Welcome to week three of the Monday Modness eXtravaganza! When I think of mods, there is one total conversion mod for Civilization IV that comes to mind, and it puts many studio-released games to shame. So, let’s get to it and find out more.
Kael – Civilization IV – Fall From Heaven I & II
Question 1: Can you tell us about yourself and your background?
Answer: I’m Derek Paxton, VP of Stardock Entertainment. I have been a gamer all of my life and was always particularly drawn to role-playing and strategy games – be they video games, pen and paper or board games. I spent my teenage years reading comic books, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and playing every Commodore 128 game I could get my hands on.
My first real purchase after getting a job was to buy a computer, which I paid a staggering $1,600 for (over 5 times as much as I paid for my car).
I always loved designing games. A few years into the Dungeons & Dragons campaign I ran, we had replaced the rules entirely with a classless skill system and a magic system based around 21 spell spheres. Running multiple campaigns over the next decade gave me the opportunity to continue to tweak and iterate both the game mechanics and the setting of the world. Both of which would later provide inspiration for Fall from Heaven later on.
Professionally, I earned degrees in business and computer science. I went to work for Novell, a business software company. This gave me the opportunity to work with lots of companies and I enjoyed it. But in the evenings and the weekends, I was pursuing my passion and playing video games.
Question 2: What was your role in creating the mod?
Answer: I was the lead designer and programmer for Fall from Heaven. I spent years making it, from the first (very basic) version which came out on December 16th, 2005 to the final version three years later.
I certainly wasn’t the only one working on it, though. Development was open throughout and the community was incredible at providing ideas and even jumping in and providing art or code. There were some programmers that were much better than I was that created systems for the mod. Fall from Heaven wouldn’t have been the same without them.
Question 3: Why did you choose to mod this particular game?
Answer: Civilization is my favorite game franchise. Civilization II was my favorite game until Civilization III came out, which was my favorite until Civilization IV came out. Civilization IV not only topped the previous games I loved, but it offered a few things that made me excited to build a mod with it.
To begin, Civ IV was very easy to mod. As a first step, you can simply modify XML to change a lot of the game. You can add new civilizations, units and technologies, change the construction cost of a building, the amount of food that a farm produces and so much more. And this can all be done very simply with Notepad. No programming was necessary. With this, I could add all my new fantasy factions and units.
Firaxis also provided python scripts for a wide variety of other functions. You could use that to change the way things appeared in the user interface, as well as create some events for when things happened. For example, this process could be used to have a unit explode when killed, damaging everyone around it, or to have the terrain of the game slowly transform to hell terrain.
Early in 2006, Firaxis released the source code for the game. This opened up many more possibilities, nearly everything in the game could now be modded if you were able to program it.
There were also two new systems in Civ IV that got me excited to make a dark fantasy mod for it. The first was the addition of promotions when units leveled up. This was a great feature which gave Civ a little touch of RPG mechanics, and which I wanted to dig deeper into. The second new system was the addition of religions. Seeing religions spread throughout the game and be adopted by empires made me want to create fantasy religions that unlocked new units and powers for the player.
Question 4: How does your mod improve on the base game?
Answer: The goal of Fall from Heaven was to make the civilizations as different from each other as possible. I wanted to make sure that it was more than just unlocking a new unit or building. Instead, I wanted to force the player to adapt his or her play style based on what civilization he or she was playing as. This means that some players would hate some of the factions, because they were too opposed to the way they played, while loving others. The Clan of Embers was all about brutal, aggressive war. The Kuriotates relied on 3 core cities for their empire, forcing them to adapt to small empire strategies. The Calabim shifted gears midway through, from a quickly-growing empire in the beginning to turning population into a resource for their hungry vampires in the midgame.
As for actual features, Fall from Heaven added a spell system where mages could learn to cast fireballs, summon demons and transform the world. It added lots of new units, such as powerful dragons guarding their treasure, giant spiders that hid in the forests, and giants wandering in the far north. It also added lairs that could be explored to find treasure or powerful enemies. Magical artifacts were featured, too, that could be equipped on units to give them powerful bonuses. All that, as well as a card game you could play against AI or human players.
Question 5: Where do you feel you could have done more?
Answer: I’m a better programmer now than I was then. There are some things I always wanted to do but I couldn’t figure out how at the time. The best example of this would be spells that target specific units. With the benefit of a few more years of programming experience, those things are doable, but they simply weren’t at the time.
