TIME Video Games

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Won’t Swing onto Xbox One at First — Will It Ever?

Activision

Activision says it's working with Microsoft to get the game released, but it's also pulled the Xbox One logo from the game's official website.

File this under nightmare public relations debacles happening right before a major multi-platform game associated with one of Marvel’s oldest and dearest properties is due out in tandem with one of the spring’s biggest films: For reasons unknown, Activision has officially and indefinitely postponed the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on Xbox One.

“We are working with Microsoft in an effort to release The Amazing Spider-Man 2 video game on Xbox One,” an Activision spokesperson told Eurogamer. “Currently, the game will be available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo 3DS and the PC on 2nd May, 2014 as previously announced.”

This would be something of a first. It’s certainly the case, historically speaking, that platforms are skipped in multi-platform lineups, whether because the platform isn’t popular enough, or it’s simply not capable enough (Nintendo’s Wii U being the most recent and prime example). But delaying one of two premium versions of a multi-platform game based on a triple-A character and film franchise (the movie launched internationally yesterday, and hits the U.S. on May 2) we’ve all been expecting for months? On a system that’s by all accounts selling quite well? At the eleventh hour?

Something’s clearly amiss. It’s no secret that developers have been struggling to get the Xbox One to match Sony’s PlayStation 4 when it comes to render scales and frame rates. Did developer Beenox swim in over its head? Is the game underperforming? Or are there Xbox One-specific features too unfinished at this point to allow the game to launch with its peers? On the game’s official website, the Xbox One version has been removed, which is generally not what you do if you’re simply delaying something’s release date.

It’s hard to imagine Beenox not releasing a version of the game for Microsoft’s flagship gaming console, but who knows: launching movie tie-ins in the vicinity of the movies they’re based on is a big deal. Missing that date, and depending how critics and consumers react to the game itself, the prospects sound iffy. If the game does poorly (the film’s already getting mixed reviews), it’s hard to imagine Activision (it owns Beenox) pumping a ton of money into the Xbox One version to finish it up.

And like anything, even if The Amazing Spider-Man 2 missing Xbox One turns out to be a blip from a sales standpoint, it could do longer-term damage to perceptions about the Xbox One — rightly or wrongly — from a public relations one.

TIME Technologizer

FarmVille Is Back — and This Time, It’s Portable

FarmVille 2: Country Escape
In FarmVille 2: Country Escape, your farm is on the coast--and on your phone or tablet Zynga

The one-time Facebook phenom arrives on iOS and Android in its first made-for-mobile edition

Remember FarmVille? Of course you do. Once upon a time, circa 2010, chances are that you either played it on Facebook or were annoyed by addicted friends seeking your help tending to their crops. It was the Facebook game that made Facebook gaming famous.

A lot has happened since then — particularly to Zynga, FarmVille’s creator. The company boomed, went public, paid a lot of money to buy Draw Something developer OMGPOP, saw its stock crater, went through multiple rounds of layoffs and brought in former Xbox chief Don Mattrick to replace founder Mark Pincus as CEO. Although the FarmVille franchise is no longer a phenomenon, it’s still important to Zynga: In its last quarterly results, it reported that its first and third highest grossing games were FarmVille and FarmVille 2, respectively.

The new Zynga wants to be a much bigger player in mobile gaming, a category where King’s Candy Crush Saga is enjoying a reign of pop-culture dominance that’s reminiscent of Farmville back in the day. And it’s bringing FarmVille along with it, in the form of FarmVille 2: Country Escapes, a game for iOS and Android that’s launching worldwide today. (It’s already been available in Canada and a few other countries as Zynga tested and tweaked it before the full rollout.)

This isn’t FarmVille’s debut on mobile devices: That came with an iPhone app back in 2010. But it’s the first version designed with mobile devices in mind from the get-go, and that competes with existing mobile farming games such as Supercell’s Hay Day.

As the name indicates, FarmVille 2: Country Escape is an extension of FarmVille 2, which modernized the famously blocky franchise with fancier 3D graphics when it premiered in 2010. Visually, it’s quite similar, with the same adorable little farm folk and animals, rendered with lots of details and little animated flourishes. You touch and swipe your way around your land in a manner that, if anything, feels more natural than the pointing and clicking of FarmVille in its Facebook incarnations.

