Alpha Centauri

By Brian Reynolds

One of the best things about game design is getting to pretend to do a whole variety of really interesting jobs. Depending on the game I'm making, I may get to be a historian, an anthropologist, an archaeologist, or a military officer. These days, with Alpha Centauri, I'm pretending to be a scientist, a science-fiction writer, and perhaps a philosopher.

Since the Firaxis team has won considerable praise for its historical games, it seems fitting that our first foray into the world of science fiction should be a "future history." As a colleague recently pointed out, good science fiction thrives on constraint - you need some things you can't do, as well as things you can. So rather than simply concoct a fantasy galactic empire and a host of shallowly conceived alien races, we chose to begin with near-future science - technologies just over the horizon. As we proceed into the future, we try to present a coherent picture of future developments in physics, biology, infotech, economics, society, government, and philosophy. We're not saying everything depicted in the game is known to be possible, but we do promise considerable attention to detail in extrapolating future possibilities.

Of course, a coherent future history is just so much extra back story if it isn't integrated into the gameplay, so one of our challenges is to integrate interesting science fiction into an equally compelling game design. At the "Sid Meier School For Better Game Design," a successful design presents the player with a series of interesting decisions - decisions where he (or she) feels genuinely torn between choice A and choice B - and allows the player to win by any of several different strategies. A decision tree with only one right answer, where the player always wins with choice A and loses with choice B, isn't an interesting decision at all, and the fun of creating your own strategy quickly becomes the chore of trying to read the designer's mind and find the "right" answer.

Next: Colonizing an alien world