The History of Civilization

Gamasutra is partnering with the IGDA's Preservation SIG to present in-depth histories of the first ten games voted into the Digital Game Canon, this time providing a comprehensive overview of Sid Meier's influential turn-based strategy opus Civilization, including an interview with Meier himself.

[Gamasutra is proud to be partnering with the IGDA's Preservation SIG to present detailed official histories of each of the first ten games voted into the Digital Game Canon. The Canon "provides a starting-point for the difficult task of preserving this history inspired by the role of that the U.S. National Film Registry has played for film culture and history", and Matteo Bittanti, Christopher Grant, Henry Lowood, Steve Meretzky, and Warren Spector revealed the inaugural honorees at GDC 2007. This latest piece follows the carrer of industry icon Sid Meier as he established himself as one of the most important contributors to PC gaming with the iconic turn based strategy epic Civilization.]

By 1990, Sid Meier had cranked out flight simulator games for as long as he knew how, at the request of his boss and partner. But Meier's life, and the world of computer games around him, had changed so much since the two men entered the market in 1982. Meier felt the undeniable urge to broaden his horizons as a designer; it was time to move on to greater things. Despite considerable opposition within the very company he co-founded, Meier broke the status quo and changed the course of computer strategy games forever. As the naysayers sank in his wake, he engineered lasting success and achieved design immortality with an epic game based on nothing less than the history of mankind.

One More Turn

Few games are as addictively fun and as infinitely re-playable as Civilization, a turn-based historical strategy game where a player single-handedly guides the development of a civilization over the course of millennia, from the stone age to the space age. The game feels uncannily accurate, as if it actually represents the way the world could have unfolded if the course of history were nudged over just a bit. Civilization's designer, Sid Meier, somehow distilled, condensed, and codified the rules of humanity's post-agriculture development into a three-megabyte IBM PC computer game, with shockingly good results. For that achievement, many critics recognize Sid Meier as one of the greatest software designers in history.

Meier's historical classic finds itself in good company among gaming innovators like Tetris, SimCity, and Rogue with the inclusion of random play elements that make each sitting unique. Civilization marks especially high in this regard: between random map generation, multiple ways to win, up to 15 additional computer-controlled civilizations, and seemingly endless combinations of paths to pursue, Civilization's emergent gameplay results in a whole new gaming experience every time. "The fact that there are so many different ways to play, and that they all seem interesting and fun, leads you to want to play again after you finish the game," said Meier in an interview.

Playing Meier's classic again is always tempting, assuming that we've actually eaten since sitting down for the last game, perhaps six or ten hours before. Civilization's addictiveness is legendary. So much so that it even has a name: the "one more turn" phenomenon. While playing Civ, there's always something cooking in the pot, something to look forward to. In your next move, a unit or building could be completed, a new city founded, or an exciting technology developed. "There was never really a good place to stop playing," says Meier. "I've often found myself playing and then realized I'm late for a meeting. So I've been exposed to the phenomenon myself."

How did Meier conceive of and create such a powerful, yet deceptively simple simulation of world events? To understand the full story on this incredible game, we'll first have to take a quick journey back into the early days of computer gaming.

The Birth Of MicroProse

Sid Meier met Bill Stealey in 1982 while they both worked at General Instrument, a large electronic component manufacturer. Meier, a talented young minicomputer programmer for GI, had recently acquired his first personal computer, an Atari 800, and was already creating primitive games for the machine in BASIC. John Wilbur "Bill" Stealey, a management consultant that held a side career as a fighter pilot with the U.S. Air Force Reserve, had also recently bought an Atari 800 to play Star Raiders.

The two crossed paths through the company and started chatting. Stealey shared his old Air Force stories, while Meier talked of his coincidental plan to write a flight simulator game for the Atari. As a die-hard fighter pilot, Stealey's interest was inextricably piqued, and he proposed going into business with Meier. The exuberant, outgoing Stealey (nicknamed "Wild Bill" by his friends) would cover the marketing and administrative duties, while the quiet, introspective Meier would write the games. It was a classic pairing of complementary personalities; neither man could have done it alone, but together, they formed a perfect team. The pair founded MicroProse Software in 1982 with Stealey as president, a position he would hold throughout remainder of the decade.