FarmVille 2: Country Escape
Zynga

But FarmVille 2: Country Escape isn’t just FarmVille 2 in app form. In fact, it doesn’t even involve the same farm. You start all over again with new farmland nestled on a cute little coast, and the gameplay, while still involving tending to crops and animals, is quite different in its details. (The two incarnations are linked through a feature that lets people who have farms in both games move goods such as water and sugar between them.)

You can connect FarmVille 2 to Facebook, iOS’s Game Center (iOS) or Google Play Games, play with friends and speed your progress by forming co-ops with other players. But in a FarmVille first, you can also opt to play in standalone mode, without having to go online at all. “Friends are not required to play this game, ever,” says Zynga VP of Games Jonathan King. “As you can imagine, that’s a big deal for FarmVille.”

Though the game looks and feels like FarmVille, it’s not aiming to be a FarmVille-like timesink. Instead, in recognition of the fact that people often use mobile devices when they’re doing stuff like waiting in line at the grocery store, it’s designed to provide more instant gratification. “You can have a short session that actually has meaning,” Knight says. “You don’t have to feel that every time you open FarmVille, it’s a giant commitment.”

As always in FarmVille, there are forms of currency you can trade for items, including both ones you can earn and ones you can buy with real money. New this time around are stamps that can be traded for prize animals, such as a special cow capable of producing more milk than the game’s plain old cattle.

Here’s Zynga’s trailer for the new game:

FarmVille 2: Country Escape may rejigger the FarmVille experience in multiple ways, but Zynga hasn’t fundamentally reimagined it. I asked Knight about where the series might go, especially in light of Zynga’s acquisition in January of NaturalMotion, whose Clumsy Ninja iPad game features spectacular production values more reminiscent of a Pixar movie than a Zynga game. Though he didn’t have anything specific to share, he told me that the company sees lots of opportunity to embrace new technologies and take the franchise new places.

“We think FarmVille is an evergreen,” he says. “I expect FarmVille on the Holodeck in a couple hundred years.”

TIME Video Games

Sony Says 7 Million PlayStation 4s Have Been Sold Worldwide

Sony

And Sony adds that it's sold more than 20.5 million PS4 games worldwide across retail and digital content.

Sony’s coming out swinging one day before U.S. retail tracker NPD’s game sales numbers are due: the international electronics behemoth says it’s shipped more than 7 million PlayStation 4 game consoles since the system arrived last November. That figure is as of April 6.

Sony Computer Entertainment president and group CEO Andrew House doles out the usual kudos in the press release, but adds that the company is “still facing difficulties keeping up with the strong demand worldwide.” In recent months, analysts and pundits alike have speculated that Sony’s sales might be higher still were the company able to provide retailers sufficient inventory to keep the system on shelves, though in fairness to the Xbox One, the PS4 is presently available in at least three or four times as many countries (Sony says 72 total countries and regions at this point).

The company adds that PS4 software sales are robust at more than 20.5 million to date (split between worldwide retail and digital downloads via the PlayStation Store through April 13). And there’s some crowing about games to come, in particular PS4 exclusives like DRIVECLUB, MLB 14: The Show and The Order 1886, as well as indies like N++, Secret Ponchos, Transistor, Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Daylight.

Related, Sony says over 135 million “shares” (pictures, videos, etc.) have been captured using the sharing button on the DualShock 4 controller. And between Twitch and Ustream, the company says players have delivered over 4.9 million gameplay broadcasts and nearly 90 million spectate sessions.

Sony community manager (and former GamePro editor) Sid Shuman announced the news on Sony’s PlayStation blog, and notes that the company will “have some great new details to share with you regarding our upcoming PS4 system software update very soon.”

Stay tuned tomorrow evening, when we’ll likely have Microsoft’s response, which’ll include Titanfall sales and give us a sense for whether that game — arguably the most important Xbox One exclusive for the first half of 2014 sales-wise — helped Microsoft make inroads on Sony’s lead.

