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Few developers have the chance to work on a game that can legitimately be called an institution of the medium; fewer still are able to lead such a project.
Sid Meier's Civilization is one such series, and Jon Shafer is one of those lucky few developers. The young Firaxis designer, a veteran of the Civilization modding scene, has been given the reins on this fall's 2K Games published Civilization V, following in the design footsteps of Soren Johnson, Jeff Briggs, Brian Reynolds, and Meier himself.
Lead designer Shafer is using that position of responsibility to introduce some of the series' most significant changes yet, including the much-ballyhooed switch to hexagonal tiles and removal of stacking units.
Of course, at the core, the game is still Civilization, a design that has stood the test of time. In an in-depth interview, Shafer discussed his philosophy of Civilization, the approach he has taken to design evolution, where the series sits in the strategy spectrum, and what it's like to work with Sid Meier.
What is your actual age? I keep seeing it reported anywhere from 24 to 28. Roughly speaking, your age is "young, to be holding this position."
Jon Shafer: I'm 25. [laughs] I'm actually 25.
You make me feel fairly inadequate with my life's work.
JS: It's all downhill from here. Don't feel too bad.
How did you end up in charge of the whole game? You came from the mod community, and as I recall you were at Firaxis for Civ IV.
JS: In mid-2007, Civilization V was getting started, and they needed to find somebody to lead up the project. At that point in time at Firaxis, I actually had the most experience designing Civilization-style games. I had worked on Civ IV, as you said.
Is that because [Civilization IV designer] Soren Johnson had already left?
JS: Yes. And as you know, I was in the modding community for a long time, so I had a lot of experience working on things in that context. And I worked on all the Civ IV expansions. At that point, I was kind of the most senior designer [laughs] to fulfill that role. So I kind of slid into it.
How long has the development cycle been now? About three years?
JS: We started at the very beginning in the summer of 2007. That was back when it was just myself and our lead artist Dorian [Newcomb]. It was a very small team at the time.
We were making big design decisions and exploring the rough art style for the terrain in particular. It was a little while later until we had a full team. It's 52 people now.
I started playing Civ when Civ I came out, and to me, Civ V looks like possibly the most conscious shift in the series in terms of underlying design basics, with things like the hex grid and units no longer stacking. What was the thinking behind that approach?
JR: The main thing that spurred a lot of our changes was that we realized Civ IV was an excellent game. It was super highly rated and super popular, and we didn't want to just keep adding more things on top of that. Civ IV was, in a way, a culmination of a lot of things that were happing with Civilization. It had reached a point where we knew we needed to change things if we wanted to keep the series fresh -- not just pile on more stuff.
So, early on we identified some of the big features like no stacking and the hexes. Those were changes made pretty early on in the process. From there, we knew what the base was going to be for the big changes we were going to make.
We also knew we wanted to change things with diplomacy and make it a little more interesting, add more depth there, and that's how the city-states came to be. So, we made some decisions up front on a couple big things, and from there we've been iterating a lot and trying new things.
Dustin Browder, the lead designer of StarCraft II, told me they instituted the rule, "Every time we add a unit, we take a unit out," to keep the complexity from ballooning relative to StarCraft I. With all your new features, do you have that kind of balance in mind?
JS: Yeah. We felt comfortable with the level of complexity that Civ IV had, and we didn't want to change that dramatically, either more or less. It's been one of our goals to kind of keep it at the same level. Obviously, not all the features are going to be the same, but we wanted it to be the same amount of depth. We didn't have the literal "one for one" rule, but that's the idea.
How did you decide to remove religion, for instance?
JS: The main reason is that we wanted to go a different direction with diplomacy. Instead of having specific modifiers and numbers on the screen that affected relations between different players, we wanted a little more mystery and even more rationality behind the AI players. Religion was something that we think didn't really fit with that, because you could just send your missionary somewhere, convert somebody, and then they would be your ally forever.
We wanted you to have tools to affect diplomacy, but not so directly. It was just a completely mechanical system. We wanted something that was a little bit more mysterious. That was the main reason.
We didn't just say, "Okay. We're going to remove religion now." We evaluated ways of keeping it around and seeing if we could make something of it. But it was so tied to the diplomatic model that having that separated just meant that it wasn't going to stand up on its own.
We decided that we can focus on other areas of the game and make it better. It didn't fit within what our goals were for diplomacy, which is a pretty big part of Civ V.