GDC '08: Sid Meier, Game Tycoon

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

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

"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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Discussion

33 comments
BoldoAsesino
BoldoAsesino

Uh... Didn't Meier and Wright collaborate in Sid Meier's SimGolf?!!?!?!?

punkologist
punkologist

Railroad Tycoon was awesome, bring it back with better graphics and similar gameplay to the original and im sold.

dannybigfish
dannybigfish

I still play Colonization alot and Civ I for old time sakes. I love Civ! My wife on the other hand hates it. :)

Peng33
Peng33

What?!?! The series' sole console excursion was the PSX version??? I owned Civ for the SNES.. Unless it was a game based on the board game Civilization...little help here....

CasinoOutlaw247
CasinoOutlaw247

A Sid Meier and Will Wright collabo would be AWESOME! oh well guess we can dream right? Civilization is one of my favorite series and I can't wait for the next one on the PS3. Already have my pre-order!

Nater2010
Nater2010

Right on, Dark-Tyranuz! I love most of Sid's games. Colonization was one of my all time faves....

mmallory
mmallory

Civilazation is the greatest gaming franchise in history, hands down.

Psydswipe
Psydswipe

"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." At GDC did they treat Spitfire Ace as his first game? The information on the Internet does conflict in a number of places, but I believe his first game is Hellcat Ace originally created in 1982. It may not have been published until later, however, since MicroProse did not exist until after that game was created. According to an interview with Sid, his first published game is Chopper Rescue, also created in 1982.

Agulf
Agulf

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

tomtroy
tomtroy

Best game ever made. Thanks Sid!

krull543
krull543

Love it. Been playing CIV's for over 10 years. Guess that makes me kinda old.

sampleking
sampleking

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Donlazzo
Donlazzo

Jep, Civilization series is a gem on pc computer games, but remake of colonization.........not very likely to happen. When it does, then it would be the next best thing after civ series

ColdGen
ColdGen

Onya Sid! You are a legend!

105headshot
105headshot

CIV 1 RULES!!!!! i still have my own manual of civ 1

lamplan
lamplan

I salute Sid M! Pirates and others have been some of my faves. Thanks man!

Patous
Patous

An RTS (sort of) for the PS3...Dreams really can come true...Can't wait till June 3rd!

Dark-Tyranuz
Dark-Tyranuz

Wooow!, GREAT ONE SID! I can't wait for you to REMAKE COLONIZATION, one of the best games of all times! =D Best vibes to all the civ fans! Cheers! ;)

thk123
thk123

Woot! Remake of Alpha Centauri. That was like my first favourite game.

Padrepride
Padrepride

is civ revolution really coming out for the wii?

maverick_76
maverick_76

Reading this article takes me back to when I first played his Civil War series on computer and then Alpha Centauri. Both of those games amounted to a lot of sleepless nights. I can't wait to try his new Civ. for the PS3.

JamesSharp
JamesSharp

Go Sid Meier, one of my favorite Lutherans!

okassar
okassar

Omg Sid Meier is awesome for making Civilization IV,bring the goodness to the 360 please.

Generic_Dude
Generic_Dude

Sid Meier = God of Video Games. Hail to the King!

dibbitson
dibbitson

lol - sims 3: modern warfare

Pete5506
Pete5506

He did make some good games

mattstone12
mattstone12

dr_corndog, they don't work together because their companies are different genres. and we don't need the sims 3 :combat squadron. sid meier was in microprose, the same company that made x-com. and will is simulation. they don't go together or you will get an abomination of nature, something like sims 3 :combat battalion or sims 4: turning point.

Wikipedian
Wikipedian

Just one more turn... please... one more..

Dr_Corndog
Dr_Corndog

I wish he would elaborate as to why he wouldn't make a game with Will Wright. Perhaps they would have too many conflicting ideas? Or maybe because they're both capable of coming up with amazing games on their own, there's no point in them working on a single project together.

lazyhoboguy
lazyhoboguy

he is a god!! lol ive spent so many hours playing civilaztion 2 and 3

roll450
roll450

Wow nice biography about Sid Meier