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Three Moves Ahead Episode 56: Civ 5, Sid Meier and Farmville

March 16th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 17 Comments · GDC, Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


We throw together a show on some of the strategy gaming news and ideas coming out of this year’s GDC. What do we know and not know about Civilization 5? Is Sid Meier coddling players in his psychological approach? And why is Julian on the side of evil in the Facebook wars?

We announce the winner of the King Arthur steam code and begin planning for PAX East.

Listen here.
RSS here.
Subscribe on iTunes.

Fear and Loathing in Farmville
Gamasutra on Meier’s Keynote
Julian’s article on Facebook games
Chris Hecker on the rewarding boring activities
A Theory of Fun for Game Design
Pre-order Sid Meier’s Civilization V
Rob Zacny on the bias against strategy games
Match Defense: Toy Soldiers


17 Comments so far ↓

  • Skyrider

    With regard to comments/criticisms about the current state of Sid Meier games, I agree with both your colleague to whom you referred, as well as Julian’s subsequent comment on the podcast. Yes, Julian is right in that Sid is making games that people enjoy and want to purchase. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Yet your colleague is also right in that Sid has been “happy keeping games pretty much where they are and not advancing the art.” The last 10 years of Firaxis releases pretty much confirms this.

    The early years of Sid Meier titles were both varied and compelling to play. I still fondly remember many of those titles some 25+ years later! Whether this was a result of his employment with Microprose or his own creative ideas, I don’t know. But I can’t help feeling at least a little bit ho-hum over re-releases of Pirates, Civ, and Railroad Tycoon all these years later.

    Yes, Meier is a legend in the games biz, but yes, it seems like things have been a bit on autopilot for awhile. Unlike Julian, I don’t think your colleague’s remarks were “whiny” at all. It’s a valid criticism. I hold out hope that the Firaxis gang has some new ideas up their sleeves for future games.

  • Thomas Kiley

    (Warning: I am responding to the comment above, I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I therefore take no responsibilities!)

    I agree that he certainly seems to have become (or perhaps always was, I am not old enough to know) a very conservative designer. Reading the live tweets of his talk (2nd hand information FTW), he seemed to almost be fighting the games as-a-more-serious-medium movement.

    He said gamers don’t want moral decisions and stuff, which might be true in an addictive strategy game about world domination, but to make such a general statement about ALL games I thought was very narrow minded.

    None the less, I am eagerly awaiting Civ 5, because not every game has to be advancing the medium in a meaningful way, it’s OK to have a well designed strategy game.

  • Chris Floyd

    Julian misidentifies the “evil” label that is applied to Zynga, et al. It’s not about microtransactions at all. This doesn’t bother people; at least, I don’t think it does. The crude way to say what bothers people is that “These aren’t games!” The more nuanced way is, well, what Chris Hecker stated: That these games hook people with their *external* rewards, not *internal* rewards. Internally, there’s nearly zilch in a game like Mafia Wars. The game consists of clicking buttons and waiting. But they put a progress bar on it and that drives people to not only spend time, but money. Yes, much of this is present in WoW as well. But there’s also a GAME in WoW, with its own merits. Many facebook games are as empty as a slot machine. If slot machines make more money than other games, should gamers like us laud it when big publishers start dumping 90% of their money into making more and different slot machines? I don’t think so. That doesn’t make more gamers, it makes more addicts.

    I don’t think the situation is that black and white–Zynga, et al, have games with more or less gameplay to them, and publishers will still have an audience of gamers to make real games for (just like there are still poker tables in casinos). Obviously, Bejewelled on Facebook is as great as the older version, maybe a little better. But recognize that many of the games that have bajillions of users are not half the game that Bejewelled is. From a gamer’s perspective, this isn’t a happy trend.

  • Chris Floyd

    On a totally different topic:

    What’s the best game that’s ABOUT game design??

    Sid Meier’s SimGolf.

    In SimGolf, the success of a golf course mostly depends on one dynamic: The perception of difficulty versus the actual difficulty. Golfers love a hole that looks difficult and puts up a mild fight here and there, but that in the end makes them feel good about their score. This depends a lot on the misperceptions that the golfer makes (water up front looks daunting but is easy to cross). It’s a great illustration of Meier’s points about player psychology that some are calling “player coddling.”

