[Renowned game designer Sid Meier tells Gamasutra how his traditional "find the fun" design philosophy can translate to the fast-paced, metrics-based world of social gaming, with his latest title, CivWorld.]
When Sid Meier launched the original Civilization strategy game back in 1991, he never could have predicted the paths that the constantly-evolving games industry would take the franchise over the next 20 years.
Since that first entry, we've seen four more entries in the core Civilization turn-based PC series, plus all their expansions and spinoffs. And in 2008, Meier led development of Firaxis' Civilization Revolution, a version of the franchise tailored for a console experience that also arrived on handhelds and mobile devices.
Meier chooses his projects carefully -- he only has so much time. While designer Jon Shafer was busy heading up the creation of last year's Civilization V (still prefixed "Sid Meier's"), Meier couldn't help but to continue to explore new platforms for new audiences, this time with the Facebook game CivWorld.
CivWorld launched in open beta form this week. Gamasutra spoke with Meier, who is just now making his social gaming debut. While there are certainly examples of hugely successful social games on Facebook that are riding a new wave of game development methods, Meier is still taking an old-school designer philosophy: use your gut to "find the fun" first, then little details like income will fall into place.
That means that he's ignored the "launch soon, update often" mentality of the biggest social games. Meier said he's been at work on CivWorld for about a year-and-a-half -- way longer than typical social game projects. Here, Meier admits it's an "experiment," but he's hoping that social gamers will catch on to his traditional take on the fast-paced world of social gaming.
Christian Nutt: How much of a challenge was it to approach designing social games for the first time?
Sid Meier: It was definitely a challenge. I think that was actually a big part of the appeal of the project, kind of taking the core ideas of Civilization and expressing them in this new medium. We had a lot of fun a couple years ago taking Civ and bringing it to the consoles with Civilization Revolution, and doing a version for the Xbox and PS3 and the DS. That eventually kind of turned into an iPhone version and an iPad version as well.
It was just a lot of fun to kind of take those four Civ ideas, and then figure out how to do them with a console controller instead of a mouse and keyboard and different interfaces and different audiences. That's kind of a fun design challenge.
So, when Facebook came along, it was also intriguing to see how we could take the core ideas of Civilization and use them in this whole different kind of play style, where people aren't playing in concentrating blocks from beginning to end but are playing 15 minutes, a half hour a day, an hour a day, whatever their particular schedule is, and also really explore the cooperative gameplay side of Civ.
That's something we don't get to do a whole lot with a traditional Civ game. But cooperative gameplay is a lot of fun and can really add an extra dimension to the game. Where Civ has traditionally been essentially a single-player experience, civilization in the real world is a multiplayer experience. A lot of people are involved, and to get to explore that, the idea of people working together, playing together, playing in an environment with your friend, cooperation, all that kind of stuff, were the new elements that we really wanted to explore with CivWorld.
So we wanted to kind of keep the core of Civilization, those basic ideas, but use this new technology and this new kind of gameplay as kind our starting points.
CN: Was designing for a cooperative multiplayer experience -- not just for a couple people, but for a couple hundred of people a time -- change Civilization a lot? How did you approach that?
SM: It changed it a fair amount. What we were really looking for were opportunities for people to work together -- to really reward teamwork, reward communication, reward the teams, the groups of people that really worked well together. That was really one of the fundamental changes.
In PC Civ, you kind of are king, and you get to make all the decisions, and nobody can say no to you. [laughs] In CivWorld, it's really more about the social aspect, convincing people that you've got the good idea, working together with other players. And again, it's a real Civ game. We've got technology. We've got culture. We've got battles and military and economics.
You can do a lot of things on your own, but the game really comes into its own when you start cooperating and working together with other players, specializing and figuring out what's going to be your role in Civ. That was a very new element, but I think it really fits with the whole idea of Civilization and the concept. I think it worked out pretty well.
CN: You talked about just now just bringing in all of the elements of Civilization is known for, all of the depth, but at the same time trying to design for short session duration, which you alluded in your first answer. So, how does that work?
SM: Right. Well, we actually did the math, and the amount of time actually corresponds a lot to PC Civ game. For example, Civ IV or Civ V, you might play 15 or 20 hours to complete a game. Well, in CivWorld, you probably play those same 15 or 20 hours. You just spread that time out over a couple weeks. CivWorld is a game, and it has a beginning, middle, and an end. It's just a different rhythm, a different schedule for players. So, we're giving them, in that sense, a similar amount of gameplay, but it's just done in a different pace and schedule.
