In this turn-based interview, Sid Meier takes us from zero to 255 and brings the show nuclear! Well, at least that’s the rumor. Sid opens up his lifelong dev notes to discuss how he got started in games, why he decided to write his recent book, Sid Meier’s Memoir!, and how he’s better at Red Baron than an actual fighter pilot. On a personal note, we can officially say Sid agrees: dinosaurs are the coolest thing, ever! (We see you, Argentavis).
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Kelsey Lewin 00:00
Welcome to episode number eight of the Video Game History Hour, presented by the Video Game History Foundation. Every episode we’ll be bringing in an expert guest: someone who’s done their research and has an interesting story or two from video game history to tell. In this case, we have another person who was there to see it and do it. My name is Kelsey Lewin, I’m the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation. And I’m here, as always, with Frank Cifaldi, the founder and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.
Frank Cifaldi 00:26
Kelsey Lewin 00:28
Frank Cifaldi 00:29
Our guest today is computer and video game designer, Sid Meier, whose body of works include… well, Sid Meier’s Pirates, Sid Meier’s Civilization, and Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon, so came as no surprise to us that his new autobiography would be titled, Sid Meier’s Memoir. Sid, welcome to the Video Game History Hour!
Sid Meier 00:49
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Frank Cifaldi 00:50
Thank you! So let’s start off right away with talking about your book. What is it that made you want to write and publish a memoir?
Sid Meier 01:01
Well, I think I realized that I kind of had a ringside seat at the kind of inception of this industry. And perhaps, you know, I’m part of the origin story of this industry. And since it was before the internet, not everything has already been cataloged and “wiki-fied.” And it might be useful to kind of put down some of the some of the original history of some of the games I worked on. Especially as, a lot of times people ask me questions about, the behind the scenes story of Civilization, or Pirates!, or Railroad Tycoon or those games that, you know, when you play them, it kind of appears that that’s the only way this game could have turned out. But actually, behind the scenes, there’s lots of kind of twists and turns and wrong decisions and things that could have easily turned out a different way. So kind of trying to put all those things together, in a book seemed like a worthwhile exercise. So that’s what happened.
Kelsey Lewin 02:15
You know, how you talk about when video games don’t really turn out the way that they set out. I thought it was really interesting, in your book, you talked about how you don’t use design documents. And that’s kind of why, in a way, a lot of these games turned out the way they did is because you didn’t have to stick to any pre-determined, “I’m going to make a real-time strategy game, or I’m going to make this or that.” I mean, pretty famously, Civilization. That was a big thing you cut out of it, was the real-time clock.
Sid Meier 02:30
Right. We believe in the kind of iterative process so that we’re constantly playing the game. We are constantly changing it. We’re kind of interrogating ourselves as we play. You know, “Are we happy? Am I having fun at this moment? How could I have more fun at this moment?” And really kind of circulating between these, what I call these different chairs. Like the designer chair, I’ll come up with an idea. And then I’ll jump over to the programmer chair, and I’ll program it into the game. And I’ll jump over to the player chair and play it and see if it works. And then I’ll get back to the designer and tell him what he should have done differently. So you know, constantly minute by minute kind of circulating amongst these three chairs is the process that we go through to make a game. So we have, you know, a very vague idea of what might be fun at the beginning. But it’s detail after detail, feature after feature that have to come together to to make the final game. And you bring up a good example where Civilization originally was a real-time game similar to SimCity. And when we made that switch over to turn-based was when it really all kind of clicked.
Kelsey Lewin 03:58
Why do you think it’s important for people to understand this process, as opposed to maybe how they think of video game development before reading about your process?
Sid Meier 04:11
Well, I think in a lot of ways it adds to the enjoyment of playing games. If you have some insight into the design process behind the game – the kinds of ideas and goals – it might allow you to look a little more kindly on a bug or something that doesn’t work quite right. But, you know, I think it’s… Most game players are also game designers, you know? That they have ideas about how the game should work and how they might, you know, “If I were to design a design this game, you know, I would have done it this way!” So, having some insight into why certain decisions were made, why the game chose different paths, I think can help to can add to the enjoyment of the game. And also, you know, I think there’s a lot of interest in video game design and becoming a video game designer. It’s a career now that you can you can imagine and seeing how, you know, behind-the-scenes how it’s done, I think could be interesting to people.
Kelsey Lewin 05:15
Yeah. And that brings up a pretty good segue into part of the beginning of your book where you talk about how different it used to be. How, you know, video game designer wasn’t really word in people’s vocabularies yet. There wasn’t the sense of like, “I could sell video games when I grow up!” Can you talk a little bit about those early days and what it was like for someone like you, you know, having to manually copy each copy of your program, and calling up stores, and that sort of era?
