Interview: Jon Shafer, Ex-Civ 5 Lead Now at Stardock

By Brian Leahy, Jan 05, 2011 12:00pm PST Yesterday, it was announced (unofficially) that Jon Shafer, the lead designer of Civilization V who recently left Firaxis, had been hired by Stardock to help with the continuing development of Elemental: War of Magic and eventually lead his own team for another game down the line.

Shacknews caught up with Jon for a quick interview, which is presented below. Enjoy!

Shack: With Derek Paxton leading continuing development on Elemental: War of Magic, what will your responsibilities be on the project?

Jon Shafer: I'll be playing the game a lot, providing design ideas and feedback to producer Derek Paxton and the rest of the team. The overarching vision for the game is already established, so I'll be doing my best to support that and make the game as good as it can be. A big focus for me will also be to evaluate the modding system and find ways to improve it. Stardock's goal has been to make Elemental a great platform that can be transformed into something very different, so I'll be lending my experience to that cause.

Shack: What was your impression of Elemental when it released? What about now since the newest patch?

Jon Shafer: The game was definitely rough. I try to play a lot of strategy games first because it's what I do, and there's something to learn from everything out there, but also because I just enjoy playing strategy games. And as a fan of these types of games it clearly needed some work. Elemental has taken a lot of steps in the right direction, the team has a lot of great plans in place, and I'm very excited to see how the game evolves.

Shack: What similarities/differences are you expecting coming from Firaxis, which was strictly the developer working with publisher 2K, versus Stardock, which is both the developer and publisher of its titles?

Jon Shafer: They're both great studios who've made games I grew up playing. So in terms of "output," they're very similar. The biggest difference is definitely that Stardock is a private company, owned by Brad Wardell. He's very involved in everything Stardock creates and brings a passion that shows through with his dedication to the community and continued support long after release. At the end of the day everything is his call, so if he feels that something needs to be done to produce a better game, he's the only one who has the pull the trigger for it to happen. Larger companies have a lot more resources at their disposal, but also more obligations and stakeholders.

Shack: Now that Civ V has been out on the market for a while, what lessons have you learned from its development and launch that you will be taking to Stardock? Did you accomplish everything you wanted with Civ V before leaving Firaxis?

Jon Shafer: With every game there's always more you want to do, no matter how well it does. Every creative person in this business wants to keep at what they're doing until it's perfect. The biggest lessons I'll take with me are related to the design of Civ V. Over time your style changes and you pick up new ideas and uncover things that turned out better than you expected, as well as those which didn't work the way you'd hoped. Every time you do something you get better at it, and making games is no different. My goal is to help make Elemental one of the best strategy games out there, and my experiences with Civ V have definitely taught me quite a bit.

Shack: Do you foresee any challenges or benefits to shifting to Elemental, which has already been released, but is still very much in active development?

Jon Shafer: Every game is a challenge. From start to finish, you're working against lots of problems, and if you're able to overcome them all you get a good game in the end. As you note, there's still some room to define the final form Elemental will take in the end. But it's a game that people have paid for, so we have an obligation to make sure it's always as fun as it can be. With more time out of the spotlight you can afford to dig a little deeper and make bigger changes, but without that opportunity we'll have to be more cautious with what we do. We have a great team here that's very excited to continue improving on what's already been done, so I'm feeling very good about where we'll end up.

Shack: The original story mentioned that you will be leading a team at Stardock in the future. Do you already know what the game will be? Will you continue to make strategy games?

Jon Shafer: For now my focus is on Elemental, but I'm looking forward to being able to talk about future projects when the time comes!

Shack: Multiplayer is included in games like Civ and Elemental, but is usually enjoyed by a niche minority within the niche of the genre. Where can multiplayer for these lengthy, turn-based strategy games go from here?

Jon Shafer: It's a tough issue. Even from a technical standpoint, making any sort of game with multiplayer isn't easy. I think ultimately it comes down to the type you're making, and how well the core design lends itself to that style of play. Additionally, the pace of a game has a dramatic impact on how viable and fun it is as a multiplayer experience. This may mean you see more "sub-modes" where only the most well-suited part of a game is multiplayer. Another possibility is a game which has almost two different designs, where the rules are very different from the single-player version of the game. We'll have to see where things go. I try not to predict the future too much since it's so easy to be wrong!

Shack: Some were saying you could potentially be Sid Meier's successor at Firaxis. What was the reasoning for leaving the team? Was it hard to walk away from that opportunity?

Jon Shafer: It's always tough to leave what you've been doing, and it was especially hard saying goodbye to such a great studio and an amazing group of people. I've been a follower of Firaxis for more than a decade, and am anxiously awaiting their upcoming games. Stardock is another great company, and has a lot to offer those in this business. I'm very excited by this opportunity and absolutely believe we're going to do some great things in the coming years!

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  • Q: "What did you think of Elemental at launch?"

    A: "Well, it has its problems. It was rough. Everything has problems, though, and the world is nothing but one big problems ground out there. And Stardock has plans. Plans and schemes. Schemes that look great! Great. ...I like Stardock. I used to play their games. Really."

    Q: "So you were going to be Sid Meier's successor at Firaxis and now you left. How's that feel?"

    A: "Well, after the debacle that was Civ V, I looked around and could only find one strategy game that had more bugs than the game I managed. And that was Elemental. And I thought to myself, 'Damn it, I couldn't keep the team from fixing Civ V to a somewhat workable state. Here's a game that is so screwed up I bet I can keep it from working right forever.'

    "Then Sid Meier came to me and he said, 'I got bad news, Jon. You will never be my successor. Your work on Civ V was substandard.' And I was like, 'What do you mean? I did my best. I only played World of Warcraft and Starcraft 2 12 hours out of each day. I did this for research, you see.' And he said, 'I'm sure. But we really need you to clean out your desk and leave the building. I've got these nice security people here that have offered to help you pack up your things for you and show you the way out of the building.' And I was like, 'Are you firing me? I'm your successor! You're not going to let an incredibly botched launch or a strategy game requiring insane resources on your PC keep me from my rightful place as the name before the game's title, are you?'

    "And he was like, 'Well, Jon, I'm afraid most users just don't like it when their games are as buggy as the one you managed are. However, I hear Stardock is looking for more developers that produce bugs with everything they do. They might even be looking for a new lead game designer after their owner botched his own game via ego.' And I was like, 'Hey, man, that's awesome. I'll try there!' And he was all, 'That's awesome. Here, let's walk you out and we'll just have Bob and Frank the Security Men mail you your My Little Pony collection.' I love 2k! But working for Stardock is a lifelong dream of mine for as long as I can remember. However, I can't remember what I ate yesterday, so I'm sure that's a good long time."

    Q: "So... what's your new game going to be?"

    A: "I don't have a new game. I'm the guy that's going to make it seem like Stardock's fixing things with Elemental because all the patches in the world aren't going to fix that piece of crap. I mean, I'm the guy in charge of playing it and offering suggestions."

    Q: "But the PR suggested you were heading up a new team?"

    A: "Oh. I... I can't talk about anything but Elemental right now."

    Q: "And you do what with Elemental?"

    A: "Play it. Put my name on the news posts that say I've been hired by Stardock to fix their game. They pay me to stay out of the way and I go play it a few times a month to let them know what I think. Then they ignore my thoughts and do what they were planning all along anyway. This is the best job ever! I love Stardock!"