There has been a recent hullabaloo about the pending Civilization Revolutions game. Having realized that the hardcore 4X PC gamer market is not as lucrative as say, every other platform, Firaxis has set about developing a new “made for console” version of Civilization.
Because a move like this smacks of “selling out” and “destroying the game concept,” and it coincides with what can only be described as criminal negligence of the Beyond the Sword expansion, the community has been at best, suspicious, and at worst, behaving like forum trolls at a n00b feeding frenzy. And they have every right to have this attitude.
For starters, Firaxis is cultivating as much ill will as humanly possible with the Beyond the Sword expansion. The launch version (like all PC games these days) was bug ridden, requiring a patch. A second patch was forced upon gamers by developer constraints, and broke a variety of things. User-developed patches saved the single player game for a time, but a long awaited “official” patch was riddled with bugs that literally 20 minutes of QA could reveal. Another player-developed patch followed, as did an infuriated community, convinced that Firaxis has directed all of their resources to Revolutions. And at the time of writing this article, we’re still waiting, incidentally, for a patch from Firaxis that actually works without Bhuric or Solver writing a follow-up.
Add to all of this drama the fact Firaxis has no official communication with the playerbase. One of their lead programmers, alexman, attempted to unofficially serve in this role, posting as “himself” in the civfanatics forums. A perhaps unfair amount of frustration and vitriol spilled from the community onto him, scaring him off. I do believe he was trying to help, but if he thought he would receive warm fuzzies from a forum community when his employer was busy goatfucking every version of the game, he lives in a magical dream world known as candy mountain.
So Firaxis has now managed piss off their existing playerbase by not supporting a new product, and by saying that their next version of the game is going to essentially be “stripped down.” Not a good way to start a spinoff of the franchise. Add these elements to the fact that PC strategy gamers are incredibly haughty and dismissive of uncomplicated games, and you’re shaping up for a spin-out nightmare. And since games like Dark Alliance and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel have set a nice precedent for suck, you wouldn’t be departing too far from the reservation to already hate Civilization Revolutions.
In fact, I was among the skeptical. Then I read this interview, which could be dismissed as propaganda, and then this preview. I took a moment to shut off my “fuck Firaxis, they ruined Civ 4 and can’t release a bug free product” prejudice, and my “if I’m not proud of the fact my friends can’t figure out how to play the latest version of Civ, it’s a bad game” prejudice, and realized that–if done right–Civilization Revolutions could be one of the best 4X games ever.
The second prejudice–the idea that if you’re not a fan of the Civ franchise, you’re not worthy, has probably led to stagnation of the playerbase. Unlike an FPS, an RPG, or even an RTS, it’s very hard to pick up a 4X game and start playing, unless you are already a hardcore 4X player. By their nature, and it is a wonderful one, 4X games are incredibly complex. But this creates a high barrier for entry, even for veteran 4X players. Whenever I buy a new 4X game, I always think to myself as I grimace and read the manual “I can’t wait till the learning curve period is over and I’m rocking this game.” This can arguably apply to any game, but it’s more heavily the case in 4X games.
When I find another Civ player or 4X player, I get excited, because it’s not the sort of game you just pick up and play. It’s very hard to convert your friends to the ways of Civilization because Civ games are complex, long, and filled with details. I consider myself a tremendous fan, but I rarely finish games–I’m more likely to start a new one and play it half through. The game is just too long, too big, too complex to go all the way, especially with my ADD. And that’s fine–I still enjoy it, but it’s not an environment conducive to multiplayer or completion.
I think Firaxis realizes that these barriers are keeping them from developing a larger audience (which you can argue is a financial or design decision–I say both). And I think they have a pretty good idea of how to capture the essence of Civ, the fun parts, making it a Civilization experience, but ones that lasts hours instead of days. What they are trying to do is not easy, and there is a good chance they will fail, creating a castrated or kidsy version of a franchise that is over 15 years old. But if they succeed, they will have an ideal new game that will open the door to fantastic multiplayer opportunities on platforms such as Xbox Live and a fun “to go” version for the DS.
Taking this a step further, Firaxis is also at a critical moment where they could double down on their risk and potentially win back a fanbase that feels alienated and abandoned. With Civilization Revolutions serving as a “fast food” version of the franchise (and I love me some Wendy’s, so don’t view this as a slam), they could make a gourmet Civilization 5 the most complex, detailed, 4X masturbation game yet. One of the things I’ve loved about Civilization 4 is that it managed to get more complex without confusing me. It also unlocked, through both the core game and the modder community, some of the coolest uses of resources, unique buildings, and unique units. And, as you know from my other writings on the subject, I want MORE complexities! However, I could easily see why Firaxis wouldn’t want to go this route, for fear of overly complicating the game.
You’re at a historic juncture for your franchise, Firaxis. You’ve made a decision to “sell out” as it were, and yes, you keep that title until you show us Civilization Revolutions doesn’t suck. But a triumphant new franchise in Civilization Revolutions, which will (hopefully) line your pockets with Xbox, Playstation, and Nintendo dollars doesn’t mean that you have to neglect the core game which has grown so great, even if you can’t patch worth a damn. Do some real market research, and see if the appetite is there to grow Civilization 5 into a micromanagers dream, so that gamers can enjoy the best of both worlds.