Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

alpha centauri

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC) is a science fiction 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate), turn-based strategy video game sequel to the ‘Civilization’ series. Sid Meier, designer of ‘Civilization,’ and Brian Reynolds, designer of ‘Civilization II,’ developed ‘Alpha Centauri’ after they left MicroProse to join the newly created developer Firaxis Games. Electronic Arts released both SMAC and its expansion, ‘Sid Meier’s Alien Crossfire’ (SMAX), in 1999. In the following year, both titles were ported to Mac and Linux.

Set in the 22nd century, the game begins as seven competing ideological factions land on the planet Chiron (‘Planet’) in the Alpha Centauri star system. As the game progresses, Planet’s growing sentience becomes a formidable obstacle to the human colonists. Alpha Centauri features improvements on Civ II’s game engine, including simultaneous multiplay, social engineering, climate, customizable units, alien native life, additional diplomatic and spy options, additional ways to win, and greater mod-ability. ‘Alien Crossfire’ introduces five new human and two non-human factions as well as additional technologies, facilities, secret projects, native life, unit abilities, and a victory condition.

Space-race victories in the ‘Civilization’ series conclude with a journey to Alpha Centauri. Beginning with that premise the SMAC narrative starts in the 22nd century, after the United Nations sends a ‘Unity’ colonization mission to Chiron. Advanced aliens had conducted an experiment in planetary-level sentience on the planet, leaving behind monoliths and artifacts. Immediately prior to the start of the game, a reactor malfunction on the Unity spacecraft wakes the crew and colonists early and irreparably severs communications with Earth. After the captain is assassinated, the most powerful leaders on board build ideological factions with dedicated followers, conflicting agendas for the future of mankind, and ‘desperately serious’ commitments. As the ship breaks up, seven escape pods, each containing a faction, are scattered across the planet. In the SMAX expansion pack, it is learned that the alien experiment had disastrous consequences, creating a hundred-million-year evolutionary cycle ending with the death of most animal life. After the disaster, the aliens split into two factions: Manifold Caretakers, opposed to further experimentation, and Manifold Usurpers, favoring further experimentation. In SMAX, these factions compete along with the human factions for control over the destiny of Planet.

The game focuses on the leaders of seven factions, chosen by the player from the 14 possible leaders, and Planet (voiced by Alena Kanka). The characters are developed from the faction leaders’ portraits, the spoken monologues accompanying scientific discoveries and the ‘photographs in the corner of a commlink – home towns, first steps, first loves, family, graduation, spacewalk.’ The leaders in SMAC comprise: Lady Deirdre Skye of Gaia’s Stepdaughters, Chairman Sheng-Ji Yang of the Human Hive, Academician Prokhor Zakharov of the University of Planet, CEO Nwabudike Morgan of Morgan Industries, Colonel Corazon Santiago of the Spartan Federation, Sister Miriam Godwinson of the Lord’s Believers, and Commissioner Pravin Lal of the Peacekeeping Forces. The seven additional faction leaders in SMAX are Prime Function Aki Zeta-Five of The Cybernetic Consciousness, Captain Ulrik Svensgaard of The Nautilus Pirates, Foreman Domai of The Free Drones, Datajack Sinder Roze of The Data Angels, Prophet Cha Dawn of The Cult of Planet, Guardian Lular H’minee of The Manifold Caretakers, and Conqueror Judaa Maar of The Manifold Usurpers. Each faction excels at one or two important aspects of the game and follows a distinct philosophical belief, such as technological utopianism, environmentalism, capitalism, militarism, anti-authoritarianism, piracy, classic liberalism, or the Gaia philosophy.

The native life consists primarily of simple wormlike aliens and a type of red fungus. The fungus is difficult to traverse, provides invisibility for the enemy, provides few resources, and spawns ‘mindworms’ that attack bases and units with a neural attack. Mindworms can be captured or bred in captivity and used as weapons, and the player eventually discovers that the fungus and mindworms can think collectively. Soon the player dreams of a voice. This voice later intrudes into waking moments, threatening more attacks if the pollution and corruption caused by humans goes unchecked. The player discovers that Planet is a semi-dormant sentient hive organism that will soon experience a metamorphosis which will destroy all human life. To counter this threat, the player or a computer faction builds ‘The Voice of Alpha Centauri’ secret project, which delays the metamorphosis and increases the intelligence of the hive organism. Finally, the player or the computer embraces the ‘Ascent to Transcendence’ in which humans join the hive organism in ‘godhood.’ Thus, Alpha Centauri closes ‘with a swell of hope and wonder in place of the expected triumphalism,’ reassuring ‘that the events of the game weren’t the entirety of mankind’s future, but just another step.’

