Posts Tagged ‘ Civilization

Happy Hour – May 6

It’s another busy weekend here. I just shut the door behind J.P. Grant after hours of great conversation and drinking, although I’m not sure I sold him on NHL 11. Or, more to the point, I’m not sure NHL 11 sold itself to him. The bottom line is that J.P. was dropped into a game with a huge number of controls and almost no explanation of how the pieces are supposed to fit together. And honestly, there was no easy way for me to explain what he was supposed to be doing.

I’m still climbing NHL 11′s learning curve, and it took me several hours with it before I began feeling comfortable with the controls.  This is not ideal for a game you’re trying to show to a friend and a fellow hockey fan after several rounds.

If there were not so many damn menus and sliders, I would have liked to set up a game where we were locked to our positions, maybe wing and center or wing and wing. Instead, we just dived right into a game where controls kept passing to whoever had or was receiving the puck, or whoever was closest to the puck carrier. That is a jarring shift, especially when you’re just trying to understand how to do something as simple as slap a pass across the ice. It also illustrates why I may never really outgrow Be a Pro: constant flipping between players just doesn’t feel like hockey to me. It breaks up the flow of my game, and tears at the edges of the illusion. Hockey isn’t like football, where you can break plays and positions apart. Hockey is too fluid

Anyway, this weekend is likely to involve more board games with friends, the Turkish Grand Prix, and some Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword for a review. That doesn’t leave much time for other gaming, or setting up the next 3MA, which I desperately need to do.

My Tuesday column for Gamers With Jobs struck a more reflective note as I try to figure out what I want to do with myself over these next few, crucial years. This week’s Three Moves Ahead covers Revolution Under Siege, a surprisingly solid wargame about the Russian Civil War. And finally, I just saw that GamePro published a piece I did for an ongoing series in which writers advocate on behalf of their favorite series. Mine was, naturally enough, Civilization.

Easy There, Tiger, That's a STRATEGY Game

Eagle-eyed Civ-aholic Troy Goodfellow spotted an odd subhead on GameSpy’s Civilization V preview that promised, “It’s not just for the hardcore anymore.” This brought Troy up a little short.

It’s not? When was it? Is Civilization a hardcore game for hardcore people? I tweeted my curiosity and was met with a nice chorus of replies from friends and colleagues. Former PC Gamer Editor in Chief Gary Whitta pointed out that Civ gives him migraines, and of course it is hardcore; anyone can pick up a shooter and know what to do. Kombo’s Tiffany Martin said that I was seeing the game from inside my strategy gamer bubble where Civ is positively user friendly compared to, say, Hearts of Iron.

Reading this, I felt a mixture of bewilderment and outrage. Because the Civilization series has always made a point of keeping the door wide open for anyone who is interested in giving it a try, and it still gets written off as a niche title because it is a strategy game.

This touches a raw nerve. I still remember a community of gamers that seemed less picky and less intimidated by genre barriers. My friends and I were thirteen year-old renaissance men, talking Civ at morning recess (my friend CJ once proposed that we discuss “Feats of the Phalanx”, because the quirky rules of Civilization sometimes led to a phalanx wiping out a modern battleship or artillery), describing TIE Fighter dogfights over lunch, and chainsawing our way through Doom by night. Mindless, savage violence comprised no more than a third – well, definitely not more than half – of our gaming lives. Strategy was just another kind of game, but not another kind of gamer.

I still don’t really accept the categorization and audience-splitting that is widely taken for granted, especially because so much of it seems arbitrary. To my way of thinking, Civilization is more accessible than a Call of Duty, Team Fortress 2, or even an Arkham Asylum. Those games all presume motor skills and intuition that have been honed by years of 3D action gaming, but good luck if you didn’t grow up playing games like that. Acquired tastes like Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and any JRPG are treated like general-interest videogames.

