The iPad and the Kindle

Since I installed the iOS 4.2 Beta on my iPad, which allows for multitasking and folders, I’ve been pushing it as far as it can go as a work machine. Now that navigating between apps is much, much smoother, I can actually keep an IRC window open at the same time as writing email and scanning Twitter; and with apps like Dropbox and Evernote, I can have access to all of my documents, even offline. Here are some major show-stoppers though:

  • Google Docs editing: I do practically all of my word processing in Google Docs now, and while there are apps that allow for Google Docs editing, I worry that they’ll mess up my formatting. Without the ability to easily and reliably edit my Google Docs, I’m pretty limited; thankfully, a powerful iPad update is coming soon.
  • Better Keynote: I frequently take my laptop to conferences just to plug it into a VGA cable and run a presentation; the rest of the time, I just use my iPad. The problem with the current Keynote iPad app is that it doesn’t support custom fonts, and it doesn’t convert ‘proper’ desktop Keynote files perfectly – and it needs to be perfect if I’m at a conference or presenting to a client. When Apple sort this out, my back will be very thankful.
  • Skype: We use Skype an awful lot at work; apparently they’re working on an iPad app but I’m not holding my breath.
  • Better file management: I agree that we don’t need to replicate the full filesystem from desktops, but almost anything would be better than the undifferentiated mush that is the iOS file system. Apple – just buy Dropbox and get it over with. Either that, or make MobileMe free.

It’s a pretty short list, all things considered, and I’m impressed how the iPad seems to be increasing in utility slowly but surely with every new iOS update and app. I very rarely go to meetings without it now.

I also saw the new Kindle for the first time today, and it’s smaller, thinner, and lighter than I thought it would be, which is pretty incredible given all of the adverts pushing those very attributes. The contrast on the display is really excellent as well, although the page turn lag is as (initially) irritating as usual. Amazon have a winner on their hands here, but they need to get it into the public’s hands as well, so more people will have the same reaction as me.

Unfortunately, they don’t have any ‘Amazon Stores’ and I don’t see the Kindle being sold in bookstores or electronic outlets, meaning that the uptake of this device will take longer than it really should.

Civilization Forever

This is the end, my friends – it’s the tenth and final post of my month-long Civilization series that’s touched on storytelling, addiction, democracy games, education, music, after-action reports, Alpha Centauri, and Sid Meier’s other games.

There’s a reason why I can write ten posts on Civilization – it’s one of the most compelling and complex games of the last twenty years. It’s the chess of the computer age, the tool that lets people live out dreams of grand strategy and world domination, an immaculately-balanced, perfectly absorbing piece of entertainment that is as easy or as difficult as you want it to be.

Civilization is 19 years old. I’m 28 years old, meaning there aren’t many years in which I haven’t played the game. I don’t play it all the time – rather, I go through phases where I’ll fire it up on a rainy afternoon and keep playing for twelve hours straight, and keep mulling it over for days afterwards. If I was stranded on a desert island, it’d be Civilization that’d I’d take along.

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Civilization V is coming out in the US today, and in Europe on Thursday; by definition, it’s the most advanced, most refined version of the series yet. Previews indicate that Firaxis has continued the trend of Civilization Revolution in removing needless complexity (e.g. road spam) and tidying up the cluttered interface – and of course, there’s the highly anticipated hex-based tile system that promises to completely transform combat in the game (no more stacks of doom!). Firaxis could have released a more marginal update, counting on the millions of Civ fans to buy whatever they put out, but I’m glad that they appear to have done a good job on Civilization V.

And yet, even with the supposedly transformation changes like hex-based tiles, the game is still clearly the same old Civilization to the core – which means that it preserves the two qualities that I really treasure.

The first quality is the game’s depth and skill. Civilization is a game that can be enjoyed at any level, and that feels like it’s possible to master even if you don’t wish to do so. You can play it to relax and goof around, or you can play it like a pro, micromanaging the details to pump the most out of your economy and military. For me, it’s like chess – but fun.