The Land Before Genre

At the time of Civilization's conception, 35-year old Michigan native Sidney K. Meier led an idyllic life with a dream job. "I was having a wonderful time as a game designer at MicroProse," says Meier. "It was really what I loved doing, and still love doing." Married with one child on the way, Meier settled near Baltimore, Maryland, close to company headquarters. MicroProse had been in business for eight years, and things were going well. "We had assembled a pretty good group of designers, programmers, and artists," recalls Meier. "That represented the golden years of MicroProse, where we had some good games and we really felt we could tackle new topics and give new things a try."

During those halcyon days of the nascent PC game industry, computer game design had not yet been restrained by the single-minded adherence to narrow, hit-proven genres or skyrocketing hundred-million-dollar production budgets of today. Instead of looking at focus groups and market conditions to guide his designs, Meier says he'd simply propose potential topics for games, like "pirates," "trains," "civilization," or "the Civil War," and then act on them. He recalls the period fondly, as if pining for simpler days: "There was a lot more experimenting. The graphics and the sound technology were limited, so the investment wasn't so high to make a game. It was a little less risky, so we could take a chance with games because they didn't cost as much money."

For some years before, Meier had been working with a collaborator at MicroProse by the name of Bruce Campbell Shelly. Around the time of Civilization's development, the recently-married 42 year-old Shelley had been making games professionally for eight years. As a veteran of Avalon Hill board game development, he seemed like the perfect fit for Meier's strategy games. "He had actually done the conversion of Francis Tresham's 1829 railroad game and turned it into 1830 for Avalon Hill," recalls Meier. The board game market, under onslaught from the new field of computer and video games, wasn't doing too well in the mid-1980s. "Board games were at a tough point at Avalon Hill," remembers Shelley. "I didn’t think I had any future there. When I found out the company that had created the Commodore 64 game Pirates!, I looked into trying to get a job there. I thought computer games had more of a future."

He joined MicroProse in 1988 and worked with Meier on important projects like F-19 Stealth Fighter, Railroad Tycoon, Covert Action, and, of course, Civilization. "I was on the F-19 game right away, and that took up much of my first year," Shelley adds. In his second year, he worked on porting of existing games to other platforms. "Somewhere in that year, [Meier] asked me to become his assistant designer, which was a great opportunity," says Shelley. Since Meier was a co-founder of the company with an impressive resume of games already under his belt, Shelley was "predisposed to be impressed" by the humble programmer. Shelley found his new boss's subtle sense of humor and keen intelligence compelling. The two quickly gelled and became an inseparable team -- the "A-team," as they were known by some in the company.

What's In A Name?

The story of Civ's genesis is neither simple nor straightforward. It's clear that a large confluence of inspirations ultimately combined in Meier's brain to form Civilization. As popular culture continually feeds on itself, the ingredients and influences that make up any particular work tend to be varied and complicated. In this case, add three parts Risk, two parts Sim City, one part Railroad Tycoon, and a heaping teaspoon of Sid Meier's design genius. Stir in a little Bruce Shelley for taste, set your oven to "Wild Bill Stealey," and out comes Civilization.

One of the most repeated and touted inspirations for Sid Meier's Civilization is the earlier Avalon Hill board game of the same name, designed by Francis Tresham for Hartland Trefoil in Britain. While Meier had no doubt heard of the game prior to 1990 through his connections with Bruce Shelley, he insists that the influence is not as strong as some claim. "I had not played that before I did Civilization," says Meier. "I played it later. I remember there were some cards and trading. It was more ancient; it didn't really come into any sort of modern or medieval times."

But connections, however thin, were there: Bruce Shelley had not only worked for Avalon Hill, the American publisher of Tresham's Civilization, but he created the American localization of Tresham's 1929 railroad game, a game which served as an admitted inspiration for Meier's earlier Railroad Tycoon. It should come as no surprise, then, that Shelley was intimately familiar with Tresham's Civilization. "I had played it many times," recalls Shelley. "I believe Sid had a copy of the game and looked at the components. I owned the original board game, but don't recall if I brought it into the office."

