Galactic Civilizations III preview: 64 Bits of hexes, ideologies, and more

"A smaller company could survive off of what Galactic Civilizations II does,” Paul Boyer tells me. It's not a humblebrag, but a testament to the passion that fans have for Stardock's flagship 4X game. It's also a telling statement from Boyer, who was art director on Galactic Civilizations II and is now in charge of Galactic Civilizations III , the developer's forthcoming sequel.

After working on the GalCiv II expansions, Boyer decided that he didn't want continue as an art director, and made his case to CEO Brad Wardell that he should be a game designer. Wardell agreed, and Boyer was handed the reins to the franchise and a new sequel. Boyer feels the weight of his new responsibility. “My biggest focus as the designer of the game at this point is to more or less not screw up.”

Part of that "not screwing up" means keeping what fans love about GalCiv II – features like its ship designer, where players have built an astounding amount of custom units. To that end, GalCiv III's ship designer will get a big shot of steroids, to the extent that Stardock will be including basic and advanced modes. Every ship in the game will now be constructed out of basic parts, and users will be able to go in and take them apart and create whatever they want.

“All of the data side of the game will be available in an editor,” Boyer explains, “and I think that the people who have gone through the hoops to make crazy mods in GalCiv II, their heads are going to explode.” He's also prepared for the dark side of user-generated content. “I'm ready for an assault of penis-shaped ships – that goes without saying.”

The biggest change in the core game mechanics is the switch to hexes, which was divisive among strategy fans in the past, such as when Civilization V went hex. “It was a decision I made because I was always bothered by the fact that if you move diagonally, you're technically getting two tiles. We moved to hexes so everything could be equidistant, and it just looks sexier – more science fiction. But gameplay wise, it should help balancing substantially.”

Many of the familiar races from the game, such as the Krynn Consulate and the Iconian Refuge, will return alongside new races. The Iridium Corporation, for instance, was always part of the series' lore but never a playable race. Boyer notes that “they are essentially ultra-capitalists, like if Apple was a race that was going to take over the universe”.

Other tweaks include revamping the UI, building a better tutorial system (including a tutorial campaign), and finetuning the AI, all within the confines of a brand-new game engine, referred to internally as Kumquat 2. Also new is the fact that Galactic Civilizations III will only run on 64-bit systems.

While some players might consider that requirement overkill for a turnbased game, Boyer considers it vital for expansion. “What tends to kill turn-based games is the fact that you can end up with thousands of units on screen at one time, so we need that memory.”

The 64-bit architecture will allow for improvements beyond the visuals as well. “Nebula storms, black holes, asteroids will be more important... all of these things are going to be out on the map. The AI will be able to do amazing planning ahead. Each of these decisions can be bigger.”

GalCiv II's alignment system has been completely jettisoned, and in its place is a new Ideology system. “It's not a tech tree,” Boyer explains. “It's actually three separate pyramids, and you will be able to earn Ideology points through improvements, or more interestingly through planetary events, through cosmic events.” Each cosmic event will require you to make ideological choices, which generate points used to unlock new abilities and most cultural traits.

The final major change is that multiplayer is coming to the series for the first time, although Stardock isn't saying how many players the game will support simultaneously. “More than four,” Boyer jokes. But he does plan on remaining true to the solo roots. “Singleplayer is the heart of the game. This is not DotA; it's a turnbased game. There will be a campaign of course – hopefully the best campaign we've ever done.”

The team has a long way to go, and Boyer quoted the familiar “when it's ready” line when asked about possible release dates for alphas, betas and beyond. “This game has to be perfect,” he says. “We've had games in the past where bad things happened because they had to be out a certain time. So this game will be released when it's done, and we're going to make sure it's awesome.” Which means you might want to add a fifth X here for "exhale," as we might be waiting a while.