Sid Meier: Game designers should create a "positive climate"

Civ designer says that developers don't need to make violent games to get attention anymore

As part of Firaxicon, the first official Firaxis Games convention, legendary game designer Sid Meier sat down with Jake Solomon to discuss his own illustrious career as well as opportunities for today's new game designers. Similar to Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, Meier has never been one to push violence in his computer games. In the hour-long discussion, Meier noted that for a time it seemed game designers were actually relying on violence to gain attention. That's not necessary in the modern games industry today, he said.

"I'm certainly not in favor of any sort of censorship - we're artists, we're creative and we should be able to do what we want. On the other hand, it's hard to say our games are immersive and grab people, allow them to participate and make them the stars, and then say that there's no impact, or that it doesn't affect them. So I think we have to walk that line. I think people know the difference between fantasy and reality - gamers are very mature and intelligent people. However, whatever we can do to create a positive climate we should do," he said, after noting that his games never "glorified violence."

"I think we've come a long way. There was a time when spines were pulled out of players," he continued, referring to Mortal Kombat, "and we don't have to do that anymore. I think we got people's attention. We can make good games now. I think there's been a lot of progress in that regard."

"Make a couple of failures. I think that's the key. I've got a disk full of prototypes that never made the production stage. Not every idea is going to be good, but you're going to learn more from your failures than your successes"

When asked about the keys to success for having a long and successful career in game design, Meier acknowledged that he's been a little bit lucky. "I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. It was a lot easier to be a designer back in the 'good old days' when the industry was a lot smaller, budgets were a lot smaller... the pressure wasn't quite as intense as it is today," he said.

"I was able to work on a variety of games. A game like Civilization has been around now for close to 25 years, so to have that as a support with the community out there is really what has enabled me to keep making games. People still enjoy playing Civ and we've been able to find young designers to help us put out new iterations of the game. Without Civ I don't really know where I'd be today."

That said, anyone who's ever observed Meier's work knows he's highly analytical, and that is definitely a crucial component of becoming a successful game designer. Meier said you have to understand what makes a game actually fun to play.

"You have to love games, you have to enjoy playing games, and then you have to analyze that love and enjoyment and understand what is making this game work... Being able to circulate around and get into the player's mind and ask 'am I having fun right now?' or 'is this boring?' [is very important]," he explained. "As a designer you can't really have a lot of ego. If the idea you thought was great, you put it in and it's no fun, you have to be willing to take it out."

That process is easier when you're making a game that you love, Meier said: "It's selfish to say it - but I couldn't design a game for a five-year-old - I really have to design primarily for myself, because I have to evaluate that game daily. That skill of being able to come up with ideas, but also to evaluate them and decide if they stay or go, is fundamental to being a game designer."

Along the way you're bound to fail, and that's actually a really good thing. You should be failing and learning from it each time, Meier added: "Make a couple of failures. I think that's the key. I've got a disk full of prototypes that never made the production stage. Not every idea is going to be good, but you're going to learn more from your failures than your successes. So be ready to fail, be ready to try something new, and just keep on making games. We fail everyday, and we get right back up again."

While Meier looks fondly back on the "good old days" of the '80s and '90s, he believes the opportunities to at least get involved in making games today is better than it used to be. "It's a wonderful job, and there are actually more and more opportunities for people making games, if you look at places like iOS where there are just tons of games out there. But it's a very different industry these days. I think there are many opportunities for becoming a designer, but to create a legacy is going to be very difficult these days... It's very easy to make games, but to make something that's fresh and that stands out is harder these days," he observed.

Meier's now 60 years old, and he's seen the industry grow from nothing into an entertainment behemoth. Although things have changed radically over the years, there's one constant: if something is fun, it's fun and Meier is still good at making fun games. "I think if you start talking about legacy, you're kind of done, and I have a lot of games I'd still like to write," he said.

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Latest comments (8)

Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend7 years ago
I love Sid Meier games and agree 75% with what he is saying. Of course it is better to try and push the boundaries of games and try new things in storytelling and game to mechanics that send a positive message. But it is very difficult to design and implement something that hasn't been done before and someone of Sid's caliber should understand that it takes years to hone your skills as a developer.

Newcomers will inevitably have to follow what gaming trends have gone before them in some way or another. Violent games are easier to understand technically and work well with the 3D environment we can create. Even Sid himself has made violent games. Sure, they weren't overtly violent, but they do feature violence, killing and causing harm to others.

