Firaxis conquers new worlds

Second 'Civilization' comes to consoles

Entertainment Video Games

July 10, 2008|By Alex Plimack | Alex Plimack,Sun reporter

It's probably safe to describe fans of the PC strategy game Civilization as cultlike. When a sequel was being designed in 2004, an online community of self-proclaimed "CivFanatics" drafted a 300-page "wish list" of things it wanted to see in the game and sent it to Hunt Valley-based Firaxis Games.

So there was an understandable sense of apprehension among the computer gamers when Firaxis announced last summer that a new version of the game, Civilization Revolution, would be released for the current generation of home consoles: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and the hand-held Nintendo DS.

Those handy with a mouse and keyboard who sat before the computer screen for days at a time with the game of micromanagement, making every political, military, economic and religious decision for a virtual civilization from conception to world domination, were skeptical. It was difficult to believe that the franchise could make the transition to the more rudimentary controller and television screen.

But Firaxis knew that. And it accepted the challenge. With this week's release of Civilization Revolution, the company that has traditionally developed for the PC has embarked into the unknown - but more mainstream - territory of consoles.

"The consoles are obviously a very large and lucrative market," company president and Baltimore native Steve Martin said, explaining why the company made the move. "The consumer base is large, and the platforms are very exciting."

Martin said he sees Civilization Revolution as an important move for Firaxis.

"We're not necessarily a major player on the consoles," he said. "I think that this will establish us in the console world. We have been a major player in video gaming for the past two decades. We are very confident that we are continuing that reputation."

According to Ryan Geddes of the Xbox team on IGN.com, Civilization Revolution has the opportunity to open up a new world for console gamers in an industry that's seeing an explosion in casual gaming.

"They're kind of a niche game in a lot of ways," he said. "What Civilization Revolution has the opportunity to do is to widen the strategy market a bit."

The decision to make the move to consoles came from Firaxis founder and director of creative development Sid Meier, who ultimately wanted to make a "fun game." He developed Civilization Revolution from the ground up, initially experimenting with a small team and a prototype nearly three years ago. According to Martin, the differences were approached from the very beginning.

"The PC provides a more detailed and complex set of arrangements," he said. "You can do a whole lot more with a keyboard and a mouse. You're much more limited when you go to console and, as a result, a lot of the games are much quicker, they're much faster, they're much brighter, they're more vibrant, they're louder. There's more instant gratification."

While the look of Civilization was to be retained, it had to be altered to better suit the console audience. This effort was in the hands of art director Seth Spaulding. His art team began work on Civilization Revolution nearly two and half years ago.

"The look and feel of console games [is] different from PC games," he said. "The console games traditionally have been more colorful, more saturated. They're designed to go on a television screen as opposed to a computer screen."

Three teams were formed to work on each iteration of the game. According to Martin, Sony's PlayStation 3 lived up to its notorious nature of being difficult to develop for, while Microsoft's Xbox 360 technology proved to be easier, as its technology is more similar to the computer's. Consultants who had experience with a prior PlayStation 3 title were brought in to improve performance issues and optimize the game code.

The challenges continued throughout the development process, especially at the end of the three years. The completed game was submitted to the individual console companies for certification, a process that Firaxis hadn't experienced with PC games. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo would go through their respective versions of the game, checking it against their quality and gameplay standards. According to Martin, the process added unforeseen time onto the development process.

"It can be a long and arduous process, longer so when you don't know it," Martin said. "This was the first time, and it took much longer than we planned for or expected."

But after two tries (as games typically don't pass their first time), Civilization Revolution was completed and ready to be manufactured. And as of this week, it sits on shelves across the globe, waiting to be played.

Fans and the video-gaming press have responded well. On IGN .com, the average reader-submitted rating sits at 9.2/10. with the press average at 8.3/10.

For Martin, it's his "pride and joy": a sign of the success of Firaxis.

"We went through this transition of being a PC house to now being able to develop for nearly every platform," he said. "That sense of success is so exciting for a studio as they now step off."

alex.plimack@baltsun.com

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