GDC: Standing The Test Of Time With Sid Meier

In his GDC 2008 Q&A session, Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Pirates designer Sid Meier talked about his past decades of games, the ones coming in the future, and the industry practices that have continued since his early history as a dev
Noah Falstein, himself involved in the entertainment industry as a consultant since 1980, described himself as little more than a stuttering fanboy when faced with Sid Meier, the legendary developer of such hallmark games as Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Pirates. Falstein joked about the numerous hours of research he invested in Meier's games prior to the interview as preparation. In The Beginning “A lot of my games are informed by the fun of discovery,” Meier noted. While his childhood came far too early for electronic games to play a part, Meier quickly outplayed many of the board games he had available. He was also lucky enough to be around in the right place at the right time for college time-share computing to become a factor in his life and the Atari 800 to tweak his programming interests. Meier related his run-in with former Air Force pilot Bill Stealey, with Meier beating Stealey's score on his first play of the arcade game Red Baron. The two decided that their skills could prove complementary and they soon formed MicroProse Software. MicroProse was known early on for its many vehicle simulators, a genre which has died out in recent years, Falstein noted, causing Meier to muse that he would like revisit the genre. “Well we had a lot of fun bringing Pirates! back after fifteen years,” he noted. Falstein noted that in an earlier GDC session, Warren Spector noted that video games now are basically the same as they were many years ago, except prettier. “A lot of the core gameplay that we had back in the good old days are still solid. We're getting better as designers... but it's more an evolutionary process,” Meier said. The topic of Meier's older GDC lectures came up, and Meier mentioned that he had no idea the statement “games are a series of interesting choices” would be the monster of an idea it has become. He was very surprised when he first saw the controversy surrounding the statement on forums on the internet. While many of Sid Meier's games are perceived as having significant educational value, he noted that fun is always first and foremost in the game development process. “We do the research after the game is done. We just try to make the game fun... then afterwards we look at how we can justify those decisions.” Programmers and Designers Falstein noted that back in “the good ole days” Meier referred to often during the Q&A, he was known for maintaining an extremely tight prototyping and iteration cycle. “Can you still code in the morning and test in the afternoon... is it still possible with today's scale?” Meier happily admitted that this is still something he is able to do. “Being a programmer and a designer avoids a lot of beatings, a lot of the arguments,” he said. Functioning as both, Meier is able and willing to try things that are a bit shaky or amorphous. When starting development of a new title, “our goal is to have something that's playable within a few weeks... play, observe, play, observe,” Meier noted, adding that in conjunction with lots of iteration is lots of feedback. “We essential have a new game every week because we have so many good ideas.” Meier encouraged all aspiring designers to learn programming if they haven't already. He pointed to XNA and Steam as great platforms for individual designer/programmers to build their skills and show off their abilities. He also noted that small development teams shouldn't be too worried about the details, especially if it takes focus away from the fun. “A lot of what we did were simply triggers for the imagination,” Meier noted. Falstein agreed, using Meier's Red Storm Rising as an example. “You are out there avoiding a nuclear torpedo, twisting, turning, dodging... and you're just two dots!” Falstein also mentioned Meier's oft-neglected C.P.U. Bach for 3DO, suggesting to the developer that perhaps the Apple iPod is the proper platform for the innovative music-generating program. Civilization Over Time The session then shifted to Meier's Civilization, series, accompanying his awe of the game with his understanding that the game incorporated so many newly developed systems working together in an elegant way. “We kind of knew where we wanted to go, but a lot of it was luck,” Meier admitted. Also, despite the lack of explicit player narrative in Meier's games, Civilization is renowned for giving rise to numerous emergent stories. Again, Meier pointed to the fact that he was far more concerned about the player's entertainment. “The player, in the end, is more interested in their own story than someone else's.” On the point of Civilization's extremely well balanced unit choices, Meier noted that the focus was on making sure all the possible paths are interesting, while keeping the emergent complexity to a reasonable, manageable level. Modern computers have no problem with handling the potential complexity, but humans can't, and designers should be very aware of that. He also admitted he had no idea when he first published the game that it would be as addictive as it proved to be. Meier also revealed to the audience one of his most interesting inquiries. The Wall Street Journal once asked him how he was so able to capture the succintness of tax policy in the game. “It was just a slider,” he said, eliciting laughter from the room. On the upcoming Civilization Revolution game, Meier told the audience that it was a great position to be in. “It's kind of a designer's dream to repair the past, to go back in time and put things together.” One of the goals of Revolution is to put the player back in the spot of the king, making ultimate decisions and hobnobbing with other world leaders. “And then there is this rush to the finish that is very unique... it's got a pace and energy that is very compelling and playable.” Final Thoughts Towards the end of the session, Falstein asked if Sid Meier would ever follow the example set by another of the industry's luminaries, Will Wright, in creating some sort of mega-compilation of all the types of games that he has worked on and would like to work on. Meier smiled and simply stated, “No.” Falstein then asked if Meier was at all worried about the fact that his games are as addictive as they are. “They're tons of fun, and you get to do stuff you can't do in real life,” Meier replied. “I'm more confused why people don't get addicted to games.”

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