Interview with Derek «Kael» Paxton (Fall from Heaven, Stardock)

This is a large interview with Derek Paxton, creator of the famous Civilization IV-mod Fall from Heaven II.

By Joachim Froholt.

This interview was conducted back in 2009. Derek Paxton and his team had recently released the «final» version of their Civilization IV-mod Fall from Heaven II. This was before there were any plans to make a standalone Fall from Heaven-game (later cancelled). Later, Paxton would go on to work at Stardock who are briefly mentioned in the interview.

Derek Paxton.
Derek Paxton.

Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

I am a husband, father and 36 year old computer dork. I’m an exceptional lover… okay, now my wife is laughing. She says I’m a passable lover, like making out with Kermit the Frog.

Oh yeah, I’m also the lead designer of Fall from Heaven II.

I guess most readers won’t have tried FFH II before. Could you briefly introduce the mod for new players?

Fall from Heaven is a dark fantasy mod for Civilization IV. The major focus is to differentiate the civilizations as far as possible from each other while maintaining game balance. The model comes from games like StarCraft, where each faction is dramatically different from each other.

Since the civilizations are so different the player must adjust his play style based on his civ. The same strategy won’t work for every civ. These are the Civilizations:

In addition the religion the player chooses has a significant effect on the game, opening up a bunch of new units, spells, civics and technologies. If, for example, the player chooses the Empyrean as his state religion he gets access to a hero that can call down a pillar of fire on nearby enemy stacks. He can also build the Radiant Guard, who can blind nearby enemies making them immobile for the next turn. And the Empyrean tech allows the player to found the Overcouncil, a voting body that can declare war and outlaw things like necromancy and the use of entropy mana.

What are the major new features Civ IV-veterans can look forward to if they try FFH II?

We’ve included a spell system which allows units to access a variety of spells. Harlequins taunt other units to attack them, druids terraform the land through spells, mages summon creatures to fight for them. In typical FfH fashion he player has to choose which spells he gets access to.

Could you tell us a little about the world it takes place in?

This is a more dangerous world than Civilization IV players will be used to. Barrows, goblin forts, animal lairs, and ruins spawn monsters and will continue to do so until a player captures and destroys them. Giants, griffons and a few types of sea monsters wander around the map to the misfortune of anyone who comes across them.

The barbarians in Fall from Heaven are orcs and they are more powerful and numerous than in Civ4. Players will also encounter barbarian hero units like Orthus, a powerful orc warlord who carries a flaming axe. If a player is able to defeat Orthus his axe can be taken and given to any of the players units, making them more powerful.

I understand FFH started out as a D&D-campaign. Could you tell us a bit about the history behind the mod?

I ran several D&D campaigns over about 17 years. While I was making those games I gradually created a world, history and mythology similar to that in Fall from Heaven. I say similar because the point of FfH is to make the best game possible, not to try to recreate the D&D games. So if there is something in the D&D games that inspires us to add something cool to FfH then we use it, but we aren’t limited by it.

Because they come from the D&D games I have known some of the characters for most of my life. So they have deep, elaborate back stories and personalities.

The world of Erebus seems like quite a dark place. Was it always meant to be dark fantasy, or did it naturally evolve into what it is now?

The theme of FfH is corruption and redemption. This is reflected in the game mechanics and the back story. We needed a world that we could play out those themes in so it was always intended to be dark fantasy. One of the rules we had to guide us in the beginning was the “Princess Rule”, nothing was allowed in the mod that you could find on a little girls bedroom wall. So no unicorns, no cute fairy’s and thing like that.

I love fantasy games, but my biggest pet peeve is the generic fantasy archetypes that accompany to many of them. You had the bad guys with their undead and dark cloaks, and you had your good guys in shining armor and brilliant white steeds. These characters never seemed to occupy the same world. So in order to make Erebus feel like a real cohesive world we picked a specific style for it and it was inspired strongly by Edgar Allen Poe and HP Lovecraft, dark, morbid and insane.