I’m more interested in the second quality, though. There are other well-balanced simulation games out there (such as Sim City) but very few with the sense of hope and direction that Civilization has. Let me explain: Civilization is not an abstract simulation of a city or a business – it is teleological. It has a purpose, and that purpose is to win. How do you win? By uniting the world by diplomacy or force, or by launching a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. It’s possible to win fairly early on in the game, but only by reaching the end – by creating a world-spanning civilization with beautiful cities and Wonders – can you fully realise the potential of the game.

As such, Civilization contains the rare quality of hope. The very design of game implies that the purpose of humanity is to always progress, and that history itself is a long arc towards a better world. That arc is frequently upset by war and calamity, but the promise of the game is that we will eventually create that world, by building it collectively, even if it takes thousands of years.

If you keep on playing Civilization past the ‘win state’, you’ll eventually hit the Future Technologies. These are unnamed, but they confer health and happiness bonuses on your population. In other words, you realise that utopia doesn’t exist as a destination in Civilization – there’s only the unending road towards making life better for future generations.

You may not agree with Sid Meier’s philosophy, but it’s one that I admire, and ultimately, it’s what keeps me playing Civilization.

Covert Action and Pirates

After Shigeru Miyamoto – the creator of Mario, Donkey Kong, and Zelda – Sid Meier was only the second person to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. A quick look at Sid’s credits reveals why, with its dozens of award-winning games, ranging from flight simulators, spy games, golfing games, and of course, strategy games, spanning a 25 year long career.

Looking back on the list, I’m surprised that Civilization actually came after several high-profile successes; I didn’t play any of the combat sims like F-15 Strike Eagle or Silent Service, but I did play Covert Action (1990) and Railroad Tycoon (also 1990 – how does he find the time?!). I found Railroad Tycoon a little difficult to play and preferred Transport Tycoon, but Covert Action was a genuine classic.

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In Covert Action, you become Max Remington, a CIA agent out to defeat criminals and terrorists – to do so, you crack codes, hack circuitboards, tail cars, and break into enemy offices. Each activity is represented by a distinct minigame, most of which are actually quite entertaining. Like most Sid Meier games, Covert Action didn’t have a written story, as such – missions were procedurally generated and kept you guessing about what was happening next. Together with its pseudo-real time nature (if you didn’t solve a crime quickly enough, they got away), it offered a completely original type of gameplay.

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I played Covert Action again recently, and found it rather harder than I’d remembered – breaking into offices was really challenging – although the circuitboard hacking and code-cracking minigames stood the test of time. It’s a shame that Sid felt disappointed with the final product:

The mistake I think I made in Covert Action is actually having two games in there kind of competing with each other. There was kind of an action game where you break into a building and do all sorts of picking up clues and things like that, and then there was the story which involved a plot where you had to figure out who the mastermind was and the different roles and what cities they were in, and it was a kind of an involved mystery-type plot.

I think, individually, those each could have been good games. Together, they fought with each other. You would have this mystery that you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get on the building, and you’d say, “What was the mystery I was trying to solve?” Covert Action integrated a story and action poorly, because the action was actually too intense. In Pirates!, you would do a sword fight or a ship battle, and a minute or two later, you were kind of back on your way. In Covert Action, you’d spend ten minutes or so of real time in a mission, and by the time you got out of [the mission], you had no idea of what was going on in the world.

So I call it the “Covert Action Rule”. Don’t try to do too many games in one package. And that’s actually done me a lot of good. You can look at the games I’ve done since Civilization, and there’s always opportunities to throw in more stuff. When two units get together in Civilization and have a battle, why don’t we drop out to a war game and spend ten minutes or so in duking out this battle? Well, the Covert Action Rule. Focus on what the game is.

What was interesting about Covert Action was its sense of style – you really felt like you were tracking down criminals. Perhaps the action sections were too much, but the overall idea was very solid. Still, from my own experience, I try to avoid designing games with too many (or any) minigames, for this very reason; Smokescreen had quite a number of minigames in it, but the most popular missions ended up being those without any at all.

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I didn’t play the original Pirates! game (yes, the exclamation point is part of the title) but I did play the sequel/update, Sid Meier’s Pirates. Like Covert Action, Pirates contained a number of minigames but was generally more coherent – you spent much of your time simply sailing around the Caribbean, on a top-down map, going from port to port or chasing enemy ships. Occasionally you’d enter short sword-fights or battle games, and you’d regularly enter port to trade goods or check up on the latest news; there was a loose story about finding your kidnapped family, but other than that, you were free to pursue your own goals, whether that was taking over every single port in the game-world, finding all of the hidden treasure, or rising to the highest ranks.

