Massive Civ V interview: We talk Brave New World, AI problems, XCOM units, and much more

Civilization V

By on April 12, 2013 at 9:30 pm

We sat down to have a chat with Dennis Shirk, lead producer on Civilization 5 at Fireaxis, about the upcoming expansion Brave New World — but, well, I couldn’t resist asking a few questions about what the hell went wrong with the AI, and why so many core gameplay features ended up transposed into DLC. Read on for all the details.

GON: Trading’s always been one of my favorite parts of Civ, but in previous games it always felt a little underutilized and automatic. So how does this expansion build on trading?

Dennis Shirk: We’ve developed a large new system for that. It’s one of the core systems on Brave New World. We call it international trade but it’s not just international. Before, we just had city connections between your own cities within your empire. Those are still there. They’re there just to generate a little extra income. But when you start the game now,  you research animal husbandry, so just about right away you get one trade route available to you and you can build a caravan to actually utilize that. But these are on the map units. You don’t actually move them around manually. So when a caravan comes up, you actually select where you want them to go. You can point them at a target city. For instance, if there’s a city state close by and I believe the range is around 10 axis when you first start the game.

You can actually say caravan trade with this city state, and you’ll see that the city state early on in the game might be generating two golds for you and you give them one gold as a result of this trade. So each of you makes a little bit off of it. Now this caravan is going to go back and forth automatically for around 30 turns. And at the end of that to 30 turns, you’ll be able to reassign him and have him go somewhere else, and he’ll be on the map going on is on layer going back and forth. One thing to keep in mind is barbarians can smash this caravan. If you’re at war with somebody, they can decide to smash the caravan and pillage it for gold. These are not necessarily cheap units to make. So you’ll want to keep the area lit up or somewhat protect them. Maybe have some military nearby your trade route just to make sure that it’s going to be safe. Now if you happen to have a granary built or a workshop in the city, you can trade internally with other cities. So for example, you plop down a new city later in a game.

You know how long they take to get fired up later in the game. You can now maybe point some of your trade routes directly at the city, and if you do that you can either ship food directly to the city to help them to grow faster, you can ship production internally to a city. So if you’re working on a wonder, perhaps in another city, you can put some of your trade reps to the city to ship production to them so they’re going to build that wonder a lot faster, if you don’t mind losing the gold trading externally. Cargo ships have a much greater range they all are expected to make. But they allow you to trade by seas. So you can actually trade a lot further with them. The same principle, you can either ship food or production within your empire or trade for gold overseas.

Now if you’re trading with other civilizations and not just city states, you’re going to have some other things that are going to trickle across your routes too. For example, if I’m trading with Poland, with Warsaw, if they’re and head of me technologically, I’m actually going to get a trickle of science back from them, some beakers each turn by trading with them. If I’m ahead of them, they’re going to get some beakers from me. If I’ve got a religion in my city and they’ve got a different religion in theirs, we might actually have some religion traveling back and forth across these trade routes. So there’s a lot of different decisions to be made with where you send these trade routes.

GON: So how does multiplayer impact that trade system? Is it that each player has to approve the trade route or is it still something that’s kind of done without much input from the player?

Dennis: There isn’t any input from a target player outside of going to war with somebody. There is benefits to both players keep in mind. So the more gold I’m making, the more gold they’re making as well, so they’re getting benefits just like I’m getting benefits. The only thing they don’t have control over is one the caravan is like connected to them, they might be helping me a little bit with their bits of science but it’s just a trickle. But it’s just one of those things that kind of occurs as the game goes on. You’re going to be trading with a lots of people, you’re going to be trading with me, they’re going to be training with them. So it’s something that aside from squashing it or pillaging it or going to war with somebody, it’s just something that’s part of the game.

GON: So it’s always an advantage to trading with someone? There are no drawbacks at all?

Dennis: Yes, and it’s a also diplomatic advantage. You’re going to have a diplomatic modifier if you’re trading with elimination because they are receiving benefits from the trade route just like you are.

GON: In previous games the original UN system felt a bit token and by the numbers. How does the new World Congress feature different from the old arbitrary global vote feature?

Dennis: It’s the opposite. Basically, we have a game play signatory. The World Congress comes in to be when any one player manages to meet everybody else on the map and they have printing press researched. If that happens and they’re the ones that discover everybody else, the World Congress is born, and they become the host. Basically it allows two players within each section to make resolutions. The host gets to make a resolution and whoever has the most delegates in second place gets to make a resolution. Everybody else is just a voting member. What happens with this is these resolutions become powerful game changing policy.

So if you’re playing a peaceful civ, and I also happen to become the host, the resolutions that I have available to me are things like, say, a worldwide project where I’m going to say that we all need to make a “Worlds’ Fair”. And if that resolution passes, everybody in the world is going to be able to put production into the Worlds’ Fair. The top three players that the production to this are going to receive these scaled benefits from the Worlds’ Fair for the rest of the game. There’s also pejorative resolutions where I can decide to call for a trade embargo against another civilization that I don’t like. So nobody will be able to connect trade routes with them. I might be able to do a standing army tax against the militaristic players so they’re huge army suddenly becomes very expensive. I might be able to do cultural heritage sites. So any of my landmarks now produce more culture for everybody else in the game. So there’s a lot of different resolution possibilities.

