Civilization Decline

The Sid Meier’s Civilization series is reaching its inevitable end

In previous drafts of this article I apologized for the clickbait headline but this time I decided not to. Partly because my childish mind finds it clever in a ‘13 year old’ kind of logic. Partly because I keep writing and deleting this article. What should have been a simple write up turned into a hellish week and a half of multiple drafts.

The difficulty comes from the subject matter. It took me several writing attempts to come to terms with what really bugged me with the Sid Meier’s Civilization series, and how that feeling came to be. In a way, it was shocking. The sort of revelation that had it occurred in a different field of my life would be life altering. However since it revolved around an aging and frankly, dying, computer game franchise had little importance.

The main problem the series always had was a lack of personality. I know that sounds a tad ludicrous. A turn based strategy game having “personality”? Sounds silly, I know. In reality though, games do have personality. It is born from a combination of factors such as graphics, art style (do not confuse the two!), dialogue, story, characters, voice acting, actual game mechanics and so forth. All of these come together to create the game’s “personality”. It is this personality that made me fall in love with Starcraft and Total Annihilation to name a few. It was the complete lack of it that made me drop long time series like Command and Conquer and its spin off Red Alert (why are the third installments always so horrendous?).

The Civilization series has always lacked a personality. In the past, that didn’t really matter since it had little to no competition. After all, the Civilization series was a trail blazer in its inception, putting turn based strategy on the map along with few other games. As time went on though, the Civilization series remained more or less the same while the landscape around it shifted and changed.

I am not going to sit here and claim the series itself hadn’t changed as well. It has certainly polished and further developed its mechanics, making leaps and bounds between certain entries. Graphics had certainly improved, so did the strategic depth to some degree. Tactical gameplay was even added with the removal of the dreaded “death stacks” (the ability to pile many units on the same tile and just demolish everything in their path) and unit upgrades. On the whole the series is far better mechanically and graphically than its previous iterations, but that is a given.

In a way, modern Civilization games remind me of an Ikea showroom or a trophy display case. Cold, alien and really boring. Sure it is well constructed and can be even impressive to watch when its all set in place like in the catalogue. Yet once you try to actually live in it or mess with it a bit, thats when things pretty much fall apart.

It wouldn’t have mattered much to me that current Civilization games are so mediocre, had it not been for Mandalore gaming’s review of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri is pretty much, hands down, the best game ever to come out of the Civilization series. A spin off published in 1999 which was revolutionary for its time. It is a game I still play from time to time to enjoy good story telling, characters and an imaginative world.

I am not going to review the whole game, instead I’ll add a link below to the original review by Mandalore. Of course, seeing an old review wasn’t really what brought me to re-evaluate the entire Civilization series. It was the tacked on review of Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. If you are an Alpha Centauri fan, you would understand the hype that surrounded the game. We had been starving for years for a continuation, or at least an overhaul, of the original Alpha Centauri game into the modern mechanics of Sid Meier’s Civilization V. Civilization: Beyond Earth looked just like that. In the end though, all that hype led to disillusionment and anger at that product we were sold. It was no Alpha Centauri, just a re-skin of Civilization V with the barbarians changed into aliens and everything else being generic to the point of maddening.

Mandalore’s review (highly recommend)

Remembering that colossal failure really brought home just how generic and bland the Civilization series had become, or perhaps had always been. That sort of crystallizing moment where everything falls into place and you finally grasp the bigger picture. Civilization games had always been soulless, mechanical creations devoid of personality. Whatever fun features they had (like the palace that morphed with player achievements) were sandblasted away to deliver the most generic, safe experience. I can’t find real fault with Civilization V or Civilization VI’s core gameplay, but nowadays I can’t find any reason to play them either.

