Sid Meier is certainly the most famous and well-respected Western computer game designer, and deservedly so. In his nearly twenty years of developing games , he has covered all manner of game designs and all types of subject matter. He co-founded Microprose and at first focused on flight simulators, culminating in his classic F-15 Strike Eagle and F-19 Stealth Fighter . Subsequently, he shifted to the style of game he is better known for today, developing such classics as Pirates! , Railroad Tycoon , Covert Action , and Civilization , this last game being one of the most universally admired game designs in the history of the form. In the late 90s Meier founded a new company, Firaxis, where he created the truly unique RTS wargame Gettysburg! Most recently he has continued to take on new gameplay genres with the amusing course manager SimGolf . What strikes one most when looking back over his games is their consistent level of quality and the fact that he almost never repeats himself, always preferring to take on something new and different for his personal projects. If anyone has a solid grasp on what makes a game a compelling experience, it is Sid Meier.
Your first published games were flight simulators. Eventually you drifted over to doing what you are now known for ” strategy games. What drove you from one genre to the other?
It was not a deliberate plan. I think I ve always tried to write games about topics that I thought were interesting. There are just a lot of different topics, I guess. A lot of things that I ve written games about are things that, as a kid, I got interested in, or found a neat book about the Civil War, or airplanes, or whatever. I think the other thing that drove that a little bit was the technology. That at certain times the technology is ready to do a good job with this kind of game or that kind of game. Or the market is ready for a strategy game, for example, or a game that you ve wanted to do for a while but you didn t think the time was right. The shift, specifically from flight simulators to strategy, came about for two reasons, I think. One, I had just finished F-19 Stealth Fighter , which included all of the ideas I had up to that point about flight simulation. Anything I did after that would be better graphics or more sounds or more scenarios or whatever, but I didn t feel I had a lot of new ideas at that point about flight simulation. Everything I thought was cool about a flight simulator had gone into that game. And the other thing was that I had spent some time playing SimCity and a game called Empire which got me to thinking about strategy in a grand sense, a game that really had a significant amount of scope and time and a lot of interesting decisions to be made. The combination of those two factors led me to do first Railroad Tycoon and then Civilization after that, as kind of a series of strategy games.
I find it dangerous to think in terms of genre first and then topic. Like, say, I want to do a real-time strategy game. OK. What s a cool topic? I think, for me at least, it s more interesting to say, I want to do a game about railroads. OK, now what s the most interesting way to bring that to life? Is it in real-time, or is it turn -based, or is it first-person . . . To first figure out what your topic is and then find interesting ways and an appropriate genre to bring it to life as opposed to coming the other way around and say, OK, I want to do a first-person shooter; what hasn t been done yet? If you approach it from a genre point of view, you re basically saying, I m trying to fit into a mold. And I think most of the really great games have not started from that point of view. They first started with the idea that, Here s a really cool topic. And by the way it would probably work really well as a real-time strategy game with a little bit of this in it.
So when you come up with your ideas for new games, you start with the setting of the game instead of with a gameplay genre.
I think a good example of that is Pirates! The idea was to do a pirate game, and then it was, OK, there s not really a genre out there that fits what I think is cool about pirates. The pirate movie, with the sailing, the sword fighting, the stopping in different towns and all that kind of stuff, really doesn t fit into a genre. So we picked and chose different pieces of different things like a sailing sequence in real-time and a menu-based adventuring system for going into town, and then a sword fight in an action sequence. So we picked different styles for the different parts of the game as we thought they were appropriate, as opposed to saying, We re going to do a game that s real-time, or turn-based , or first-person, or whatever and then make the pirates idea fit into that.
I think it s interesting that Pirates! was designed with all those mini-games, but you haven t really used discrete sub-games so much since. Did you not like the way the mini-games came together?
Well, I think it worked pretty well in Pirates! It doesn t work for every situation. One of the rules of game design that I have learned over the years is that it s better to have one great game than two good games. And, unless you re careful, too many sub-games can lose the player. In other words, if you ve got a good mini-game, then the player s going to get absorbed in that. And when they re done with that, they may well have lost the thread of what your story was, or if any game is too engrossing it may disturb the flow of your story. Frankly, the mini-games in Pirates! were simple enough that you didn t lose track of where you were or what your objective was or what you were trying to do. But I wrote a game a couple of years later called Covert Action which had more intense mini-games. You d go into a building, and you d go from room to room, and you d throw grenades and shoot people and open safes and all that kind of stuff and you d spend probably ten minutes running through this building trying to find more clues and when you came out you d say to yourself, OK, what was the mission I was on, what was I trying to do here? So that s an example for me of the wrong way to have mini-games inside of an overall story.