Regardless of the actual influence Tresham's classic had on Meier, players familiar with Avalon Hill's Civilization commonly note the significant difference in approach between the two, making Meier's software creation uniquely his. Soren Johnson, lead designer of Civilization IV, weighed in with his opinion on the issue in an interview for Civilization Chronicles: "The board game [is] quite linear. The difference in Civilization is that it branches, and I think that’s what the board game didn’t have."

Still, MicroProse wasn't willing to take any chances with any similarities between the two games; the company licensed the title "Civilization" from Avalon Hill for a small sum, delaying any legal wrangling over the title or intellectual property for nearly a decade.

According to Meier, his Civilization actually started as a glorified version of a favorite childhood board game. "It was kind of like Risk brought to life on the computer," muses Meier. "That was the original idea. And then we added the technology and the whole sense of history to it." Meier was also a big fan of an early computer game called Empire, which combined Risk-like world domination with intricate city management. "At one point, [Meier] asked me to make a list of 10 things I would do to Empire to make it a better game," says Shelley. "That was some of his research on Civilization."

Groundbreaking games like Bullfrog's Populous and Will Wright's SimCity had recently invented the "god game" genre, where an all-powerful overseer, controlled by the player, directs the course of a population from an overhead view. With their release in 1989, both games -- especially SimCity -- had a profound effect on Meier as a game designer. SimCity taught him that a computer game didn't have to be about chaos and destruction, but could focus on "building things up" instead. Wright's masterpiece provided a vivid illustration that a game could be a "software toy" that let a player experiment with and manipulate a virtual world without a specific objective.

That lesson, along with Meier and Shelley's love of trains, served as the basis for Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon, an overhead, real-time track building game released in 1990. As Meier's first non-destructive "god game," Tycoon marked an important turning point in his design career. Nearly all the games he made before Tycoon had been combat flight simulators or military strategy games, keeping perfectly in line with the desires and comforts of MicroProse's military-fixated president. But the growing differences in direction between the two founders -- Meier's need to branch out as a designer, and Stealey's laser-like focus on combat simulators -- led to major changes in the structure of the company they founded.

Cutting Loose

At the time Meier created Civilization, he wasn't an employee of MicroProse at all. He was, in fact, a private contractor.

Around the turn of the 1990s, Bill Stealey and other MicroProse executives pushed the company into risky new markets like home game consoles and arcade video games. According to Shelley, Meier didn't like the direction the company was heading at the time. He smelled trouble and wanted out. "We didn't learn that Sid was a contractor until the company went public," wrote Bruce Shelley in a recent email to the author. "In the documents related to the IPO, we learned that Bill Stealey had bought out Sid some time earlier."

In Meier's likely-exclusive contract with his former employer, he received money up front for game development, a large lump sum when a game was delivered, plus royalties on the sales of each copy after release. A new vice president of development replaced Meier's former role at MicroProse. Unfortunately, the new VP didn't receive personal bonuses on Meier's releases, giving Sid Meier titles a low priority in the company. Regardless of the rough patches in his relationship with MicroProse, Meier retained a soft spot in his heart for the company he co-founded. He was still committed to batting for the home team, even as MicroProse began to flounder.

The Meier-Shelley Design Process

Meier began coding Civilization on the IBM PC in early 1990, soon after MicroProse killed a sequel to Railroad Tycoon that he and Shelley had been working on. His design work was intense and nearly all-consuming: he kept a legal pad by his bedside at night so he could make spontaneous notes on game ideas for implementation the next day. Meier handled most of the programming on Civilization himself, even doing all of the early artwork for the game (Some of his art survived to the final version). But Meier still needed help with a vital part of the game's design.

"Sid gave me the first playable [Civilization] prototype in May, 1990, on a 5 1/4" floppy disk," recalls Shelley. Through the course of their two-year collaboration, Meier and Shelley had developed a unique "iterative" software development cycle. Meier would whip up a working prototype of a game and hand it off to Shelley. After extensive testing by Shelley, the two men would discuss the shortcomings of the current prototype.

"Out of that conversation, [Meier] would revise the prototype in the afternoon and leave a new version for me to test in the morning," recalls Shelley. "I usually beat him in to work and would have play-test feedback ready for discussion." The duo would continue this cycle repeatedly, revising and refining the game until it was as near-perfect as they could create within their limited resources and time constraints.