Sid Meier 05:49
Yeah, it was a very different time. Video games were kind of a nerd-type obsession. It was a day when a lot of people built their own computers out of parts. And, you know, it was a time of hacking and nerding. So video games really had a very small audience. And the idea of becoming, you know, video game designer was a fun little hobby, but it never felt like it was going to become a career. We kind of knew, though, that we were on to something special and unique. I mean, even in those very simple, you know, 8-bit days with very limited graphics and sound, there was something compelling about the the ownership, the agency, the “you are the star” aspect of video games that was very different from all other forms of entertainment, you know, which tend to be pretty passive. But here, you were making decisions, you know, which way PAC-MAN would go or, you know, shooting down those Space Invader aliens… You know, you felt you were kind of at the center of this movie, the center of this experience. And I think we realized that we were perhaps onto something new that as the technology improved, as we got better at this, it could really become something. And that has turned out to be true.
Frank Cifaldi 07:18
And I think that’s what makes this memoir valuable to historians like ours is that, that is the time that is difficult to imagine now, right? Where you’re kind of inventing it as you go. And that’s why, you know, I’m thankful for works like thi, or, for example, one of your peers, Jordan Mechner, actually published his – I’m sure edited – but he published his development diaries for Karateka, and Prince of Persia, and it’s just really cool to see the stuff in the world.
Sid Meier 07:52
Yeah, my wife was collecting… So every morning, I’ll write down on a little piece of paper, things I want to do today, you know? And for a while, we were filling up a big box with with these notes. I doubt they would be all that valuable. But there was that sense of, you know, trying to preserve the history behind these games, because the process is interesting. That, you know, the things that worked are just as interesting as the things that didn’t work. And so, you know, whether to development diary or notes, or these days we archive our source code every every day. So there’s probably more information than it could actually be interpreted now, but back in those days we didn’t do that. So, you know, the stories in the book are kind of the designer diaries for some of these games.
Kelsey Lewin 08:54
Yeah, I mean, you weren’t thinking, like, this was going to be some mind blowing thing later when you’re creating a game like F1 Race [Formula 1 Racing] or Floyd of the Jungle or something like that. I mean, these are just little projects for you and not something where you were snapshotting it every day and making sure that there was this long paper trail to look back on for a historian someday, because you never know that something’s going to be historically interesting until so much later. So it is really important and great that you’ve been able to least kind of shed some light on what was going on at those times and how your process worked back then.
Sid Meier 09:36
Yeah, that was really one of the beauties of making video games, was that we didn’t have to document our code. We didn’t have to write a design document. Before I worked at MicroProse, started MicroProse, I worked in, like, a traditional business kind of programming environment? And there you had to write comments and document your code and maintain software that was going to be around for 20 years. And you know, that’s boring stuff. So being able to write video games and knowing in six months “I’m going to be on to something completely new and I’ll never have to, you know, remember, this code again!” is liberating. For a programmer, I think, that’s an ideal world. Not having to document your code and kind of forgetting it after a few months and moving on to something else.
Frank Cifaldi 10:27
So actually, just going back to this giant pile of paper… Did you have to go through any of your own archives to write this book or where you, you know, purely able to just go from memory?
Sid Meier 10:39
I can basically go from memory. Frankly, games like Civilization, Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon are kind of as much alive today as they were back then. I’ll often run into players, you know, that remember this game or that game and have introduced it, often, to their children and have the questions. So I kind of know what things people are interested in because I’ve had those conversations with our players. Jennifer [Lee Noonan], who is the co-author, actually did a lot of research about other things that were happening in the industry at the time that I was working. So she kind of filled out the other side of things. She researched the nuclear Gandhi meme and put a lot of really interesting sidelights to kind of complement the things that I was doing.
Kelsey Lewin 11:38
So I do want to comment on the the Gandhi bug rumor here and ask you: have you tried to get the original source code off of – I know, you have the original computer that you developed Civilization on – have you tried to get that source code off so that you can lay it to rest? And I mean, you’ve laid it to rest in the book, of course, but, you know, to show and point to people, “No, I didn’t mess that up!”
Frank Cifaldi 12:03
Yeah, where’s the forensic evidence?
Sid Meier 12:07
That could be fun. I’ve talked to a couple of our tech guys. And we… there’s some process involving a parallel port and a different kind of hard drive and some way that we can actually, possibly get the source code off. But it’s not a trivial process. And I would love to do that. I think, you know, that could be my next book: the source code for Civilization 1. But annotated, of course. But in a way, I almost prefer to leave it a mystery, you know? That it has taken on such a life of its own, you know, the Gandhi meme? And then the, you know, the minus one, and it’s almost more interesting not to know, to me, than to have a definitive answer.
Frank Cifaldi 13:10
Well, hang on, we didn’t explain the Gandhi meme, come on! For those listening at home: what’s this Gandhi thing we’re talking about?
Sid Meier 13:19
Well, I’ll give you my point of view.