    You can call it coddling or smoke and mirrors. That would be fair, but at the same time, as Meier points out, Civilization has NINE difficulty levels. That says to me that even while being coddled, players are mastering the game and becoming better. They’re not being sheltered, they’re being smoothly incentivized to learn. Assuming that eventually they step up a difficulty level or two, then that “coddling” is just a clever reward structure that keeps players enjoying themselves along the way instead of being frustrated.

    (Hm. Maybe that’s not a totally different topic from Farmville after all, but I’m not equipped right now to try to tackle the crossover…)

  • Quinten

    So giving the player constant awards for meeting challenges is a bad thing? I cannot understand the backlash for what is pretty simple psychology, and good game design. Good games make the player feel good for completing tasks successfully. I haven’t had Civ 4 give me a message congratulating me on dying so quickly to the Romans. The reason I think some people seem against this is they are “hardcore” people who don’t want any game to be easy. I play Men of War on easy, because it is freaking hard. I like to play Civ when I am stressed because I can put it on a difficulty level I feel like meeting. Civ makes me happy, other than when a war goes bad, and I consider the game being fun to be successful game design. If it isn’t, then I don’t want to play whatever you would call games.

    I have always felt too out of touch with the battles in Civ, so it will be nice having more of a wargame for the battle engine. What concerns me is what will happen with workers and roads. One feeling I get in Civ 4 that I don’t in Rev is the feeling of building my empire and altering the terrain. That was one of the best parts of Alpha Centauri as well. I hope there will still be some worker customization of the land.

  • rsm

    I have one major problem with one comment that was made on the podcast – Julian, I think, said: “I’m most interested in how it evolves multiplayer…That’s my hope, that’s what this is, a nice simplified combat system that’s a lot of fun, that uses the civ stuff as hooks, but gives you a great multiplayer experience. That’s what the market will buy” (ca15:00-15:57 ) .

    I have several problems with this, but the fundamental one is that Civ is at its core not a multiplayer game. There are people who play it multiplayer, there are people who play it socially (succession/story type games), there are people who play it in a competitive way and there are people who play it as a single player game the same way people played civ 1 as a single player game. If we use Brad Wardell’s numbers then 90% of players fall into the last category. If we are generous, then say 60% of players fall into the last category. Regardless, of the remaining percentage, I think very, very few play it as a multiplayer game, it is simply too time consuming.
    Just based on that, I think you would be very hard pressed to find that a good multiplayer component actually will have a measurable impact on sales. In my opinion, again being generous, I think at best a good multiplayer component will push the title from excellent (if everything else works as advertised) to epic, and increase the final margins of the game.
    I could be wrong, but I suspect I’m pretty typical for a non-hardcore Civ player, and the mplay component has no appeal whatsoever. Disclosure: I used to fall into the hardcore, but not overly competent category for Civ 3, and I was pretty burned out on Civ by the time 4 arrived and I never really enjoyed it much beyond mucking around.

    I’ll stay out of the Sid Meier debate as I have played a lot of his games, and have enjoyed the heck out of them. Admittedly, it hasn’t been all that fun recently I was burned out on Civ when Civ 4 hit, and the new pirates version had one really, really annoying aspect that keeps me from coming back to it, even though the fundamental gameplay was excellent.

  • Ginger Yellow

    Rob Zacny must be my alter ego or something. When the discussion turned to games that are fun even when you lose, I immediately thought of Company of Heroes (not always, admittedly) and EU III. Then Rob says “Relic RTSes and EU III”. Freaky.

    Also, what rsm said: multiplayer won’t make a jot of difference to Civ 5’s sales.

  • Bleedinbob

    Here is the full video of Sid Meier delivering the keynote at 2010 GDC: http://gdc.gamespot.com/story/6253256/meier-on-crafting-the-epic-journey-full-keynote-video-inside

    2010 Meier

    Another great show, keep them coming!

