'Civilization' Creator Sid Meier:

'Civilization' Creator Sid Meier: "I Didn't Really Expect to be a Game Designer"

'Civilization' creator Sid Meier Glixel

With 35 years of game development behind him, Meier opens up about his inspirations, burnout and why his name is on the box

With 35 years of game development behind him, Meier opens up about his inspirations, burnout and why his name is on the box

John Madden may be the only person with his name on more video games than Sid Meier – and depending on how you count, Meier might actually beat the former NFL coach.

The designer of – to name only a few – Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon, Sid Meier's Gettysburg!, Sid Meier's Pirates!, and, of course, Sid Meier's Civilization has been making video games for 35 years. In 1982, he co-founded MicroProse, a studio that built its reputation on Meier's flight simulators before going wider with games about pirates, railroads, and all of human history. In the 1990s, Meier left MicroProse to help found Firaxis Games, where he continues to serve as director of creative development.

The first Civilization was released more than a quarter-century ago in 1991, after being developed by a team of two – Meier and Bruce Shelley – that grew to 10 at its largest. Meier estimated recently that the budget for the game was around $170,000. He did the programming, the design, and the artwork. "It was kind of an audacious game for us to make," Meier said during a talk about the game's development at this year's Game Development Conference in San Francisco. "6,000 years of history in 640k."

The Civilization series has now sold almost 40 million copies, according to Take Two, which owns Firaxis. Sid Meier's Civilization VI, the most recent entry in the series, was released last year. (Even though Meier's name is on it, the lead designer was Ed Beach.)

At GDC, Meier talked to Glixel for almost an hour with boyish enthusiasm about what makes Civilization work, why Firaxis turns to a new lead designer with almost every sequel, and that whole thing with having his name on the box.

How did it feel to deliver a postmortem on Civilization at the Game Developers Conference to mark the 25th anniversary of the game's release?
In between the time Civ 1 came out and now, the Internet appeared, modding appeared, Reddit appeared, mobile appeared. So many things have happened in that time. But it's all within a lifetime.

At Firaxis, Civ has been the pillar of what we do. We're able to find a freshness in it by bringing in different designers. It's one of the unique things about Civilization. Each iteration is led by a different person. There's almost a Civ burnout. Once you've done a Civ, you're kind of burned out and somebody else comes in with some fresh ideas.

Why do designers get Civ burnout?
It's been interesting. Bruce Shelley, whom I worked with on Civ 1, went on to work at Ensemble on Age of Empires. Brian Reynolds, who worked on Civ 2, went on to do Rise of Nations. Soren Johnson worked on Spore. These designers have all had, clearly, talent. And other things to say. But they've kind of said what they had to say about Civ. It consumes you, to make a game about 6,000 years of history. After the first Civ, I had put everything that I could imagine into that game. You're ready to do something different.

What were your original aspirations for Civilization?
One thing that struck me about that time was we had no fear. The game that we did immediately before that was Covert Action, and that was trying to create a computer-generated mystery story. It didn't. But the goal was to do that.

The project that I did immediately after Civ was CPU Bach, which was computer-generated music. And just before that, we had done Railroad Tycoon, which was our first god game. It was like, "OK, there was SimCity, this god game thing looks cool, let's make one." And then Civ was, "Well, let's just take the entire history of the world and stuff it into a computer game."

Today, we kind of package things into these genres that have well-defined boundaries, and you can build your game inside this box. But we didn't have genres. Pirates! was probably the second open-world game after Seven Cities of Gold. It was like, "Let's toss in some role-playing and some action and some storytelling and adventuring." So it was really about the fun of breaking new ground, or exploring a new territory, creating a design territory. It was a time when we were really experimenting and trying new things.

What makes a good Civ game?
What happens in the player's imagination. What we discovered afterwards, just by luck, kind of, was what fueled this "one more turn" phenomenon was the idea that, in your mind, you were always projecting what was going to happen next and what was going to happen three turns from now, what was going to happen eight turns from now. You had multiple irons in the fire. You were exploring this continent. You were dealing with troublesome neighbors. And you had this wonder that was always about to be built. So you were always anticipating what comes next.

A good Civ game has that quality, and it's based in part on the turn-based nature of it. You have the time to imagine what's going to happen next. You have the time to project your strategy, your ideas into the future. There's also the anticipation not only of what you're about to do but what the game's about to do to you. Genghis Khan is going to show up. Or they're going to finish the wonder before you. So there's all those things that you are looking forward to and anticipating.

