ARMCHAIR DESIGN: Civilization: Beyond Earth
After I wrote my piece about Civilization: Beyond Earth for The GIA, there was something nagging at me that I had forgotten to write about or clearly articulate. It took me listening to the excellent Three Moves Ahead episode on Beyond Earth and a discussion with my friend Alexis for me to really nail down precisely what it was that was bothering me so much about the game that I could distill into a single word: Ownership. Games in the Civilization series tend to be very centered around “owning” your civ as part of the emergent story that you write, but Beyond Earth — because of its aggressively sterile theming — makes it very hard for you to claim ownership of any of the content that arises over the course of an indivudal game. I decided to dig a little deeper into what I remember about the game to isolate the individual elements that contribute to this problem — and how they might be fixed by an enterprising community modder or an expansion which drastically restructures parts of the base game.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not really interested in addressing some of the mechanical fine-tuning that the game probably needs, beyond those changes which encourage and allow player ownership. There are really only a handful of key areas where this makes sense to do so from tweaking the existing mechanics and playing armchair designer: Sponsorship selection, affinity, and quest choices. I harped pretty extensively on the last and a little on the first in the piece that’s already been written, and Three Moves Ahead had some great discussion about how affinity affected their play from which I will shamelessly steal some of their suggestions. I don’t really want to propose fixes that get too specific, because those go into looking at balance issues with a game that I have played two full games of, which isn’t exactly enough to get a full understanding of what’s going on.
Sponsorship is honestly the easiest to fix. At the start of the game, when you select your mission parameters (sponsor, initial loadout, ship capabilities, destination) they should be more tightly coupled, and rather than reflect existing or hypothetical nationalities, instead reflect philosophies. The game tries to play with this — to very, very poor effect — in the game loading screen where there are brief missives from the sponsor leader that sort of reflect their views on expansion to the stars. Alpha Centauri already solved this problem to great effect, but Beyond Earth could easily extend those seven factions into a larger or more interesting set by coupling philosophy with ship capabilities or cargo. Once sponsors become philosophies, those tie in much more heavily to the sort of ship they’d travel in and what they’d bring with them. This has the additional bonus of allowing players to do something that nearly every experienced 4X player likes to do, which is plan for victory from the first turn, but make all victories viable for any loadout. Beyond Earth goes far too extreme in the latter direction by making every civilization’s capabilities quite bland, offering no real distinction or identity that a player can latch onto as “this is how I want to play.” Just as importantly, it gives the AI some direction on how to play these civilizations in a way that the player can identify and expect, allows for the personalization of vendettas against computer opponents, and sets up some natural struggles and dynamics between players.
Affinity is next on the chopping block. The concept is fine — that your civilization, upon this new planet, must make choices that identify the main thrust of how they will continue to live on it. Even the choices — adapt, remain human, or transcend humanity — are good choices that are easy to identify with. The problem is that they lead only to minor bonuses and are the sole track of military advancement, and that it is possible to, say, have equal “levels” in Purity (remain human) and Supremacy (transcend humanity.) This doesn’t just make any kind of logical or thematic sense, plus it’s a very nice way to unsubtly communicate to the player that their affinity choices don’t really matter (in fact, the game goes out of its way to explain this: Tutorial text explicitly says you can choose whatever affinity, at whatever levels you want, without consequences.) This violates the cardinal rule of Civ: “A game is a series of interesting choices.” One obvious solution is to lock you out of further progression down competing trees once you reach certain points, but another one would be something else Civilization has already produced: To use something akin to Civilization 5’s religion system, where a further resource of ‘faith’ is exchanged for founding and specializing a religion. To further make locking down or limiting paths more viable, the tech web would probably have to be rebalanced so that techs which are only useful with one specific affinity instead provide alternate (though perhaps less useful) options for players who take a different track. Obviously there’s a lot of balancing to be done - including a possible retooling of some of the victory conditions - but this would go a long way to giving players ownership of how they choose to develop their civilization by extending on that initial faction selection.
Quests are actually the simplest. Mechanically, very little — if anything — about them needs to change. They could be modified to bring out certain benefits or detriments of factions/affinities in what they’d allow you to do, or in the choices they’d offer, but that’s more of a balance and fun issue than anything else. All that really needs to change is how the choices are framed and how the text is written based on the faction, or dominant affinity, or both. Most players will still skip the text, but now it’s become relevant and personalized to the player’s choices which is, let’s face it, a nice touch to add to the game (if not exactly simple — it would increase the amount of writing the game contains by a pretty significant amount.) It could even be done without the other changes, although obviously it could build upon them.
There you go! Some “small” (in terms of how they appear to the player) changes which could make a huge difference in the overarching strategy of the game, which is what gives players the ability to own their long-term choices and build an identity with their civilization.