08, 2002 | Sid
Meier is one the giants of the computer gaming industry and one
of the few designers who gets his name on the box above the title
of the game. He is best known for designing the Civilization series,
but also created Railroad Tycoon, Alpha Centauri and, most recently,
You started, I think, in board games?
I played a lot of board games when I was young – I never
designed any but a lot of the early inspiration from computer games
came from board games. They inspired me because we could do them
so much better on the computer. With board games it took so long
to set them up and you had to worry about the rules – on a
computer you just turn it on and it is ready to go.
Computer Bismarck was an early example – what that showed
us was that it is easy to hide things using the computer. On a board
game you had to use very complicated mechanics like dummy counters.
Did you have a formal background in history?
I studied computers in college – the game part came mostly
from my childhood. I was interested in history – airplanes,
submarines, pirates… I think that is part of what I try to
put into my computer games now – some of the excitement that
you get from turning the pages and seeing a new fun thing on each
page. We try not to create games that have too much technical information
or too many obscure facts. We want people to be able to play the
game and understand it as quickly as possible.
In a game like Civilization many of the ideas there are important
but they are ones that the players are already familiar with. As
you start to play you start to run into “do you want to invent
the wheel or do you want to work on currency” – everyone
knows those ideas so they feel they understand the decision. We
do some historical research but it is not the starting point for
a game. We want people to be able to start the game already knowing
enough to play. After they play for a while we might introduce a
new idea and they might be interested in learning more about that
but we want people to feel they are immediately making progress
and they are at home in the new world.
Would you be interested in education?
That’s not our focus. I want to make the distinction between
education and learning. Education is typically boring but learning
is very exciting. We like to introduce learning into a game without
making it feel educational. In learning you decide what to learn
– in education you are told what to learn.
Sometimes Civilization diverges quite a lot from anything
We try to capture the fundamental concepts but the mechanics are
streamlined to make it playable. We don’t want you worried
about the detail – we want you to feel like you are the most
important person. You are the King and someone else takes care of
You considered doing a Dinosaur game – when designing
a game, which comes first? Education or game play?
The game comes first. We didn’t choose dinosaurs by thinking
“here are all these things we could teach people about dinosaurs”
- our first thought was, “dinosaurs are cool”. We don’t
evaluate a game idea on how much learning is possible, we basically
evaluate it on how much fun the game could be. We find that part
of fun is an element of learning and it inevitably becomes part
of the game because they are set in the real world.
In any game, though, the choices you make are determined
by the game design. Do you feel you are telling a story to the player?
How much do you want the players to be free and how much do you
want them to be able to coast along and take it in?
If a player feels there is something they would like to do that
the game is not letting them do then that is a failure of the game.
It takes them out of the fantasy of the game and reminds them they
are playing a computer game. If they buy Civilisation and they expect
a game about fashion design then we really can’t help them
but we try to give them all the possibilities we can. One of the
things we improved in Civ III is diplomacy because people said,
“the diplomacy system is too simple I want more options because
there are things I want to do that I can’t do”.
One of the big missing elements in Civilization III is
multi-player support – a step back after Alpha Centauri [a
Civ-like game that Sid created after leaving Microprose]. How important
do you think that is for most players? Was it popular among Alpha
I think quite a few people tried it – probably not as many
continued to do it. Turn based games are some of the most difficult
to convert to multi-player. It is the most requested enhancement
to Civ III. It is something we have been working on for some time
– not as with Civ II to take the existing game and make it
multiplayer but we are looking for ways to solve the problems of
the length of time of the game and the need to wait for other people
to take their turns. I expect before too long a multiplayer version
of Civ III that will be practical to play.
So how are you planning to crack those problems?
To shorten the length of games we can do one of two things. We
can start the game part of the way along so maybe you are in a historical
situation like Europe in the time of Napoleon or before WWII –
that saves time at the beginning. Perhaps the objective is not conquering
the world – perhaps you have a more focused objective like
capturing the enemy capital or controlling a territory or resource.
We’ve experimented as far back as “Alpha Centauri”
with the concept of everybody being able to move at the same time,
timed turns and things like that – there are things we can
do. We want to keep it as much Civ as possible without waiting.
In “Alpha Centauri” if you had a small civilization
and someone else had a large one you would probably have to wait
twice as long for the other guy to finish. We’re looking at
ways that people will always have something to do. Perhaps if you
have half as many units you should be able to move them twice as
often as the other guy.
You can at least go and tinker with the outskirts of your
We’re trying to make it so whatever you want to do you can
always do at whatever time. You can even imagine a situation where
if you want to take a certain unit and keep moving it continually,
maybe there isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t be able
to do that. That may or may not work but that’s an idea we
might try. If you can imagine early in the game you might have an
explorer you want to move around and the rest of your empire might
not get a lot of attention. So it’s a question of where you
want to spend your time.
I’ve often thought it would be interesting to look
at a delay in your orders as you get to the edge of your empire
because of the distance involved…
We’ve got a little bit of a wargamer here, I see… That’s
something we’ve discussed, though not in the context of Civ.
Do you feel constrained by the fact that there are some
things you started early on because people who know Civ may not
want it to change too much?
I don’t think so - our biggest constraint is that everything
is inter-related. To add a new element we have to design the interaction
of that element with all the other systems. That was a real issue
with Civ II – it had more of everything but it didn’t
introduce any new systems because of that. I know it was tried but
we found that the Civ system was amazingly balanced. We thought
“oh we can change this, we can change that” and all
of a sudden we realised we had broken the game. In Civ III we started
early on we had to be very careful and thus we were able to introduce
a new cultural system and new diplomacy. I think that is a stronger
constraint than the expectations of what constitutes a Civ game.
