An Old Favorite PC Game Adapts to the Xbox Era

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2008

This summer marks a milestone for Civilization -- or, at least, a computer game going by that name. The local game studio Firaxis is taking aim at a new market with its venerable PC game franchise, called Civ for short: the Xbox and PlayStation crowd.

The Civ games, in which players take a young society and guide it to world domination through careful balancing of resources, diplomacy and firepower, are famously cerebral and complex. This is not a type of game that has been a hit on the Xbox or PlayStation, where the blockbusters tend to be more focused on action. Firaxis, based in Hunt Valley, Md., is hoping to change that with its upcoming title, Civilization Revolution, coming out next month.

The video game industry is so young and growing so quickly that it always seems to be in a state of reinvention. This week, for example, Sony announced that a movie download service for its PlayStation 3 console will start this summer. The idea is that PlayStation 3 owners will be able to buy or rent video via the system's built-in wireless Internet connection. Microsoft has a similar online store already in operation for its Xbox 360 console.

By re-crafting its flagship computer title for the console market, Firaxis is similar to any company keeping stride with the latest technology. Apple is now a music store and a phonemaker that also sells computers, after all. Google is developing a phone operating system, and the cable guy now also installs home Internet connections.

Games designed for consoles like the Xbox have grabbed an increasing share of buzz, and consumer dollars, in recent years. Retail sales for PC games, the market where Firaxis made its fame, have been mostly stagnant. A recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers projects that PC game sales will drop from $3.8 billion last year to $3.6 billion in 2012. The firm forecasts that the game market overall will grow at a rate that outpaces other entertainment sectors, from $41.9 billion to $68.4 billion over the same period.

"There's an energy to the console market," said Sid Meier, the studio's head designer. "We're seeing an explosion in the quality and creativity in console games."

Meier is a star to gamers in an industry where there aren't a lot of marquee names. He was recently awarded a place in Guinness World Records for having won more awards than any other game designer.

Meier designed his early games by himself; the first Civilization debuted in 1991 on floppy disk and CD-ROM. Counting three sequels and a few add-on packs, the franchise has sold 9 million units.

Firaxis, which now employs 85 people, was bought by Take-Two Interactive Software in 2005. Take-Two has made headlines this year as the target of a hostile-takeover attempt by publisher Electronic Arts, one of the world's biggest game companies. The studio did not comment on the matter.

For Civ fans, the ones who stay up all night playing the game, the latest hot topic hasn't been the prospect of EA owning their favorite studio, however. The question has been whether Firaxis has had to dumb down its game to appeal to a more mainstream audience that doesn't have a long attention span. Previous versions of Civ could take more than a dozen hours to play. The Xbox and PlayStation versions will take only about three hours to complete.

Meier calls Revolution a "more gentle, more entertaining introduction" to his game franchise.

Designing a version of Civ meant to be played by punching a game controller's triggers and thumb sticks required a different approach than designing another version for the PC's keyboard and mouse, he said. The shift required him "to go back and focus on the fun parts."

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