About

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is a 4X strategy game (modeled closely after Civilization II) that was actually written and designed primarily by Brian Reynolds, a philosophy major and dreamer who managed to create a gaming experience that sticks with me even now, sixteen years later.  In particular, I’ve found my brain returning to it repeatedly over the past few months.  So I’ve created this website as a space to organize and archive my thoughts, in the hopes that the act of writing will drain away the growing obsession.

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39 thoughts on “About

  1. Kaushal Addanki

    Awesome read! I really loved Alpha Centauri’s gameplay, and it’s nice to read about the deep philosophy and rich storytelling behind the game. Keep up the good work

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  2. Robin

    I enjoy your blog and thoughts immensly! Can’t wait to read your posts about Projects later in the game, especially down the road to Transcendence.

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      Probably not along these lines. Some of the ideas in Alien Crossfire were very good, and a couple of the rules patches were welcome, but on the whole I feel that the expansion harmed the narrative experience more than it helped. Your mileage may vary.

      I plan to write some more about why I feel that way once I’ve come to the conclusion of the SMAC content. Hopefully you’re willing to stick around until then.

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      1. Abe I.

        I’d say detailed analysis to the additions in AX and explanations of how they are not quite up to snuff would be quite worthwhile. After all, what better way to examine how something was great then by examining how it falls from Grace.

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  3. Michael

    Just discovered this, and it is glorious! Hearkens back to hundreds of hours playing SMAC, and reveals a few things I didn’t know, even then! (needlejets defend using their weapon values and not their armor, say what?!?!)

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  4. Robin

    Nick, here’s an idea on how to continue after you exhausted the SMAC tech tree:

    In your posts, you keep mentioning the “implied canon”, drawing conclusions from quotes as to which faction built which secret project, why, and so forth. I’d love to see some write ups of each faction’s “implied canon” that sums up these connections and puts them in a timeline.

    On that note, do you consider the “implied canon” to end with [Admin: “spoilers” snipped]?

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      That’s a great idea. I could do something like the “First Impressions” series, but done looking backwards after the game is over. I don’t know if there’s enough data in the game to align things tightly into a single timeline, but it’s definitely worth trying to piece together.

      I think your speculations as to the end of the game are quite on-point given the rules of evidence we’ve been using so far. But I’ve made a policy of snipping “spoilers”, even though the game is so old, just because I think I might have at least a couple of readers who never pieced it together themselves the first time. Plus, it helps me write from within “the moment” from the perspective of a first-time player. Hope that doesn’t cause any offense.

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      Unfortunately, the first one was a little before my time. My journey in the series started with Civ II and SMAC.

      When I heard that the Civ IV based remake didn’t turn out so well, I never went back to look up the original. In retrospect, that might have been a poor decision seeing as how badly Planetfall (the SMAC remake in CIv IV) seems to have missed the mark. But from everything I’ve seen, I would find your theory quite plausible.

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  5. Blake Wondrasch

    Most discussions are very insightful. But I *Strongly* recommend you go back and re-watch the last few seconds of the “Universal Translator” video a few times. There’s something critically-important that you’re missing. The alien language on the Monolith that is translated into English turns out to be the same passage from Genesis read int the quote with the Secret Project, describing the story of the Tower of Babel, if you look closely. You can see parts of it in the last few seconds on the video.

    This has MAJOR implications- as it could be seen to serve as a fundamental confirmation of all of Sister Miriam (who reads the quote) believes- how else could an alien civilization so separated from Earth by both time and space, have the same Genesis story as part of their culture, if not for a single Omnipresent God who played a role in their early history as well?

    Coincidences happen- for instance the pastor speaking at my church this morning is also named Miriam- but this is something entirely different. The Progenitors having the story of Genesis logically implies either that (a) the aliens visited Earth at some point in the past and adopted parts of its culture to the point they would stick in on one of their own Monoliths (which are actually alien TEMPLES in the SMAC lore, as game dev story-tidbits released with Alien Crossfire and the in-game interlude from discovering the Manifold Nexus both make clear), or (b) that there is indeed an all-resent God. However, the in-game fact that the Progenitors ceased to dwell on Chiron/Planet/The Sixth Manifold tens of thousands of years before humans ever visited it (and long before the story of the Tower of Babel first entered Jewish culture) makes (a) entirely impossible without time-travel (which the quote with the Temporal Mechanics tech advance clearly states is “impossible in the classic sense”), meaning that Miriam and all who believe in God were right all along, at least in the in-game universe!

