Before he worked on Civilization with legendary game designer Sid Meier, Bruce Shelley was a board game designer at companies such as Avalon Hill. He designed games on paper back in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was easier to keep revising until the game was right. That’s a lot like how Meier made one prototype after another on computers.

Together, they worked on Railroad Tycoon. And then they doubled up on the first Civilization empire-building game, which debuted in 1991 to great acclaim. Evidently, they did something right. Civilization has 33 million copies in sales to date, including 8 million for its latest, 2010’s Civilization V and its expansions. Meier’s teams at MicroProse and Firaxis created 66 versions of the game across all platforms throughout the history of the franchise. Based on extrapolations from sales on the Steam digital distribution and community platform, the Civ series has been played for more than a billion hours.

Shelley, Meier, Brian Reynolds (who created Civilization II and Alpha Centauri), and Soren Johnson (lead designer for Civilization IV) talked about the 25th anniversary of Civilization at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas last week. Afterward, I caught up with Shelley to ask him to go deeper on designing Civilization and how he designs games today.

Shelley went on to work on titles such as Age of Empires at Ensemble Studios. More recently, he worked at Zynga and as chief game designer at BonusXP, creating the real-time strategy mobile game The Incorruptibles for MaxPlay.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Civilization box art

Above: Civilization box art

Image Credit: MicroProse

GamesBeat: How did the celebration make you feel? Nostalgic?

Bruce Shelley: Nostalgic, sure. I was gone after the original Civ, so learning more about the details of Civ 2 and Civ 3 and Civ 4 was interesting for me. I didn’t know some of those stories. The things they had to deal with—I think both Sorin and Brian were articulate about some of the things we dealt with. I’d never considered that. I was there for the original project, but it was interesting to learn about how they dealt with what followed.

GamesBeat: How many years were you at MicroProse?

Shelley: I was there about five years. I came in February of 1988 and left at Christmas of 1992.

GamesBeat: What was most memorable about the original Civ for you?

Shelley: There were a couple of things. First of all, we just knew we were working on something that was going to blow people’s minds. Nobody knew that this little town north of Baltimore was making something that was going to go off like a bomb. I thought we were making something really special. But the thing that was most interesting about it—Sid trusted me to a point where I was the only one allowed to play the game for months.

I still have this 5 1/4” floppy disc dated May of 1990. That was the first time I’d heard about the game. He gave me this disc and said, “Play this and tell me what you think.” That was the beginning, for me. From there on, on a daily basis I’d get a new version from him and we’d find a couple of hours to sit down and talk about what we played. Then he would write new code. Sometimes he’d ask for a suggestion – “I’ve got a problem, how do I solve this?” – and usually he’d come up with an answer. I never knew if he took any of my suggestions until all of a sudden it might be in the game next time I got a build.

But for months I was the only one who got to play the game. Other people were dying to play it. I’d have a crowd in the office sometimes watching me play. But he just wanted me to do it. Looking back, I’m thrilled it was me, but in the long term it was probably a mistake to have the focus be just one person. I’ve learned that you need to have many more people looking at the product and get more input on what works and doesn’t work. He said, “You were like Everyman. I treated you like Everyman.”

GamesBeat: Were you just a designer, or did you do some of the actual coding?

Shelley: I didn’t do any coding. My jobs were—I was running other projects, producing other things. I was assigned to him to do whatever he needed. I was his producer, so I liaised with marketing and sales and the president and anybody else who needed to know what was going on with the game. Unless Sid wanted to, it was my job to go down the hall to the meetings and tell everyone what we were doing.

I had to work with the artists about what pieces we needed when we got to the point where we needed art and music. When we did playtesting I ran all the playtesting sessions and kept the bug lists. He would be busy coding and designing. I was also expected to play and tell him what I was thinking. I also wrote a lot of things – the manual, all the text in the game. I think I wrote most of that. There’s another guy says he wrote a lot of it, so maybe he did. I don’t know.

Civilization 5: Gods and Kings

GamesBeat: You were prototyping way back then. That was the main way of finding out if something was good?

Shelley: I came from board games, and that’s how we made board games. We’d have paper and pencil and cards and blackboards and we’d try to break down the rules as we went along. That’s what he was doing, essentially. I learned from that. He always had half a dozen prototype games on PC. Every once in a while he’d show me something. “Take a look at this and see what you think.” Usually it would never come to fruition. It was just an idea he had, and he couldn’t get it past that stage. But Railroad Tycoon and Civilization were both ideas that he puttered around with and then turned into products.

There was no design document. There was no plan. It was like Shigeru Miyamoto in Japan said once. You put a guy in a cave, what’s he going to do? What does he see? He builds a game based on what that character is seeing. This is a different approach, where you take a basic game, play it, and ask yourself, “What’s it missing? What’s not working? What does work? What do I change?” Then you code some more and do it over again.

The only design doc we had was the stuff I had to give to the test people for a plan. “This is what’s supposed to work.” We’d test against that document, but it wasn’t the design, not directly. I took that idea with me when I got involved with Ensemble Studios. I was one of the few people there who’d ever made a game before. I said, “This is what I know. This works.”

