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Three Moves Ahead Episode 134 – The Alpha Centauri Show

September 15th, 2011 by Rob Zacny · 53 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


Zynga’s Brian Reynolds makes Planetfall on Three Moves Ahead and, along with Soren, Troy, and Rob, founds a discussion of Alpha Centauri. He explains what went wrong with the “Civ in space” idea, and the role of the game’s fiction. He and Soren talk about how Alpha Centauri changed the Civilization series, and take a look at some of its strange features, like the design workshop and climate change. Brian reveals he used the cast album of Les Miserables for inspiration as he wrote for the game, and Troy immediately proposes marriage.

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53 Comments so far ↓

  • Roke

    That was a fantastic episode.

  • Jon Shafer

    Great episode. Was particularly interesting hearing about all the backstory behind some of the inspirations for the game. I never would have guessed that Les Miserables would have had any measurable impact!

    Oh, and I must know – who was busy coding during the podcast? Was that you Soren, or was it Brian? :P


  • Travis

    Great Episode guys!


  • Mike Klaas

    Soren and Brian Reynolds on TMA discussing SMAC? Best episode ever.

  • Danjuro

    Not a constructive comment but : wow… just, wow.

  • Warpstorm

    Great stuff.

    TMA, please more episodes like this.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    It was a great show and though it would be awesome to talk to an industry giant and big brain and let him run away with the show for 30 minutes a week so we can capture the essence of a legendary and important game…that is not exactly easy to arrange.

    And then we would run out of giants and legends and be reduced to asking Julian about board games.

  • Dan Kraegenbrink

    Loved this episode! Now the question is do I play this again?

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Yes, because the second time around Rob embarrasses himself by saying he loves Soren.

  • Dan Kraegenbrink

    Yes, how embarrassing almost as much as saying I love musicals. You da man Troy!

  • Kalle

    I love this podcast so much.

  • MikeO

    I would love to see you guys have Sid himself on, but I really doubt he’s a talker like Reynolds is.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Sid Meier is a great guy and can be very effusive about games once you get him going. He is friendly and awesome, but more reserved than Brian – who is pretty famous for being impossible to stop once he gets talking; one of the best interviews in the business.

  • Larry

    I love your show, you are really hitting your stride, thanks for the hard work, Rob. I just have to say I would pay $5.oo a month for this great audio content. Anyway, what prompted me to post is when Bryan said “historical actual facts” I laughed out loud ’cause Bruce wasn’t there to be solidly gratified. You folks have turned me on to so many great games, board and otherwise, I am out to find 7 Wonders right now- never would have heard of it without TMA.

  • Tony M

    I loved this episode guys. Especially because you spend so much time talking about positive things rather than dwelling on the negative. I used to be a regular listener, but then after Tom left I felt like the show focused too much on complaining about bad design decisions and other negatives. I was drawn back to listening again by Soren Johnson, and I was pleased to hear a generally more positive tone to the show. Please keep it up. I know you guys love games. Let it show through more!


  • Bruce

    More than an excellent episode, Troy. A classic. Brian sounds like he could keep going indefinitely.

  • Rob Zacny

    Tony, my love of games shows through when I do a podcast on them every week, and when I make a career out of writing about them for not a lot of money.

    I know you were trying to pay us a compliment, but frankly I find your sentiments toxic to honest criticism. My job isn’t to tell you how great games are, or how wonderful it is to be a strategy gamer. The truth is most games that I play are average or mediocre at best, and I can’t pretend otherwise just so an audience that wants good news gets to hear some. If you don’t want to hear complaints about bad design decisions, I respectfully submit you’re listening to the wrong podcast.

  • Larry

    On a side note- Alien Crossfire was not mentioned at all. And interestingly on GOG they have Alpha Centauri- but no Alien Crossfire. Was Alien Crossfire Bryans expansion as well, or was it not made with his input, sorta like how Dungeon Keeper 2 did not have Molyneux? Does anyone know?

  • Matt

    “dwelling on the negative”. This isn’t the fault of the Three Moves Ahead panel, surely that is the informed observation of the industry, by people involved with and close to it. That’s comparable to blaming cinemas for showing vacuous movies. It is what it is, and I for one, am pleased that Rob Zacny and the Three Moves Ahead panel give straight opinion always underlined with logic.

  • Homunculus

    If anyone’s on the tipping point of post-podcast reinstallation, there’s two recent mod / patches available, one by kyrub addressing the AI (hey, it got taught how to use supply crawlers!) and one by scient which is a big ol’ bugfixer.