    In short, the Universal Translator provides factual proof of the existence of God in the game-universe. That’s kind of a big deal- and I’m surprised you missed this implication…

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  6. Blake Wondrasch

    Also, take another look at the Theory of Everything sometime. I think you missed a major point to the video and implied message…

    The scene of the seeds blowing away from a dandelion followed almost immediately by a scene of a Saturn V rocket lifting off should have cued you in to something fundamentally deeper the video was trying to get across… There is an axiom some biologists (I am one myself) may be familiar with- “Grow or Die”. One of the fundamental truths the Theory of Everything needs to explain is this axiom, and why life grows and spreads such as it does. It touches upon the nature of all things to exist in a stable state or change into one- for instance life spreads because lifeforms that did not spread simply, over time and chance, failed to exist any longer- natural selection is based on a fundamentally mathematical principle that applies to all things, not just lifeforms. The principle of stable systems evolving out of unstable ones- whether in themodynamics or population genetics- is something that would need to be explained by a Theory of Everything. And it’s interesting to meditate on this…

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      I think the Theory of Everything is best understood as a purely physical theory and not as a biological one. The quote on the subsequent Quantum Lab (https://paeantosmac.wordpress.com/2016/03/02/base-facility-quantum-lab/) indicates that there’s still plenty more work left to do in the SMAC universe to scientifically describe everything interesting about the world above and beyond the behavior of its most basic building blocks. I imagine that a description of the principle you refer to would fall into the latter category rather than the former.

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  7. Blake Wondrasch

    One more comment (hopefully the last- but unlikely given how inspired a game SMAC is). You missed something in your discussion of “The Citizens’ Defense Force”. Perimeter Defenses actually DO help in defense against Mindworm attacks.

    Not directly of course- psi based combat ignores most attack and defense bonuses. But, when an undefended base is attacked by Mindworms, a Perimeter Defense or Tachyon field is ALWAYS the first building consumed by an invading Mindworm boil, which sacrifices itself in the process to get to the (otherwise) undefended citizenry. So, the real benefit of the Citizens’ Defense Force is one not many SMAC players are likely aware of- it provides and essentially free limited defense against Mindworm attacks for all of your bases. When [planet-controlled] Mindworms attack a base, the Citizens’ Defense Force’ free Perimeter Defenses repels them- at least the first boil in any swarm (you lose citizenry and/or other base facilities for every boil that attacks after that).

    So, if (like I often do) you engage in wild uncontrolled growth early in the game and are unable to properly defend your small and poorly-developed bases against native Mindworm attacks, the Citizens’ Defense Force provides an excellent and cost-effective means to quickly do so, drawing all the necessary minerals from a better-developed central base constructing the Secret Project… (when you consider that even a simple Scout Patrol, beyond its initial cost, costs 1 Mineral/turn in upkeep if in excess of your Support limit- which in a Democracy, the most likely SE choice for rampant/uncontroleld growth- is a meager 1 unit/base often better spent on a unit of Formers…)

    Of course, to my knowledge, this effect isn’t at all effective against player-controlled Mindworms- which adds yet another reason why Diedre Sky might be narrating this Secret Project video…

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      Fascinating. I don’t think that’s a rules interaction that most players will ever encounter. It’s also interesting that you usually combined that tactic with Democracy. In my experience, the lack of free minerals in a new base from -2 Support is a pretty big handicap for wild, uncontrolled growth. I’d usually prefer Frontier/Planned for early-game ICS-style Colony Pod spam. The exception would be when playing Morgan, who compensates for his inability to run Planned with routine rush buying. Even then, I’d probably prefer Frontier/Free Market to Democracy/Free Market.

      I think the police and bureaucracy rules also cut against that tactic, especially at higher difficulty levels. You only have to wildly grow so many bases before the initial citizen is a drone. Which means that he has to be wasted as a specialist if you’re not going to have a police unit stationed in the base. And nutrients and minerals are usually more valuable than energy at that stage, so you’d much rather have population points working the land if you can.