CN: Is that driven by the design of the game in the sense that you gave people things that are digestible quicker or in smaller chunks? Or is it just due to player expectations of how to approach a game on Facebook?
SM: I think it's about the players. The fundamental idea is you can play in a world together with your friends. So, you probably don't have enough friends who can spend 20 hours straight playing a game to play classic Civ. So, we designed a game that was a fun experience if you were able to play from 15 minutes to an hour a day, and we think that your friends can probably afford that amount of time.
Or you can find a group of people that would enjoy spending that amount of time playing Civ. So, the game rhythm, the tempo of the game, the things that you can do, and how you accomplish things are based around the idea, of playing one or two sessions a day, coming back, checking in every now and then. So, it's really about how do we make a game that you can realistically play with a bunch of your friends. That's the kind of time commitment that would seem to make sense.
CN: So, did you design for appointment play in any aspect, in terms of making players have to come back periodically?
SM: We tried to avoid that to a large extent, the idea of having to be there at the same as another player, by putting in chat features, messaging features. There are a number of ways that the game kind of allows you to almost automatically communicate with other players. One example is the way you build a Wonder in CivWorld is to fill a couple of slots with great people.
So, for example, to build the pyramids, it might require three great people. But a single player can only put in one person, so it requires three people to cooperate to get that Wonder.
But you might put in your person in the morning, and somebody else will come back and check the screen, and say, "Oh, Chris wants us to build a pyramid. I see he's added a person there. So, I'm going to add my person, and then a couple hours later, somebody else might come along and put their person in there."
Even though they were not playing at the same time, they were not online at the same time, they still kind of knew what was going on, knew what other people were doing, and were able to work together to accomplish something.
So, we look for opportunities like that to allow people to work together even though they might not be playing at exactly the same time. Now there are events, battles for example, where it's a good idea to kind of be there when the battle takes place because there's a lot that goes on there.
So, it's a combination of a few appointment-type events, but in general the gameplay is what we call asynchronous. It doesn't require everyone to be playing at the same time.
Kris Graft: I think a lot of other "regular" Civilization players like being able to basically go head-to-head with other players, to outwit them. How is CivWorld going to accommodate players that want to be in more direct competition? And also, do you think that kind of competition would be a turn-off for Facebook gamers?
SM: I think we definitely talked about that quite a bit. What's the balance of competitive versus cooperative gameplay that we're looking for? I think we want to provide both of those and kind of let the player gravitate toward what type of play style they prefer.
There are a couple of ways that that happens. You can join a large civilization. Just to kind of back up a second, there are somewhere close to 200 players in each game world, and those players form individual civilizations. A civilization can have anywhere from a couple people up to 30 to 40 people together. So, if you're looking for kind of more cooperative gameplay, you would probably join a larger civilization where you're working together with more people.
If you're more of a competitive kind of individualist, you might start your own civilization or join a small civilization with just a couple people. Even if you joined a large civilization, there are ranks and positions within that civ.
For example, there's one king. There's a defense minister, a political advisor. There are positions of honor that you can compete with your other civ members to achieve. There's a whole range of both competitive and cooperative ways of playing.
If you're looking for the classic "I'm the king; I'm going to conquer the world experience," that's not what this game is about. But you can compare the level of your achievements, your fame points, versus other players. There are many ways to be competitive. It's kind of a balance between competitive gameplay, where you can kind of advance yourself, but in many ways, the best way to advance yourself is to advance your civilization and cooperate with other players. There are a lot of kind of trade-offs. A lot of trade-offs are going on there if you're both the competitive and cooperative player.
KG: At GDC last year, you actually described the relationship between the gamer and the designer as an "unholy alliance."
Sid Meier: [laughs]
KG: So, I'm wondering, since this obviously isn't a single-player game, the gamer doesn't exactly have in their head "Me versus whoever made this game," or an A.I. There's just much more collaboration with your friends. How do you adjust to that as a designer? Do you feel like maybe your role is a bit more transparent or that you're a bit more off the hook or free to do different things?
