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Civilization: Beyond Earth Giant Q&A with Co-Lead Designers

Civilization: Beyond Earth hits players’ PCs today, bringing a space spin on a 4X game series that’s traditionally more focused on playing with human history than a science fiction future.

Beyond Earth represents a lot of changes to the usual Civ formula, which we’ve detailed in some preview coverage ahead of its launch. Earlier this month, GameFront got a chance to sit down with Beyond Earth’s co-lead designers, Will Miller and David McDonough, and spend a whole lot of time talking about what’s new in Beyond Earth, what builds on its predecessor, Civilization V, and what inspired new systems, new ideas and new stories being told in the game.

Below is the complete interview transcript, and it’s, uh, kind of long. If you’d like some quicker takeaways, check out the shorter features this interview birthed: “Beyond Earth Devs Want Mod Tools ‘Every Bit as Powerful’ as Civ V,” “How Civilization: Beyond Earth Adds a Story to Your Sci-Fi Society,” and “Firaxis Builds, Expands on Civilization Formula with Beyond Earth.” You’ll also want to check out our Civilization: Beyond Earth review.

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GameFront: One of the big things that interests me with this game is the addition of the quest system, and what seems like more of a focus on overall story. Can you tell me about the quest system and how that’s supposed to work in the framework of Civilization?

Will Miller: We knew making a science fiction game, that there’d be an expectation of some kind of science fiction narrative. We also knew that fans of Alpha Centauri really responded well to that part of the game. This is something that’s new for us in a Civ game. We’ve had quests before, in Civ V, they were the city state quests. They were very simple — they didn’t carry a lot of fictional payload. So we knew we wanted that, but at the same time, we also knew that Civ is not a linear narrative. That’s not what the game is about. It’s about letting the player create their own stories, and we never wanted to trample on the ability for players to do that. So we took some influences from RPGs and from games like FTL that have a quest system that kind of is, at the same time, very light-weight, but gives that fictional payload and also kind of creates these stories for the player to set their own on top of, I guess.

So that’s where we started, and the quest system is just that: It’s a way for you mechanically to customize your civ, so you get to make these often binary choices about sort of a moral dilemma that’s presented to you, and we give you a choice about what you want to do. And the outcome of that choice is never negative. We don’t pass judgment on these moral things — it’s always a positive benefit that you get no matter what the choice, they’re just different. So you have to make these choices about how you want to specialize your civ. And for players who don’t really care about the story or the fiction or whatever, or are in a multiplayer game, for example, and they don’t have time to read, we give them hints about what they’re going to get if they pick each one. But we do offer that fictional foundation there to give the player an idea of what the world is and where they are.

GF: So the quests, as you start each game, are different every time out — or they’re a different set?

WM: There are a finite number of them in the game. The catalogue is pretty large, so hopefully you’ll get different ones as you play different games, and they’re also adaptive — some more than others. So they’ll change the rewards they give you based on when they show up during the game, or they might show when you do a certain thing or not show up. The game tries to give you quests that are appropriate for where you are, and also tries to adapt them so they’re fresh every time. So even if the quest might not change, the reward might, because it’s kind of procedurally generated. So mechanically, yes, they’re quite different as you play. Some of them you can count on, though — like the building quests. Every time you build a building, a new kind of building, there’s a quest that lets you specialize. Our players want to strategize on that. The benefits you get from those are always the same, but others aren’t.

GF: I read that you were trying to keep the game very scientific and believable at the start, and then developing out from there. Did that lead you to doing any specific research about real-world science, to build a believable world for the player?

David McDonough: There’s sort of a proverb that floats around at Firaxis about developing Civ games. It comes from Sid, and it goes, “Do your research after the game.” It’s kind of cliché, but what he means by that is, one of the things that makes Civ so evocative and so powerful is that it is based on sort of common knowledge and common understandings — layman’s history. So you don’t have to be a historian to play Firaxis games. In fact, it’s sort of the opposite. The game presents all of these great things from history for you to discover. If you didn’t know about them at the start of the game, it’ll make you excited about them. That to us is sort of one of the most genetic and one of the most important parts of what makes a Civ game Civ, and we wanted to preserve it. When we approached this game, we started from the perspective of what is common knowledge about current science and current futurism, like where we think we’re going to go.

We’re fairly well-read people, so we’re actively consuming popular science and information, stuff like that, so we probably had a pretty good head start. But we didn’t go into a researching-heavy mode in order to find out where thing were actually going to go, but more just sort apply the general knowledge of members of the team to draw the threads of what will become of technology. And then you kind of dig a little deeper to find the more radical expressions of those ideas, the funner, more sci-fi things. If we’re talking about genetic design, genetic manipulation, we have a general idea of where that tech is going to go, but what are some crazy ass things on that based on what we know right now that could make for a good wonder, or make a good military unit.

WM: Some of the emerging technologies that we’re personally fans of made it into teh game. Things like thorium — that’s one of the ways you get energy in the game. I think you research power system sand you can get a thorium reactor. That idea is really cool to us and we just like that technology, so that’s in the game. And some of the computers — thinking computers and advanced artificial intelligence and stuff like that, which we are just personally enthusiastic about as designers and as people, made it in.

I think we did do a lot more research than with a historical Civ. We actually had some of our writers go off and like, research all the ways we could possibly get to another planet, realistically within the next 100 years. We had a document of all the spaceship types that we could possibly build. That stuff doesn’t necessarily make it into the game, per se, but it does give us a nice bed of information to start from.