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      1. northstar1989

        I usually Colony Pod spam with the Peacekeepers or Believers. The Peacekeepers get a free Talent at every new base, which ensures that the first citizen is ALWAYS a Worker even without a Police unit present, and the Believers’ Support bonus allows them to get the most out of the exponential increase in number of bases this tactic allows…
        As for running Democracy instead of Frontier politics, the Growth bonus is EXTREMELY important to actually providing the surplus population at existing bases to build Colony Pods on Librarian difficulty or above (where building Colony Pods subtracts from base population- build a CP in a size 1 base on Librarian and you disband the base and pack it into the Colony Pod…) Plus, in combination with Planned Economics and a Children’s Creche, it allows you to stick some of your core bases into population boom that are too far from your front of expansion to really efficiently contribute new Colony Pods. Quickly developing your core bases helps provide Energy Credits to rush development at the frontiers and expand faster…
        The free Minerals for a new base basically just cover the cost of a Scout Patrol. They’re not useful if you make your first build a Colony Pod, as the CP will be completed long before the base reaches size 2- and even if you build a basic Formers unit first and then a CP, the CP will still be completed before reaching size 2 with most faction/Social Engineering combinations… The extra Efficiency rating from Democracy, on the other hand, helps to raise your base limit before you start getting Bureaucracy-drones, as well as providing you with the Growth rating you need to build new bases at the fastest possible speed…
        Finally, Specialists are far from worthless- at the lower difficulties you can make them into Technicians or Librarians at even your smallest bases, and even when you’re limited to Doctors in the early game on Librarian, each Doctor still provides enough Psych points to convert a Drone into a Normal/Worker even without any base facilities present- meaning that your second citizen at that base is guaranteed to be a Worker instead of a Drone even if you’re not running the Peacekeepers, Human Genome Project, University with the Virtual World, Planetary Transit System, or Self-Aware Colony with a Police rating of at least -1: any of which guarantee that your FIRST citizen in a new base will always be a Worker or Talent regardless of how many bases you have…

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      2. Nick Stipanovich Post author

        When I finish the tech tree, I’m planning on writing a couple of strategy articles. They won’t be from the perspective of how best to win at the game, though. Plenty of people have covered that better than I could over the past couple decades.

        And, honestly, the game’s easy enough – even on Transcend – where you don’t have to play anywhere close to optimally to win. So there are lots of ways that work. And, in my experience, avid players will gravitate toward the ones that best fit their playstyle and personality. A strategy might not be the “best” overall, but it could certainly be the best for your enjoyment of the game.

        But I do intend to address ICS-style strategies in SMAC from the perspective of the game designer. When I do, I’ll address your points in more detail there.

        But before I do, I’ll just say very quickly that I think you’re really underrating the free minerals. Say you spam 20 colony pods in the early going, which isn’t unreasonable at all if you’re pushing hard and building tight. If you’re in Democracy, that just cost you 200 minerals. 200 early minerals, too, which in an exponential growth game like SMAC matters a lot.

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      3. northstar1989

        Like everything else, it depends of the particulars (the Peacekeepers and Believers are much better at colony-spamming, for instance). But looking at the lost free minerals from running Democracy is entirely too short-term of a perspective. The higher growth-rate is necessary to fill new colony pods as you build them, and there are a number of other benefits to having more, small colonies over fewer, larger ones:
        (1) You get a better return on your surplus nutrients. Not only does it require fewer nutrients to grow a base from size 1 to size 2 than from size 5 to size 6, it requires less *time* to do so. Which means that your nutrients spend less time uselessly locked up in the granaries, and more time being put to use producing more nutrients, minerals, and energy- ultimately leading to a much better Return On Investment (ROI) for each surplus nutrient.
        (2) You get more free support units. Democracy may reduce this factor, but for most factions (excluding the Morganites), it does not eliminate it.
        (3) You can build more copies of flat-bonus base facilities, such as Recycling Tanks, Recreation Commons, and economic satellites. Even buildings such as the Research Hospital and Hologram Theater have a flat per-base Drone suppression bonus that often makes them worth building.
        (4) You can undertake production of more units/buildings simultaneously- increasing the chances that at any point in time there will be an optimal target for rush-buying with surplus Energy Credits (this is actually one of the most important benefits of having more bases).
        (5) You get more tiles worked for free by the colonies themselves- each producing 2/1/1 or 3/2/2 Nutrients/Minerals/Energy depending on whether you have Recycling Tanks built, in addition to any Economy bonuses to your base tiles (for this reason, the Hive also benefits less from base-spam).
        (6) You get a higher fraction of your citizens as free Talents as the Peacekeepers, or a lower fraction as penalty Drones as the University- a size 5 base has 2 free Talents or 1 penalty Drone, whereas a size 16 base has only 4 free Talents or 4 penalty Drones, for instance…
        (7) You avoid the concentration of large amounts of industrial production in one place that attracts the wrath of Planet- or makes an appealing target for invading enemy forces… (more, smaller bases forces invading enemies into a longer, more drawn-out war, where the defender has a higher chance of ultimate victory…)