Frank Cifaldi 13:22
Sid Meier 13:23
There was some people playing Civilization. You’re interacting with all the great leaders of the world through 6000 years of history. And towards the end, you come to the nuclear age and perhaps one of your rivals is Gandhi. And if you are mean to him, or don’t treat him well, he may say to you – threaten you – and say, “My words are backed with nuclear weapons.” Um, this startled quite a number of our players as being somewhat out of character for Gandhi, and became kind of… The original meme was, “Look what Gandhi said to me! Isn’t this amazing what’s going on here?” And then, a rumor started to float around that this was a bug that Gandhi had an aggressiveness measure and it was possible for this number to go negative. But since it was an unsigned number, it was actually the largest possible positive number, and it would make him very angry and aggressive. So that’s kind of the meme. Gandhi using nuclear weapons, and perhaps there’s a mysterious bug behind the whole behavior. So that’s kind of the meme in a nutshell.
Frank Cifaldi 14:44
So it could be true, then, is what you’re saying?
Sid Meier 14:47
Anything is pos….
Kelsey Lewin 14:50
Until we see that source code!
Sid Meier 14:51
We weren’t dealing with 16-bit integers at the time. And I know for a fact that in Railroad Tycoon, you could overflow the number of dollars that you had in your bank account. But, um, I’ll have to, you know, I’ll have to go back to the source code and at least satisfy my own curiosity as to what’s going on there. I’m not sure we make it public until, you know, the next book comes in.
Kelsey Lewin 15:18
I do think it’s really interesting, though, that this rumor really only started about, I think you said something like eight or nine years ago in the book? And it’s become this legend now that everyone who’s played Civilization can recite and treats as a fact that they remember from their childhood when really, I mean, you know… The whole explanation for it and the the hyper-aggression part of it is really, I mean, it’s like a decade old at this point.
Sid Meier 15:51
Yeah, it’s just an artifact of how deeply people become engaged with these games. I mean, it’s amazing. We get, we used to get letters, now we get forum posts about players experience, ideas, thoughts that they have improvements, things that they would like to see, it becomes… You know, they become very deeply engaged with it. And the Gandhi meme is an example of that. But people have their favorite Civs, their favorite leaders, their favorite strategies, you know. They’ve invested some pretty serious time and thinking into the game itself. But you know, it’s very gratifying for us that we’ve created this experience that, you know, is so involving for players.
Video Game History Foundation 16:36
So let’s go all the way back, because one thing that your book provides to the world that is valuable, I think, is sort of first-hand documentation of the beginnings of MicroProse. So can you kind of take us back to how MicroProse started and how you got involved, essentially, in the computer game industry?
Sid Meier 16:55
Sure. I had always been interested in games even before there were computers. There was a time when there were no computers.
Frank Cifaldi 17:05
Sid Meier 17:05
It’s hard to believe I know! But I’d always been interested in games, board games, card games, as a kid. And then in college, I had my first introduction to computers. They were huge mainframe computers that lived in a refrigerated room somewhere in a mysterious place. And you know, you brought your deck of punch cards up to the card reader and you hoped that you didn’t have a mistyping in there. And anyways, it was a very different kind of experience than we have today. But I learned how to program in college. And then shortly after that, the first kind of personal computers came out. And the Atari 800 was the first computer that I had that gave me an opportunity to combine two things that I really enjoyed: programming and games. And the Atari was really designed by gamers. It had pretty good graphics for the time. It had sound capability. It came with joysticks. It had player missile graphics and all sorts of cool stuff that was put there by people who understood games. So I started programming some games for my own enjoyment, and some of them… one was a copy of Space Invaders and one was a copy of PAC-MAN. Um… but eventually –
Frank Cifaldi 18:29
And that was really common at the time, right? That the designers would kind of getting their start just replicating the arcade games?
Sid Meier 18:36
Yeah, it was. Yes. It was a way of, you know, figuring out how they did it. I mean, I remember my Space Invaders was hand assembled assembly code on a cassette tape. So that was some special work there. So I had done a… made a couple of games for myself. Actually went to the local computer store with a floppy disk in a baggie and showed them my Formula 1 Racing game (which I had no rights to whatsoever) but I think they bought, like, fifteen copies? When I went back they pretended they’d never seen before. But, um, so I learned a lesson. I need a business partner to make this thing work. And that’s when I ran into Bill Stealey. We both worked at the same company. We were at a convention in Las Vegas, learning about the future plans of our company. And after he, you know, kind of got to talking and I mentioned that I was interested in computer games, and he mentioned he was an Air Force pilot. And we wandered around Las Vegas, ended up at the MGM Grand, and there was this Red Baron video game. And Bill was going to show me how it was done, him being a fighter pilot. So he sat down, played the game, and you know he did all right. And then I played after him and I got a better score than he did. And he said, you know, “How can that be? You are a lowly programmer, and I am an Air Force pilot!” And I told him, “Well, I was watching you play, and I kind of figured out some of the algorithms behind the other airplanes. And I took advantage of that to get a higher score than you did.” And he said, “Wow, Sid, you’re pretty smart guy! Maybe we should start a company.” And the rest is history.
Frank Cifaldi 20:37
So what was your first game with Bill Stealey and microprose?
