Civilization: Beyond Earth interview - everything you need to know about the new factions, aliens, technology and more

PC Gamer: Has it been liberating not being tied down by history for this project?

Will Miller: Absolutely. Both from a player's perspective it's a really refreshing take on the Civilization formula, but from a designer's perspective it's even cooler because we get to do things like, have the seeded start with the customisable civs, or the tech web, or the unit upgrades and the fiction and all this stuff. It's really, really cool. It's an exciting game to work on.

PC Gamer: I know you guys have been reading a lot of sci-fi and watching a lot of science fiction films. Are there any influences you'd pick out in particular?

Will Miller: Yeah, I'd say we went through the classics, the Arthur C. Clarke, the Carl Sagan, the Greg Bear, Dan Simmons is a big influence. The Great Mistake is a nod to him in one of his novels. Lots of sci-fi movies. You name it, we've probably seen it.

David McDonough: Yeah, it's little bits of everything. There's a fair bit of Dune, obviously, with the worms. And Ender's Game with the bugs, and the hive mind idea.

Will Miller: Even Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki's Manga, for the fungal biome. The inspirations come from a lot of places.

David McDonough: Some are more obvious than others. Like the contact victory, and Carl Sagan's book of the same name.

Will Miller: (laughs) Right, like it isn't obvious enough. This is our love letter to the genre.

PC Gamer: I like seeing those little nods and winks to classic sci-fi concepts. It's kind of rewarding, as a sci-fi nerd.

Will Miller: There's tons of little nods in the quotes, and the stories, the quest stories. We've tried to work as much in there as we can.

PC Gamer: How have you dealt with the massive legacy and expectation attached to Civilization in this new context? What are the things you've had to do because it's a Civ game?

David McDonough: The bones of the experience are very much recognisably Civ. The idea of the cities, city-base progression, leaders, the passage of time, tile-based, turn-based, building improvements, technologies. A lot of them are very familiar themes to the Civ player. The opportunity was not to say 'how does the legacy of Civ limit us, but once we strip all of the flesh off the Civ idea and get to its bones, what new creation can we put on top of it, that is ideal for science fiction, not for history?' I think the legacy of Civ really enabled this game to go where it's going because we can take these things for granted. We don't have to explain what cities and buildings and technology are. We can say to the player 'here are some things you remember, now forget everything you know, it all means something else'. The influences are different. The stories are different. The themes are different.

Will Miller: It's a tough balance to strike because we want to reach a new audience. We want to get to those XCOM fans who may not have played Civ because history wasn't their thing, or strategy gamers that are playing a lot of these strategy games on IOS, that haven't tried Civ before. We want to reach those people, so we're trying to make the game more accessible for them, but also catering to our hardcore fans. We think a lot about 'oooh, what would they think if we took this out and put this in'. We try to listen to that, but we really want this product to stand on its own, and we've taken some risks, and made some changes that are surprising I think to fans, but I really think that they'll like it. David and I are relatively young designers. This is our first big Civ product. We've worked in Civ a little bit. We've done our time on Civ stuff, but it's really a testament to Firaxis to trust us and let us take this chance and make this new thing.

PC Gamer: How long have you guys worked for Firaxis?

Will Miller: Five years, with a sabbatical in the middle. We met in college and we learned to make games together in college. I came here first, and Dave was visiting just to catch up and I said 'hey, we've got this production position open at Firaxis, why don't you come by and do an interview?' and he got the job shortly thereafter, so it's serendipitous. We worked here for two-and-a-half years, then I went to Big Huge games to work on Amalur and Dave followed shortly thereafter. We were both systems designers, so Dave made the transition from...

David McDonough: I was an engineer at Firaxis first, and we both made the transition into systems design at Big Huge, then we were invited back to do this. It was a really cool thing. We're best friends and we get to work on this cool game.

PC Gamer: I like that you're both lead designer, it's quite unusual, a lead designer unit.

David McDonough: People around here seem to really enjoy it. I think it's amusing to the company to be able to present us like that.

Will Miller: The Matt Stone, Trey Parker collaborative.

PC Gamer: The hive mind.

David McDonough: We're very different. Our personalities are very different, and our perspective on the game is very different. We design through dialogue, and I think we do a pretty good job.

PC Gamer: What kind of design ideas do you argue about when putting together a Civ game?

David McDonough: I mean, everything's up for grabs. (laughs) That's part of it. There's conflict in every way you interpret what this opportunity means. Very traditional Civ, very not-traditional, shedding even the strongest of conventions. Trying to justify the presence of every mechanic that's in the game. How does that enable new ones? That's where affinities came from, this hammered-out forge of different influences. How do we represent the idea of post-humanism mechanically, with numbers? There's no shortage, large and small, from 'I think that military should move three instead of two' to the very concept of technology as a web, rather than as a tree. It's a huge moving part. You put that in and it changes everything.

