The man who made a million empires

What's Sid Meier really like?

Not many creators have the brazen audacity to slap their name in the actual titles of the things they create. John Lennon didn't call his 1971 album, "John Lennon's Imagine." Mrs. Dalloway isn't called "Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway." James Cameron has so far managed to keep his name out of all his movie titles.

But a lot of Sid Meier's games flash the words "Sid Meier" right there in the title. Most famously: the Sid Meier's Civilization series, which has sold more than 33 million units over the past 25 years. The most recent is 2010's Sid Meier's Civilization 5. It's one of the greatest strategy games ever made.

I meet Meier in a Las Vegas hotel room and press reception area. He's just finished a DICE panel on the 25th anniversary of Civ, where he sat on stage with four of the designers who'd worked with him on the strategy series, both when it was developed by MicroProse and then by his own company, Firaxis. They jawed agreeably about the games they'd made. They didn't say much more than that they'd enjoyed the work and they were proud of their achievements. It was like watching a bunch of dudes talking about an excellent fishing trip.

"I guess I think of that Sid Meier as another person."

These days, Meier rarely gives interviews. I've been trying to bag him for years, mainly because I'm an outright Civ fanatic, but also because he's one of the world's most influential and successful game developers.

In the interview, he seems wary and cautious. I'd guess that talking to the press is not one of his favorite activities. He's friendly enough, and he laughs now and then, but he's shy and self-effacing. Once the interview gets going, it's clear he doesn't like to talk about himself. He mostly replies with short answers, and more often than not, he finds a way to give credit to others for his games' various innovations.

He lives in the town of Cockeysville, Maryland. He goes to church on Sundays. When the organist is on vacation or unwell, he deputizes. During our interview, he's wearing a Firaxis t-shirt, like he's working a booth or handing out leaflets at a recruitment fair.

For some reason he reminds me of the sort of fellow you might see working at The Home Depot, quietly and efficiently making sure the lumber aisle is ship-shape, always ready with a smile and a useful word about the moisture content of Grade 2 oak.

And yet, Sid Meier is a master storyteller, an inspiration for untold millions of plans and ambitions in the minds of his players. He is a curator of a particular view of history. He alchemizes the dead events of the past into something alive, something that people feel they can control. He is a creator of worlds.


A name on a box

When I ask him about this issue of having his name in his game titles, he's almost apologetic.

"I guess I think of that Sid Meier as another person," he says. "It's another person that I run into occasionally at places like this here. It’s not a … I don’t identify too much with that person."

Putting Sid Meier in the titles was just something that happened a long time ago, he explains. It was never his idea. Because the early games were successful, no one thought to change the formula.

"It’s great that it’s applied to a group of games that I’m proud of, that I’ve had a part in making. But it’s not … that wasn’t the goal. It wasn’t like, 'OK, some day I’ll get my name on a bunch of games and then I’ll be happy.'"

Now he's comfortable with the fame, such as it is. People occasionally recognize him and they want to talk about how much they enjoy his games.

"They come and say, 'I’m playing this game with my son and daughter and we’re having fun.' I hear about the fun experiences people have had. There’s a sense of a connection. We share something. We share this knowledge. We have something in common even though we’ve never met before."

civ 5

How it all began

The idea of placing Meier's name on games came from his old business partner Bill Stealey. The two men had worked together at General Instruments in the early 1980s. They decided to launch a company, MicroProse, to sell flight simulations for the burgeoning home computer market. Stealey, a loquacious, outgoing fellow, handled the company's business and marketing efforts. Meier coded most of the games.

Games like Spitfire Ace, Silent Service and F-15 Strike Eagle proved popular. The Meier name came to be associated with good military simulations. Later in the 1980s, the company expanded into systems simulations, including a game about piracy in the Caribbean during the 17th Century. Concerned that this style of game was a significant departure for the brand, Stealey suggested adding Meier's name to the game's title, in order to get his fans on board.


