One Civ, Many Worlds

One Civ, Many Worlds

Written by Soren Johnson; Date Posted: 11/2/06

Soren JohnsonThis document is an excerpt from the book contained within Sid Meier’s Civilization Chronicles, the definitive Civilization collector’s edition recently released by 2K. This chapter is called “One Civ, Many Worlds” in which designer/programmer Soren Johnson writes about the Civ community and its positive impact on the evolution of the game. Johnson, who works at Firaxis, 2K’s world-renowned development studio, was the lead designer for Sid Meier’s Civilization IV and he programmed and co-designed Sid Meier’s Civilization III.

Sid Meier’s Civilization Chronicles for PC is available for a MSRP of $69.99.


When I joined Firaxis in April of 2000, I knew I was going to be immersing myself in the world of Civ. I just had no idea how big that world truly was.

My first experience with the game came in 1994, during my freshman year of college. While buying books at the campus bookstore for my first quarter, I noticed a game called Civilization in their modest games section. It had an intriguing cover showing a pharaoh buried under a modern metropolis. Once I picked it up and learned that the game was designed by Sid Meier and encompassed all of human history, I was sold. Civ was the only game I played during my years as an undergraduate. I didn’t necessarily have much time for games, of course, but every time I launched Civ on my Mac, my weekend suddenly vanished.

While finishing up my Master’s in Computer Science at the end of 1999, I started looking for my first real job. Of course, I had always dreamed of working for a game company and, in fact, had gotten my first opportunity that summer as an intern for EA Sports. Around the same time, I discovered Apolyton, a popular site dedicated to the Civilization series. I was amazed at the number of people who were gathered here to discuss Civ and Alpha Centauri. Furthermore, I discovered how many of them were looking forward to Civ III. Apolyton was the best location on the Internet for providing up-to-date info on Firaxis Games – Sid Meier’s new studio and developers of this next iteration of the franchise.

In fact, I found out directly from Apolyton that due to some internal turmoil at Firaxis during early 2000, the company was in need of programmers to work on Civ III. I had actually planned on taking six months off to travel the world and just relax before starting work, but this opportunity was one I couldn’t pass up. I sent in my resume three times before finally hearing back that the company was interested. After a phone interview, a live interview at GDC 2000, and another live interview in Hunt Valley, MD, Firaxis offered me a job to work as a gameplay programmer on Civ III.

I moved to Maryland a few weeks later, eager to start my job. My head was full of ideas based on my experience with Civ and Alpha Centauri. I thought I knew all of the ins and outs of Civ. I had logged countless hours playing the game, had always wanted to make historical strategy games, and was full of enthusiasm to make my mark in gaming. If anyone was an expert on the Civ series, it must be me.

I was dead wrong.

The world of Civ was far, far bigger than I had ever imagined. As I began to wade through the Apolyton forums, I began to discover just how little I knew about the game itself. Certain acronyms, like ICS (Infinite City Sleaze) and OCC (One-City Challenge) were being thrown around with an assumption that everyone understood them. Massive lists of improvements and fixes were being compiled. Clearly, a culture had grown around Civ that I was just beginning to understand.

At the start of 2000, I had never played a game of Civ in multi-player. I had never played a scenario. I had never opened up the editor. I knew nothing about the events system of Civ II. I had never heard of Democracy, Diplomacy, Succession, or Story games. I was just beginning to discover the wealth of fan-sites available on the web. I had a lot to learn.

From that point on, my most important source of information, my compass, so to speak, was always the online community. Game design, of course, always involves the iterative cycle of internal development and testing and refinement and more testing and so on. However, the topic of Civ was so broad, so all-encompassing, and so flexible that no one person could understand all the ways the game could be played or approached.

As I discovered more and more paths to Civ, I became a better game designer. If Civ IV succeeded in areas where Civ III failed, it is largely because our understanding of the Civ community increased so much over the intervening years. In fact, the 100-person private test group for Civ IV – critical to the game’s development – was culled from our personal interaction with the many different groups and sites that existed on the net.

For starters, the two major Civ forums, Apolyton and CivFanatics, serve as the basic portals and common grounds for the community. The former site grew out of a partnership between the Greek Markos Giannopoulos and the Canadian Dan Quick in 1998, giving it claim as the senior site, with many long-time members possessing well-known reputations and personalities. CivFanatics, on the other hand, has experienced the most growth over the years, now boasting over 100,000 users, and features the biggest Civ modding hub on the net.

CivFanatics is also home to the very popular Game-of-the-Month (GOTM) events, where hundreds of players compete against each other by playing out an identical save game focusing on a specific civilization. The file is posted at the beginning of the month and results are due at the end – with results to be posted shortly afterwards. Many awards are handed out based on Fastest Cultural Victory, Highest Scoring Defeat, Biggest Score Milker, and so on. CivFanatics also hosts a Hall-of-Fame which collects the highest scoring game yet achieved according to world size, difficulty level, and victory type.