Because of that there are no perfect characters. Characters are all flawed or those rare few that seem to be truly good are usually made to suffer fates like that of Oedipus. In the end we are left with incredibly dark enemies and heroes that continue on despite the anguish. Heroes fall, sometimes villains rise, but everyone loses something in the process.

One of the key mechanics that highlights the corruption and redemption themes of FfH is in the world itself. A player who follows the Ashen Veil religion can research the Infernal Pact tech. The first player to discover this tech invites the Infernal’s into the game. The Infernals are a demonic civilization that cannot be selected when the game is started. The only way to play as them is to research the Infernal Pact first and you are given the option to switch to playing the Infernals or stay with your current civilization.

Either way the Infernals transform the land they own into black, twisted, burning hellish terrain. Deserts become burning fields of lava, plains become broken wastes, etc. This hell terrain will spread outside of the Infernals lands depending on the amount of corruption in the world. First into the lands of those that worship the Ashen Veil, then to other evil players, and then out to neutral and unowned lands. There are actions the player can take to reduce the corruption in the world (what we call the Armageddon Counter) such as razing the holy city of the Ashen Veil, defeating the Infernal civilization or killing powerful demonic creatures. Corruption and redemption played out on the world itself.

You mentioned the Armageddon Counter, can you tell us more about it?

I always hated how the late game in Civilization style games tend to become stagnant. Players filled up all the available space and then in some games they just turtle up inside their empires. When you didn’t have enough to overwhelm an opponent, and they don’t have enough of an advantage to overwhelm you the games became boring.

So to make the end game more interesting we added the Armageddon Counter (AC) to the game. The AC starts at 0 and increases when bad things happen in the world. When powerful demons are summoned, an unholy religion is founded, cities are razed, etc. The AC goes down when good things happen like killing those powerful demons or destroying the holy city for an evil religion.

In general the AC tends to creep slowly upwards if the player doesn’t take any specific actions to effect it. Though some games drop into early violent wars between AI players which tend to spike it up, or it could be a particularly quiet game when it never becomes a serious concern. A lot of that depends on which players are in the game and which religions become dominant.

There are effects that occur when the AC gets higher, some events such as volcanoes, pestilence and natural disasters require a certain level of the AC before they can trigger. And unique events like the creation of extremely powerful barbarian heroes (some of which are pictured below), creation of hellfire tiles which spawn demonic units until they are wiped out, or an event that causes some of your units to become enraged (causing you to lose control of them while they wander off and attack on their own).

Not that a high AC is bad for everyone. The events from it are applied equally, so you will be a victim of the world you inhabit. But some civilizations are better able to survive its effects than others, so at some point you may decide that you want the AC to rise to weaken your enemies.

But the Sheaim civilization is the most likely to want the AC to grow. They are an evil civilization focused on the destruction of Erebus, one leader is an immortal seeking to end her immortal, the other is a powerful mage released from hell on the condition that he end creation. As the AC grows the Sheaim get more powerful, their Planar Gates (a civilization specific buildings that is only available to the Sheaim), are more likely to summon units and will summon more units if the AC is higher. Their world spell, Worldbreak, causes destruction based on the AC when it is used. Some units even get stronger as the AC rises or require a certain AC before they can be built.

What do you consider the best ideas you’ve had throughout the development?

Inviting the team members to help out, they are amazing. The first Fall from Heaven was really my ideas and limited skill. But in Fall from Heaven II the team was involved from the ground up and created an amazingly deep design, coded systems I could have never done on my own and created art that quite frankly looked better than the units Firaxis made (sorry Firaxis).

If you mean ideas in the game my favorite was Orthus. He is the barbarian hero I mentioned above and he spawns early in the game and starts traveling around attacking civilizations. He a huge threat if he shows up at your borders, but can be a powerful boost if you defeat him both because the unit that defeats him gets a lot of experience points and wins his powerful axe.

The reason I like Orthus so much is that he came really early in the development process and I learned an important lesson from him. By making his appearance random sometimes players would not see him at all, and sometimes they would have to do everything they could to keep him from wiping them out. In others he would just wander by their lands and go off in another direction. This created emergent game play and dynamic stories that never would have been as interesting if I would have scripted it. Some players gathered an army and went chasing after Orthus, others fortified units and prayed he left them alone. Either way their game was already different than any game they had had before. I quickly realized that if I fill the game with dozens of things like Orthus (not necessarily just enemy units, but other significant non-scripted event that the player can choose to react to or not) no two games will be alike. Which was a huge realization for me and it heavily influenced everything that came after it.

