Soren Johnson is a legend in the gaming industry. He was one of the designers on Civilization III and the lead designer for Civilization IV at Firaxis Games. He co-founded his own company called Mohawk Games. As the studio’s founder and lead designer, he aimed to create strategy games emphasizing player agency, complexity, and meaningful decision-making. We discuss 4x game design, player interaction, and how modding affects the digital gaming world. The two of us had so much fun discussing games that the episode needed to be broken into two parts. So, enjoy part one of Think Like A Game Designer with Soren Johnson

Check out Soren’s Blog here!

“The feeling of growth and expansion is really addictive, but the downside is if you have this game based around getting more and more stuff, the fun starts to disappear.”

We begin by exploring Soren’s introduction to the gaming industry, where he landed his initial coding job at Firaxis Games. We delve into the realm of 4x games such as Civilization and Alpha Centauri. For those unfamiliar, 4x stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate. These games offer an unparalleled sense of progression as you start with a lone unit and gradually expand it into a vast world, be it through building civilizations through all of human history or the construction of fictional realms on distant planets. While these games can be highly addictive, the real challenge lies in crafting a compelling endgame experience. 

“My game design experience started the day Civ III shipped.”

Soren discusses new iterations of Civilization, shedding light on the team’s approach to enhancing the game without compromising its mechanical integrity. This involves a careful balance of rule redesigns, thoughtful unit additions, and the removal of mechanics that proved ineffective in previous iterations. The objective is to refine the gameplay experience while preserving the game’s core essence and avoiding any detrimental disruptions. After, we explore how Soren’s team playtested Civilization IV, a game that spans dozens of hours of gameplay, and what he learned from the release of Civilization III.

“I pushed hard for the release of the source code for Civ IV.”

Mods, which are fan-made modifications to games, are a regular occurrence in modern games. However, when Civilization IV was being developed, they were a new frontier. The mods created by dedicated fans for Civilization IV and its successors added a whole new dimension to the gameplay experience. These user-generated modifications expanded upon the base game, offering players a wealth of additional content, ranging from new civilizations and units to innovative gameplay mechanics and scenarios. 

We explore how different companies handle mods, from actively supporting and providing tools for mod creation to taking a more hands-off approach. We discuss the impact of popular mods on games as they introduce new gameplay mechanics, modify existing content, and extend the replayability of the original game. We also discuss how the community’s feedback to mods can influence official updates, expansions, or sequels, shaping the future of a game’s development.