I’m writing this blog in part to house links that I keep perpetually open in my browser, at great cost to my RAM. So here is the full-page link to Gamasutra’s excellent article on the history of the classic (and arguably original) 4X game Civilization.
The history of the development of the original game is really interesting, and shows how the evolution of the entire genre could have gone in a different direction, had designer Sid Meier stuck to his original vision. 4X is largely the preserve of old-time grognards now — wargame warriors and the like who play their games to dominate and win. 4X designers have responded in kind, designing increasingly elaborate mechanisms through which players can achieve an ultimate victory.
But isn’t winning the whole point of any game? Well, sometimes. But Meier was largely inspired to create Civilization via his experiences with SimCity, which first came out in 1989 (Civilization was released in 1991). SimCity, as you may or may not know, billed itself as a “software toy” — that is, a game in which play and experimentation were more important than victory. Designer Will Wright somewhat famously compared the software toys his company Maxis designed to a physical toy like a ball (quoted here from the SimAnt manual, though I think it appeared in other places):
“With a ball, you can play tennis (a game). You can play catch. You can throw it at someone. You can bounce it. You can make up a hundred different games. Besides games, there are other things you can do with a ball. You can paint it, use it to plug a leaky roof, or just contemplate its roundness.”
It is worth highlighting just how much SimCity had an effect on Meier. So much so that Civilization was originally going to be a real-time game that focused mostly on zoning, just like the city simulator. The Gamasutra article explains:
“The prototype featured a SimCity-like zoning approach, where the player would demarcate areas of the world for agriculture or resources that would gradually fill in over time as the player waited. Ultimately, Meier found the real-time play style severely lacking in excitement. ‘It quickly became apparent that watching the civilization grow was like watching paint dry,’ recalls Meier. ‘The action was so [dull] that after a little bit of that, there might have been a game that intervened.'”
It was Shelley, who had worked at wargame powerhouse Avalon Hill, who helped steer Meier towards adopting a turn-based approach to the game that focused on the movement and actions of counters:
“In phase two of development, Civilization took a page from Shelley’s board game roots and became turn-based, losing the zoning process while gaining a more militaristic, Empire-like edge. Meier invented individual units to control and move around the playfield. ‘You had settlers who irrigated and could change the terrain and found cities,’ says Meier, ‘so we took the things that were zoning oriented and gave them to the settler.’ The more hands-on approach felt just right, and the basic gameplay of Civilization, as we know it today, was born.”
The switch to a turn-based framework obviously was a sound move, given the end result. Civilization was a remarkable game when it came out, and extremely influential. But the switch to a wargame model also brought with it a wargame ethos, I would argue. It is worth highlighting how much Meier’s original vision focused on settlement and development. While those activities were present in the final product, they were pigeonholed into the functionality of a single unit: the settlers. Much of the rest of the gameplay involved the development and movement of the various military units that became available as your society progressed. Combat, arguably, became the core feature.
I should mention here that I actually like wargames quite a bit. I enjoy their variety and intricacies, and the diverse ways that wargame designers attempt to recreate historical events, and/or rewrite history through the design of alternate scenarios. Wargaming in a huge and fascinating subject. But adopting a wargame framework ultimately had repercussions with respect to the ongoing evolution of the 4X genre. Many, if not most, players, focus their strategies on domination of the game universe, typically through aggressive military expansion. Most games do offer more peaceful paths to victory, but even in these cases, “victory” is the ultimate goal. This is far from the software toy vision pitched originally by Maxis in their Sim games.
Combat became even more important in the real-time strategic 4X games that evolved out of the original format in the late 1990s. Interestingly, it was Shelley, who played such an important role in turning Civ into a turn-based game, that led the way to real-time with the Age of Empires series. Age of Empires distilled out the essence of games like Civ into a more action-oriented, fast-paced product. Building was reduced to a subservient role, intended largely to backstop the construction of armies, which would ultimately rampage around the map to wipe out rivals. Experimentation was largely limited to trying out different formations and mobilizations of troops. Don’t get me wrong: these are great games. But they are also very narrow in scope and purpose.
Ultimately, I think that the relative decline (or at least stagnation) in the popularity of the 4X genre can be traced in part to this narrowing of horizons that occurred after Civilization became such a hit. One of my own long-term goals, expressed in projects such as Digero, is to experiment with the genre’s fundamentals, and to see if different sorts of games can be built out of them. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a wonderful time for wild experimentation in gaming, with designers like Will Wright and Sid Meier leading the way. It would be nice to recapture even a modicum of that spirit in the present time.