In 1996, MicroProse released the lauded ‘Civilization II,’ designed by Brian Reynolds. However, the firm’s management had changed and moved to California by the time the game shipped, and disagreements between the new management and its employees prompted Reynolds, Jeff Briggs, and Sid Meier (designer of the original ‘Civilization’) to leave MicroProse and found Firaxis. Although unable to utilize the same intellectual property as ‘Civilization II,’ the new company felt that players wanted ‘a new sweeping epic of a turn-based game.’ Having just completed a game of human history up to the present, they wanted a fresh topic and chose science fiction. With no previous experience in science fiction games, the developers believed future history was a fitting first foray. For the elements of exploring and terraforming an alien world, they chose a plausible near future situation of a human mission to colonize the solar system’s nearest neighbor and human factions. Reynolds researched science fiction for the game’s writing. His inspiration included ‘classic works of science fiction,’ such as Frank Herbert’s ‘The Jesus Incident,’ ‘A Fire Upon the Deep’ by Vernor Vinge, and ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’ by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle for alien races; Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Red Mars,’ ‘Slant’ by Greg Bear, and Stephen R. Donaldson’s ‘The Real Story’ for future technology and science; and ‘Dune’ by Herbert and Bear’s ‘Anvil of Stars’ for negative interactions between humans.

SMAC set out to capture the whole sweep of humanity’s future, including technology, futuristic warfare, social and economic development, the future of the human condition, spirituality, and philosophy. Reynolds also said that ‘getting philosophy into the game’ was one of his attractions to the project. Believing good science fiction thrives on constraint, the developers began with near-future technologies. As they proceeded into the future, they tried to present a coherent, logical, and detailed picture of future developments in physics, biology, information technology, economics, society, government, and philosophy. Alien ecologies and mysterious intelligences were incorporated into SMAC as external ‘natural forces’ intended to serve as flywheels for the backstory and a catalyst for many player intelligences. Chris Pine, creator of the in-game map of Planet, strove to make Planet look like a real planet, which resulted in evidence of tectonic action. Another concern was that Planet matched the story, which resulted in the fungus being connected across continents, as it is supposed to be a gigantic neural network.

Terraforming is a natural outgrowth of colonizing an alien world. The first playable prototype was just a map generator that tested climate changes during the game. This required the designers to create a world builder program and climatic model far more powerful than anything they’d done before. Temperature, wind, and rainfall patterns were modeled in ways that allow players to make changes: for example, creating a ridge-line and then watching the effects. In addition to raising terrain, the player can also divert rivers, dig huge boreholes into the planet’s mantle, and melt ice caps. In addition to scientific advances, the designers speculated on the future development of human society. The designers allow the player to decide on a whole series of value choices and choose a ‘ruthless,’ ‘moderate,’ or ‘idealistic’ stance. Reynolds said the designers don’t promote a single ‘right’ answer, instead giving each value choice positive and negative consequences. This design was intended to force the player to ‘think’ and make the game ‘addictive.’ He also commented that Alpha Centauri’s fictional nature allowed them to draw their characters ‘a lot more sharply and distinctly than the natural blurring and greyness of history.’

In 1996, Firaxis began work on SMAC, with Reynolds heading the project. Meier and Reynolds wrote playable prototype code and Jason Coleman wrote the first lines of the development libraries. Because the development of ‘Gettysburg’ took up most of Firaxis’ time, the designers spent the first year prototyping the basic ideas. By late 1996, the developers were playing games on the prototype, and by the middle of the next year, they were working on a multiplayer engine. Reynolds’ previous games omitted internet support because he believe that complex turn-based games with many player options and opportunities for player input are difficult to facilitate online. Although Firaxis intended to include multiplayer support in its games, an important goal was to create games with depth and longevity in single-player mode because they believed that the majority of players spend most of their time playing this way.

Reynolds felt that smart computer opponents are an integral part of a classic computer game, and considered it a challenge to make them so. He also said that the most important principle of game design is for the designer to play the game as it is developed; Reynolds claimed that this was how a good artificial intelligence (AI) was built. To this end, he would track the decisions he made and why he made them as he played the game. The designer also watched what the computer players did, noting ‘dumb’ actions and trying to discover why the computer made them. Reynolds then taught the computer his reasoning process so the AI could find the right choice when presented several attractive possibilities. He said the AI for diplomatic personalities was the best he had done up to that point.

Doug Kaufman, a co-designer of ‘Civilization II,’ was invited to join development as a game balancer. Reynolds cited the SMAC’s balance for the greater sense of urgency and the more pressing pacing than in his earlier game, Sid Meier’s ‘Colonization.’ According to producer Timothy Train, in designing the strengths and weaknesses of the factions, the goal was to suggest, without requiring, certain strategies and give the player interesting and fun things to do without unbalancing the game. He didn’t want a faction to be dependent on its strength or a faction’s power to be dominant over the rest. Train felt that fun meant the factions always have something fun to do with their attributes. Around the summer of 1997, the staff began research on the scientific realities involved in interstellar travel. In late 1997, Bing Gordon—then Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts—joined the team, and was responsible for the Planetary Council, extensive diplomacy, and landmarks. A few months before the 1998 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the team incorporated the Explore/Discover/Build/Conquer marketing campaign into the game.

