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Sid Meier's still making stuff, and he'll probably never stop

Even as so many veterans eventually find themselves as hands-off managers, Civilization creator Sid Meier makes sure he's on the front lines, making video games.
Sid Meier still says he probably has the best job in the world: making video games. The man behind games like Civilization and Pirates has been making games for decades, and he's showing no signs of stopping any time soon. Recent shifts in the market have afforded him the opportunity to constantly be making stuff, even as so many veterans eventually find themselves as hands-off managers. Today, Meier is as hands-on with game development as ever, most recently heading up creation of the free-to-play iOS game Ace Patrol, launched last week on the App Store. "These platforms let us work on games more directly," he tells us. "The code that I write goes right into the game. I can see it five minutes later, and it's a very tight development loop." Meier pretty much has free reign at Firaxis, the studio he co-founded, where he serves as director of creative development. He has his fingers in everything at the studio, even if he's not involved in day-to-day decisions, from the Civilization series that still bears his name, to the successful XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

"I'm right here on the front lines"

But nowadays, the projects he chooses to be directly hands-on with offer him new challenges: Civilization Revolution was about bringing 4x strategy to a console audience; Civilization World was about adapting the series for social networks. Ace Patrol offers Meier a another challenge: bringing hex-based, board game-like strategy to mobiles, within a free-to-play business model. Though we've seen Civilization Revolution come to mobiles, Ace Patrol is the first game made specifically for phones and tablets. Taking on these challenges first-hand is part of the fun for Meier. "On some projects, I'd create a prototype, then hand it over and say, 'This is how the game ought to work,' and have less of a direct connection with how the game turned out," he says. "Here, I'm right there on the front lines, writing the code that actually runs the game, that the players are interacting with." Including Meier, Ace Patrol was made by a core team of eight or nine. He programmed the gameplay and the AI himself. He says, "With smaller teams, there's a lot fewer meetings, and a lot more work time to create, so that's fun." Meier's been working on video games since at least the early '80s -- he co-founded Microprose in 1982. With the resurgence of small teams and smaller-budget games we ask if he sees any parallels between game development in 2013 and in the 80s. "We're seeing a little more democratization of gaming, and a wider variety of game styles and topics and genres, and new designers really getting an opportunity to make games," he says. "There are some parallels there to the '80s, when somewhat smaller budgets made it possible to take more chances and some more risks. That said, there are great triple-A games as well. There's a real variety of games, and not the sense that we're locked into three or four genres. That also hearkens back to the '80s, when we were free to try new things and just see if they worked."

"A series of interesting choices"

For many years, Meier has stuck with his personal definition of games: "A series of interesting choices." He says everyone has their own definition, but over time, this still applies to his type of games. "It still works for me!" he says. "It's a way we look at game problems, sometimes. If something doesn't feel right, it has to do with drilling down to what the decisions are, to examine if they are really working. It's a pretty simplistic way of looking at games, but often if you look at it for a second, some things will become clearer." So what does he mean by an "interesting choice?" Meier says, "You want the player to see possibilities in each path, but based on what they're trying to accomplish in one moment, one of those choices makes sense." New platforms and new ways to do business will afford Meier to keep on making video games. Talking to him, it's hard to imagine he'll ever stop. "I have probably the world's best job. Making games is a really cool combination of creativity and science, or certainty. Being able to watch a game grow and evolve is probably the most satisfying thing -- to see it change from a vague idea to something that's concrete and fun, to see it come to life hopefully better than you imagined. That day-to-day sense of progress keeps me coming back."

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