There aren’t many developers whose very name sells games, but Sid Meier is one of them. He’s had a distinguished career in the games industry, working at the likes of Microprose, before founding Firaxis, where he still resides. Designer of some of the greatest strategy games of all time, including Civilization and Pirates!, we were keen to find out how it all began.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you originally came to be interested in videogaming?
I’ve always enjoyed games and as a kid I played everything from toy soldier games, to board games, to card games. It was in college when I discovered computers, and I thought to myself that it would be amazing to someday play games on them. That motivated me to learn some solid programming skills while I was still attending college, and that’s where I started making small games just for fun.
Was there any specific game that really inspired you to begin development of your own? If so, what did you feel was so inspiring?
In the late Seventies, Bill Stealey [former MicroProse partner] and I were working together at a company in Maryland, and one day while we were attending a business conference we decided to play a flight sim arcade game during one of the breaks. Bill was really impressed that I kept winning, and I told him that I could tell what the AI was going to do each time, so it was easy for me to win. Then I said that I could make a better game in two weeks. Bill challenged me to do just that and so began our game development company. We started MicroProse Software in 1980.
Prior to the founding of MicroProse, had you already been working in the gaming industry? If so, in what capacity? How did you come into the job and what are your feelings about it?
My first job out of college was as a programmer at General Instrument in Hunt Valley, Maryland, which is where I met Bill Stealey. It was a dream come true to start MicroProse and to make videogames for a living. I still feel it’s the best job in the world, and every day I’m thankful that I get to make games.
Can you tell us about the founding of MicroProse?
In the very early days of MicroProse it was just the two of us in the company. I would create the games, copy them onto floppy disks, place them in zip-lock bags, and Bill would load them into his car and drive up and down the East Coast, selling them to retailers. He’d stop at a pay phone every so often to give me an update on how sales were going, and after a particularly successful day of sales I remember Bill saying to me: ‘I think we might be on to something here!’
The Civilization franchise has been a huge success for Sid.
There are always struggles in starting any new business, so are there any stories you’d
like to share about the early days of MicroProse?
It was pretty exciting. We were at the very beginning of the games industry, so we had to figure most things out as we worked. Bill and I grew the company once we confirmed that there really was an audience for computer games, but back then it only took a programmer and a couple of artists to make a game, so we still kept the company small in the early years. It really was thrilling to be a part of the birth of an industry.
What are some of your favourite games to have come out of MicroProse prior to the Spectrum Holobyte buyout? Why are they your favourites? Do you have any stories about the making of these particular games?
Choosing a favourite game that I’ve designed is like saying you like one of your children better than the other – I just can’t choose! We made some fun games at MicroProse like the combat flight simulators, F-15 and F-19; Silent Service; Railroad Tycoon; Pirates!; and Civilization.
When I told Bill I wanted to make a game about pirates, he was worried because it was such a change from the games we’d been making. He thought people wouldn’t know it was one of my games, so he decided my name should go on the game box. So, Pirates! became the first game with ‘Sid Meier’ in the title.
Sid continues to work at Firaxis. It’s most recent release was
XCOM: Enemy Within.
Can you tell us more about what MicroProse was like after the buyout by Spectrum Holobyte? What caused you to decide to move on and form Firaxis?
MicroProse was a great company, and as it grew I knew that I wanted to continue doing two things: to work with smaller teams and to be able to code games every day. After some time had passed, I decided it was time to go off and start a smaller development studio and just focus on creating games, not the publishing end of things. So, we started Firaxis as an independent development studio, and we contracted ourselves with a few different publishers in order to take our games to market.
Was there anything you specifically wanted to do differently forming Firaxis, or anything you wanted to change from how you went about creating MicroProse? Did you find it easier going through the startup phase of the business the second time around?
We did have much more knowledge and experience in making games when we started Firaxis, so we were able to get the studio up and running pretty quickly. We’ve kept the focus on making fun games, having a company culture in which everyone is a valued contributor to our success, and living by the motto that you have to have fun to make fun.
From a game design perspective, we established an iterative process in which we create a basic prototype that’s fun to play, even without exciting graphics and fully implemented features. We have a system, we play and then improve, then again we play and improve, but this is done throughout the development process. We keep what works and get rid of what doesn’t. This approach ensures that we remain focused on the gameplay experience every step of the way and deliver a fun game.
Over the years a great deal has changed in the gaming industry. Do you feel these changes have made it easier or harder for developers to be successful, and in what ways?
The industry has definitely changed from a business standpoint. Most games are much more expensive to make now than when I started in the early Eighties. Back then, we could make a game in our garage with three people, and now it typically takes a big office, a team of at least 30-50 people, and lots of money to make a great game. There is also far more competition along with many more different gaming platforms and a constant influx of new games for players to choose. Creatively, we’re still faced with the same fun challenges we had in the past, and that’s to make a really cool and engaging game experience for the targeted platform.
I think now is one of the most exciting times to be a game designer. With the rapid growth of social networking games, there are new opportunities for smaller indie developers to make and distribute games. We’re seeing a wider variety of games on more cool devices than we’ve ever had before, and that’s great for the whole industry.
Notable Sid Meier Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Sid Meier in issue 82. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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