And what are you most proud of achieving?

Outside of the game it was a post from Soren Johnson, the lead designer of Civilization IV, saying how much he enjoyed Fall from Heaven. Definitely a moment I will never forget.

I’m guessing there’s been plenty of challenges as well?

Creating a mod that is as big as FfH takes a lot of effort. The worst part is probably trying to fix a major issue. There are some single problems I have worked on for 14-40 hours, and those aren’t fun hours. Some minor issues have existed for months before they are finally worked out. We do everything we can to minimize the chance of getting the code so messed up that we can’t isolate or back out of features that cause issues, which is why we release new version so frequently. But sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves and do the heavy lifting to make it work.

One of the things I personally love about FFH II is the many details. Rebuilding Barnaxus (for a relationship boost with the dwarves), equipping hunters with Hawks, capturing animals, fighting Archeron, … there’s even an enjoyable card game in there. I guess finding a player-friendly way of squeezing all that stuff in there must have been pretty hard?

One of the nice things about making a mod is that we don’t have any hard deadlines to consider. If I want to spend the day giving one of the units the ability to sing pirate songs when you press a button then that’s what I do. We are brutal about cutting complexity, FfH is already complex enough, but done right we can add a lot of detail to the game that players may not even realize until they have quite a few games under their belt. As long as that doesn’t interfere with new players trying to learn the game I am all for it.

Now that it’s reached the «final» version, do you feel that you achieved what you set out to do?

Absolutely! Not only is it the game I had hoped for, but because of all the amazing input from the team and the community it is an even better game than I hoped for. Even after 3 years of developing FfH I still play and enjoy the game, there are very few other games that I have played for that long.

The nice thing about getting to our final version is that now I can concentrate on all those details that were impossible to work on while the mod was going through massive changes. We are now documenting, working on the AI and building scenarios. Instead of creating the game we are focusing on perfecting the game. The changes we are making now are much smaller scale than in prior versions, but they are smoothing out the rough edges and getting rid of any little annoyances that may exist.

The scenarios are fun too as it allows us to play the game in new ways. Some change the games rules, setup unusual victory conditions or allow the player to really dive into a characters story or play FfH in a brand new way. The following screenshot is from a scenario called “Gift of Kylorin” in which you only have control of one unit, an archmage, and you have to survive a very dangerous dungeon with only his spells.

How was it to have Fall from Heaven: Age of Ice (AoI) published as a part of the Beyond the Sword expansion for Civilization IV?

It was a dream come true. Alex, the lead designer for Beyond the Sword (BtS), asked me if I wanted to make a scenario for BtS. I agreed if I could invite the team to join me. I loved telling the team that we would be working on the next expansion.

Alex didn’t require a FfH scenario, but we really wanted a scenario to help ease players into the full FfH game. Obviously there is no way we could provide the full FfH game in the expansion. It was a stretch to even get the relatively thin streamlined AoI included (thank you Firaxis!) since we were dealing with limited CD space, translation requirements, etc.

I like AoI a lot for what it was. A relatively simple scenario that introduces players to the world of Fall from Heaven. In the worlds timeline it takes place just before main FfH mod starts. So players will understand the story. It also has a simplified magic system and amazing graphics. Just enough to whet the appetite.

I don’t think that AoI is a replacement for the full FfH mod. Some people were disappointed because they wanted it to be an even better version of FfH, rather than what it was (a very specific limited version). It would be like comparing the Civ4 epic game to scenario about the civil war.

I was also impressed at how much work the team did on the main game. At one point we were running two scenarios, AoI and an Ethnically Diverse Units mod, which just changed the unit art to match the civ. Firaxis liked it so much that they incorporated it into the main game. To have actually had an effect on the main Civilization game is monumental if you are, like me, someone who has played every version of Civilization since way back.

