Community Spotlight: Machiavelli, Creator of the New Horizons Mod

We’ve always been impressed with the Civilization modding community, which churns out an impressive number of mods on a daily basis. Just look at Steam Workshop, where the latest in the Civilization series, Beyond Earth, has benefitted from numerous community contributions.

One of our recent favorites is New Horizons, a mod that tweaks just about every single aspect of the Beyond Earth experience. We were so impressed with the mod, we played it on a livestream. Now, we interview its creator, Machiavelli, and find out what else he’s up to.

Can you tell us about yourself?

I'm Machiavelli, a 29 year old living on the east coast of the US who works in the software industry. I've long had an interest in economics and euro-style board games like Terra Mystica and Dominion. Both economics and games require understanding an interrelated web of incentives that push and pull certain actions. Achieving a desired outcome involves a kind of analytical problem solving that I find very engaging.

What was the first Civilization game you played? Were you hooked from the start?

I started with Civilization 3 and continued through Civilization 4, Civilization 5 and Beyond Earth. My wife (who is also an avid Civilization fan) and I joke that there must be two computers with the most recent version of Civilization in the household, otherwise we'll butt heads over which of us gets to play.

While I always played on the higher difficulty levels the base game of Civilization 5 marked a turning point for me, as it was the earliest game in the franchise that I understood well enough to consistently win on Deity. This knowledge helped inform the designs of my mods.

What was your first Civilization mod? Can you describe it?

"Reform and Rule" was my first mod, released back in 2012 for the base game of Civilization 5. I limited myself to only changing Social Policies, but within that constraint I wanted to do bold and unique things. I wanted effects that players could build around, effects that would excite them as they tried to figure out the best ways to take advantage of them. To do this, I wrote some code that let me give policies game-play effects they couldn't normally have, like gaining science when Great Generals are born.

Reform and Rule changed significantly over time. I continued working on it for over two years! The last update for it was in September 2014. At first Reform and Rule didn't change all the policy trees -- it took me a while to come up with a good idea for Patronage. When Gods and Kings released, I had to redo Piety and a few other trees to incorporate the new faith and religion mechanics. Brave New World required an even larger redesign to account for ideology tenets replacing the Order, Autocracy and Freedom. Most of my mods are not set in stone, but are ongoing projects that expand and evolve over time.

How many mods have you made and for which Civ games?

New Horizons is my only mod for Beyond Earth, but it is a huge total conversion that touches nearly every aspect of the game. It has radical changes to the first two rings of the tech tree, including all the buildings, quests, orbital units and military units. It also completely revamps the virtues, terrain and tile improvements.

My Civilization 5 mods aren't as large as that but they are more numerous. I have about a dozen spread across the base game, Gods & Kings and Brave New World. The whole list can be seen here, but my best known Civilization 5 mods are "Reform and Rule" which changes all the Social Policies, and "Race for Religion" which changes all the religious beliefs.

In order to create these game play mods, I often needed to do some additional coding behind the scenes. This made it possible to implement all the changes I wanted, and I thought that other mod creators might find these capabilities useful. Currently a majority of the mods on my Steam Workshop are for fellow mod creators.

What goes into creating a mod? Where do you start?

I start with an idea and scope for a mod. If I'm not already familiar with how the game implements the area I want to modify, I'll do some investigation to figure out what technical limitations exist. Sometimes I can use a bit of trickery or clever coding to work around a limitation and expand my options. Once I know if my idea is possible I'll start prioritizing which aspects of the mod are critical and which can be added over time. From there it is a matter of iteratively building and testing the mod. Once the mod is in a playable state I send it out to friends and fans of my work who have volunteered to help play test pre-release versions of my mods. Once the mod is refined enough that players can experience the core aspects I'll release it to the public.

That doesn't mark the end of development though. All the parts that weren't in the initial release start getting worked on and incorporated into the mod. Public feedback also plays a huge role in helping refine a mod as fans can play more games with the mod in a weekend then I could in a month.

How have your mods been received? Are there any you’re particularly proud of?

