Humanity and the Tech Tree: A Game Design Review

Amplitude Studios has just completed a week-long closed beta. While it may be too early to say definitively on whether Sid Meier Civilization can stand the test of time against the last tough game for his throne, Humanity definitely brought a new perspective to the genre in a number of ways.

Customizable factions in human history allow over a million combinations for the player, keeping gameplay tailored and fresh. Additionally, the event and civic system add depth to your society and respond to the changing world as you play. The high-risk combat system is a personal favorite – units are drawn straight from your population, making battles tense. New technologies regularly change the rules of warfare, so the system never seems bland in later eras. These features come together to create a game that is much more personal and narrative than Civ currently is, although there are still folds to iron out before release.

The ability to change your culture through the ages is one of humanity’s biggest selling points.

The essential tech tree

For all its changes, however, Humanity stuck to the now iconic “tech tree” to represent scientific progress. The Tech Tree, for those who don’t know, is a structure that allows players to progress through a series of interconnected technologies in the game, gaining more modern and powerful abilities and upgrades as they go. . The system, popularized by Civ in the 90s, is a gameplay staple, adapted by a multitude of games of all genres. As many players and designers would attest, the tech tree has an offshoot appeal. However, there are drawbacks as well, both as a mechanic and as a way to understand the real history of the technology. Let’s explore what it is, why humanity may have chosen to stick with the mechanic, and then suggest alternatives to the tech tree that may provide both a deeper historical insight and a more in-depth gaming experience. fresh.

In-game tech tree design

The tech tree that Meier created for Civ in 1991 was one of the first in the game, coming out the same year as the real first example, a lesser-known strategy game called Megalomania. Like its name, the mechanic is inspired by the 1980 board game, Civilization, which Meier often borrowed. Unfortunately, he forgot when the concept was created, but he points to historical timeline as one possible influence. The relevant nature of the timeline – many will recall it from a classroom wall or textbook – was part of the appeal.

Meier found the feeling of growth and development as the player progressed through the tech tree to be a great combination with the expansive gameplay of Civ. Bruce Shelley, a colleague of Meier, agreed with this, bringing the concept to another classic game, Age of empires. Design-wise, the tech tree provides an important piece of choice and planning for players (am I looking for gunpowder for a stronger army, or currency for a better economy? ) keep the player engaged. The Tech Tree also provides an excellent structural role, showing a clear narrative progression through the game. Civ shows this well with the era system linked to the advancement of technology.

What about the disadvantages? From a game design perspective, a linear, fixed tech tree at the Age of empires or to a lesser extent Civ may become obsolete after many games. They also encourage optimization, especially in competitive multiplayer games (Area of ​​use) or higher difficulties (Civ). This removes a lot of the choice that makes the system so fun in the first place – players who play at the higher difficulties of Civ V will know that certain technologies such as education must be rushed as soon as possible for a chance of victory.

Civilization Tech Tree keeps the game fresh by introducing new units and abilities to the player as the game develops

A historical perspective

What about historical games that use a tech tree? Academics generally avoid using tech trees as a method of history mapping. By definition, Tech Trees involve a “standard” map of technological progress that can often prove to be confusing or just plain incorrect. In Civ games before Civ IV, technology Alphabet was a strict prerequisite for the technology Writing. Many historical cultures have developed writing independent of an alphabet, such as Chinese. In Civ IV, there was a strange connection between the technologies which meant that mysticism had to be sought to achieve robotics. Inaccurate representations like these can serve game design and balance, but can cripple the precision and cohesion of the tree.

The very nature of the tech tree – a system of linked techs, visible from the start of the game with clear effects – is also deceptive. There is an implicit top-down approach to technology here, where the leader has a high degree of control over it. There is also the error that the results and consequences of a technology are known before it is discovered or invented.

Both of these concepts fail the test. For much of human history, the development of technology was independent of political leadership. Rather, there was an emerging process of marginal gains as each generation refined its methods and traditions. In more modern history, a ruler’s patronage and subsequent state research programs gave rulers some control, but even then the “private sector” retained much of the control. On the second point, there are famous cases of technologies having consequences very different from those foreseen. Dynamite is one example – the military use of explosives traumatized Alfred Nobel so much that he created the Nobel Prizes. This continues today, as modern technology continues to subvert our expectations of it in often astonishing ways.

Is there a fancy name for it?

The idea that technological progress follows a set course and is the main driving force behind society is known to historians as “technological determinism”. Strategy games can implicitly suggest this, as many of your empire’s mechanics, abilities, and modifications are hard-wired behind the technology. While some of them make sense, many don’t. Why the possibility of converting priests to your religion in Land of the Empire locked behind the printing house, for example? Why Ecology Technology Requires Plastics First Civ V? From the same game, why do you need factories for the player to access distinct political ideologies? These examples may be related to a vague process, but there is no inevitable connection between them. While we should shrink those systems down a bit – the tech tree, like any mechanic, is an abstraction – we should also note the room for improvement here.

alternatives to trees: canvases, gardens and chaos

Other games have explored technology in different ways. Some games, like Civilization: Beyond Earth and Endless legend (another title Amplitude), used a radial tech tree, with multiple endpoints. These radial shafts allow more choice than linear shafts and encourage players to specialize and experiment. The technological system of Beyond the earth earned the game’s praise despite its many other flaws. To combat the predetermined nature of tech trees, some games have introduced a random element. Stellaris is a notable example, with search options chosen from a random list based on certain conditions. Some older Civ the headlines also used this design choice. This may represent the more unpredictable nature of the technology, but can be frustrating – this feature was later removed from Civ.

The most interesting tech system I’ve seen in the game comes from Victoria II. In this game, there is a traditional tech tree but also a system of “inventions”. Some advancements such as new machines and philosophy count as inventions and emerge at random. The luck of invention is influenced by a variety of factors in the world. For example, armored ships are more likely to be invented if someone invented cheap iron. These are intuitive modifiers that build a connected world where the player is encouraged to create the conditions for advancement to happen, rather than just dictating it. This system resembles the maintenance of a garden and is very satisfying when your influence leads to the desired result.

Humanity and the Tech Tree

Let us return to Humanity. In a title that so clearly tries to refresh the genre, why did Amplitude choose to stick with the tech tree? From what we know about the game so far, we can point out two things. First and foremost, Amplitude chose a design direction that emphasizes lean systems and emerging narratives that engage gamers. In this context, the simplicity of the tech tree and its ability to structure games into distinct eras make it better than a simulated approach that can frustrate some players.

Second, Amplitude uses the new civic system in Humanity. This allows players to sculpt their culture through a series of decisions (such as “who owns the means of production?” And “how does our state approach religion?”) And allows players to control social direction. of their empire. It’s much more satisfying than the social approach fixes regular tech trees.

One of the many choices a player can make in Humankind to personalize their gaming experience


We’ve seen why the Tech Tree has become such an iconic part of the game. It has its limitations, however, especially in historical games where design features influence how players view the past. Alternative systems can have their own advantages. Most games try to add variety to the issue of tech trees. Either by using a radial design, elements of randomization, or a completely new concept not covered here. These alternatives could become more developed and give players variety in a genre threatening to show signs of obsolescence.

Humanity remained faithful to the tech tree, forgoing the Amplitude radial tree developed for Endless legend and Endless space. They did so in a way that clearly follows their design philosophy, however, and added enough changes to their support mechanisms to make Humanity feel distinct. In this regard, while Humanity maybe use Civ’s technology tree, Amplitude plays a different game in its shadow.

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