        I also strongly take issue with the idea that having large number of small bases is somehow ugly, or not-fun. I actually ENJOY setting up lots of little bases, and appreciate the sight of their being spread out across the terrain (the Peacekeeper bases are particularly beautiful- especially when you hide the base names so they don’t clutter up your screen…)
        What’s more, it’s actually more realistic for a frontier society with poor transportation systems- historically, fewer larger cities have actually been MORE difficult to rule over the populaces of than more numerous, small cities (sleepy towns and small cities tend to be much less rebellious than large metropolises), and smaller cities have a much smaller average distance between their farms and their populace (this is both because of the large distance between the outer ring of farms and a large city, as well as because of the fact that perimeter increases linearly with increasing edge-length, whereas area increases with the square of edge-length…) which is key for any frontier society where transportation of foodstuffs over long distances is both difficult and expensive (less so over the oceans- which is also one reason cities historically tended to grow larger on the coasts than inland…)
        I actually strongly take offense to the Civ 4 and later force high “maintenance” costs on players that scale exponentially with # of cities to prevent ICS- *especially* in the early game (the optimal strategy in Civ actually tends to be the INVERSE of history- to move from fewer larger cities to more numerous smaller cities, as you unlock buildings like Jails and Courthouses…) as it both limits player strategies and ins historically unrealistic. A better system will not FORCE players to opt for either a few/large cities of many/small ones- but will try to reward both strategies to leave players a choice- which is EXACTLY what you see in Alpha Centauri (for all the benefits I listed above, the choice often ends up being so narrow as that the better option is defined by the terrain near your starting location and your preferred strategy and victory-type…)

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      4. northstar1989

        I must also note that the optimal strategy, even when making use of city-spam is NOT to divide up all the nutrients/minerals equally. Rather, you should specialize some bases to grow to large sizes and act as centers of commerce or industry, while other smaller bases act as mere satellites to these metropolises that take advantage of marginal terrain. In Civ 4, the cottage/hamlet/village/town system actually takes the place of satellite cities to some degree- however the towns grow far too slowly and are unable to defend themselves. I would have be much more satisfied if the towns had grown at a faster rate and had substantial natural defensive bonuses- at least equivalent to those of a Fort (or at least allowed a player to stack a Fort and Cottage/Town on the same tile- which would also mirror history and the way small towns tended to spring up near permanent forts to receive protection from and engage in commerce with the fort’s garrison…)

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      5. Nick Stipanovich Post author

        Thanks for taking the time out to respond in depth again. This is a very interesting conversation that I would love to have in more detail later, when I have had the chance to compose my thoughts. For at least the next couple of weeks, though, I hope you will not be offended by my silence on the matter.

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      Awesome! It looks like they’re approaching the problem from a similar angle as I have. I’ll wait until I finish my work before I see what they came up with, just in case I manage to come up with something cool that would have gotten washed away in the groupthink.

      But I’ll definitely be checking that out when I’m done. Thanks for the pointer.

