A history

by Brad Wardell


The GalCiv Universe

I'm probably not the only person with the desire to write a series of books. In my case, I have, in my head, a series of 12 books that take place in a universe that I've been shaping for as long as I can remember.  The stories revolve around, unsurprisingly, people. Or more to the point, humans. The story begins near the dawn of the 23rd century.  Earth is united. Humans come into contact with an alien civilization called the Arcean Empire. The Arceans are humanoid but look nothing like humans. They are tough warrior like beings whose skin has the texture of an elephant. From this, they are introduced to other alien civilizations and invited to join a league of worlds called the United Planets which overseas interstellar trade and acts as a forum for different civilizations to peacefully coexist. More importantly, being part of the United Planets allows use of the interstellar stargate network.

In the story (unlike the game), humans become part of the Stargate network.  Stargates are huge city sized things that have their own orbit around a star. Ships pass through them and are transported at very high speeds to other parts of the galaxy.  Earth joins an organization called the United Planets which consists of the Altarians, Arceans, Drengin, Vegans and Torians.  Our story begins with a human probe observing the long expected Drengin attack on the Arcean Empire. Both are immensely powerful but the Drengin have the advantage (and in fact as later stories show, they have some unfair advantages).

In these stories, Earth has incredibly intelligent leaders. But Earth also is at a disadvantage -- it has basically no military.  The Drengin and Arceans in particular have immense fleets of well armored ships that took thousands of years to build and amass. Humans, by contrast, have only had space travel for a relatively short amount of time. But this also works to Earth's advantage -- humans are constantly underestimated.

The clever humans though devise two new technologies to offset the advantages of the Drengin and Arceans.  Shields and hyper drive. You see, the leaders of Earth recognize that once the Drengin conquer the Arceans, they will inevitable seek to enslave the others who are much weaker. There is no trace of naiveté on Earth when it comes to dealing with the alien civilizations.  And shield technology, which creates an energy field around a ship can deflect immense amount of energy and combined with hyperdrive, and is faster than star gates for traveling distances provide a real equalizer.  The net result is that humans can project force where they want, when they want and each ship can take on several Drengin or Arcean capital ships.

Which brings us to the plot of the first story - the prototype ship that has these new technologies is stolen and our main character is an Lieutenant on the ship assigned to get the ship back. Luckily, the team who stole the ship are not aware of the capabilities of the ship they've stolen (their master knows, of course, but didn't entrust this information to his minions). Through a series of adventures that includes the first meeting with a mysterious race known as "The Arnor", the protype is recovered.

Ultimately, the humans enter the war on the side of the Arceans to try to defeat the evil Drengin Empire.  The war takes time and the Arceans are eventually crushed by the Drengin.  The Drengin are later discovered to be led by an Arnor (beings of immense power) but the humans are able to counter this by the lucky finding of an artifact called the Orb of power, an ancient weapon used by one of the Mithrilar, the guardians of the universe, who disappeared eons ago.

The GalCiv universe involves a great deal of complexity in dealing with the destiny of the main character who is the hero of the stories and yet has been prophesized by the Arnor to be the ruin of all life. The complex interactions between humans and the alien civilizations combined with the presence of beings that are seemingly magical (such as the Arnor along with the Altarians who are somehow related to humans as they seem have nearly identical DNA) provides a rich universe to play in.

The titles were/are:


If I ever find time, I hope to write these. I have hundreds of pages of manuscripts scattered around that outline these stories. The first 6 all take place in the 23rd century. The other six mostly take place before humans even walk the earth and deal with the Mithrilar, Precursors (Dreadlords and Arnor), and Altaria and explains why the natural state of all but the Mithrilar look human. Alternative Universe: Legacy of the Orb, explains how the dark Mithrilar, Draginol, came to be.

When it came to making the game, I wanted to bring in this universe. Because it's a strategy game, the story couldn't easily revolve around a main character.  The humans, therefore, became the main character. And the story had to be tweaked a bit to fit being a strategy game.

For example, in the story, the Dreadlords are gone by the time humans are running around, the the Arnor are still in the story.  In the game, none of the Precursors are to be found except in random events. Similarly, there are no artifacts of power in the game. There are anomalies but there are relatively wimpy.  And the race to colonize is a big deal in the game whereas in the story there are only about a couple dozen inhabitable planets in the galaxy so there's not much of a "race". The "Terran Alliance" has 3 planets. Earth, Paridias, and Haven. The Drengin "Empire" only has 9 planets. The Arceans 6, and Altarians, Torians, and Vegans only their home worlds.