Other smaller, more focused sites have sprung up to fill niches not served by the big sites. PlanetCivilization, part of the GameSpy network, focuses on editorial content relating to Civ. The Civ3Players and Civ4Players sites are user-run ladders that encourage competitive multi-player games. Their rankings are filled with hundreds of players, with detailed statistics culled from every victory and loss. The site also manages a long-running series of team-based tournaments called the Civilization World Clan Championship Cup. Evolution Games (formerly Creative Design Group) focuses on modding, having served as the central hub for Double your Pleasure, perhaps the most popular Civ III mod. RealmsBeyond focuses on comparative play, as opposed to the competitive play of the GOTM competitions. This community hosts regular “Adventures” and “Epics” that players conduct concurrently in secret and then reveal their results at a specific date, comparing how different strategies performed in a constant environment. The games are often run as “variants,” meaning that certain limitations – like not allowing scientific buildings – are placed on the game to shake up old strategies.

A similar group, Apolyton University, runs courses examining specific aspects of the game, such as AU102: Give Peace a Chance, AU202: Scout and Explore, and AU503: Pillage and Plunder. Once the students have finished the course, they post their results and compare their strategies in “spoiler” threads. Apolyton U attracted the attention of Kurt Squire, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who presented a paper on the potential of AU for learning and education. In fact, Squire’s dissertation thesis at Indiana University examined the results of using Civ III in the classroom as a teaching tool.

The members of RealmsBeyond and Apolyton University often spend enormous amounts of time putting their stories on the web for others to read, with evocative text and plenty of screenshots. Sirian’s Great Library and Sulla’s Civ IV Walkthrough are part of this RealmsBeyond tradition. Similarly, Diplomacy and Never-Ending-Story games, native to Apolyton and CivFanatics, respectively, also chronicle Civ games for readers. Generally speaking, the Stories forums on both sites are bursting with colorful stories that players put together based on their real (and sometimes imagined) games. Many aspiring writers have gained an audience for their work among fellow Civ fans, sometimes creating their own sites to house their pieces.

“Diplomacy” games are pseudo-competitive multi-player games with a focus on role-playing so that an entertaining story can be later told. These games (originally using Civ II but now moving to Civ IV) would be played once a week over a long period of time, with many fans following the stories as they are periodically posted. In contrast, “Never-Ending-Story” games do away with traditional Civ multi-player gaming sessions altogether in favor of what might be called Civ-inspired role-playing. A moderator (somewhat akin to a Dungeon Master in fantasy games) controls the rules, with the players sending in their actions in secret and then building stories together to flesh out the events.

Another episodic affair, Succession Games, is very popular at CivFanatics. These games are single-player, but they are shared by multiple parties who cycle control of the game, usually 10 or 20 turns at a time. This sub-forum has developed a quirky acronym system for naming their games (“Goz11”, “LK108”, “Merz02”) that gives it a unique flavor. The games are sometimes conducted for educational purposes – to help guide new players through a challenging situation by alternating decision-making between a veteran and a novice. Variants, often overlapping with the RealmsBeyond crowd, are also quite common. In fact, CivFanatics recently tried its first Succession GOTM, allowing teams to compete against each other from identical starts.

If Succession Games are modeled after rotating dictators, Democracy Games intend to model the chaotic politics of a modern democracy. These games are often played by over a hundred individuals, voting on various important issues and electing representatives to make the little decisions. Both single-player and multi-player Democracy Games have been run – with the latter version being conducted by teams running their little governments in closed, secretive forums. Rumors fly that some may have even abandoned “democracy” altogether!

These democracy games are very popular across many sites. In fact, a Civ III Inter-Site Democracy Game (ISDG) was begun in early 2003, with a United Nations forum hosted by 1BigCommunity. The teams included Apolyton, CivFanatics, Creative Design Group, Gamecatcher Alliance, Civilization Gaming Network, the French and German fan sites, and even Firaxis itself. We, of course, were eliminated first, thanks to the treacherous Germans (no hard feelings though). A 14-team Civ IV ISDG run by Evolution Games has recently begun which will start with two games of seven teams, with the top three groups advancing to a final match.

These games are conducted via play-by-email, the preferred method for epic multi-player games. Apolyton has a lively forum filled with “tracking threads” for these games, helping them stay organized as well as giving outsiders a peek into the proceedings. One site, Duel Zone, took these threads one step further by providing players with their own sub-forums to chronicle their games, often going into great detail for the benefit of “lurkers.”