Sid Meier 20:41
It was… Hellcat Ace, I believe, was the first game we produced. It was… A lot of the games back in those days kind of relied on some hardware trick that you had discovered, or programming trick. And we had figured out how to make the horizon bank very quickly. And that turned into to an airplane game. We figured out how to use all four joysticks on the Atari to make Floyd of the Jungle. There were again, you know, kind of we were discovering things on on the fly, basically. And whenever we figured out how to do something cool, we said, “Well, what kind of a game can we make out of this?” And that was kind of the rationale for our first, our Hellcat days, because we could make an actually pretty useful and realistic for the time flight simulator. And that actually kind of became one of the staples of MicroProse over the years.
Frank Cifaldi 21:51
So something that I liked in the book was Bill’s sort of guerilla marketing tactic gitting MicroProse games in stores. Can you kind of tell that story?
Sid Meier 22:06
Yeah, Bill was the ultimate marketeer. You know, great, a great partner to have. I was kind of the the “make the games” and he was the “sell the games.” Back in the very early days, we were terribly small. I mean, I was working part time and I don’t think Bill had even left his regular job and was doing this all in his spare time. But there was a day when he was driving north from Baltimore towards New York along I-95, which is the main highway and he would be stopping at these various mom and pop computer shops, which was all it really was in those days. And asking them, “Do you have our latest game?” And they would say no, and then he would go, you know, be very disappointed and sad, and go on to the next door. And then a short time later, he would call the store using a different voice. [laughter] And, you know, m`ntioned the game that we had available. And you know, in many cases, he kind of created the demand for the game. And that was how we started, basically.
Kelsey Lewin 23:24
It’s so funny. That’s such a… that’s not something that’s even fathomable these days. I mean, there’s no, there are no really mom and pop selling their own… You know, there’s mom and pop stores selling software, certainly, but not ones that you were copying yourselves and handing them and, you know, maybe only four stores in the entire country carried this one game and that was the only way to get it. There’s no model for this anymore. But back then, you could literally create your own demand and kind of force your way into these stores. And I just think that’s such a fascinating part of early video game sales that, you know, it’s just completely gone now.
Sid Meier 24:07
Yeah, I was the entire software development department. I mean, I programmed the games, I did the art, I did the sound, I duplicated the discs, I printed out the manuals, all four pages of them on my Epson printer. And Bill did all the other stuff. So yeah. It was a very different time.
Frank Cifaldi 24:32
I like that you duplicated the discs. It was a company decision that your time was better spent duplicating the discs than, you know, paying someone’s nephew to do it or something while you can continue coding!
Sid Meier 24:45
Actually, I eventually… We had a users group, Atari users group, and we’d get together perhaps one of them once a month, you know, all the Atari… people who had Atari computers. And there was a high school student that I would drive to the meeting. And eventually I got him to duplicate discs for me. So that was, like, a huge step forward!
Frank Cifaldi 25:13
Your first hire!
Sid Meier 25:15
Kelsey Lewin 25:15
And you could actually go make games instead of…
Sid Meier 25:17
I can make… yeah. A making a game is probably a two-month, you know, a two- or three-month process and those days, as opposed to a multi-year process. So, yeah. It was… it was a different time.
Frank Cifaldi 25:30
Um, jumping ahead a little bit… You know, and I imagined by now, MicroProse has grown a bit, but I’d say maybe the first title that people tend to remember these days from MicroProse that you worked on was Sid Meier’s Pirates! Can you tell us briefly kind of where Pirates! came from and what the game was like?
Sid Meier 25:54
Yeah, Pirates! One of my favorite games even to this day. So we had, at MicroProse, we had been kind of in the simulator business. We had done Hellcat Ace, we had eventually done F-15 [Strike Eagle], which was a game which kind of appealed to military simulator fans, and especially Bill with his Air Force background was very much into promoting that game. And we also did Solo Flight, which was not a military flight simulator but kind of a commercial flight simulator, which was picked up by an actual distributor. The industry had grown to where we didn’t have to go from store to store but we could hand our game to a distributor and they would take care of selling it. But so… We were known as a kind of a simulation/vehicle simulator company. And I had done, you know, a number of those, and gotten a little, you know, tired of that. And one of our other producers there, Arnold Hendrick, kind of mentioned the idea of Pirates! And I had been playing some of the adventure games that were around, the other text adventures back in those days. In the, you know, you type in a word and the parser might or might not know what that word meant. And there was a lot of kind of trial and error to playing these games. And I had an idea for a different kind of adventure game structured more like a movie, where the scenes represent the high point, the most exciting things. And then you kind of travel very quickly from one high point to another. A menuing system where you don’t have to type a word to guess what the computer might want to hear. But the computer tells you, “You’ve got these three choices. Pick one and let and let’s go!” So we also had developed a new technology where we could compress pictures into a font. It’s… don’t worry, it worked. So we could kind of bring up these menus with pictures. And that became the vehicle by which the story was told. And it was not text and it was not a lot of typing. It actually felt very smooth. And I guess it’s not really like watching a movie, but it had the kind of pacing that a movie might have. And of course, a movie has to have car chases and action sequences. So there were sword fights that were ship battles. And it had this whole structure kind of like a movie, where a story was being told. You were exploring this open world, which was kind of a new concept at the time. And you were the star of this movie. You lived out this entire pirate lifetime. And so the scope of Pirates! was was pretty ambitious, and I think people responded well to that.
