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Galactic Civilizations III Interview – The Process Behind Creating a Superior 4X

I had the chance to sit down with Paul Boyer, the lead designer on Galactic Civilizations III. The game is a very ambitious follow-up to the 2006 Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, and I tried to focus on what exactly makes the sequel worthy of the pedigree the franchise has established.

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Niche Gamer: I think the biggest change is obviously the addition of multiplayer. And to me that seems like the biggest focal point – can you talk about how you added multiplayer to the game? Like, the troubles and tribulations involved in doing so?

Paul Boyer: Multiplayer was really a challenge because, well, the heart of our game is really the sandbox. We really didn’t want GalCiv to turn into another tournament game where you just bump heads with one another.

I mean, you can. We added a few maps that are balanced to play against each other. But our focus was to get co-op in there, so you can play around in the sandbox. We really focused on making multiplayer as much like a sandbox as possible. I think it worked out really well. Our focus was to make it the most fun for people who wanted to play kinda co-op-y games. That’s where the bread and butter is. You’ll really get the experience of you against the world in the sandbox where the galaxy comes to life.

It’s not just about the numbers and build orders you need to know to beat your friend, rather it’s about having you and your friend tag-team the A.I. and having fun in the sandbox.

NG: Would you say that it’s Civilization, but in space?

PB: Well, we wouldn’t say that really. I mean, it’s a similar game, but it’s definitely grown into its own – its own genre, and its own thing.

You know, like playing Civilization is you taking control of your city and you go after other cities, and for some reason, it’s really cool and fun and a great game. But when you’re doing it on a galactic scale, it adds so much more weight to every decision.

You know, you lose a whole planet, and it’s a big deal. Or you find a planet that’s gonna be awesome there’s a real “Wow” there. Discovering things on the galactic scale is a big deal.
We really like to push diplomacy and the fact it’s not just a war game, too. You’re meeting other races, you’re trading with them, you’re making alliances, and sure, sometimes you’re killing them, but you don’t have to feel like you’re being dictated on how to play the game and I think that’s why people love it so much.

NG: Speaking of the overall playability of the game, I think is this the first in the series to use hexagons?

PB: Yes! So we actually lost some dev times cause we started using squares, and I came on and said I really wanted to use hexagons. I was worried it was going to cost too much time. I brought it up to Brad and he said “Well, you’re the designer. If you want to use hexes…”

I was like, “But it’s going to cost time,” and he says, “Well that’s your problem, isn’t it?” […] When you find something like that, I really thought we needed something like that. Players can trust their move counts much more with hexes than squares, since things like diagonal movement on squares is all weird.

So, we made the switch, and we’re really happy with the way it all turned out. And in some strange way, the hexes even feel more science-fiction-y, right? [laughs]

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NG: What do you think are some of the biggest changes going from the final beta to the full release?

PB: Well, the biggest thing is just memory, performance, stability, and AI. The AI is maybe the biggest improvement between the two; in beta 6, we’ve already cut memory down hugely, and stability has been drastically improved, with turns being quicker than before. And stability is better than ever. We’re really happy with it.

Now that we finished the main part of it, we were able to start optimizing. It’s really difficult to add something, stop midway through to optimize and then continue, so we had to try to make everything workable as we went, but now that we’ve gotten the base game finished, we can really focus on optimizing the way it runs. Suddenly we were cutting memory and downtime during the game down drastically every day.

You know, I know that the beta players are having a lot of fun, and it makes me really happy. The positive feedback has become much more prominent, and it’s very encouraging.

NG: So with Early Access…it has somewhat of a bad reputation at this point. How has the response been with players who opted in to back the game pre-release? Pretty positive?

PB: Well, you know I kinda walked into this blindly ’cause I’m just a designer and I just do what they tell me, but I didn’t ever think of Early Access as something to even think about because we’ve always done this – we’ve always had external betas that we gave to the preorder people. But the difference here is now it has a name and there’s Steam where the audience is huge compared to what is was before. So for us, we’ve always done this, and we get great feedback from people and we figure this is our way of getting people who aren’t just looking for a free game but are actually interested in the game and will give us constructive feedback.

And there was some bumps in this because of this weird reputation that Early Access has acquired, but there was never even a consideration for us that the game would not ship. There was never any consideration the game would not get done. It was just, hey this way we can get people testing. I didn’t even know it was a thing for people to go into Early Access and essentially pay for their game to be developed. That was really a shocker. Like, well, you guys are crazy. Then I started looking around and saw why people are so skeptical. And it didn’t help us, I think, with some feedback, but I’ll say we got great stuff. And A lot of really good changes, and a lot of really good user feedback has helped us with a couple really big features. A TON of tweaks. And that’s very helpful.

