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Game Designer Spotlight – Sid Meier

Sid Meier has been working in the industry for nearly 40 years, and has produced countless classic games. In this video I talk about his history in game design, before digging into his design philosophy and how he makes his games.

Caleb Compton, Blogger

March 3, 2020

15 Min Read

The following article is a reproduction. The original article, and over 100 more, can be found at RemptonGames.com


What’s up designers, welcome back to Rempton Games. Today, I’m very excited to bring you the next installment of my Game Designer Spotlight Series. Today’s entry is all about legendary designer Sid Meier, creator of such classic games as Sid Meier’s Pirates, Railroad Tycoon, and of course, the classic Civilization series. For today’s video we are going to begin with a look at Meier’s life and career, before taking a closer look at his design process and game-making philosophy. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

Sid Meier was born in Canada in 1954, but grew up in Michigan in the United States. As a child, Meier describes that he has always been interested in 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.” However, even as he studied these games he had no ambitions of doing game design as a career, saying “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.”

Meier went on to attend college at the University of Michigan, and graduated with a degree in computer science. After college, Meier got a job at General Instruments Corporation, working on cash registers for department stores. It was during this time that Meier got his first gaming computer – an Atari 800. He found that the Atari 800 was pretty easy to work with, and began to use it to make some simple games. Many of Meier’s earliest games were based on existing games that were popular at the time, such as Space Invaders or Pac Man. During this time he reportedly put a Space Game that he had made onto the office network, and it hooked so many employees that his boss forced him to take it down.

However, Meier’s career in game design didn’t really begin until 1982, when a group of mutual friends introduced him to Bill Stealy at a corporate meeting at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. At this meeting Meier and Stealy competed against eachother in a variety of arcade games, with Meier winning each time. Stealy eventually challenged Meier to compete in the flight simulator game “Red Baron”. Stealy, a former Air Force pilot, believed that there was no chance that Meier would be able to defeat him in this game, but he was mistaken. After his loss, Stealy asked Meier how he had done it, to which he replied – “While you were playing the game, I memorized the algorithms”.

Meier then went on to claim that he would be able to produce a better flight simulator on his home computer in a week. Stealy replied “If you can build it, I can sell it”. It actually took 2 months for Meier to complete his game, which went by the name Hellcat Ace. Stealy, true to his word, decided to try to sell the game, and sold 50 copies on his first sales call. Hellcat Ace went on to become the first product of the new company that Meier and Stealy would form together, which they called MicroProse. Fun fact – in 1988 Microprose actually went on to buy the exact Red Baron cabinet that was responsible for sparking the creation of the company.

Most of MicroProse’s early games were historical simulations, mainly flight simulations, with titles such as F-15 Strike Eagle, Solo Flight, and Gunship. However, by 1986 Meier was fascinated by a different idea – a game about living as a pirate in the Caribbean, which would go on to become Sid Meier’s Pirates. This game was not only incredibly successful, but also began a long tradition of putting Meier’s name in the title of the games.  When asked why this decision was made, Meier claimed that it was mainly a marketing move. Stealy was worried about the pirate game, because it was very different from anything that the company had done up to that point. Therefore, he suggested the Meier put his name in the title, believing that it would help draw in players who were fans of Meier’s previous work.

Stealy, however, describes it a bit differently, claiming that the idea to put Meier’s name in the title came from none other than legendary actor and gaming enthusiast Robin Williams. “We were at a dinner at a Software Publishers meeting, and Robin Williams was there. And he kept us in stitches for two hours. And he turns to me and says ‘Bill, you should put Sid’s name on a couple of these boxes, and promote him as the star.’

After Pirates was released Meier continued to work on flight simulators, but gradually shifted his focus more towards Strategy games. Inspired by Will Wright’s SimCity (which was itself influenced by Sid Meier’s Pirates), Meier decided to make his own “God Game”. That desire, mixed with a childhood interest in trains, led to the creation of Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon in 1990. This became the first entry in the popular “Railroad Tycoon” series, and also inspired many other MicroProse “Tycoon” games, including RollerCoaster Tycoon.

Following the success of Railroad Tycoon, Meier wondered how he could take the “God Game” concept even further. His solution? What if, instead of growing a railroad you instead grew…a Civilization.

Sid Meier’s Civilization was released in 1991, and was a massive success. This series is probably Sid Meier’s most recognizable work, even to this day, and has spawned a franchise that has sold around 40 million copies in total.

However, while the early 90’s was an exciting time for Meier creatively, it was not a great time for MicroProse financially. They made a number of very expensive investments – trying to start an arcade division, and developing an engine for adventure games – which left them in significant debt. Stealy, who was good friends with Spectrum Holobyte president Gilman Louie, convinced him to help MicroProse and in 1993 the two companies merged. This merger resulted in MicroProse having to close some of its satellite offices, and laying off many members of its staff.

In 1994, Bill Stealy also left MicroProse, claiming that “It was a great marriage, but the new company only needed one chairman”. MicroProse continued as a separate subsidiary company under Spectrum Holobyte until 1996, when Spectrum Holobyte consolidated the companies and laid off a large number of MicroProse staff to save costs. Unhappy with the layoffs and corporate reshuffling, Meier left the company – along with 2 other former MicroProse employees Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds – to form a new company, Firaxis games. The last game that Sid Meier worked on for MicroProse was a licensed game based on Magic: The Gathering, which was released in 1997. It would also be the last game he worked on that did not have his name in the title.

At Firaxis, Sid Meier has continued to produce strategy games in a wide variety of different topics, including Civil War combat and, more recently, outer space with the releases of Civilization: Beyond Earth and Sid Meier’s Starships. He has also produced new entries in his Railroad Tycoon and Pirates series of games, and while he hasn’t produced any new Flight Simulators he has created the Ace Patrol series, which are airplane combat strategy games.