In any event, 7 million units sold this early in a set-top’s lifecycle (we’re not six months out) is very, very good news for Sony, and the games industry in general.

TIME celebrity

Drop Enemies Like They’re Hot While You Play Call of Duty, Now Narrated by Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg
Jordan Naylor / Getty Images

"It's the coolest game in the hood. All my homies play this game."

Fans of the first-person shooter game Call of Duty: Ghosts can soon enhance their playing experience by downloading an add-on pack featuring narration by Snoop Dogg.

Yes. Really. Snoop Dogg! The rapper has lent his voice to the game to provide commentary like “Ballistic vests ready. Those are some fine ass threads” and “Rack up points by reaching the enemy portal, ya dig?”

Snoop will also provide encouragement to players with pep talks like “Don’t stop! Cap ‘em and shank ‘em.” Oh man, now we kind of wish Snoop could just narrate out everyday lives.

“What interested me most about the project is that my voice could be connected with a game that’s so hip, that’s so hood,” Snoop said in the announcement video. “It’s the coolest game in the hood. All my homies play this game.”

The Snoop Dogg voiceover pack will cost $2.99, available on April 22 for Xbox One and Xbox 360. We suggest sippin’ on some gin and juice while you play.

TIME Video Games

Richard Garriott Wants You to Remake His First Dungeons & Dragons Game

Think you've got the stuff to recreate a 1970s-era teletype roleplaying game?

Portalarium

I have no idea how Portalarium creative director Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar is going to turn out, but I’m all kinds of interested to see how this clever little promotional retro-competition he’s sponsoring will.

It involves one of the oldest games he designed. No, not Akalabeth. I’m talking about D&D#1, a game young master Garriott designed on a teletype machine nearly four decades ago while in high school (he’s 52 today, and a pretty eclectic guy — he’s also been to space).

Back in 1977, Garriott typed the game onto paper tape spools, which he fed into a terminal that ran the D&D-inspired roleplaying scenario in the simplest sense: explore a top-down dungeon (it used ASCII characters to indicate geometry), while doing battle with enemies and excavating treasure along the way.

Tele-who? Teleprinter technology. You know the Selectric 251 from the TV series Fringe that let people send and receive messages? Kind of like that, only without the interdimensional communications module. They’re electromechanical typewriters older than me, and Garriott used one to craft a slew of D&D-inspired games: 28 in all, paving the way for his first Apple II game, which in turn anticipated his storied Ultima computer roleplaying series.

Garriott’s asking anyone intrepid enough to take the source code (in BASIC) for that original teletype game — created at Clear Creek High School in Houston, Texas on a teletype machine connected via an acoustic modem to a PDP 11 type mini-computer — and translate it into something that faithfully recreates the original game (the instructions specify “No fancy graphics, stick with a traditional font on ‘yellow’ paper”). The contest just kicked off yesterday, April 15, and the clock’s ticking — entrants have until May 15.

According to the contest overview, the game’s been MIA since 1979, when teletype was retired. The idea here is to come up with a playable version Portalarium can drop into Shroud of the Avatar. You can submit using Unity or design “a no-plug-in Browser Version,” and the winners will be announced shortly after the contest closes. Winners (in each category) get a Citizen-level pledge reward (within Shroud of the Avatar) that Portalarium values at $550, while two runners-up in both categories will receive a Collector-level pledge reward valued at $165 apiece. The only catch: all submissions become Garriott’s property.

TIME Video Games

Get the Xbox One April Update Today, Including Kinect Tweaks and Friend Notifications

Larry Hryb / Microsoft

And you can finally (finally!) run manual system updates by poking around in system settings.

Larry Hryb, Microsoft’s director of programming for Xbox Live, writes that the April Xbox One update started rolling out last night, and that the following list of features should be live now, or available “over the next few days.”

Along with the the usual presumptive bug fixes, the update adds a feature Xbox 360 owners have been enjoying forever: friends list notifications; when friends sign into Xbox Live on Xbox One, you’ll now see an alert.

