Sid Meier: More than Just Civilization


Let’s face it. The video games world is not getting any younger, and the most famous creators of yesterday are now well past 60. Sid Meier is no exception. I picked up his memoir and it was a good read. I am now pretty confident that we will see more publications in the same vein, as the age of pioneers reaches an end.

For Linux gamers, Sid Meier’s current company, Firaxis, is a well known benefactor - one of the few friendly to our cause: Civilization 5, 6, and Beyond Earth have all been ported to Linux by Aspyr with the blessing of Firaxis. Even back in the Loki days, Civilization: Call To Power was one of the first games ported to Linux… while this was not a game by Sid Meier - just one from Activision who had secured the rights to the franchise. This is one of the things you will learn as you go through this memoir.

Sid Meier is most well known for his massively successful Civilization series. But as a young gamer, I experienced many of his other games as I was growing up. This memoir is a timely throw-back into my childhood experiences. Opening up the book for the first time, I was not sure what I was going to find: development stories akin to the ones found in Masters of Doom? Or something else entirely?

Actually, this reads like a personal journey with self-reflection. What brought Sid Meier to gaming, how he grew up, how he ended up becoming a game designer and what drove him to go from one title to the next. Don’t expect any deep insight on how every title was conceived and developed. Most of the time, there are only superficial allusions about the creative process or the choices he made along with his team members. Sometimes Sid Meier makes the case for some specific principles on how to make games more fun, but a detailed game designer manual this is not.

Sid Meier has Swiss heritage and while he was born and raised in Canada, he travelled and stayed in Switzerland several times for vacation and sometimes for extended periods. There were some times he was very close to living there, both as a child and as an adult. But the constraint of military obligations (mandatory for Swiss citizens) provided him with a good excuse to return to the US in order to skip it. Imagine an alternative universe where Sid Meier stayed in Switzerland, ended up not making games and may have become someone else entirely with a more quiet destiny in the middle of Europe. Sometimes destiny works in mysterious ways.

Sid ended up meeting and befriending Bill Stealy, and together they co-founded Microprose. Bill was a veteran pilot and thought that it was possible to do better games with planes than the ones available at the time. Sid said he could technically do it - and taking up the challenge led to incorporating a company.

This explains why a lot of early Microprose games had a focus on flight simulations, and then simulations in more general terms. Sid ended up programming several flight simulators under the pressure (and interest) of Bill, but got sick of it after a while, and went on to explore other genres. One of the was Covert Action. A FBI-CIA-esque title focused on investigations, including also some kind of mini-games and procedural generation of detective stories. Mixing two games into one proved perillous: the mini-games were fun, and the generated stories too, but the whole fell apart when combined. Sid felt it did not work very well, no matter how many times he tried to tweak it. Even later on, he kept pursuing the idea of making procedurally generated detective stories that could be worth playing - an elusive goal. Small trivia: Covert Action became their first title ported to Linux, well before any porting company existed.

Railroad Tycoon started as an experiment that connected his love of games and of miniature trains. In the beginning it was mostly about creating train tracks until it turned into a full-fledged economical simulation involving trains.

Civilization started as a weekend side project, and ended up the way we know it through numerous iterations following the feedback of Bruce Shelley, who was a board game designer at Avalon Hill before joining the industry. Civilization was initially not supported in any way by Microprose. The board did not believe in it (despite the trail of successful projects by Sid before) but they anyway let Sid publish it out of respect. Little did they know it would become the massive franchise that we all know about now. An eternal reminder that predicting what will sell well is an impossible task. But Sid saw early signs of what Civilization could become as his co-workers fell into the just one more turn trap and ended staying in front of the game for hours and hours. Something this addictive is bound to make waves.

I guess many of you have already come across this story: how the statistical odds in battles within Civilization make no sense in terms of probabilities. When you have a 33% chance of winning a fight, it’s entirely possible (and somewhat likely) that you could lose three times in a row. But this was somewhat unintuitive for gamers, and Sid tweaked this to make it so that players would eventually win once every three tries with such odds. It was always the priority to keep the game fun before all kinds of correctness.

