“Factorio, but you’re baking stuff”: Firaxis and Civilization veterans share their dream strategy projects

Yesterday I had a lovely chat with the brainy folk of Oxide Games, developers of Ashes of the Singularity and the forthcoming Ara: History Untold, a historical 4X strategy game that puts a baroque spin on the classic Civilization format, with each player’s turn unfolding simultaneously once you’ve queued up a bunch of commands.

There’s a lot to sift through there, which we’ll get into next week, but we also found time towards the finish for some off-the-cuff chinwaggery about dream 4X or strategy game projects. What would the Oxide team make, if they didn’t have to worry about budget, audience expectations or any of the other commercial factors that guide the creation of videogames? The answers may surprise you. They might also make you hungry.

First to answer was Oxide’s, as it transpires, appropriately-named chief graphics architect Dan Baker, who worked on Civilization V and Civilization Revolution as graphics lead at Firaxis, and has made extensive contributions to the evolution of Microsoft’s D3D technology.

“I don’t think I would need much budget,” he said. “I would just make these very weird, niche games that at least I would love playing. Like, I just want to do Factorio, but you’re baking stuff. You’ve got to get the time right, because the bread’s got to rise, to have freshness, all that stuff.”

I find a 4X baking sim disturbingly easy to envisage. Perhaps it could be a post-apocalyptic experience that take cues from Traption Bakery, an “upcyclepunk” affair in which you fashion bits of old fairground machinery and sailing ship into bread-making apparata. Or perhaps it should be a straight adaptation of the Great British Bake-Off – Graham did a whole interview feature on British Bake-Off Games back in 2015.

Oxide design director Michelle Menard – a former Firaxis associate producer and Zynga systems designer – also has telly on her mind. “The old thing I pitched around the office is Farms of our Lives, which is an episodic soap opera-based farming simulator!” she said.

“There are so many things you could make, and a lot of it is still defined by things like budget and the market, what people are interested in,” Menard went on. “I like making new things, let’s put it that way. I just always want to push boundaries somewhere, do something new, not just make a sequel that we’ve done five times already. But you know, if you want to make a telenovela-inspired farming simulator…”

I’m scrambling a bit for specific parallels here, but there’s overlap aplenty between the worlds of soap opera television and gaming. The Sims is a soap opera sandbox in which the Surprise Guest is always Accidental House Fire. Management sims in general often foreground warring personalities – some would argue that Crusader Kings 3 is essentially a spectacularly bloodthirsty interpretation of Coronation Street.

Last but not least, there was lead designer Michael Califf, a former Stardock and Mohawk Games developer. “My answer’s more straightforward,” he said. “I have one game on my list: I want to make a Warhammer 40K grand strategy game. And that’s it. Other than that I do what’s asked of me. If I had infinite budget and was allowed to do whatever I want, that’s the game I would make. I feel like there’s already a rich world present and you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Indeed! Going by my crude understanding of Imperium politics, reinventing the wheel would be deemed a form of heresy. The obvious nod here is to Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War, which in the words of Fraser Brown (RPS in peace), “doubles down on the perpetually gloomy universe’s penchant for conflict by cutting out diplomacy entirely”.

Elsewhere in the chat, the Oxide trio had extensive thoughts on the market for strategy games, which they consider to be blossoming thanks to a mixture of approachable design, a receptive publishing partner in Microsoft specifically, and PC gaming at large being in rude health. There was also an animated discussion of bedsheets. Again, I’ll bring you more next week. In the meantime, do you have any pie-in-the-sky or as the case may be, loaf-in-the-sky strategy game concepts you’d love to bung in the oven?

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