  • Thomas Kiley

    While I agree that many people play Civ single player, I agree with Julian that I am most looking forward to how they evolve the multi player. Not because I am only going to play multi player or because I think it will drive sales, but because I think it is the area that Civilization has yet to reach its full potential. Sure, there are modifications they can make to the single player, but even with hexes I can’t see it being that radical, with the multi player, they could really shake things up.

  • frags

    Gamespot has the entire Sid Meier talk on video:


  • Greg Muller

    The only convincing argument I’ve seen for the ‘evil’ of companies like Zynga is the claim that the secret source of their income is NOT microtransactions, but more complicated revenue streams that are rooted in confusion and signing credit cards up for automatic rebilling. This article claims that this is how Zynga has been able to push other Facebook game companies out of the market. The article itself is a little sensationalist, but it links to credible sources for alot of this stuff, including quotes from the Zynga CEO.


  • Paul C.

    I had the same reaction as rsm to the comments about ‘evolving the multiplayer” on Civ. I just can’t see that being a major point of the game, because it really isn’t what most people are looking for from the game. Civilization just doesn’t seem to lend itself to multiplayer very well, for a variety of reasons. At root, there are just too many turns in the game. That means that if you try to get everyone together to play it, it will take more than one play session, or if you do some sort of turn a day/PBEM setup you will be lucky to finish a game in a year. To go along with the large time commitment, you have the other issue brought up in the podcast, i.e. that losing in Civ is not that fun. Mopping up a war or game that you have essentially won can be tedious enough from the winning side, but being motivated to keep sending in turns for months on a game that you know you have lost and have no chance at coming back in? No thanks. It seems to me that to make Civ work well as a multiplayer game you would have to change the fundamental nature of the game so much that it wouldn’t really be Civ anymore.

    On the farmville question, I question whether we can really call them “evil”. Gambling addiction is considered a problem because people can lose their houses, or the money they had saved for their childrens college, or other similarly major things. But is anything like that happening with farmville and other facebook games? Really we are just talking about the way people choose to spend their disposable income. And I can’t see any to say that spending $50 on farmville a year is different than spending $50 on Dawn of War 2.

    The whole argument against farmville seems in some ways similar to objections so-called “hardcore” gamers make to the Wii. They both strike me as kind of territorial arguments. People (gamers) see something fitting into an area (games) they are traditionally interested in, but that doesn’t appeal to them. So they say “this thing isn’t very good”, when really it may be targeted at a separate audience, and is just a matter of taste. We have to just accept that some things aren’t meant for us, and that doesn’t make them bad, just different. What I know of farmville doesn’t sound very fun to me, but if other people enjoy playing it, who am I to say they are wrong? Any other attitude just seems kind of condescending to me.

  • rsm

    @Thomas Kiley

    I have no problems with what you or Julian personally find interesting in the development of mplayer Civ. I have huge problems with any assumption or claim that mplayer will drive or be a significant factor in sales, which is specifically what I was reacting to and the claim that was made on the podcast. I do think that a good mplayer component may add another element to the potential longevity of the game, although, as mentioned time is a factor that make other games more attractive in this respect, I’d rather play Ticket to Ride online than Civ.


    Interesting set of articles. Thanks for the read.

    As an aside, there is a pretty good discussion over at Lum’s site:
    Basically covers the Farmville/VW/Raph Koster stuff. Includes stuff from a couple of the people actually involved.

  • One Move Behind – Standing Athwart History Yelling “Stop!” | RobZacny.com

    […] I am not an optimist. I am skeptical of most changes and need to see evidence that my fears are unfounded before I can abandon them. So when it comes to developments like Facebook gaming or microtransactions, my instincts say that there is great potential for these to be negative developments. This is the source of my misgivings during this week’s Three Moves Ahead. […]

  • Greg Muller

    I asked about water travel at PAX and they confirmed that they would use ‘Embarkation’, which takes a turn to transform a unit into a civilian transport ship. Since civilian units CAN stack with other units, this means you can concentrate your amphibious forces remarkably well. Maybe too well…

  • Dylan

    Julian, Troy, and Rob..

