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May 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, SimGolf.

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 historical…

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 the details.

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”.

Sid Meier

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 Centauri players?

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 empire…

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.

David 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 Civ.

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 there.

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 you?

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 option.

Sid Meier

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 when trading.

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 AI.

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…

David 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.

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