When I ask Firaxis lead designer why the studio decided to take the Civilization series to space with Civilization: Beyond Earth – just announced at PAX East – his answer is simple: "Why not?" Designer and programmer Anton Strenger offers a little more meat. "I think that one of the things that space allows us to do as designers, and for the artists as well, is to get free from a historical context." Civilization has always been tied to human history, but Beyond Earth allows it to branch out in a fresh new direction (even if that direction isn't completely new to Firaxis).
"We, as designers, were free to come up with really fun new gameplay systems that didn't really make sense in a more historical game, or even like a fantasy game." Specifically, Strenger mentions one of Beyond Earth's new tactical elements, the orbital layer, which allows players to launch satellites over a planet, influencing the events below. Firaxis' artists had a field day creating satellite designs, says Strenger. Producer Lena Brenk chimes in, "Yeah, that was amazing to see the artists. Usually we have historic reference that they're working from, and right now they get to invent a world, basically, an alien planet in the future."
That's not to say, however, that Firaxis is just making everything up. "It's really important to us that the player be able to draw a line of plausibility through the entire experience," says lead designer Will Miller, "we want the suspension of disbelief maintained throughout." Beyond Earth begins around 200 to 250 years in the future, he says, and science-fiction fans will recognize plausible concepts like ships that fly at sub-light speeds and cryogenic stasis. "But where you end up is quite different, so we're going to draw that line from where we are now to these sort of post-human evolutions." You won't be starting NASA from scratch, in other words, but Beyond Earth starts in a believable place: Humanity travels to a new planet. The question is how you choose to master it.