Future Tense

How Civilization VI Caught Up With Real Astrophysics

The latest installment of the blockbuster video game franchise has a much more realistic take on space.

Congratulations, you made it to Mars.
Congratulations, you made it to Mars.

Screenshot via 2K/Firaxis

Sid Meier’s Civilization, the venerable video gaming franchise now in its sixth installment, has always told a story of incremental improvement. That’s clearest in the games themselves, which invite players to direct the course of a society as it arises out of hardscrabble antiquity. In this series, you craft an alphabet so you can teach your people mathematics, mathematics so they can develop chemistry, and so on. Gradually you claw your way out of prehistory all the way, almost inevitably, to the space age.

In their own ways, the various games in the series have slowly introduced new folds into that story, adding branches to its research trees along the way, but the general arc has remained consistent. Now, with its new game, the franchise has shaken up one long-standing component, thanks in no small part to the help of a real astrophysicist.

In the past, Civilization’s commitment to gradual change also held for the relationship between games in the franchise. Each new title has traditionally felt much like the last. Though I haven’t played regularly since 1996’s Civilization II, the basic gameplay mechanics felt familiar every time I checked in on the latest developments. At a launch event for the new game in Washington, D.C., lead designer Ed Beach said his team at Firaxis had largely thrown out the code libraries they’d developed for the series’ fourth and fifth chapters, building it from the ground up. That was partly so they could introduce its most prominent innovation—more modular cities featuring distinct districts that players can build out as they advance. And yet, Beach said, “The core of the gameplay has remained the same” through the decades.

Like the games that preceded it, the newest Civilization begins thousands of years in the past. Randomly assigning each player a spot on the map, it gives them two units that they can move around—a settler to establish their first city and a warrior to protect it. Soon enough, they begin recruiting other units, researching ever more advanced technologies, and expanding their empires. Along the way, they fight off rampaging barbarians and trade with competing civilizations as the calendar inexorably advances—one turn at a time—toward the present.

Following the path laid out by those before it, the game features a variety of ways to win—here there are five in all—each of them the result of a different developmental agenda: Players who build a strong military and conquer their opponents’ capitals can pull off a “domination” victory. Those who instead aspire to erect wonders and attract tourists can achieve a “culture victory.” Then there’s the “science victory” and “religion victory”—but you can also win by simply outlasting your foes, doing a little more of everything by the time the game comes to a close in the year 2080.

As Kanishk Tharoor writes, the franchise has always relied on a fantasy of unidirectional progress. There are, Tharoor observes, no dark ages in these games, only a narrative of inexorable improvement. Over the course of a game, some societies will inevitably fall as others—those able to advance fastest toward their goals—march toward victory.

The series’ science victory, which involves aggressively researching technological advances, may have been the clearest exemplar of that underlying ethos. Traditionally, the triumphant capstone on this process involved building and dispatching an interstellar spacecraft bound for Alpha Centauri. Even by Civilization’s flexible, progressive standards, the science victory always felt a little too optimistic for Anton Strenger, one of its young designers. And when Beach gave Strenger free rein to implement that scenario’s conditions, he had the opportunity to do something about it.

“There were a lot of very cool things associated with that. It was very science fiction,” Strenger said of the traditional science victory over the phone. But the pace didn’t quite seem right. Once the space race begins in the games, there are familiar milestones: “The first one is launching the satellite, the Sputnik step. The second one is landing someone on the moon, the Apollo mission,” he said. After that, ambitious players would take a beeline straight out of the solar system. It was an improbably giant leap, especially in a series that had always focused on small steps.

That realization led to a minor, but still significant, movement forward in Civilization VI. Thanks in large part to its growing place in the zeitgeist, Mars struck Strenger as a more plausible intermediary destination. It was also, he realized, very much on people’s minds, thanks to both fictional works such as The Martian and real-world initiatives to land astronauts on its surface—including one sponsored by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. (Incidentally, Musk has expressed enthusiasm for Civilization.) Instead of concluding the game with “generational ships or faster than light travel,” Strenger started to think that the red planet might make for a more realistic conclusion, one in line with the traditional mid-21st-century terminus of the games. Alpha Centauri was out as a goal, and Mars was in.

If he was going to shake things up, though, he wanted to make sure they got the science right—at least within reason. To that end, he solicited the help of Joel Green, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who has come by Firaxis’ studio to deliver talks on topics such as planet formation. Strenger and Green sat down over lunch with Beach—who cites Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as one of his inspirations for becoming a programmer—and another designer. Together, the trio quizzed Green on the state of astrophysical research. Green, a lifelong gamer who’s been playing the Civilization series since its first installment, told me he was delighted to find himself “sitting in a conference room with sandwiches with these guys for hours, drawing equations on the board.”

Green called attention to a handful of issues the designers might not have considered otherwise. He recalls stressing the extreme dangers of the Martian climate and discussing strategies for setting up safe human habitation. Other issues had more to do with the way we’d get people there in the first place. For example, he pointed out, “You have all these damaging particles in space.” That would require a player’s spaceship to have thick shielding, which he says is “very expensive.” Such details informed some of the design choices Strenger and his collaborators ultimately implemented, as they worked to figure out how players would get to Mars—and what they’d have to do to send a ship there.

Of course, for all its growing complexity, Civilization remains a pared-down simulation of human history—so it couldn’t be completely true to life. Strenger said Green had explained that “it’s very good to have a launch site … along the equator of the planet, because then you can take advantage of the rotational momentum of the planet.” In the game, that launch site would become the “spaceport district.” They considered implementing a similar mechanic in Civilization VI, only to realize it would be unfair to players who started off in more polar regions.

It was probably the right choice, not least of all because Civilization has always furnished an open invitation to imagine how things might have been—and might yet be—otherwise. Even Green, committed as he is to realism, found his mind wandering after making his way to the game’s Martian conclusion for the first time. There, he was greeted with a screen showing the fragile colony his virtual citizens had engineered. “I have a suspicion that this is the beginning,” he told me. “It’s cool to imagine the game just continues: It takes you directly from the real, to the near future sci-fi, to the more distant future.”

For now, though, he’s just happy to have been part of the franchise’s slow-changing story.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.