The problem was, we didn’t realize what would happen when the timing sped up. It’s hard to predict when you’ll be done if you’re constantly prototyping and evolving and iterating. When is the game finished? You have to make a call. There’s enough here that it works as a solid body. That’s why publishers don’t feel comfortable with that. But we were lucky at Ensemble to have Microsoft as our publisher. The guys in charge at the time were gamers. We could demonstrate that the game was close, but it needed a little more work, and the company had the resources to let us pursue it.

We learned a lesson, because all of those games we made were very successful. They were late, but nobody cared that it was late once it started selling really well. The old comment was, “A game that’s mediocre and on time is a failure. A game that’s great is a success whenever you release it.” But you have to have the pocketbook to allow that process to continue. We had skilled people that would let us do it.

Sid was the same way. No one knew when Civilization was going to be finished until Sid said, “Okay, I think we’re done. We have enough in it. It’s working. The systems all integrate well.” The guys at MicroProse were always saying, “When will this game be done? What are we doing with this thing?” I’d tell the VP of development, “I don’t know. Sid doesn’t know.”

GamesBeat: What happened with the change in Civilization’s ownership? What happened after MicroProse?

Shelley: That’s a good question, and I don’t really know myself. I was gone. They did Civ II. MicroProse merged with another company, I think, a California company. Spectrum Holobyte? They merged, and then they were purchased in a fire sale by Infogrames. Then Infogrames blew up. Somewhere along the line Take-Two purchased Firaxis and then bought the rights to Civilization from whoever owned it. I believe it was Infogrames, but I’m not sure. But they reunited Sid with Civilization and they’ve been together ever since.

the incorruptibles

GamesBeat: One of the legacies of Civilization seems to be that it created this group of designers who went off in different directions and created more games inspired by Civilization — Age of Empires, Rise of Nations.

Shelley: Soren hasn’t given up on doing something along those lines. Brian’s working on DomiNations.

GamesBeat: It almost seems like the game industry and gamers are better off for it.

Shelley: It’s a good point. Brian went to work with Zynga and build FrontierVille. I was freelancing with a German studio at the time. He said, “I’d like you to consider doing some work for Zynga. We needed more people from the Sid Meier school of design at Zynga.” They had metrics and all that other stuff, but they didn’t have enough game design. I remember that comment. “We need people from the Sid Meier school.”

I believe that I influenced how Ensemble Studios did things. Now there are three or four companies in Dallas, and several of them—At least the one I work with now, BonusXP, we build games in the same way. I have a photograph of Dave Pottinger with a paper prototype of the game we’re building now. It started out on paper. It worked, we liked it, and in three weeks we had a multiplayer game that you could play over the internet. We’re proceeding on that project today.

GamesBeat: What was the last game you worked on, the mobile game?

Shelley: It’s called The Incorruptibles. It’s an attempt to bring RTS to mobile in a shorter experience.

Age of Empires II

Above: Age of Empires II

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: What inspired that? Is there anything you’ve learned working in mobile?

Shelley: It was started before I came to work there. There was a little bit underway. It’s evolved. But I think mobile—You have to teach people and get them interested faster. Mobile is a throwaway platform. People load and try a game and throw it away in half an hour. You don’t have a lot of time to convince them that this is something they want. There’s a heavy emphasis on the first experience. The minutes and seconds are important. How do you hold on to people? First-day retention is a huge metric. We have to think about that.

When you’re dealing with monetization, that’s whole different animal. We have to design a great game, but we also have to design a way to make money with it. It’s a whole layer of design I never had to deal with before I got to mobile. It’s been a big struggle for a lot of people. We’d all like to just go back to the PC days. Firaxis has done really well on Steam.

If we had our druthers we’d go back to making a game where you paid a little up front and downloaded some content. This whole idea of trying to get you to monetize with mini-purchases and paywalls, I find that very irritating as a gamer. I don’t know if the idea’s days are numbered. Some very successful games are doing well. But it’s hard for a small studio or a new game to compete with the top 15, 25, 50 games on the grossing lists.

GamesBeat: What do you think of the state of the game industry at large?

Shelley: It’s rich and vital. It’s exciting to see all the stuff that’s happening. I’m concerned a bit that a few games are taking up so much play time. But new audiences are playing these games that we never had before. The Facebook platform was making entertainment for people who hadn’t played traditional games. Many of those people had played solitaire and not much else. Now they’re involved in all these other games.

I’m not sure that Clash of Clans and Candy Crush—Are those people from the traditional gaming population, or are they all new? My guess is that if we figure out a way to entertain people who were not in the gaming community 10 years ago, those people are willing to pay enough money to support a whole new segment of the industry.

Meanwhile, people who’ve liked more traditional games are still getting plenty of stuff that entertains them. I’m staggered by the sales numbers for games these days. If you don’t do multi-millions, you can’t even get funding for a triple-A title these days. At Ensemble, in the beginning, they said we had to do 100,000 units for our first game. By the time we finished Age of Empires the break-even was more like 600,000, and we thought, “Oh my gosh, what a hole we’ve dug!” Then within I don’t know how many months we matched that number. It was a revelation.