Most of those expectations are positive ones. We want to have the
“one more turn” aspect to it and the “great leaders
and great powers” aspect. We have changed some things –
some people missed the terraforming and the Vikings but overall
people have not complained about the changes.
Soren Johnson, Firaxis programmer and co-designer of Civ
III: It’s important that the team that worked on
Civ III included Sid, of course, but also people who were really
big fans of the previous game. It wasn’t a sequel that got
farmed out to another house and the team really wanted to make another
game – we really wanted to keep the legacy going. We didn’t
want to make a real-time game, for example – we feel that
turn-based games were the way to go.
Brake and Sid Meier
You said earlier that turn based games were hard to do
multi-player – I have always thought of them as easier.
For single player we believe turn based makes the most sense to
give you the time to make decisions where you are weighing a variety
of factors. But if you just took Civ and replaced the computer AI
with human players taking their turns separately, the problem would
be that you would play for a minute and you would wait seven times
as long for the rest to play. We want to find a way to not have
players waiting but still give them the sense that they are playing
One thing common to all empire building games is the “exponential
curve” problem where you go from one unit to two to four to
16 and onward as the game progresses – do you have any way
of telling how many people actually get to the mid-to-end game?
Is Civ actually mostly played by people only up to about the middle
ages? Where do you focus your efforts and how do you solve the mid-to-end
game problems where it does sometimes get just silly?
We don’t have any statistics – but even back in Civ
one we tried to solve some of that by encouraging you to concentrate
on building more expensive but better units. Now in Civ III the
governors can help you with city management… We’ve always
thought of it as a positive thing that it starts very simple and
gradually gets more complex over time so you aren’t overwhelmed
with complexity right away. As the game grows it grows because of
your creation and you know where things are because you built them
Soren: Another thing we worked on was expanding
the victory conditions – there are different ways to win and
you can win earlier. Especially with “domination” where
you are going the military route you don’t have to conquer
the entire world. When you get to two thirds of the world you realise
you are going to take the rest. Everyone has been in that situation.
“OK I could spend another 10 hours finishing it off…”
What about documentation? There’s the in-game and
the manual and pull-outs that get bigger and bigger but I still
find it difficult to find information about the particular game
aspect I want to know about. And more importantly it is hard to
find out what sorts of things work and what doesn’t without
playing again and again. Should I just buy a strategy guide? Or
is that the sort of thing you feel you should do better?
We try to design it so the possibilities in the game are all reasonable
choices under some circumstances. If there is a decision in there
that sounds like a good idea but really never works, then that is
a failing in our game design. We are not trying to create a game
where you have to learn special secrets that make no sense to play
the game. However, in a game like Civ there are certainly a lot
of options and some fine tuning of options that takes place with
experience. A lot of what we do post-launch is dealing with issues
our players have found. In Civ one people discovered that building
a city on every other square was the way to win the game - the cover
the world with cities strategy. In the first revision we put some
changes in to balance that out.
How much does the computer cheat in Civ III? Does it bother
Soren (who wrote the AI): We believe the game
is most fun on the levels where the AI either doesn’t cheat
or it cheats only a little bit. We took out some of the most visible
cheats that the AI did in previous games because it is important
that the user doesn’t feel that they are continually seeing
the AI do things the user can’t do. There is an overall AI
production bonus or penalty that the AI gets that allows it to build
units or research faster or slower depending – it’s
the third level where everything is even. Of course for some people
what’s fun is what’s the hardest thing to beat. I wouldn’t
find the highest level fun myself but it is hard. We would really
encourage people to stick to the middle levels. I don’t think
there is a right or wrong way to do this but we give people the
Is it the same AI with different capabilities? Or is it
smarter or dumber?
The AI can be more aggressive at higher levels and more stingy
Does the AI know more about the world?
The main thing is it is almost impossible to simulate the screen/keyboard
interface for the computer – it would be a collossal waste
of resources. There are some advantages the AI gets in searching
the world but as I write the AI I try to make it make decisions
based on what it should or shouldn’t know. That’s important
so that the AI looks more human and also so the humans can’t
take advantage of obvious differences to “trap” the
Where do we go from here? It feels like this is about as
Civ as Civ gets. Can you take this to the next level or do you start
working on “something else I”?
Our current focus on Civ III is supporting the user community with
really good tools for scenario building, map editing and changing
the rules. With Civ II that almost doubled the value of the game
– we are already seeing a lot of users creating their own
mods. We like to work on at least one new concept alongside our
traditional game. Certainly based on feedback and response from
the community in a few years we may have enough new ideas to take
another look at Civ but right now we’ve put all the best ideas
we could come up with into Civ III.
Could it go “massively multi-player”?
I think that is an interesting genre. Personally it seems that
Civ is one of the least compatible with multiplayer because you
are such an important person in the game. It is hard to imagine
100 kings in the world or 500 kings. You don’t want to have
to defeat 499 other kings to win the game. It’s an interesting
view of the future but I don’t think Civ is the best fit for
a massively multi-player evolution but if people are willing to
be not only kings but also governors of cities or generals that
would be a way to take it that way. My first reaction would be that
everyone would want to be king, but if you could feel part of a
team I think it might work…
Brake has been playing Civ since the first version and still
gets in the grip of that “one more turn” ethos every
time a new version comes out.