'Civilization' and Its Contents
A video game for the ages.
Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By VICTORINO MATUS
After this introduction to the species, my meeting with Sid Meier came as a relief. As cofounder and director of creative development for Firaxis Games, Meier still works and lives in Hunt Valley, just north of Baltimore and about 15 miles from the Pennsylvania border. The company has 80 employees (compared with 7,000 for Electronic Arts, the world's largest videogame producer). Located in a nondescript office park, Firaxis occupies the top three floors of a hideous black and brown brick building. There is no gourmet cafeteria like the one at Google, but there is an Outback Steakhouse across the street. In the Firaxis lobby stands a trophy case containing numerous Game of the Year awards and an Xbox featuring the game Sid Meier's Pirates! I am led through the "fun zone," where programmers and designers seek respite from writing code. The day I was there, four employees sat on a couch playing one of the Tom Clancy Rainbow Six thrillers. Two other staffers were playing Ping Pong (real, not electronic). Upstairs there is a foosball table and a disassembled train set.
I asked Meier what happened to the train, but he hadn't a clue, joking that "it seemed like a good idea at the time." He is a cherubic man, just under six feet. With an occasional, almost imperceptible lisp, Meier can sometimes sound like the actor Wallace Shawn. (Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!) By virtue of his age, Meier belongs to the last generation of videogame designers (along with Will Wright) who grew up before the computer.
"It was a sad time. We had to make up our own games," he says with more than a hint of sarcasm. "So I played board games, strategy games, war games. I had blocks, Tinkertoys, real toys." Meier was also a history buff. "I remember when I was 8 years old, I took this long trip and my dad gave me this Civil War book, a kind of picture book of the Civil War, and I guess I was interested in those kinds of things at the time." Those kinds of things were to make a lasting impression. A former colleague at MicroProse, Bruce Shelley, recalls how Meier had been dreaming of a Civil War game for years. "The whole genesis of that game was this American Heritage History of the Civil War that had these beautiful handpainted pictures of battlefields, with all the soldiers running around--that was the image. He was going to build the whole game around the concept of those images that were burned into his brain as a child." This resulted in two games, Sid Meier's Gettysburg! and Sid Meier's Antietam! where the player assumes the role of a general on the battlefield.
Meier cites the strategy board game Risk as one of his major influences. "Conquer the world. All those cool pieces. You felt like you were king. It gave you a lot of power." What about the game Diplomacy? "You had to have friends to play Diplomacy so that kind of left me out."
Civilization followed on the heels of Meier's Railroad Tycoon, which was released in 1990, and the smashing success of Will Wright's SimCity. Both are considered the earliest of the so-called "God games," in which all-powerful players focus primarily on building rather than destroying. Rather than overseeing a railroad operation or micromanaging a city, Meier thought, "Let's ramp this up to a bigger stage, the whole world, the history of the world. And as we thought about that, all sorts of ideas popped into our heads. It just seemed like a very rich and fertile area [for] a game. And the whole Risk experience as a child I am sure tied into that. Wouldn't it be fun to make a game where it ends up where you conquer the entire world? That was kind of the seed of the game. And then we played with it, came up with technologies, science, politics, and economics and put all that stuff in the game."
Shelley, who later helped design Age of Empires, a hit competitor to Civilization, looks back fondly on his time with Meier, which he likens to attending Game Design University. Meier, he recalls, came up with a basic definition of a game: a series of interesting decisions. "You have game play, you have competition, and then you have victory," explains Shelley. "A true game would have all three of those elements. Something like SimCity has the decision making but it doesn't have competition or victory. It's a digital sandbox," not a game.
Shelley recalls quite clearly the day in May 1990 when Meier approached him with a disk and said, "Try this and tell me what you think." It was the first playable prototype of Civilization, which he still has. "That's how I found out this new game was going to be worked on. And basically [Sid] and I played and coded it every day and discussed it every day for maybe four, five, six months before he would let anybody else play it." He adds, "It's so much what I wanted to play that I figured, if I'm an average game player and there's millions of me around the planet, then the game is going to be a massive success. I couldn't measure it, but I just knew it was going to be a very successful game, and I knew we were making something that was going to astound the world."
Echoing these sentiments, Brian Reynolds remembers how "back in those days, we just tried to invent games that we would like to play and then hoped enough gamers would feel the same way." Reynolds worked with Meier on the multimillion-selling Civilization II and other spin-offs prior to becoming the CEO of another studio, Big Huge Games. "Sid is easily the smartest and most brilliant person I've ever worked with--he could always cut right to the key issue in any big muddle, and he constantly had weird and unexpected thoughts, did things in ways that nobody had thought of, and yet they most often turned out great."
And other times not so great. Some games, like Colonization, didn't sell nearly as well as Civilization II, and Alpha Centauri wasn't nearly as big as Civilization III. But neither were they disasters. (The greatest videogame disaster of all time was 1982's E.T. for the Atari system. It did so poorly that 5 million unsold copies of the game were eventually dumped into a New Mexico landfill.) As Firaxis released newer and better versions of Civilization, a massive fan base soon emerged. Wilson Gan began playing Civilization in 1997. He is now a 26-year-old student in New York pursuing a master's degree in computer science. In 1998, Gan created a personal homepage with a section on Civilization II containing useful tips, marking the beginning of the Civilization Fanatics' Center (www.civfanatics.com), which currently gets 6 million page views per month. The Civ Forum has more than 100,000 registered members.
"It's addictive and rewarding," says Gan, who also goes by the name "Thunderfall" (the name of a city in the Viking civilization). "There is always something interesting to look forward to within just a few turns. It's very satisfying to see a Stone Age village transforming into a modern metropolis, or seeing 'We Love the King Day' fireworks when you manage your cities well. Of course, conquering the world feels very good too."