I ve read that Covert Action was one of your personal favorites among the games you designed.
I enjoyed it but it had that particular problem where the individual minisequences were a little too involving and they took you away from the overall case. The idea was that there was this plot brewing and you had to go from city to city and from place to place finding these clues that would tell you piece by piece what the overall plot was and find the people that were involved. I thought it was a neat idea, it was different. If I had it to do over again, I d probably make a few changes. There was a code-breaking sequence, and circuit unscrambling, and there were some cool puzzles in it. I thought that overall there were a lot of neat ideas in it but the whole was probably not quite as good as the individual parts. I would probably do a couple of things differently now.
So Covert Action seems to have had origins similar to Pirates! You started with, I want to do a covert espionage game . . .
Right, what are the cool things about that. And unfortunately , the technology had gotten to the point where I could do each individual part in more detail and that for me detracted from the overall comprehensibility of the game.
In Pirates! and Covert Action , the player can see their character in the game, and the player is really role-playing a character. By contrast, in Railroad Tycoon , Civilization , or Gettysburg! , the player does not really have a character to role-play . I m curious about that shift in your game design, where the player used to be a specific character and now is more of a godlike figure.
It s good to be God. I think that s really a scale issue more than a specific game design choice. It s fun to see yourself, and even in a game like Civilization you see your palace, you do tend to see things about yourself. But the other thing is that a pirate looks cool, while a railroad baron doesn t look especially cool. Why go to the trouble to put him on the screen? I ve never really thought too much about that, but I think it s probably more of a scale thing. If you re going through hundreds and thousands of years of time, and you re a semi-godlike character doing lots of different things, it s less interesting what you actually look like than if you re more of a really cool individual character.
So how did you first start working on Railroad Tycoon ?
Well, it actually started as a model railroad game with none of the economic aspects and even more of the low-level running the trains. You would actually switch the switches and manipulate the signals in the original prototype. It kind of grew from that with a fair amount of inspiration from 1830 , an Avalon Hill board game designed by Bruce Shelley, who I worked with on Railroad Tycoon . So, that inspired a lot of the economic side, the stock market aspects of the game. As we added that, we felt that we had too much range, too much in the game, that going all the way from flipping the switches to running the stock market was too much. We also wanted to have the march of technology with the newer engines over time, all the way up to the diesels. So there was just too much micro-management involved when you had to do all the low-level railroading things. So we bumped it up one level where all of the stuff that had to happen on a routine basis was done for you automatically in terms of switching and signaling. But if you wanted to, and you had an express or a special cargo or something, you could go in there and manipulate those if you really wanted to make sure that train got through on time, or a bridge was out and you had to stop the trains. But the origin of that was as a model railroading game and we added some of the more strategic elements over time.
It really was the inspiration for Civilization in a lot of ways, in terms of combining a couple of different, interesting systems that interacted continuously. The economic, the operational, the stock market, all interesting in their own right, but when they started to interact with each other was when the real magic started to happen. As opposed to Pirates! and Covert Action, where you had individual sub-games that monopolized the computer. When you were sword fighting, nothing else was going on. Here you had sub-games that were going on simultaneously and interacting with each other and we really thought that worked well both in Railroad Tycoon and later in Civilization, where we had military, political, and economic considerations all happening at the same time.
So in a way, you are still using sub-games; they just happen to all be in play all the time.
It s not episodic in the way that Pirates! was. Whenever you re making a decision you re really considering all of those aspects at the same time. That s part of what makes Civilization interesting. You ve got these fairly simple individual systems; the military system, the economic system, the production system are all pretty easy to understand on their own. But once you start trading them off against each other, it becomes more complex: I ve got an opportunity to build something here. My military really needs another chariot, but the people are demanding a temple . . . So these things are always in play and I think that makes the game really interesting.
In Railroad Tycoon you ve got a very interesting economic simulation going, but at the same time the player has the fun of constructing a railroad, much as a child would. Do you think that contributed to the game s success?
It actually started there. And it was really the first game that I had done where you had this dramatic, dramatic change from the state at the beginning of the game to the state at the end of the game. Where, at the beginning of the game you had essentially nothing, or two stations and a little piece of track, and by the end of the game you could look at this massive spiderweb of trains and say, I did that. And, again, that was a concept that we carried forward to Civilization , the idea that you would start with this single settler and a little bit of land that you knew about and by the end of the game you had created this massive story about the evolution of civilization and you could look back and say, That was me, I did that. The state of the game changed so dramatically from the beginning to the end, there was such a sense of having gotten somewhere. As opposed to a game like Pirates! or all the games before that where you had gotten a score or had done something, but there was not this real sense that the world was completely different. I think that owes a lot to SimCity , probably, as the first game that really did a good job of creating that feeling.