    AI patch: http://apolyton.net/showthread.php/195007-SMAC-444-%28AI-experiment%29

    Bugfixer: http://www.civgaming.net/forums/showthread.php?t=7511

    The former apparently incorporates the latter, but only works in the base game and not its expansion.

    I’ve not had chance to listen to this podcast yet, but the apparent lack of Alien Crossfire discussion posted about above is a shame; I’d’ve loved to have heard something about the various iterations of its development. I heard it rumoured that at one point it was going to feature re-establishing contact with Earth and post-disaster reconstruction efforts.

    Me, I’ve just learnt the value of adding thick armour plating to crawlers in contested areas, providing a mechanical slug Maginot Line.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Now, Rob…Tony was being nice.

    It’s a little rose coloured to think that negativity is a post-Chick thing – Tom could be as brutal on design discussions as anyone but he was also better with an epigram so it seemed nicer. (And did you hear the Age of Empires Online show?)

    We all enthusiastically love strategy games, and have gushed about many things we love. But this show has never really been a cheerleader. Different personalities may make the tone seem different, but the content really hasn’t changed that much.

  • Tony M

    Rereading it, my compliment was a backhanded one, (ironic since I was requesting more positivity). I wasn’t suggesting that you should review bad games as good ones for the sake of “positivity”. And I’m aware that Toms not shy about criticism (even of critic or fan favorite games). Like Troy says its more an issue of tone. Too much negativity without break can feel tiresome, I find myself fast forwarding.

    But podcasting is a less “edited” medium, so I can’t blame the hosts for being themselves, thats why I listen in the first place. Maybe I do need to seek out podcasts that include a cheerleader type host to brighten the tone. In any case, I have just returned to your podcast after a long break, and I enjoyed what I heard, so I should probably listen to more of your recent shows before I start passing judgment.

    PS I certainly don’t want you try and stop Bruce when he goes on one of his crazy old man rants :)


  • Troy Goodfellow

    We’ve had a lot of rather positive podcasts in the last many months – often with the dev there, but not always. Anyway, welcome back Tony and we do appreciate feedback.

    Remember that we flog from love.

  • kenny b

    Why are you guys hating on the unit customization? I really liked it, but probably because I like unit customization in almost every game. I understand that the art wasn’t as good because of it, and the auto-generation of designs made you have to manage it quite a bit, but I didn’t mind all that much. However, I do how making uniques for each faction would add more depth. Your faction choice influences your civics, so why not your units as well?

  • Bruce

    kenny, I don’t like unit customization because it allows ahistorical strategies.

  • Bred

    From Appendix 5 of Alpha Centauri manual:

    Suggested Reading


    Alpha Centauri, The Nearest Star – Isaac Asimov
    Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan; Ann Godoff (editor)


    The Jesus Incident – Frank Herbert
    Dune – Frank Herbert
    A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
    Anvil of the Stars – Greg Bear
    Slant – Greg Bear
    The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
    The Real Story – Stephen R. Donaldson
    Red Mars – Stanley Robinson
    The Year’s Best Science Fiction – ed. Garner Dozois

    This is just the list, I didn’t include all of Brian’s notes for each book, since I’m too lazy to do that much typing.
    Also, I didn’t remember how big the manual was for this game. 247 numbered pages, which is still impressive even though it is printed on roughly half size sheets.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Thanks, Bred!

    My manual is buried somewhere.

  • Jon Shafer


    I can’t speak for everyone, but here’s a few reasons why I dislike unit customization.

    I’ve never seen a game where most of the multitude of combinations are remotely balanced. Usually there are a few good designs and everything else is just kind of “there.” Rarely are you forced to adapt, so after the first game or two you end up making the same units every time. The whole system becomes an extra step for getting at what you really want. As they always say, a good strategy game is filled with interesting decisions, and the unit workshop rapidly became devoid of these. Doesn’t mean it’s not fun to tinker with different possibilities, but there’s almost no reason to do so purely to improve your play.

    As was brought up in the episode, customization also blurs the lines between different factions. Losing unique units definitely hurts the replayability of the game. It would be possible to have unique components in customization, but that would make balancing it even more difficult.

    And while it may not be a big deal for you, having recognizable units is pretty important for non-hardcore players (and by extension, developers). If every time you see a unit you have to mouse over it, then it takes you out of the universe and interrupts the flow of the game, adding another hurdle for getting at the fun. Any time you can make a game easier to get into or play you increase the chances of “just trying it” players turning into hardcore fans. Blizzard and Valve (in Team Fortress 2) have done an excellent job at differentiating the units by shape and color, and they’re kind of the gold standard for the industry.