It seems the players get a lot of opportunities to shape FFH II through their comments and feedback. How important has the community been throughout the development?

I think I had about 200 posts on when I posted the first version of FfH. I now have over 16,000. You can make a good argument that the time I’ve spent writing all of those posts (and reading many more) could be better used actually working on the mod, but you can’t deny the effect it has had on the mod. I have a huge amount of faith in the community and although sometimes it’s like drinking from a water hose there are many great ideas out there, I’m always happy to find and use them.

There are also a lot of mods based on FfH, modmods. I love these as it’s a perfect playpen to try out new ideas. Some don’t work well and some are so brilliant that I can’t resist adding them into FfH. I am the lead designer for FfH, but some days that just means being the guy that gives the final yes or no to ideas, I’ll often go days or weeks implementing huge stretches of ideas that came from other people. There are a lot of fingerprints in FfH, I think everyone has contributed to making it even better.

There is an old story about Sir Francis Galton (father of modern eugenics and the cousin of Charles Darwin). Galton was an elitist in that he thought that the public was basically incapable of making intelligent decisions. But he was at a fair filled with common folk and noticed a game going on to guess the weight of an ox. A few of the people had some knowledge about how much an ox of that size would weigh, but most had no idea. And the guesses varied widely. At the end of the day Galton gathered the just less than 800 guesses that were made during the day and averaged them out. They were closer to the true weight of the ox than any individual guess, even more surprisingly the average answer was only 1lb off of the true weight of the ox.

This experiment is carried out in college classrooms all over with jars of jelly beans, and the results are the same. The public is amazing good at making informed specific decisions. Better than any individual member, even the knowledgeable ones. That logic has served us well on the FfH team and even though we may not react to individual recommendations for change, we do listen closely to the trends and try to make changes to drive close and closer to that optimal game play that we are all trying to hit.

What does FFH (its success, and the project itself) mean to you personally?

I don’t know. I love FfH, but it doesn’t compare to raising my children or doing well at my job, which I also love. I’m glad FfH is as popular as it is, but mostly because I’m glad the talents of the team are recognized. For me I just got tired of waiting for someone to make the game I always wanted to play, so I started making it myself.

Since FfH is such a team effort it’s hard for me to feel like it really is a personal success. I think I did my piece well, but others contributed just as much.

What is the future for FFH?

I don’t know. We have had offers to make a FfH themed collectible card game and board game, which just amazes me. The world of FfH has been with me most of my life so I may end up returning to it in another project. If I do start another project like this I would love to get the rest of the team to work on it with me. But at this point there are no plans for a Fall from Heaven III, we have really accomplished everything we wanted to do.

If you were given the chance (and resources to license necessary art assets), would you ever consider making a standalone FFH-game ala Civilization IV: Colonization?

I don’t know that a game like Fall from Heaven could be made in today’s professional gaming environment. The more detail, higher resolution, higher sound fidelity we get in our games the more expensive each assets is to create. We used to have 2d sprites of units, now we have 3d models with detailed textures and custom animations complete with sound effects for each motion. You could create a dozen 2d sprites faster than it takes to animate a single 3d models left arm when he walks.

Trying to pitch a game with 21 distinct factions, and all of the mechanics and units of FfH would probably get you laughed out of most development meetings. Starcraft is really the example with their incredibly distinct factions, and even Blizzard limits themselves to 3 factions. Games can expand vertically with huge, detailed cities because they can be farmed out to separate teams, but mechanics that interlock (especially those that effect balance) get exponentially more complex as you add more.

That’s just my opinion. Modding allows us to do things normal game developers can’t get away with. Firaxis is a hundred times better at game development than I am, but I get to do things that would make their project managers cry.

But, if a developer was willing to provide the budget required to do something like this professionally and put that in control of a computer dork who made one mod, I might have to go for it. Or question their sanity.

Have you ever talked with Firaxis (or been in touch with another developer/publisher) about something like this (or another kind of FFH-game)?

Nope. As I mentioned above FfH is the type of game that professional developers can’t really make, so I don’t think there would be much interest in following up on that.

