Civilization: Beyond Earth designers discuss inspirations, aliens, and more

Last Updated July 18th, 2021

Walking out of the announcement of Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond EarthI was full of both anticipation and questions. Luckily, I had a chance to sit down with the game’s Lead Designer, David McDonough, and Gameplay Designer Anton Strenger. I shared some of my questions with them, and the answers they provided satisfied some of my curiosity — though they also made me more eager than ever to get my hands on the game as soon as possible.

Inspirations

As a big fan of science fiction books and movies, I was curious to know what specific inspirations David and Anton would credit for the game’s sci-fi perspective. Some of the answers were as expected: Dune, Ender’s Game, 2001, and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, for example. Additionally, one of the game’s victory conditions, Contact, is both named after and modeled on the classic Carl Sagan book.

Some of the inspirations the designers mentioned, though, were a little less obvious from the details that have been made public so far. The fact that the film Alien was cited as an inspiration immediately casts the indigenous alien life forms in Beyond Earth in a new, more sinister light. Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was also credited as an influence, which is interesting given that book’s Utopian political themes.

The-Right-Stuff

Most surprising of all the inspirations David and Anton mentioned, though, was the classic non-fiction book The Right Stuff, which concerns the early American space program. The designers explained that they are all “huge astronaut fans,” and took a great deal of inspiration from the space race of the 60s and 70s when crafting Beyond Earth. 

Much of the announcement presentation had struck me as portraying a future that was surprisingly bright and optimistic, and many of the influences David and Anton mentioned underscored that. I asked them how the tone of the game compared to the game’s spiritual parent, Alpha Centauri, which had dealt with dystopian themes such as forced labor, repressive governments, and “nerve stapling” citizens who got out of line.

“This game is very aspirational,” David said. “The future it portrays is a bright future.” Beyond Earth will deal with ethical choices, they explained, but they will never be choices that are obviously good or evil — they’ll be complex decisions in which players define their vision of humanity, and decide what prices they are willing to pay for advancement. No matter what path you take, though, “the salvation and preservation of humanity is always the goal.” Whether you achieve that through genetic engineering, technological development, or military might is up to you.

Aliens and you

On the subject of alien life in Beyond Earth, I knew what question was first on my list:

“Are there mind worms in the game?”

David and Anton laughed at this. Mind worms were a major part of Alpha Centauri, making up the main form of alien life in that game. Without the IP rights to that classic title I knew it was unlikely Firaxis would be using the same creatures again, but I just had to know for sure. And the answer I was given — that there IS a worm alien in the game, though it isn’t a mind worm — made my imagination run wild. I wasn’t able to get any more details, but it’s possible the worm unit could be the one seen in this screenshot:

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If that’s the case, then it looks far more like something out of previously-cited inspiration Dune than a mind worm.

The way in which you choose to deal with the alien life in Beyond Earth will be a major part of how your civilization develops. The alien life “ranges from simple to complex and scary,” the designers said, and aliens “operate like another player with their own agenda.” In contrast to Civlization’s barbarians, which are early-game nuisances that are always aggressive, the alien life will be present throughout a typical game of Beyond Earth, it will always be relevant to the decisions you make, and it will have “nuanced diplomatic opinions.”

As way of an example, the designers explained that you will often encounter an alien nest on top of valuable resources. Destroying the nest would antagonize the aliens, which might make their units more aggressive against human units in that area (and not necessarily just YOUR units either). Alternately you can try to understand and work with the aliens, following the Harmony affinity path, which can eventually allow you to benefit from alien terrain and to use alien units in your armies.

The tangled tech web

In the announcement presentation, Firaxis had explained that Civilization’s tech tree was gone, in favor of a “tech web” that allowed for more lateral movement. That naturally raised the question of how pre-requisite technologies work with this new system.

“There are no pre-requisites,” David explained. In Beyond Earth you really WILL have the freedom to move laterally through the tech web however you like, though technologies that are further out from your starting point in the center will cost more to research.

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I asked the designers about the challenge of coming up with advanced technologies that make sense, given that the very first technologies you research will represent things at the pinnacles of our current real-world understanding. Both men agreed that this part of design was especially difficult, because it’s key to avoid technologies that are so “sci-fi” that they don’t resonate with players while still keeping them futuristic enough to fit the world.

The key for designing the tech web in Beyond Earth, they explained, was in the idea of thematic paths through the world of science.  The key for David and Anton was in “layering” technological advancements so that by the time players arrive at outlandish-sounding technologies such as “artificial evolution,” they understand the steps they took to reach that frontier and what it meant to their particular vision of humanity.

Colony ships, satellites, and mod support

I asked David and Anton to tell me more about the ways in which your decisions regarding your colony ship at the beginning of a game would affect your civilization, since that particular detail was mentioned in the announcement but wasn’t elaborated upon. Anton told me that, for example, picking a spacecraft model with more advanced sensors might allow you to begin the game with more of the map revealed. The colonists you choose, on the other hand, are very much about inherited bonuses for your people. The final choice you’ll make about your colony ship, the cargo, can allow you to begin the game with a cache of weapons, resources, or another one-time bonus.

Elaborating on the “orbital layer” and function of satellites in Beyond Earth, Anton provided two potential examples: a military satellite that might provide combat bonuses to friendly units in tiles beneath it and a weather satellite that can increase rainfall and resource yields in tiles. There will be many more details to come regarding this feature of the game, but it already sounds like it’s going to open some interesting strategic doors.

My final question about Beyond Earth concerned the game’s mod-friendliness, as Civilization titles have always had a very active fan community, full of talented people who tweak the game, add features, make it their own, or even completely overhaul it, as in the popular Fall from Heaven mod. David explained that mods and the fan community are “really important” to Firaxis, and they’re going to keep that in mind as they continue to work on the game.

If you’re anything like me, the answers David and Anton struck all the right notes. Beyond Earth is looking as though it has the potential to be a truly special title, and I can’t wait to see more of the game in the months to come.

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