Creator of ‘Civilization’ video game looks back at one of the longest careers in the industry
Meier, 66, is one of gaming’s living legends — a pioneer of the form who has been developing games for almost 40 years.
Sid Meier has spent a lot of time thinking about major world events. The video game series he created, Civilization, is a grand tour through thousands of years of history, complete with war, famine and climate change. But the one thing Meier never predicted was Covid-19.
“I'm not sure we've ever had a pandemic in a Civilization game,” Meier says in a recent interview. “We're all in the midst of this experiment. We're not the scientists; we're the guinea pigs.”
Meier, 66, is one of gaming's living legends — a pioneer of the form who has been developing games for almost 40 years. His first book, Sid Meier's Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games, hits the shelves Tuesday and recounts his life and career as the Godfather of strategy video games.“It really struck me that this next generation doesn't remember a time when there were no video games,” Meier says. “It's in this one generation we've lived the whole history of video games. It's a little bit of our origin story almost. So that was one of the motivations” behind writing the book.
Meier founded game developer MicroProse Software Inc. with Bill Stealey in 1982, when the video game industry was still in its infancy. He spent his early career designing games about a wide variety of subjects including airplanes, railroads, and pirates. Then Meier came up with an idea for a game about the progress of humanity. He called it Civilization.
The first Civilization game debuted in 1991 and became Meier's biggest series. A strategy game about the rise and fall of nations, Civilization puts you in charge of a country and asks you to lead it to glory: You can build cities, harvest resources, battle neighbors for territory and watch your people advance from the Stone Age to launching rockets to the moon. It has spawned a dozen sequels and spinoffs. The series has sold more than 33 million copies, according to its publisher, Take-Two Interactive Inc. The game is studied in universities and considered one of the most influential ever made.
Meier left MicroProse in 1996 and launched a new company, Firaxis Games Inc. It was purchased by Take-Two in 2004 and continues to operate independently. Meier remains at the company to this day, continuing to program and prototype all his own projects and serving as a mentor to younger employees.
The memoir is a fascinating look at the legendary designer's career. It's full of anecdotes and design principles that Meier has learned over the years. During the development of a spy game called Covert Action, for example, Meier struggled with a common problem: two sections of the game were each fun to play on their own, but together, they were giving players whiplash. “Combining two great games had somehow left me with zero good ones,” he writes. “One good game is better than two great games.”
One of the memoir's best chapters is all about dinosaurs. For decades Meier wanted to create a video game about prehistoric creatures but he's never been able to find the right angle. In the book, Meier writes that in the early 2000s he built four different video game prototypes with dinosaurs in them, including strategy games and card games, but none of them was fun to play. After months of frustration, he put the dinos aside and spent a few weeks designing a drastically different prototype, which became SimGolf, a game in which players can build their own courses and then go putting.
Meier says he hasn't given up on making a dinosaur game. “It's a journey,” Meier says. “It's not like we know from day one how the game is going to turn out. It's really a process of exploration, which is a big part of the fun, when it comes to designing. But it is kind of my white whale.”
Meier also reveals a scoop, dedicating a few pages to the internet legend of Nuclear Gandhi. In Civilization, Mahatma Gandhi, whose campaign of nonviolent resistance led to the independence of India from colonial rule, seemed to be more aggressive than other leaders in the game. Gandhi was portrayed as hungry for war and prone to firing nuclear missiles at nations in his way. In 2014, an internet analysis suggested that this was the result of a bug in the game. The perception of the famously peaceful Gandhi as war monger inspired countless jokes and memes.
The story isn't actually true. Meier writes in his memoir that there was no such bug in the game and while he enjoys the joke, the legend is based on an incorrect premise. “It's one of those mysteries that it's almost fun to keep mysterious,” Meier says.
He never much cared for the business side of the industry. But Meier made a savvy move in the 1980s when Stealey, his partner at MicroProse, suggested that he put his name on top of all the video game boxes. His direct association with the game helped give Meier legendary status among his peers and helped provide a level of stability that's elusive for many developers. Most game designers remain anonymous, their names relegated to little-seen credits sections, but everyone knows who Sid Meier is; after all, his name is on the box.Meier is also unique in that he has stayed at one company, Firaxis, for 24 years, while many other video game industry pioneers have bounced around. Meier says the move is “part strategy and part luck.”
Meier doesn't want to talk about what's next. Since his days trying to make a dinosaur game, which he had documented on a blog, he's been wary of announcing projects until he's sure they'll be finished. But he knows he doesn't want to retire. “Even though my memoir is coming out, I'm still enjoying what I'm doing,” Meier says. “I'm looking forward to doing it for a long time.”
Video games like Civilization are a lot of fun. But for his next big adventure, Meier has loftier goals in mind. “We've seen a lot of this kind of world-shrinking effect, where I think games have played a significant part,” Meier says. “There's a worldwide community of gamers that didn't exist 30 years ago. But we're still disconnected in many ways, and lacking in empathy. I think there may be some ways that games can address that.”
Written by Jason Schreier.