This was one of the most frequently requested features, so we made it a priority to include it in this update,” writes Hryb, adding that friends in multiplayer will now be identified as such in the list. I’m not sure why this wasn’t present at launch. Maybe the company worried these kinds of notifications were annoying (and they can be, especially if you have a big list of very active Xbox Livers, thus I assume the new notifications can be disabled, too).

Microsoft’s still chipping away at Kinect’s uneven gesture-recognition algorithms, which Hryb says the company’s updated “to reduce false positives on non-hand objects triggering gesture commands.” Voice recognition has also been fine-tuned “for quality and reliability.” Speaking of audio, the controller and headset firmware’s been updated to “reduce audio static and improve wireless connectivity.”

If you’ve had trouble keeping track of large game or application saves and updates, there’s now a game save progress bar that’ll keep you apprised of what’s what, and Hryb says you’ll be able to easily identify what’s being updated (or been updated recently).

Xbox One’s GameDVR feature — the ability to capture gameplay video clips, then edit and share them via Upload Studio — now offers better video quality using an improved compression algorithm, and Microsoft’s tweaked its Blu-ray player to support 50 Hz video output (which, as I understand it, essentially means you’ll be able to watch region-free imports, e.g. Europe-originated content). Hryb adds that Microsoft plans to update the Xbox One’s Blu-ray Player app “in the coming days” to “round out these improvements.”

Last but not least, Microsoft’s finally added an option to manually update the Xbox One in system settings (Hryb says it’ll only be there if there’s an update in the wings — you won’t need to click it to check, in other words; you’ll know there’s something available simply by its presence). I’ll golf clap to that.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Age of Empires Is Going Free-to-Play, Like It or Not

Another once-beloved strategy series is about to make the leap to freemium mobile.

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Who wanted a free-to-play version of Microsoft’s old history-minded real-time strategy game Age of Empires — show of hands? All I can see is mine not going up. I wouldn’t have expected a series like AoE to head in this direction, but then I guess I’m just blinkered, since the future’s inexorably micro-transactive.

Not that free-to-play can’t work for a real-time strategy game. “Recreate history with your hands,” claims the trailer above, even if history’s already been recreated plenty with hands holding mice and keyboards. I suppose the more important question at this point is who’s designing the thing, and we do know that: a company called KLab (I assume KLab America, specifically), whose prior mobile games include Eternal Uprising: End of Days, Crystal Casters, Rise to the Throne and Lord of the Dragons.

I’ve played none of those, and so have no insight into the studio’s competence at this point. The reaction to the YouTube video’s been predictably negative, of course, because the presumption is — rightly or wrongly — that taking a beloved and sophisticated strategy game mobile and free-to-play is just a cynical ploy to generate piles of cash, and above all else, an abandonment of original series developer Ensemble Studios’ principles.

Age of Empires: World Domination, which is what they’re calling the forthcoming iOS, Android and Windows Phone take on the series, employs a new battle system (obviously), and lets you play as the Celts, Vikings, Franks or Huns. The game should be available sometime this summer.

TIME Video Games

Check Out 12 Minutes of Star Citizen Not Being the Game You’ll Play

Is it even fair to call it a demo?

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It’s not the first time we’ve seen in-game footage of Star Citizen — not by a long shot — but it is a lovely, long, lens-flare-blue gander at Chris Roberts’ flamboyantly crowd-funded (to the tune of $41 million and climbing) deep-space simulator. The game won’t be out until 2015 (and then, I’d guess if we’re lucky), but it looks to be coming along nicely, though most of what you’ll see here is a little mundane.

Armaments, check. Dogfighting, check. A window-dressing planet, check. G-forces callout, check. The most interesting wrinkle may be the in-helmet radar, which illustrates a lock-on using quarter-circle brackets that tumble from foreground to background like the halo of stars in Paramount Pictures’ pre-movie logo. In other words, a little distracting and unnecessary. In fact I thought it was a new type of weapon at first.

“You should probably skip to 3:16,” the person who put up the YouTube video snapped at Pax East 2014 advises. Yep, you probably should, because those first three minutes are just the demonstrator crashing and restarting.

Space is boring. It’s unfathomably big. Not a lot happens. It’s nowhere near as interesting as Alfonso Cuaron’s beautifully shot but ultimately nonsensical fantasy version. You have to add noise and nonsense physics and time compression and narrative silliness to make it interesting.

