Interview: Dennis Shirk On Civilization VI And Finding New Ways To Play

It’s almost time for fans of the Civilization series to give themselves over to a fresh addiction, as Civilization VI heads toward release in October of this year. It brings with it a lot of interesting changes, from unpacking cities so that they sprawl across the land to splitting the research tree in two, with one now devoted to technological research and the other to cultural advancement.

With a few hours of play under our belts, we spoke to Dennis Shirk, Lead Producer of Civ VI and a long time veteran of Firaxis, about some of the decisions and changes that have gone into the game.

TSA: Six games in – well more than six games, really – is it difficult to keep coming up with new ways to change the game?


Dennis Shirk: Well that’s what’s nice with what Sid Meier did with Civilization, because you’ve got the whole expanse of time to work with and you got an enormous amount of material. Each base game brings a lead designer, which most likely came from the community, that has amazing ideas that have been sitting in their head for a long time.

This happened with Soren Johnson, then with Jon Shafer, and now with Ed Beach. Ed started prototyping some of his ideas when he did the two expansions [for Civ V], and then he got the chance to go all in on Civilization VI. The nice thing is there doesn’t seem to be any end to cool things or zany history that you can plug into to make interesting mechanics.

TSA: Do you think it was nice to have Beyond Earth as a bit of a palette cleanser between Civ V and VI?

Dennis: Yeah, that always helps. It was interesting when we had the scheduled area, and we were like, “What do we put in there? What do we do?” That’s when Dave [McDonough] and Will [Miller] were like, “Oh, we should go to space…”

It’s funny. You look at all the different thoughts that were going round, where we could build a third Civ V expansion, except have it be the eighth era, after the space ship launches, and eventually it just formed itself into what you saw with Beyond Earth. There’s a lot of fun to be had, and that really demonstrated the kind of things that you can really go off into left field and play with, if you want.

There’s something to be said, though, for straight up historical play. I’m more of a historical player than anything else, because you’ve got that grounding in reality that pulls you in a little more than if you’re talking about pure fiction.

TSA: Are you the kind of player that might get a custom map of the real world?

Dennis: That can be fun, but I like more the alternate history type thing. I like being grounded in reality, but then watching things going really wrong or in a different direction.

I love watching the Battle Royale, the game that’s been running for months and months and months, where the AI just keep on playing. It’s been very amusing to watch.

TSA: Yeah, that’s a really nice to see things like that cropping up in the community. Wasn’t it with Civ II that there was the first endless war a few years ago?

Dennis: Yeah! Endless war. Desolation…


TSA: That was just a cool and crazy story to read. Aside from the lovely new graphics, what’s the biggest new difference between Civ V and VI?

Dennis: I think it’s unstacking the cities and the way you have to play the map now. It’s an additional person in the game that you’re playing with or playing against, because it completely changes the way that you’re looking around for where you’re going to put your next city, it changes how you specialise, and changes the way that combat works.

Even when you’re in combat, while the old chestnut is there that you only need to take a city centre to take the entire city, there’s a lot more options there. It’s about whether you defend your districts as well, or if you want to go and burn somebody’s campus to the ground just to deny them science, destroy their spaceport, eliminate all their production possibilities without actually taking the city. Before, unless you took the city, it was very hard to really hurt a player, so on offence it gives you all kinds of possibilities for what you want to do.

TSA: Do you think it’s giving offensive players new styles of play, to come in, burn things down and then come back around in 50 years time for another round?

Dennis: Yeah! Before in Civ V, it was interesting to pillage. It was a little satisfying to get a little health, get gold from it, but now it actually means something significant. If a player chooses not to defend his campus, you first torch the university, then the library goes next, then the district base goes next, and their Science is just plummeting. They have to come out and do something, they can’t just stand behind their walls and let you do it. Technically, they could, but they can’t repair it while you’re occupying it, they can’t do anything about it, so it changes the way that combat works quite a bit.


TSA: Is that one of the things that you consider, that there’s a particular style of play that you want to encourage or discourage? And in this case, the very defensive play style?

Dennis: Turtling, yeah.