What would your «dream» FFH-game be like?

If I was a multi-millionaire I would love to bring the FfH team together to work on the mod full time. A Plush, relaxed office and Justin Sweet and Joseph Vargo dedicated to created all the art and music assets specifically for FfH. I don’t know that I would really change the game play that much. But getting it really polished and professional would be awesome.

What are your hopes regarding Civilization V?

I wrote a document for Firaxis after BtS was over called Reconstruction. The point of it was to reconsider what Civilization could be with today’s generation of software and hardware. A lot of the civilization conventions grew from an era where games fit on a floppy disk, and are now carried forward because that’s the way Civilization always did it. The document was fairly extensive and radical. I wouldn’t expect them to adopt all, or even many, of the ideas. But it was just something to consider.

I hope that Civ5 is at least as moddable as Civ4. I hope that Firaxis pushes the civs a bit to differentiate them from each other. I’d love to see some really extreme civilizations that use mechanics like we have in FfH and encourage different strategies to be successful with them.

Any features you’d love to see implemented? (as an aside, any thoughts on Elemental?)

The challenge modes we have in FfH would also be perfect for the main game. Challenge modes are special game rules which dramatically change game play. They are selected by the player when the game starts just like the raging barbarians option. We have one called “High to Low” which means that the player has to become the player with the highest score. If he does that he is immediately switched to controlling the civilization with the lowest score. Now not only is he in the worst position but the civilization he raised to the highest is still out there and under AI control. The player has to raise his new civilization to the highest score where he is again changed to controlling the civilization with the lowest score. This third civilization is the one he has to win the game with. It makes for very challenging and different game play.

I’m really excited to see what Elemental comes up with. Brad Wardell is a great designer and Stardock has always impressed me as a company. Brad has complimented FfH, which makes me even more excited as I’m hoping that means we have similar tastes and Elemental will also be the type of game I enjoy.

I’m especially excited to see that Elemental is planned to run in 64bit mode, if your computer is running a 64bit operating system. At first I didn’t really understand why that would be valuable until Brad mentioned that it really allowed them to scale up the amount of AI players and the size of the world. Imagining a turn based fantasy game without the limitations of a 32bit address space really has me excited for Elemental.

Do you have any thoughts on the future of the PC as a gaming platform?

I don’t agree that PC gaming is dead. It is the best environment to mod in and from a business perspective the biggest games are played there. Halo, Grand Theft Auto and other major console titles make good money, but a single PC game (World of Warcraft) is bringing in 1.8 billion per year (10 million subscribers x $15 x 12 months) and that’s just subscription fees. Compare that to Halo3’s record breaking 486 million during its first year (8.1 million sales x $60).

Now granted WoW is a beast in the gaming industry, and there isn’t any game that approaches the numbers it is currently putting up. But it is nice that the game that is currently dominating the industry is on the PC.

And more specifically, what about the mod scene?

I think that user created content is the future of gaming. That can be as minor as naming or coloring your units, to as big as source code access as we have with Civ4. We have seen a lot of amazing games come from non-professional developers, and I think at some level everyone wants more control over their games.

Consider the Sim’s. It’s a game, but it is also moddable both in your ability to download content, but also in your ability to create your Sims home, clothes and features on your own. Modding doesn’t have to be able making new games. It can be as simple as being able to make your own tracks for Guitar Hero and saving them for your friends to play. There is a huge range, and although there aren’t many who want to be able to make games of their own, I think that user created content in general will become a larger part of gaming.

I hate that a lot of people have the impression that mods are low quality and problematic. Hopefully FfH helps to change that impression.

Are you happy with the way the gaming press covers modifications such as FFH?

I’m ecstatic. Fall from Heaven has been covered in numerous gaming magazines and websites. I’ve done a lot of interviews, been on podcasts, etc. We have been very lucky and I appreciate the attention. I know there are a lot of modders that are doing amazing work that don’t just as much notice, which is a shame.

But I always enjoy talking about the mod, and I appreciate you allowing me this opportunity. Thanks! is a Norwegian website mostly dedicated to indie-, niche- and retro games. If you liked this article, we have some more content in English.