So…it was not without bumps, but it was really encouraging. I dunno what Stardock’s policy on Early Access will be, but I think it was totally worth it. And I think that everybody will be very happy, especially the founders with a lot of DLC and a lot of expansions planned – all of those people who bought it early with the founder’s pack are going to get those all for free. That’ll hopefully make a lot of people very happy.

NG: So I saw some examples of player made ships already – some of them look really cool! I was curious. Do you guys have fears about the moderation on these? Like people making phallic ships, for example?

PB: [Laughs] That happens. We’re probably going to open it up to the workshop so they can share ships. At that point, there will probably some form of moderation to be sure it doesn’t get too crazy. But really it not an issue. I look at the steam forum and Id say our biggest problem is copyright infringement because people make like 17 million [USS] Enterprises. But there’s amazing, amazing things being made. It blows my mind. And I’m like the godfather of that designer – that was my baby- and I like to think I’m good with it, but I see people make stuff with it and it blows my mind.

They make things that look like they’re full on 3d models and it’s really impressive.

NG: That’s cool…I actually wanted to touch on that too – the ship builder – what kind of changes and improvements have you made? Would fans that tinkered with it before be encouraged to go all out?

PB: It depends on how old they were, really. Obviously it’s a huge improvement over GalCiv 2, it hasn’t changed too much since beta 4 or so, but we’re pretty happy with it, but I would like to make another pass at it on an expansion. It’s pretty robust though.

The hardest part is balancing the line of letting people quickly bang together a ship versus allowing people to really design a crazy thing as a ship. It’s like if we tailor a little more to the advanced users, the normal people can’t use it but if we go too simple, people get annoyed. We’ll keep tweaking it, and I’m sure the ship designer will get many improvements through GalCiv’s lifetime.

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NG: Ok, cool. So Tech Trees. It sounds like you guys have made big strides with this. We actually mentioned this as a big specific in our preview. Comparing the humans like a blank slate or the Drengin with their total domination. Could you talk about the tech trees? And it sounds like they’re actually improvements to navigating them and figuring out like if you want to focus on diplomacy or military conquest. It sounds like it’s a big improvement over GalCiv 2

PB: Oh, well compared to GalCiv 2, they’re amazing. Actually, one of my calls was to cut Tech Trees down from GalCiv 2. And I kind of did, but then I blew it back up, and we ended up adding all these specialization. So, there are four tech trees per race. And there are sub-trees. An economy focused one, a colonizing focused one, one focused on new ships, and one focused on your military. And every race has some minor differences, but there are a lot of shared techs between races. And we did that so when people trade, things make sense.

You don’t want to be playing a synthetic race, and go “Here! Here’s some synthetic food!” And another race is like “I can’t eat that, it’s useless to me.” So we made sure to share a lot of things, and we block a couple techs from being traded. but the real money in the tech system now is like each race has some unique things, but there are also specializations. Like when you go up the missile tree and research missiles. I go to the next tech and it’s choosing a specialization. I can shoose to make them lighter, cheaper, maybe more damage? Or firing faster? There are a few options, and you only get to pick one.

That means that everyone gets one, but you can go trade with somebody for other specializations. It’ll really encourage players to go out there and trade and work with each other if they want those things. But the end result is that every player in every game will become more unique every game because depending on the choices you make, the player will play differently. And these changes will apply to the AI too.

So these tech trees kind of become like a build-your-own tech tree per game which is really exciting. Oh, and the other side effect of this was we had to add a search function because the trees are so big. [laughs] We have like a google search at the bottom of the trees. I even thought about adding a minimap for the trees. [laughing]

NG: Okay, so this one is actually from a fan. You as a designer, what part of the game currently has you waking up in a cold sweat wondering if you’ll perfect it? This comes from ScottMcAvoy.

PB: I dunno about waking up in a cold sweat. The truth is nothing is ever perfect. You get it as far as you can. As a matter of fact, when things are perfect, they aren’t fun! Some times you have to go in and break things so the player can make choices and find little exploits so the players can feel like they discovered something clever or they have a great strategy.

Morale though has always been hard to balance. I even just made some changes today. Like, I moved something by 0.1. You know, this penalty is a little too high. Little things like that always bug me. But I’m sure the game is fun as it is right now! I’m sure someone will find something eventually that will give me an ulcer, but I’m all pretty happy with it.