“But those involve basic skills,” you say. Most gamers can use WASD or dual-analogue sticks to drop the crosshairs on a target, and anyone can press the buttons required to advance the story in a JRPG. True, but what does a game like Civilization really entail?  Not on the intermediate or advanced difficulties, but at its most basic.

Not a lot. No motor skills, certainly. And the game is wonderfully self-explanatory. You start in the Stone Age, you build a city, and then it asks you if you want to research The Wheel or Hunting. It doesn’t require a lot of insight to figure out what those technologies might let you do, and the game makes sure to tell you the specifics right there in the research window. And that’s pretty much how Civilization rolls. Common sense takes you 85% of the way, the game’s own tooltips and help text take you the last 15%. All you have to do is make some plans, try to think ahead, and play along.

But the moment a game, any game, asks you to do those things consciously, it gets the marginalizing treatment. Which is ridiculous, because these are no more special skills than walking or speaking. You can’t get through a day without hatching a plan or adapting to circumstances.

On Three Moves Ahead, I think there’s a good reason that Tom Chick jokingly calls every game he happens to like a strategy game. Maybe he is just trying to bother Troy by bringing up shooters, but I suspect he has a point. The games I engage with are the ones that force me to strategize and live by my wits. It doesn’t matter if they are shooters, flight sims, or wargames: if it demands planning and tactics, I probably like it.

Now you could argue that these other genres have proven to have broader appeal, either through sales or through the readership drawn by articles covering them. But I can’t help but think we’re in the presence of a self-fulfilling prophecy here. If people are constantly being bombarded with the message that a game is somehow for an elitist niche audience, they’re going to be turned off well in advance. Eventually they might decide the entire genre is for specialists, with no room for the mildly interested novice. Then we get more articles that begin from the position that a game or a genre is flawed because it is too hardcore and too demanding, and something different should be done to convince more people to give it a try.

We can’t be pushing developers to make strategy games for people who don’t like strategy games, but that’s what we’re doing when we say that Civilization is somehow suffering from a major accessibility problem. Do you honestly think anyone would have run a preview where someone asked Infinity Ward, “So, some people really disliked the fact you had to control your character and shoot other characters in a modern military setting. How are you going to fix that problem with Modern Warfare 2?”

I’ve always considered convincing people to try new things to be a part of my job. There are a lot of reasons why someone might not like EU3, but when I wrote about the game, I tried to show the reasons why someone might love it, even in spite of those obstacles. Fourteen years ago, my friend CJ begged me to give Civilization a try, despite the fact that it sounded lame, because Civilization is not a name that promises action and excitement. But I tried it just so he would shut up, and that experience changed my life.

The irony of the story is that I was basically right about Civilization. It was a civilization builder with square units and cities on tiles. I built granaries and invented simple tools. There was no action, and no excitement in the sense that I usually used the word. It turns out I didn’t really know what I would like. That was my problem, not Civilization’s.

One Move Behind – And the Science Gets Done and You Make a Neat Gun

Why yes that is an obligatory Portal reference in the title, but it’s apt here because that verse is, in a nutshell, how most strategy games treat science. You set up the “science farms” – colleges, labs, whatever – and the worker bees inside them get to work doing science. After a variable amount of time, the science machine shudders and wheezes, a bell chimes, and a neat gun rolls out of the knowledge factory.

This mechanic, originating in the Civilization franchise and inherited by most every other strategy game, was the subject of  the most recent Three Moves Ahead podcast. In between Bruce-baiting and liberal-baiting, we managed to talk about science, game mechanics, and history. You should give it a listen.

It’s dangerous to play armchair game design, especially because many of us who are not game designers do such a terrible job of it. Ideas that sound cool over drinks start looking pretty awful once you try to make them work and see how they start breaking other systems and messing up the design. Still, I think we were too willing to give the durable old Civilization model of discovery a free pass. It’s a great system, but why does it remain effectively the only system?