    I know this is late as response to this podcast, but I felt I had to address Julian misconception about why DDO works as a free to play game and what the more likely ramification of all games going this way. His indifferent attitude and use of DDO as an example shows a clear ignorance about the history of that game and its criticisms at initial release and how the free to play model took what were limitations in what people were looking for in a subscription service, but became assets in the piece meal approach of free to play or freemium games.

    DDO, as you all know, is based on D&D 3.5 edition and the game heavily focuses on the dungeon aspects of its namesake. The game centers around a hub city, called Stormreach, where players access dungeons or locations being instantly teleported to an adventure where they go through a pretty typical module style experience and then dumped back at town. With a level cap of 10 at launch and such a tiny amount of content where you’d have to repeatedly run the same dungeons to reach it, the game received heavy criticism from players in the MMO space used to open world games like EQ, EQ2, UO, and of course WoW. Players bemoaned the focus on group play to the exclusion of soloing and the lack of exploration and seamless cohesive world building to play and virtually live in online.

    There are a lot of reasons it lacked the sense of place players wanted, but chiefly and more important to this point were its adventure structure and lack of content. Wow’s key innovations in the MMO space were accessibility (soloing the game level 1-60) and throwing a tonne of content at players, enough so that at launch a player could basically level 1-60 doing only solo level quests (none of which were repeatable). Players could do this not only one time, but twice, once for each faction with its own quests in a persistent space. Players wanted more from their 50 dollars and 15 bucks a month than what DDO had to offer and thus it was a middling to poor performing game.

    Even years later, the complaint about the low amount of content remained, but they admirably tried to address that and issues like solo and exploration, open worldish gameplay. However, to its credit, what content it did have was hand crafted in a way that much of World of Warcraft lacked and that kept it from competing on the amount of content alone. But what was its liability as subscription game, became an asset and increased its accessibility as a free to play game. Its dungeon centric, hub, heavily seamed world made it perfect for breaking up into purchasable pieces for players looking for a game that didn’t come with the level of obligation that 15 dollars a month brings to justify its cost.

    To retrofit WoW’s core experience to this would degrade what it achieved and fundamentally change the game. Not to digress, but raiding in WoW (and Blizzard’s changes to that experience over time) could be… but again, this post is long enough as it is and that’s a slightly different discussion. We do lose something as gamers to this trend, and that’s the seamless cohesive game experience. Just browse the DDO store and apply that to WoW, WoW would be a radically different game since even basic things like bank, bag slots, and participating in the non RMT economy are walled off from F2P players. DDO even has a play a better character option (Upgrade to 32 stat points!). This latter point also shows Julian’s severe naivete about how F2P games are modeled.

    Julian’s under this notion that real games would end up like a virtual arcade, being charged a dollar to three dollars to play X hours of Dominions. This is not how F2P works. Would you be ok with being charged 2 dollars in Acme Points to have your peons run faster in an RTS? How about selecting units, how much would you pay to be able to group select units? For example, pay a dollar to select 5 units, 2 dollars to select 10 units, and 5 dollars to be able to select unlimited units? What if Sins of a Solar Empire shipped with a kludgy UI but a month later you could pay 10 bucks (or even at launch) for the streamlined empire bar? What if they specifically made the UI kludgy to make the added expense of the empire bar more attractive? How much would you pay for access to hotkeys?

    The problem with these games as far as influencing traditional games, is their techniques do undermine good game design and can even be created as such to be antagonistic until you shell out for the downloadable content. Dragon’s Age’s 7 bucks for a chest (oh and Warden’s Keep for example). Dragon Age throws a lot of items at you and even indicates it wants you to horde some until the right moment, but provides you with a relatively limited inventory space that many gamers felt detracted from the overall experience. They basically decided to “fix” that aspect of their game for 7 bucks. Luckily for PC gamers, there’s mods due to Bioware’s release of an editor, but 360 gamers were shit out of luck.

