Humankind and the Tech Tree: A Game Design Review

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Humankind, the upcoming historical 4X strategy game by Amplitude Studios, has just finished a week-long closed beta. While it may be too early to make a final judgement on whether Sid Meier’s Civilization can stand the test of time against the latest game challenging for its throne, Humankind has definitely brought a fresh perspective to the genre in several ways.

Customisable factions from human history allow over a million combinations for the player, keeping gameplay tailored and fresh. Furthermore, the event and civic system adds depth to your society and responds to the changing world as you play. The high-risk combat system is a personal favourite – units are drawn directly from your population, making battles tense affairs. New technology changes the rules of warfare regularly, so the system never feels bland in later eras. These features come together to create a game that is much more personal and narrative than Civ currently is, even if there are still creases to be ironed out before release.

The ability to evolve your culture through the age is one of Humankind’s biggest selling points

The inescapable Technology Tree

For all of its changes, however, Humankind has stuck to the now iconic ‘tech tree’ to represent scientific advancement. The tech tree, for those who are unaware, is a structure that allows players to progress through a series of interlinked technologies in the game, gaining more modern and powerful abilities and upgrades as you go. The system, popularised by Civ in the 90s, is a gameplay staple, adapted by a host of games across genres. As many gamers and designers would attest, the tech tree has a branching appeal. There are also drawbacks, however – both as a mechanic and as a way to understand the actual history of technology. Let’s explore what these are, why Humankind may have chosen to stick with the mechanic, and then suggest alternatives to the tech tree that may provide both deeper historical insight and a fresher gameplay experience.

The Tech Tree in-Game design

The tech tree that Meier created for Civ in 1991 was one of the first in gaming, coming out the same year as the true first example, a lesser-known strategy game called Mega-Lo-Mania. Like the name, the mechanic was inspired by the 1980 board game, Civilization, which Meier often borrowed from. Unfortunately, he has forgotten the moment of the concept’s creation, but he recalls the historical timeline as a possible influence. The timeline’s relatable nature – many will recall these from a classroom wall or textbook – was part of the appeal.

Meier found the feeling of growth and development as the player advanced along the tech tree to be an excellent combination with the expansive gameplay of Civ. Bruce Shelley, a colleague of Meier, agreed with this, taking the concept to another classic game, Age of Empires. From a design standpoint, the tech tree provides an important element of choice and planning for players (do I research gunpowder for a stronger army, or currency for a better economy?) and also acts as a ‘release mechanism’ for new gameplay elements that 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 tied to the advancement of technology.

What about the drawbacks? From a game design perspective, a linear, fixed tech tree à la Age of Empires or to a lesser extent Civ is at risk of becoming stale after many playthroughs. They also encourage optimisation, especially in competitive multiplayer games (AoE) or at higher difficulties (Civ). This removes much of the choice that makes the system so fun in the first place – players who play at the highest difficulties of Civ V will know that certain technologies such as Education must be rushed as soon as possible for a chance of victory.

The tech tree in Civilization 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 make use of a tech tree? Academics generally avoid using tech trees as a method of mapping history. By definition, technology trees imply a ‘standard’ map of technological progression which can often prove either baffling or plain incorrect. In Civ games before Civ IV, the technology Alphabet was a strict prerequisite for the technology Writing. Many historical cultures developed writing independent of an alphabet, such as the Chinese. In Civ IV, there was a bizarre linking of technologies that meant mysticism had to be researched to reach robotics. Inaccurate depictions such as these may serve game design and balance but can cripple the accuracy and cohesion of the tree.

The very nature of the tech tree – a system of linked technologies, visible from the beginning of the game with clear effects – is also misleading. There is an implied top-down approach to technology here where the ruler has a high degree of control over it. There is also the fallacy that outcomes and consequences of a technology are known before it is discovered or invented.

Both of these concepts fail upon examination. For much of human history, the development of technology was independent of political rulers. There was instead an emergent process of marginal gains as each generation refined its methods and traditions. In more modern history, a ruler’s patronage and later 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 vastly different consequences than intended. Dynamite is one such example – the explosive’s military use traumatised Alfred Nobel so much that he created the Nobel prizes. This continues today, as modern technology continues to subvert our expectations for it in often astonishing ways.

Is there a fancy name for this?

The idea that technological progress follows a set course and is the main factor in driving society is known to historians as ‘technological determinism’. Strategy games can implicitly suggest this, as many mechanics, abilities and changes to your empire are hard locked behind technology. While some of these make sense, many do not. Why is the ability to convert priests to your religion in Empire Earth locked behind the printing press, for example? Why does the technology Ecology require plastics first in Civ V? From the same game, why are factories required for the player to access distinct political ideologies? These examples can be linked back to some vague process, but there is no inevitable link between them. While we should cut these systems some slack – the tech tree, like any mechanic, is an abstraction – we should also note the room for improvement here.

alternatives to trees: webs, gardens and chaos

Other games have explored technology in different ways. Some games, such as Civilization: Beyond Earth and Endless Legend (another Amplitude title), have made use of a radial technology tree, with multiple endpoints. These radial trees allow more choice than linear trees and encourage players to specialise and experiment. The tech system of Beyond Earth earned the game praise despite its many other flaws. To combat the pre-determined nature of tech trees, some games have introduced a random element. Stellaris is a notable example of this, with research options chosen from a randomised list based on certain conditions. Some older Civ titles also made use of this design choice. This can represent the more unpredictable nature of technology, but can be frustrating – this feature was later removed from Civ.

The most interesting technology system I have seen in gaming comes from Victoria II. In this game there is a traditional tech tree but also an ‘inventions’ system. Certain advancements such as new machinery and philosophy count as inventions, and emerge randomly. The invention chance is influenced by a variety of factors in the world. For example, it is more likely for ironclad ships to be invented if someone has invented cheap iron. These are intuitive modifiers that build a connected world where the player is encouraged to create the conditions for advancement to come about, rather than simply dictating them. This system resembles tending a garden, and is very satisfying when your influence results in the outcome you wanted.

Humankind and the tech tree

Let’s return to Humankind. In a title so clearly trying to freshen up the genre, why did Amplitude choose to stick to the tech tree? From what we know of the game so far, we can point to two things. Firstly, Amplitude has chosen a design direction that emphasises slimmed-down systems and emergent narratives that engage players. 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 may frustrate some players.

Secondly, Amplitude is making use of the new civics system in Humankind. This has players 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 the social direction of their empire. This is much more satisfying than the fixed social approach of regular tech trees.

Just one of the many choices a player can make in Humankind to tailor your gameplay experience

Conclusions

We have seen why the technology tree has become an iconic part of gaming. It has its limitations, however, especially in historical games where design features influence how players view the past. Alternate systems may yield their own advantages. The more games that try to add some variety to the question of technology trees. Either by using radial design, elements of randomization or some completely new concept not covered here. These alternatives could become more developed and give players variety in a genre threatening to showing signs of staleness.

Humankind has stuck to the technology tree, forgoing the radial tree Amplitude developed for Endless Legend and Endless Space. They have done so in a manner that clearly follows their design philosophy, however, and have added enough change with their supporting mechanics to make Humankind feel distinct. In this regard, while Humankind may be using Civ’s tech tree, Amplitude is making a different kind of game in its shade.

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