Jason Keisch will sometimes get the itch to play as the Germans "when I feel like I'm in a conquering mood, racing to the Panzer special unit. When I feel more like outproducing everyone, India is my top choice." Fair enough. Keisch is a happily married IT consultant in Boston. "My wife doesn't mind the videogames unless I get too loud [while playing with others on a network]. She would much rather I stay home . . . than go out to the bars with the guys." The way he sees it, "back in the day you used to have bowling night. I like to play videogames."
And then there is my friend who rules his civilization with an iron fist. His secret for maintaining control over a foreign city? "I starve the city to death, then I populate it with my own people."
As Meier says, "The game kind of lets you be yourself."
Civilization has a range of levels ascending in difficulty, from "Settler" to "Deity," sometimes known as the Sid level. Ironically, Meier has never won at this level. His excuse? "When we're developing, it's hard to finish a game. A lot of times, you play for a while and say, 'Oh, this or that ought to change.' People in the real world get better than us. I mean, there are people who are just so willing to spend the time."
Take, for example, WEEKLY STANDARD contributor and First Things editor Joseph Bottum, who has, in fact, won at the Deity level in Civilization III. He first began playing Civilization II in 1995 when he was a professor at Loyola College in Baltimore. "Among real aficionados," he says, "the goal was to see whether you could launch a spaceship before you reached A.D." The Deity level of Civ III posed more of a challenge, though Bottum eventually found a winning strategy--one involving an ancient civilization whose prime achievement appears early in the game, such as Egypt with its war chariots.
"We picked a topic with pretty universal appeal," says Meier. "We made a game that wasn't that hard to play but had a richness to it that people grew to appreciate. It tapped into things people already knew. I think it made people feel smart when they said, 'I'm going to develop the wheel or electricity or gunpowder. I know all this stuff and I'm in charge here.'" Besides that, "people like to be in these positions in games that they probably don't have a chance to be in real life and it tapped into that fantasy to a certain extent of being the leader of a civilization and having the destiny of all these people depending on you, and that was fun."
When Meier is not playing and testing his products, he spends his time with his wife and 16-year-old son (with whom he enjoys other videogames, like Guitar Hero). He plays keyboards and jams with a band consisting of members from his local church. The band's name is Faith Unlimited. The church he and his wife attend is Lutheran.
Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay. The same goes for choosing nuclear power or heading a government that isn't democratic--you could opt to run a fascist or Communist regime, though these choices all have consequences. (Your citizens may be less happy, but also less prone to rioting thanks to your secret police force.)
Nevertheless, Meier's faith puts him at odds with other game-design geniuses like John Carmack, John Romero, and Will Wright, who are all avowed atheists (and Meier is, incidentally, the only one from this group to have graduated from college). To be sure, Meier has the utmost respect for them and their pioneering work. But it is yet another factor that sets him apart.
When Carmack and Romero decided to introduce blood and gore in their breakthrough 1992 game Wolfenstein 3-D, they voluntarily rated themselves PC-13 for "profound carnage"--a brilliant marketing ploy. Later, when Romero realized Carmack had found a way to enable players to interact with each other on a network, as noted in Masters of Doom, his thought was: "Sure, it was fun to shoot monsters, but ultimately these were soulless creatures controlled by a computer. Now gamers could play against spontaneous human beings--opponents who could think and strategize and scream. We can kill each other! 'If we can get this done,' Romero said, 'this is going to be the f--ing coolest game that the planet Earth has ever f--ing seen in its entire history!'"
It's difficult to imagine the soft-spoken Sid Meier having the same reaction. "Those other guys," adds Bruce Shelley, "you look at their games, what kind of picture are they painting with their games? You look at Sid's games, I think what you're going to find is the kernel of a young man, a little boy, and the things he loved as a kid."
"We don't get into glorifying the violence and the gory stuff," says Meier. "That's just not the games that we like to do. I've raised a son and I know all the messages, all the influences, all the things that come into a young person's life, and we're responsible for a part of that. I mean, as game designers, we want people to play our games, so I think we need to take some responsibility for the content and the messages that come through our games."
Ultimately, Meier hopes people will want to read more about the subjects treated in his games. "I think people like to learn." And he might be on to something--at least when it comes to Laszlo Korossy. The 21-year-old junior at Catholic University has been playing Civilization in one form or another since the age of five, at a time when he spoke mostly Hungarian and knew only a handful of English words. At first, he says, "it was all just a game. I would then run into certain historical concepts, and as I started learning about history in school, I would see these concepts reappear. I already knew the word 'feudalism' in the first grade. I had no idea these concepts from the game were based on reality. But the game provided me with this framework through the years, a sense of familiarity."
"History was never a chore for me to study. It was always about going deeper into this game," says the history and international politics major, whose college application essay revolved around Civilization. Laszlo is also converting to Lutheranism. But this, he says, has nothing to do with Sid Meier.
Back at Firaxis, Meier and his team are hard at work on their next project, knowing their fans are eagerly waiting. Unfortunately, we can only speculate since, he explains, "we're not at the point where we're ready to talk too much about it." One possibility is a game about creating dinosaurs, an idea he called DinoMon, which he shelved years ago. But chances are, the next product will be related to the Civilization series. And yet there may come a time when replayability is completely exhausted--after all, the current edition features 18 civilizations, including Arabia, America, China, Russia, Spain, and Mali. What could possibly be left? "Canadians versus the Swiss," replies Meier. "That would be a real battle."
Millions of Civilization fans would agree, eh? And the purpose of it all? As the people of Long Island knocking the blip across the oscilloscope quickly figured out, but the physicist never quite grasped, not everything in life has a purpose.
Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.