If there is one game I would take with me to a deserted island, it would be Civilization. This franchise has delivered so much fun with a design that, at its core, has changed little over the years. I started playing Civ I when I was coding in assembly. Yes, that long ago. C was a high level language!
In the past few months I put in a few hours playing Civ VI on an iPad Pro. I did not play every installment in-between (life got in the way), but I’ve played enough to have a solid idea of the evolution of this great series. I enjoyed playing Civ VI on awesome hardware like an iPad Pro, and now I don’t need to code in assembly anymore!
I enjoy Civilization so much because I like exploring, building, planning and interacting with other players. It is the type of game that you keep playing in your head when not actually playing. With so many ways for victory and randomly generated maps, it has a lot of replayability.
The core of the game design remains the same, and that is good. Civilization is about empire building and achieving victory against the other players on a leveled playing field. Over the years, the game design has incorporated more complexity with fun elements such as culture, diplomacy, lots of new tech to research and the related buildings and units. Not to mention just sheer content: in Civ VI you get great quotes read to you every time you discover a new technology. There are lots of new civilizations (not the Canadian one yet) and even city states to add to the mix.
But what probably has changed to most is the graphics: they are just so good now. You can see the waves on the beaches, the mountains in great detail. You can zoom in and out and enjoy the view. I think that the graphics was the most noticeable improvement between each Civ release and Civ VI does not disappoint. Although I welcome any improvement and graphics is not an exception, I do not think that the graphics are the most important part of a turn-based strategy game. At one point (probably around Civ IV), better graphics did not really enhance my enjoyment as a player.
There are other significant improvements around sounds, music (very nice in Civ VI), UI, tutorials, etc. Firaxis has given me good reasons to keep buying the next release, which I’m grateful for because I would like to play Civ I on an 80286 as much as I would like to code in assembly.
Yet, the one aspect that has seen little improvement is the AI. The one on Civ VI is just as bad as the one in Civ I. In many ways, it is worse, because it has to do more: there are more aspects of the game (such as culture) that did not exist in Civ I. In Civ VI, cities expand around the map as well and the AI needs to consider where to build each part of the city. Not to mention the diplomacy, which by now is rich with options but is played by the AI very poorly. When trading or making alliances, it does not negotiate in any realistic way and... well, it is just dumb.
I am sure that there is more code, and a large investment in Civ VI’s AI, compared with previous releases. But the results are just bad.
In fact, the AI weakness or lack of “I” is not the worst part of it. It is how slow it is. This is what I have a real problem with as a player. It takes a long time for the computer to play. A minute or more, and this is on hardware that should have no problem dealing with making decisions in a turn-based game. The beginning is okay, but as the game progresses and the AI has to manage more cities and units, the game turns into a background task for me; I do something else, like cooking or cleaning while waiting for my turn. Can you believe that now, when we have processors that are so much powerful than the decades old 80286, we have to wait that long for the computer to play?
The game is still fun to play, even if it comes with the ‘Artificial Unintelligence Expansion Pack’ pre-installed (sorry, you can’t remove it). It remains challenging thanks to the the AU cheating. In small maps with only a few civs, it runs fast enough and the enduring great design gets the rest done.
But just for a moment, imagine Civ VII. Sorry, the graphics are not better, the design is actually a simpler version of Civ VI. Imagine an artificial player with a name, that you get to know, that gets to know you, that learns and changes strategy, that plays fast. Imagine a few of these AI players, some you can even download or buy as they evolve over time. Wouldn’t that be an awesome game that is light years from any previous Civilization?
This won’t happen as long as video game companies develop AI without AI technology. In other words, they are stuck as long as they keep hard-coding patterns as decision trees without any automated learning.
It is an intractable problem, no amount of NI (natural intelligence) from programmers and cash thrown at the problem will solve it. The only way to make an AI strong is to let it learn on its own.