My partner and I were talking that morning about the way scientific discovery has momentum, and how it also exists in tension with other social goods. Few games really explore these in any detail. Why are research assets always able to shift gears from agricultural research to advanced weapons design without missing a beat? The advancement of knowledge is always treated as a bucket to be filled with some kind of universal unit of “science”. But we know from experience that you can’t redirect lines of inquiry on a whim. From the discovery of radioactive decay, more and more scientists and institutions threw themselves into atomic research and that research gathered a momentum that culminated with controlled fission and nuclear weapons.

However, those energies couldn’t be completely redirected toward a new destination the moment they reached the goal of a hydrogen bomb. Los Alamos can’t just flit from nuclear science to theoretical physics to industrial engineering, and if you try to make it respond to whatever is the research priority d’jour, you’ll break it.

On a related note, why does science rarely have an impact of diplomacy? The race for nuclear weapons sowed tremendous distrust between the western Allies and the Soviet Union during WWII, and the US’s increasingly proprietary attitude toward nuclear research placed strain on the relationship between the US, Britain, and Canada. Some technologies and lines of inquiry are more political than others, but games rarely touch on it.

Why is there no contradiction with a society that is packed to the rafters with both cathedrals and research universities? Science and religion step on each other’s toes all the time, and as a society comes down on one side, the effectiveness of the other suffers. If society is underpinned by a theological framework, then promoting reason and objective observations over belief and tradition has huge ramifications. But that tension is rarely very pronounced.

Europa Universalis III (take a shot) deserves a shout-out here, because while it’s research mechanic is generally lackluster, it does introduce the concept of discovery as a destabilizing influence. Periodically an event will occur where some research is denounced and the player is given one of two choices: undo a ton of progress toward the next tech level, or forge ahead and suffer a stability drop. It’s a coarse approach, but it’s unique and it does illustrate an aspect of discovery that many games miss.

Anyway, check out the newest episode, and hear Bruce geek out on Hearts of Iron while Tom tries to explain how shotgunning mutants in the face in Bioshock 2 mirrors the scientific method.

Mere Refinement

The other day, Troy Goodfellow was lamenting Crispy Gamer’s “Game of the Decade” bracket challenge, which saw Civilization IV and Peggle pitted against one another, with the result that Peggle came out on top. Now contests like these are patently silly, but they do spark conversation and the conversation that followed is where I started to get annoyed.

A number of people made the case that Civilization IV is “just a refinement of a previous design”, which diminishes its achievement, especially when compared with something like Peggle. Except they didn’t really make a case, because there’s no case to make with that statement. They just gave a sage nod in the direction of originality and Greater Significance represented by Peggle.

Not for the first time, I am thinking that the “IV” in its title does Civ IV a disservice. It creates the illusion that Civ IV is yet another iteration on Sid Meier’s old design, when the truth is that Civ IV is considerably more. Most of its mechanics don’t even appear in the first two games, and I certainly couldn’t have imagined fifteen years ago how Civ IV would be handling diplomacy, combat, religion, or governance. Culture would not even have occurred to me.

Perhaps the core elements of the design are the same, but if that’s the standard, then we can safely dismiss every FPS since Half-Life. Civilization and Civilization IV both take place on a square tiles, take cities as the chief game piece, and involve researching your way through human history in competition with other civilizations. But that’s about where the similarities end.  If you’re going to say that’s still “just a refinement”, then I never want to hear you breathe a word about the originality of a game in which you point guns at things and shoot, or take characters on adventures in which you gain experience and improve your skills.

Then there is the fact that so many in our little community race to denigrate anything that is not ostentatiously innovative and new. Like Daisy Buchanan attempting to impress Nick with her worldly disenchantment and entitled ennui, gamers are quick to sigh and inquire why everything seems so old and derivative. We are cultivating a studied boredom with everything that bears of a whiff of the familiar, while lavishing excessive praise on the accessibly novel. Truly great games like Civilization IV get lost between the narrow mainstream and the falsely discriminating taste of the enthusiast set.