For a man who's accomplished so much in his long career in games, Sid Meier, director of creative development at Firaxis, is actually rather humble and soft-spoken when you talk to him. It's with some irony then that Sid Meier's name appears prominently on so many game boxes, even ones where he wasn't the lead designer (Civilization 2 and 3, for example). I asked the creator of Civilization and Pirates! about this pattern during the recent DICE Summit, where he took part in a panel on Civ's 25th anniversary alongside fellow franchise designers Bruce Shelley, Brian Reynolds and Soren Johnson.
There was a feeling of uneasiness when I raised the issue. "I think games are definitely very much a team effort these days and they were even back in the day. It's a weird situation for me. I think of that Sid Meier as being a different person. We tried it. It worked. We keep doing it, but I'm not willing to believe that I'm that person," he told me.
"I rationalize it by saying it represents a certain approach to gaming. It represents a certain style of design. And those games, even though I wasn't the lead designer on Civ 2 or 3, are kind of based on some ideas that I created so I can rationalize that. XCOM, for example, which I had not much to do with, doesn't have my name on it. I think that's the way it should be. It's a weird situation, but I'm not complaining. It gets me invited to DICE conferences."
"I didn't ask to have my name on the box so I'm not going to take all the blame for that... I think that each game represents the full vision of each of the designers that took them on"
To be fair, Meier isn't the only famous developer to have a name printed on a game's box art. Will Wright, Tim Schafer, Hideo Kojima and John Romero have all at one time or another also had their names (whether in print or as a signature) placed on a game box. It wasn't an ego trip or Meier's idea at all either.
As the story goes, fellow Microprose co-founder Bill Stealey had been having dinner at a Software Publishers Association meeting, and the legendary comic Robin Williams was also there and suggested to Bill that Meier's name be featured on the box. It was a marketing effort, and it clearly worked, judging by the Civ franchise's more than 31 million copies sold around the world.
While Meier may have felt slightly uncomfortable, he said he's never received any blowback from team members because of the name issue. "Nothing has really come back to me. I'm sure there have been comments like, 'How much did he really have to do with this?' ... Those are legitimate questions, but I think, at the end of the day, I didn't ask to have my name on the box so I'm not going to take all the blame for that. It's just kind of the way it is and it seems to have some value but I think anything you do some people will like it and some people won't but nothing really negative has come back to me, so I have no complaints," he added.
And part of the reason for the Civilization panel at DICE was perhaps to remind everyone that the franchise's enduring success isn't due to one man. Bruce Shelley, Brian Reynolds, Soren Johnson, Jeff Briggs and Jon Shafer all played vital roles of their own in advancing the series. "I think that each game represents the full vision of each of the designers that took them on. I think that's important that it represent that person's creativity and the full range of their ideas," Meier said.
One critical change early on was how Civilization embraced the modding community. "That was really the major leap forward between Civ 1 and Civ 2, the addition of modding and just how that changed players' experiences. As opposed to playing one game, you're now playing 20 and you can play the basic game, but you can also go and pick from this variety of mods that are out there. There's a satisfaction and pride in making one of those mods that's a different experience from playing the game and some of those people became known in their own right... There's a fairly significant gap between Civ 2 and Civ 3 and we weren't doing expansions and things like that. It was the modding community that kept the game fresh and alive during the time between Civ 2 and Civ 3," Meier acknowledged.
"I kind of think I retired about 20 years ago. I'm doing what I really love to do. I assume that's what retirement is about"
While modding is part and parcel with the PC gaming world today, Meier's team always saw the importance in community and getting feedback. More than two decades after the release of Civilization, much of the industry has recognized that involving a community in game design and getting that vital feedback can make a big difference in how successful a project ultimately is. That's certainly true of any games launched on Kickstarter where community is paramount. That being said, Meier noted that while "the player is always right," designers can't listen to literally every piece of feedback and place equal importance on all the ideas.
"So we do listen to the feedback, but perhaps their solution is not always the perfect one. A lot of times the players will say, 'You know, this is my issue with the game and here's how I would fix it.' So we separate those two ideas. This is the issue you have with the game. That's great, but perhaps the solution is different from the one the player suggested. Because we know the internals of the game, we know how we can project what would be a way of solving this problem without breaking something else because often if you change one thing it affects something else," Meier said.
"So we definitely listen to what the players are saying. It's a big part of the design process, but then applying your design insight to figure out what's the solution that's going to fix that problem and perhaps fix similar problems but not create a different problem. But the community, starting with modding and continuing on to the present, has played a gigantic role in the development of the game and bringing new people in. They're our evangelists. The players are going out there and talking to their friends, their kids now, and getting them to play the game. So that's an incredible part of the story of Civilization."
Meier just this week turned 62. You'd think that visions of retirement might be in his head, but he enjoys his career too much to think about that, he said: "I kind of think I retired about 20 years ago. I'm doing what I really love to do. I assume that's what retirement is about. I'm not sure, but I love making games. I'm so fortunate to be able to be in a position to do that and I look forward to coming into the office every day with a bunch of new ideas and trying new things out. There's no one certain game that I can't let go of and must do but it's kind of the fact that every day I get to experiment with new ideas or try out new things."
While Meier couldn't point to any one particular type of game that he'd have to make before he officially retires, I asked him if all the buzz around virtual reality in the industry right now is alluring to him. The veteran designer doesn't think about the technology first, however - it doesn't mean he's disinterested in VR but he would think of a new game first and then consider whether VR even applied.
"Civ has always been targeted towards the widest range of hardware platforms and has never required the bleeding edge technology to be able to play and I think whether it's VR or any really brand new technology, the strategy genre is probably not the first place where that will have an impact," he noted.
"I think we're all kind of responsible for the content we create. I'm not a fan of censorship but there has to be some responsibility"
"It's more like, what's the topic and then let's find the best technology to express it. It's not like I would say, 'well, I want to do something VR. Let me think of a topic that's cool.' It's more like, 'oh, I want to do a game about dinosaurs. Would that work with this technology or that technology?' So VR might be the right thing for a certain game idea, but it wouldn't be the starting point. It would be the best technology to implement whatever your game idea is."
Like fellow industry luminaries Will Wright and Shigeru Miyamoto, Meier has never focused on extreme violence or blood and gore in his games. Sim City, which Meier has talked about being an influence, made him realize "Wow, that's cool. We can make a game where things aren't exploding all the time."
Meier said that becoming a parent is what really changed his viewpoint on game content. "I was imagining my son playing these games and what's the message that you're conveying? Is what you are saying OK? I think we're all kind of responsible for the content we create. I'm not a fan of censorship but there has to be some responsibility. The way we look at games is... we're saying, this is what we think you should be enjoying and I think you can send different kinds of messages and we try to send messages that we're comfortable sending," he commented.
Looking ahead to the future game designers who will shape this industry, Meier would like to see them keep the innovative spirit alive. Don't be afraid to be creative, he said, because too many games have become derivative.
"I think when the idea of Civilization first came along it was pretty radical. Strategy games had a really bad reputation and the idea of trying to include 6,000 years of history in a game was pretty radical at the time. The lesson I would take away from that is give [your idea] a try. If you have an idea, don't be discouraged because there isn't a game like that already around. So much of what happens in game design today is based on what's happening in other games. We don't reach outside of games so much as we used to, to things like history and those kind of topics. If you've got a wild and crazy idea, give it a try!"