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Sid Meier is the legendary designer behind many different computer games in a wide variety of genres, and he’s perhaps the only video game designer who can sell more copies by putting his name into the title of the game. Of all of his games, none has been as memorable and successful as Civilization.
It 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 have created 66 versions of the game across all platforms. 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.
Meier, Bruce Shelley, Brian Reynolds, and Soren Johnson talked about the 25th anniversary of Civilization at the DICE Summit, the elite game industry event in Las Vegas last week. After the panel, I caught up with Meier to ask him to go deeper on designing Civilization and how Firaxis designs games today. We talked about the golden age of MicroProse, the company that created Civilization, the latest games that Firaxis has created like XCOM 2, and the next 25 years.
Meier mentioned that his son is now designing games at Firaxis too. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: What was different about the old days, when all these game designers were growing up with you?
Sid Meier: There’s a lot more time spent on game design now. Teams have grown. Budgets have grown. The games we talked about there were probably all done in a year or less. Today you’re looking at two years or more for a project. I think the budget for Civ II was $500,000. We’re up to multiple millions today. A lot of topics hadn’t been done yet. Even trying to come up with a name for your game today, you find out that everything’s been taken. It was a pioneering spirit, or a sense of breaking new ground.
Games were not really accepted the way they are today. Today every kid has something they’re carrying around, playing games on their phone or whatever. Games were a new, unique, weird kind of entertainment in those days. That’s certainly changed.
GamesBeat: You mentioned there was a kind of golden age for MicroProse and the industry in general.
Meier: I think so. If you look back — people come to me and say, “Remember this game?” And they’re talking about things like Pirates! or Railroad Tycoon or Civilization that were created in the late ‘80s. SimCity. These games that have lived on and are seen as innovations in the industry.
Minecraft would also qualify. Other games have that quality to them. But a lot of these games were created in that time frame.
GamesBeat: Do think there are some things you can’t do now?
Meier: There’s this thing called discoverability, which is a challenge these days. We didn’t have that problem back in the day. There’s probably 100 times more games per year created these days. That’s a difference. Tools that are available today, whether it’s Unity or Unreal — you don’t have to have the technical background to make games. You don’t have to pay your dues like you did in those days. It allows for this incredible variety of games. The technical groundwork is there for you, so you can jump right in with your idea.
Designers these days tend to self-reference. They make games based on other games. They grew up playing games, so their frame of reference is other games. In the old days it was the world. We got it from books or wherever. Things from the real world that interested us became the raw material for games. Today gamers, a lot of times, are making games based on the games that they like. It’s a change of perspective. But there have been really innovative games done in every era. It’s a great time to be a gamer.
GamesBeat: Are you surprised to see that Civ V has done so well? It has accelerated sales compared to earlier games in the series. The audience is bigger, it seems like.
Meier: We’re happy with that. I think the audience for games in general has grown. We’ve managed to keep Civ relevant. The things that people enjoy about it, we’ve managed to keep those fresh. It’s grown along with the industry. It’s developed a reputation, developed a following. We have Civ evangelists that tell other people, “You’ve gotta play Civ! Otherwise we’ll have nothing to talk about.” It’s expanded and grown for a number of reasons.
GamesBeat: Do you like playing it in Twitch, things like that?
Meier: It’s something I didn’t anticipate, having fun watching other people play games you could just as easily play yourself. I don’t know. It’s new. I watch a couple of the StarCraft players, just seeing how far their skills have gone beyond my skills. I could probably learn something from that. But it’s another form of community, of engaging with other humans in addition to what’s happening in your computer.
GamesBeat: Is there still a way you like to design games, as opposed to what’s popular now, like free-to-play?
Meier: Those monetization models are fascinating. But it’s really not the starting point, the whole monetization system, or the platform. We’re at a point where phones are so powerful that they’re not really a limitation in terms of design. It’s more just, what’s the idea? Where’s the fun? Then you figure out what platform it’s going to work on and whether it’s free-to-play. First you have to find the fun. Otherwise there’s no point in thinking about those other issues.
GamesBeat: You’ve done some of that now. Do you still go back to what you could call triple-A now for any particular reason?
Meier: It depends on the topic. Triple-A games are costly. They don’t lend themselves to credible risks. Our strategy is to make games that prove themselves with the triple-A treatment, but there are also opportunities to try new things with mobile or whatever. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re experimenting with different approaches and ideas.
GamesBeat: Strategy is one of the really big genres on mobile. It’s almost outsized in terms of revenues. That’s surprised a lot of people.
Meier: Strategy games are more compelling — they lend themselves to longer play times and more player investment. That probably leads to advantages in monetization and things like that. But we claim that we made the world safe for strategy games. When Civ came out, strategy was a dirty word. You didn’t want your game to be called a strategy game. That’s boring and slow.
Meier: Very nerdy. And then all of a sudden there’s real-time strategy and turn-based strategy. Everything has some form of strategy or another. It became a good thing to be strategy.
GamesBeat: Civ-like games — there’s a lot of influence there as well. We’ve seen some interesting things come out over the years that aren’t Civ.
