Civilization Online: Turning a strategy classic into an MMO

The Civilization series is being reimagined as a large scale online multiplayer game. Does it have a chance of retaining what made the original games great?


Multiplayer is nothing new to the heralded Sid Meier's Civilization series, but what would happen if you took its turn-based, small group focused style and blew it up into a massively multiplayer online game where thousands of people were playing at once? And what if each of those players wasn't actually in charge of a civilization, but were members of a larger community that had to work together to plan and execute their chosen civilization's strategy? Would it still even feel like a Civilization game?

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That's the challenge in front of Korea's XLGames, the developer in charge of creating Civilization Online, an MMO variant of the famed strategy series. Unlike the free-to-play Sid Meier's Civilization World (which shut down at the start of this year), this latest attempt at a massively online Civilization won't be a stripped down variant of the deeply complex PC game, but a whole different beast that takes elements of Civilization and places them inside an MMO frame. Instead of being the ruler of a civilization, you'll play as one of its subjects in session-based matches. Your individual "quests" within the MMO will contribute towards your chosen civilization's overall goals, with the aim being to defeat three other factions vying for supremacy.

The game is the latest Western franchise to try its hand at becoming a large-scale online experience. Ubisoft launched its Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Online service last year, while Activision's Call of Duty Online recently went into its alpha stage in China. But while both Ghost Recon and Call of Duty simply replicate their respective gameplay in an always-online world, Civilization Online's move to be a completely different game to what most fans of the series have come to expect makes it a more challenging--and risky--conversion. It's still very early days for the game, but turning Civilization into a "traditional" MMO that somehow retains the qualities that made the original games special will be a Herculean task.

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In charge of development is XLGames' Jake Song, one of the best-known game developers in South Korea, particularly for his work on the MMO Lineage: The Blood Pledge. We recently conducted an interview (via email) with Song to try and dig up some more details on Civilization Online, and while there was plenty he couldn't disclose, he did outline how players will interact with the game world, as well as his thoughts on whether the title will be free-to-play.

Why make Civilization into an MMO? What aspects of an MMO are you bringing into this game?

Song: I myself am a big fan of Civilization. My favorite was Civilization 2, and I played over many sleepless nights. Then one day 2K Games suggested making an online version of Civilization. I thought it was a difficult yet intriguing challenge, but it was worth a try.

We are working to bring Civilization’s aspects into an MMO rather than bringing MMO aspects to Civilization. For example, if a certain civilization achieves victory the session ends, which is very much a Civilization aspect. Change of eras as technology is developed, exploring new maps, or building wonders to new cities are also taken from Civilization, too.

Can you explain in more detail the MMO aspect of this?

Song: It's not exactly an MMORPG, but it has MMO features in it. Civilization Online is a session-based game where thousands of players can play simultaneously in a seamless world during each session.

Much of the ideological gameplay in the Civilization franchise is being developed into actual actions and activities players perform or engage in, such as gathering, exploring, constructing, and crafting. Basically there will be four player factions at launch, where each civilization competes against one another to achieve victory over the others. At the start, players get to choose a civilization they want to join. While cooperative gameplay will be essential in building and advancing the civilization they are a part of, competitive gameplay will be dominant when playing against other civilizations.

When a civilization meets one of the victory conditions the session ends, and the data accumulated during the session gets reset. However, there will be some persistent elements that are accumulated and carried over to next sessions.

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Being an MMO, how will the gameplay experience differ from previous titles in the franchise? What has had to be changed? What stays the same?

Song: The most apparent change is the player perspective. In the Sid Meier’s Civilization series, players take on the role of a ruler and control all units and manage the entire civilization alone. In Civilization Online, players start out as citizens of a civilization and have opportunities to build their way up to leader figures in the game but will need to be joined by other fellow players in cooperative gameplay to triumph over other civilizations. Whereas in Sid Meier’s Civilization one player decides the strategy for the entire civilization, in Civilization Online players of the same civilization will need to work together to discuss, build, and execute a winning strategy for their civilization to raise the chances of winning. Civilization Online itself is a lot like the original Civilization but with a MMO shell. It has aspects of traditional MMORPGs but also has familiar game elements of the franchise, such as developing technology across time or having different victory conditions to achieve.

Since Civilization Online is a real-time MMO and not turn-based, players don’t have to be online all at the same time like they would normally do in a turn-based game. At the same time, due to the MMO nature of the game, the number of players that can play simultaneously will be in the thousands, so the player scale is much different.

Are players able to group up in clans to form a unified civilization under one banner? Or will players form temporary alliances like in previous Civ titles?

Song: The base of grouping in Civilization Online is the 'civilization' as each player becomes a citizen of one. However, we are planning to support community systems such as guilds and friends list.

What else can you tell us about how players will cooperate to move their civilization forward? Can you give us a specific example of how technologies will be researched?

Song: Cooperative gameplay will be most useful when it comes to building wonders or founding new cities since it will require lots of resources, time, and effort. Without going into too much details, we are designing the game so that players can naturally engage in the gameplay they want to, whether it being hunting, gathering, constructing, combat, or crafting, and have the game system accumulate the data and gradually increase tech research points in the background.

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You mentioned you could eventually become a leader. Can you expand on that?

Song: We are working on player leader positions in the game but it’s a bit too early to get into details at this time.

What are some examples of win conditions? What sort of scenarios will win a game for a faction?

Song: Science Victory and Domination Victory are the two victory conditions we can mention today.

Will all four factions be represented within each session of the game?

Song: All four factions will be represented within a session.

The game will be session based. How long will each game last approximately?

Song: We have an idea of what length would be fun but to be candid, this is a topic that needs extended testing so we feel it’s too early to share at this time.

Will this game be free-to-play? What will be available for players to purchase?

Song: We recognize that different markets may have different needs, so we are open to a number of possibilities including free-to-play. Beyond that, we feel it’s too early for us to discuss details at this time.

The first target market is Korea, but we’re looking to expand beyond that in the future. With each title in the Civilization franchise some changes were made to the tech tree and system; likewise, we are also making some changes to the tech tree and system for this title, but we’re not considering having different tech trees for different markets. Having said that, we want to accommodate as many needs and wants as we possibly can, as long as it makes sense both design and production-wise.

Do you have a release date set?

Song: We don’t have any specific dates we can share as of today, but will certainly do so as soon as we have a set date.


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