Were you at all inspired by the Avalon Hill board game Civilization when you made your computer version?
We did play it, I was familiar with it, but it was really less of an inspiration than, for example, Empire or SimCity . Primarily, I think, because of the limitations of board games. There were some neat ideas in there, but a lot of the cool things in Civ. , the exploration, the simultaneous operation of these different systems, are very difficult to do in a board game. So there were some neat ideas in the game, and we liked the name . [ laughter ] But in terms of actual ideas they were probably more from other sources than the Civilization board game.
A lot of your games seem to be inspired in part from board games. But, as you just said, Civilization would never really work as a board game. How do you take an idea that you liked in a board game and transfer it into something that really is a computer game instead of just a straight translation?
Before there were computers, I played a lot of board games and I was into Avalon Hill games, et cetera. I think they provided a lot of seed ideas for games. Often they are a good model of what s important, what s interesting, and what s not about a topic. But once you get into mechanics and interface and those kind of things, really there starts to be a pretty significant difference between board games and computer games. There s a lot of interesting research material sometimes in board games. Often they re interesting for we need some technologies or we need to think about which units, et cetera. There s that kind of overlap in terms of the basic playing pieces sometimes. But how they are used and so forth, those things are pretty different between board games and computer games. I would say board games provide an interesting review of topics that are available and topics that are interesting. But once it gets into the actual game itself there is a wide difference between computer games and board games, in my mind.
One of the most remarkable things about Civilization is its addictive quality. I was wondering if that came about by luck or if you planned it from the start.
We didn t really envision that. We intend for all of our games to be fun to play and hope that they are addictive to some degree. But Civilization had a magic addictiveness that we really didn t design, that we really didn t anticipate. I think any game where everything falls together in a really neat way is going to have that quality. I think that it s really a result of how well the pieces fit together and how I think we picked a good scale, a good complexity level, a good number of things to do. I think we made some wise decisions in designing that game. And the sum of all those decisions is addictiveness. And I think that it was a good topic. A lot of things were right about that game, and that all came together to create this addictive quality. It was not something that we designed in, but it was something that we were kind of aware of.
About halfway through the process we realized that, wow, this game really is a lot of fun to play. It was a pleasant discovery for us.
So you don t have any advice for how other designers can try to achieve that addictiveness in their own games?
I think in hindsight we know, or we think we know, why the game is addictive, or have our theories . One thing is what we call interesting decisions. To us that means you are presented with a stream of decision points where the decisions are not so complex that you are basically randomly choosing from a list of options. A too-complex decision is one where you say, Oh, I ve got these three options. Yeah, I could spend five minutes analyzing the situation, but I really want to get on with the game so I m going to pick B because it looks good. And on the other extreme there s the too-simple decisions: It s obvious that I must choose A, because it is clearly better than all of the other options. In Civ. we try to present you choices where they are easy enough to understand, but in a certain situation you might choose A, in a slightly different situation B is a good choice, in another situation C is a good choice. So you re really saying, Here are the three technologies that I can go for next. And you say to yourself, Well, right now I m about to get into a conflict with those no-good Romans. So I really need that technology that gives me the next cool military unit. But, well, that map-making looks kind of interesting. Next time I might take that because I want to do some exploring. So if you can create decisions where the player is always saying, Next time, I m going to try that one, because that looks interesting too, that creates this whole idea that there s this richness there that you re only scratching the surface of this time.
The addictive quality, I think, also falls out of the fact that you ve got multiple things happening or in process at the same time. On the one hand you ve got your next technology churning away over there. Your scientists are working on that. And this city is making that first tank that you re looking forward to. Over here is a unit wandering around to the next continent , and pretty soon he ll find something interesting. You ve got different things that you are looking forward to in the game, and there s never a time when those are all done. There s never a reset state. There s always two or three things happening in the game that you are looking forward to when they finish. So there s never actually a good time to stop playing. I think that really helps the you can never stop playing the game phenomenon .
I know Gettysburg! was not your first real-time game, but it seems to have been in part inspired by the big hit RTS games like Command & Conquer and WarCraft .
I think the technology had gotten to the point where you could have a whole bunch of little guys running around doing stuff on the screen in real-time. And what you call real-time, it s kind of a weird term because we ve done real-time games forever, but we didn t think of them as real-time because it just seemed a natural thing. But I guess when turn-based got to be its own genre, we had to make a distinction. I think Gettysburg! is a game that I wanted to do for a long time, but the technology didn t really lend itself to being able to do it until fairly recently. We finally got to the point where we could have a bunch of guys marching around the screen on a realistic-looking battlefield, loading their muskets, shooting and wheeling in different formations, and doing all that sort of stuff that I had visualized as what was cool about a Civil War battle. The time came along when that was doable.