Kelsey Lewin 29:05
And it’s so interesting, too, because, you know, originally, obviously Pirates! was super successful. And when you explain it, that sounds like an awesome game. But this was such a departure from what MicroProse was doing already. But I mean, it seemed like people weren’t really on board with it? And and this is actually where the whole “Sid Meier’s” name on the box comes from, right? It’s not so much, like, a vote of confidence, but a vote of like, “Well, if you liked this guy’s other stuff, I guess you can trust this!”
Sid Meier 29:37
That’s true. That’s true. There were some in the company, I won’t mention any names – our president – nwas skeptical. Kind of understandably, because we have had success with our simulation games and he was an Air Force guy. But I just wanted to make this game. I thought it would be fun to make and fun to play. So we did have this conversation where, you know, he said, “Well, OK, Sid if you want to make this game… But we’re going to put your name on it, so that if they like F-15, if they liked your other games, they’ll know it’s the same person and maybe they’ll give it a try. And it turned out pretty well. So of course, once something works, you keep doing it over and over again. So after that my name, when I made a game? It had my name on it.
Frank Cifaldi 30:29
I find it interesting what you said previously about, with Pirates! trying to make an adventure essentially without a text parser. And it kind of seems like, in that time – we’re talking 1987 for Sid Meier’s Pirates – there’s almost this gold rush among computer game designers to kill the text parser, right? Like, you had Ron Gilbert at Lucasfilm Games that year came out with Maniac Mansion with its sort of “click to build sentence” structure. You know, Sierra was not quite at the point-and-click era there, but you know, they’re almost on the cusp, where they had graphical adventures where he still walked around in 3D space but typed in the command still. I mean, is that something that was in the air that you sort of felt at the time with colleagues? That there was this sort of rush to kill the text parser? Or am I just reading way too hard into this?
Sid Meier 31:33
No, I think I think you’re right. I think we, at the time, we kind of felt this envy of the movie business, that they were able to do all these very cool things. And at the time, we were limited to text adventures, and you know… that. And so trying to push the technology to be more graphic, to be more streamlined, to be worrying more about pacing, was really a jealousy of the tools that movies had to entertain. And, you know, kind of moving ourselves more towards what the tools and the and the techniques that movies were using to to create entertainment. And you know, I think you you’ve mentioned some good examples there. Pirates! in some, in some parts was also inspired by Seven Cities of Gold, which was a Dan Bunten game that kind of first introduced a bit of the open world concept. And that was something that, you know, obviously has taken off and survived. But it was something we could do kind of uniquely. And kind of combining those strengths of some unique gameplay with more of the movie-style pacing and visuals were the advancements, you know, that you kind of just mentioned.
Frank Cifaldi 32:54
It’s kind of funny, just on that note: we did recently do an event with Ron Gilbert. And we are going through his early designs for the Secret of Monkey Island (which, of course, is another pirate-themed game), and in his earliest design notes there was a lot of open sea battles and boarding ships to do a sword fight to gather resources, and they’re sort of a […] I’m like, “Where’d this come from?” And he’s like, “Well, I was playing a lot of Sid Meier’s Pirates! at the time…” [laughter]
Kelsey Lewin 33:28
And before there’s rules, I mean, you’ve talked about this a lot in your book, but you’re kind of making this stuff up as you go at this time. There wasn’t an established genre that you’re working from. And so you know, when you have someone, I mean, someone like Ron Gilbert’s doing the exact same thing. He’s like, “Well, this is the one pirate game that I’ve been playing a lot of, so do all pirate games have to be like this?” Did you run into any of that with your own work? Like, were there ever any times where you were working on a type of game and you’re like, “Well, I’ve only seen one other game do this so, you know… what are the rules here?”
Sid Meier 33:28
[Laughter] We definitely drew a lot of inspiration from the games we were playing. Civilization is a good example, I mean, SimCity had come out a short time before that. Seven Cities of Gold was was an inspiration for Pirates! I think it was not so much that, “This is the way the game has to work,” but it’s… a lot of times it’s just, you know, “This is pretty good, but if I were to do it, I would do THIS differently and then I would do THIS differently…” And that became the game. Civilization, kind of inspired some ways by SimCity, but what if it were the entire world? What if it were 6000 years? What if were term based? Had that kind of “start small and build” quality that SimCity had, had the “multiple things going on at the same time thing” quality that SimCity had. So it was, we did look at other, you know, we’re inspired by other games, but it wasn’t like that limited us to only making games that way. But it kind of served as a, you know, starting point a jumping off point for our own ideas.