Ed was really banging the drum, where he wants to put everything onto the map, and he approached that with UI, with gameplay, with everything. Any excuse that we have to pull gameplay out of the UI system and into the map, he wanted the chance to do that. That meant for combat, the way that cities are laid out… The city management panel still needs some work, because it’s a little crushed in there, but he did want you to have to leave the map and go somewhere else to play.

That was really his mantra, and I think that reflects in everything.

TSA: You’re encouraging people and giving positive reinforcement with the boosts for the research and civic trees, and it’s a nice thing to have, but it feels a little bit odd that there’s never any downside or tradeoff.

Dennis: It’s not about a downside or an upside, it’s about how quickly you get it done. I’d say that Ed never has the intention of putting you on the rails, so we went through a lot of iterations where the boosts were worth more, they were worth less, but we didn’t want players to think that they only had to research down the tracks where boosts existed. It just means that some things are going to be easier than others.

We didn’t want it to be a humongous game changing event, just a little bit of extra flavour, because if you’re playing a military game and you clear out that first Barbarian camp, you get that boost to bronze working. You think, “Oh, that’s pretty cool,” and then you get the next boost to the next bit of military tech, and suddenly you military game becomes easier.

By itself, each individual boost may not seem like that big a deal between full research and not, but as a whole, it can add up significantly.


TSA: With the military playstyle, it always feels like that’s the kind of default style in 4X games, to burn everything and take it by force. How are you encouraging other playstyles, like the cultural victory in this game?

Dennis: I’d say that domination is the first thing that players learn…

TSA: I think it’s the first thing that toddlers learn! [laughs]

Dennis: Yes! Domination’s the easiest one, so we don’t necessarily discourage it, it’s more along the lines of how a player want to challenge themselves.

So they go up the tree, and the next easiest one (not counting score) is probably the science victory, because there’s a very clear set of deliverables, cultural victory is hardest, and then there’s another new victory in the game that we’ll be talking about later on.

It’s nice, but it’s all about the challenge. What we are doing, if you’re playing a domination game, is that if you’re going up against a culture player now, it’s not going to be the same as before, where you just roll over them. So if you commit yourself to domination, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win this time.

It did in Civilization V. If you were committed to a domination victory, you had a very high chance of succeeding, except against another domination player, so we tried to temper that. So it may seem easy at first to try for that, but it doesn’t mean you’re always going to end up winning with that kind of approach.

TSA: And you said in the presentation about the civics tree and the policy bonuses you get from that, which I thought sound like they’re giving you a bit of a home field advantage?

Dennis: It is! It’s home field advantage, and there’s various other policies you can put in too. So it can even be in the form of faster production of certain areas of the military units. That’s not necessarily that great for offence, because offence with weaker units never helps, but when you get a couple of defences in place…

Everyone that’s coming into your civilisation is just amazed by your culture, which I take as the kind of Rome effect. Rome was strong militarily, but they were also unbelievably impressive to anyone who sees their civilisation, their government, their senate, everything about them was enlightened and amazing during that time period. They did eventually get rolled. They didn’t change policies…

So that can still happen, but we’re trying to offset that.


TSA: Finally, with the historical figures that you’ve picked as leaders, how do you go about choosing each representative? Does that roll over into how you then design some parts of the game as well?

Dennis: The majority of them are chosen for gameplay aspects. So Ed would go into it and he’d choose – this is how he did the Civ V expansion as well. He’s got a certain percentage of categories that he wants the leaders to fall into in terms of play styles to make sure you’ve got a balanced approach, there’s some leaders that, as much as we try not to include, we keep coming back to because they’re so iconic, like Ghandi.

But there’s other ones, and Catherine de Medici is the perfect example, she’s not the iconic French leader that you’d expect, but she brought something really distinct, unique and real to the game that we wouldn’t have had before.

So it’s that kind of mining that Ed’s been doing to try and find these personalities that fit really well with the kind of gameplay systems.

Thanks to Dennis for chatting to us about Civilization VI. Be sure to also check out our preview of one of what is easily one of the most anticipated PC strategy games of the year.

Written by
I'm probably wearing toe shoes, and there's nothing you can do to stop me!