Sid Meier's Pirates came out in 1987 and was an instant success. It blended action with strategy, including diplomatic relationships between competing nations as well as cities, which traded and grew.

Stealey likes to tell a story that the idea to put Meier's name on the game came from the late comedian Robin Williams. The men had met at a dinner function, and Williams was a fan. I ask Meier if this story is true.

"I don’t remember it that way. But I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened," he says. "I remember saying to Bill, 'I want to work on this pirate game, I think it would be cool.' He was kinda like, ‘Well, OK, but we’ll put your name on it so that people who played your simulation games will know it’s the same person and it won’t come totally out of left field from MicroProse.'"

In 1990, Meier began work on a new game that would simulate human history from ancient times through to the modern era. Civilization was partly inspired by an Avalon Hill board game of the same name. MicroProse paid Avalon Hill a licensing fee, but in practical terms, the two games are very different.

Meier created the game alongside Bruce Shelley, who later went on the create the Age of Empires series. Civilization is a turn-based game in which the player takes control of a single settler who builds a city, which then produces more settlers, military units and buildings. The player explores a map, builds more cities, conquers AI cities and creates an empire. In essence, all the game's sequels follow this pattern, though with ever-additional layers of complexity and depth.

Based on the success of Sid Meier's Pirates, Stealey decided to retain Meier's name in the title. This would also set the game apart from Avalon Hill's product. Sid Meier's Civilization was a smash hit. By the time a sequel came out in 1996, the game had sold 850,000 copies.

Meier was not the lead designer on any of the sequels, which were handled by various developers including Brian Reynolds, Soren Johnson and Jon Shafer. But he was always part of the development effort and his name continued to be used in the title, as well as the console version Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution and spin-offs like Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri and more recently, Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth.


A repeatable formula, with flaws

Throughout the series' evolution, MicroProse and then Firaxis — the company founded by Meier in 1996 — has played with the formula. Design innovations have been introduced to deepen its appeal and improve its adherence to the world it simulates.

Civ 2 switched from an overhead view to an isometric layout. It also introduced leadership councils, multimedia portrayals of great buildings and the concept of the player having a "reputation" among AI opponents.

In Civ 3 (2001), culture takes a central role, mitigating against the military focus of previous games. A city can expand its borders by investing in cultural buildings and achievements. Civ 4 (2005) opened itself up to modders and introduced the concept of religion, which confers some infrastructure advantages.

But Civ 5 probably took the biggest leap of all, introducing a one-unit-per-tile hexagon-based combat scheme. In previous games, military attacks could be launched by loading multiple units on top of one another, then selecting the best one for any particular challenge. With hexagons, which could carry only one land-based military unit each, players had to manage military campaigns more carefully.

At the time, this was a controversial decision. Some players wanted the old system to remain. "Any change is controversial," says Meier. "I considered hexes, actually, for Civ I, but that would have been considered so geeky and nerdy that our fear was people would reject the game. It would feel like it was a board game.

"But we developed a confidence in our players. We could change things and it still would be fun. The world was ready for one unit per tile and hexes, perhaps. Some people liked it and some people thought it was not the way they imagined Civ."


Civ 5 spawned two expansions, which significantly improved the experience. Last year, publisher Take-Two announced that the game had sold more than 6 million copies. It is consistently one of the most-played games on Steam.

Although it holds a 90 percent rating on Metacritic, Civ 5 is not without its faults. Most infamously, the AI opponents (like George Washington, Boudicca and Genghis Khan) often behave in ways that seem idiosyncratic or downright insane, even though they have carefully calibrated traits.

Over the years, Meier and his designers have toiled to simplify their user interfaces and to render complicated ideas like "culture" and "religion" into gameplay devices that make sense. It's no small undertaking. But the quasi-human opponents that players face have never seemed anything other than 'bots, lacking complexity or subtlety.