I agree we don't need to push violence as a selling point of a game, but conversely there will always be a place for ultra violent games. Just as there is an audience for death metal music and torture porn horror films. A more equal spread of game types is the favorable outcome I think.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop7 years ago
Says a man who's spent his career making games where you nuke cities full of innocent people.

(I kid, I think he's bang on the money)
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Thanks a lot, now I wonder how to achieve a cultural victory in Call of Duty.
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Show all comments (8)
Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd7 years ago
It's a bit of a cliche to point out, but Nintendo's games are full of violence (as in, exaggerated destructive physical action), just not typically graphic/realistic violence.

Civ may not have ever put violence on screen but it does take a specific stance on how it frames human history and development:

It's interesting to think about. Violence and action can be a lazy crutch to fall back on of course, but it's worth remembering that until relatively recently it's been very, very difficult for games to clearly depict and let the player control more nuanced activities. At least in a generally accessible way.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
The world is filled with best-selling non-violent games, e.g. Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Minecraft, Tetris, Sims, Nintendogs, Brain Age.

There are genres which are hardly ever any violent, such as puzzle games, adventure games, simulation games (flight sims, car sims, agriculture sims) and strategy games (unless you subscribe to the train of though that manager games are essentially power fantasies promoting economic violence against the proletariat).

There are plenty of games in which violence might occur, but is downplayed and not center stage. Yes, technically speaking Mario is violent, but he does not rub it in your face, he distracts from it.

Only after you are done with all these, do you get into the games which consciously give violence center stage. Your Call of Duty, your GTA, you know the rest. True, they sell a lot of copies and they are the ones promoting the hardest. But just as 70ies cinema is more than just pulp exploitation movies, today's video game culture is more than violence.

The one aspect where you could call Civilization a violent game, is the way in which the endgame after 250+ turns is almost always a violent power struggle where nobody pulls any punches. That is in stark contrast to a TellTale game, which might start off with acts of violence which are more gruesome, but then directs your thoughts as a player to wondering how you ended up in this mess. This is the challenge for all games. Not whether or not to give players the choice to be violent, but where to steer his thoughts on the violence he committed over the course of the game. Wheat from chaff right there, not before.
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios7 years ago
Not whether or not to give players the choice to be violent, but where to steer his thoughts on the violence he committed over the course of the game. This is the challenge for all games.

lol. Says who, you?

I don't want to steer my thoughts or think "how did I end up in this mess"

The only thing I want to think about, is getting more ammo, staying alive, and killing everything I see, and progressing to the next level. What else is there to think about? Can you give an example so I understand, thanks.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 7 years ago
Telltale games are best at what I described. Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us both have that mechanism. First step is to make the player into a liar. Both those games will poke you for the exploit, your weakness. Will you lie for convenience, will you lie to be nice to somebody else, will you lie to protect somebody? Or will you you stick to the truth to equally bad consequences. No matter what you do, the game has a scenario in which your actions lead to violence for which you are to blame and you are confronted with the results in a very bloody manner. You as the player are not confronted with violence being a happy part of entertainment, but as a moment of self-reflection. This is by no means a TellTale thing, a shooter such as SpecOps: The Line does the same thing, with you the player only in hindsight realizing that you had a choice, but you were to self-absorbed to notice.

Certainly, a game in which violence only serves as an indicator for the player's brain to release serotonin would never try such a thing. Those games exploit your human tendency to build up stockpiles, by making you look for fake resource constructs, such as health and ammo. All your brain thinks you do, is build a cache so the release of serotonin is guaranteed for every possible violent encounter there is. You do not pick up ammo, you pick up a piece of your future happiness.

Horror games know this, they do not want you to turn into a Zombie killing serotonin machine, they want you genuinely afraid. So they remove the loop as best they can. They might not steer your thoughts to self-reflection, but they at least try not to go down the happy violence road. You are week, resources are scarce.
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios7 years ago
But..the Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us are so boring I want to kill myself.

Looking for fake resource constructs, such as health and ammo. Klaus this is ridiculous, stop! You are "over analzying" video games.

Just shoot and have fun. End of story. Who cares!!!! what someones serotinin levels are, im outta here - I can't waste my time on this :)
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