There are so many more people involved in gaming, though. It’s a rich, vital universe. I still think a small team can make something interesting. That’s never changed.

GamesBeat: Are there certain kinds of games you want to keep making?

Shelley: I don’t have a lot of ambition anymore. I’ve gotten to make most of the games I ever wanted to make. I’m not sure I feel completely comfortable with some of the new things that are happening. I’m not really happy with the monetization in free-to-play games. It just doesn’t feel right to me. I’d rather pay five bucks up front and buy a game.

Civilization IV

Above: Civilization IV

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: Some of the games that dominate the top-grossing charts don’t seem like very fun games.

Shelley: None of them hold my attention. I play them because I feel like I should see what a successful product is like today. I think I understand why they’re successful. But it’s not what I want to do. I’m happier with something more complex.

I was asked to speak to a German game group. I said, “Here are some speeches I’ve given elsewhere. Do any of these fit the bill?” They said, “Yeah, this one works.” I talked about how there are these archetypes, these player names – the explorer, the achiever. They’re the types of people who play games. I said, “I don’t understand how you build these games where people work on their towns or whatever and they just manage them.”

They said, “Well, we have a different player type here. We have the laborer. A fellow comes home from work and spends an hour building his cathedral. Next day he comes back and lays some more bricks.” There’s not any intense confrontation going on. He’s just building something, working on something. It’s more satisfying, maybe, than his own job. The game is feeding him back information – “You’re doing a great job! Your cathedral is beautiful!” He doesn’t get that satisfaction at work, maybe. It replaces some of the satisfaction he doesn’t get in the real world. I’d never considered there was this other concept, this other type of player. I believe that some of these games, Clash of Clans or something like that, people just plug in and labor for a while.

The typical American gamer, I want to think, would rather play a game of football. He doesn’t just want to manage the team. I’ve never liked the soccer management games. But that’s very popular in parts of Europe, where you’re the general upstairs instead of the general on the field. There’s some satisfaction in that. It’s obviously fun for people. But it’s not what I grew up playing. I grew up pushing pieces around and finding out if I was winning or losing by how I was managing my team.

GamesBeat: What do you think of new platforms like VR and AR?

Shelley: AR is closer to being significant. I look at this table and imagine the pieces there alive and moving. That’s something I can do socially. VR is inevitable, but it has to be something like my glasses here. A big bulky thing I put on, I don’t know. I’ve done some VR stuff to just try it out. I’m very impressed with it. It’s very cool. But I’ve read that games are only five percent of the expected applications for VR in the near term. I don’t think we’ll drive that industry like we drove PCs.

GamesBeat: It’ll all be part of the next 25 years.

Shelley: I was supposed to say, “Look back in 25 years and we’ll see what happened.” I thought I’d say, “We’ll see what’s happened to the game of Civilization, or what’s happened to real civilization.” 25 years is a long time. We didn’t have email 25 years ago. Will there be something coming along in the interim that will be such a dramatic change in our lives that we’ll still be aware of it in 25 years? I don’t know. It seems like the rate of change in technology is increasing. I’d expect some dramatic change. But it may be in something we haven’t anticipated.

There is so much work being done in energy. We may have a revolutionary technology in energy. It won’t matter to us as gamers, but what if there’s a breakthrough on fusion or battery technology? Any of that could revolutionize our lives. We don’t see it coming, but you know people are working on it. There are lots of little breakthroughs. We saw this recent discovery on gravitational waves. What are the implications of that in the next 25 years?

I’ll be 92 in 25 years. I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it. I was joking with them a bit. There’s a good chance that all those other guys will be there in 25 years, but I’m not sure about 92 for me.

Civilization: Beyond Earth - Rising Tide

Above: Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide adds a host of aquatic units that do more than look pretty.

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: Well, modern medicine could change all that.

Shelley: My mom’s 93, but she’s confined to a wheelchair. She’s not the college professor she was at one time.

GamesBeat: There are still these new generations encountering Civ for the first time, though.

Shelley: Yeah. I don’t know if they have any metrics on that. How many of these people are new? I wanted to bring this up. Civ V sold 8 million copies versus 1.5 million for the original Civ. When Civ was released, the Iron Curtain had just come down. China hadn’t taken off. India wasn’t taking off economically. Are China, India, and eastern Europe big markets now? Do they know how many games they’re selling into those markets? There were no sales there 25 years ago. Is that part of the 8 million?

They get a lot of mail from people who’ve been playing Civilization for a long time. They’re fans. They’re proactive. They have a lot of ideas. They’re all waiting for Civ VI. I assume that’s in the works, although I don’t know for sure.

It’s a question for me. Why is this game succeeding? Why does it do so well in a world where we play things in five-minute bursts? Here’s a game where you have to invest hours. How does that work? Are those the same laborers? Is this our approach to that kind of “labor,” a game with winners and losers and little victories instead of just watching a cathedral go up slowly? I don’t know.