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  8. Blake Wondrasch

    Some thought about the Human Genome Project…
    I think you’re missing the possibility that what the project REALLY represents is sequencing of the genomes of the entire human population of a faction. This may seem incredulous, but it’s actually quite possible even in real life- I can tell you as a real life biologist that we are rapidly approaching the point where widespread sequencing of people’s *entire* genomes (as opposed to Finding Your Roots style investigations for just specific markers indicative of particular ethnic backgrounds, or medical applications of sequencing technology in screening for disease alleles for just one particular genetically-influenced disease…) will soon become both affordable and commonplace…
    Indeed the sequencing of the entire Unity crew’s genomes before launch is part of the series of Alpha Centauri books written by Michael Ely- a game designer who worked on the SMAC project if I recall correctly. This would allow both for early detection of known genetic diseases such as Parkinson’s and certain cancers (some cancers are essentially genetically predetermined, as they are caused by a set of inherited mutations that leads to the requirement for only a single additional mutation to cause cancer, for instance) as well as more definitive determination of the alleles responsible for other additional diseases- by providing a large pool of already-sequenced genetic data to draw from in future medical genomics investigations…
    Despite the relative affordability of sequencing technology here on Earth, and the imminence of widespread and population-wide sequencing (although the idea of population-wide sequencing must have seemed considerably more impressive in the 90’s), the constraints imposed by survival in a frontier society on a virgin planet- one not yet even capable of launching the simplest of orbital probes at the likely time of the Secret Project (as Colonel Santiago’s quote when unlocking the Orbital Spaceflight technology much later in the game discusses) would likely prevent such population-wide sequencing from being feasible there for at least several decades, if not generations- thus the Human Genome Project as representative of the sequencing of the genomes of an entire faction, would be considerably more impressive.
    Finally, the game universe mentions or models a number of novel diseases such as the Prometheus Plague (if I am remembering its name correctly- it’s one of the plagues that can rarely/randomly erupt in one of your bases, killing off population). Some of these are inferred to have evolved during the long periods in stasis aboard the Unity, presumably from other more mundane microorganisms the colonists carried with them from Earth aboard the Unity- and a few are even hinted to be retroviral diseases that actively re-write the genomes of infected individuals in a manner much more permanent, extensive, and dangerous than any known retroviral disease on Earth. These diseases’ affects are reduced by having the Human Genome Project- so the project might also be inferred to incorporate study of how these novel retroviruses rewrite host genomes during infection…
    (It’s worth noting that in real life such permanent rewriting of genomes is typically either directly lethal- by killing host cells- or slowly carcinogenic in real life- indeed some rare cancers correlate with a high frequency of active infections by certain retroviruses, or antibodies in serum against such retroviruses from past infections in patients who develop them… The retroviruses causing these cancers are generally asymptomatic “silent” killers leading to development of initially small/localized tumors years later, and are relatively rare with a low frequency of carcinogenesis, however, leading to very poor detection of their spread in the population…)

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  9. Eddie

    Hi,
    Just wanted to thank you for this insightful and informative blog. I started playing SMAC a few months ago and my appreciation for its depth of writing and game mechanics continues to grow. Your writing illuminates my experience in many ways. Keep up the good work!

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  10. Blake Wondrasch

    Just a thought: have you read the official backstory of the events on the Unity before planetfall? I think it might give you more insight into the characters if you have not…
    http://www.ign.com/faqs/2005/sid-meiers-alpha-centauri-storyplot-faq-577701
    There are also other snippets that were later released by Firaxis, including some eventually heralding the release of the expansion pack. But this is in many ways the most important, and most pure, of the backstory snippets released…
    There were also 3 books written by one of the game developers (I’ve read the first 2- the 3rd is nearly impossible to come by), but those aren’t officially canon. They’re very good, though- and give more insight into the personalities of the leaders and motives of the factions, seeing as they *were* written by one of the game devs…

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  11. northstar1989Blake

    Just a thought- but with a lot of the technology it seemed like you were guessing from the quote what the technology represented. It’s a little-known fact, but you *are* aware that when you discover any tech in the game, there is another tab you can access near the bottom of the screen that gives a very detailed description of what the tech actually represents. It was fun watching you try to make inferences, but your conclusions aren’t always 100% correct, and like I said the game quite clearly *tells* you what any given technology represents…

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      One of the major goals of this project was an attempt to infer what a first-time player would think of the experience. That’s because it was supposed to be about explaining how there could possibly be a world-class narrative in a 4X-style game like SMAC, and the “story” has the biggest impact on the first time through the tree. Since I personally didn’t figure out that you could access those descriptions by clicking on the little box until I’d played many games, I considered that evidence off limits. I also tried to avoid any other source of info while I was writing the main course of the essays in order to not expose myself to the groupthink that has almost certainly built up in the fan base. It’s hard to look back at a thing years later like it was the first time; it’s doubly hard when you’ve just read a whole bunch of other people’s thoughts on the matter.