That’s not this demo, which is more about proving that in 2014, we still know how to design vertical and horizontal strafe, that bodies in zero-G cockpits can still respond to accelerative forces, that asteroid fields can be more enticing if you drop them in low-orbit near a planet (pity the poor occupants of that planet, assuming it’s occupied, who probably have extinction events routinely) and that different weapons firing simultaneously look nifty so long as the tracers are color-coordinated.

But then we’re looking at the disjointed scraps of something that’s not even a game yet. The apparently high school-age audience (that mistook a space sim demo for a sporting event where dimwits shout half-intelligbly) didn’t seem to mind. Yes, the demonstrator bounces off an asteroid toward the end (several times). Did you think that was a feature? That you were watching a representation of what you’ll play in one or maybe two years?

Mind you, a Digital Combat Simulator game Star Citizen will never be. If all you want is painstakingly bleeding-edge Newtonian fidelity, you want DCS, whose simulations are peerless. But give Star Citizen‘s design team time to figure out where, between arcade and simulation poles, it wants to be. Chris Roberts’ first Wing Commander leaned firmly toward the former, but his later games grew in complexity and depth. Star Citizen looks increasingly like it might slot somewhere in the vicinity of Egosoft’s X-series, meaning fairly sim-ish — and that’s to say nothing of the trading or living universe elements we haven’t seen yet.

TIME Video Games

Interview: Sid Meier’s Civilization Beyond Earth Might Be the Alpha Centauri Sequel You’ve Been Waiting For

Could it mark the end of Firaxis' hard-sci-fi, turn-based, planet-bound 4X drought -- a true spiritual successor to one of the grandest, smartest turn-based strategy games ever made? We can hope.

I’ll spare you prolix paragraphs of sentimental Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri gushing and say just this: I loved it, you loved it, who didn’t love it? It’s probably the apotheosis of the Civilization franchise, design-wise, and that’s including everything since (with plenty of warm fuzzies for Civilization IV). Alpha Centauris creative lead Brian Reynolds was a gameplay genius, as most who remember Civilization II and Rise of Nations would probably attest.

But Alpha Centauri didn’t sell well by Civilization standards, and so — perhaps because of that, perhaps for other reasons — it’s sat untouched for nearly a decade-and-a-half, without a sequel or even wishful public musing about one.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, which Firaxis is announcing at PAX East today, may finally bring an end to Firaxis’ hard-sci-fi, turn-based, planet-bound 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) drought. But it’s not Alpha Centauri 2 — just wipe any such notion from your brain. Alpha Centauri belongs to Electronic Arts, not Firaxis.

And so the design team at Firaxis had to come up with something fresh. Something with overt links back to the core Civilization franchise (thus the inclusion of “Civilization” in the title this time). Something that could, in theory and given roughly 15 years of design advances and lessons learned, be the superior sci-fi game.

Given Alpha Centauri‘s pedigree and harder-core player demographic, you might argue Firaxis’ challenge lies in turning a radically reimagined riff on Civilization V — a game praised by mainstream critics, but sharply criticized by core players — into something that can somehow appeal to both demographics. Or at least that’s my hope, having posed some of those questions (and concerns) to Beyond Earth gameplay designer Anton Strenger, Sid Meier’s Civilization series senior producer Dennis Shirk and associate producer Pete Murray.

Here’s what they told me.

Let’s get the elephant out of the room: Beyond Earth sounds a lot like an Alpha Centauri sequel on paper, but it’s not called that. How do the two relate?

Anton Strenger: Beyond Earth is a new entry in the Civilization franchise, and we’re definitely inspired by Alpha Centauri, but this is a different game and it’s meant to stand on its own. So what we’re really trying to do here is take a lot of the lessons we’ve learned from all the other Firaxis games and the knowledge that we have and apply it to a new setting, a setting free from historical context, where we can invent our own alien planet, and where there can be a lot of new interesting things that happen.

