people, but we think we can do that with the interface, with the advisers, with the look of the game, more so than what you actually do when you play.

You mentioned that you switched over to the new engine after developing the game with the old Civ 4 engine. Did you have one of the older games in mind at that time, or did you start out with a blank page?

We definitely are thinking about what has come before, because we built it on Civ 4 there are still a lot of things that are still from Civ 4. It's one of those things where game follows Civ 4, so that's the game it's most important to us that it's similar to.

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Civ is about economy, military, culture and the balance of these elements. What did you do for reach this goal in Civ 5?

I wouldn't say that it's too hard, because the goal is to try and have all of it. Early on we pick up ideas on how to change it and what to add in each area, and when you're in that planning part of development it's easy to step back and look at the stats and say "how does everything fit together?". When you actually put it into the game, it may not actually be fun and you have to change it. But at least you have an idea of the different parts of the game you're working on and change each. For us changing the combat system was a pretty big deal, but obviously it's not something where we want the game to become a war game, something that is way beyond, or way different from what it has been. We felt that was the best way to go, and the biggest change, but it wasn't the only one. City states, social policies are other additions, and we try to make sure that the changes we make are balanced in different areas, so we're not adding content too much in one area or another.

A game of Civ could last for a couple of hours - is this still true? Having just one unit per tile, maybe they could last even longer?

It's balanced in length to Civ 4, that's the comparison, which is similar to the earlier ones. But we're definitely mindful that the changes to the combat system, could potentially slow things down too, you have more to do rather than just send a big stack off. But what we've been trying to do as well was limit the number of total units you can have, so you won't see a hundred units in an army anymore, you might see 40 or so. Of course, it varies based on the type of map you're playing on and how you play the game.

The main goal was to make the usage of units, where you position them and how you use them the most important part. To do that we did reduce the count. A couple of ways that we've done that. We've increased the cost of units. We've also changed the way resources work, so instead of needing one iron to build a billion swordsmen, if you have a source of iron you may only be able to build two with that source then you have to go and get more. So it limits the number of these really strong and powerful units you can train.

In terms of capturing every city and it taking a while, the military conquest victory is now so that all it requires is that you capture the capitals of the enemy players. In order to win at least, you don't have to capture every single city. You can just take the capitals and end it that way. If you want to take every city you can, but you don't have to anymore.

It's something we borrowed from Civilization Revolutions, we thought it worked well there as a way to speed up the game and make it more focused. And more interesting, because if all you really need to do is take the capital then you have the ability to win earlier, but it will be more challenging. Because you're going to try to take just the capital, and you're going to have to fight them off while they try to recapture it, instead of fighting a long war beating them and then having to take their other 18 cities when you know you've won. The game ends earlier, but there are more interesting things going on.

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PC gaming has been said to be dying for ages. What's your opinion about that?

I think it's a good platform, I think it's a good place. I think this has been a really good year for PC gaming. And strategy in particular, Starcraft II just came out and it's going to be great. I haven't bought the game yet, but I'm looking forward to playing it as soon as I get back... Elemental: War of Magic is coming out this year from Stardock, Victoria II from Paradox, R.U.S.E. from Ubisoft. We like that there are so many different kinds of games, Civilization is just one of them, and we have to be the biggest and best, but it's good to see PC gaming doing well and I think this will be a good year for it and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes. Personally, I really enjoy playing PC games. I can't predict the future, but my hope is that games like Starcraft II, Civ 5 will show that it is a good platform that you can do games just for PC and have them sell well.

You mentioned Starcraft II, but what other games do you enjoy playing?

I like RPG's. I'm playing Dragon Quest IX right now.

What did you think of it? I was a bit disappointed...

It's okay, but it's hard to innovate in a RPG because of the way the industry is right now, because there are so many games, and so many interesting visions. I think shooters are similar in that sense, a game does something and then everybody has to do that. And then it's much harder to do something very different. I've enjoyed it [Dragon Quest IX] so far, but I really didn't expect it to be a lot different. I haven't played a lot of JRPG's recently, I've been busy, but it's a good game for the DS. I'm happy with and about halfway through it. And I'm looking forward to Diablo III, whenever it comes out even if it's 2015.

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