Humankind hands-on preview and interview – building a better Civilization

GameCentral gets to play Sega’s answer to Civilization and speaks to the developers about the moral quandaries of 4X strategy games.

In the early days of video games the word ‘clone’ used to get used a lot more. Back then it was commonplace for even very high-profile titles to be a blatant copy of something else – often a recent arcade game – with only minimal differences. As the industry matured the practice died out, with the copycats surrounding the original Doom being one of the last times it was used in earnest. It can still be relevant though and already the most common way to describe Humankind is as a Civilization clone. But there is much more to it than that.

French developer Amplitude Studios, best known for the Endless Space series, make no bones about Humankind’s inspiration, but then they could hardly deny it given that the two games look, at first glance, almost identical. Having now played the game ourselves the comparisons do not quickly disappear but once it gets going Humankind proves to have many unique ideas of its own. And besides, if the games industry can support hundreds of different first person shooters, it can surely suffer two similar-looking strategy games.

Strategy games are a slightly easier thing to demonstrate during a pandemic because they’re never a thing you’d go to an event to play anyway, since you need far more than the usual hour and a half. The demo we played was still relatively short though, compared to a full game, with two choices of whether start from the beginning, in pre-history, or later once cities have already begun to be established.

The start of Civilization is always thrilling, as you explore a new, randomly generated world, and Humankind sparks that seem sense of awe and wonder. At first Humankind really does seem like a clone, with similar looking graphics and a turn-based system for the passage of time, but according to narrative director Jeff Spock, who we’d spoken to before back in 2019, Humankind allows you to elongate this section of the game so that, if you want, you can remain a hunter gather tribe for longer.

There’s no mad rush to establish a city as soon as possible and instead you’re gently introduced to the combat system, and by gently we mean half our followers were immediately wiped out by trying to take on a woolly mammoth. That’s not nearly as big a problem as it sounds though, as Humankind is all about the survival of the group, rather than the individual, and within a few turns we’d split up our tribe to go exploring, looking for resources and a suitable habitat (within range of food, water, and minerals) for a city.

In some ways Humankind is more realistic than Civilization, in that rather than controlling a real-world civilisation from pre-history to the modern day you create your own composite society as you go, incorporating elements of other cultures into your own through trade and warfare – just as has happened throughout history.

Other elements are more abstract though and designed purely for gameplay purposes, such as the fact that you only have one city per region, so that the game doesn’t get bogged down in micromanagement. From what we can see so far this all seems to work very well, with a surprisingly fast pace and not too much staring at stats on spreadsheet style interface menus.

We discussed all these issues and more with not just narrative director Jeff Spock but also lead designer William Dyce. Turn-based strategies have enjoyed a major resurgence of interest in recent years, but generally not with games on as large a scale as Civilization. That all looks set to change with Humankind though, which is now easily one of our most anticipated games of the year.

Formats: PC (previewed) and Stadia
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Amplitude Studios
Release Date: 17th August 2021

GC: So, I can’t help but notice that your game is very similar to Civilization.

All: [laughs]

WD: I don’t see it!

GC: How would you categorise the key differences? To the casual observer they look near identical but how are they not, from your perspective?

WD: The issue that I have with a lot of these strategy games is essentially… if you think of a heist movie, imagine a heist movie shot from the perspective of the bank manager. And so you follow this chap for an hour and a half and then at the end of the film, he realises there’s no money left in the vault. And that’s it. That’s kind of the strategy game experience where your neighbour builds tanks for an hour and a half and then suddenly declares war on you and just rolls over you. That happens quite a lot.

I think of the game chess and the fact that you have to say ‘check’ when you’re about to take someone’s king. Because if you didn’t say check, that would be really frustrating – they just take your king and then that would just fizzle out. I’m here with the narrative director of Amplitude and we can get philosophical about emergent narrative from a gameplay system…

GC: Please do.

WD: In a strategy game you can’t have a static narrative with an inciting incident, mounting tension, the symbolic death, you know… the monomyth. But you can try at least to have an interest curve where you build tension towards a conflict. You want to have drama but you want to see that drama coming in advance. In order for the player to – on the playground or around the water cooler with their colleagues – tell the story of the game that they just played you need to have causality, you need to see things happening for a reason.

So the whole diplomacy system that we’ve built into the game, which is, I think, quite special… I don’t want to give you the answer that we often give to this, which is to talk about the cultural transition system, which is pretty special too, but I thought, to put everyone on the back foot, let’s talk about diplomacy because it’s pretty special as well.

