Introduction: A Background on the Beta Test

So what's the big deal with the beta test, and how did I get involved? Well, for starters, a beta test is an extended playtesting of a product before release to iron out bugs and improve its overall performance. For a game's designers, they get free labor and lots of suggestions (probably too many suggestions) on how to better refine the game. For players, they get to try out a new game before it's available to the general public and actually have a real impact on the design of the game. Beta tests are thus very popular with video gaming companies and players alike, and have become a staple of the gaming industry.

In this particular case, BreakAway games - the company who designed the Conquests expansion (not Firaxis, the original designer) - opened up applications for their beta test in May of 2003. Since I had a bit of a background in Civ3 (wink) and thought that I could make some positive contributions, I didn't see any reason why not to apply. It would be nothing off my back if I didn't get in. But I can happily say that I did get in, and was chosen as one of the 250 or so testers out of approximately 10,000 applicants. Yeah - looks like Civ3 is a popular game.

The actual beta test consisted of us testers getting a CD in the mail and gaining access to a closed online forum. All we were really asked to do is play the game, report any bugs found (and there were a lot), and give our feedback on what we thought about it. This is pretty close to a gamer's dream job, though of course my real-life commitments got in the way of testing quite a bit. A new build of the game arrived about once every 10 days too, so nothing stayed the same for long. One of the fun things about beta testing is seeing screens like this one:

Or the placeholder graphics, like when cruise missiles were used as placeholders for relics in the Middle Ages Conquest. But more on that later.

Another fun thing about the beta was interacting with the other people. With such a small group of players, there is definitely a real sense of community and shared sense of purpose. Or, as some others would put it, there's nowhere to hide in multiplayer when only 300 people in the entire world are playing this game! The testers were a pretty mixed lot, with some new faces to get a fresh perspective on the game, grizzled veterans like this author, a number of the most prominent modders on the web, several of the top multiplayer guys on their ladder for that perspective, and of course the BreakAway folks themselves. Disagreements were frequent. I argued with a lot of people on different things, on everything from what the cost of Gallic Swordsmen should be to why one-city 10,000 culture victories were a bad idea to why the Scandinavian civs were overpowered in one of the scenarios to what was wrong with the AI programming. It was a lot of fun, and for those that were on the receiving end of my tirades, I hope you know it was all in good spirit. :)

I argued a lot because I knew that the BreakAway folks were listening and reacting accordingly. Most of the changes in this expansion came from player suggestions (so if you don't like it, we're the ones to blame...) A number of my suggestions were adopted virtually wholesale into the Middle Ages and Rise of Rome Conquests. I was also definitely proud to get this email message unexpectedly from Soren Johnson, the programmer who designed the AI for Civ3:

Hi Sulla,

Just wanted to let you know that Iíve been watching the beta forums for the last few days, and you seem to have the best bead on what is wrong with the current design/AI, which doesnít surprise me based on your time at RBCiv. I have a limited role in the project Ė I donít have access to the code, but BreakAway does listen to my suggestions, so I can certainly shine a light on anything which isnít quite right. At any rate, I just wanted to let you know that you can contact me directly with serious issues that need to be addressed.

Btw, the reputation/trade issue is a very difficult one. I havenít looked at it in a long time, but if I remember correctly, there is almost no way to guaranty that the player was not at fault, at least via the pathing system used to compute the trade network. A design change is needed, which is beyond the scope of this expansionÖ

Soren Johnson

Firaxis Games

Very nice! (By the way, I certainly tried to raise the reputation issue concerning trade routes, but it was not possible to be fixed in the expansion. Sorry.) Soren also asked for my opinion on some of the government changes made in the expansion, which I was happy to give. So essentially the designers of the Conquests expansion definitely listened to the testers and made adjustments accordingly.

I've grouped my review of this expansion into two basic parts. The first part is a presentation of my reports and game descriptions from the testing process, which should give the interested reader a good sense of the "feel" of the expansion in action. I will warn the reader up front, however, that many of the features/problems of these earlier builds have either been corrected or changed so that they no longer exist in the final version of the expansion. In other words, don't assume that what existed in version 0.27 of the game is still going to be there in the final one. The second part of the review consists of an in-depth look at what has changed in the standard game and what the Conquests themselves are all about. If you're only interested in what has changed in Conquests, you can probably skip the first part and go directly here. Finally, I conclude with my personal impressions and final review of the way the expansion turned out. Most other reviews I've seen online are rather vague about details concerning what's in Conquests; this is intended to be very specific so that fans of the series will know exactly what they are getting. If that means that sometimes it can get a little tedius, for that I apologize ahead of time. Feel free to skip anything that bores you.

Good luck and happy civving!