In the latter half of 1998, the team produced a polished and integrated interface, wrote the game manual and foreign language translations, painted the faction leader portraits and terrain, built the 3D vehicles and vehicle parts, and created the music. 25 volunteers participated in Firaxis’ first public beta test. The beta testers suggested the Diplomatic and Economic victories and the Random Events. The design team started with a very simple playable game. They strengthen the ‘fun’ aspects and fixed or removed the unenjoyable ones, a process Sid Meier called ‘surrounding the fun.’ After the revision, they played it again, repeating the cycle of revision and play. Playing the game repeatedly and in-depth was a rule at Firaxis. In the single-player mode, the team tried extreme strategies to find any sure-fire paths to victory and to see how often a particular computer faction ends up at the bottom. The goal was a product of unprecedented depth, scope, longevity, and addictiveness, where the player is always challenged by the game to come up with new strategies with no all-powerful factions or unstoppable tactics. According to Reynolds, the process has been around since Sid Meier’s early days at Microprose. At Firaxis, as iterations continue, they expand the group giving feedback, bringing in outside gamers with fresh perspectives. Alpha Centauri was the first game with public beta testers.

Finally, Brian Reynolds discussed the use of the demo in the development process. Originally a marketing tool released prior to the game, they started getting feedback. They were able to incorporate many suggestions into the retail version. According to Brian Reynolds, they made improvement in the game’s interface, added a couple of new features, and fixed a few glitches. They also improved some rules, fine-tuned the game balance and improved the AI. Finally, he adds that they continued to add patches to enhance the game after the game was released. In the months leading to the release of SMAC, multimedia producer Michael Ely wrote the 35 weekly episodes of ‘Journey to Centauri’ detailing the splintering of the U.N. mission to Alpha Centauri.

A month after SMAC’s 1999 release, the Firaxis team began work on the expansion pack, ‘Sid Meier’s Alien Crossfire’ (SMAX). It features seven new factions (two that are non-human), new technologies, new facilities, new secret projects, new alien life forms, new unit special abilities, new victory conditions (including the new ‘Progenitor Victory’) and several additional concepts and strategies. The development team included Train as producer and designer, Chris Pine as programmer, Jerome Atherholt and Greg Foertsch as artists, and Doug Kaufman as co-designer and game balancer. The team considered several ideas, including a return to a post-apocalyptic earth and the conquest of another planet in the Alpha Centauri system, before deciding to keep the new title on Planet. The premise allowed them to mix and match old and new characters and delve into the mysteries of the monoliths and alien artifacts. The backstory evolved quickly, and the main conflict centered on the return of the original alien inhabitants. The idea of humans inadvertently caught up in an off-world civil war focused the story.

Train wanted to improve the ‘build’ aspects, feeling that the god-game genre had always been heavily slanted towards the ‘Conquer’ end of the spectrum. He wanted to provide ‘builders’ with the tools to construct an empire in the face of heated competition. The internet community provided ‘invaluable’ feedback. The first ‘call for features’ was posted around April 1999 and produced the Fletchette Defense System, Algorithmic Enhancement, and The Nethack Terminus. The team had several goals: factions should not be ‘locked-in’ to certain strategies; players should have interesting things to do without unbalancing the game, and the factions must be fun to play.

The team believed the ‘coolness’ of the Progenitor aliens would determine the success or failure of SMAX. They strove to make them feel significantly different to play, but still compatible with the existing game mechanics. The developers eventually provided the aliens with Battle Ogres, a Planetary survey, non-blind research, and other powers to produce ‘a nasty and potent race that would take the combined might of humanity to bring them down.’ Chris Pine modified the AI to account for the additions. The team also used artwork, sound effects, music, and diplomatic text to set the aliens apart. Other than the aliens, the Pirates in ‘Sid Meier’s Pirate’s!’ proved to be the toughest faction to balance because their ocean start gave them huge advantages.

While not a direct sequel of ‘Civilization II,’ ‘Alpha Centauri’ is considered a spiritual successor because it shares the same general principles and was made by many of the original developers. There have been no sequels beyond SMAX, something that writer Greg Tito attributed to Reynolds leaving Firaxis in 2000 to form Big Huge Games. SMAX producer and lead designer Timothy Train also left Firaxis with Reynolds. Many of the features introduced in SMAC were carried over into subsequent ‘Civilization’ titles. For example, each civilization’s characteristics in ‘Civilization III’ are reminiscent of faction bonuses and penalties, the government system in ‘Civilization IV’ closely resembles Alpha Centauri’s, and ‘Civilization V’ includes a new win condition: the completion of the Utopia project, which is reminiscent of the Ascent to Transcendence secret project.

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