In some future sequel, artifacts of power and the Precursors and heroes are things I'd like to get in there.  I also wanted to have ship design in GalCiv but GalCiv on Windows was scheduled to come out near the time of Master of Orion 3 and our budget was less than a third of its budget so we figured it would be wise to not go head to head on a high profile feature.  But ship design is something that is crucial to the story because humans clearly took the route of having fewer but more effective ships which made a big difference.  Drengin and Arcean ships were big on armor.  Humans are big on shields and very little armor (and in fact, no one else even has shield technology for the course of the Drengin war).

As time goes on, I hope to introduce more of these elements into the game to provide a richer game experience for players and for players to feel like they are part of a truly fleshed out universe.

The OS/2 Days

Anyone remember IBM's OS/2 operating system?  Back in 1992 I was in college and got into OS/2. It could multitask. Which effectively meant you could format a floppy disk while doing something else. I was also a big fan of Civilization.  I was a regular on the Usenet group comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.strategic.  I was also a regular on comp.os.os2.advocacy.  I wanted to combine the two together somehow.  I wanted to show that OS/2 could be a great gaming platform but wanted to also make a game Star Trek meets Civilization type game.  Something that had elements of its own but would make use of the stories and such that I had put together over the years.

What was compelling about doing it on OS/2 was that I could make the game be multithreaded. This meant that the game's computer AI could multitask within the rest of the game. So while the player was taking his turn, the computer players could be calculating theirs. So I began work in 1993 on it.

The problem for me is that I didn't know how to program. I understood the high level concepts but ultimately, I was just a gamer who also happened to be a loud mouthed OS/2 fanatic. So I bought the book "Teach Yourself C in 21 days" along with a "Programming for OS/2 Presentation Manager".  That pretty much represented my entire "budget".  I was in college and didn't have any money.  But I made a decision that was to have long lasting effects: Instead of doing the game as "Brad Wardell" I did the game under "Stardock Systems".  Stardock was the company I had started in my dorm room to build computers for faculty at Western Michigan University to help pay for school. My reason for doing this was part of my OS/2 fanaticism. I wanted it to look like "real companies" were supporting OS/2. After all, it's a lot more impressive if "Stardock Systems", a company, was making a multithreaded strategy game that supported up to 16.8 million colors in 1993 than "Brad Wardell" college student.

I got some help from my friends (Andy Arvanitis and Chris Dailey and Bill Zalenski).  Andy already was a C expert and wrote a lot of the helper functions in the game that made it easier for me to write the AI. Chris Dailey helped with other areas and Bill Zalenski did the alien artwork.

Not all the alien names matched the faces but back then I was just happy to have some graphics for the aliens!

At around this time IBM began to hear about this game and saw that it was being made by a "real company". IBM sent me better tools (I was using GNU C at the time) and other goodies to help me out. I asked them whether any other games were being made for OS/2 and they said "Oh yea, there's another one but it's being made by a college student.." To which I said "Oh yea, those college kids, can't trust them.."

But I wasn't the only one able to use the Internet to mask the size of my "company". IBM hooked me up with another company called "Advanced Idea Machines" to publish the game. The owner of AIMs went to great lengths to convince me of how large his company was and its vast resources. But in truth, it was essentially a 1 man operation. Nothing necessarily wrong with that if they get the job done. But unfortunately, as I was to learn, being a 1 man developer is a lot easier than being a 1 man publisher.

Now, by early 1994 I had gotten pretty far along on the game. But I only knew how to code what was explicitly taught in the book I bought. For instance, the book I bought didn't get into graphics. That's right, here was a game that actually didn't contain any drawing routines at all. Instead, every graphic in the game is actually a window of either type SS_ICON or SS_BITMAP. Every ship in the game was an icon on a window.

But thank to IBM, this worked. IBM was working on a new version of OS/2 called OS/2 Warp (v3) and they changed the OS so that it could support programs that had...ahem, thousands of windows (a normal program might have 10).

And so in Fall of 1994, Galactic Civilizations was released at the same time as IBM's OS/2 Warp 3.

Oh yea, look at those graphics.