SM: I think in some ways, that's true. The more players that are involved in the game, the more that you're kind of handing over the making of the experience to your players. If you've got 200 players, for example, in one of these worlds, a lot of what's going to happen is kind of out of your control. It really depends on the dynamic of the players and how they interact, what they decide to do.
So, you're handing over a fair amount more control to your players, as opposed to a single-player game... The player is still guiding the game, but you're kind of right there beside them at almost every step as a designer. It's still an alliance between the player and the designer.
But there's a difference. Group dynamics are kind of different from single-player dynamics, and you really have to start thinking about group dynamics and how do you encourage communication, how do you find ways for people to work together. Griefing and exploits are more of an issue in this kind of world. So, there's definitely some new things for the designer to think about in this kind of things.
CN: You were very directly involved with Civ Rev and the idea of bringing Civilization to a new audience. And you were very directly involved in this, more than you were involved in Civ V. I'm wondering how you make decisions about how you spend your attention when it comes to the franchise.
SM: Right. Well, I would like to have the time and energy to do every Civ game, but this one appealed to me because of a lot of the new design challenges. On Civ V, Jon Shafer was the lead designer. What we found, actually, is that by bringing in new design ideas, new designers to kind of carry on the Civ tradition, we get a lot of cool new ideas.
When I've done a Civ game, I'm kind of burnt out for a while. I've put all my best ideas into a game. If you came to me and said, "Alright, Sid. You finished this Civ. Now it's time for you to make a new one."
It's like, "Well, I just made the best Civ I could make...It's going to take some time to kind of come up with new ideas or figure out what to do." So, we found, certainly with the Civ series, that getting some fresh blood in there, some fresh design ideas, has really been a good idea.
The projects that have kind of challenged me are taking it into new areas where what we've done before just is not going to work. We're forced to come up with new ideas.
I think I understand Civ, the concepts pretty well, and the challenge for me is to look at this new hardware, to look at this new situation, this new way of playing, and figure out how to make it work with the new Civ ideas.
CN: Something Brian Reynolds said -- he went to Zynga, as I'm sure you're well aware. He said that in the past, on big PC games he was working on, he got to do actually very little design work because they move so slowly.
But as he moved to working on Facebook games, he got to contribute a lot more and work a lot more directly on the games. So, I was wondering if you've had a similar experience, or if you have any insight into that?
SM: There's something to that. I think that designers love to design, and there's X amount of design to be done in a project, and we certainly see budgets and time scales increase over time, so projects take longer and take more people. There's more coordination for us.
One of the appeals of the Facebook world is this idea that games can be turned around more quickly, that they can evolve. They're always in beta. You're always designing more stuff. [laughs] I think there's some truth to that. I think that one of the things that's fun about this world is there's a higher proportion of design to non-design in the work that needs to be done.
But CivWorld has taken us, you know, a year and a half or more at this point. So, it's not a very quick game to make, but it's been a lot of design involved, and we continue to actually design things even at this point. So, I would kind of agree in a lot of ways with what Brian has said.
CN: You said even at this point, you're continuing to design. If you talk to people who are working on social games, they pretty much say at no point do you stop designing.
SM: Yeah. As a designer, that's fun. I think especially because you're doing design in collaboration with the community. As a designer, I'm always looking for feedback. Is it fun? Are you having fun? Is it good? Do you like it?
Generally, when we're designing here, there's a very small audience. You've got a few people playing, and that's where you're kind of bouncing off ideas and things like that. Here, you've got a much larger set of ideas and people to drawn on and kind of interact with. So, that's another thing. That's something that's appealing as a designer.
KG: Why is the game taking so much longer to develop than other social games? Why not launch soon, update often like so many other successful social games do?
SM: Well, this is Civ. I think there's another strategy, which is to kind of throw five games out there and see which ones stick. We don't have five games to throw out there and see what sticks. I think we kind of said from the beginning that this game has to be as good as we can make it. We're not going to have five opportunities to make games. We have to put all of our best ideas to make this game.
That's part of the reason it took longer. I think also your first game in any new genre is going to require tools and infrastructure and a bunch of stuff that you probably don't already have. So, we did it as quickly as we could, but there was quite a bit involved. I think that's the reason it took the time that it did.
CN: How much did you go with design versus analytics? How much did you go with your usual creative design process? How much [design] was based on putting Alphas and Betas or whatever you would say live and getting feedback, analytically through data mining?