  • Daniel M

    Great podcast. Alpha Centauri had a greater influence on my teens teens than Civ had, and this, alongside the RPS feature on it has convinced me to reinstall. Was it much hassle to get it running on a modern system?

    Also, Rob, I love the 90-odd minutes of this episode. Although I can understand how a one-hour format makes sense, please don’t feel compelled to restrict it to that. I listen to 3MA at work, so frankly the longer the better.

  • Joe

    Great show..I found it strange that all the leads left their game right after completion. Do the companies toss out incentives to clear out that are too moist to pass up? Or by the time a game is rdy to deploy is the work environment too toxic and contentious? What happened to the professionalism of sticking around and being sure the ship with your name on it actually sails? Did that die with the American car industry? Also I found the reality of IP ownership bizzare. It seems more akin to say the music or hollywood industry rather than say books or art. Why does the “talent” behind these games sign away all rights? Is there some sort of non-competitor clause in your contracts keeping developers from modding and adding to their own games after publishing?

  • Troy Goodfellow


    You can get Alpha Centauri at Good Old Games (gog.com). It is optimized to work on modern systems, though the menus are a little cut off.

  • Jon Shafer


    It takes a lot of money and talented people to make a game. Unless a designer is working on small indie projects, no matter how good he is he’s part of a big machine – there’s hundreds of people involved with every major release these days, from programmers to lawyers and sales representatives. One talented writer can pen an amazing bestseller on his own. That’s not the case in the games business (super rare exceptions like Minecraft aside).

    This means that the corporations hold all the cards. Unless simply including your name in the credits will double sales, companies will never give up IP ownership. There are a few folks in this business that have enough clout to successfully fight this battle, and even then it’s usually a bitter outcome.

    As for why everyone leaves, it’s related to the above. As an employee, a designer can be tasked with whatever management feels is the biggest need, so there may not be that opportunity to see if the ship sails, as you put it. Everyone wants to work on interesting things. Most designers want to work on different kinds of projects. Public companies are beholden to their stockholders and their duty is to be as profitable as possible. In the entertainment industry, that usually means more sequels and fewer risky projects. Not necessarily a good or a bad thing, simply the way it is.


  • phunkee

    Nice episode on a very interesting topic.

    But on the AI and a sequel. I wonder how AC would get received today. When AC was released people didn’t demand a truly ‘balanced’ game and not everyone had internet access. The AI in AC is suffering because of it’s roleplaying nature and would get ripped apart by the fan community today.

    Same goes for the unit workshop. Even if there are some builds which are clearly better, people actually had to figure out those. Today, you would just hit the web and know the answer before you even have installed the game.

    However, I think the unit workshop gets love by some simply because it lets people create. Without the skills required to make a mod then features such as the unit workshop is the closest thing you got to “make your own game”. People like to customize things.

    Strategy games are a lot more than “interesting decisions” and strategical depth. Alpha Centauri is one of the games that actually proves that since its main strength is the atmosphere(another would be the deeply flawed Colonization). There’s a reason why people respect chess but play something fun instead :)

  • Joe

    Thanks for the reply Jon..maybe the developers need to unionize or something..there cant be that many people out there who are both creative programers and effective managers..which means developers should be have a lot more “hand” in the relationship than they currently do. Especially the ones with both those characteristics and a willingness to be employed in a corporate environment

  • Erik Hanson

    That’s a big can of worms, Joe, but I will throw out that, like many other “dream” jobs, there is too deep a pool of young graduates who would love to make games regardless of compensation and will not demand the benefits that a union might provide. With so many standing in line for your job (especially at lower levels), it’s difficult to ask for better compensation or IP rights.

  • MFToast

    Great stuff, guys. I played Alpha Centauri as a kid and I still play it now. As far as the design workshop, I always saw that they were all using the same units because they all came from the same ship, which I would imagine wouldn’t be loaded down with each faction’s special curly tanks or mobile tree houses, just for the sake of practical space travel. A tractor in Spain looks the same as a tractor in California, they were probably built by the same company anyhow. Also, I felt that it gave me finer control of the cost of each unit based on the situation. Anyways, not to preach, some people loved it, some hated it, and some don’t really care either way. I’ve always felt that the story and setting surpass most of what’s out there. Cheers!