It seems like it takes what WarCraft and the other, simpler RTS games did well, but then adds a deeper level of simulation, where you have flanking bonuses and other more traditional wargame features. Was it your goal to take a more complex wargame and merge it with the fast-paced RTS format?
Again, the idea was to do a Gettysburg battle game, and then the genre of real-time made the most sense. I d always had a feeling in playing any other board game that something was missing. The sense that I get from reading the histories, the stories of the battles , is not captured in a board game or in any of the games I had played about Gettysburg. The time pressure, the sense of confusion, the sense of these different formations, et cetera, didn t make any sense until you actually had to make the decisions yourself. And then all of a sudden you realize, Boy, it wasn t quite that easy to do that obvious maneuver that would have won the battle if only they had tried it, or Now I understand why they lined up in these formations that seemed pretty stupid to me before. A lot of things started to make sense when the battle came to life. And that was the idea, to include enough CivilWar tactics like flanking, morale , and things like that to really capture the flavor of a Civil War battle without overwhelming the player with hard- core wargaming concepts. By representing the key factors that influenced the battle or that influenced tactics, you could naturally learn how to be a commander. You wouldn t have to follow a set of rules, but you would realize that, Oh, if I give these guys some support they re going to be better soldiers, and if I can come in on the flank then that s a better attack. And you go through a learning process as opposed to being told how to be a good general. You learn that along the way. That was the intention .
I was wondering about the click-and-drag method you had the player use for directing his troops somewhere. It s very different from what other RTS games employ . Did you use it because you thought it was a better system, even though it was not the standard?
I m not sure I d do that the same way today. I think that click-and-drag made a certain amount of sense, especially since as you dragged we were showing with the arrow interesting things about the path that you would take. I m also a big fan of standard interfaces, so if I had that to do today, I probably would try to go with more of the standard RTS interface. I think at the time that we were doing that, it was pretty early. WarCraft was out, but I don t think StarCraft was out, and Age of Empires came out at just about the same time. So the interface standard had not coalesced when we did that. I think that in recognition of that we gave the player the option to use the right-click/left-click way of doing things too. But if I had that to do today, I would probably make the standard RTS method the default and make the click-and-drag the option.
As opposed to Railroad Tycoon or Civilization , Gettysburg! has discrete scenarios: you play for a while and then that battle ends, you get a new briefing, and your troops reset. Why did you opt for that style of gameplay progression?
Well, I did that because the stupid Battle of Gettysburg had too many units! [laughter] I would have preferred a complete battle at the kind of level that the actual game turned out to be. Basically, to make the game fun, I have found that you need to have somewhere between ten and twenty-five discrete units that you can move around. Unfortunately the entire battle had seventy or eighty regiments, so it would have been totally out of control. We tried for a while actually fudging the scale, and saying, You ll actually be given brigades but they ll act like regiments and then you can fight the whole battle. But it didn t feel right skewing the scale in that way. So, we got to the point where it was, OK, the most fun and most interesting battles are of this scale. And that really means that it s a portion of the battle. And we have to accept that, and live with that, and make the best of that. And I think the scenario system was an attempt to do that.
I think that in an ideal world I could have picked the Battle of Hunter s Run or something where there were only three brigades and it was all capturable in a single scenario. But nobody s going to buy The Battle of Hunter s Run; they all want Gettysburg! So it s an unfortunate part of history that it happened to be such a large battle. And, I think it worked fairly well. But I understand when people say, Well, I really want the whole battle. And we tried to give them that, and show them that they really didn t want that in this system. It was a case where history and reality didn t create probably the ideal situation for the game system that we had. But it was our feeling that, as opposed to either giving you the whole battle and overwhelming you with eighty units, or trying to play some pretty convoluted games to get the whole battle into that scale, we thought that the scenario system was the best compromise in trying to make it playable but also historically realistic. And I think there are some cool scenarios in there. It probably skews it a little more toward the hard-core , Civil War interested person but they can t all be Civilization .
So you are still working on your dinosaur-themed game. What are your goals with that project?
Well, the goal of the game is really the same as all the games that I ve worked on: to figure out what is the really cool part, the unique part, the interesting part of this topic, and find a way to turn that into a computer game. I ve thought that dinosaurs were cool for the longest time, and I think it s a topic that needs to be computer-motized. I try to take the approach of putting into the game a lot of things that are scientifically true or historically accurate, but that s not to be educational, it s to let the player use their own knowledge in playing the game. Most people know something about dinosaurs, or something about history, and if they can apply that knowledge to the game, then that makes it a lot more interesting and makes them feel good about themselves . It s not because they read the manual that they re good at the game, it s because of what they know. They realize that it s cool to have gunpowder and the wheel and things like that.
