Humankind preview and interview – Civilization finally gets a serious rival

The makers of Endless Space try their hand at a Civilization style strategy game and discuss the temptations of Epic Games Store exclusivity.

Humankind is, as we pointed out to Amplitude Studios narrative director Jeff Spock, a lot like Civilization. Even if you’ve never played a strategy game in your life the resemblance is immediately obvious and far from skin deep. But as we also point out there are hundreds of very similar first person shooters and action games so, really, the idea of having two strategy games with roughly the same idea shouldn’t be seen as an issue.

While it does look very similar, Humankind has a number of significant differences when compared to Civilization, as we got to see during a short behind closed doors preview at Gamescom last week. The most obvious deviation from the Civilization norm is the ability to constantly change civilisations as the years advance, in an attempt to create a more realistic style of culture which, as in the real world, has multiple layers of influence.

It’s a good idea in theory, although there’s no getting away from the fact that simply transforming from Ancient Egyptians to Vikings, rather than some slower form of assimilation or sharing of attributes, seems rather unrealistic. It’s certainly not something Civilization would do but that almost seems to be the point, as Amplitude embrace the abstract video game nature of the switch in order to make something that’s also arguably more realistic.

There’s a total of one million possible combinations of cultures when you play the full game, and you can even try and stick with the same one through all the eras of history (which, unlike Civilization only goes as far as the modern day) – even though that will put you at a disadvantage compared to the others.

What’s also different is that the game has only one winning condition: fame. Although that’s more open-ended than it sounds as fame can be gained by any notable achievement, whether it’s military conquest, diplomacy, trade, or scientific advancement. A combination of these and more means that you don’t have to rigidly stick to just one speciality to win, which can be very limiting in Civilization.

Amplitude have also hinted at other major changes to the Civilization formula, implying that battles will play out more like turn-based tactical games such as XCOM. Although apart from showing units using the terrain of the in-game map – rather than segueing to a separate screen – they’re not yet going into detail on how that actually works.

There are other smaller differences, such as the seemingly unlimited size of cities and the fact that there are generally less of them than in a game of Civilization – with the ability to expand your regional influence by building smaller outposts instead. There are even hints that the game could come to console eventually, although for now this represents one of the most promising new PC exclusives for next year.

Formats: PC
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Amplitude Studios
Release Date: 2020

GC: I don’t know if I’m the first to point this out, but your game looks quite a bit like Civilization.

JS: [laughs]

GC: What do you see as the main differences between your game and theirs?

JS: Civilization is one of the granddaddies of the genre – Master Of Orion and Civilization… there’s been a number of games that were fairly important for the turn-based 4X as we know it. But I think there’s a number of ways that we’re trying to do things differently to Civilization and, I think, maybe even say different things than Civilization.

You’ve seen the demo, so you know about the fame mechanic. Because one of the things that personally annoyed me was this idea of when you choose a faction you choose a victory condition and you’re pretty much on rails. And if you choose a science faction either you get the science victory or you don’t, and then you walk away and try again.

What really appeals to me with this notion we have of the evolution of assimilated civilisation as cultures over time is that, as in history, your culture adapts to the situation in which it finds itself. It’s a living organism. If you decide to go for commerce and trade and that’s going really well and all of a sudden you’re falling behind in science, well then you can switch to a more science-oriented culture. Or if things become ugly, become more military-oriented. You have the ability to shift and craft as you’re going through the game.

And then, of course, there’s the one million different possible combinations of cultures. And I think that allows for both player choice and expression, for what they want to build and the asymmetric faction of their choice. Or at least it allows them to react to the changing gameplay situation – other factions, natural disasters, the type of terrain, and so on. I think you have an awful lot more capacity to adapt and to alter your gameplay style. Which I think even our previous games didn’t give you so much.

So there’s the way the culture evolves to create a civilisation that is a big difference. And I think another is actually a number of things that we can’t talk about, that will be coming, in how we deal with some of the more social and political issues.

But I think there’s also the terrain itself and the importance of the 3D map and the geography in the game, and how that affects city placement. How that affects battles is also remarkably different from Civilization, the battles themselves are done on a tactical level. So I think there’s a number of different ways that somebody who has played all the Civilizations, and knows them by heart, will still have a very, very different gameplay experience with us.