I have two real treasured memories of Pirates, and the first is the ballroom dancing game.

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Once in a while, to gain the favour of various ladies whom you might want to marry, you’d need to do some ballroom dancing, which took the form of a more complicated Dance Dance Revolution game. Basically, you’d have to read the movements of your partner and move appropriately; in the earlier levels, these would be clearly telegraphed, but as you progressed, dances became faster and more intricate. Given my lifelong love of Dance Dance Revolution, I became really quite skilled at this part of the game and never failed to have a choice consort (even if we were mostly broke from my poor military excursions).

My second memory of Pirates isn’t any part of the gameplay in particular, but just the feel of the game as you were out sailing the seas. If your crew were in a good mood, they’d be cheerfully singing songs as you flew along on a fair wind; if they were hungry and unpaid, and it was raining, you’d be sure to know it. Travelling from port to port, you’d encounter all sorts of ships that you could chase, run away from, or engage at will – sometimes you’d be homing in on fat gold ships you’d been led to by rumours from pubs, sometimes you’d be desperately running away from a bunch of British frigates; whatever happened, you were totally immersed in this beautifully drawn and wonderfully fun world.

Sid doesn’t seem to make many of these medley games any more, which is a shame but understandable, given the increasing specialisation of PC games. Still, I wonder whether he’ll return to them for online or mobile games, which seem to do well when operating outside of traditional game genres.

I’ll leave you with a short oral history, by Sid Meier himself, about his game design process and his 25 years in the gaming world – all set within a 48 hour game design competition. It’s well worth a watch (you can skip the ad at the start):

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Alpha Centauri

Sid Meier has spoken about how a player’s imagination can generate a better story than any designer can. Judging from the popularity of Civilization and his many other storyless or historical games (Pirates, Colonization, Railroads, Covert Action, etc.) it’s clear he really lives by this belief, as well.

But he’s made at least one game that’s very different: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.

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On the face of it, Alpha Centauri – which was released between Civilization 2 and 3 – is basically Civilization on an alien planet. You have the same familiar routines of setting up bases, researching technologies, producing units, and negotiating with other factions; sure, there are some new names (Frictionless Surfaces, Monopole Magnets) but anyone who’d played Civilization before would have no problem learning Alpha Centauri’s quirks.

The story, though – that’s another matter. At the beginning of the game, you learn that the United Nations has sent a colonization ship to Chiron, a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri; when it arrives, an accident severs communication with Earth, the captain is assassinated, and various factions form to take control of the escape pods. Each of the seven factions has a distinct ideology and goal, and they each land on Chiron with single colony pod to restart civilization – but from a much higher tech level.

Arguably, all of this is just the setting for the game, and you could choose to ignore it, in the same way that you could be completely ignorant of world history and still enjoy playing Civilization. However, the personalities of the faction leaders and the way in which they influence the game feels much stronger than in Civilization – for example, not only is Deirdre Skye, the leader of the Gaians, an avowed environmentalist, but she also has access to units that exploit the environment of Chiron – she’s not just a normal Civilization with -2 pollution.

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Beyond that, the player has dreams during the game about the alien life on Chiron, their collective intelligence, how they must avoid disaster, etc. etc.; and beyond that, Firaxis released a novel-length series of stories detailing events leading up to the game, along with a trilogy of novels. For a company that relies on players’ imaginations, Firaxis was very keen to show off their own.

I’m glad they did, because Alpha Centauri’s story added a lot to the game and generated vast quantities of fan fiction (including my own horribly derivative space opera, Unavoidable Casualities). The strong personalities and science-fiction setting made it feel like you were embarking on a more exciting and unknown adventure than simply playing through 6000 years of history that’ve already happened, even if you had no idea what any of the technologies actually meant (what does Cyberethics do? Or Photon/Wave Mechanics? Or Matter Compression?).

As a science fiction reader, it was especially pleasing that Brian Reynolds, the lead designer, took inspiration from some real classics of the genre, rather than the typical sub-Star Wars stuff you see today. In the manual, he credits A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear, among others, and while the game doesn’t exactly break new ground in its subject, it mixes hard science concepts with ideas like the technological singularity and politics quite well.