      I guess that I “cheated” a bit elsewhere in the sense that I assumed a very attentive player. For instance, I paid attention to such things as the fine structure of the tech tree as it’s revealed to the player in a way that’s probably unrealistic to expect a player to do. I also took some time out for rules digressions that explain how the gameplay feels even if the player isn’t consciously aware of what’s going on. But I justified those by thinking that, in the back of his mind, the player would likely have some sense of this. It at least defines the structure of the experience.

      There are of course many different angles from which one can analyze SMAC other than the one I chose. One of my ideas on how to go forward was to cross-reference those thoughts with other existing data (the in-game factual blurbs, outside lore you’ve mentioned, the expansion, etc.) and see both how well they held up and whether or not they were additions to the canon I consider beneficial to the experience. The sources you’ve suggested over the last while in the comments will be very valuable for that, I suspect.

      If you come up with an angle you prefer more than my own, I would encourage you to write your own thoughts down, either in the comments here or on your own site. I don’t pretend to claim any authority over the subject matter. I’m just a guy who loves an old video game. And I’ve learned through the course of doing this that there are still a few of us out here who are quite interested in reading more long-winded analysis of an old classic.

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      1. northstar1989Blake

        That makes some sense- although I think the info blurbs still might have been helpful/informative and not hindered you as you think. The backstory is not fan-made, though- it’s 100% official backstory that was written by Michael Ely (one of the Firaxis devs) and released by Firaxis as the official background to the game. Michael Ely did later go on to write a series of 3 books that take place in the game universe which aren’t official canon (and even have a few odd contradictions to the official backstory- for instance nowhere in the official background is Pravin Lal mentioned as having a son, but Ely invents one for him in the novels. Or in the official backstory, the fatal wounding and presumed death of Pravin’s wife due to the violence on the Unity is one of the formative experiences that helps make Pravin who he is and inspires a portion of the crew to follow him and ultimately become the Peacekeepers, yet in the novels Lal re-freezes her before her death in a futile hope of someday reviving her when medical technology is far more advanced…)

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  12. TJ Ryan

    Very interesting analysis.

    Do you know if Brian Reynolds has ever thought of crowdfunding a spiritual successor to SMAC – like Chris Roberts with Star Citizen and David Braben with Elite Dangerous have done?

    Do you have a timeline of canon events (from planetfall to transcendence)?

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      I get the feeling that Reynolds is happy to leave SMAC in the past. And I think that’s probably the right call.
      We all want more, naturally, but I don’t think there’s a lot more to mine from the concept. SMAX was a failure in my view precisely because it tried to add more and more where more wasn’t really needed.

      I think there is room for a remake of the systems and graphics while hewing closely to the original vision. Civ II has been improved upon significantly since then. But that would be a very tricky job. For instance, I don’t think that the Planetfall mod for Civ IV quite works. Even though Civ IV is a better game in pretty much every way, Planetfall isn’t as good as SMAC, because the mutual feedback between vision and systems isn’t there.

      I don’t have a canonical timeline written out. That was one of the things that I’d been thinking about maybe getting to later. But then life intervened.

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  13. beleester

    Hey, I recently discovered this blog, and it’s really cool. I have one suggestion for the layout, though: Add a table of contents, or at least a link to the first post. The posts go in order through the game and build on each other, so it makes sense to start at the beginning and read straight through.

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  14. dsz2

    Hi there,

    Wow, stumbling upon this blog was an amazing piece of happenstance that led to a mad binge of reading. Thank you for letting me relive this memorable part of my childhood with older, wiser, and more appreciative eyes. You’ve done a real service with this blog for all those who found this game instructive and resonant.

    I wonder if there are more topics yet to be explored! Even if you didn’t like the expansion pack, maybe there’s some interesting threads to trace there?

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