Being able to be one of those civs that proposes these resolutions is obviously a powerful position. They put forth the resolutions for the first Congress after 30 turns. Everybody votes, and then the cycle repeats itself. Now if the Congress goes into the game with each error that advances, more delegates are available. Later in the game, city state allies are also delegates. So having a lot of city state allies later on in the game gives you a lot of votes to play with. There are a lot of really cool options to have with the Congress. Later in the game, the World Congress becomes the U.N. and there’s an automatic new resolution that comes up every other section. At this point in the game that’s every 10 turns or so to elect a world leader. And if you actually get elected to world leader and you accomplish, then you’ll win a diplomatic victory.

GON: In an earlier preview, I read something about sanctions as well. Can you put sanctions on other players? How does that also impact into the multiplayer game?

Dennis: Well the one example that I had mentioned when I was talking about it was trade sanctions, and even in multiplayer if you have a trade sanction against another player, that means all the trade routes that were connected to them, all the gold that they were making is suddenly disconnected. Nobody can trade with this unfortunate player that has trade sanctions against him. He can’t trade with other people, they can’t trade routes with him, so that’s a gold hit if he manages to find himself in that situation. So he might want to try to repeal that resolution by getting lots of city state allies, getting a lot of delegates that way, maybe taking over host of the World Congress and try to repeal that resolution.

GON: A cultural victory used to simply be about generating as much culture as possible to overwhelm all of your neighbors. How has this been improved or changed in Brave New World?

Dennis: So you’ve played enough to know that culture victory is basically culture stacking and the utopia project. But that wasn’t very engaging. When you come into the late game, the culture player generally is just turtling with his 3 to 4 cities and he’s trying to avoid all conflict and hitting mixed turns a lot just trying to get the broadcast towers and that’s how that’s the end of the game. We wanted to make the culture victory as cool and as engaging as the domination victory or the science victory or any of the others. So the culture victory really comes into play in the second half of the game. You’re still generating culture from culture building. But culture has been split into two different guilds now. You’ve got your regular culture that you use to buy policy, things like that. But there’s your defense.

That’s your defensive culture to fend off the influence of other civilizations. Now we’ve got tourism which is your offensive version. You can get tourism from building great works with your great artists, your great writers and musicians. These guys actually create great paintings or great written work. Like Shakespeare, if you use your great person Shakespeare to create a great written work he’s going to create Macbeth. And you can slot Macbeth, right into an amphitheater. So your culture buildings now have these great works slots. Museums now have great work of art slots, opera houses have great work music slots, and these generate paid tourism. Each great work is going to generate tourism just like a wonder might create plus one culture when you build it.

So your goal as a culture player is to generate more lifetime tourism than everybody else’s defensive lifetime culture. So some civilizations if you have trade routes, you get bonuses of plus 25% your tourism. Open borders is plus 25% your tourism. So you’re going to be pumping out tourism instead of civilizations. You want to overcome their culture. If you’re able to do that by the end of the game you win a culture victory. This really ramps up in the late game when things really start to get exciting for the culture player. And what’s really exciting about this, you no longer have to just play that piece men. You can go the Rome route. Rome, really huge cultural Civ in the ancient times. But they also did a huge amount of culture domination and conquests. So you can decide if there’s another cultural player in the game that you’re going to go take some of their cities, steal their great works, and become even more of a huge culture powerhouse. So those options are available to you now with the culture player.

GON: I read that ideology also comes into play as well. How does that relate to culture?

Dennis: Sure, well the policy tree is still in play. You don’t have any requirements to pull up trees like you used to before but we’ve added two new trees. We’ve added exploration and aesthetics. Aesthetics is a new tree that just serves culture player. But at the end of the tree, I don’t know if you remember Gods and Kings where you just have hypocrisy, order and freedom, they’re just like every other tree and choosing those ideologies they came into play just a little bit. Well we’ve taken those three trees and made them ideology trees now. They’re special policy trees. There are round 15 different ideology seats so there a lot of options in each of these. And every Civ has to choose one when they’re around the industrial era. So you have to choose what direction you’re going to go.

You can’t just avoid it. And basically what this means is all of these things have new unique powers that are built into them. They all serve different victory conditions well. But if you’re playing a culture game, and you’re out putting a huge amount of tourism, your influence of other civilizations is going to be pretty grave. So if I’m a freedom Civ and I’m going to put in a lot of tourism and you’re an order Civ, your people are going to be becoming more and more unhappy as my pressure, my influence ramps up higher and higher. And they’re going to be pressing you as a leader to switch ideologies over to the same ideology that I’m playing, freedom. So what we really wanted to mimic is the whole clash of cultures, clash of ideologies that are present in the 20th century between communism and democracy and those kinds of things. I think we’ve really landed in a good place in terms of an exciting late games.

GON: The original Civ 5 release was plagued with a host of AI problems, namely diplomacy and combat, that have required a considerable amount of patching to fix over the last few years. Many players still claim the AI is broken. So I’m wondering what went wrong originally, and how are you aiming to fix it, whether now or in the next Civilization?