Meier remained remarkably private about Civilization during the early development process. "He rarely let anyone else play the games until he thought they were pretty solid," says Shelley. For months, Shelley was the only person allowed to see prototypes of Civilization in action. Other MicroProse employees commonly visited Shelley's office to bug him about the duo's current project, pestering him not to be stingy with the latest Sid Meier masterpiece; they were anxious to try it out themselves.

But Meier kept a tight lid on the project until he was ready, trusting solely in Shelley's criticism and preferring his feedback to all others. "He must have relied on me to be his sounding board, to represent average gamers around the world," adds Shelley. Meier recalls their fruitful collaboration well: "[Shelley] was very, very helpful. He was the guy who would play it and we'd talk about what was working, and what wasn't working. He served as a second opinion on everything."

Development of Civilization took place in two major phases. The first version Meier created did not feature turn-based gameplay, but a real-time model that borrowed significantly from its spiritual predecessor, Railroad Tycoon, and more importantly, SimCity. The prototype featured a SimCity-like zoning approach, where the player would demarcate areas of the world for agriculture or resources that would gradually fill in over time as the player waited. Ultimately, Meier found the real-time play style severely lacking in excitement. "It quickly became apparent that watching the civilization grow was like watching paint dry," recalls Meier. "The action was so [dull] that after a little bit of that, there might have been a game that intervened."

During a rare video interview with Computer & Video Game Magazine in 1994, Sid Meier talked about delays in the development cycle:

"There are a number of occasions when a game has gone six months into development, and we said 'This really isn't progressing the way we want it to.' Civilization was kind of like that. We worked on it for a couple months and it was kinda neat, but we went and did something different, and then came back to it."

According to Shelley, it wasn't just the dull gameplay that made them put Civilization on the backburner. The realities of the business world came crashing through their door. During the lull in enthusiasm for the new game, upper management at MicroProse learned of the latest project that the Tycoon boys were working on. They weren't impressed.


Bill Stealey, the USAF pilot and academy graduate, understood flight simulators. He had built his company on the backs of titles like HellCat Ace, Solo Flight, F-15 Strike Eagle, AcroJet, Gunship, and F-19 Stealth Fighter. The genre worked for Stealey in the past, so he saw no reason to change a winning strategy. "He wanted a new [flight sim] every year," remembers Shelley. But Meier grew restless and bored of churning out military sims at the behest of his partner, one after another, after another. That's when Meier threw off his reigns and broke the company mold with Railroad Tycoon. Meier's move made Stealey thoroughly uncomfortable. The president had no interest in Tycoon as a game, and if it had not sold so well, future non-military games (even if they were Sid Meier games) would have had no chance of release at Stealey's company.

Like Railroad Tycoon, Civilization faced a similar uphill battle with MicroProse management. "I recall that Civ was not a game that Bill was excited about or interested in," says Shelley, who believes that Civilization might have simply been canceled if Meier had been an employee. In that case, MicroProse would have held absolute budgetary power over the project.

Despite his reservations, Stealey's faith in his original partner came through, as Shelley recalls: "I seem to remember hearing Bill say stuff like 'I don't get the game, but I trust Sid, so we're going with it'." But before the A-team could complete Civilization, they had to compromise: Stealey wanted Covert Action completed first. The two developers had previously put the action-packed spy game aside to focus on Meier's last capricious diversion, Railroad Tycoon. "It was really frustrating to be told by management to stop working on [Civilization] in favor of something they wanted instead," says Shelley. "I don’t think management had much of a clue about what it was until it started selling."

Take Two

After completing Covert Action, Meier and Shelley turned their attention back to their pet project. In phase two of development, Civilization took a page from Shelley's board game roots and became turn-based, losing the zoning process while gaining a more militaristic, Empire-like edge. Meier invented individual units to control and move around the playfield. "You had settlers who irrigated and could change the terrain and found cities," says Meier, "so we took the things that were zoning oriented and gave them to the settler." The more hands-on approach felt just right, and the basic gameplay of Civilization, as we know it today, was born.

