Brief look at obvious #UX mistakes in Civilization 5 (and why you should never buy another Firaxis game)

Civilization was one of the best games ever designed and shipped.

Civ5 is tragic. It’s one thing to launch a AAA title full of nerfed gameplay and obvious, in-your-face bugs, but quite another to leave them unfixed for years after. It’s one thing to officially fix your bugs only in pay-for add-ons – but quite another to keep those add-ons at full price for years after they released.

Here’s a quick view of what’s still broken in Civ5 today, if you buy it direct in the online stores:

  • The game autosaves every 10 or so turns; this has NEVER been correct for Civilization (from memory, the original game used to save every other turn by default (maybe not; running out of disk space was a real concern back then); modern teams at Firaxis seem to be too amateurish to implement this. Civ 4 used to crash so much that putting it on “save every turn” was a requirement).
    • No-one at Firaxis should be “unaware” of the need for every-turn autosaves
    • I struggle to think of a rational explanation; best I can think of so far is some weak game-designer thinking that autosaves are “cheating”, so they decided to deliberately break the concept so it only half worked.
    • I haven’t yet found an easy way to un-break this in civ5. Given how crucial it is to the game, and how it’s been present in every previous version, it should be in the game-options, but it’s not. That’s two bugs for the price of 1!
  • The user-interface for moving units is more broken than in any version of Civ to date. Civ1 had a perfect system (but predated the existence of a mouse on every computer): units moved where you told them by pressing numeric keypad keys. Civ3 and Civ4 had “automatic” pathfinding that was badly broken: it often walked your units into 100% certain death for no reason.
    • Civ5 takes this one further: if a unit is selected and you move across another unit, civ5 moves BOTH units, causing double the catastrophe.
    • This automated action – that IME is almost NEVER what the player wanted to do, and is extremely destructive, frequently causing game-losing events – cannot be undone. This breaks the cardinal law of user-interfaces: if you do an automated, un-asked-for, action (which you generally shouldn’t) … then you MUST provide an Undo.
  • Civ5 also has a strangely bad algorithm for pathfinding: it generally takes 1-4 seconds to run the algorithm during which time the game lies about the game-rules, and claims that your unit is “immovable”.
    • This appears to be a junior programmer discovering “asynchronous” coding for the first time in their life, and not realising the obvious side-effects
    • I have no idea why the algorithm is so insanely slow. It is slowest in a huge game, but even in a tiny game, with nothing happening, and only a tiny game-world, it randomly takes anywhere from no time to 1-2 seconds to “switch on”
  • The buttons for “required” actions are deliberately placed in the worst-possible positions: the far OPPOSING corners of the screen.
    • This breaks the most basic and obvious guidelines in UX design
    • For bonus points, the buttons don’t get larger on large/wide screens. Those buttons are so small and so far away you rarely see them, let alone find it easy to press them
    • It’s as if the Firaxis team were out to beers with the misguided team at Microsoft who decided that Windows 8 would rely upon a single “magic pixel” to activate core functions, and thought: “hey, I know how we can really mess-up our players! That impossible-to-hit pixel idea is great! It’ll make the game so much harder!”
  • The interactive HUDs giving critical information on the global state of politics, that made Civ4 a significant improvement over previous versions – and that were extended massively by the community, increasing gameplay without removing any challenge … have been deleted.
    • The question begs: we know Firaxis has many people who’ve played the previous civs; how on earth did they forget how critical and popular the dashboards were?
    • The game is almost unplayable without dashboards. It’s a waste of time: you have to play solo, or click through a series of menus every single turn simply to find out the current status of your opponents. A massive step backwards in gameplay.
    • Best explanation I can think of: failed game-design strategy to “make it more mass-market friendly”.

That last point leads into the legion of game-design failures in Civ5. As I understand it, most of the game was “Designed” around the idea of dumbing-down: apparently the Youth of Today are so stupid and lazy that they cannot play games that are deep, enjoyable, or interesting. The way to make money is to make games idiot-proof with as few options as possible and no meaningful decisions.

Ironically, this is the exact opposite of what the legions of Civ fans had shown they valued in the Civ franchise, via the overwhelmingly popular mods for civ4. Master of Mana added depth, difference, more depth, more variety, more difference, and yet more depth, across the board. It hacked the tech tree into becoming 5 different tech-trees, all running in parallel (WTF? Oh, yes!) – and players loved it.

One day, I may write a post on the flow of game design, successes and failures, and the #facepalm that civ3 and civ5 were (between the two of them, both abject failures). Strangely enough … the two things in civ5 that I remember the community being most afraid of (hexes and 1-unit-per-tile) … seem to have worked fine. The radical changes were a success; it was all the easy, “you can’t possibly screw this up”, parts that the dev-team screwed up. And that is why I consider civ5 “tragic”: they got the hardest bits right, despite the odds … and tripped over their own shoelaces messing-up the easy bits.

Civ4 had a similar trajectory, with two differences:

  1. It appeared to be a legitimate mistake: they didn’t realise until after shipping how broken their own game was
  2. Within a couple of years, the add-ons were being bundled with the core game for free, or at most five dollars. As they should be: they were mostly re-adding content that had been removed, and fixing launch-bugs, with only a tiny sprinkling of extra content/changes.

For Civ5, someone in charge (publisher? studio director?) appears to have decided: “hey, we shafted the consumers and exploited the franchise well there – but we could do so much better! Let’s do it deliberately this time: save money by deliberately shipping incomplete product, then use online market-controls to force everyone to pay 3 times to get a working game! We’ll be RICH!”.

In their defence, Firaxis did ship one major content update for free, which was wonderful: they added retina support. That’s unnecessary (not a bug, retina’s didn’t exist when it came out) and nice to have – but in no way justifies ignoring the rest.

4 thoughts on “Brief look at obvious #UX mistakes in Civilization 5 (and why you should never buy another Firaxis game)

  1. Andrew Crystall

    There’s a reason I still play SMAC(X).

    (I’m about to wind up a PBeM game which is in it’s third year. By losing miserably, but you can’t have everything)

  2. Andrew

    Strange, I agree with every point you have made, but the only one I had noticed before now is the accidental moving two units (I HATE that one). I would love to hear your review on Civ 6 when it comes out.

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