The basic ruleset is pretty clear. You fill up this bucket, and another person appears. Three turns from now, it's going to be done. So you're not trying to figure out what the ruleset is. You are dealing with clear, intuitive rules, and basing your strategy on them interacting. "Yes, I want to build this, but I also want to build this!" So even though the systems are pretty straightforward, how they interact with each other, and how you make the tradeoffs, is where the interest lies, where the interesting decisions show up.

We tend to take for granted that history kind of had to work out the way it did. But one of the lessons of Civilization, which I think is true, is that with a few little changes, things could have gone differently.

It also appeals to the history nerd, right?
There is some of that. That's not the requirement to play the game. But there is a little bit of history nerd in everyone. Whether it's Gandhi or Genghis Khan or Caesar, there are these are larger-than-life figures that you've heard of, and you get to deal with them as an equal, which is empowering. And you have technologies like electricity and gunpowder and the wheel that you get to discover. There is enough of that to make you feel smart.

It reflects some fundamental truths about civilization, but it is not intended to be the final word on how civilizations work. I think it does a good job of showing how small turning points – you know, the butterfly effect – that small changes can take history off in completely different directions. We tend to take for granted that history kind of had to work out the way it did. But one of the lessons of Civilization, which I think is true, is that with a few little changes, things could have gone differently.

On an episode of History Respawned, a podcast hosted by historians who play video games, two professors who love Civilization talked about how the game encodes some academically unfashionable ideas, including progress in history and the idea of superior civilizations.
I think we do embrace the progress theory of civilizations. I know that can be controversial. It's kind of inherent to gaming, almost, that you want to feel this sense of progress, this idea that you're getting better.

We actually considered, when we originally designed it, "Wouldn't it be fascinating to have a rise-and-fall sense to the game?" So that you could have these setbacks and then come back even stronger, and that would be so satisfying. We found out that as soon as people had a significant setback, they reloaded the game from five turns ago. People are not inclined to enjoy the "fall" part of rise-and-fall.

How did your name end up in the game's title?
The first game that had my name on the box was Pirates!. And that was, as I recall – there are actually multiple versions of this story floating around – but as I recall, Bill Stealey and I, who were partners in MicroProse, had a conversation. I said, "I'm working on this pirates game, and I think it's a cool idea." And Bill thought we needed more flight games. He said, "Well, put your name on it so that people who liked your simulation games like Silent Service and F-15 Strike Eagle will know it's the same person and maybe they'll give this pirate adventure game a try."

So we did. Pirates! turned out pretty well. And then it became, once something works, keep doing it. So it became marketing, I guess an early form of branding. But it was about allowing me to stretch my design wings.

When Minecraft came out, I spent a lot of time with that. I like racing games like Forza and Gran Turismo. World of Tanks, I was playing that for a while.

Are the sequels to Civilization still Sid Meier games, or are they more like, how you see on some novels, "Tom Clancy's Support and Defend, by Mark Greaney"?
I think they all are true to the core precepts of Civilization. We call it the one-third, one-third, one-third rule. When we do a new Civ, one third of it is the stuff we know has to be there. One third of it is things that we've tried – a religion system, or an espionage system – but have now figured out how to do better. And one third is brand-new ideas. I guess I feel ownership of those fundamental rules, the basic concepts that we talked about a minute ago, the "one more turn," the anticipation.

But the new ideas, from other people, are also very significant. I'm not uncomfortable that my name is on there as a brand, because I think these games are true to the ideas that made Civ work in the first place. But it's not that I'm claiming that every good idea in there is mine.

Do you play games?
If I'm really in the middle of developing something, I'll play less, because it's more fun to be working on this new game than to play other games. I'm not a super hardcore gamer. When Minecraft came out, I spent a lot of time with that. I like racing games like Forza and Gran Turismo. World of Tanks, I was playing that for a while.

Is it true that you are your church's organist?
I am the director of the contemporary band at our church. We have an official church organist, but I fill in when he's away.

And I've heard that you care about not having too much sex and violence in your games?
To a certain extent, that is true. We had a joke around MicroProse in the early days that nobody would ever die in our games. In Pirates!, your guys would always jump off the ship before it sank. In Railroad Tycoon, there was a scene where the train was heading toward a bridge that was crashed, but the conductor jumped off at the last minute. I have a son, he's grown-up now, but during that time, he was a gamer, and we played games together. Just being aware of the message your games are sending and the people who are playing them – violence is a part of gaming and a part of the world, but gratuitous violence is not really essential to making a game.