Its a scary thing, to outgrow a series you loved as a kid and as a teen, but it seems like Civilization has nothing really to offer me or any of my friends. We’ve moved on to games that either have more personality or are more mechanically complex. I’ve spent more time playing Paradox Interactive games or re-visiting older iterations such as Alpha Centauri. It is a sign of the times that I couldn’t bring myself to play more than an hour of Civilization V for the purposes of this article. As for purchasing a copy of Civilization VI, I couldn’t justify that to myself. Thankfully I had played a bit on a friend’s copy but overall it just didn’t capture my attention the same way Stellaris or Hearts of Iron IV do these days.

So why the anger, I asked myself? Why am I angry that these games that I loved no longer measure up to present standards? Why am I attacking their character, exposing them as nothing but mechanical constructs lacking a soul? Why am I so bitter about all of this? Well the answer had been provided a few paragraphs before. Because Alpha Centauri exists.

If you watched Mandalore’s review, you’d have seen that Alpha Centauri has the thing Civilization games lacked – Personality. The game oozes it. From the design of the factions, the datalink monologues which are superbly voice acted, the secret project’s (wonder equivalent) videos and base buildings, all of it creates it. Add to it the monument view, an actual story and the alien lifeforms being more than just mere nuisances, and you get a game that earns its place in gaming’s hall of fame. That game came out 20 years ago and seemed to promise not just a new direction for the series, but revolutionary features (such as complex unit customization).

I wrote before that Alpha Centauri was revolutionary for its time, and it certainly was. Sadly though,it didn’t prove to be the series’ French revolution, but rather the 1848 revolution (high brow history joke). In all seriousness, Alpha Centauri’s features never seemed to translate back to the rest of the series, which quickly abandoned it to focus on sandblasting every unique feature so it would all be smooth and easy to learn and generic.

In a conversation with my brother he highlighted that fact to me. Playing a civilization in Civilization V or Civilization VI is meaningless because outside of a couple of unique units, a unique building and a bonus or two, they are all interchangeable. What separates say Russia from Egypt? Egypt can build wonders faster while Russia gets more strategic resources. Compare that to the difference between the Spartans and the University in Alpha Centauri. Each faction had an ideology behind it which could be felt through the datalinks entries and secret projects. You knew what each stood for and how these ideologies came to be. You knew their leaders. Compare that to Civilization where there is no real difference between George Washington and Rahmsas II.

In my eyes, Civilization games became safe and homogeneous so as to appeal to everyone. As pointed out by friends and family, Civilization V was an easy jump in point for newcomers and veterans alike. It had new mechanics and enough changes in the formula to entice old players while proving very friendly to new players who had little to no experience in the turn based strategy genre. Couple it with the graphics and comfortable user interface and you got a very appealing game, for a while. Yet in terms of complexity or feeling, there really is nothing there. Completely soulless.

I pointed before that the series had been a trial blazer. That said, once a path had been established, others would come following through to stake their own claims. In the last decade, crowdfunding and medium sized publishers had been helping to nurse back turn based strategy games. After a long drought, we’ve seen a large boom in the genre with no signs of slowing down. Sure, not every game is a hit, and the Civilization series still dominates the market, but there is more competition which is willing to do what Civilization is too afraid to do: Take big risks.

Endless Legends is one of those competitors. I have my gripes with the game but I have to admit it has many of the strengths Alpha Centauri possesses. It has a narrative, unique factions, style and heaps of personality. Of course it is let down by its awful combat mechanics and laughable unit customization but it still tried. Yes, it faltered in some areas but it still made up for it in many others. On the whole I find it a much more memorable, much more replayable game than Civilization V is.

This was just one example of many, not to mention hybrid games which have taken advantage of advances in computer technology to bring new experiences to life. In this whirlwind of innovation and experimentation, the Civilization series is being rapidly left behind.

The worst part though, is that I know it could do better. 20 years ago the studio behind Civilization released a gem into the market in the form of Alpha Centauri. 9 years ago it overhauled many of the series’ core features. It has the people, the funds and ability. Yet when it tried to re-do Alpha Centauri, it failed spectacularly to the dismay of us all. I think that is the point that sticks with me the most. How could the minds behind Alpha Centauri be so unimaginative and boring 15 years later.