We have very much this goal of creating meaning through causality, how things build up. There’s a historical aspect to this as well. If you look at the Cuban missile crisis, which could have led to World War 3… things didn’t happen over overnight. There was a mounting tension. So that’s the goal really, to create that emerging narrative and that meaning.

GC: The whole idea of having a narrative director for a freeform strategy game seems unusual. But something like diplomacy… that’s something that rarely works in strategy games as, given the AI, it either seems very arbitrary or very predictable. It’s never anywhere near as interesting as the core gameplay.

JS: One other thing that we sometimes forget to mention in how we differ from Civ is the whole city building thing, the one city per region and the lack of city span. Which I think is a huge difference from Civ.

WD: I should mention as well, because I talked about diplomacy for the last question, but the other big problem in strategy games is in the late game, which is the trudge. And what creates trudge is micromanagement.

The link between cause and effect, again, I have to move 400 armies in order to see whether my plan worked or not, one by one. That’s trudge. So we’ve made a concerted effort to reduce the number of objects under your control, whether that’s cities by having one city control a wide area, or that you only have one construction queue to manage. Or stacking units together into armies and only unstacking them when you’re actually interested in managing them.

And then, to speak more about the cities, there’s this whole kind of… building a civilisation, layer by layer, you know, much in a way that London has built up. It’s a patchwork of architectural styles from different periods, with bits being removed and rebuilt after The Great Fire, after The Blitz, and so on. And you realise that the idea of starting in the Neolithic era with the United States of America and playing through to the modern era is a little bit strange.

I makes a lot more sense to have this idea of building your own unique build, both in terms of cultures and the story, but also in terms of mechanics, where you’re pivoting the different play styles and also putting together bonuses. It kind of historically makes a bit more sense.

GC: I’ve certainly started a lot more games of Civilization than I’ve ever completed. The initial fun of exploring and researching the early technologies eventually gives way to, as you say, micromanagement and a sense of being bogged down. So I’m curious as to how else you address that issue. Especially as that’s common to many strategy games and yet Civilization is one of the worst for it.

WD: I think there’s a kind of roguelike factor in this. I’ve started many more games of Dead Cells than I’ve finished, for instance, and there is that aspect. I get as well that, at a certain point, the game system is not very good at recognising that you’ve won. And so I would tend to say that that’s where you want to push. You want to build in systems where the game can essentially say, ‘Hey, you’ve finished!’ And certain things that we’ve mentioned that we’re not going to talk about today, like the space race and nuclear weapons, are a way of essentially saying, ‘Hey, by the way, I’ve won!’ and kind of having that way out more quickly.

And also, you have to make a concerted effort to introduce game changing features throughout the game and not just at the beginning. For the industrial era we have trains, aircraft aerial battles, and things like that. The idea is to kind of refresh things a little bit. You’re also moving from, in terms of tactical battles, something that’s very melee-based into something where you have much more ranged combat and also line of sight becomes a lot more important. There’s no magic bullet but we’re trying to bring more game changing content…

JS: More variety, yeah, that unlocks as the game goes on. Definitely.

GC: Humankind does seem an unusual mix though, of the more realistic approach to the civilisations themselves and the more abstract video game concept of only having one city per region.

WD: Yeah.

GC: It seems as if you’re making the decisions for these systems on a case-by-case basis rather than saying, ‘This is a more realistic version of Civilization’ or ‘This is a more game-y version of Civilization’.

WD: There’s always going to be a spectrum between board game on one hand and simulation on the other. [The original Civilization was based on a board game by the same name – GC] We’re always going to be somewhere in between the two. I would say that, compared with Paradox, we’re a lot closer to the board game than to the simulation end. Soren Johnson gave a great talk on taking design inspiration from board games. There’s a simplicity and a directness to board game design that is necessary because they can’t sell a board game with a supercomputer built into it, to do all these calculations.

And that’s good because, as a player, you want to be able to predict certain things. And the thing about complex simulations with emergent phenomenon is that you often can’t think through them with your little meat brain and that makes gameplay difficult because you can’t predict what’s going to happen.

And, you know, narrative as well. The thing that frustrates me about the new Sherlock Holmes series, that the BBC put on, is that as a viewer you have absolutely no chance of figuring out the mystery because you’re not a super genius Sherlock Holmes. Whereas the original books, you had all the information necessary.

GC: The fact that you even have a narrative director implies that you have something you want to say… or that you’ve got a really bad video game story.

