I guess it’s inevitable that the Christmas-driven retail industry and, vicariously, the Christmas-driven game industry, would pick one month to release everything. Between now and a few weeks before Christmas all the big game releases will be put out, but for games which will be popular but not 100% guaranteed hits, they apparently get released in October. Two games in particular I’ve preordered – Quake 4 and Civilization IV. Quake 4 will be released October 14th. Civilization IV, comes out October 24th. I guess I don’t really care or mind – just October a never fails to be tight month, financially, and this doesn’t help. Oh well.

Anyway, I never preorder games unless there’s some incentive to – like some neato thingy or bonus or limited edition. Quake IV comes in a limited edition DVD version with extras and the preorder came with a T-shirt, so that was an easy enough sell. Civilization IV comes with a faux leather slipcase (!), spiral manual, CD soundtrack, etc. – but only if you preorder the game. Nifty.

The one thing that bugs me about Civilization IV is that I never really played the snot out of Civilization III, or at least not nearly as much as I played Civilization II, despite its being released four years ago. There’s a lot of reasons for this – my life is actually busy nowadays, there’s a lot more games nowadays, etc. And then there’s the “particular version” syndrome where a number of people detested Civilization III in comparison to Civilization II. I guess I can see this point – it’s not like Civilization III just took everything from Civilization II and upgraded it – they did pitch out certian things entirely. It’s not like a word processor where Word 2003 has everything from Word 2000 and more – they made certian controversial decisions that, it never fails, certian people see as deal-breakers.

But I can’t help but wonder if there’s something else, simpler, that people are missing. I don’t know what the sales numbers are for either game but I’d almost bet that, as popular as Civilization III was, it wasn’t as popular as Civilization II – that game became so popular that it inspired a famous pissng match over the rights to the name “Civilization” by other companies. The original game, Civilization, was a DOS game that preceded even VGA graphics. Civilization II was a Windows 3.1 game – a move which wound up working well for its longevity, but was a bizarre, baffling move at the time. People just didn’t do games to run “in” Windows. It was not only costly, performance-wise (anyone remember making boot disks or bypassing DOS to play DOOM?) but it was also really hard. The game was released in early 1996, some six months after Windows 95 and long before that operating system or DirectX would become even feasible. It used WinG, the precursor to DirectX. And the graphics weren’t really anything to write home about. But the gameplay was superb and highly addictive and it became the benchmark for turn based strategy games.

Since Windows 9x as a gaming platform was a ways off and Windows 3.1 as a gaming platform was pretty much untested. As a result, the first ever “Windows” games were pretty much just that – Windoiws applications whose purpose was not word processing or database management, but rather for entertainment. And in some ways, the Civilization series was perfect for this idea – they largely worked like interface applications anyway. In a game like DOOM 3 the Interface is this thing that’s used to tweak the control scheme a few times and get in the game, nothing more. The designers of Battlefield 2 decided the Interface was so secondary that they just used Macromedia Flash to do it. However, in “God games” like Civilization and Sim City, the paradigm makes sense. The initial interface for Quake III: Arena was a throwaway series of screen – later with the Quake III: Team Arena expansion, they fleshed it out to a pull-down menu style interface, something most Quake III engine games have used since.

But the fact that Civilization II was essentially a Windows application had one interesting and likely unintended consequence – it meant that the game didn’t take over your system when you were playing it, both in the respect that, between turns, it didn’t burn CPU cycles, and in the sense that it was not a DirectX full screen application. The game spawned two expansion packs and was reissued in 1998 as Sid Meier’s Civilization II: Multiplayer Gold Edition (side note, the titles of all of these have been prefixed with “Sid Meier’s” but that’s a pain to keep typing). The game was re-engineered to take advantage of DirectX instead of WinG but the end effect was the same – it retained the feel of a Windows application.

By contrast, Civilization III is a full-screen DirectX application. The designers decided to go with what has become conventional wisdom – make your application take up the entire screen, design it with the intention of owning the computer for the duration of running, etc. I don’t fault them for this – you can, in theory, do more with a full screen game. You have a better guaranteed palete (the makers of Civilization II didn’t even have the luxury of being able to assume 256 colors really), you can demand more of the system’s resources, and these days you can even use the hardware effects of the video card in your 2D game. You have to implement your own interface and you don’t get to use any of the built in widgets that come with the operating system, but it does make the game more portable (Civilization III even came out for the Macintosh)

But like I said, people in general, or at least vocal people, didn’t like Civilization III as much as Civilization II. And some of it is what I detailed above – changes, removals, tweaks of things which a number of people thought were fine, the fact that multiplayer came in the form of a commercial expansion pack and even then it was buggy and flawed, etc. Plus when Civlization II was released the market was much smaller and so a game could stand out more – today you have to contend with the daily Age of Empires game or the Brothers in Arms title of the week.

To their credit, Firaxis has addressed a lot of concerns with Civilization IV and also brought up new ones – chief among them being that Civilization IV has, for the first time, a 3D engine. One of the things about Civilization games is their use of icons to represent things, so an army is represented by a single soldier, the soldier is the same size as the entire “town”, etc. so when the game is more “realistic” looking, the fact that certian aspects of the game are almost intentionally unrealistic looking, stands out more. Still, it looks to be a fun game and I can’t wait to play it.

But I think the real reason that Civilization II may have been this: it was a simple Windows app. You think that the most popular game on the Internet is Hearts because Hearts is a good game? No – Hearts is the most popular since your grandmother can play it without a hardware upgrade. You can have Civilization II running in the background while you work and play a few turns when you have some time. It loads quick, it unloads quick. The fact that they made the decision to go to Windows in 1996 means this is probably the oldest game you can play to this day without resorting to a DOS mode or some weird-ass hardware tweak. And the dead-simple nature of the game actually helped things go as smoothly as they did because it actually made the game more addictive. Play enough turns and you’ll forget it’s a game. It really is more like a Windows application you use to run your empire.

And the other side of that coin is this phonomenon we’ve noticed lately where a game becomes more popular over time due in part to the fact that the game has low enough hardware requirements that a broad range of people can play it. Buy the crappiest computer Dell has to offer and can play Counter-Strike fine, explaining why there’s 60K people playing it online right now. The crappiest laptop you can find can play Starcraft like a champ. And hell, they even ported Civilization II to the Sony PlayStation (1) with its 2MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive and no hard drive.

So now we’re about to have Civilization IV come out, try to throw back to Civilization II but tack on the super neat 3D graphics and so forth. And I’m sure it will do well, but if it doesn’t people will scratch their heads on why it’s not as popular as Civilization II. Well you heard it here first – Civilization II was as popular as it was because it was a Windows application and no one’s ever going to guess that.