Kelsey Lewin 35:16
Yeah, and I think that’s a pretty good thing to kind of educate people on that you do through this book, where nothing really exists in a vacuum, you know? You don’t come up with any of these ideas just completely independent of anything else. You’re consuming any other media, whether it’s another game or movie or anything like that. I mean, everything is sort of built off of maybe the side or the corner or something of something else that you’ve consumed. And, you know, nothing just kind of comes out of thin air.
Sid Meier 35:48
Very much so. And I mean, all the games that I’ve made have been things that, as a kid, I was was interested in. Whether it was, you know, railroads, or history, or Civil War, or airplanes. I mean, those are all things I think that, you know, certainly I went through as a kid; a phase when I was fascinated by learning this new thing. You know, “Oh, there’s their books about the Civil War,” for example. I would go through a phase where I would have to find every book I could find and, you know, a door had opened up. And so part of, I think, what make games appealing is, you’re learning about something new. How to fly, you know, how to fly an airplane. Or how to run a railroad. The kind of learning and discovery that’s part of the process of gaming, I think – for me – harkens back to my childhood and how much I enjoyed learning about some new thing that, you know, a week ago I didn’t even know existed and now I’m in the middle of it, and it’s fascinating.
Frank Cifaldi 36:57
So did you sort of teach yourself these concepts by programming them, you know, as sort of simulation game mechanics? Like, did you gain a better understanding of war through making Civilization?
Sid Meier 37:10
I think I taught myself a lot about making games by making… I won’t say mistakes, but by trying things out and deciding they weren’t quite the best solution to whatever the problem was. But for us as game designers, certainly for me, it comes down to having fun. Is the game fun? Am I, you know… is this a fun experience? So I’m not… You know, we kind of joke, but if it comes down to a decision of what’s realistic and what’s fun, we will always tilt towards what’s what’s fun. So we are not claiming that this is an accurate simulation, whether it’s history or you know, that it’s more about you learning decision making processes and kind of learning how the game works. We we would not, you know… If you’ve flown our F-15, we’re not saying you’re ready to fly a real F-15. If you’ve won a game of Civilization, we’re not saying that you’re QUITE ready to take over the world. But you have become better at decision making and understanding the kind of the world that the game presents to you.
Frank Cifaldi 38:36
So I think we’d probably get some angry letters if we didn’t talk about Railroad Tycoon. Certainly a classic of yours. So this was, I believe you’re still at MicroProse for Railroad Tycoon, is that right?
Sid Meier 38:50
Frank Cifaldi 38:51
Yeah. So tell us a bit about where that one came from? That was kind of on the heels, I think, of Pirates! or maybe there was a couple between?
Sid Meier 39:01
Yeah! That was a very hectic time period. I had started working together with Bruce Shelley, kind of as my co-designer and producer and person I could bounce a lot of ideas off of. And he was a real railroad fan. He’d actually done a conversion of a British board game called 1829. And he converted it to 1830, which was an American board game about American railroads. Often after work, we’d get a group together and we’d play this game. And of course, as game designers, we would say, “Wouldn’t this make a great computer game? Here’s how it should be different!” And I was working on Covert Action at the time and I went on vacation. We would go for a week to the beach in the summertime. And I took my computer with me and it was kind of a time to, I don’t know, time to try… you know, just have… not work but play on the computer? And I put together a prototype of a little railroad, almost like a model railroad, something you put on your living room floor. One or two engines and some track, but it was fun. It was, you know, a game either kind of catches fire or doesn’t. And this one kind of caught fire. And, you know, we could see the next thing to add the next thing to do. You know, more more trains more stations more, oh, “Let’s add the stock market. Let’s add this.” And it kind of pushed Covert Action out of the way and it turned into Railroad Tycoon. Again, kind of with the with the inspiration of SimCity, the idea of a building game, the first game that we made that was kind of more about building than it was about blowing things up. And there was a unique satisfaction to that that really worked with Railroad Tycoon and then inspired in a lot of ways, Civilization as the next step.
Frank Cifaldi 41:22
And Civilization of course… You know, again, like you said, it’s sort of building blocks from SimCity. And really Civilization I would say, you know, took what you were building with Railroad Tycoon to the next level? And that was… you know, I think when people hear the name Sid Meier, they add the apostrophe s and then Civilization right after it.
Sid Meier 41:54
Yeah, I’m very proud of that. I mean, I’ve done many games. But if that’s the game people remember, I am perfectly, perfectly OK with that. And making it was a wonderful experience and speaking to players and kind of seeing the feedback has been, you know, extremely gratifying. So, yeah, I’m… You know, I’ve said, “If that’s on my gravestone: ‘Sid Meier did Civilization,’ that is fine.” Fine with me. You know, one question I get is like, “What’s your favorite game that you’ve made?” And, you know my reaction is that they’re like your children. That you don’t have a favorite child, you have the smart one and the funny one, and the one who went into business and the one who, you know, still living at home, but you love them all, you know? And that’s the way I feel about the games that I’ve made.
Kelsey Lewin 43:00
Your children excel at different things, so…
Sid Meier 43:03
Exactly. They’re all winners!
