Three design lessons from five years of modding Civilization

Over the years I’ve released and refined mods for Civilization 5 (and its expansions), Beyond Earth, Rising Tide and most recently Civilization 6. Each project has taught me something new and given me a lesson I’ve carried forward and applied to the proceeding projects. These lessons influence the design, scope and schedule of my current and future projects.

Lesson 1: Modular design vs Holistic design

A modular design is one that can be enjoyed alone or combined with other designs to form a larger whole. This can be achieved by limiting changes to a single aspect of the game. Changes to that part can be mixed and matched with separate changes to other parts of the game.

This style works well for Civilization mods because it allows a single mod to be used by folks looking for a modestly different experience and by folks who use dozens and dozens of mods to create a radically unique and personally tailored experience.

The Civilization 5 mods I worked on were all guided by the desire to be modular. Each limited itself to a specific aspect of the game (ei: Social Policies, Religions, Great People). But this resulted in what I called the merchant problem.

In Civilization 5 the merchant is a specialist that is much weaker than other specialists. This is partially caused by Gold being less valuable than other yields and by how specialists are tied to Great People.

Too help alleviate this when I was making a collection of Social Policies that boosted specialists I made the boost to Merchants larger than the boosts to other specialists. I did the same thing when designing Religious beliefs and National Wonders. Individually each of these changes were not enough to make Merchant Specialists worth use but when combined together these changes made Merchant Specialists too good.

This is an example of how modularity can be mirage. Each part of a game can not be fully understood without considering how it fits into the game as a whole. Designers have to manage the synergies that form across each part.

Lesson 2: Foundation first

With the release or Beyond Earth I decided to take a holistic perspective to the next project. Each part would not be its own isolated monument but instead would be a foundation stone in a greater whole.

As nice as that sounded in theory, in practice it is not so simple. Rome was not built in a day and neither would I be able to redesign every part of the game at once. I needed to break the large task into smaller chunks I could release and iterate upon. Frequent updates help would result in more feedback from players. It would also demonstrate to players that the mod was in active development and not abandoned.

The question was what parts needed be worked on first and which could be delayed. Here is where New Horizons stumbled. I picked areas haphazardly, based on what I had ideas for or felt like working on. Following my whims was a pleasant in the short run but I ended up boxing myself into a corner.

The technology tree and buildings form the backbone of a Civilization game. How something fits into this economic context implicitly defines much of its use. Unmodded Beyond Earth was filled with buildings or units that had marginal value not because they were weak on the battlefield but because their technology prerequisites were too obnoxious to acquire.

Instead of setting up the foundation first New Horizons changed ancillary systems, like Virtues (aka Social Policies), Military Units and Terrain Improvements. This changes had to serve two masters, they had to work with within the untouched technology and building economy while also working with the new, future technology and building economy. Players were asked to tolerate degenerative systems and clumsy design with the promise that future changes to the technology and buildings would make the pain worth it. Dedicated fans were willing to tolerate the wait but for folks with no strong affiliation being told to wait a month for the next update was not worth it.

When doing a large scale design it important to map out how it will play over the cycle of its development. You want the early versions to provide a solid foundation you can safely expand and build upon. You don’t want to start by asking people to wait for a future update that will make the game reasonable to play. The arc of a Civilization game as it starts with a vanilla release that grows with patches and expansions shows the proper way to lay your foundation first.

Lesson 3: Skill and scope

With the release of Rising Tide I had the opportunity to start from scratch and make Echoes of Earth from the ground up using what I had learned from New Horizon’s struggles.

Most of the mods I’ve worked on have been single person projects, which is in sharp contrast to professional projects which are always team oriented. There are advantages and disadvantages to having such a small headcount.

The advantages are that I have much more control over the course of the project and can make radical changes very quickly. I don’t have to worry about persuading other team members, getting their buy in or having meeting to coordinate and communicate changes.

The disadvantages of working alone is that it sharply limits what the project can do. For example, I don’t have artistic ability so I scope my designs to avoid things that would require additional art assets. I would love to make a Beyond Earth 2 total conversion in Civilization 6 but that would require tons of art that I will not be able to generate myself.

One issue Echoes of Earth had was that it would require much more writing than previous mods. I was reimagining parts of the Beyond Earth setting to focus it around a core emotional arc between the fate of Earth and its relationship with the colony. This change of focus and tone needed to be communicated to players who I did not want to assume would be keen on opening the civilopedia. I wanted to use quests and flavor text to establish the more melancholy tone.

The idea had promise and potential but achieving that required skill and ability I did not necessarily posses. Writing elegantly and subtlety took huge amounts of time. It delayed releases and updates. It was sacrificed to get bug fixes or new designs out sooner.

Over ambition can wreck havoc on any projects. Keeping a clear eye view of what is achievable and keeping a tight reign on your project’s scope is necessary to avoid having it spiral away from you. A common piece of advice I give to new mod makers starting out is to always start small. It is much easier to grow a small project than to suffer the disappointment of having your reach exceed your grasp.

Future Plans

I’m currently working on three projects in parallel. One is for small scale mods like Settlers Retreat and Sapping Engineers. I plan to use those to experiment with interesting minor twists.

The second project will be announced soon. It will seek to keep Civilization 6 similar to its current form but adjusting some of the paths that are currently under or overpowered in single player Deity.

The third project is my long term goal. It involves making some radical redesigns of fundamental aspects of the Civilization series. It will move the game away from a race through time to a sequence of games that each take place within a single age.

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