The reception has been very positive. I've had fans of my Civilization 5 mods offer to provide translations of the mod into German, French, Spanish and Russian. A few fans have even provided art for me to use. Since I only speak English and am not a talented artist this assistance is great! Their effort has allowed more people to discover and enjoy those mods.

But I'm particularly proud of New Horizons for Beyond Earth. When I started working on New Horizons just after the release of Beyond Earth I guessed I would have a year and a half before Beyond Earth's first expansion. But Firaxis delivered an expansion in only a year! Despite having 6 months cut off my schedule I managed to get all the core features for New Horizons released. It was a ton of work but it is an experience unlike any other.

Which mod was the most difficult to create?

New Horizons has been very challenging. Over half of the people who play-test my mods have drifted away from Beyond Earth over the last year. This had made it hard to get consistent, experienced feedback about the direction of the mod. Public feedback has also fallen off in the run up to Rising Tide which has made it hard for me to draw conclusions about how the September "Affinity Rising" update for New Horizons went over.

The sheer size of the mod has also made it tricky to work with. The mod touches so many parts of the experience that there are many areas I'm concerned about. The mod's scope makes it hard to change course rapidly so if one aspect creates a problematic synergy fixing it may require changes to multiple systems to address.

Will you be doing any Rising Tide mods? Any ideas you can share?

Absolutely! Rising Tide has put me at a cross roads. I want to keep refining and expanding New Horizons but the new mechanics in Rising Tide may require a rethink.

I could break New Horizons into parts (ie: "New Horizons: Virtues", "New Horizons: Military") and port them to Rising Tide piecemeal. This approach would get New Horizons working in Rising Tide faster and potentially let people who dislike certain parts of New Horizons be able to play without them.

An alternative approach would be to build New Horizons from the ground up for Rising Tide. This approach would likely take longer and produce a different feel. But it would also play to the strengths of Rising Tide rather than carry over the assumptions from base game Beyond Earth.

One possibility that I've been thinking about is having Old Earth send radio messages with the seeding ships. Due to the time and distances involved when the seeding ships land they have a century of signal from Old Earth compressed on their ship's computers. This signal would be a history of Old Earth -- all the desperate research on instantaneous communication and teleportation which the colony would try to gather and study to advance. But the signal would become harder to find and its contents more haunting as resources dry up on Old Earth and panic begins. Until the day the signal runs out and calls the fate of Old Earth into question -- is it gone for good, or could the colony possibly save their first home?

I'm also looking forward to making mods for XCOM 2. I loved XCOM: Enemy Unknown and wanted to make mods for it so the announcement that XCOM 2 will support mods was huge for me..

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get into modding Civ?

A critical piece of advice is to start as simple as possible. When starting out, it is easy to get overwhelmed or discouraged. The best place to start is modding buildings. Buildings are self-contained and knowing how they work is a good baseline for moving to other parts of the game. While you are learning, focus your designs on affects you know how to implement.

Back when Beyond Earth had just come out, Firaxis did an "introduction to modding" live stream video.

It is an ideal tutorial that I encourage all new mod makers to view. It covers the core basics, how to get mod buddy (the tool you will use to create mods) to how to create and alter buildings.

CivFanatics has a forum on modding that is a great place to ask questions and get help. It has a wealth of information including tutorials and references. If you run into problems a quick post should get you the answers you need.

If folks wanted to get in touch with you, how would they go about that?

They have a couple of options. One way folks can reach me is through the CivFanatics forums, I'm "Machiavelli24" there. There is a thread for each of my mods in the respective forums. But a private message to me also works.

If folks are interested in my current project, New Horizons and Rising Tide, I'll be posting information on upcoming updates and behind the scenes design experiments at mechanicsasmetaphor.wordpress.com.

Lastly, I can be contacted through Steam, where folks can leave comments on any of my released mods. Just be aware that if you send me a friend request out of the blue I can't always tell if it’s a person or spam bot and I may not accept right away. If you contact me through Steam and don't hear anything after a few days try one of the other methods.