  • Tristanc

    I can say that I’m one who thoroughly enjoyed having the unit customization workshop. Yes, there were problems with the interface and maybe some of the mechanics of it, but it gave the player a great deal of control to mold the type of units that best fit the needs at the time. So here’s a cheer to the member of the design team of SMAC that urged it to be kept in the game!

  • steel

    Great episode, good as described.

  • Daniel M

    Thanks for the tip Troy. GOG has been a godsend of sorts over the last couple of years. This is the first time I’ve had a podcast on repeat. A singular accolade! Simply a great show guys.

  • laler

    It’s interesting how many “legendary” game devs of old are knowledgeable about many things, but are not very knowledgeable, or are into, videogames.

    Its also interesting how same “legendary” game devs now create some crappy phone games, or similar garbage, in some net hole nobody knows about. People like Romero, or Zurovec, or Barcia…rest in peace, Brian Reynolds, your gamedev life was impressive.

  • Larry

    laler, I dunno if you are trolling, but you and I both know we would sell our mortal souls for Reynolds’ “Amazing shooter RPG game in the AC universe- Mass effect but with these other things and strategy elements . . .”

    So STFU

  • Official SMAC Thread

    […] to be like Mass Effect. I'm not joking. Huh? That might be the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Behold the Alpha Centauri podcast, wherein Brian crushes our dreams. It's actually pretty interesting and worth a listen for fans […]

  • Larry

    Anyway, AC is one of those properties that I would be very excited about hearing of a follow up and at the same time kinda sad . . .

    Perhaps that would be a good podcast gents, (before our childhood memories are totally pillaged!) . . .

    –Games that are so good they DON’T deserve a follow up.–

    tagline: ***Let Beautiful Art Be!***

    I will submit some:
    they made DK2 but DK1 is superior- except for graphics.

    Alpha Centauri+ expansions (please leave the F* alone)

    Colonization (oops, they made that!)

    X-Com (oops, they’re making that as a shooter- just for you!)

    All I know is if they touch Ultima4 or 5 I will freak. Bards Tale anyone . . . Kings Quest, Space Quest . . . Wasteland . . . I forgtot they bent Pool Of Radiance over the table a few years ago.

    I guess I’m getting into RPGs and Adventure games but you see my point . . . aren’t some games amazing and great and DONE?!?

    Does this digital tapestry that this hobby is woven on lend itself to not only mimicry but self adhesiveness- wherein one game or property might now morph into another by mods or patches [see LOL]?

    It creates and enviornment where nothing is deemed ‘done.’. See Minecraft.

    But are not some of these pieces of art great and should be left as is, to be enjoyed. Can a game like the 1st Kings Quest be enjoyed by a 10 year old today? Are the corps. right in saying we should reframe it and sell it again 25-30 years later for profit (from an innovation or nostalgia selling aspect) or do y’all agree that some babies should be put to bed and left there?

  • Larry

    And Planescape:Torment = DONE

  • Allen

    I don’t need SMAC 2, but an update so we can play it in an unscaled windowed environment, would be nice. Civ and SMAC have always been analogous to text based strategy gaming. The game system is interesting and fun. But the graphic design and implementation of the said design is usually ugly, even when they are technologically superior to the 8-bit Famicom, their sprites, either static or animated, are worse. While I can ignore ugly sprites, I cannot stand scaled ugly sprites. Which is also the problem with the unit workshop, the sprites are just ugly, nor did they design a slightly differentiated set for each fraction.

  • Brian Reynolds

    @Joe – note that we usually DO say until the “ship has sailed” and it’s in between games that we have a chance to consider a different publisher/studio. After SMAC I’d written 3 back to back turn based strategy games and wanted to try an RTS.

    @Larry – good news I don’t think they can really touch Ultima 4 because how do you market something called “Ultima 4 II” :-)

    Also… for those looking for the full bibliography (and indeed the whole manual), I notice that it seems to be available here!

  • Chuck

    I never knew a commentary on strategy games would be so great haha. I been playing a lot of starcraft 2 not sure if I should hop into the alpha centauri type games.

  • Larry

    Allen, yeah, it sucks when a game is so great but the graphics are so outdated, and our new bigger and better resolution monitors only worsen the problem. I loved DK1 but God, it’s hard to play now with those graphics!

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  • Rob C

    It’s funny, but I must be the only Civ fan who didn’t like Alpha Centauri. I think it introduced good features to the series, but I just couldn’t get into it due to the names of things. It just took too much effort to translate the names into things that were meaningful to me. To me AC’s contibution was making the next Civ game much better.