May 12, 2011


Facebook After FarmVille: Sid Meier is one of the most beloved computer game designers of all time. But will fans play his new Civilization for Facebook? (Ben Crair)

Sid Meier was born in 1954. As a child in Michigan, his interests fell toward geekery: model railroads, dinosaurs, board games, and the Civil War. Instead of outgrowing his hobbies, Meier made his living from them. His original idea for Civilization was "Risk brought to life on the computer," and his other games include Gettysburg! and Railroad Tycoon.

"I was interested in gaming in the dark days before computers," Meier tells me in his Baltimore office, which is the type of place he might have dreamed of as a boy. It is cluttered with volumes about both his childhood passions and the ones he's picked up since, like golf-course design and Bach's music.

After graduating with a degree in computer science from the University of Michigan, Meier took a job with General Instrument Corporation in Maryland. Computer games were just a hobby, something he toyed with in his spare time, until he caught the attention of his coworker Bill Stealey at a trade show in Las Vegas.

"Sid and I had been sitting through two days of sales meetings, and he whispered to me, 'Hey, Bill, I know where there's a game room,'" Stealey, a former pilot, remembers. "There was a flying game. I said, 'OK Mario, I bet you a quarter I can beat you at this one.' I sat down and scored 75,000 points. He watched, sat down, and scored 150,000 points." Meier had cracked the game's algorithms as Stealey played. Not long afterward, the two left General Instrument Corporation to form MicroProse, a computer-game company, in 1982.

Meier quickly made a name for himself at MicroProse with flight simulators and a popular 1987 game called Sid Meier's Pirates!. But it was not until Railroad Tycoon that he hit upon the game-design philosophy he would perfect in Civilization. "A few simple systems interacting to create an interesting and complex design," as he puts it.

Civilization layered several basic systems—technology, economy, and military—to create a surprisingly deep game. Games are, in Meier's oft-quoted definition, "a series of interesting choices," but most videogames only require their player to essentially survive as he guides an avatar from plot point to plot point. In Civilization, the player dreamed up an entirely new world every time he played, as he experimented with different strategies—a warmongering Ghandi, say, or (in one of the sequels) a German empire with a Jewish state religion.

The game's enormous scope was made manageable by its structure. "Time is a critical element in games, and one of the characteristics of Civilization is you have as much time as you want to think about things," Meier explains. Say you're playing Civilization IV. Without hitting pause, you can begin building a granary in your capital, declare war on your neighbor, convert your civilization to Confucianism, change your mind about the granary and order a barracks instead, read 50 pages of Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, walk the dog, take a nap, and wake up to find the game exactly as you left it. A player queues up actions and then hits a button to execute those actions all at once. One such sequence constitutes a turn. Acquiring a technology like pottery for your civilization might take six turns, while a world wonder like the Great Pyramids could take 20 turns to build. A typical game consists of 500 turns.

"This is the heritage of board gaming that Sid has brought into the electronic arena," says Sim City designer Will Wright, who calls Meier the "master of turn-based gaming." The turn-based structure lent Civilization an intellectual flavor, as players crafted long-term strategies rather than thumb-jamming in response to whatever appeared on screen. "I want the player to be living in the future of the game, to be thinking what's going to happen next," Meier says. "The game is really happening in their head, as opposed to on the screen."

...but the revelatory aspect of his games is how interested they get boys in military history.

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Posted by at May 12, 2011 7:37 AM

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