SAN FRANCISCO – “Let’s go back in time to 1990,” game developer Sid Meier told an audience Thursday at the annual Game Developers Conference. “When There Was None” Civilization.”
Meier’s silly ambiguity sketched a “post-mortem” look at the origins and lessons learned from the historic PC game. With the help of producer and development partner Bruce Shelley, the hour-long talk was marked by equal parts history, depth and humor – which seemed appropriate, considering the game in question juggled so elegantly with the same three elements in 1991.
A Look at the Childhood History of Genghis Khan
Development on Civilization started after the completion of railway tycoon during the development of secret action and with the momentum of Pirates!, “one of the first games in the open world.” All those games put the wind in the sails of PC game creation. “We were young and daring,” Meier says. “It was a time when we thought we could do anything, so let’s definitely take on ‘civilization’.”
Meier described a train journey with Shelley in the early 1990s in which the duo discussed the elements they liked railway tycoon, specifically how the disparate systems (building, operation, finance, production, etc.) were added together to allow players to “make lots of interesting decisions”. Maybe run and whole civilization would offer a similar mix of crisscross systems, Meier suggested. (Plus, it didn’t cost an extra budget to make a game “epicer.”)
Shelley recalled losing track of that particular conversation: “Sid always had half a dozen prototypes on his computer,” he noted. But he remembered a conversation about the British PC war game Empire, which they both loved. Meier asked Shelley for “ten things he would change” about that game, to which Shelley offered a list of twelve. In May 1990, Meier responded by dropping a single 5-1/4-inch disc on Shelley’s desk: the first playable version of Civilization. “I’ve kept it as a historical artifact,” he told the crowd.
Meier said his earliest version “mixed” elements from SimCity, railway tycoon, Empireand a certain British board game called, well, Civilization. “Start with one village in 4,000 BC and see how far you can go with it,” Meier said. He stressed that such a simple start put players into a game that eventually expanded in so many directions. Plus, he and Shelley peppered the original game with cheeky humor whenever possible, with wacky headlines, Elvis Presley sprites, and other lighthearted stuff.
One of the most interesting touches during development was that the game should feel “deep and important” in a way that would attract, not deter, children and non-PC gamers. The duo’s solution was to repeatedly reference children’s history books. For example, using these allowed the developers to choose specific leaders that most people would be familiar with. “We weren’t trying to make a game about obscure historical facts in the right book,” Meier said. “It allowed players to feel at home, comfortable and smart about concepts in the game. Peer-to-peer interaction with great leaders such as Genghis Khan and Caesar enhanced the role-playing aspect.” Children’s history books also proved helpful in figuring out what technological advancements the game would make, Meier said.
The same principle guided the development of in-game resources such as the Civilopedia, King’s Day parades, and newspapers. Those elements also served as a gentle reinforcement of good player behavior. “There’s always a question of ‘Have I wasted my time in the past two hours?’” Meier noted, trying to make players feel that developers were “watching and appreciating” their efforts in the game.
Turn-based origin, regret modding
Meier admitted the game’s first prototype disc was missing one key Civilization component: turn-based play. His original version of the game was more like SimCity, with real-time, “zone this area for a purpose” management mechanics. The game “came together” when Meier switched to turn-based play, which was at least more like the war game board games he loved. (Turns also offered an immediate tangible benefit, he said: an addictive, “one more turn” quality.)
“At the time, [what we were making] was quite different from most computer games,” Meier said. “The whole idea of a strategy game was unique. There were a few games, but strategy games were considered slow, boring, geek-oriented, like setting up counters on a map — not something computers should be fun for.”
In reality, CivilizationThe similarities to tabletop war games made Meier’s bosses at PC game publisher MicroProse concerned about the game’s prospects. Shelley says the company wanted to pressure Meier to switch and make another flight sim game instead. (Meier apparently didn’t hear much about this, because Shelley kept complainers at bay.) “The irony for us was that within a few years everything was a strategy game,” Meier said. “We claim we’ve made the world safe for strategic gaming.”
In terms of development flaws, Meier points to a lack of mod support as top of his list. “This is something we did terribly wrong,” he said. “Modding and scenarios became such an incredibly important part of civil as it has gone through the years. We didn’t have the vision that anyone could design something better than us!”
Shelley took the opportunity on stage to tell Meier to “don’t beat yourself up,” but Meier made no pretense about the importance of adding modding to sequels: “Civilization brought out the inner designer in many of our players. Modding gave those people a chance to express that. The reason Civilization has been around for so long that modding was introduced in civilization 2.”
Meier also said the mass of demographics and other civilization stats from the first game were flat, saying, “We had no idea what we were doing here.” He thought pages and pages of external data would create a role-playing sense of being a true leader, but “nobody was fooled: this was a game,” he said.
As for the ‘Spearman vs. battleship “debate,” Meier still beats the drum that “the math might work” in favor of the spearman based on numbers and how the original game’s combat was designed. Yet he admits that his view of the struggle in Civ 1 was more like the staggered placement of units in table games (which inspired the “zones of control” system), as opposed to the “stacks of doom” and city-focused combat players preferred. “I imagined you were creating units on the borders, holding back other civilizations,” Meier said. “It would look like a WWIItype of strategy game. It didn’t turn out to be how the game was played at all.” Meier pointed out that combat remains the most repetitive element of the series – at one point it almost got its own entirely separate card system.
Civ 1 remaster?
During the panel, Shelley occasionally compared the civil series to Age of Empiresan RTS game he helped find after leaving the Civilization team in the 1990s. “My colleagues and I had to do something different [from other RTS games of the era] and loved civil‘, he said. ‘Can we do? civil live? It would be different enough, borrow some elements, but not everything. Different enough to be a new product. It’s nice that both games existed and did really well.”
Meier later joked that his list of possible names for the original game was included Age of Empires, call of powerand Rise of Nations, but he was pretty stuck with “Civilization” as the perfect name. Without going into legal details, he confirmed that MicroProse’s “fearless marketing team” had struck a deal with board game maker Avalon Hill about using the British board game’s name for an American computer game. Meier said the name of the game mattered: “Look back. Pirates!, railway tycoonthose names create an image in your head almost immediately.”
The loudest cheers from the crowd came at the end of the panel, when a Q&A participant brought up the idea of a ‘remaster’. “I hear you say, ‘bring back’ State 1,‘” Meier said in response. The audience roared, but Meier only went so far as to reply, “There’s definitely an audience for a streamlined game with focused gameplay.”