Civ V Art Director Explains Art Deco Look

by Adam Biessener on Aug 06, 2010 at 03:00 PM

The first thing that strikes players on loading up Civilization V is the unusual (for the series) art deco style that permeates every facet of the presentation. Project art director Dorian Newcomb explains why that is in the interview below. He also sheds light on two of the new leaders in Civ V, what role classic LucasArts adventure Grim Fandango played in the game's early development, and how he and lead designer Jon Shafer "don't want to make a game for dumb people."

If this is all gibberish to you, get up to speed on all things Civ V with our extensive hands-on report from Thursday.

Why is Civilization V so art deco?

It stemmed from a conversation I had with the interface artist on the project, Russ Vaccaro. I was describing how much I liked New York, and how New York had the feeling of the most important American city, and the sense that there's a lot of art history in the city. When you walk around New York, you can't help but see a lot of art deco influence in a lot of the Rockefeller Center area as well as midtown and downtown. I'd gone to school in New York, and I said, "Why don't we start off in New York, in the way that New York feels like a city of history, and a city that we're really familiar with?" Russ played a lot of Grim Fandango, a LucasArts game from back in the day, and that was very influenced by art deco and the Day of the Dead stuff. So my love of New York and his love of Grim Fandango pretty much took us down the first step in going toward an art deco look and feel.

Did anything beyond aesthetics inform those decisions?

I worked really closely with Jon Shafer early on; when the project started it was really just Jon and I for the first few months. We knew that we wanted to make the on-ramp a lot wider, for playing the game. So we talked a lot about "what are the barriers to entry that people have, as far as getting into a game of Civ?" Civ IV was a really highly acclaimed game, but we found internally that a lot of people would say, "Oh, this is a game for smart people. There's too much stuff going on." We said, "Well, we don't want to make a game for dumb people, but we want to make people who are smart feel smart as they play." We realized that we needed to drop a lot more satisfying feedback a lot earlier in the game.

|| "We don't want to make

|| a game for dumb people."

Aside from the art deco style, we wanted to make sure that people had a lot of feedback, and we wanted to eliminate some of the pop-up noise that happened with some Civ games in the past. So early on we decided on a messaging system, where we knew we wanted to have a lot of information at peoples' fingertips. We broke that down into thinking about how we wanted information in messages, where if someone really wanted to find out more about what was going on in the world, there'd be a lot of information at their fingertips. We knew we wanted some action information -- information that you would need to complete before you end your turn. That really had nothing to do with the style; that had to do with the fact that people had a hard time understanding what was going on in the early part of the game, and it was a barrier that prevented them from getting into the more complex, cool decisions of mid to late-game stuff.

That was probably the most important early stuff that we took, and then after Russ got involved a lot of his experience working on Civ Rev informed the streamlining process of the interface. Once he got involved, it was a good marriage of style and substance. We knew that we wanted to eliminate a bunch of the confusing stuff. We wanted the feedback to be clear. We wanted stuff to be color-coded well. Then once we started talking about color-coding, the design of the colors became important. So that's where the art deco polished aluminum or chrome look, some of the beveled edges, and the circles being a core part of the game's interface came to be. Really early on I wanted to make a globe minimap -- I wanted everything to be circular and round. As we talked more about it from a gameplay point of view, a globe minimap wasn't going to work for a lot of reasons, but the circle was key early on in our development.

Continue on to page 2 to see Newcomb's take on cartoon art versus realism and what his favorite part of the Civ V presentation is...

What made you decide to portray leaders in a realistic fashion rather than Civilization Revolution's cartoon caricatures?

There are two big components of that. One is my personal preference, the other is a desire to differentiate. Whenever you're making a title, you have a choice of whether to embrace the style of the past incarnation of it. You can say, "Well, Civ Rev did really well and it was cartoony. Do we push that look and try to out-do the cartooniness of Civ Rev, or do we try to do something different and try to differentiate and make people want to play this game?" I didn't think that we could do a significantly better job than the cartoony style of Civ Rev. I think that hit the mark well. So that allowed me to push my preference. I started watching a lot of historical film stuff: Ridley Scott, Master and Commander, even some older films like the epics of the '50s. Whenever you would meet a great leader of one of those civilizations, there's a feeling of power and influence and authority.

|| "When you best Napoleon,

|| there's a sense of satisfaction."

One of the taglines we had early on with the leaders is we wanted to have worthy adversaries. So as you play the game and you met leaders, we want you to feel like when you conquer them, you're besting someone who is at the top of their game. One of the things I think the cartoony leaders did was to make the game inviting, but I think it downplayed the importance of a leader. If Napoleon is really goofy, when you beat him, you've beaten a goofy Napoleon. While if Napoleon is fierce, and on a horse, and a commander and a general, when you best Napoleon there's a sense of satisfaction that's very different. We wanted to push that.

Were there any surprises when you were researching the leaders before putting their scenes together?

As I worked with Jon, there were two leaders that he wanted to put in the game -- Ramkhamhaeng and Askia -- that I had never heard of before in my life. I said, "Oh, goodness. How are we going to make these guys stand out?" People are going to be meeting these characters, and they're supposed to be famous historical figures, and I don't know who they are. I found both of those guys very interesting to research and interesting to get to know a little bit better. They both had huge impacts in their regions of the world, and I just didn't know about them. When it came to finding out more about Askia -- he's a western African leader -- finding out about how organized and powerful his empire was, but also how there was a tendency for brutality, especially toward people in his inner circle. That's what influenced him burning his own city -- purging his own city of the evil that he found there. That was interesting. Ramkhamhaeng, who is a Siamese leader, is someone that was massively grand in the scope of being peaceful and a cultural leader, and someone who if he was your president you'd be thrilled to have him. That was cool to see: someone who was fiercely brutal, and someone who was fair and honest and had a lot of integrity. Balancing those extremes off of the better-known guys like Caesar and Elizabeth was fun.

Is there one thing that stands out to you that you're particularly proud of in Civ V?

We've just been wrapping up lately, and it's given me a chance to play the game a lot. So not only have a seen the game a lot from an art point of view, but I've been playing the game a lot now and I'm starting to see it as a gamer -- which are two very different things. The thing that I'm really happy with is the way that the landscape has been reading. When you enter into the world, the world feels appropriately big. A lot of that has to do with the right scale and the right light, and there's a set of programmers that made that happen as well as Steve Eggry, who is our terrain artist. I think it's got a really nice, inviting, large-enough feel where it feels like you're playing in a very large world, and when you travel you're really traveling over a vast distance. That was something I was worried about: getting people to feel like the game was huge, and the game world was as diverse as the world that they know. After watching things like Planet Earth, the BBC program, you get a sense of scope that I didn't want our game to fall short on. I'm really proud of the way that the terrain brings you in and invites you to find out where the mouth of the river is, to find out where the next continent might be. I find that surprisingly compelling as I play the game, and I think that turned out really successfully. And then I'm also very proud of the way the interface has turned out. I'm continuing to write notes down on things that we can do better, because Civ V is a game that I hope has a lot of reach and I hope that people will play it a few years after they buy it, and I want to make sure that we continually make things better. But I'm really pleased with the way the interface puts all these complex things in ways that are very accessible.

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