Following the release of Civilization VI, Sean Cleaver sat down with Sarah Darney, associate producer at Firaxis, to talk about how her background in QA has been essential for her role on the game
Civilization has a long-standing history of quality. You don't become a 25 year old franchise that has released six games, and at least another four spin offs without having a great foundation behind you. Now in its sixth entry of the historical turn based strategy behemoth and it’s fair to say that as the game has evolved, so have the team making it.
It’s been a long time coming for Civilization VI. The previous entry, which came out six years ago, was a new and successful direction for the game. Changing its traditional square based board for hexagons was a bold move that opened up the map, the movement and military conflict to new levels. The add-on pack Brave New World introduced a huge new subsystem based on ideology with different bonuses and skill trees that replaced all of the old social policy and religion trees. All of these additions do one thing – they drastically alter the balance and feel of a game.
This time around, Firaxis has included the ideology system in the full game. But the biggest change comes in the form of cities and how you build them. Now, when you have a city, you have to designate a tile to a certain speciality which limits what you can build inside it and the space you have.
I think it’s so important to developers to have an understand of how the process works.
Sarah Darney, associate producer, Firaxis
For example, culture buildings like a theatre have to be built on a specialised tile and if you haven't build or assigned that specialisation then you can't build it. That restriction also carries over to wonders, essentially turning the city screen in to a mini city cuilding game. Evolution is as much a part of Civilization as it is the history it sources.
Firaxis have grown in to their strategy boots, so to speak. Not content with just Civilization, the studio has produced the reboot of the XCOM franchise as well, to great success. The studio has grown and the team has become well versed in many of its wares. We got to speak to Sarah Darney, who is an associate producer for Firaxis on the game.
Darney’s job history is very interesting in that her background is in quality assurance, which when you say it out loud sounds like the perfect qualification to be a game producer. But when you have a big game franchise that implements such a drastic change in gameplay, QA and testing becomes a huge piece of the puzzle.
“Coming from QA, I think it’s so important for developers to at least have an understanding of how the process works but I feel like that very much prepared me for what I’m doing now,” Darney tells me. “Especially as I was the QA manager, which is very much like being a producer for the QA department.”
Darney has worked on both of the XCOM reboots, Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within, as well as the Beyond Earth DLC, Rising Tide. But Civilization presents a new challenge. “It is quite frightening,” says Darney. “It’s a huge legacy. Civilization has been around for 25 years, those are very big shoes to fill.” With the changes in the game, Darney is keen to make sure it doesn’t lose its identity. “When you’re creating the next iteration in a franchise, you want there to be a similarity. You want the fans to feel like ‘Ok, I’m playing a Civ game’.
“Unstacking the cities was a huge change – just creating this puzzle game around all of your cities centres,” Darney continues. “It’s a big change and it affects every other function in the game. So whilst we still have that ‘thing’, that ‘civ thing’, that everyone knows – the one more turn magic, we did change it a lot. It’s something to get used to but it breaks up that routine.”
The identity of what makes Civilization such an addictive game has been affectionately mocked for many years. You can already see tweets of those lamenting the ‘one more turn’ trap as they post in the early hours of a morning. When a new feature comes in to the game that can break that magic, Darney’s experience in QA is invaluable.
“Coming from QA, whenever I hear that there’s going to be a giant systematic change to the game, I’m still terrified,” Darney jokes, “because I immediately have flashbacks to all of the test plans that I’d have to write. But I do think that helps me as I’m approaching it now, because an important part of my job is to play the game and give feedback to the developers. I can send saves and say, ‘this isn’t quite feeling right, can you take a look?’ I definitely feel, because I still have that QA mind set, it gives me an advantage in doing that and I can approach things differently.”
Civilization stretches over a number of video game genres – strategy, city building, alternate history and science fiction to name a few. Darney’s experience in QA across these genres has helped in making sure that marriage of them works, especially when it comes to balancing the new features and additions to the game.
“That’s a big part of QA. How we approach it at Firaxis, internally especially, [is that the testers are] big Civ fans,” Darney explains. “They’re looking for bugs but they’re focused on whether this game is fun and just playing it every day. There are times a system goes in and maybe we pass the sweet spot.
“Finding that is especially important with balancing and with numbers,” Darney continues. “Amplifying this by 100 – that’s too overpowered. Let’s go back to 50 – still not quite right, and then swinging up to 75 and finding out where things are working.
“That’s so important because we have so many unique units,” Darney adds. “We have base units, every leader has they’re unique ability and all these bonuses throughout the religion system, the government system and making sure all those numbers are right and working together. It is very challenging.”
QA is possibly one of the most important parts of game development as you have the opportunity, outside of bug fixing, to leave the bubble of the studio. You get to see how the game works, how it plays, and fundamentally if it is any fun. At the end of day it is what everyone, all the way from the fan playing to the associate producer of the game, wants from a Civilization title.
“I love that part of the process as – we make games and they’re supposed to be fun,” Darney says. “If I see a fan and I get a high five them and they tell me how much they love this game and how happy it made them, it gives me the warm fuzzies. It’s why I go to work and it’s why I love my job.”