Kelsey Lewin 43:07
So I want to jump forward a little bit, to: you’re one of the earlier developers to kind of see the value in doing these public developer logs and being transparent with fans, and kind of telling them what you’re up to. But you also wrote about how that transparency didn’t always go kind of as planned because you might run into a situation where you show your hand a little too soon, and maybe that, you know, maybe you end up quitting the game? Maybe that game doesn’t pan out at all. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sid Meier 43:41
Yeah, um, if we must! We can talk about that.
Frank Cifaldi 43:47
We want to juice!
Sid Meier 43:51
There was a time when I probably got a little too full of myself and I forgot that not every game idea turns into a great game. In fact, it’s one of the luxuries that we have is that, if something is not working out, we can move on to something else. If after a month or two the game isn’t coming together, then you kind of have the luxury of trying something different. You know, it’d be very painful to have to work on a game month after month that just isn’t coming together. But I started working on a dinosaur game. And, you know, my feeling was, “This can’t miss! How can a game about dinosaurs not be fun? I mean, you know, dinosaurs are the coolest thing ever! And sure, we can make a great game about it!” So I did start to put together a developer diary that we put online and how the game was coming along. And lo and behold, it just wasn’t happening. We tried, started off as a kind of a turn-based game and then we tried more of an Age of Empires-style real-time game, a real-time strategy type game. And then we actually tried as a card game. And none of these prototypes, you know, really were as much fun as they needed to be. So we had to eventually admit through our blog that this game is not going happen, but we’ve learned a lot along the way. But yeah, I mean, not every… I’d say, probably at least half of the games that I prototype have ended up not turning into products, because, you know, the spark just kind of died out, and it stopped being fun.
Kelsey Lewin 45:47
Yeah, this is something that’s, you know, it’s so interesting for people on the other side reading these, because they kind of end up is these holy relics? That they have some feeling like, “Oh, it could have been great, this dinosaur game could have been incredible!” And you know, the people on the other side, I think, have have trouble sometimes understanding that you’re not canceling games for fun. You’re canceling them because they’re not good. So you have this, transparency’s, like… You have this interesting kind of thing going on here, where you want to be able to be transparent and tell people about game development and about some of the pitfalls and how sometimes things go great, sometimes things don’t go so great. And on the other side, you have people who end up really upset and not understanding that things are usually canceled for a good reason, or changed for a good reason. And that transparency sometimes maybe doesn’t land the way you want it to.
Sid Meier 46:49
Yeah, I mean, there’s pros and cons of that. You know, for Civilization, the community has been one of our strongest allies, and it’s been part of the strength of Civilization. The community, the ideas that they present, scenarios that are that are made, mods, etc. and just kind of being advocates, evangelists, for the game. So, you know, in that way, the community has been one of our greatest assets. They can be a little harsh at times but, you know, we appreciate all that they bring to it. And in communicating with them and being transparent, it’s part of the interaction that we have with our community. But there are times when it can lead to disappointment.
Frank Cifaldi 47:38
So do you kind of flinch when you see Kickstarter projects, where they’re kind of in the prototype phase and now they’re seeking funding from the community and opening access?
Sid Meier 47:49
That is brave, I have to say! You know, I dread getting stuck on a project that I don’t believe in, you know? And I think that’s a little bit of a risk in Kickstarter, I guess, that you’ve taken in this money now with this idea and, you know, you’ve got to make it and hope it stays fun and exciting all through the process.
Frank Cifaldi 48:15
So going back to just, you know, the fact that you wrote this memoir. Why do you think there aren’t more video game developer autobiographies? It’s something that kind of frustrates us here with our library.
Sid Meier 48:31
Well, I think I’ve been super fortunate in that I’ve been able to kind of continue to make games over a number a large number of years. On the one hand, I’ve really focused on kind of what I think I can do and what I know I can’t do, and partnered with people like Bill Stealey and my partners at Firaxis, who kind of allow me to make games and not have to worry about running a business or marketing. You know, doing a lot of the other things that are essential to be in the business. I think we’ve also… there’s been a stability to both MicroProse and Firaxis that are not necessarily the rule in this industry. It’s pretty easy for a company to disappear from out from under you or to change its philosophy or, you know. So many of the game designers that I knew back in near the early GDC days are not making games anymore. Not necessarily of their own choice. So I’m lucky to still be making games and to have now this body of work to look back upon. And I think that, a lot of that is kind of owed to Civilization, that that has been a kind of a rock and a core of my career that has had this longevity that has allowed me to keep making games. So I’m perhaps in a somewhat unique position. There a few other designers that are still designing that were around back when and maybe they’ll write books. I don’t know. But I think a lot of the stories from those times, you know, perhaps reside with people who are no longer really part of the industry.
Frank Cifaldi 50:40
And I guess just to tie all that together: something that we’ve often felt here at the foundation is that video game development could use some… I don’t know, demystification. That I think the world would benefit a little bit if we were slightly less secretive about the secret sauce that goes into making games. Is that something that, you know, sort of inspired you as well with this book?