With Civ IV, we introduced a new format for epic multi-player – the PitBoss (meaning Persistent Turn-Based Server). Basically, an administrator can run an application controlling the game on his or her own server to which the players can connect at any time to make their moves. E-mailing saves back and forth is no longer necessary – and now neither is tracking threads thanks to a user-created site called CivStats. This site automatically tracks PitBoss games so that all players can view the game’s state, who has taken their moves, what turn it is, and so on. Some of the Democracy games, such as Evolution Game’s RealPolitik series, have moved over to the PitBoss format.

Modding has been an important part of the community ever since Civ II introduced reading game data from basic text files – as well as the flexible events system key to many of the best scenarios. Civ III saw a number of epic-game mods, such as Isak and Kal-El’s Double your Pleasure/Rise and Rule (with more techs, more units, more everything), Rhye’s Rhye’s of Civilization (which improved performance and polish), and Thamis’s Ancient Mediterranean Mod (focusing on early world history).

Early on in the development of Civ IV, we decided to make the game as open to modders as possible – trying not to hide anything “behind the wall” of the executable application. Map and scenario data would be saved in a simple text format, game data would be maintained in standard xml files, map scripts, events, and interface code would be handled by the Python scripting language, and game C++ code would be publicly released so that modders could create their own algorithms by compiling custom DLL’s.

The results are just beginning to appear all over the Net. CivFanatics hosts the most popular forums for user-created content, encompassing everything from maps, scenarios, and scripts to new unit, terrain, and city art to alternate interfaces, total conversions, and AI improvements.

One popular early mod was ColdFever’s BlueMarble terrain set, which made the ground appear more like a satellite image of the planet. Map design was also an area of early interest, spawning SmartMap (a flexible map script taking advantage of the map generator’s dynamic options), MapView (a user-created editor that spit out maps using our standard text format), and the Atlas Project (a stand-alone random map generator also producing maps compatible with Civ IV).

Interface modifications have also been very, very popular, taking advantage of the fact that the vast majority of the interface code was written in the easy-to-mod Python scripting language. In fact, two of these mods – ulfn’s Proper Score Graph and 12monkey’s Plot List Enhancement – were so good we eventually rolled them into our patches so that they could be enjoyed by the most users possible.

In fact, interface mods have also birthed the concept of the “meta-mod,” which is not an original mod, per se, but simply a collection of other people’s mods so that they can be enjoyed concurrently. Gaurav’s Unaltered Gameplay Mod is a good example as it compiles all the best interface mods which do not actually change the core gameplay. In fact, the ability to mix-and-match mods has led some modders to focus on a la carte mods that are built with the sole purpose of being integrated into other modder’s works; TheLopez has produced a seemingly endless string of these mod components, including ones dedicated to pirates, random unit names, immigration, mercenaries, and even Mutually Assured Destruction.

Of course, scenarios and epic-game mods have been very popular as well. Dale’s Age of Discovery, Andrew Jay’s Feudal Japan, and JBG’s Song of the Moon have all provided interesting gameplay experiences on a fixed map. ArbitraryGuy’s Europa Europa and Houman’s Total Realism both carry the banner of historical depth and accuracy. Meanwhile, SevoMod carries on the “more is more” tradition originally found within Double Your Pleasure by vastly increasing the number of units, techs, buildings, and everything else found in the game. Thamis and Rhye are also rebuilding and improving their very popular Civ III mods within the Civ4 engine.

The most popular Civ IV mod so far is Kael’s Fall from Heaven, a fantasy conversion which adds spell-casting, heroes, and a rich back-story to the game. In fact, the mod has attracted enough interest to merit its own sub-forum on CivFanatics, dedicated solely to its development. At this point, the most advanced Civ mods are highly-complex team efforts – for example, Kael lists 11 “major contributors” to his project, a wiki is being developed with info on the mod, and a number of scenarios are even being developed by outside modders using Fall from Heaven as a base.

As Civ IV enters its second year after release, we look forward to seeing what new surprises the community has in store for us. Certainly, much is possible now that the actual game code is finally available to our fans. I have learned over the years that no one can either predict or control how people will play Civ. There will always be ways to approach the game that we as game designers cannot imagine.

The diversity of Civ’s world is more than any one person could ever grasp – the game has grown beyond its creators, beyond any one audience, beyond the simple concept of being just a game.


Soren Johnson joined Firaxis in 2000, after completing BA in History and an MS in Computer Science at Stanford. A former Electronic Arts employee, the focus of Soren’s graduate work was on adaptive algorithms and human-computer interaction. Soren is the lead designer for Sid Meier’s Civilization IV; he programmed and co-designed Sid Meier’s Civilization III with Jeff Briggs, and was voted “Most Civilized” employee in 2003.

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