In the show “Misty”, the protagonist Go Hye-ran berates a co-worker that tried to steal her spot as the news anchor. The colleague bemoans Go Hye-ran’s iron grip on the anchor’s chair, saying she doesn’t have that much time in it either way due to her age. Go Hye-ran replies that she will keep that seat because unlike her competitor, she has known real hunger. Not that of the physical kind, but the hunger for the next scoop, the next scandal. Her competition may be younger, but it doesn’t possess the same hunger as her which is why she lost. As I wrote this article, that exchange popped back into my head. How fitting I thought to myself.

Civilization had cemented its spot at the top, but in doing so had become fat and lazy. It became corporate and safe, making that reliable cash but in return, forgot the very hunger that won it that spot. Now younger, hungrier studios are seeking to take its spot and considering the reception for Civilization VI, it may be losing that grip already.

I think that is the greatest tragedy of the Civilization series, its wasted potential. Maybe that is what angers me most. Or maybe I just want Alpha Centauri II

Story Time

The real issue with lack of story in computer games

I have a habit of watching old reviews on YouTube. I either put them as background noise while playing strategy games, or watch them while eating. I enjoy listening over and over to the way different people analyze a game and present their opinions. The focus on certain aspects, the consistency or lack thereof in a series, the style of presentation, I find them all fascinating. I say this because I have recently watched several reviews of various Call of Duty and Battlefield titles.

In particular the Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 reviews had weighed down on my mind. The game, the latest installment in a… somewhat(?) venerated series had launched without a single player campaign, which rubbed certain reviewers the wrong way. Now, I myself had not played a Call of Duty game ever since the first Modern Warfare title whose story was good, not great. I also understand, by watching reviews and reading comments, that the series’ main campaigns had been getting sillier and sillier with each installment. With many people playing Call of Duty for its online portion only, axing the single player campaign seems quite fine. Like removing a vestigial tail. So why were people angry?

This question gnawed at me for a while and when I finally sat down to ponder it, it didn’t take long to reach a conclusion. There are several things wrong with removing a component of a long standing franchise. I may have found the Call of Duty series a pandering mess (just reading the synopsis of some of the titles is enough to induce a migraine) but many people do like these stories and buy the games for the single player aspect (those mad bastards!).

Another issue is the trend chasing. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has sacrificed its single player campaign for a few cooperative missions and a battle royale mod. With so many battle royale games saturating the market already, its no wonder some long standing fans were turned off from the franchise as they felt abandoned by it. After all, if there is one thing Call of Duty was known for was its fast pace, twitch reflex combat. Sidelining it for some battle royale mod, no matter how well implemented, feels like a betrayal of the very core foundation of the series. I know that feeling well considering Battlefield V had a battle royale mod announced for it close to release and as a lifelong Battlefield fan I voted with my wallet and said “no”.

However it wasn’t until Apex Legends that the full answer came to me. See, all the things I detailed above are important. They are core component of what makes Call of Duty basically Call of Duty. It is the reason people pay 60$ at least for the basic game, not to mention season passes, expansions and cosmetics. Angry Joe said it best when he stated that they basically removed a third of the title’s value. That is what at the heart of the removal of a single player campaign; expectations.

It is always about expectations. The computer games industry had conditioned us that certain titles, priced at certain values, will contain a set amount of content. In first person shooters, that content may vary by franchise, but most often its a single player campaign and a multiplayer component. When you purchased Call of Duty you bought a story and an online component. That is why you paid 60$. For a while, that was seen as a reasonable price but with the rise of free to play games and independent titles gaining more mainstream appeal, that pricing point has become tenuous at best.