But I’m glad you mentioned Alpha Centauri, because it’s certainly something that’s on our minds here. It’s been an inspiration to me personally. It was the first 4Xgame I played, actually, back when I was in middle school. I learned over my friend’s shoulder and didn’t know what was going on, but it was really awesome and I wanted to learn more. So that ended up being my first Firaxis game. When I started at Firaxis three years ago it was very much on my mind.

We’re not making a sequel to Alpha Centauri, but we’re making a new entry in the Civilization series in that same kind of mold, in a science fiction setting with a lot of new opportunities that we get to invent ourselves.

Dennis Shirk: We wanted to ask ourselves what would happen after the spaceship [at the end of the Civilization games] launched, if we had a completely empty canvas, and what we could do with that if we weren’t confined by history.

Sure, but the lens through which core 4X gamers are going to view something like Beyond Earth is inexorably going to be Alpha Centauri, which had that same “What happens after the spaceship launches?” premise back in 1999.

DS: Sure, and I agree that no matter what, there’s going to be comparisons and assumptions made that this is going to be like another Alpha Centauri. But I think this is going to be a completely new take, and that’s going to be evident from the first time people are playing it. As Anton said before, there’s always going to be inspiration from a game like that. It’s in our DNA here at the studio just from having created it and Alien Crossfire [Alpha Centauri's official expansion].

But the experience itself, we want that to be a completely fresh take on what this would be like in space. We built it on top of the Civilization V engine, so we put a new renderer over the top and everything we needed to make it look spectacular and breathe new life into the series. But we wanted a regular Civilization V player — our core audience that we have for that game — to be able to pick this up and run with it.

That said, you’re not going to see an abundance of similarities between Beyond Earth and Civilization V. I mean, obviously you’re in space and colonizing a planet, but the gameplay systems we’ve introduced are all new, from the tech web to affinities to the way that the upgrade system works. We’ve diverged significantly from the original title.

AS: A great example is the tech web. In Civilization V or Alpha Centauri, even though the Alpha Centauri tech tree was a little more hidden from the player, you basically start at one point and you advance to another point, and it branches along the way, and in Alpha Centauri you could focus on exploring or discovering. In Civilization V you can focus on the naval track up top or the military track on bottom, but you’re kind of going in one direction the whole time.

Something that’s really different about Beyond Earth that makes it stand on its own — and not just compared to Alpha Centauri but as a 4X game in general — is the technology web. You’re starting in the middle of this vast spiderweb of cool technological threads taken from all the brainstorming we did by reading futurists writers and science fiction. So you’re going to see things like nanotechnology, things like genetics, things like xenobiology and all these different threads that take you in different directions on the web. You’re not advancing on this predefined track so much as exploring this technology space. The choices that you make in the tech web will lead you into one of three different affinities, and each affinity is like a post-human identity.

Firaxis

You have harmony, which strives for connection with the planet and its alien lifeforms. You have supremacy, which strives for connection with technology and cybernetics and kind of rejects the natural world. And you have purity, which is a rejection of both of those and instead looks back to old earth, the culture and the glory there, and tries to recreate it on the planet. All the different decisions that you make form your identity as you play the game, and I think that really sets it apart.

Is this as unique and singular an entry in Firaxis’ catalog as a game like Civilization V, or is it meant more as an extension of Civilization V, like a standalone expansion?

DS: What we wanted to do when we set out was make the core mechanics familiar enough so that existing fans could pick it up and recognize how to play the game. So it’s a 4X game, we still support one unit per tile hex, your cities are going to be building things, you’re going to be researching things, all of that foundational stuff. But the systems that we’ve built on top of that are robust and large compared to what we have in a typical Civilization V expansion. We wanted this to be completely set apart, a unique and distinct game that stands on its own.

The Colonization remake that used the Civilization IV engine still felt like it was built on Civilization IV‘s systems. Beyond Earth, by comparison, is an absolutely distinct experience. We can’t wait until we’re able to have people playing it because what the designers have done so far is amazing. I never expected it to go as far as it did — what the art team’s managed to accomplish, what the design team’s managed to accomplish to make this an completely unique experience.

AS: Yeah, everything from the aesthetics to the mechanics to the fictional story, it feels like its own game.