GC: We suffer more than one first person shooter without complaint, so it does some unfair to criticise one strategy game for looking similar to another.

JS: [laughs]

GC: I’m getting the impression that a lot of this was borne from you playing Civilization and wanting to have things work differently. In the demo, when I asked you about whether you can play past the modern day era, you almost seemed angry at the suggestion.

JS: [laughs] Every time you play a game you think about… there are the two things: ‘Wow, I wish I’d done that!’ and ‘Oh, I could do that better!’ Right? It’s sort of a natural reaction you have. And Civ has done so many things so well but they also have the weight of their past.

They have his legacy that’s holding them back, because if they change things there’s an outcry. There’s riots in the streets when Civ changes gameplay and we’re not hampered by that. So we can come in and say, ‘We want to look at the unfolding and the development stages of human civilisation differently’.

GC: It strikes me that Civilization has some of the same difficulties as Pokémon.

JS: [laughs]

GC: Because Pokémon is a long-running series were fans also react violently to change, but it also tends to create new features, that are well received, but then suddenly disappear in the next sequel for no obvious reason. And Civ does that a lot too.

JS: It’s an interesting analogy! And we’ve lived this, after doing Endless Space and then five years later Endless Space 2, it’s the same thing. We look at the mechanics and you see what we add, what we subtract, and there’s also a difference in budget, quite frankly, between the two. [laughs]

We have always been extremely sensitive to our community and I don’t know if you know about our whole Games Together thing, but we have a very close integration with the community. We have VIP players who play alpha and beta builds, and we get an awful lot of feedback from them.

With our previous games we’ve done a lot of early access and, in fact, I think we were the first studio to put out an early access game on Steam. I asked Valve when we met them once but they couldn’t be sure. It was actually an alpha build of Endless Space in early 2012. And then that became known as early access later.

GC: I have to admit I’m always wary of early access. I like the idea of playing a game that’s the considered, artistic vision of a small group of people and I don’t so much like the idea of something that’s designed by committee. Especially when the committee members aren’t even developers. But you do seem to make a clear demarcation between your stuff and theirs.

JS: Yes, that’s absolutely it. We have a very, very clear mantra on this, which is that we own the creative vision. For better or for worse if it fails or it succeeds it is our creative vision. For instance, in a 4X game, simply because of the randomly-generated nature of the maps, of the events, of everything, things like finding the edge cases… we can have 20 people in the studio playing the game three times. But if 500 people each play it five times, all of a sudden you’re gonna find a lot more problems and also ideas that we can try to add.

So the community is great for that. The community is also great because we like to think we’re the brightest people making games, but we’re not. We have a lot of bright people in the community who are like, ‘Yeah, I played your game and 97 others and here’s some things that maybe you didn’t see’.

And so it’s a really healthy two-way communication, but we have to own the create vision because it happens all the time. People say, ‘This game should be like this!’. And I’ll say, ‘No, it’s outside our vision’. Maybe we’ll lose sales, but it’s our game. We own the success or the failure.

GC: I’m still struggling with the idea of changing cultures in the way you demonstrated. I think I’m coming round to it but at first it just seemed silly. You don’t just transform into Mayans, you might get invaded by them or even assimilated but that’s a very different thing. And yet you’re making a video game, so you need clear, understandable mechanics and if that same idea was made more abstract I don’t think it would work as well or be as approachable. Is that the sort of thought process you went through?

JS: It all came from a concern that too many games under-represent the reality of the diversity that is human culture. And too many games show cultures and nations as monolithic, which doesn’t really reflect the way things happen.

What you could certainly do is you can take the modding tools and you could build a map of the Earth on a huge scale. You could put in the starting civilisations and say, ‘You’re only allowed to evolve into something that’s geographically contiguous to the real world’. It would be great if some high school teacher somewhere said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna mod the world and we’re going to play a historical game of Humankind!’ So we give them the tools for that.

But I think, as you said, when we’re building a game there’s a necessary abstraction/gamification mechanic that we have to bring into that idealised vision of cultural evolution. And so each culture has a unique trait, a signature building, and a unique military unit.

So what happens is when you move to the next era, you keep the trait, you still have the units, the building stays in your city. So it’s not switching cards. It is an evolution – which people mistake for being better but…

GC: It’s just better suited for its environment.