So in the same sense, people know that the T. rex is the baddest dinosaur. Sowe use things in the game to make it valuable to know some basic facts about whatever the topic is. We try and put that amount of realism and accuracy into the game. And then make it fun on top of that. In the same way that a movie gives you all the fun and the action sequences and all the important parts of a story and then jumps quickly over the boring things. I think the game has the same responsibility, to bring you to the key decision points and then move you on to the next interesting thing. We re trying to take that same approach with the dinosaur game, to bring them to life, to figure out what s cool and unique about them while cutting out all the dull parts. We re really in a working that out phase, and we don t have a lot to say about the specifics of that; hopefully in another few months we ll be able to talk a little bit more about how that s going to turn out. [Since this interview was conducted , Meier abandoned the dinosaur game, instead opting to develop SimGolf .]
Relatively speaking, you ve been making computer games for a long time, since the early 80s. I was wondering how you thought the industry has changed over that time.
I think there s been a general, overall improvement in the quality of the games. I think there are some great games out there right now. I like StarCraft , Age of Empires , Diablo , The Sims I thought was really interesting, and RollerCoaster Tycoon was a hoot, a lot of fun. So I think those games compare very favorably to anything that s been done. I think they re overall better games than we were doing five or ten years ago. I think you can certainly see the improvement in presentation, graphics, video, and all that kind of stuff. The core of the games, the game design stuff, I think is a pretty slow evolutionary process. I think in terms of game design, games like Pirates! and SimCity and
Civilization really stand up. I think they re really pretty strong designs, even today. I think they haven t been eclipsed by what s going on now. So I think that in terms of game design, the rule that says that things get twice as good every year, processors get twice as fast, et cetera, I don t think that applies. I think game design is a pretty gradual, evolutionary process, where we build on what s gone on before, and make it a little bit better, a little bit more interesting. Every so often a new genre comes along to open our eyes to some new possibilities. I think that will continue, but it s interesting to me that a three-year old computer is completely obsolete, but a three-year-old game can still be a lot of fun.
As long as you can get it to run
Right, as long as you have that three-year-old computer to run it on. There s a different pace, I think. Technology moves at one pace, a very quick pace, and game design evolution moves at a much slower pace.
Do you think that game design evolution has slowed since the early days of the industry?
I don t see a significant change. I think one phenomenon is that we only remember the good games from the past. The past seems like it had all sorts of great games, and the present seems like it has a few great games and a lot of crap. And I think there was a lot of crap in those days too, it has just all faded away. I think there is a lot of great game design work going on today. Before there was a lot more unexplored territory, and that gave us the opportunity to be a little more innovative. But with online technology and things like that, that opens up a lot of new areas for being innovative. So I don t see a substantial difference between the amount of good work being done today versus what was going on years ago.
You have worked at both small development studios , Microprose in the early days and Firaxis, as well as a big one, latter-day Microprose. Do you find that one environment is better at fostering the creation of good games?
I m personally much more comfortable in the small environment. That may be more of a personal feeling than any kind of a rule about where good games happen. I think the trend certainly has been to bigger groups, bigger teams , bigger bigger bigger. And that may be just the way things are. If there s anything that makes me feel a little bit old, it is the fact that I m not as comfortable in the big group environment as clearly some of the other developers. I think some of the younger developers who grew up in that mode are much more comfortable with the big projects. I was in Los Angles for the E3 show, and the winner of the Hall of Fame award was Hironobu Sakaguchi who designed Final Fantasy, which is a massive, massive, massive game. It would totally frighten me to tackle something that big. But there are designers who just thrive on that. I think it s a personal preference for designers, and I think since I started in the time when there was no such thing as a gigantic team that I am comfortable in that smaller mode, while other designers prefer the larger projects. Primarily it s a personal preference.
Since you started in game development, development teams have grown from one or two people to a standard number of twenty or more. Do you think that has made games less personal?
I think it did, but there are still games today that have that personal touch. And I think those are the good games. I think that a lot of the games that are not so much fun are those that have this designed by committee, programmed by a horde feeling to them. And, yeah they look good, and they are kind of reminiscent of maybe one or two other games that were good. But they don t have that personal spark. To me, RollerCoaster Tycoon is a good example of a personal game. It really feels like somebody thought that was cool. Nobody said, That s goofy or That s stupid. A lot of the ideas there are very clever, but if you brought it up before a committee they would say, Oh really, won t people think that s silly? And even Final Fantasy , in spite of its massive team, is really the product of one person s vision. And if you can keep that going in a big team, that s great. But I think that it becomes harder and harder the larger the team is to keep that personal vision alive and not get watered down by the committee approach.