Dennis: What went wrong originally is a tough question. It’s one of those things where we made this humongous switch to one unit per pile, and we’re talking about an AI that’s gone from managed stacks where there’s no limitations for where a Civ has to move or manage his units, to an AI that have to actually manage these great assaults and attacks and manage defenses across any number of units across any number of eras. We’ve found out that our Civ players were able to exploit weaknesses in the AI very quickly. We didn’t know the extent of this before we released, and very current after we released. Our fan base is I would have to think is the best in the world in terms of really knowing our games front to back. And it was actually with some of their help in our within our game play group that we got the AI where it was at in Gods and Kings.

With Gods and Kings, and especially the last major patch, we got it to a really good place. Now there are always going to be air holes that we continue to patch as we see them, if they find out new exploits or we find out where the AI is still activating some units and trying to win the battle inappropriately, that’s one area where I think 2K has served really well in terms of just supporting the game post release and letting us continue to patch and update and find exploits and holes as we move forward in time. With Brave New World, obviously all these new game play systems, we’re going through the same process of making sure the AI knows how to play all of these effectively. So we’ve got a really good foundation where Gods and Kings left off. So we’re hoping for just as good release as we had with Gods and Kings in terms of AI performance.

GON: The new tile system introduced in Civ 5 created a bit of a rift from the play base when it was launched. From the feedback you’ve received over time, are you happy with the status quo or will you be making any changes to it in the future?

Dennis: Yes, we really like where it’s gone. Stacks were a lot of fun for what they were in Civilization 4. But we really like where it’s at now. We love the action depth that you have and the extra decisions you have to make with what kind of units, the kind of harm you have. There wasn’t so many decisions to be made when you were doing stacks because you could just create endless amounts of units and have these bulky stacks and whoever had the biggest one or the best combination of units in the stack was going to win the battle. We just liked the perspective that this gave players who would love to play a combat game. We kind of added in a little bit of a war game aspect to it. So I have a feeling that one unit per tile is going to be around for a while. Whether we make some adjustments to that there’s no telling. But like what we did with trade units, we put trade units on their own layer now. They don’t interfere with other civilian units, they don’t interfere with military units. There might be spent more of that coming into play.

GON: Gods and Kings went a fairly long way to restore confidence, as you just mentioned, to a lot of players. In particular, it returned two much loved features in the forms of religion and espionage. Was the idea to strip these originally core features from the original game and adding them later as part of the original design? Or was this a publisher decision that you do not have a lot of say in?

Dennis: This was actually, Ed Beach designed Gods and Kings and the Brave New World. John Schaeffer had designed the original Civ 5 and those are big decisions to make. The thing with Gods and Kings, there was nothing in there that we actually pulled out of the original design. When we introduced Civilization 5, there were so many systems that we changed so much from Civilization 4 we were actually worried that it would be overwhelming to the players that were coming back to the game from Civilization 4 or even new players.

So we had to kind of pick and choose where we wanted to focus with our new gameplay systems. Now after we released it, some players actually found that John Schaeffer had toyed around with some different religions systems. It just didn’t make sense. He had it in the game but it just didn’t feel fun from the direction that he was approaching. So that was something that we didn’t have in the original core game and obviously took another big stab at that for Gods and Kings and actually came out in a really good place. So that was one of those things where we felt it was at the right place for what it needed to be. And for as many changes as we made, especially with one unit per tile, we just didn’t wanted to be too overwhelming.

GON: Fair enough. On a more quirky note, I hear there are some XCOM units in the game.

Dennis: Yes, that was part of our general peace game balance. There are a couple of the unit trees that needed some fillers. For instance, we added the bazooka men in the game to take care of the whole anti-tank line. The paratrooper is a late World War II air unit and it didn’t have an upgrade. So once you built or didn’t build it because it doesn’t upgrade in the late games, it was kind of stuck. So we wanted to put a paratrooper update in the game that came online really late like around the giant death robot era and so we kind of decided to do a shout out to the other team in the building the XCOM team by making an XCOM squad. It’s got the same level of special effects and things as the giant death robot. It’s another interesting unit you can play for players who really play super late with the game. And we’re actually hoping we receive some interesting mods come out of the other side now that they’re in the game.

GON: Thanks for your time Dennis.

Dennis: My pleasure.

4 comments (Leave your own)

Gods and Kings was a good addition lets hope this one is also a worthy expansion and adds an interesting new experience to the game. Kind of over Civ 5 atm but a new expansion may get me interested again.

Southern Hunter

I fully expect that BNW will be a great addition to Civ V.

The transcription and editing of this article is a disgrace.


Hit me up for a proof read next time if you need it James ;)

Other than that it was a good interview. Very much looking forward to this!

James Pinnell

Hit me up for a proof read next time if you need it James ;)


The transcription and editing of this article is a disgrace.

To be honest, transcribing a recording from a mobile phone call is one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do. The edit was as good as it was going to get without actually making up what was said.

Most of my interviews are recorded via Skype or in person, which makes the results from transcription much cleaner.

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