SM: Well, we love to prototype, and we love to get feedback. We had a game running pretty quickly, and we were playing it internally fairly early. So, that generated a lot of great feedback and ideas, and kind of the process started... That's more subjective than analytical.
Our process is geared toward the idea of fun, whatever that is, so we're basically looking to find the fun. I think that's kind of a subjective process. We didn't do a lot of kind of numerical analysis, how many people are clicking here. I'm not sure whether that's the cart or the house. We're looking to find the fun, and we think that if people are having fun, they're probably clicking on the right places or the right buttons at the right time. So, it's more of a kind of subjective gameplay-oriented approach to development than maybe an analytical one.
CN: Is that going to continue as the game is live? Or do you think that you're going to move to a point where you start harnessing more data?
SM: I think as we get a larger sample of players, the data becomes more meaningful. I think we will start to generate some useful information and figure out what parts of the game people are spending more time in and things like that.
If we're only finding out at this stage, then there's something wrong with our development process. We think we have a game that's pretty close to where it needs to be. I think the analytics are maybe about financing or figuring out kind of additional directions to go.
CN: How much did you study how Facebook games are built before you launched this project? Or did you in fact study sort of the way the big players or even games you particularly liked were built?
SM: It was really not our goal to re-create or copy other Facebook games around there. I think we're very early in the whole cycle of social gaming, and there's a lot of space to be explored, not just the games that are already out there.
So, we really wanted to explore some new space with CivWorld and not make a game based on other games that are out there. We're certainly aware of the other games that are out there, but they're not something we've studied. I think we're coming from a pretty different place.
KG: You said before at GDC again that gameplay is a psychological experience. That was really interesting. I was wondering if you think the monetization of gameplay is a psychological experience, and how much have you thought about that with a Facebook game.
SM: I think our approach to that is really... Again, if we can make a fun game, there will probably be some way for us to monetize that. Some people will find that experience hopefully compelling enough, fun enough to want to invest in it. That's the way we look at it. It's not about having a monetizing engine and trying to attach a game to it. It's about making a game that people want to play, and then thinking about the monetization issues.
One of our real concerns and goals is that monetizing not destroy the game experience. There can be many players who want to play for free, and that's fine. They're helping the game by playing and creating this world for people to play in. So, they want the experience to be a fun experience for those players whether you monetize or don't monetize, you're still contributing to the overall experience for everybody. So, we want the game to be fun for everyone.
Really thinking about how monetization can be done without destroying the experience for other players is really important. It was a new thing for us, and we wanted to be really careful about how it was done. So, a fair amount of thought did go into that.
CN: It sounds like you put most of your faith in the design and audience. A lot of times when I talk to people in the social space, they tend to come from different angles probably, but you know, it's more about the audience is viewed as an entity to really sort of butt up against, and the design of the game is viewed as maybe a tool to smooth that over. [laughs]
CN: It sounds like you more have faith in your audience and more faith in your design.
SM: Well, yes. I mean, we might be wrong [laughs], but I think that's what we do. We make games, and we hopefully make games that people enjoy playing and want to play again and want to play in a new way and are replayable. They just want to play another turn and enjoy the experience. We are hopefully leveraging our strength in this new area. It's certainly an experiment. It's certainly something new. We'll see how things turn out.
CN: Something with microtransaction-based games is there comes a fair point where people who work on them say, "pay attention to what your audience actually does, not what they say they want." I don't know if you've run into this so far, but I'm interested in if you have any perspective on that.
SM: Well, in a lot of ways, that's the next phase of our project. As I said, as your userbase grows, then metrics start to maybe generate some useful information. You're kind of almost getting back into my psychology talk. There's definitely a difference between what people say they want or say they do, and with what they actually do.
But part of the fun of gaming in general is to take on a new persona, to be the king of a civilization. Games give players an opportunity to kind of slip out of their normal persona and explore, experiment with cool new worlds. So, we're really encouraging that. We're really encouraging players to kind of think creatively about who they are, and maybe they're cooler and better than maybe they are in real life.
I might have gotten off topic of your question, but especially in these social multiplayer games, the players themselves provide a lot of the content, a lot of the interest in the chatting, the communication, and the working together. The more we can encourage them and empower them to do things within the game and make the game experience fun for themselves and also other players, that's a win for everybody. That's a big part of our design, to try and provide those opportunities.