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Shafer and the cult classic

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A lot has been made on the largest Civ-centric forum (that I know of, at least) about Jon Shafer’s split from Firaxis. For fans of the series, this is kind of a big deal. If you need some backstory, here it is: Jon was the designer and project lead for Civilization V, and the Civ series is the keystone franchise of Firaxis. Civ V was launched earlier this year, and while it seems to have sold quite well (estimates range around 500,000 units), this latest iteration has been largely abandoned by no small number of hardcore fans of the series, if they even bought it at all.

Recommended Reading – original reporting source:

http://flashofsteel.com/index.php/2010/12/21/jon-shafer-leaves-firaxis/

Veteran players of the series basically fell into two camps before the launch – those that pre-ordered it the instant they heard it was on the way, and those that decided to wait and see. I was in the first group, and am now kind of wishing I was in the second. As I’ve said before here, Civ occupies a pretty central place in my gaming psyche; Civ II was the first Pentium/Windows game I bought, and I’ve logged more hours playing various iterations of Civ and derivative mods than probably all other games combined. When Civ V was announced, it was a reflexive response for me to immediately plunk down the pre-order through Steam. I’m hardly alone in all this; while it doesn’t get as much press as other big franchises (like CoD or Halo and the like), mostly since it attracts a much more cerebral crowd than most mainstream serial titles, a crowd that simply doesn’t pay attention to massive gaming noise machines like IGN, Civilization commands a fanatical fan base that feels and acts in most respects like the fan bases of ‘cult classic’ films.

Great Expectations

What Firaxis learned with Civ V is that such a fan base is just as much a curse as it is a blessing. If you have the balls to call something a sequel of a venerated title, whether it be a movie or a game, it had better live up to the name, or beware the consequences.

DICE traced a similar path with their Battlefield series. Battlefield: 1942 can only be described as a ‘cult classic’ – it was a game that either captured your imagination, and you played for hours on end, or it didn’t strike you at all and you went back to playing Counter-strike. In a way, it wasn’t really supposed to go as huge as it did, earning several ‘game of the year’ honors, but its quirky blend of cartoon physics with some hardcore FPS elements struck a chord with a lot of gamers.

Just like viral videos, the accidental hit isn’t the issue. It’s how you follow up that determines whether you hold on to this group of converts to your new religion. Expectations on sequels will always be high, and they need to deliver that same quality of gameplay without being the same game in order to be received well by the fan base – not an easy feat.

BF:42 was not a game built to maximize profit; it was not built for the lowest common gaming denominator. That’s precisely why it was such a hit. Once EA got the reins, that changed. BF: Vietnam was a lackluster effort and Battlefield 2 solidified the franchise’s status as a game with F1 visuals but Power Wheels gameplay. It’s a place they’ll never return from without a gargantuan effort, and it’s clear they’re not interested in that, opting instead to water the experience down to cater to console kiddies, and freemium versions to try and rope in the Zynga crowd.

When you land yourself a franchise like this, you abuse it at your own risk. Yes, any pile of crap with the Civilization name on it would have sold at least a quarter million units, but it’d be the last one to do so. Skimp out on a sequel and it’s the last one you sell without really delivering the goods the next time around.

Shafer has made it known through a few channels that he left on good terms, and it was his decision. That hasn’t quelled speculation that he might have received a bit of encouragement towards the door. While most that have played the game will agree that the game showed promise, that just doesn’t cut it in a series that has encompassed four consecutive iterations that were all pretty solid on release, and became masterworks with later patches and expansions. Civ V is at least 6 months out from a state that would be considered passable for a Civilization title on release. Whether downwards pressure from the publisher to meet unrealistic deadlines was the culprit, or Shafer simply wasn’t up to the task of balancing so many changes to the core of the game in time for release was the issue, I find it hard to believe that Firaxis top brass is happy with the way that Civ V has panned out with its most devoted players, and that everything was on the up-and-up regarding his departure.

For most games, one lackluster title in a series doesn’t make a huge dent in it’s reputation (looking at you Call of Duty), particularly when a new title gets crammed out the door once a year. When there’s three or four years between iterations, they’d better be robust on delivery, and this one didn’t deliver.

What’s the problem?

Tomes have been written about what’s wrong with Civ V. Some of the criticism can indeed be categorized as splitting hairs, or easily dismissed as whining about how Civ V can’t be played in exactly the same manner as they played previous titles; changes to core mechanics necessitates changes in approach. But there’s a large body of gripes, mostly cataloged by the post linked above, that are much more serious than the usual nitpicking about how this particular puzzle can’t be solved in an identical manner as the previous.

Strategy gamers, particularly the turn-based crowd, dwell on details. That’s what they play these types of games for – they’re supposed to be massively complex puzzles that are never the same twice, which are rich in nuanced nuggets of balanced mechanics that don’t come from random dice rolls, but from logical constructs to be unraveled. Finishing a single game as the victor doesn’t translate to ‘beating the game’ for a strategy gamer. The reward that strategy gamers seek is in the process of disassembling all the moving parts of a game, and using that understanding to achieve victory in the game. And while the Civilization series has had it’s share of quirky crap that didn’t really make sense overall, ‘simplification’ has never been a core tenant of the games design…until Civ V.

The problem with this iteration is not necessarily that it’s wholly broken, it’s that it’s wholly simplified. Those that have been playing Civ since the 90s look forward to new titles in the series as something meaty to sink their teeth into, and what they got instead was a bag of rice cakes – interesting for the first few bites, but pretty bland after that, and not really filling.

Combat is simplified to the point of being frustrating. National mood and health were simplified to the point of nearly being broken. Tech tree: flattened. Artificial intelligence: pitiful. Diplomacy: opaque and random. Civics consist of a series of contrived bonuses that aren’t necessarily balanced and don’t provide players with weighty choices.

A lot of the pre-release press was focused on the move to a hex grid, and rightly so; much of the rest of the game had been fundamentally altered and has still not been brought into proper balance.

I could go on longer but it’d just be redundant at this point; a lot of hardcore players have already put thesame amount of rigorous attention to documenting Civ V’s ailments as they would have to actually playing the game, had it brought the sort of depth we all expect from this series.

What happens now?

With the guy spearheading most of the sweeping changes to Civ’s gameplay having exited the building, Civ V goes one of two ways: someone new takes the helm for the duration of supporting the title and it’s expansions, and tries to inject depth into a pretty shallow game (not an easy feat if my adventures in trying to mod the game are any indication); or Civ V gets an accelerated sunset and Firaxis gets going on taking their time with Civ 6.

Either way, this is a pivotal time for Firaxis and Civilization. Their empire has taken some serious blows, and while they haven’t completely been wiped off the map, they’ve got a long road ahead of them, and need to play this next turn exactly right, or they risk losing touch with that ‘just one more turn’ feeling completely…