Q&A: Sid Meier chronicles Civilization

Firaxis cofounder and legendary game designer reminisces about the evolution of the storied PC series--and whether it will come to portables and next-gen consoles.

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In 1990, a little company called Microprose released a game called Civilization for the PC. The results were anything but small. With its combination of turn-based strategy, city-building simulation, and historical data, the game was an instant hit. It was also the beginning of a best-selling series, begetting (in chronological order): Civilization II (1996), Civilization II: Test of Time (1999), Civilization III (2001), Civilization III: Play the World (2002), Civilization III: Conquests (2003), Civilization IV (2005), and Civilization IV: Warlords (2006). (The series also inspired SNES and original PlayStation ports, mobile and N-Gage versions, as well as editions for the Amiga and Macintosh.)

Sid Meier.

With the exception of the semisequel Civilization: Call to Power (1999) and some ports, all Civilization titles have been developed under the direction of the series' creator, Sid Meier. The legendary designer--who was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame in 1999--has stayed with the Civilization series as it bounced from publisher to publisher (except Activision, which published Call to Power). After being self-published at Microprose, the studio Meier cofounded, the series moved to Atari in 2001 and then 2K Games in 2004. 2K's parent company, Take-Two Interactive, was so pleased with the success of Civ IV that it bought Firaxis, the developer Meier cofounded with Jeff Briggs in 1996, this past July.

So how is the one-time independent Meier adjusting to being subsumed by of one of the world's biggest publishers? With the recent release of the retrospective boxed set Civilization Chronicles, which compiled all Meier-sanctioned editions of Civilization into a single package, still fresh in the gaming public's memory, GameSpot caught up with Meier to take a look back at Civilization's past--and its future.

GameSpot: Has it really been 16 years since the first Civilization came out? Feels like just yesterday I was hogging my parents' computer playing it in 18-hour shifts...

Sid Meier: Yes, we released the original Civilization in 1990 while I was still with Microprose. It is amazing that all these years later people are still playing Civ. It's a true testament to how time flies when you're having fun.

GS: Who came up with the idea of rereleasing all the Civilization games in a single package?

SM: The folks at 2K came up with the idea for Civilization Chronicles, and of course we were thrilled to help make it happen. I must say it's a pretty cool feeling to see all of those games in one box.

GS: Do you worry that the older Civs won't stand up to the newer versions of the game?

"All those games in one box."

SM: I think each version of Civ offers something fun and unique to the players. The older versions certainly don't have the visual "wow" factor of the more recent games, but in terms of fun gameplay, they truly hold their own.

GS: In your opinion, what is the single most compelling feature of the boxed set?

SM: Besides the presentation and the game content, I'd say the card game that Soren Johnson designed exclusively for this collection is pretty cool. He's a very talented designer and he created a really fun tabletop card game based on Civ. I also think the Chronicles of Civilization book is a great retrospective on the series as told by some of the folks who helped create the games over the years.

GS: The series has undergone some major changes in the past decade--what do you think has been the most important evolution in the series?

SM: Civ IV really took the game to a new level with 3D graphics and multiplayer options that were built in to the game from day one. We created the Civ IV engine from scratch, which made it easier to design it as both a great multiplayer and single-player game. Other things we've done throughout the series that have kept the game strong are to avoid putting too much in each new version; we would remove what didn't work in the last version and add new features. We've stayed true to the nature of Civ by keeping it a turn-based game.

GS: What's the next step for the Civ series? When can we expect Civ V?

SM: Well, we just released Warlords, the first expansion pack for Civ IV, and fans have been pretty happy with it. Our view has always been that if fans of the game want more Civ, then we'll give them more Civ. Civ fans are very vocal and we like to listen--as long as they keep asking for more, we'll deliver.

GS: Recently, EA announced that Command & Conquer 3 is coming to the Xbox 360. Can you see a Civilization game coming to next-gen consoles, given their processing power?

SM: Yes. I think the latest consoles have the processing power to deliver fun experiences with the bigger strategy games. It's definitely something we've been keeping our eyes on, and we'll let you know where we'll go from here.

GS: Age of Empires was successfully ported to the DS, but so far the only portables that Civilization series has touched are mobile phones and the ill-fated N-Gage. Could we see a DS Civilization some time in the future?

SM: Our goal is to deliver Civilization on any game platform that makes sense. If we can deliver a fun experience to the players on the DS, then we'll do it. We're still in the exploratory mode on all of this, but will definitely let you know our plans as soon as they're set. I believe the N-Gage version was a licensing deal that Atari made using the Civ II version. Firaxis wasn't part of the development process, so it was ill-fated from the beginning.

GS: 2K Games recently announced Pirates! for the PSP--how's that coming along?

SM: We've been working with Full Fat to develop the game for the PSP, and it's looking to be a really fun game. The overall gameplay is like that of Pirates! PC and Xbox, but we've added some features that take advantage of the PSP platform like wireless multiplayer, larger maps, treasure hunting, and a custom-designed user interface.

GS: It's been just over a year since Take-Two Interactive bought Firaxis--how has the transition from independent shop to internal studio been?

SM: The transition has been pretty seamless for us. 2K has a lot of confidence in what we do, so they're very supportive of our ideas and processes. There are the typical kinks in learning to become part of a big company, but we're working through those day by day. Our studio has grown from 60 to 85 people in the past year, so there are lots of new faces and loads of great talent in the house.

GS: Besides money, what's the biggest advantage of being an internal studio?

SM: Well, the obvious advantage of being owned by a publisher is that it eliminates the need to go out and negotiate a deal with a new publisher each time your contract runs out, which is a long and arduous process.

GS: And the biggest disadvantage?

SM: The disadvantage is that you do give up some control in the overall business management of the studio. But if you take the time to build strong relationships with decision makers in the parent company, then you become part of the team of people making business decisions, and that will ultimately lead to good things.

GS: In October, Civ III was made available on Valve's Steam Network--how has that been? Are you a fan of digital distribution?

SM: I think digital distribution makes a lot of sense for games. From what I've heard, we're selling a bunch of them that way. It gives gamers more ways to buy games, and that's good for all of us.

GS: What about episodic content? It seems to have worked well for the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Might we expect Civilization campaigns to eventually be sold a la carte online?

SM: It's definitely something we've been talking about. We like the idea. Actually, we have lots of ideas we want to act on. Now, it's just a matter of timing and human resources in figuring out how to make it all happen.

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