JS: Exactly! So you keep those emblematic buildings and you keep the layout, and so you keep a sort of visual history that you would keep if you’re looking at Rome today versus the Roman Empire… the power of the church versus the modern structures. Looking at it from a Google Maps point of view, every city really is an amalgam of everything that came before. And I think it’s unfortunate if the game somehow doesn’t show that and reflect the player choices and also the reality of human history and how that happens.

GC: I noticed in the demo there were some very extreme mixes of technology, with a U-boat and a sailing ship both in the English Channel at the same time. Is that something that happens a lot? I kind of liked it, it reminds me of Mega-Lo-Mania.

JS: Oh sure! It’s an anachronism but if you have galleons and you can build U-boats maybe you should build U-boats but still have the galleons? In the versions of Civ I know the best, once the era changes your galleons become something else or it can become something else if you pay to upgrade them.

Currently, what you’re seeing is pre-alpha and so maybe the time will come when we want to develop those units, but I think seeing these somewhat anachronistic units gives it a sense of the past and the culture.

GC: I seem to remember someone telling me that someone that’s really good with a bow and arrow is almost as effective as someone with a gun, at least up until recently. Certainly they were quicker and more accurate than early guns for a long while.

JS: Yeah, I think so. So yes, we can have praetorian guards in there and they’re up against muskets. Again, it’s an abstraction and it’s also partially the creative vision of how you want to present this and keep things valuable.

GC: You’re obviously holding a lot back about the combat but you’ve already implied it’s quite different to Civilization?

JS: Yes! Typically in most of our other games, and I think generally in Civilization games, there’s an awful lot of auto results. ‘I have this stack, you have that stack. My stack’s bigger, this much damage is done. This is the result.’ We’re not going full Total War, but we’re certainly saying, ‘Okay, I have these units. He’s going to target him. This one’s going to move there and target them. These guys are moving in defensive mode’.

GC: So almost like Advance Wars or something?

JS: Yeah, sure, or like XCOM of Final Fantasy Tactics. Endless Legend is the only game we’ve done until now that was on an actual geographical surface, as opposed to in space. And we got more and more feedback saying, ‘Please let us go full tactical’. So you have the option of playing that kind of highly tactical battle. But there’s also auto-resolution options and that sort of thing if you don’t want to.

GC: And it all takes place on the actual terrain of the map?

JS: Yes, that’s something that kind of bothered us, ‘Two armies meet on a generic tabletop somewhere’. No, you’re on that map. Like, what would Agincourt have been on some other terrain? All these questions come to mind, so we want that to also be part of the gameplay experience.

GC: Do you have any plans to bring the game to consoles? Civilization works really well on the Switch, as do most strategy games to be honest.

JS: Yeah, yeah. We definitely agree with that. What we’re focusing on now is 2020, we’re going to ship PC/Mac as good as we can. So we’re focusing 100% on that. But obviously we’re thinking about these things, there’s a new console generation coming, there’s the Switch, there’s a lot of really interesting opportunities and we’re not gonna ignore them. But today, it’s there but it’s not the priority. The priority is the PC in 2020.

GC: You joked about it in the demo, but would you really consider becoming an Epic Games Store exclusive?

JS: [laughs] Everybody’s been in touch. I mean, all of a sudden, in the last 18 months, we’ve had Stadia, we’ve had Epic Games, we’ve had the new console generation announced… there are so many options. That’s why we’re trying to simplify and say, ‘Look, right now we’re going to make a really good PC game’.

GC: Would you consider not doing it purely so as to not upset fans?

JS: Frankly, if somebody comes in and says, ‘Hey, do you want $25 million and we’ll make you an exclusive?’ We’re going to go [makes the face anyone would make if offered $25 million].

GC: I’m not sure it’d be quite that much. [laughs]

JS: [laughs] Right! But we are a for-profit organisation and you have to assume the consequences of that. But right now we’ve had a great relationship with Steam for eight years. There’s a lot of other options out there… of course we’re talking to them. Of course you have marketing visits from people.

But I don’t even know, marketing doesn’t, she’s PR [points to PR woman] and she doesn’t know… We’re talking to everybody, but I would hate to ruin our relationship with Steam or make the community angry.

Thankfully I just do the writing and a bit of design. That’s not my responsibility. [laughs]

GC: Okay, well thanks a lot for your time.

JS: No problem, that was great to get so many intelligent questions.

GC: Oh you!

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