"It’s a tough problem. It’s a difficult problem," says Meier. "A certain part of you expects an AI to act like a rational player. But another part of you expects the AI to make your game as fun as possible. Those are competing objectives sometimes. How do you resolve the conflict?

"It has to be about the game and not the person whose name is on it."

"We understand why food leads to people. We understand why resources lead to units. We understand why science leads to technology. But we don’t really understand how people work, how to program that. The math of people. It’s a rough approximation. It’s one of the areas that has evolved, but there’s still room for growth there."

The designers balance the player's need for seemingly rational opponents against their own duty to create a game that offers satisfaction. "You spend probably 90 percent of your time managing your civilization and your military and everything else and 10 percent of your time interacting with other leaders, the diplomacy part. You don’t want that 10 percent of your time to be more important to the outcome than the other 90 percent. That’s another part of what makes it a problem. That all goes into trying to find the best solution."

Another problem is that the game's win-states generally favor military combat and aggressive expansion. This isn't so much a game about civilization as it is about empire. It's difficult to win the game with a peaceful civilization that is wholly dedicated to culture and science. It could be argued that there are no real world civilizations featured in the game that eschewed military might, but still, this experience is a fantasy.

"It depends how you define winning," says Meier. "You’re welcome to define winning any way you want. If you can survive with just four cities, you can say, 'I declare victory.' But what the game defines as winning may not match your play style exactly. That’s not easy. A game like Civilization, you’re going to expect progress, growth, building hugeness. Being better, that will be rewarded. But you’re welcome to define your own wins."

sid meier

Subsumed into a loop

Every time someone begins a new game of Civilization, it's different from the last. In the real world, geography shapes culture. In Civilization 5, it dictates direction. The player must make use of available resources to ensure a high birth rate, a happy populace and a useful citizenry.

Like its predecessors, Civilization 5 presents a series of decisions. Shall I build a granary to speed the growth of my city, or ought I create an archer to defend myself against a possible attack? These decisions stack upon one another and they manifest themselves, literally, in the world that the player creates.

Games can be as short as a few hours or as long as an entire day. Players often report being subsumed into a loop, playing into the early hours, not merely because the game is fun in that moment, but because it tantalizes with the prospect of a prize generally lacking in our lives: power.

"Our role as designers is to kind of fade into the background."

The Civilization series of games are peerless when it comes to creating an illusion that what the player does really matters. The player doesn't merely become the civilization he or she creates; the civilization is a reflection of the player. Playing Civilization 5 is an exercise in vanity.

"It’s a nice escape from real life," says Meier. "In a sense, when you’re playing you feel like you’re not just playing a game. You might be learning something or understanding the world a little better. You’re not just wasting your time playing some game.

"Engaging your imagination is the key. If we can draw you out of your real life and into this imaginary place, that’s when a game starts to work. You’re thinking as if you’re in the game and not just playing. I think Civ does that by almost forcing you to think about a lot of different things and making those decisions.

"People remember the big incidents. They have memories of the time they had this great big battle and finally captured that city, or Gandhi nuked them or whatever. Those moments are as vivid in your memory as your first day of school, perhaps, or whatever other things remain in your memory."

Finally, I ask him if he ever regrets having his name attached to the series, if it's ever been a burden to him to be a name on a box.

"I’m comfortable with it," he says. "I think the Civs would have done just as well once the Civ name established itself. Maybe it helped with the first one or two. When it was kind of getting going, it might have helped to know who the designer behind it was.

He says that, although it's fun to celebrate anniversaries and hang out with old friends, he's more interested in what comes next.

"I don’t want to take that [fame] as a sense that I’ve done all I need to do," he says. "If I were to embrace that Sid Meier, I would need to have a big sign with my name on it or something. Our role as designers is to kind of fade into the background and let you express your ideas and strategies and personality in the game. I think that it has to be about the game and not the person whose name is on it." Babykayak