But the minute we start on patch 1 and the first expansion, all this starts again so we’ll always find ways to optimize things and make things better. It’s quite a rollercoaster.

NG: I have another question…this is coming from you as a design standpoint too – what elements or philosophy of games interest you and what constitutes a well-designed game? This is from Larry Carney.

PB: Oh wow, that’s a good question…If you had asked Brad [Wardell] he’d have an answer right of the top of his head. For me I’d say what constitutes a well designed game is one where every little choice and thing you do matters, but you don’t feel like making one wrong choice makes you a failure…right? So you want every choice to matter, but everything be equally broken so that everybody feels like they made the smartest decision all the time. And it may have been!

And for sandbox games in particular, so much of it is about the players creating their own world as they go and that’s what makes it fun for me. One of the things I love in design is allowing the player to make their own world alongside the game. We’re not about telling a steady story – we want players to make their own. What I’m after as a designer is making the player feel like they’re living their own unique story each game.

But yeah, the hardest and most important part is making all the possible choices interesting without punishing players for making a specific decision.

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NG: So, this is gonna be a tough question I think. But – What is your favorite race? And why?

PB: Oh….it’s changed like 5 times making this game. I really like the Iridium. I really like to play as a trader and an economic powerhouse, and they have a lot of bonuses toward that and are good at trade. Right now though I’m really enjoying playing the Thalian because they have a bunch of research things and a bunch of miniaturization techs and a bunch of universal shifty things. If you do it right, they can actually get more weapons on a ship than anyone else in the game. But I mean, that was the last tree I worked on, so after I built it I fell in love with it as I played with it.

But they’re all fun….If I had to say, I guess I’d go with the Iridium. They have cool shiny ships.

NG: So I have another more technical question. So requiring 64-bit machines – how has that effected your design process? Did it give you more free reign to go crazy with graphics and such? How did effect the game?

PB: Well we do have to keep in mind that lower end systems play the game. But almost everyone runs a 64-bit system now so it’s not a big deal. Memory is actually what limits the game most right now because the maps can get so big. And then the irony of that is that the thing that 64-bit gets us is the ability to do 100 races on a 500,000 tile map, you know? But the problem is that it’s not graphics or assets or the memory of the assets, it’s the sheer amount of data that 100 races produce each turn that we have to track. That’s what the 64-bit allows us to do. Otherwise the game would’ve just choked.

And this also future proofs us as we go into future expansions, we can make more interesting maps, we can make more interesting assets, and whereas had we stuck with 32-bit we would’ve been stuck with probably about the second largest we have, and we would’ve had to limit the players to like 32. That’s what we really got out of 64-bit. For me, the best part of the 64-bit system is just the scope it allows. We can do more, and do it quicker because of the 64-bit.

NG: So another thing I wanted to touch on was planet development. This seems like another really cool improvement you guys have done with a heavy emphasis on zoning in GalCiv 3. Could you talk about that?

PB: I was actually worried about this because it wouldn’t mean anything and it would cause people to micromanage their planets. It went through a few iterations before it became what it is now. It’s kind of like each planet is like playing a little game of Tetris where you – actually maybe that’s a bad analogy. But you go and make your plan, place a bunch of buildings, maybe leaving a spot for when you get fusion power or whatever, and you can strategize on these plans. I’ve seen people posting crazy amounts of adjacency bonuses because they work out just the right combo with the right wonder and the right tech bonuses. It really adds so much to the game. Especially late game.

The beauty of it is, because of the way things upgrade you can plan out your whole planet on basically the same turn you colonize a planet – or even turn 1. And the difference between a planet being good or great is all about your adjacency bonus. But it’s also not a show stopper. If you don’t do it right, it won’t ruin your game. It’s going back to what I talked about before, where you want interesting choices without too many penalties. We even talked about things giving negative adjacency bonuses. It was an interesting gameplay choice, but it’s not fun! I’m just punishing you. Rather than getting negative, the punishment is just the lack of a bonus.

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NG: So talking about balancing, it sounds like you have these really massive battles with dozens and dozens of AI or even players. How’ve you guys tackled that with all the various races? And has that been a big challenge for you and the team?

PB: Well, it’s a challenge, but it’s also one of the beauties of a game like this. You want everybody to be interesting and everyone needs something that makes them feel overpowered to the player, without being actually overpowered. Basically, as long as any given thing can be countered somehow – it may not be easy – then we’re a little easier on letting things be a little imbalanced.