The one game that he hasn’t yet been able to produce – his “White Whale”, if you will – is “Sid Meier’s Dinosaurs”. Meiers has tried several different times to produce a dinosaur based game, but has never come up with a concept that was fun enough. In a Kotaku interview he stated that “I did three different prototypes. One was real-time, the other turn-based, and one was a card game. And they were all kind of fun, but just not fun fun.”

When asked how he could tell when the game was fun enough, he said “I play the game. That’s how I develop it, by playing the game, tweaking it, and changing it. If other people play it, and they’re like “oh, that’s okay” I ask “but your not still playing it”? If they say “no, I put it away” then I know it’s a problem. If they’re still not playing it, then it’s not as fun as it needs to be.” If other people at work were playing it long and often, even when they didn’t have to, then he knew he was on the right track.

Finding the fun is a big part of Meier’s design mentality. Meier believes in finding the fun in any concept, and will iterate, and try new things until he does. He refuses to release a new game unless it meets his standards of fun. According to Firaxis developer Jake Solomon“Sid just has a very insightful way of looking at the world. He can find the fun in almost anything.”

Finding the fun is also the source for another aspect of Meier’s design process – a focus on prototypes, rather than design documents. Meier believes that the only way to actually find the fun in a game is to actually play it – you can’t tell just based on a design. Because of this, according to Solomon, “Sid’s never had to write a design document, because instead of debating with you about some new feature he wants to implement, he’ll just go home and at night he’ll implement it. And then tomorrow when he comes in he’ll say, ‘Okay, now play this new feature.’

Part of finding the fun in any design is listening to feedback from the players. Solomon continues – “He told me a phrase I use all the time – Feedback is fact. That’s the way you have to look at feedback, as if it’s a fact. You’ve worked on this massive system or this game, and they come in your office and they go, ‘I played it, and I was bored.’ The worst thing you could do as a designer is start to defend your design or argue with that person. What you do is accept what that person told you as a fact. They said they were bored, so guess what? Your game bored that person. And you need to figure out why that is.”

When responding to feedback, Meier was not the type to make small changes. Brian Reynolds recalled another of Meier’s rules “if you are making a video game, and you’re having trouble with a number—say, the number of damage points a unit can do—either double it or cut it in half.

“He didn’t have any patience for, ‘Let’s try increasing it by 10%. Let’s try another 10%,’” Reynolds said. “Turns out that’s a pretty good rule of thumb to start with for a game designer, because the typical thing is to be really careful and try to inch up a little bit, and then you have to change it seven times to get it right. If you double it, you’ll immediately feel whether making it stronger was even a good idea.”

Finally, one of Sid Meier’s most well-known game design philosophies is his belief that “A great video game is a series of interesting decisions: a set of situations in which the player is constantly confronted with meaningful choices.” If you want to learn more on that topic, I have actually made a whole video about it, which you can check out as soon as you are done watching this one.

In regards to his own games, however, this philosophy goes to the very core of Sid Meier’s games. Meiers tends not to design linear, story driven games. Instead, he likes to give the players choices, and design games where players can create their own narrative. “I prefer games where the player can lead the game in the direction that they want, and then they kind of end up with that unique story that only they can know”.

This also partially explains a number of design decisions that he has made in games in the past. While he often makes games based on history, and tries to be historically accurate in many respects, his games do tend to avoid many of the darker parts of history. Combat in his games, for instance, tend to be very tame when it comes to violence. One other major historical omission in regards to the Civilization series is his decision to not include slavery. When asked about this decision, Meier explained that “There’s a conflict between an emotionally-charged topic and kinda giving the player this freedom of choice that really makes the game good. One of the things we really try to avoid in our games is this kind of—’this choice would be the right thing to do, but this choice is gonna help me win the game’—put the players in those kind of moral dilemmas. That’s not what our games are about. We want you to feel good about yourself when you finish the game.” Basically, he doesn’t players to have to choose between the morally correct choice and the strategically advantageous choice.

The Civilization series in particular has a number of other interesting design decisions, which could go a long way towards explaining its long-running success as a series. One of the most fundamental design decisions of the Civilization series is to have each game led by a different person. While Sid Meier’s name continues to be in the title of the games, he was only the lead designer on the first entry. However, even though different people have led the designs of different Civilization games, the core design philosophy still remains from entry to entry.

When asked what makes a good Civ game, Meier responded that “What happens in the players imagination…what fueled this “one more turn” phenomena was that you were always projecting what was going to happen next, and what was going you happen eight turns from now. You had multiple irons in the fire”. He also described how he designed the ruleset of Civilization, saying that “The basic ruleset is pretty clear…you are dealing with clear, intuitive rules, and basing your strategy on them interacting…Even though the systems are pretty straightforward, how they interact with eachother, how you make the tradeoffs, is where the interest lies, where the interesting decisions show up”.

In regards to whether newer entries in the Civilization series should still be considered “Sid Meier” games, he explained that ““I think they are all 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.”

Finally, in regards to where he gets the ideas for his games, Sid Meier says that he likes to make games about things that he is personally fascinated about – things like history, railroads, airplanes, pirates, and dinosaurs. He likes to take things that he was interested in as a kid and revisit them, to remember what was cool and fun about them and 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.”

Thank you so much for watching this video. If you liked it, leave a like and subscribe so you don’t miss more videos like these in the future. If you want to see more, check out my other videos, like my video where I dig further into the idea that games are a series of interesting decisions. I also have over 100 articles on the RemptonGames blog, which you can check out at the description down below. If you want to see more entries in this series please let me know, and leave suggestions in the comments for designers that you would like to see spotlighted in future videos. And join me next time for a video on designing characters in Super Smash Bros. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time.

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