Thus, when Call of Duty basically threw away one of its key selling points and added a mod that, while I understand functions well, is still anathema to the core experience of the series. So much so that it lost much of its identity and advantage over its competition. This forced fans to ask themselves if they are still willing to support such a title when there are alternatives elsewhere, much cheaper yet just as good. After all, you don’t see anyone going after Apex Legends or Counter Strike: Global Offensive for having no single player story or experience. In fact, both titles are enjoying huge popularity, with the latter being a staple of online first person shooters for decades and the former threatening to unseat Fortnie as most popular battle royale game with its monstrous growth in popularity.

Of course, there are other factors in play here as well, such as Activision-Blizzard’s nickel and diming of its player base, but up until now, that base was fine with some of it so long as the core experience remained the same. Get a new title, play an over the top, cliche laden campaign, have some online matches then move to the next release. Rinse, repeat. Messing with this formula by removing a key component had thrown the whole equation off. How can you justify buying the same title for the same price when it has less to offer you than before? A new battle royale mod is nice and all, but it is still part of the online experience. Merely a new multiplayer mod to add to the rest. It is no substitute for the single player experience.

Activision-Blizzard is not alone in basically gouging out core features that had been the standard in computer games only to sell them back later on or just ignore them completely. We as consumers already lost cosmetics, full game on release, demos, betas and the list goes on. Now we are losing story as well. Just read Electronic Arts’ line on the single player campaign being a mistake or the fact that their first Star Wars: Battlefront game launched without a single player campaign either and the second one included one only due to fan backlash. The reason for the backlash? The pricing.

I pointed to expectations previously and I’d like to repeat it. When we purchase a 60$ game, we expect a certain experience. In major published first person shooters, it is the campaign feature. Regardless of the overall quality and length (a discussion for a separate article), we expect a single player story. It is how first person shooters had slowly evolved. Heck, Call of Duty’s entire success as a franchise to eclipse Battlefield was thanks to the first Modern Warfare’s title blowing everyone’s minds. Having such a poignant story showed everyone that gaming can tackle mature, adult themes while having fun gameplay.

Taking it away is removing a third of the experience. A battle royale game in the Call of Duty series is not a bad thing altogether, and as I mentioned before it seems Blacklight (Black Ops 4’s name for its battle royale mod) is quite a fun experience. However I don’t think, and as comments and reviewers have demonstrated, its worth 60$. There is a reason why Fortnite and Apex Legends are thriving, and that is due to be a free to play experience. I enjoy playing Apex Legends immensely. If it was sold at 30$ I may have bought it. As a full priced release though, I’d hesitate immensely because my expectations of a 60$ title differ greatly from a 30$ or a free to play game.

That is the heart of the matter. As time went by, we as consumers have been getting diminishing returns for the same dollar price. While people argue about inflation and how games should cost more, the consumers have been getting less and less at a time where development costs have remained more or less stable as profits soared. Now they’ve gouged out a major component and sold us the same title, banking on previous installments’ reputation to purchase an inferior version. Its not just insolent, its downright depressing.

It is depressing because people continue to purchase these titles. It is depressing because for all the cost saving, corner cutting measures major publishers deploy, there are still good stories waiting to be told that never get the option or platform to do so. If it weren’t for the stories of the Call of Duty and Battlefield series, we wouldn’t have gotten an amazing title such as Spec Ops: The Line. Now with the story component erased, what is the point of a new installment? To re-do progression? To have a slightly more polished version even though current online connectivity allows patching and overhauls? What differentiates previous Call of Duty titles outside of a reskin? Well, the fact that they offer us less for the same exact price.

This is the ultimate problem with removing story experiences from major titles. It is the exposure of the underlying greed which turns us into cynics and nihilists. What else would publishers strip from their flagship titles? I don’t wish to speculate for fear I’d be giving these people ideas. What is for sure, is that the games we once cherished as complete packages have become a threadbare affair, not worth their asking price. Pour one out for Soap Mactavish.