But, like I said, being equally broken is our goal. We want it all to be fun, and we don’t want anything to be a “win” button. But we also never want any players to feel like “I don’t have that!” or worry about one race not having something that another race has. Everyone needs to have something that everyone else doesn’t have.

Really the challenge in turn-based games is not really balancing – that part kind of just happens. The hard part of balancing is actually the maps. A good or bad starting positioning can change and dictate the whole game. It’s why we have so many maps. Some people like playing with all of 3 or 4 planets, while others like to play with 100 or more planets. We’ve tried to keep things working in both instances.

Our challenge is not so much balancing the races, it’s balancing the scope. The vast array of what the game allows. Balancing that sort of stuff is what keeps me up at night. [laughs]

NG: Ok, so I have to ask this question because I love pirates, and especially space pirates – they’re way cooler – so, it sounds like they aren’t quite as robust as they could be. Is there a chance for them to be bigger in an update or an expansion?

PB: Well, right now what we have is pirate bases that will raid you and give you something to kill early game. Pirates will also guard anomalies. Sometimes you can even see a portion of a defeated group or race go pirate. And they’ll wreck you.

We don’t have a way to currently interact with the pirates, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that in the future.

NG: So you mentioned anomalies. I think they’re a really cool feature; is there any way you can possibly expand upon them? And can you talk about them for a bit for fans who’ve not played GalCiv before?

PB: So anomalies are just little things out in the galaxy you can survey and find. They vary from things like a gag to things that will give you an attack, or boost your current research. You can find new ships now too, but they’ll often be guarded by pirates.

I do want to expand that in either DLC or an expansion where we add more that can act like counters that can give you choices. We want to bring in some ideological choices to the anomalies. So your survey ship will go “Oh! I can either have this, this, or this…” There’s definitely a lot more coming attached to the anomalies in the future.

NG: One thing I love a lot in GalCiv are the star bases. I think they’re a really cool feature – could you talk about their role in GalCiv 3 and any major changes you made to them?

PB: Well the major change is that now we have mining and the way mining is done by star bases and by ships. You can mind multiple star bases and multiple resources from one star base. And that’s pretty crazy – if you find the right spot, you could be mining 3 or 4 things.

Mostly we wanted to beef them up a little and make them more important – oh! And a huge difference from GalCiv 2 which I forgot we added since it was so long ago. You can station ships on them now. They’ve kind of become little mobile planets. Since you’re able to station a whole fleet there, they’re much easier to defend now. There’s a bunch of new things you can do with them too that are really interesting.

The whole point behind them is basically a non-combative way to spread your influence. If you don’t want to conquer planets, you can instead build a star base that will expand your influence. You can even boost your military and economics by having nearby star bases. There’s all kinds of fun stuff you can do with them now, and I’ve got tons of ideas involving star bases that I want to add in, and maybe even a star base focused expansion or update.

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NG: So obviously fleets are a big part of the game. Now it doesn’t sound like you’re forcing players to expand and have a variety of types of ships in their fleet, but it does seem like you’ll reward it. Can you talk about the different types of ships and fleets?

PB: Well what we wanted to do was make it so that masters, you know, advanced players, can make their fleets optimized to do particular strategies, or be particularly good against particular types of enemies. So we have all these different roles. You can actually create support ships that will boost all of the stats in your fleet, or dampen the stats of your enemies. You can create guardian ships that can guard other ships. You can create assault ships that will run out in front and try to take out the enemy support ships.

So there’s all these different roles, and those are essentially created by the components put on the ship. Stats like threat value and fortitude, for example, dictate what the ship is good for. Like you’ll get this ship that’ll say “I’m gonna be an escort, and I’m gonna do this.” And it’ll tell you “I’m going to defend capitol ships.” And the capitol ship will go in and kill things, and the ship will hang around it. The whole attack order is determined by the stats, too.

As a rule, the capitol ship will not die until all of its escorts are shot down. So you could create little strategies around that. The last bit we did decide to let people assign to flat out assign those roles. You can, if you want, build a ship’s stats and then decide what kind of role you want them to perform. You can really go into the nitty-gritty of the strategies and build the way you want.

NG: So I also remember seeing stuff on custom races. It sounds like a really incredible feature – could you talk about that a bit?

PB: Well, the custom races are built the same way our races are made. We actually exposed, I’m pretty sure everything, but you can go in and say “I want this style ship, I want this leader…” You know, you can pick a picture of your best friend or whatever and put it up as your leader. And all kinds of things. But the real big part is you can pick a traits and building your race’s strengths. You can pick a trait, for example, and decide you want to be fast. That might get you two extra moves per turn, but that will be 2 points you can’t spend elsewhere.

