GDC '08: Sid Meier, Game Tycoon

Affable industry legend speaks about his beginnings, casual games, Civilization, collaboration, and the current state of independent development.

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SAN FRANCISCO--Would Sid Meier, legendary creator of the Railroad Tycoon and Civilization series, ever consider developing a game with Will Wright, legendary creator of the SimCity and Sims series?

"No."

That succinct response was just one of the many given by Meier at an informal Q&A session in the basement of the Moscone Center's North Hall. Just a few hundred yards away from the hustle and bustle of the Game Developers Conference show floor, the oft-awarded creator of the Civilization and Railroad Tycoon series held court of sorts, sitting down with moderator Noah Falstein for a Q&A session called, "Standing the Test of Time."

Sid Meier
Sid Meier

"I am reduced to a stuttering fanboy when I think of all the hundreds of hours I played with Sid Meier's games," said Falstein--a 25-year veteran of the industry. However, his admiration for the unassuming-looking Meier was shared by virtually everyone in the audience. That included the several dozen people who raised their hands to indicate they hadn't even been born in 1984, when Meier's first game, Spitfire Ace for the Atari 800, was released.

Like Spitfire Ace, many of Meier's early projects were aircraft simulators, and were sold with the help of MicroProse's flamboyant cofounder, Bill Steele. A venture capitalist and real-life fighter pilot, Stealey decided to partner with Meier after the game designer roundly beat him playing the classic Atari arcade game Red Baron. After losing, Stealey turned to Meier and told him, "I think video games might just be the next big thing."

Games were certainly big for MicroProse. After its foundation in 1982, the company made a name for itself publishing submarine and air simulations such as Silent Service, F-15 Strike Eagle, F-19 Stealth Fighter, and Red Storm Rising. But though such games have largely fallen out of favor, Meier thinks the flight and nautical sims might come back.

"Genres go through a life cycle, and perhaps they will come back," he told the crowd. "We had a lot of fun bringing Pirates back, and Civilization is still going strong."

Indeed, it's the latter two games with which Sid Meier's name is the most associated with--mostly because the full titles of both contain his name. Released in 1987, the game cast players as a buccaneer sailing the Caribbean at the same time Johnny Depp debuted on 21 Jump Street. The series was revived on the PC in 2004 with a remake of the same name, which was ported to the original Xbox in 2005 and the PlayStation Portable in 2007.

"One of the great things about this industry is that strong ideas can be brought back with each iteration of technology," explained Meier. When asked if any other of his older games, such as Railroad Tycoon and Alpha Centauri, might be remade, he said the possibility was there--but he was currently focused on the task at hand.

That task is the completion of Civilization Revolution by is just-announced June 3 ship date. Some 10 years after the series' sole excursion on a console, Civilization II for the original PlayStation, the series is arriving on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 as well as the Nintendo DS handheld. It was also planned for the Nintendo Wii, but that version is now on indefinite hold.

"With this new Civilization product, we're looking at a much broader audience with consoles," said Meier. "In the old days, we were just all hardcore gamers. But the thing that's been really unique about doing this on consoles is to approach the concept from scratch. We really started with a blank slate on this, and it's really a designer's dream to be able to go back in time and avoid the mistakes he made. We also got to put in ideas that we wanted to put into the first [Civilization] but couldn't."

He went on to say that while the pace of Civilization Revolution will be much faster than previous games in the franchise, the series' tried-and-true gameplay would remain largely intact underneath a veneer of fancy graphics.

"[Next-generation graphics] are nice, but I've always wanted to focus on the core gameplay," reassured Meier. "A lot of the core ideas we pioneered back in the day are basically unchanged." He did go on to say that he had incorporated newer concepts into the game that were inspired by other games. "There are plenty of good ideas out there, and we steal ideas and put them in our games, and we see our games being built upon in other games," explained Meier. "As developers, we're really helping each other out more than we're competing against each other."

Falstein then brought up the dark side of Civilization--namely, Civilization addiction. Given the fact no two single games of Civilization are the same, the complex and highly habit-forming game is infinitely replayable. This, coupled with the time-intensive nature of the game--a single game can last dozens of hours--led to the formation of the tongue-in-cheek support group Civilization Anonymous in the 1990s. The organization is now a viral-marketing arm of Meier's current company, 2K Games-owned Firaxis Games.

"I did not expect the game to be as addictive as it ended up being," said Meier somewhat guiltily. "Every game had its fans, but nobody expected kids to be dropping out of college and being banned from offices and such. It was really strange, but I think it was really a portent of the future, of how games could become something that people really wanted to spend time with. And then we'd hear stories about the kid who aced his history exam because he played so much Civilization."

However, just because the Civilization games are chock-full of history--the in-game Civilipedia contains the real-world story behind the in-game technologies--doesn't mean that Meier intended them to be strictly educational. "We try and do the research after we've finished work on the game," he explained bemusedly. "Our goal is to make the game as fun as possible and then try and make the historical research justify what we did in development."

Despite this fact, the Civilization series' scholarly air has led the games to be used as reference for academia and even journalism. "The Wall Street Journal called us up and asked us how we had captured the effect of tax policy so perfectly [in Civilization]. They asked if we had read [famed economist] Adam Smith, and I said 'Um, they're just sliders.'"

As for those who would follow in his footsteps of going from independent developer to game tycoon, Meier thinks it's still feasible in an era of multimillion-dollar game budgets. "I think there's a lot of new opportunity with Xbox Live and Steam for the classic 'build in a basement' game, so I think it's really important for people to learn the basics," he said of taking up programming. "But I don't like the term 'casual' games. If by casual you mean simple, I'm not really interested in that. I like complex games. If you mean casual in terms of budget, then most of the games we made back in the day were casual games."

Finally, when asked what keeps him making games, the 2007 Game Developers Choice Award Lifetime Achievement winner waxed philosophical. "I feel the fundamental desire to make games is so you can play a game that hasn't been written yet," he concluded.

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