Sid Meier: “I wouldn’t play Civilization if it came out today”


As Sid Meier is launching Zoom from his home in Maryland, it seems to me that this sweet-mannered video game designer has caught my attention more than any other artist.

Watching all the James Bond films would take around 50 hours. To read all about Harry Potter, maybe 60 years old. Meier’s work pokes fun at such dilettantism. It’s almost unbearable to try to calculate the time that I gave Railroad Tycoon, Pirates and the different versions of Civilisation, but I’m sure it would be over 1000 hours. When it comes to Meier, there aren’t many agnostics. Either the name won’t tell you anything, or it will inspire memories of high seas filibusters, railway oligarchy, and world domination.

At 66, after nearly 40 years in the business, Meier has written an entertaining autobiography. Its title is Memory of Sid Meier!, the flippant exclamation mark in keeping with the style he has used throughout his career. The book looks back on his career in chronological order, from his early days of programming 2D action games during his lunch breaks, to the multi-million dollar projects he’s currently working on that have more in common. with Hollywood blockbusters as his early work.

“There’s a whole new generation of gamers who’ve grown up knowing the games their entire lives,” he says, explaining why he decided now is the time for a book. “So for those of us who go back far enough to remember a time without games, this is our origin story. A time when there was no Internet, when everything was not instantly available online. I wanted to let go of those memories before they disappeared into the mists.

As with Buster Keaton or Elvis, Meier’s work is inseparable from technological innovation. During the time he worked, the possibilities of video games expanded faster than in any creative field in history. When he started out, game design was a side hobby of his cash register design job. The industry grew with him. Today it is worth over $ 100 billion a year and continues to grow at around 10 percent a year.

Memoir of Sid Meier! – cover art(Press image)

His initial difficulties seem strange. Meier was relieved when fighter jets started using the HUD instead of the old-fashioned instrument panels, as it meant he no longer had to give up the bottom half of his screen to represent dials and dials. gauges. To prevent hacking, they would include passwords in the game manuals, the file sizes of which were too large to be easily distributed.

For all the new possibilities in photo-realistic graphics and online play, you get the impression Meier feels something has been lost as well.

“For a long time, we pushed the boundaries of what the computer could do,” he says. “We were trying to make the most of the material available and then tap into the imagination of the players to provide the rest. It was the art of game design, to provide that stimulus. You imagine being a fighter pilot, a pirate or the king of a great civilization. Where some games are more movie-like, beautiful to watch but many artistic decisions have been made for you, Meier’s games are more like novels, inviting the reader to fill in the gaps. His maxims.

Meier made a name for himself with flight simulators in the 1980s and then with Pirates! in 1987. It was Civilisation, however, the first iteration of which was released in 1991 (there have now been 12 editions), which secured its place in gaming history.

For a long time we pushed against the limits of what the computer could do

Sid Meier

Civ, as we know, put yourself in the role of the deity-type ruler of a great civilization. From 4000 BC, you take control of a single settler in the center of a large, mostly obscure map. You have found a city, which you can use to make more settlers or soldiers, and research new technologies to develop and advance your civilization. The wonders of the world confer unique advantages on your civilization: Stonehenge, the Sistine Chapel or Angkor Wat.

The action is turn-based, so you have time to decide what you want to do as much as possible before you hit “next turn” and your opponents make their moves.

The “next round” button is the key to Civ’s magnetic hold on player attraction. Who knows what will happen when you push it? There is always another turning point. The minutes turn into hours, the hours turn into days. You settle in for a quick bedtime game and before you know it the sun is rising and you are bombarded by Gandhi. You can win militarily or technologically by building a spaceship or amassing wealth. Different governments confer different benefits. Democracy is better for scientific progress and commerce, but makes war more difficult.

The game has been criticized for its tendency towards a liberal-democratic worldview, especially in its early incarnations, and has been cited in academic articles. In 2012, a story came out of a man playing the same game of Civilisation 2 for over 10 years, bringing the playing year up to 3991AD. His world had become a perpetual war between three perfectly balanced powers, constantly dropping atomic bombs at each other. The story has been picked up around the world, not least for its accidental similarities to George Orwell’s vision in 1984.

“We try to warn people not to draw too many parallels with the real world,” Meier says. “It’s a sandbox where you can do whatever you like. We try to give you a general idea of ​​the different leaders and philosophies, but no more. “

Despite its almost infinite replayability, Civ is not as easy to pick up and learn as most of today’s popular phone or console games. In the book, Meier reminds us that the best-selling games of 1998 were Civ 2, Warcraft II, Myst, Command & Conquer and Duke Nukem 3D. Aside from the last, all require more thought and commitment than the Crushed candies or Fortnites who dominate the game today. The competition for eyeball time means it’s hard to imagine these titles having the same kind of popularity if they were released now.

We try to warn people not to draw too many parallels with the real world

“I don’t think I could do Civilisation today, ”Meier says. “I’m not even sure I would play it. It wouldn’t fit into the zeitgeist. It demands a lot from the player and takes some time to resolve. You have to play it once to figure out what’s going on. You have to be prepared to hang out with him, and that’s not where most gamers are these days. Civ came out at the perfect time. The PC was tough enough that we could do it, but it wasn’t inundated with so many possibilities. If it had been created two years Helier, we would have only had four colors and it would have been much shallower.

The “dependence” of Civ is usually spoken of fondly, its worst expression: a closed laptop at dawn, but in recent years the dark side of gaming addiction has become a controversial topic.

Meier encourages us to believe that the “one more turn” side of his creation is about storytelling. But there is also a dopamine hit. Gaming and social media companies have spent billions of dollars designing their products to boost us. You could learn more about the story by playing Civ, but doesn’t it basically hit the same places?

« [Addiction] that’s not a word i would use [to discuss his games]”Meier says. “We prefer to talk about engagement or engagement.” I can imagine the people who run casinos in Vegas making a similar point, I say. “I’m not going to admit it,” Meier replies. “We tend to think that time is well spent. You’re exercising your brain, learning a bit more about the world, and perhaps piquing your interest in a new topic. The cover of the dissertation features praise for Civ of Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft.

A typical scene from Sid Meier’s Civilization VI(Youtube)

As games got more complex, the types of computer engineers who might have gotten into games found themselves drawn to big tech, working on real world applications. Much of the early research into what we now call “AI” was about computer games, to create opponents that could give you a game. Demis Hassabis, the founder of DeepMind, started his gaming career, in writing the code for Parc d’attractions when he was a teenager. Would Meier have already wished to embark on a larger technology?

“I think I have the best job in the world,” he says. “There is always another game to write. When I meet people who have played them and who want to share their stories, with me, or with other players, or their children, I realize that we can justify the billions of hours people spend playing. These are stories.

Memory of Sid Meier! is out now


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