You still serve as both lead programmer and lead designer on your projects. Are you happiest filling both roles?
I cannot imagine working in another way. It s just much more efficient for me to have an idea and just type it into the computer than to try to explain it to somebody else and see what happens. So, again, it s my personal style, but to me it s the most efficient way to get something done.
On most modern projects at other companies, you have one person who s the lead designer, and one person who s the lead programmer, and they re both very busy. It would appear that performing both roles you would be completely overwhelmed.
Well, I think they probably spend half their time talking to each other, which is something I don t have to do. I would see a certain efficiency in cutting out all those meetings. But certainly it works both ways. Either way can work, but my personal preference is for the designer/programmer approach.
Now that you are working on a larger team, how do you communicate your game design vision to the rest of the team and get them excited about the project?
Our primary tool is the prototype. In our development, one of the advantages of being a programmer/designer is that within a week or two we can throw together something that feels like a game. That gives people the idea of what the game is going to be about, how it s going to work, the general parameters of it. Again, if we re working on a historical or scientific topic, most people are half-way into it already, they know something about the topic. And then just talking, saying here s the kind of game I want to do, and here are the three or four really cool things that are going to happen in the game that are going to be the payoffs. Putting those things together I think gives people a pretty good idea of what direction we re headed. At that point you want people not to get the whole picture, but to figure out where they fit in and can contribute their own things that hopefully you hadn t even thought of, in terms of cool art or cool sounds or neat ideas. In a way you don t want it to be so complete that it feels done, because you want people to feel that they can make their own contributions above and beyond what you ve already thought of.
So if someone else comes up with some cool ideas to add to your game design, you re happy to incorporate those even though you didn t come up with them.
I m happy to steal those and claim they were my ideas years later. [laughter]
With your prototyping system, do you ever try out a game and then it just doesn t work out as you had hoped?
Yup, I have a whole group of directories on my hard drive that fall into that category. And many of the games that turned out to be products started in a very different direction. Civilization , for example, was originally much more like SimCity , much more zone this territory for farms, and place a city here and watch it grow. Initially it was much more of a stand-back-and-watch-it- evolve approach; it only became turn-based after a couple of months. I mentioned that Railroad Tycoon started out as a model railroading game. A lot of times the prototypes will have to be radically modified to work. That s the whole idea of the prototype: to pretty quickly give you an idea of does the idea work, does it not work, and what are the major problems. It lets you focus on the big issues first, and hopefully straighten those out.
Your games seem very easy to pick up and learn to play. But at the same time they have very deep, interesting gameplay. How do you manage to accomplish both?
The easy-to-play part is pretty well understood . I think interface conventions, and again getting back to the idea of a familiar topic helps people to get right into it because they know a little bit of what they should be doing. You want to give the players a lot of positive feedback early in the game to give them the idea they re on the right track. In Civilization , pretty quickly the people add something to your palace, and you get a population milestone, and your first city is formed . You want to give the players, especially in the early stages, the idea that they re on the right track, that everything they do, the computer acknowledges it, recognizes it, and thinks it s really cool. That gets the players into the game.
In terms of the depth, that s really because we play the games. The other advantage-of prototyping is that if you have a game that takes two years to write, you spend one year and eleven months playing the game. You get pretty bored with the beginning of the game after a while. In one sense you are putting that depth in the game to keep yourself interested in writing this game. If there s twenty or forty hours of gameplay in a scenario, it s because we have played those scenarios for twenty or forty hours and found that, after about twenty hours, it gets a little thin. We have to come in with a new thing and make this problem a little more interesting, a little more complex at that point. So a lot of the depth comes out of the fact that we have intensively played the game for long periods of time.
Do you find that prototyping facilitates balancing as well?
Playing the prototype really facilitates balancing. It also really helps with writing the AI if you ve played the game enough so that you really understand what are good strategies, bad strategies, and interesting strategies. Having played the game quite a bit helps to write the AI, it s good for the depth. The danger is that you lose sight of the beginning player. That s why we go back to playtesting at the end of the game s development. And we say, Here s what we think the game is, try and play it. And we invariably find that they can t play it. There s just too much of that cool stuff in there. So we say, All right, where are you getting stuck? We re essentially unable to see the game in that light anymore. But you need to have both the depth and the ease of entry. Those are both important.
Your games all are grounded in history or real-life events, as opposed to many games which have fantasy or science fiction settings. Is this because you enjoy creating a game-world that the player is already somewhat familiar with?