    That is a cause for concern and in my opinion, morally suspect. I’m much more lenient in this regard to games that aren’t trying to triple and quadruple dip with its fees. For example, Guild Wars ships with the complete game, but doesn’t charge a monthly fee even though its online only. Instead you can buy things like characters slots and unlocking skills for PVP competitive play (which is pretty sports like in its approach). I even more lenient with totally free to play games online that use microtransactions as their only source of income (but I might have a few other quibbles there, but that’s yet another discussion). But what I’m not tolerant of, is this idea that this is just a normal sea change that will result in unequivocal good for gamers generally as free to play design principles are retroactively inserted in to traditional designs. I couldn’t imagine a microtransaction heavy, free to play version, of Bioshock 2 that wasn’t a lesser game for it.

    And DDO is an extremely poor example on your part due to its specific design choices that made it seem not quite worth the boxed fee and a subscription for many many people. That made it a somewhat under-performing MMO, but still gave it years of subsidizing as a tripple A subscription product by those that did from which to build its eventually free to play experience which made it seem like an exceptional free to play game. Kudos for the DDO team for turning liabilities in the subscription space into assets in the free to play space, but let’s not pretend it’s something that isn’t very specific to the history of the game and is generalizable to all games and gameplay experiences.

    PS. As an aside in reference to your comment about Portal, their breadcrumb hints were immediately obvious to me throughout the game for what they were, hints to the puzzle solving. They were well done and since I didn’t play more the once don’t remember specifics other than many of them were like blast marks on walls of previous failed attempts, etc. That’s really clever how they integrated those hints into the narrative, but it did deemphasize the puzzles and made playing Portal for me more of a narrative game. It really didn’t feel like a puzzle game until the last 2-3 puzzles for me. Now, I still like portal and think it’s a great game, but people can notice that without having to have this kind of judgemental attitude you project that anyone that would notice what the designers were doing would only want them removed out of some sense of self importance relative to people who can’t figure it out.

    PPS. Again, I think Julian’s assumption that these companies are hiring big name designers to make better games is a bit naive. The more realistic cause is likely that these designers are chasing bigger bonuses and that these designers bring a wealth of experience about human behavior designing games which can be applied to their business model and to better direct their iterative process. I really doubt Richard Garriott’s Sweet Ass Poker has anything to do with improving the art of game design.

  • Ian Bowes (spelk)

    I think the big hoo-hah with games on facebook like Zynga’s Farmville is not about the microtransactions in the business model as such, its more about how a cute friendly free-to-play game is overshadowed with money grabbing pitfalls (like we see on con and scam sites) and abuse of your social contacts in the name of multiplayer interaction.

    You spend a lot of time nowadays when communicating via the Internet deciding whether something is genuine or not, deciding whether something is harmful to you, malicious to your machine, or just a plain scam.

    All facebook games seem to adopt scammers ethics and mix it with a dose of gameplay to dress it up as a “fun thing to do with friends”. Every turn, every click is often masking some probe into your social circles or grab at your wallet, or more sinister a free treat ro reward yourself with, to entice you to shell out for more treats, to go that one step further. I’m all for games earning money from extra content, and I’m not massively against micro-transactions, as long as the player can assess the worthiness, and they know what they’re getting and what it involves.

    Its when its dressed up as something else, to lure you in. Its when your clicks are shrouded with trivial throwaway fun things to do, and behind it is a mechanic to make you not only push money in but also to pyramid sell the concept to your friends.

    If its a pursuit you and all your friends are keen on then fine, go ahead and enjoy the fluff party. But ultimately the crime here is that they’re mixing up sales mechanics inside of gameplay clicks, and they’re embedding chain letter/pyramid marketing inside of gameplay clicks. So it feels like you’re taking part in some elaborate and pastel shaded scam, and you always have to be on your guard, whilst you’re trying to play. And the word “play” doesn’t really describe much of the minimal mechanics that is on offer here.

    I personally don’t see the pay off of Farmville. Too much of a scammers feel to it, too little actual gameplay to enjoy. If you want to build a farm, go buy a casual title, theres billions on Reflexive. You can play that for as long as you want, and have everything in the game available to you at some point. Farmville (and many other Facebook games) seem to only exist to milk a lot of money out of a very tiny and limited amount of gameplay, and their biggest selling point is that you can harass your dear circle of friends whilst you do it. No thanks.