If you ever needed proof that the strategy genre is anything but niche, take one look at Civilization.
It's a deep, complicated turn-based strategy franchise that has sold in excess of 33m copies in its 25-year history. The most successful was Civilization V with 8m games sold to date.
The paucity of digital data means that the new game in the series - Civilization VI – won't get much attention in next week's charts stories (especially with Battlefield 1 on shelves), but trust us, this is one huge launch.
In truth, it's quite easy to see why Civilization has done so well. This is a game that's about re-writing how the world has evolved. Of course, that can involve building armies and demolishing other civilisations, but players can also win by developing their diplomatic relationships, or via the spread of religion, or even scientific progress. It's not all about violence and, as a result, has a potentially broader appeal.
The beauty of Civilization is that you can play it in some many different ways,” agrees associate producer Sarah Darney (pictured, above far right) when discussing the franchise's broad appeal.
There are so many different victory types. There are many types of gamers in the world, and I am sure they can all find something they will like about Civilization.”
Senior producer Dennis Shirk (pictured, above right)adds: We know that we are not making a game that automatically appeals to everybody, it is a strategy game that has a time commitment after all. But we also know that as people try it, it tends to be very addictive. It is a very patient game. People do play it for multiple hours, but they don't have to. If you want to just take a couple of turns, you can.
Because it is this patient experience, if you can get past those barriers of the type of game some people think it is, it is very accessible at its base.”
The team at developer Firaxis is always trying to make the game broader, the firm tells us, and it's introduced new measures for Civilization VI to assist potential new fans.
We always discuss how we can make the game broader,” Shirk says. It comes up every time we start a new project.
We know what Civilization is and we know what makes it great, and we want that level of complexity and depth to still be there. But we are always trying to make in-roads in making it more accessible.
We have a tutorial system that is probably more advanced than anything we have done before. We really want to teach people to play this time around. With Civilization V we had mini-tutorials, and the advisor system in-game. That was a nice step-up from where we were before. But this time around we have done something particularly aggressive with the whole tutorial system. It is something that is linked in with the UI and it physically teaches people who may not know anything about Civilization. We can really hand hold the player through many, many, many turns, and teach them the basics of what Civilization is.”
Another element that might help Civilization appeal more broadly is the simplistic, almost cartoony, art-style. Visually, the game looks a little similar to the world's most popular strategy game: Clash of Clans.
"There are many types of gamers in the world and I am sure they can all find something they will like about the Civilization franchise."
Sarah Darney, Firaxis
Yet the new art style wasn't due to a desire to make the game more appealing. One of the changes that Firaxis has made with Civilization VI is ‘unstacking' the cities, which is a new feature that sees cities spread out further and take up more in-game tiles (which adds a new strategic challenge in terms of space management). With so many more things to click on and see, Firaxis' art team wanted to simplify the visuals so that players can immediate see what's going on without having to click through hundreds of menus.
We have a very big game and there are a lot of systems that we need to support with the visuals,” Darney explains. Making it so that you can see your progress, as well as other people's progress, was very important. Everything is right there. Every time you improve a building, you can see it being worked on, because there will be people outside it, or a donkey walking around it, or if it's a pasture, the sheep will be out of the pasture. Being about to see your civilisation in an at-a-glance way, that helps make decisions because you don't need to go through reams of spreadsheets.”
Shirk continues: If you've played Civilization V, when you get later in the game... it is not the easiest map to read. Stuff starts to get pretty crowded towards the end. We wanted it to be that, whether you're zoomed out or zoomed in, you can tell what everything is. All of this needs to be very readable. So that's why we went with this more simplified look.”
Civilization V is one of the most well-regarded and expansive world-building strategy games on the market, but it didn't get there overnight. The game initially came out in 2010, and was subject to multiple pieces of DLC and two massive expansion packs - the final one, Brave New World, arriving in 2013.
The core team working on Civilization VI is the same team that worked on the 2013 Civilization V expansion pack.
In that time, the other teams at developer Firaxis have been busy. We've seen the release of the acclaimed XCOM 2 this year, there was the Civilization spin-off Beyond Earth in 2014, plus a handful of smaller titles, too. Did the Civilization VI team learn anything from their fellow developers when building this new game?
Everyone at the studio is passionate and intelligent and has great ideas,” says Darney. Having this huge pool of amazing developers around that you can bounce ideas off is very helpful and it is why we make such great games. We have such a family culture at Firaxis, we learn from each other and we are all friends.”
Shirk is a bit more specific: We try to learn from everything we do. The guys who worked on Civilization: Beyond Earth did some really cool things with diplomacy in the expansion Rising Tide, which we took a look at and borrowed some things from. That's the nice thing about Firaxis, everyone is playing everybody else's games. Ideas bubble up from everywhere. It's something Sid [Meier, Civilization founder] hammers home in the studio - there will be good ideas no matter what you're playing.”
"We know what makes Civilization great and we want to keep
that level of complexity and depth. But we are always trying
to make it more accessible."
Dennis Shirk, Firaxis
Civilization VI, therefore, is in the challenging position of having to follow-up on a game that had been improved, tweaked and expanded for years after release.
It is definitely very tough to start the next iteration in the franchise, because people are used to Civilization V plus expansion packs. But we have taken almost all of the systems that people were used to from the last game,” Darney insists, although wouldn't confirm how lo