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Interview - Civilization V's Dennis Shirk


Just as a game of Civilization constantly shifts through the ages, evolves, and occasionally pits horse-riding cavalrymen against 1,500-horsepower tanks, so too does the videogame industry grow and change. A mere five years have passed since the launch of Civilization IV, but already, the industry's a different beast entirely.

How, for instance, does one of gaming's most legendary franchises deal with pirates' overrunning of the PC, the issue of restrictive DRM, the waning influence of the strategy genre, and new input devices like Kinect and Move?

We got a chance to sit down and quiz producer Dennis Shirk over those questions and more. See it all after the break.

VG247: Civ V’s a PC exclusive. That’s a dangerous path to walk these days. Are you afraid piracy might play big bad wolf and take a bite out of your sales?

Dennis Shirk: We’ve determined that you can’t really worry too much about piracy. If people like it, they buy it. What we see is that a PC game is cracked within days or a week of it coming out. So you make the best game you can, and if people like it, they’re gonna buy it. And if they’re gonna pirate it, they’re gonna find a way to pirate it regardless.

What are your plans DRM-wise?

Shirk: Right now, we’re using Steam and Steam’s DRM. We felt that, if you have to have DRM, we wanted it to be as unobtrusive as possible. I mean, you’ve got different choices out there – Ubisoft with their “always-on” Internet connection and stuff like that. We opted to just have a one-time activation through Steam, and then you’re done. You can play offline. You can play online. Everything else that came along with Steam, though, we actually really loved. All the features that came along with Steamworks – the achievements and everything else. So if you have to do something like that, we probably made the best decision.

So you’d definitely never consider employing something like what Ubisoft’s got going on, then?

No. No. I don’t think anybody on our team wants anything like that. I mean, they’re obviously going to make the decisions that they make for a reason. You know, they’ve got their reasons to do it. But our game is a strategy game. Some people want to play that when they’re on an airplane or [using] a laptop.

What do you think of the strategy landscape in general these days? The genre’s become less popular over the years. Now action games and shooters are all the rage. Do you think Civ V will be able to attract a wider audience?

I think so, but only because we introduced our gateway drug a couple years ago called Civilization Revolution. And with Civ V, we have all the depth there, but we put in so much accessibility. If you’re a hardcore person, you can turn all this stuff off. But if you’re not hardcore, we’ve got passive aspects like your advisors. They’ll come up if you’re doing anything wrong and they’re there to give you suggestions all the time. So for a person that’s new to the franchise – or they’ve played Civ Rev on the consoles – we really think we’ve hit the nail on the head for bringing new players into the genre. And whether that pans out or not, I’ll let you know come September.

So if someone wants to try out the Civ franchise for the first time, would you say that Civ V is the best place to start?

I would. If they’re a PC gamer, I would totally. If they were completely new to the landscape and not even a PC gamer, you know, Civ Rev is always a great introduction. But I think the work that we did… I mean, Civ V is going to be our most successful version ever.

We’ve seen new interfaces like Kinect and Move come out of E3 this year. Do you think either of those present a solution to the old-as-time-itself issue of controlling strategy games on consoles?

To go all Minority Report, you mean? I would love to see that. You already see a lot of it on the iPad. So yeah, I would love to see that in the future. Right now, we’re still in a mouse world on the mainstream. But if the future holds that, I wouldn’t argue with it.

Could we maybe see a Civilization V: Revolution? Will Civ V ever come to consoles?

The thing is, Civ V is a big sloppy kiss/love letter to our fan community. We want it to be for the hardcore. We want to make it as accessible as possible, but Civ Rev kind of took care of that route. It’s for the people who want the kind of Civ-lite [experience]. Civ V is for hardcore PC. We’re PC game makers for the most part, and like I said, we’ve gone into the console market for some stuff, but we’re gonna make PC games first for a long time.

So you’re ruling out a console version of Civ V?

Civ V? Yes, definitely.

Ok, you’ve talked about accessibility, but what about the other side of the coin? What do you think hardcore players will appreciate most about Civ V?

I think they’re also going to appreciate the accessibility. We’ve made everything so easy to use now. We’ve put in so many options for automating certain tasks that might have been irritating before. Even down to stuff like transporting units from one continent to another. Doing intercontinental invasions was always a challenge because of micromanaging everything – you know, building the transports, only putting so many units on transports.

Now, any unit from your own territory can pop themselves onto the water and they turn into a civilian boat. Takes a turn to do it. But we wanted it to be easier to do this whole continental invasion.

During Civ V’s E3 demo, you devoted a decent chunk of time to discussing the game’s graphical fidelity. Even so, it still – at least, to me, anyway – feels more like a boardgame than a war for the history books. Would you ever consider increasing the game’s fidelity even further? You know, keeping the boardgame aspect, but going down to the ground level for battles, ala Total War?

That’s been gone over many, many times in the history of Civ. And Sid [Meier’s] always been a strong believer that Civilization is not a war game. War’s just kind of one of the components. So he didn’t want ever really want to go that far with this particular game.

That said, for the hardcore tabletop gamer, just the fact that we went to one unit per tile [is a big deal]. One thing we didn’t even talk about in the demo is the strategy view. If you turn it on, it makes everything into a flat 2D hex grid – just like you’re playing a boardgame. Or, if you’re on a plane or something and you don’t want to worry about the high-end graphics, just turn on the grid and it’s totally playable on this 2D map. Like you’re playing Risk or something.

Another game from 2K – XCOM – has deep roots in turn-based strategy. Now, though, it’s an FPS. First of all, what are your thoughts on that transformation? Would you have preferred it remain a strategy game?

I love the original X-Com, but I can’t argue with the team that brought us BioShock 2. I actually can’t wait to get up there just to see what they did with it. One of our directors went and saw it, and she said it’s actually a terrifying game. So yes, they’re making it into an FPS, but I’d like to think 2K Australia’s bringing something unique to the table.

I don’t think it’ll be the same as the original X-Com, but it certainly is something different. I’m actually kind of looking forward to it. We’ll see where it ends up.

Also based off that question, would you ever consider breaking new genre ground with the Civ franchise? Like, say, a Dynasty Warriors-style hack ‘n’ slash, or – my personal favorite - a fighting game where historical greats like, say, Gandhi and Jesus can go toe-to-toe?

We actually released an April Fools screenshot this year of something called “Extreme Diplomacy,” and it had Washington and Oda [Nobunaga] in a side-by-side Street Fighter fight. Washington was using his special power the “Uncle Slam” and stuff.

But yeah, you never know what’s going to come out of the designers’ heads. We’re in the fifth iteration of Civilization, and we’re always trying new things. I don’t think you ever see an actual fighting game come out the other side, but as for what the designers come up with at this point, the sky’s the limit.

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