Will Miller: One good example of that is that, in my mind, there are two kinds of Civilization games. There's Civilization 4 and Civilization 5, then there's Civ Rev. Civ Rev is my favourite, it's the last Civ that Sid Meier himself has designed, that's in the Civ canon. It's a much more asymmetrically balanced game, whereas Civ 4 and 5 where symmetrically balanced games. There's a lot more drama in Civ Rev, for me as a player. The game can swing very dramatically one way or the other, and that's been an issue, resolving the desire to get that sort of drama in the game, while at the same time not upsetting fans of Civ V too much. There are different voices in our office for each of those perspectives. Anton Stringer, is our systems designer. He's done a tour on every expansion, I think, and is one of those hardcore Civ players, so he represents that voice. We talk—I don't think fight is good (laughter). Contentious conversation, perhaps.

David McDonough: Debate!

Will Miller: Impassioned debate. But it's not design by committee, that's important to note. We really do convince each other and go forward with conviction.

PC Gamer: It's interesting, there are different types of Civ, of course, but so many types of Civ player. I'm very militaristic, so I'm not going to care about whole systems in that game. How do you design to those different needs?

David McDonough: It's a very strong influence. A lot of the systems in the game are designed with exactly that thought process at the beginning. How are the full spectrum of Civ attitudes going to be able to use this? Is it going to be fun for them? We had a design meeting the other day which was specifically about the peaceful player. We put a lot of effort into making these military units really cool, and these aliens are really cool. Only if you fight with them. If you don't fight with them, what are you going to do? Making sure that that player has fun too, and their game is no less rich. Once again, from the biggest to the smallest mechanic, it's always with a view of 'how does this trickle into every dominant way to play the game?'

Will Miller: We're also very aware that this game may give rise to new ways to play. We want to embrace that. We have to be careful about designing too much around the conventions of play surrounding Civ V. There's a concept of wide and tall in that game. There's definitely a concept of wide and tall in this game as well, but we're always thinking 'what is the next approach? Is there a different approach?' we don't have to be shackled by these gameplay approaches that have developed in Civ V. We want to set the stage for new ones to arrive, and foster those as well.

PC Gamer: I'm curious about the very start of the design process, when there's no art. What does it look like, is there a stripped down screen with hexes everywhere and formulas dangling off them? How does it actually come together?

David McDonough: There's a lot of placeholder assets. We get a minimum level engine going, then there's a lot of really crummy looking stuff, programmer art, as it goes.

Will Miller: A lot of it from Civs of past, we'll just pull in.

David McDonough: We have these things, we call them 'gummy bears', these are units from old Civ that are coloured pink, which represents placeholder, so if there's a screenshot nobody will try to use it, because it's obviously wrong, so there's gummy bears all over the game. The UI is in pieces, the text strings are all mashed up and the button's over here. Well, it's working, kind of.

PC Gamer: But you can prod it, and see if it works.

David McDonough: It's also the job of the designer to play the game in their head a bit while it's busted, and it'll come up to meet you, eventually.

Will Miller: Our team is wonderful, they've been making Civs for a very long time, so this stuff comes online fast, and the game is always very stable unless we break something. (laughter) Which happens something. We had it playable very, very early, and we went through a lot of iterations on the early systems. Yeah, it looks ugly for a while.

PC Gamer: How do you hope Beyond Earth will further Civilization as a series?

David McDonough: We have the greatest of all ambitions for it, that it will go on, that it'll be a hit, and we'll get to make more stuff for it. Who knows. We have a game to finish right now, we'll worry about the future later. I think everybody in the studio is really excited to go here with Civ. We're so good at making historic Civ. We've got it down to an absolute art. It's been a breath of fresh air for us and the team to say 'alright, let's try something else, let's take the Civ idea into the future'. This is our interpretation of that. Even if Beyond Earth comes out, and it's good, and we never come back to it, it's almost for our own selves, we've decided we can take Civ wherever we want to take it. Who knows where it'll go from there.

Will Miller: I think it's a great demonstration of how well the mechanics of Civ hold up in different contexts. The mechanical beauty of the game, stripping out all of the fiction, the history, is very cool. It can be applied in lots of different ways. It's exciting to get the opportunity to not just take the core of Civ and put it in space, but also to take the core of Civ and change it, and evolve it in ways we couldn't have done before. As designers, that's one of the most exciting things.

PC Gamer: Thanks for your time, gents.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.