Talking at GDC Online on Tuesday, Firaxis' Shaun Seckman and Peter Murray discussed the complex modding tools for the just-launched Civilization V, explaining why they invested so much time in enabling their community to be creative.
The traditionally PC turn-based strategy game franchise started in 1991, thanks to the peerless Sid Meier, and has spread through sequels, console versions, and even an upcoming Facebook/social network version, which Murray noted is called Civilization Network.
As noted by Murray, there are multiple levels of complexity to mods in the Civilization franchise, with "low barriers to entry" through gameplay rule tweaks through map creation, all the way up to 'scenarios', asset change/creation, and even even total conversion.
Even in Civilization IV, there was much ability to mod the title. As Murray noted, "Every piece of modern armor since the Cold War is [available] in Civilization IV as a user-created asset."
The Firaxis team opened up the game with an in-game map editor and access to XML, and put much of the source code of the game out there via a DLL for the community to open up modding.
So, sure, "people made fantastic mods", but it was very difficult for regular Civilization IV players to actually find these mods, and you could only have one overarching mod active at a time. In addition, installation of mods was relatively tricky for the novice player.
The Firaxis team addressed this in Civilization V, with a mod browser available from the title screen of the game, with number of downloads, descriptions, and categorization built into the game, and seamless installation -- helped by back end creators GameSpy, who sponsored the tutorial day that the Firaxis duo was speaking at.
The ability to mix and match mods was also set up in Civ V, with the ability to run mods concurrently, and checks and balances in place which prevent two conflicting mods from running at the same time.
A quartet of relatively complex tools were created for users to utilize to mod their world - WorldBuilder for maps, ModBuddy for custom mod package creation, Tuner for debugging and changing game states, and Nexus for using art tools. The duo demonstrated the impressive tools, which start at the relatively simple, but are definitely intended for the power user.
Concluding, Murray explained: "When you're designing your game, you build tools for yourself to make the game better". Firaxis' attitude at least, is that "...taking the tools to the next level, polishing them up, and distributing them as part of the game" can make a massive different to the sales and reception of your game, especially for relatively 'core' titles like Civilization.
The Firaxis staffer noted in particular of the advantages of user-created content: "No amount of top-down marketing is going to get you that amount of enthusiasm" from the community -- which is why the Civilization V mod browser, formally launched late last week, is such a positive for the developer.