But, in my opinion, Fall from Heaven suffers more from attempting to do too many things (and not all things well) than it does from doing too little. For example, I tried using corporations (a new mechanic added in the last Civ IV expansion) to create fantasy-style guilds with different effects, but there was never enough meat on the bone for it to feel tightly connected to the rest of the game. Instead, it felt like another system added to an already very complex game. If I were to make Fall from Heaven again today, I would probably not have as many civilizations (there were 21). That way, I would have had fewer to manage and been able to use my time and resources to make each faction better. It was “too little butter over too much bread” as a wise old Hobbit once said.
Question 6: How did the community receive your mod?
Answer: It was amazing. I started the mod because it was the game I wanted to play and it was fun to work on. From the first time I posted [the mod] with a download to a very sad super alpha version (dragons were tanks, fireballs were really tiny great prophets with really big glow effects on them) the community was behind it. There are currently over 300,000 posts in the Fall from Heaven sub-forum of Civfanatics. It is still the most downloaded of any Civilization mod of all time with over 600,000 downloads on Civfanatics alone. That’s nearly double the most popular download for Civilization V in the Steam Workshop.
Firaxis was also a great supporter of Fall from Heaven and patiently answered my many questions. The team and I even got to work on 2 scenarios for the Beyond the Sword expansion. One was a Fall from Heaven expansion and the other Firaxis liked so much that they added it to the main game.
Question 7: Did your mod achieve the goals you set out to achieve?
Answer: I just wanted to make a game I wanted to play and learn some programming while I did it. But because of Fall from Heaven, I had the opportunity to meet the amazing people at Stardock. This led me to being hired as a Producer and Designer at Stardock and eventually promoted to vice-president. Now, I have meetings about alien invasions, power hungry wizards and budgeting (FYI: budgeting is the scariest of the three).
As a game, I was also blown away by what it accomplished. I always shared all the code used to make Fall from Heaven so that anyone who wanted to use it for their own mods could do so (after all, if it wasn’t for the help and support of all of these other modders, Fall from Heaven wouldn’t exist). Because of that, a lot of Fall from Heaven “modmods” came to be, often with their own group of loyal players.
I was so happy that I did [the mod] that I would recommend that anyone with a desire to get into the game industry, or who is just interested in making a game, start by modding. You can’t come into it with some grand design. For example, if you start by saying that you want to make a version of Civilization where you play on multiple planets at the same time, you will get quickly frustrated and disappointed. Instead, start by looking at the tools available to you. Notice that you can create new civilizations and try creating a few with different settings. Then, learn how to do another thing and see if you can use that to improve the game. In time, your toolbox of skills will allow you to do a wide variety of things and create something unique.
Questions 8: Is there some other modding project you hope to take on some day?
Answer: Nothing that I am seriously considering. Now that I am better able to make a new game from scratch – and there are great engines like Unity out there to make that easier – I am more interested in making something new.
But, if I were to have a dream mod project, I would love to take Los Santos from Grand Theft Auto V and play out a city-wide event in it. It would take place in a specific 24 hours of game time, and events would occur in that time frame even if the player wasn’t involved.
The player would wake up at 8am to hear the news of a lethal and quickly spreading disease that hit the city the night before. Thousands are already dead, the city is breaking down in riots, some people are trying to help, others are looking out for themselves. The radio stations would keep the player apprised of events unfolding around the city: hospitals being overrun, a group determined to take the city for themselves by taking the power plant (which ends in disaster if the player doesn’t intervene), the army sending in troops to quarantine and purge the infected, etc. At the end of 24 hours, the player can see how he did. Did he survive? Is he infected at the end? How many innocent people died compared to how many would have died if he did nothing? Was he able to find out what caused the disease? Was he able to keep it from spreading out of the city? Which of his friends was he able to save?
There would be enough to do that a player should feel free to play through multiple times for different outcomes and to respond to different events. And it shouldn’t force a right or wrong approach to a lot of the decisions, but present hard, morally grey choices for the player to deal with in a very finite time frame.
And, of course, it would be open to other modders to work on and include their own mini-events and characters into the mod so that it really fills out and feels like a living city that the player is one tiny member of.
No idea how possible any of that is, obviously, but that’s why it’s a dream project. I think I like the idea of it so much because as much as I enjoy playing the Grand Theft Auto games, I always love their cities so much more. I feel like there is a lot of potential to really detail that city. The city is my favorite character. I want to see something happen to it, and to see it change in a meaningful way, and putting a fixed time frame on it helps control the scope.
I’d like to first thank Brad Wardell for connecting me with Derek Paxton, and Derek himself for being so forthcoming in his responses. I have learned many things in this 3rd Q&A from the series. My appreciation and respect is only growing for the modders and the community that they maintain. Keep up the great work everyone – see you next week!