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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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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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