DS: But again, just to repeat, what I think is the great balance of the whole thing is that if you’ve just finished a game of Civilization V and you fire up Beyond Earth, those core tenets are going to embrace you like a warm blanket and you’re just going to be able to start playing.

Civilization V was broadly well-received, but there were a few who didn’t agree, who took issue with the A.I. and in so many words said it couldn’t play the game Firaxis designed — that it couldn’t cohere to basic, hex-based, wargame principles. Civilization V lead designer Jon Shafer was himself self-critical of the A.I. in a postmortem. What would you say to skeptics with regard to the A.I. in Beyond Earth?

DS: I read the same article that Jon Shafer put together on the A.I., and he was right about some of those things. There were shortcomings that started to come out, especially when you’re talking about a game with a million-plus fans. The great thing about our publisher is that they let us continue to improve the game well after release, through the expansions, through multiple balance patches and adding additional content. That’s one thing [Civilization V designer] Ed Beach really focused on in the core Civilization V engine: getting the A.I. up to where it could competently play the game and thrill players.

And I think in Brave New World [the final Civilization V expansion], when we finally closed out the series, the A.I. was in an amazing place. Ed took it a very great distance to where we all thought it was a really good experience. A lot of that strategic framework we brought forward into Beyond Earth, and then we handed it off to a brand new A.I. team.

Firaxis

AS: Beyond Earth‘s A.I. programmer, his name is Brian Whooley, has been with us from the very beginning. Will Miller and David McDonough, our lead designers, have worked with him on their previous project [Haunted Hollow for iOS] very closely. Me and Will and Dave share an office, and right across the hall is Brian Whooley, and we meet multiple times a week. He’s following in close step with all the design features that come on line, to make sure the A.I.’s up to par, that it’s winning the game in all the different ways and stuff like that. So the A.I.’s definitely been a focus for us, and we expect we’ll be in a good place at launch.

I think it was Soren Johnson who told me — this was years ago when he was working on Civilization III and I was putting together a feature about A.I. — that it’s easy to create an A.I. that can win, say by cheating, but it’s incredibly hard to create one that can win while cohering to the same strategic principles the player has to, much less employ those principles shrewdly.

Pete Murray: Sid actually gave an interesting talk at GDC a few years ago where he said players often experience the A.I. as cheating if it’s doing very well. So given that our ultimate goal is to create an exciting experience for players rather than an A.I. that can crush the player at every turn, we’re trying to create the best experience for as many people as possible.

AS: My attitude as a designer, and I think you’ll find that Will and Dave have similar attitudes, is that the A.I. — except on the higher difficulty levels — isn’t supposed to be a mathematically perfect, optimal opponent. It’s more like an actor on the stage of the game that the player’s playing. Having it be fun and visible in the right ways is really important to us, and something we think about all the time during development. I think when we’re implementing the A.I., we don’t often make the A.I. cheat. We try to make sure that it’s fair, but in the end it’s about serving the player experience, and that’s our number one goal.

It sounds like the startup process where you’re assembling a spacecraft and picking its cargo is going to distinguish itself from prior Civilization games’ world type and leader selection process.

AS: That’s correct, though when you say “spacecraft,” it’s nothing like you’d see in FTL. What we mean is there’s this phase of the game that happens before turn zero which we call the loadout process. The fictional framework that we’re using for Beyond Earth is that Earth in the near future decides to send expeditions into space to colonize alien worlds because there’s a kind of desperate situation on Earth and they’re looking elsewhere to continue the future of humanity.

In Civilization V or Alpha Centauri, you’d pick a faction or civilization and you’d get this prepackaged bag of benefits. So you’d get this bonus, you get this unit instead of that unit, you get this building instead of that one, and it’s all kind of together, which is cool, especially in a historical context, because you can say “Oh yeah, there’s that civilization I recognize from history, there’s that thing they do I read about in a history book.”

What Beyond Earth does instead is it takes Sid’s philosophy of a game as a series of interesting decisions and folds it into the gameplay itself. So you’re not just picking your faction and the bonus it comes with, you’re also picking the parameters of your expedition, leaving old Earth and going to the new planet. And so in addition to picking the nation that sponsors your expedition, you’re picking the type of spacecraft and the type of cargo it’s carrying.

