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Doing as the Romans Do

Collaborations between development studios remain surprisingly rare in the videogames industry, and even those that do exist are often little more than porting agreements - but when the opportunity arose to combine Firaxis' hugely successful Civilization franchise with Firefly's knowledge of city-building games, both firms were keen to seize the chance.

The result is CivCity - a city building game which slots neatly into the Civilization canon and will be immediately familiar in many ways to fans of that series, but which addresses the city building dynamic (in this instance, the city of Rome) to a level of depth which Civilization has never tackled.

We traveled to Rome (where else?) to catch up with the project's executive producer, Barry Caudill (Firaxis) and its lead designer, Simon Bradbury (Firefly) and discuss how the collaboration was brought together, how it worked - and what's next for the CivCity concept. What is relationship between your two companies?

Barry Caudill: Before we [Firaxis] were bought by Take Two, they acquired the rights to Civilization. At the same time, Firefly was pitching the idea of Rome games to 2K, and Christophe [Hartmann] who runs 2K went back to them and said well, we have the rights to Civilization now, maybe it would make sense if they were all tied together.

So we started having meetings to figure out what we could do. That was the initial thing - we worked on how we could tie this game into the Civilization world. There are all these different levels where it works; everything from naming conventions to things like research and all the various things that are always part of a Civ game.

There was also this idea that we usually abstract a lot of stuff in the cities of Civilization, because if we didn't the game would take forever - you'd be spending all this time tweaking every city and then 200 hours later you might finish the game. So there's this great opportunity where you can go down into the city and see all the stuff - why are people happy, why are they unhappy, where's the food coming from, how do I get production... All these various things.

After we were purchased, it was decided that it would be a good idea for us to take over the production aspects of the game, instead of just having a producer at 2K that really wasn't connected to either product that well. They still do their own developer production, but we're here on a publisher level of production.

It's been a really great experience for both of our studios to have this relationship with guys that do the same stuff that we do - strategy games and things like that - but do them in a different way.

Simon Bradbury: I think you have to be willing to go into that relationship with an open mind, and that's paid off for us. Normally you have this idea of the designer, and the production, and QA at the bottom - they feed suggestions up, and occasionally a little sperm of an idea will get in there, and you end up just doing things your way.

Working openly with another developer is actually a really good thing - a lot of good has come from it from our point of view, in terms of not just ways of fitting a city-builder with Civilization, which actually is the easiest thing in the world to fit anyway, but also just a way of working out ideas and it's added a lot of freshness to it.

It's allowed us to take a city builder and give it a shot in the arm - not just adding the research, which I think is a very natural thing to do, but also in other ways. For example, in Caesar, I went back to play that after eight years and had no idea why people were coming to or leaving my city. I programmed the whole thing, and co-designed it, and I had no idea why they were coming! It wasn't until I actually opened up the code and looked at it that I understood why people came and went - how good is that for a piece of feedback? So we've been able to tie into Civilization's smiley face concept, and put that right up there.

It's pushed us to make that whole area much more like the idea of "Rome's expectation" - you either succeed, or fall short of it. Not only is it a measurement now, but it also comes back full circle and feeds back into city happiness.

That kind of thing is a direct result of sitting round the table for five hours with Barry and Jeff [Briggs] and Sid [Meier], and just throwing ideas around. It's worked out really nicely - the concept of two developers sharing ideas is very strong.

Have there been many moments of conflict?

Barry Caudill: No, because, we don't know anything about city builders. We've never done a city building game. Sid's done some prototypes, but they never made it past the cutting room floor. We know that Firefly has this pedigree, and they know what they're doing, so it's been this great mutual respect thing.

But we do understand Civilization, obviously; so it's really just been a great way to feed off each other.

I think also that with truly creative people, there's nothing to prove - it's not about who's better or who's smarter or anything like that. You have creative people, you put them in a room together and ideas start flying around.

Simon Bradbury: Because we've been through the mill so many times, and the people we're talking to across the table have done exactly the same thing, there's just so much experience there that you know there's no point in conflict.

Would you recommend it as a business model for other developers?

Simon Bradbury: For sure. Not only can you get tips about technology stuff, which can quite often save you barking up the wrong tree in the long term, but also about general design side stuff - not falling into pitfalls. If you make the wrong kind of design decision early on, you waste a lot of man hours.

Is this relationship going to continue?

Simon Bradbury: At the moment we're independent...

Barry Caudill: We're owned by Take Two and they're independent, but I think creatively, it makes sense. I would hate to see it stop, because it's been fun, so at least from that standpoint I think it's great.

Simon Bradbury: Obviously there are a lot of cultures out there, so there's potentially a really nice franchise there. Caesar III sold about one and a half million over quite a long period of time, but it's one of those games where it's harder to get as much attention. It was driving me insane, because we'd get half a page here and half a page there, but the games that were further up the magazine and getting front covers were selling maybe a quarter of the units.

These are games that appeal to a very wide range - they're just not quite as sexy.

Barry Caudill: Civilization games are the same; we don't have this spurt where we sell all these copies in the first month, but I guarantee you that whatever level we hit - whether it's 50,000 once a month or something like that - we'll pretty much hit that every month for several years, so it ends up being more sales. I think that Caesar III proved the same thing, by staying on the shelves for five years and selling a million and a half copies in a market that wasn't nearly as big as the one that we're in right now. That's huge.