Following Civilization, another very successful title was Colonization. I was really surprised to hear that it was not a game from Sid Meier, despite what was written on the box. It was entirely made by Brian Reynolds, and from there on the Sid Meier’s brand was used as a promotional tool and did not indicate a first hand from Sid in the actual development. While I was never a big fan of Civilization, Colonization is one of the games I have a huge respect for: no tech-tree nonsense, a narrower yet deeper scope on a specific period of history, and a great mix between managing resources and raising an army to declare independence. Brian went on to direct Civilization II afterwards (and much later, went on to create his own company to make Rise of Nations).

Despite the success of the more brainy games, the co-founder of Microprose, Bill, believed the company should instead go into arcade games - in a time when arcade games were clearly losing momentum. Younger readers have no idea what I am talking about. Well, there was a time, roughly until the early 90s, where people would put money into big machines in large venues to play some of latest games. I remember seeing Street Fighter II for the first time in one of those. But as game consoles evolved and progressed in capabilities, the excitment of arcades decreased sharply. Now Japan is probably one of the last countries where arcade games remain somewhat popular, but even over here many of them have closed doors recently.

Back to Microprose. Betting on arcades at a time when that market was shrinking hard was certainly not the brightest business move by Bill Stealy. It ended up tanking the company completely in a matter of years. Spectrum Holobyte (famous for publishing Falcon, among other things), based in California, bought Microprose afterwards, and renamed itself to Microprose for brand recognition. However, the heads of Spectrum Holobyte were more interested in developing titles based on famous IPs rather than developing their own. Hence they made Microprose work on a Magic The Gathering digital adaptation (but Sid Meier took no part in it).

Sid was really interested at some point in music theory and how harmonies follow mathematical patterns. This led him to create CPU Bach, a program that can litteraly compose Bach-like pieces of music out of the blue. It was made for the 3DO console. Why the 3DO? In that very small window of time between the 16 bits consoles and the 32 bits consoles like the Playstation, that was the best hardware available you could make music on. Sadly, CPU Bach failed to leave its mark, as the console itself ended up as a massive market failure (it was launched before the Sony Playstation and quickly faded once Sony took a hold on the gaming market).

Jeff Briggs, Brian Reynolds and Sid ended up leaving Microprose to form Firaxis (Fiery Axis) in 1996. Between Firaxis and Microprose there were a lot of touchy IP-related topics, but somehow they managed to navigate through them without resorting to suing each other to death. Bruce Shelley, another ex-Microprose employee who worked extensively on Civilization with Sid, ended up forming Ensemble Studios and went on to create its own blockbuster franchise, Ages of Empire. You may have heard of it!

There were several trials to make Civilization work online, but they failed badly because they did not design the game too well for network communication from the ground up: too much data to transfer, for too slow networks at the time. There was even the strange Civ World, a Civilization version released for Facebook: another failure as players did not react well to the incentives laid out in this version of the game. They had to shut it down within 2 years.

There’s of course a lot more than the above anecdotes in the book. While I would have liked to better understand the game design choices made in Civilization (about what I consider to be an utterly broken tech tree that makes no sense), or why Beyond Earth was such a poor follow-up, I did find a pleasant read from start to end.

He does finish with good advice, asking designers to keep iterating quickly on ideas, and test them to see if they work or not… and drop them if they don’t: don’t get attached to a bad idea. Try it out, see if it works, trash it if it does not. No need to overthink it.

As for me, my favorite title actually developed by Sid Meier is probably Pirates!: probably one of the true open-world games because we even coined the term, with numerous quests you could decide to follow in the Caribbean, and countless choices you could take along the way. Completely non-linear from start to finish, with unlimited replayability. A true gem.

So… what’s next for Sid? He is not officially retired, so he may still have some ambitious projects under wraps… hopefully not just another Civ title! But even if he decided to stop now, there would no shame in it: he has been one of the most prolific game designers of the past 40 years, and left a huge collection of games to play… and replay.