But from a game mechanic point of view and an AI point of view, the game worked out really well. It was a hit.  On a 386SX you could play this game in which there might be thousands of ships with an AI that played essentially by the same rules as the human player did and you didn't have to wait long between turns. The AI made its calculations while you took your turn. PC Gamer even gave it a 78% with the only major drawbacks being that it required OS/2 and the graphics needed work.  As ugly as the above screenshot is, remember, in 1994 the typical DOS game was 320x200x16 colors. We're not even up to MCGA (320x200x256 yet).  GalCiv supported any resolution and color depth your card could handle which meant up to 16.8 million colors and typically was run at 1024x768.

It was about this time that I learned that you can't really be a 1 person publisher. For our publisher was more than a bit unscrupulous and just didn't have the resources to do things right. For example, the box that the game came in has to be the worst box in gaming history:

Worst game box in history

The closer you look at it, the worse it gets. You could actually see where various parts were pasted on it because the "Black" wasn't a constant black. The back of the box has several spelling errors on it. We should probably have been thankful that there were no ads in the gaming magazines for it.  Our publisher's contribution to the game was basically manufacturing the boxes and disks and sending it to the stores.

Despite the box, the game allegedly sold pretty well.  I say allegedly because we never got paid so we have no idea how many copies of Galactic Civilizations 1 sold. At various times the publisher claimed big numbers which seemed to get smaller and smaller as our requests for royalty payments came up. The publisher made various kinds of excuses. Ultimately, we never saw a cent from the final game. And because I was still in college, I didn't really have any money to get a lawyer and go after him. And even if I did, as I've learned much later, odds are, I wouldn't have been able to collect much relative to the pain and suffering in trying to extract it would have cost.

Luckily though I was able to make an expansion pack for Galactic Civilizations called "Shipyards".  Shipyards let you design your own ships for GalCiv.  This $15 expansion sold several thousand copies and with that income plus a licensing deal with IBM on a derivative game called Star Emperor helped launch Stardock as being a "real" company (i.e. office, employees, developers, etc.).  We also decided we would go into publishing so that we would never have to run into this problem again. Or so we thought.


So this led us to Galactic Civilizations 2/Gold for OS/2.  This time the graphics could be done better and we would publish it ourselves.

Galactic Civilizations 2

This time around we could create some decent graphics for it. At least graphics that didn't look so bad.

Somewhat nicer graphics circa 1995.


Galactic Civilizations II was a lot more fun to make. Instead of me working on it in my dorm room, I was working on it in an office environment with other people in the office to help. It was still largely a 1 person job but I felt that GalCiv 2 was a significantly better game from a quality point of view.

The game came out at the right time for OS/2.  The game would go on to sell around 35,000 copies worldwide.  While not a huge number, still pretty respectable for a game and phenomenal for something for OS/2.

We also learned a lot during the course of publishing it. For one thing, publishing games was a huge pain. It's hard to get distributors to pay their bills unless you have a lot of clout.  Entrepreneur, which would be the next game we worked on, would be the last game we would publish at retail ourselves. Of the 35,000 or so copies that sold, we got paid for about 25,000 copies of them. The rest went down with two distributors that went bankrupt -- Blue Orchards and Micro Central. One reason so many indies go out of business is that it seems so often they don't get paid. People wonder why indies "sell out" to be part of big publishing houses, that's a big reason for it.

As for the game itself, the game mechanics of Galactic Civilizations 2 were pretty similar to the first one. The difference was really a matter of polish and overall quality. But compared to Galactic Civilizations 1 on Windows, it was downright primitive.  GalCiv 2 had no space anomalies, no star bases, no concept of influence or culture, no advanced diplomacy, a primitive trade system, no space monsters, no random events other than the ethical dilemmas, and no United Planets.  Anyone who thinks that Galactic Civilizations on Windows is basically just an update on the OS/2 version has clearly not played both. 

But games aren't judged in a vacuum. They are based on what else is out there. In 1994-1995 time frame, Galactic Civilizations had some cutting edge technology that directly translated to fun. Today, GalCiv on OS/2 wouldn't hold up because we take much of what the OS/2 version did for granted.  But in 1994-1995, a game that ran at 1024x768x16.8 million colors (or any resolution you picked), ran well on existing hardware, and was very responsive and fast to play and could be played in a window was pretty compelling. Add to that an AI that played by essentially the same rules as the human player and did so effectively without having to wait between turns and you have the makings of a game that went on to develop quite a reputation that would serve as the launching point for a future Windows version.

Starting over on Windows