I do think that s important. It does add a lot when you can apply your own knowledge to a game. I think that makes you feel better about yourself, and I think that s a positive thing. I think it also gives me a lot more to work with in terms of a historical or realistic situation. I probably grew up in a time also when there was less of the Middle Earth, the fantasy, the Star Wars , et cetera. Kids these days think these things are just as real as history. Spaceships, magicians, and wizards are as real to a lot of kids as airplanes, submarines, and things like that. It s kind of an evolutionary thing, but in my growing up it was things like airplanes, submarines, the Civil War, and the Roman Empire that were interesting and cool things, and I try to translate those things into games.
I am curious about how you balance historical realism with the gameplay. Gettysburg! seems to be one case where you had to break the gameplay up into scenarios to keep it both historically accurate and fun.
That was one of the few times that we actually gave in to historical reality. In general our rule is if you come to a conflict between fun and history, you go with the fun. You can justify any game decision somewhere in history. Our decisions are made almost exclusively to the benefit, hopefully, of the gameplay as opposed to the historical accuracy. In Gettysburg! we came to a situation that we could just not fudge, though we tried. We tried as hard as we could to fudge that situation. In many other situations we come to an idea that we think is going to work well for the game and then we find the historical precedent or an explanation historically to justify it. In no sense do we try and stay slavishly accurate because, basically, we re trying to create a situation which is fluid where you re not just going down the path of history, you re creating your own history. Even though the pieces are realistic, you can take them off in a completely different direction that never really happened. Certainly, part of the fun of Civilization is that the Zulus can take over the world, or the Mongols. Anybody can take over the world; it s not necessarily the Americans who are going to win in the end. We re not slaves to history.
At least since your days developing flight simulators, your games have not really been on the cutting edge of technology in terms of graphics. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
As I have said, in our prototyping process, things change almost up until the last minute. Most of the cutting-edge technologies are things that need to be researched from day one, and are gigantic investments in technology. And given that we re in a mode where things are changing constantly, it s practically impossible to merge those two approaches. The research project can t start really unless you know exactly what you want, or pretty much what you want. And we don t usually know that at the beginning. And we re not willing to put ourselves in that straightjacket in terms of game design. And I think a lot of times that s what it is. If you are committed to a first-person 3D viewpoint where you can see a certain amount, and you find out that to make your game fun you really need to see more, you really need to get more context for your location or whatever, you re kind of screwed at that point.
Often there s a conflict also between the functionality of the graphics and the loveliness of the graphics. A game that looks good but doesn t give you the information you need to play or doesn t give you the clarity, I think that s the wrong trade-off. We try and make games that we think look good. But in any good game the great graphics are happening in your imagination and not on the screen. If we tell you that the people have declared we love the king day in a certain town, if you re really into the game, that s a lot more meaningful, and you create a much more exciting image in your mind than anything we could show you on the screen. And vice versa, if you re not into the game, then anything that comes on the screen you re going to pick apart anyway. Our goal is to involve you in the game itself and have you create your own really cool mental images based on some suggestions that we give you on the screen.
You were one of the first game designers to get your name above the title on the box. I was curious how that came about.
Well, the way that happened goes back to Pirates! That was the first game that had my name on it. In those days I was working at Microprose and my partner was Bill Stealey who did the business/marketing side of things while I did the development/creative stuff. And the previous game before Pirates! was one of the flight simulator games, and I said to Bill, Well, I m going to work on this game about pirates. And he said, Pirates? Wait a minute, there are no airplanes in pirates. Wait a minute, you can t do that. Well, I think it s going to be a cool game. And he answered , Well, who s going to buy a pirates game? Maybe if we put your name on it, they ll know that they liked F-15 or whatever, and they might give it a try. OK. There was a real concern that there was this pirates game coming out, but nobody s going to be interested, because who wants a pirates game? People want flight simulators. So it was to say, Sure, you want a flight simulator, but maybe you might want to try this pirates game because it was written by the guy who wrote that flight simulator that you re playing. I guess it was branding in a very crude, early form. It was because we were making this big switch in the type of game that I was working on, and to try to keep that connection between the games.
So it wasn t your lust for fame?
[laughter] No, no. Even today, fame is not a computer game thing. I think it s good. It s still a pretty non-personality oriented business. I think that people remember great games, and they know to a certain extent who s involved. But there s not a cult of Robin Williams or, you know, movie stars who really have a cult of personality. I think it s good. Once we get the idea that we can get away with anything just because we re who we are, that s not a good thing.
But that sort of confidence led to Pirates! , didn t it?
[laughter] Well, it was a good game. Had it not been a good game, that strategy would not have worked.
A lot of your games have had sequels of one kind or another, but you have never been the lead designer on one of them. Why is this?