JS: [laughs]

GC: I’m curious what message it is you feel the game has, in terms of the way it portrays civilisations. Because humankind has spent most of its time being awful to everyone and yet presumably you want to make a fairly light, enjoyable strategy game. So how do you handle subjects like colonialism and slavery and the lack of women’s rights, which for most of history have been the norm?

JS: I think part of it comes from portraying each culture the way they see themselves, more than the way we, the game designers, see them. Which tends to put them in a much more positive light, of course. [laughs] I’m not saying it’s realistic or not, but it’s the idea that we’re all human beings struggling to get through this fairly complex thing called life. And often it’s better if you band together; sometime it’s better if you don’t. But rather than moralising, I think our games tend to have a more positive view of humanity in general.

You can be the sort of person that looks at this incredible diversity of cultures and says, ‘You know, geez, what an unholy mess’ or you can go look at it and say, ‘What a phenomenal, rich, fertile ground for ideas and imagination and experiences’. And so, we’re clearly in the latter field when it comes to that.

The idea is you’re sort of celebrating each culture and, fine, people are going to band together in order to kill each other more efficiently because some people play that way. But I think a big fault that a lot of other 4Xs have is that that’s kind of the default way to win.

It’s always been important for Amplitude that the default way to get the easy victory, it shouldn’t be having the biggest army and going and killing everyone. I think that’s a big part of it. We’ve talked about a narrative tone and style of a game. And regardless of what character the avatar has our games are generally enjoyable, positive, interesting, multicultural… it’s that kind of ambience.

GC: With so much emphasis on narrative it implies you have something to say, or at least that you have something you want to show the player, to make them think about. Which I assume is the angle you’re going for?

WD: The fundamental choice is to have you combining bricks together to build a civilisation rather than choosing one. There’s a kind of nationalistic message in the idea that you have an entity that is unchanging, that is immutable, and that will impose its will on the world. Okay, so we’re still an entity that is imposing its will on the world [laughs] but you’re opening yourself up for debate, you’re questioning yourself.

Whether it’s by the civics, the choices in terms of religion, the choice in terms of narrative events, or the choice in terms of culture there is a constant questioning. And I think this constant questioning is what built humankind – the real humankind, not the game – and we want to communicate that.

GC: In terms of the issues of colonialism in particular, that is a hot issue at the moment but that’s really what the whole game is about – what humanity itself has been about. In the sense of either directly taking over other people’s countries or imposing your will and influence on them.

WD: I think one has to accept that the 4X genre is necessarily going to have that in its DNA. All you can do is, within that kind of framework, be inclusive, be understanding – as Jeff said, present peoples as accurately and as fairly as you possibly can, by doing your homework.

GC: Extrapolating out from that you realise that most video game are simply about how much fun it is to kill other people…

JS: I think what you can do is you can say that instead of just making the assumption that things were like that, so that’s how the game should be designed, you get to a point where you have to say, ‘Okay, things are like that but in our game they don’t have to be. Do you want them to be like that? Or do you want to take a different path?’ Yeah, it’s a 4X and so you have your exploit and exterminate but to get there we’re at least going to make players answer the questions, transparently and obviously.

WD: In a sense, because the option exists, the choice to not pick that option exists. From a role-playing standpoint, it’s because in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory you can cut people’s throats that the choice to not cut people’s throats has meaning.

GC: So are things like slavery and women’s rights addressed specifically in the game?

JS: Those are examples of the sorts of things I was just saying. It’s a decision that the player’s faced with. There’s… ah, there are mechanics I can’t talk about yet, but there are decisions like that – civic, social decisions – that the player will have to say, ‘Well that’s how they did it back then. So it’s okay if I do it’ or you can say, ‘Well, you know, who am I? Who am I playing? Who am I role-playing here?’.

GC: I’m curious whether you cn play as a purely benign civilisation? Is it possible to survive like that without just being invaded by the first barbarian that comes along?

JS: [laughs]

WD: I think it can be managed, yes.

GC: Have you done it, do you win like that?

WD: To be honest, I can’t point to a total play through that I’ve done without ever lifting a sword. But I can point to playthroughs that I’ve done without instigating any military engagement, when I’ve only defended myself. Working on the late game is also to ensure that you have these non-militaristic options to wrap things up with and we’ll do our best to ensure that that is the case.

JS: That’s clearly in the spirit of the game, we’d like to do that.

GC: Sorry, I know we’ve overrun here but this is all very interesting. Thanks very much for your time, I can’t wait to play more.

JS: No problem, thank you very much. Thanks for all your interesting questions.

WD: Thank you!

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