So you could bring extra weapons to get off to an early military start, or you could bring extra construction equipment to help buff up your city with an extra building. You’re also deciding what types of colonists you want to bring with to form your first colony. They might be more intellectual, and you’d have scientific bonuses starting on turn one. Or they might be more cultural, focused on culture and refinement and development, in which case you’d be focusing on the culture part of the game out of the gate.

Each of these options you can choose differently every time. Whereas in Civilization V you might play as Montezuma every time, and other than the map being different, your core identity as the player would be the same, here you get to choose four things every time you start a game, and your A.I. opponents do as well.

Diplomacy’s arguably one of the weaker spots in the Civilization games, framed with fairly limited options and based more on obfuscation and mystery and a sense of algorithmic capriciousness. How does diplomacy work in Beyond Earth?

PM: We’re still building on where we were at the end of Civilization V, so I think the level of diplomacy that’s going on is going to feel very familiar to a Civilization V player. To some extent, playing a boardgame with a human opponent, they can be capricious too, so some of it’s about keeping that aspect of it. We do the best we can for the audience that we’re trying to reach.

Firaxis

AS: We’re definitely adding new diplomatic vectors, like the orbital layer, so your A.I. opponents aren’t going to be very happy if you launch a satellite over their lands. So diplomacy in Beyond Earth is going to be very responsive to all of the new gameplay systems. But at the same time, we’re trying to appeal to Civilization V players, since they’re our core audience, and we want diplomacy to be familiar and transparent. I think transparency’s a really big deal to make an A.I. feel fair.

Another thing, in the early game, is that one of the things we’re adding is the alien faction, so when you’re on the planet to start with, the other A.I. players are not as important as they are in a game of Civilization V. In Civilization V, you might explore beyond your borders with your scout unit, and on turn 15 you see “Oh, there’s Montezuma next to me. Okay, this gives me an impression of how the game’s going to play out.”

Whereas in our game, your first step is conquering the wilderness and really establishing a base of operations on this hostile alien planet. And the first part of that, before diplomacy really comes online, is interacting with the aliens and either attacking and purging them, or leaving them alone and hoping they don’t bother you.

DS: Before we wrap up, I just want to build on that a little bit. One of the great things about the experience in the early game of Beyond Earth is the fact that it’s you versus the environment. You’re alone on this planet, and the other players aren’t even there. Eventually, like by turn 20, the first one might land and they’ll introduce themselves and you’ll see a capital appear on the other side of the planet. But it’s you and you alone, and you have to decide how you’re going to help your colonists survive in those early days. It’s kind of crazy.

AS: Yeah, you’re disconnected at first, which is really interesting. It creates some really unique situations compared to a game of Civilization V.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Here’s How Far Mario Travels in Super Mario Bros.

Mario
James Coldrey / Getty Images

I’m not great at math (stay in school, kids!), perhaps because I never liked it much. But this is a good use of math.

Nick Greene over at Mental Floss fielded one of the most pressing and important reader questions we’ll ever grapple with in our lifetimes: How far does Mario travel in Super Mario Bros.?

Greene calculated Mario’s steps based on a stance-width of 26 inches – a little more than shoulder-width apart — and assumed that Mario would be the small, pre-mushroom Mario.

The final tally:

  • 3.4 miles, assuming no visits to bonus areas or warp zones
  • 1218.5 feet swimming (about 7.5 laps in an Olympic-sized pool)
  • 3.7 miles, assuming visits to bonus areas
  • Another 344 feet swimming, assuming visits to underwater bonus areas

Kind of puts your entire childhood into perspective, no? I would have guessed dozens and dozens of miles, but we’re actually dealing with a moderately-paced, hour-long treadmill workout.

Granted, the treadmill workout is one without jumping, consuming shape-shifting mushrooms, spitting fireballs and trying to avoid being killed by various animals. I bet Mario burns more calories than we think. He’s still a bit on the pudgy side, but don’t forget that he subsists almost entirely on pizza.

How Far Does Mario Have to Run (and Swim) in Super Mario Bros.? [Mental Floss]

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

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