Are you concerned about the future of the PC games market with the arrival of next-gen consoles?

Barry Caudill: Not at all. There are certain things about the way you interface with the PC that's natural for certain games. I've yet to find a first-person shooter that feels comfortable to me on a console; I've yet to find an RTS game...

Plus, Xbox Live Arcade aside, the PC provides this really excellent way to have a broad range. If you're going to have the game equivalent of an independent film company, that self publishes and all of that stuff, they're not going to do it on console - they're going to do it on PC. I think that's the kind of stuff that's going to keep the PC alive.

Simon Bradbury: And the PC is always improving tech wise - there will always be times where it's ahead of the game. There are times when you get better looking stuff out of the 360, but definitely more innovation comes from PC.

Barry Caudill: Right now, the PC looks really sexy - especially for the money. You could probably buy a PC that does everything the 360 does, but you're going to pay a lot more money for it. In a year, you won't be able to say that - that PC that does exactly what the Xbox 360 does will be less money, because there will be a PC that does twice as much.

Simon Bradbury: It's one of those things that's cyclical - with every generation of consoles, the death knell of the PC is sounded. And the PC will dip a bit, and then it'll come back again - it's not really like PCs are going to go away.

Barry Caudill: Plus, a lot of the sounding of the death knell for PCs comes from, 'Well, the numbers are down,' and they just recently realised that they weren't counting MMOs or casual games in their numbers. Once they find a way to correctly account for those, people will be astounded at the numbers that are actually happening on the PC right now. So I don't think it's going to go anywhere.

So you don't forsee a day when we might see a Firaxis-Firefly game on consoles?

Barry Caudill: I don't see the end of PCs; I think it's in our best interest to cover as broad a market as possible, and there are people who will buy Xbox 360s and Revolutions and PS3s that don't have a PC, or wouldn't even consider playing a game on their PC - that's what they do their word processing on.

So I think it's in our best interests to explore all avenues, whether it's handhelds or downloadable games or console games - we just want to make good games, and we want to make sure they reach as many people as possible.

Let's talk about Firefly - would you ever consider being taken over yourselves by Take Two, or another big publisher?

Simon Bradbury: You can never say no to that; if someone comes along with the right offer, we'll take it, for sure. But we certainly like being independent - as long as you're profitable, being able to decide what you're going to do is a very attractive thing.

I think we've been very lucky because our Stronghold titles sold very well, and so we made a nice healthy profit. If you get that start, as long as you're sensible, then you can continue to bankroll future projects so you're not dependent on scrabbling around to find a deal just so you can remain independent.

If we were to want to grow a bit more, maybe it makes it more likely that we'd want to be acquired. Never say never.

With regard to CivCity Rome, there are already a lot of games on the market set in ancient Rome - why didn't you decide to do something different, perhaps another ancient civilisation?

Barry Caudill: It's probably one of the biggest and most famous empires of all time, so it seems like a good place to start.

Simon Bradbury: If you're going to start a brand off, they don't come much better than Rome, really - there's just such a wide variety of buildings, it's a long period of time, and they reached this peak of civilisation that didn't reoccur for a thousand years, really. When the Romans left Britain, we were fucked. It was back to the Dark Ages - all the hot water's gone, the heating's gone, it's back to living in a mud hut again. It's a natural choice, I think.

What other civilisations do you have in mind for future instalments?

Simon Bradbury: We do have one we talk about a lot, but I can't say anything about that. We've got some good ideas about where to take the series.

Barry Caudill: The official Firaxis answer to that is we have lots of exciting ideas, but we're not prepared to talk about them yet. That pretty much covers everything!

You've talked about which elements of Civlization you took for CivCity - but where there elements that you thought, from day one, wouldn't work in this game?

Simon Bradbury: Yes. Civ's got multiplayer for example; we just thought it wasn't appropriate for us. Civ has an element of confrontation in it between colliding empires, and for us we thought, no, we'd just be putting it in to add a feature onto the feature list.

But to us really it's just a continuation of Civilization, at the end of the day - Civilization stops at a city level, and we are just taking that a stage further, and replacing sliders with whole building chains and things like that. So I guess we're a little bit less combat-oriented than Civ.

Barry Caudill: We've taken away the abstractions of what's happiness and so on, but combat is not so direct now, it's more simplified, because if combat was just as important as it is in a Civ game, and you were also trying to build a city, you'd have too much to do. In a game like CivCity, it's all about watching the people move around and go about their daily lives and things like that. If it was also about combat, something would have to give - you'd probably do one thing really well or the other thing really well.

There's a risk involved with handing such a successful franchise over to another developer, even though you're working with them. It sounds like you're very happy with the end result, but are you worried at all about Civilization fans, particularly the purists, and how they're going to react? Is that a concern?

Barry Caudill: I don't know if that's a concern. I do know that not every single Civ fan is going to get CivCity Rome and say, 'That's my game, I have to play that.'

But I feel like this is a great opportunity to expand the audience. It's not going to detract from Civilization - I think if we were to put out Civ V, and make just as many improvements as before, I don't expect there to be any dilution of our fan base because of CivCity. I think it's really positive for both games.

Firaxis' Barry Caudill is the Executive Producer on CivCity; Firefly's Simon Bradbury is Lead Designer. Interviewed by Ellie Gibson.

Ellie Gibson avatar

Ellie Gibson


Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.