During this phase, Meier also created the famous "technology tree" that allowed a civilization to advance in capability over time, while still presenting interesting, non-linear choices to players. "The technology began as a way of gradually opening up possibilities as you go about the game," says Meier. Players had to decide a course to pursue with specific technologies early in the game and stick with it to get where they wanted to go. Later, they could go back and develop older technologies or trade for them with the computer-controlled civilizations.

With a game this deep, you'd think Meier put hundreds of hours into historical research, but it isn't so. "I tried to use fairly well-known concepts, well-known leaders, and well-known technologies," says Meier. "It wasn't intended to be 'bizarre facts about history.' It was intended to be something that anybody could play." When pressed, Meier does admit that he occasionally consulted a few "timeline of history" books, just to make sure he got the chronology of certain developments correct, or to make sure he spelled leaders' names right. But for the most part, the well-read Meier drew historical facts from his reserve of personal knowledge and understanding of history. Regarding research, Shelley proudly remembers a timeless lesson Meier taught him about historical game design: for a game to be fun, the details needn't be too in-depth or cerebral. "Everything we needed was pretty much available in the children’s section of the library," says Shelley.

Hiccups On The Home Stretch

With the game mostly realized, Meier and Shelley had to get the rest of MicroProse on board in order to ship Civilization on schedule. They mainly needed help from the art department, but they had trouble securing it due to the low priority Meier's games received in the company. "Remember that the VP of production got no bonus for what Sid published," adds Shelley, "So he wanted to put resources on stuff he was being paid for. It was a struggle to get the people we needed to finish Civ." Eventually, if only begrudgingly, they received support from MicroProse management to finish the game.

Meier submitted Civilization to the MicroProse play-testing department for final gameplay tweaks. At that point, the biggest issue with the game was the enormous original size of the map. Meier recalls the problem: "I remember slogging across this continent when I was playing and I had my tanks against the lame-o units of the other guy, capturing city after city and thought, 'This map is just too big'." The huge map was too overwhelming to new players, and it slowed down the pace of the game considerably. After reducing the map size, Meier learned that he could "have the same amount of fun in half the space," a lesson he took with him to future projects.

Shelley and Meier also cut out a whole section of the technology tree, complete with minor technologies, for the sake of simplicity. "A lot of what we did was done to make the game tighter and smaller," says Meier. Ironically, Shelley regrets not having the time to add more technologies to the game and balance them out, but Meier feels the number of technologies was just right, leaving room for future versions of Civilization, like Civilization II, to expand upon and improve the original. Meier and Shelley devoted most of the remaining development time trying to even out the technologies they did have as perfectly as possible. If they added new units or technology haphazardly, or took certain ones away, it would throw the game wildly off kilter. "We realized that the game was easy to break," says Meier. They tread carefully to ensure an authentic and "fair" feel to the game.

As a finishing touch, Bruce Shelley wrote the comprehensive and unprecedented Civilopedia, an in-game reference encyclopedia on each unit, technology, building, resource, type of terrain, and form of government. Shelley also wrote a massive, detailed manual, included in every box, that he and Meier are still proud of today. "In those days, MicroProse manuals were 200 pages," remembers Meier, "and I think they added a certain special quality to the games. You felt like they were substantial and worth playing."

Into The Wild

"I remember many meetings when I reported we could not meet the production schedule without help," says Shelley. "The game shipped late at least partially because other projects were given a higher priority." The reluctance of MicroProse management to fully support Civilization was incredibly frustrating for both Meier and Shelley. "I thought it was nuts to hold back on what everyone in development agreed was going to be a big hit," adds Shelley. "I was really incensed when our bonuses were shaved considerably because we slipped, which I thought was management’s decision." Thankfully for us, it did ship. Against sizable odds and obstacles it had faced throughout its entire development process, Civilization went on sale to the public in 1991.

MicroProse devoted little money into the promotion of Civilization, so the game had to rely heavily on word-of-mouth, through fans on the street (and on the electronic bulletin boards of the day), for marketing and public awareness. Fortunately, Civilization proved so irresistibly fun that it suited itself perfectly to the gamer grapevine. It wasn't long before the gaming press routinely recognized the latest Meier-Shelley release as "Strategy Game of the Year" in popular computer magazines of the time, in both Europe and the United States. As word of the game spread, sales of Civilization soared, surprising not only MicroProse management, but even t

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