Meier: But less of that than I think was possible. There haven’t been clones of Civ. Many games have been very clearly cloned. That hasn’t happened with Civ. We have a head start — not only with the game, but with the community. They understand the work that went into it. I think there’s a loyalty there, based on the interaction we’ve had with them. The idea that they feel they’re being listened to, they’re valued. If someone tried to make a Civ clone, it would hopefully be recognized by the community.
GamesBeat: So you’re not leading the design anymore. You let go of that. But your name still goes in the title. Do you still check in to see if it deserves the Sid Meier name?
Meier: Well, it’s never come to that. I don’t see that happening. But yeah, I’m there. I talk to the designers and play the game. The vitality of the game is the new ideas, the new people. You listen to Brian and Soren, they’re clearly great designers. Having them give their design input to Civ has made it a richer franchise. It’s worked. I rationalize the fact that my name is on there because it’s a system that I initially created. I think everyone understands. We’re not trying to pretend that I wrote every line of code in there.
GamesBeat: Do you still feel like it’s an expansive area? If you go Beyond Earth, what’s left?
Meier: I don’t think we’ll run out of ideas. We can go forward in time or backward in time or sideways in time. Just for starters.
GamesBeat: You should put time travel in. Then you can go back and ruin somebody’s game.
Meier: That was going to be a way of putting your save game in there. Time travel is just loading another saved game. In one version of Civ we kept track of how many times you reloaded, because that was a technique for winning. If you lose a battle, reload the saved game. But then the idea was that if you have a time machine, it’s okay to reload that saved game, because you used the time machine.
GamesBeat: What do you have more fun working on these days?
Meier: We have ideas. We have prototypes. We spend a lot of time trying out ideas. Probably two-thirds of them don’t end up going anywhere, but experimenting with those kinds of things is fun. My son is working at Firaxis now, which is also fun. I see what he’s doing. We talk about games. He’s doing some design. It’s fun to watch him do that. It’s all fun, I think. There’s no better job than the video game business.
GamesBeat: I’m playing some XCOM 2 right now, taking it pretty slow. I started out on Veteran thinking that was the right place for me. I’m on about my 12th try on one of the missions.
Meier: Yeah, it’s definitely challenging. That was one of the things that got a lot of discussion during development. Jake says the first level is very achievable. It gets tough after that.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that this kind of game — in earlier days it seems like it would have had a very limited audience. But now, the way it’s been done seems — it’s wrapped in things that have more mass appeal. That seems intentional on your part.
Meier: It has what it takes to draw you in, if it’s a game that’s fairly new to you. With the first XCOM, people had played it 15 years ago or whatever, but people have fairly short attention spans these days. For a strategy game, those features get you in deep enough that you can understand the systems and feel the depth of it. That carries you to the end.
I remember wanting to play it just to see how the story ends. That was compelling, to see how it was all going to turn out.
GamesBeat: Did you guys design board games first before getting into computer games?
Meier: I didn’t design anything professionally, board game-wise. Bruce worked at Avalon Hill and a couple of other board game companies before he came to Microprose. A number of our designers in the early days came from the board game industry.
GamesBeat: But that wasn’t really the way you’d set about starting a computer game, to try it as a board game?
Meier: Hmm. No. The differences are pretty significant. In certain cases we might try that, but in general that’s not a technical aid we’d use. Civ has gone from a board game to a computer game and back to another board game. It’s probably gone back and forth three or four times.
GamesBeat: You guys still shift between almost indie-like games and bigger games. Do you enjoy that variety?
Meier: With a game like Civ, the expectation is it’s going to be triple-A, and I think it justifies that. XCOM, as you pointed out, really benefited from that feeling of cinematics and the polish that was part of the game. Something else we’re trying, we might not do that. Starships was more of an indie-ish type of game. It depends. The industry is constantly evolving and experimenting. Nobody knows what the next big thing will be. Free-to-play or premium? VR or RV? [laughs]
GamesBeat: Is there ever a point where you’d try to bring an end to a game like Civilization? Maybe you’d want them to stop at 300 hours or something.
Meier: Maybe you could convince me of the benefit of that. But I think that would be something that I’d keep thinking about from the beginning. That would influence my play before I got there. I’m not sure.
GamesBeat: Some of that leads to a certain amount of intimidation on its own, though. “Oh, I don’t want to start a 300-hour game.”
Meier: Yeah. I doubt people are playing one game for 180 hours or whatever. Soren was mentioning that a lot of people, if they have to stop, will just start over again. That first part of the game has all this exploration. It has its own special fun to it. They want to re-experience that. I was very surprised by those numbers, though. 180 hours on the average is pretty amazing.
That’s always been our goal, to make a game you want to play again even if you’ve played it once or twice or three times. You want to play again to see what happens this time.
GamesBeat: What’s happening in the next 25 years?
Meier: Five more Civs, I guess? I don’t know. We were talking about that. It’s really the community that will determine that. Do people continue to play it and enjoy it? If they do, I’m pretty sure we’ll try to keep them happy.
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