I think they are a fine thing to do in general, especially if they re done well. I seldom go back to a topic primarily because I haven t run out of ideas yet, so I d rather do a dinosaur game than go back to an older title. I don t have a lot of energy to get too involved in the sequels. Some of them turn out well, some of them turn out not quite so well. As opposed to letting the topic fade away, I think doing a sequel is often a good idea. In an ideal world, I d like to be involved in everything, but I can t really do that. So I tend to be more interested in being involved in a new product as opposed to a sequel. It s certainly gratifying that people want another Railroad Tycoon or Civilization , et cetera. I think that s great. I m happy that it can be done. On Civilization III , since it s being done inside of Firaxis, I m able to take a more direct part in that, which I think is good. I would have liked to have done Railroad Tycoon II and do a new Pirates! , et cetera, if I had an infinite amount of time. But it s just not feasible .
I hear a lot of people talking about storytelling in games. Usually by storytelling they mean using cut-scenes or branching dialog trees or devices like that. Your games have never been very concerned with that side of storytelling.
To me, a game of Civilization is an epic story. I think the kind of stories I m interested in are all about the player and not so much about the designer. There are players that are more comfortable in situations where they re making small decisions and the designer s making the big decisions. But I think games are more interesting when the player makes the big decisions and the designer makes the small decisions. I think, in some sense, games are all about telling stories. They have a story created more by the player and less by the designer, in my mind. I think in Civilization there are fantastic stories in every game, they re just not in the more traditional sense of a story. We have, amongst our rules of game design, the three categories of games. There are games where the designer s having all the fun, games where the computer is having all the fun, and games where the player is having all the fun. And we think we ought to write games where the player is having all the fun. And I think a story can tend to get to the point where the designer is having all the fun or at least having a lot of the fun, and the player is left to tidy up a few decisions along the way, but is really being taken for a ride. And that s not necessarily bad, but our philosophy is to try to give the player as much of the decision making as possible.
Though Gettysburg! had a multi-player option, by and large your games have been single-player only for a long time. What do you think of the emerging popularity of multi-player gaming?
I think down the road I would like to get more into multi-player, perhaps even a game that is primarily multi-player. But I still enjoy essentially single-player games, so I m not sure exactly when or how that s going to happen. Online multi-player gaming is probably the only revolutionary development in our technology we ve seen since I started writing computer games. Everything else has been pretty much evolutionary. Better graphics, better speed, more memory, et cetera. But the multi-player online thing was a revolutionary change in the tools that we had to make games. I m interested in doing something along those lines, but I m not sure what it would be right now.
In an old Next Generation magazine interview, you said, Games are going to take over the world. It s going to take a while, but there s something inherently more engaging about computer games than any other form of entertainment. Board games have certainly been around a long time, but have not yet taken over the world. I wondered what it is about computer games that you find so compelling.
Yeah, I think I stand by that statement. I think that it s the element of interactivity that makes them unique. They interact personally with you as a player, as opposed to movies, television, or music, which don t. There s this phenomenon of watching television and using the remote control to desperately try to make it an interactive experience, going from one channel to another... [laughter] But the interactivity of computer games is what differentiates it and makes it so very powerful. Now, we re still learning how to use that tool and in a lot of other ways we re not as good as television, movies, et cetera. But I think that as we learn to use the advantages that we have, they re more powerful advantages than the advantages of other entertainment media.
I think that board games are kind of interactive, but they require other players. The computer brings a lot of power to the equation that board games don t take advantage of. If anything, the advent of the Internet and multi-player play, that combined with interactivity seems to me like a really powerful combination. I think as we learn to use that element of our technology too, games can be very, very compelling. The question that pops up is do people want games that are that interesting to play? There was the whole Deer Hunter phenomenon, and there was Slingo and things like that and I m still working to integrate that into my model of the world, and I haven t totally succeeded in doing that. But what that tells me is that there s a broader range of potential gamers than I amreally familiar with. And part of our learning process is going to be to integrate them into the way that we design games and the way that we create games. But I still think we re going to take over the world.
Sid Meier Gameography
Hellcat Ace , 1982
NATO Commander , 1983
Spitfire Ace , 1984
Solo Flight , 1984
F-15 Strike Eagle , 1985
Decision in the Desert , 1985
Conflict in Vietnam , 1985
Crusade in Europe , 1985
Silent Service , 1986
Gunship , 1986
Pirates! , 1987
F-19 Stealth Fighter , 1988
Railroad Tycoon , 1990
Covert Action , 1990
Civilization , 1991
Colonization , 1994 (Consultant)
Civilization II , 1996 (Consultant)
Gettysburg! , 1997
Alpha Centauri , 1999 (Consultant)
Civilization III , 2001 (Consultant)
SimGolf , 2002