Sid Meier 51:13
I think so. I think we all benefit from good games, from there being good games out there. That was one of our considerations back when there were… In the early days of industry, you know, when somebody brought out a great game, it was like, “OK, they’re lifting all of us up.” It’s not really competition. We’re not looking at somebody else’s game and saying, “Oh, darn, they, they made a good game.” They made something that’s going to help us all. So I think that distributing this knowledge, distributing these ideas, distributing these skills, is beneficial to the entire industry. So you know, I agree with you that sharing, if it’s the secret sauce or the 10 rules of game design, or whatever it is withbudding designers is a positive step. You know, we’re in an interesting time, where there are tools like Unity and Unreal out there where you can put something on the screen pretty quickly that looks like a game. It’s not really a game, but it looks like a game! So you know, it kind of feels like, you know, we want to make sure people understand that there’s more to a game than a character running around on the screen. There’s more to a game than a couple of big explosions. And that’s part of part of what I talk about, is the process of making a game, the core of it, the fun, the interesting decisions… the things that have to be there for a game to really stand the test of time.
Kelsey Lewin 52:55
Do you feel like that’s gotten more difficult now that games can be more complex? That a lot of things kind of get lost, the good decisions and the fun parts kind of get lost in them just getting, you know, in the game’s ability to do so much?
Sid Meier 53:14
It’s hard to say. I think we’re, in general, better designers than we were. But the stakes are raised really high. The cost of games has gone up very, very dramatically. The number of people that work on games. The investment has gone up really high and that leads to a little more conservatism; maybe a little less willingness to take risks, given the cost of games. So I think we’re living in a wonderful age of games, you know. One thing we have now is such a variety of audiences. If you want, you know, a 99 cent game that you can play with your short attention span, that game is out there. If you want to play Civilization for 30 hours, that game is out there. If you are interested in any sort of different thing, there’s probably a game out there for you. So in that sense, we’re in a in a golden age of games. But the the kind of wide openness that we that we experienced back on the you know, the ability to do a Pirates! and say, “I’m going to combine storytelling and action and role-playing, an open world and, you know, I’m just going to cram them all into this game!” And, you know, I think that is… those kind of risks might be a lot harder to take these days because of the investment that’s required.
Frank Cifaldi 54:48
Yeah, all of the art that would be expected in a modern game versus what you could get away with back then is what comes to mind for me for sure.
Sid Meier 54:58
Yeah, I mean, we we did get away with that. And in a way, it was a feature. Of course, one of our inside jokes is, “It’s a feature, it’s a feature!” But the fact that a game like Civilization or Railroad Tycoon required you to use your imagination to, you know, to see those 12 pixels as a tank added to the investment, the immersion of the experience. So, when you’re playing Civ, it’s all happening in your head, it’s all you projecting, “What am I going to do next? What are they going to do when I do that?” And the fact that it took up so much of your brain space to play, because the graphics were limited, was in a way I think, you know, a feature. Really made the game even a little more immersive.
Frank Cifaldi 55:54
I believe I attended an entire GDC talk where you had a design philosophy around this, actually. That letting the player sort of imagine – I’m trying to remember your analogy – I think it was the “elephant being delivered” or something was probably better than actually drawing the elephant.
Sid Meier 56:11
Oh! [Laughter] I think, yeah, I might be referring to CivRev [Civilization Revolution] where we were… You’re the king, and other kings would acknowledge your awesomeness by sending you a pack of elephants or a juggler or, you know, a sword swallower, I don’t really know. We never actually showed you these things, but we told you that this was being done. And you said, “Oh, yeah, I’m a cool king, so of course, you’re doing this.” So it all just happened in your head.
Frank Cifaldi 56:45
And that’s a feature.
Sid Meier 56:46
It’s a feature, right! [laughter]
Frank Cifaldi 56:50
So Sid, where can our listeners find out more about your book?
Sid Meier 56:54
The best place to go to find out more about my book is sidmeiersmemoir.com. Everything you need to know is right there.
Kelsey Lewin 57:02
I saw it at Barnes & Noble and I’d like to talk about this all the time. Because if you ever go to the video games section of a Barnes & Noble, there’s usually one or two actual books about video games and the rest are art books and strategy guides. So I was really excited to see your book! An actual book about video games at Barnes & Noble!
Sid Meier 57:25
I yeah, I should I should mention them. They are supporting us very, very, very handily. And so we do appreciate their support as well.
Frank Cifaldi 57:34
Well, Sid Meier, thank you so much for joining us on the Video Game History Hour.
Sid Meier 57:38
Been my pleasure!
Kelsey Lewin 57:39
Thanks for listening to the Video Game History Hour brought to you by the Video Game History Foundation. If you have questions or comments for the show, you can find us on Twitter @gamehistoryhour or email us at email@example.com. Did you know that Video Game History Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit and that all of your contributions are tax deductible? You can support this podcast and all of our other work on Patreon or at gamehistory.org/donate. This episode of the Video Game History Hour was produced by Robin Kunimune and edited by Michael Carrell. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.