Given the game’s success and the continual clamour of fans for a sequel, one would’ve thought they’d have made ‘Alpha Centauri 2’ in the time they’ve made another three Civilization games. Unfortunately, the rights to the Alpha Centauri belong to Electronic Arts, and Firaxis is now owned by rival publisher Take2, which makes things rather difficult. However, Sid Meier seems optimistic that something could happen, and he remains on good terms with Electronic Arts…

AAAR: Attempted After-Action Report

After-Action Reports, or AARs, are part of a long and venerable tradition of some Civ players apparently being more interested in writing about the game than playing it. Okay, that’s a bit unfair, since often AARs are used by pro-gamers to swap new tips and strategies, but when you start seeing the fan-fiction creep in to the report, you know that it’s not all serious.

As part of this series of Civilization, and the fact that I’m acutely aware there’s less than three weeks until Civ 5 comes out, I booted my Mac into Windows and fired up Civ 4: Beyond the Sword. My intention was to write a detailed AAR that documented the history of my Civilization, complete with annotated screenshots. I even had a notion of tweeting about the game live.

I only managed three tweets before being sucked into the addictive gaming vortex that is Civilization. I did, however, write a grand total of five notes during my time as Augustus Caesar:

  • 4000BC: Lots of aimless wandering and hut-popping until I meet the Malinese in 3400BC. Forgot how boring the early game can be.
  • 3320BC: Both Buddhism and Hinduism have been founded, and I’m feeling distinctly behind in the religion race. This reminds me of the games where I tried (unsuccessfully) to found every religion.
  • 3120BC: Bumped into the Khmer empire up north while dodging lions; it seems like there are at least three civilizations (including me) on this continent… for now!
  • 2960BC: There is a hell of a lot of jungle around here…
  • 775BC: Too addictive. Worried about possible Khmer/Korean alliance up north, have blocked it off with another city (in the jungle, again). Seems like there’s plenty of space to the east with the Malinese though.

And that’s it. After 775BC, I entered a ceaseless cycle of building, moving, and trading; I could barely lift my attention away from the game to make a few notes, let alone make any tweets. Interestingly, around 775BC is when the game got really interesting – as I mention in my first update, I’d forgotten exactly how dull the early game of Civilization is. It’s certainly fun to explore the world and uncover the map with your first warrior, but then you have to start the tiresome process of building roads and having your warrior double-back on itself to fill in the other dark bits of the map. Until you get your third city, there’s just not a lot to do.

Civilization really shines in the mid-game though – you’ve uncovered enough of the map to know your enemies and future points of contention, but there’s still enough darkness to preserve the intrigue. Your mind is crowded with devious stratagems and calculations, and any threat or opportunity seems alarmingly possible. This is the most open period of the game, where the placement of a single city could turn your civilization’s entire future, and it continues to flower for a good two millennia as you build up your cities and Wonders, send out your armies, and conquer your opponents.

And then (at least for me) around the discovery of cavalry and then tanks, all of those possibilities collapse and there are just maybe one or two ways for the game to end. Unless you’re very lucky and the game is really in balance, it’s very clear by this point whether you’ve won or not – the only question is how fast can you win, and in what way; and if you’re not a pro-gamer, this is unlikely to be particularly interesting.

Yet since Civilization is so compulsive, you just can’t stop playing – you need to finish. That’s when the game gets deadly boring – you start building railroads on every available square of land, and your military campaigns become a tedious mopping-up exercise as your cruisers and destroyers casually wipe the enemies outdated navies off the map. Then it’s over, with a quick video and a strange sense of shell-shock.

Still… even in this game, where I was lucky enough to pop two Settlers at the beginning, I entertained myself at the end by trying to take over my hopelessly-backwards neighbours by means of massive culture emanations from my border cities, and an army of 30 spies constantly eroding their sense of nationhood. Towards the end, between my waves of missionaries, corporation men, and spies, my neighbours’ city borders shrunk to starvation and beyond, and I began collecting them without a single drop of blood spilled. Nice. Here’s to hoping that Civilization 5 will make these crazy moments sweeter.