What do you want Firaxis games to give players?
Typically a game will take you to a world where you're taking on another character, another role. You're able to do things that you're probably didn't do in real life. You're not going to be able to have the chance to rule a civilization, or fly a fighter, or be a pirate. It's a way to express yourself, for the player to express themselves, in some really interesting worlds that are fun and intriguing to them. And to be successful and to feel good about the experience that they had there.

Did you always want to make games?
Before there were computers available in the home, I was making games and designing games, with toy soldiers and blocks. I was always trying to understand the rules, the dynamics behind things. Trying to watch football and figure out which plays worked, and why did they work, and what was everybody doing. So I've always had a fascination with the rules behind these interesting outcomes.

I didn't really expect to be a game designer. That wasn't really a profession or a career when I was a young. There was Monopoly and Sorry!, but those weren't games that you aspired to design. The whole idea that game design was a career just wasn't around.

I studied programming in college, but programming was for scientists. It wasn't for games. It was only after I got out of college that I got an Atari 800 computer – that was, all of a sudden, a machine designed for gaming. I was in the right place at the right time, there at the very beginning of the industry, where I could make my mistakes and try things.

I didn't really expect to be a game designer. That wasn't really a profession or a career when I was a young. There was Monopoly and Sorry!, but those weren't games that you aspired to design. The whole idea that game design was a career just wasn't around.

What were you doing before you and Bill Stealey founded MicroProse?
I got a real job out of college. I was working on cash register systems for department stores. It was an era when they were replacing their manual cash registers. It was a regular old job. And [then] the Atari 800 came out. It wasn't quite as nerdy as the RadioShack or the Apple. It was packaged together with colors and sound and everything. You could make cool games on it pretty easily.

This was the late 1970s?
That would have been the late 1970s, early '80s. So I made a couple games. My first game was amazingly similar to Space Invaders. I hand-coded it in assembly language onto a cassette tape. We were just figuring out how to do things. I did a Pac Man-ish type game, and some other games, and then I got together with Bill and started MicroProse, and things just kind of evolved from there.

How did you meet Bill?
We both worked at the same place. He had a real job, too. He was interested in this new phenomenon and wanted to start his own company. I was making games on the side, and he wanted to sell them. And so that's what we did.

Let's be young and stupid, and sometimes that turns out to be a good idea?
Today, it's so difficult. The market has changed. There are lots of games being designed, but visibility is so difficult. It's very hard to imagine starting these days.

The whole world has changed. We're overwhelmed, whether it's music or games or entertainment, with more choices than we can understand. There's more information out there than we can absorb. That's a completely different situation than when we were starting out, when every month or two, a good game might come out. Today, every day, a hundred good games come out.

I got myself a Tesla, so I think I'm really cool now.

Are you a technology enthusiast?
I'm intrigued by technology, especially musical technology. If there's a new keyboard coming out, I've got to check it out. We're still waiting for VR to figure out the killer app that legitimizes a new technology. I think that's still around the corner. I got myself a Tesla, so I think I'm really cool now.

What's the most important thing about Civ that I haven't asked you about?
When I talk to players of the game, occasionally I feel a warmth about the conversation. There are a few conversations about how I had to drop out of school, or whatever. But to counteract those, there are kids who amaze their teacher with their knowledge of history or geography.

But the most recent thing, which really struck me, was we had an event called FiraxiCon, where fans could come to Baltimore and meet the designers. For the first time, I ran into people who were there with their son or daughter. They were playing Civ together. A parent was introducing Civ to their son or daughter in the way that you would take them to your favorite baseball team. "Here's something cool that I have that I'm now going to introduce you to." Enough time had gone by that two generations could share this experience. That couldn't have happened if there had only been a Civ 1 or a Civ 2.

Are you a history nerd yourself?
I'm fascinated by history, but also by railroads and airplanes and pirates, all the things that my games have been about.

Those seem like the interests of a young boy.
They're very much the things that I was interested in as a kid. I've been able to revisit them as an adult and think about how to turn them into games and remember what was fun and cool about them, and to try to bring them to life. The games that I make are the games that I wanted to play but nobody had made them yet. I had to make them before I could play them.

This interview has been edited and condensed.