And then you get to pick an ability. Which is some of the more special things. Like the Terrans have an ability that will make their star ship yards won’t decay as fast as everybody else’s, which means that they can move their ships farther away, which means they could maybe have more planets sponsoring a shipyard. It’s big things like that. There’s another race that starts knowing where everybody is. Or one that lets you know all the techs, or one that gets you extra tech points at the start of the game.

Now as a custom player, you can rearrange those all you want, pick the ones you like, and the game will play literally like you have a whole new race. Then where it really gets interesting – you can create races that the AI can play against you. Going through that way, there’s a personality page where you can set what tech tree that race will use, what its priorities are; you could say this guy really cares about scientific stuff, this guy is xenophobic, and this guy is aggressive, and so on. It’ll let you create races that will be more likely to be an ally, or races you’ll hate. And they’ll all act entirely differently. And going forward, we want to add even more, like the ability for players to write dialogue for races, and such…we have a lot of ideas with this going forward.

NG: So I know modding will be a big thing. I wanted to ask how open you guys are with modding? And would you ever consider fans sell their mods?

(The PR lady stepped in here)

I can actually answer that for you. The answer is yes. The company has always been pro modding. When the whole Valve paid mods debacle happened, I was with Brad in San Fran on a media tour, and we had discussions about this at length. And we’re very pro-modding, very pro-modding professionally. We think it’s great for games, and you know, some of the executives that work for Stardock actually started out as modders. So as a career path, we think it’s viable, it’s good, and I’m happy to get any sort of official commentary from Brad on that. But like Derek Paxton, for example, who’s the vice-president of Stardock and runs the entertainment arm of the company he started out as the modder of Fall From Heaven which is arguably one of the most successful Civilization mods ever. He started with that, it was a huge success, he made a few other mods, and we really liked his work, and knew him from the internet. And he came to work at Stardock and that was a while ago, and now he’s heading up the development of the company. We definitely support mods.

PB: We are definitely supporting mods in general. We’re going to make it so you can share ships and stuff, so at the very least, the easiest thing will be to use the Steam Workshop to share races and ships pretty early on, and then we’ll add more stuff as we move forward. And as far I know, all that stuff is going to be free. But we don’t have any strong stance on or against paid modding. I tell people when I started here by working on icons for free. And then they said that if I wanted to make a big special pack I could sell it, and I did, and the world exploded. People were coming from everywhere yelling “Icons should be free!” and such. But then a year later no one thought about it, no one cared, and there were other people selling them, and there were plenty of free ones. So I’ve kinda lived through this already in a little teapot version, so…

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NG: So coming off of modding, do you have any concerns with having certain material up as a mod, especially now that you’re attached to the Steam Workshop? Like a bunch of copies of The Enterprise for example.

PB: This is another question not really for me [laughs] but I can say that I personally want to let people make whatever they want to make. I mean, hundreds of people have already made versions of The Enterprise and love playing with them, and I think that’s great. But we’ll never take someone else’s property like that and try to repackage and sell it.

NG: Ok, so last question, even if it is a bit of a silly one. For players coming from GalCiv 2, or even players from the outside looking in; is GalCiv 3 a big improvement over 2? And could someone who has never played GalCiv before but is a strategy game fan come in and just enjoy playing this one?

PB: Well, yeah – Oh hey. Look at that. Just found a bug! [Laughing] It’s certainly a lot more friendly than GalCiv 2 was. I think we’ve hit it nice and solid, we’re very happy with it. I mean, it’s essentially a bigger, prettier, easier to play, with more resources and more interesting gameplay dynamics. GalCiv3 is a bigger, badder, deeper, fuller version of GalCiv 2, and if you liked GalCiv 2, I think you’re going to love GalCiv 3. And despite all of that, it’s more friendly and fun than GalCiv 2 was, so I definitely think anyone – whether they’ve played 2 or not – could get into and enjoy this game.


I’d like to thank Paul Boyer and the very kind Stardock Entertainment PR lady for setting up this interview! Niche Gamer regularly interviews developers on a variety of subjects—if you’re a developer and want to chat with us, please contact us!

Galactic Civilizations III launches this Thursday, on May 14th, on Steam. Expect a review from us for the title in the near future.

,
Brandon Orselli

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Owner and Publisher at Niche Gamer and Nicchiban. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry. Pronouns: Patriarch, Guido, Olive.