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Making The Brand

Creator Of Immensely Popular Video Game Civilization A Bankable Selling Point Himself

Daniel Krall

By Chris Landers | Posted 2/7/2007

The creator of civilization inhabits the top two floors The creator of civilization inhabits the top two floors of an otherwise unremarkable building in an office park near Interstate 83, just north of the Baltimore Beltway. If you wish to visit him, you will need an appointment, as he is very busy. The elevator to the 11th floor will deposit you outside a security door. On the other side is a glass display case filled with awards for the creation of railroads, pirates, golf, a couple of Civil War battles, and, it goes without saying, civilization.

The fact that the full name is Sid Meier's Civilization (or Sid Meier's Railroads, Pirates!, etc.) doesn't seem to matter very much to anyone, nor does the fact that it is a video game. If you were, for example, to type only the word "civilization" into Google, you would find Meier's version listed before those of the ancient Egyptians, Mayans, or Greeks. The top 10, in fact, deal with the various iterations of the computer game Meier first coded in 1991.

In person, Meier is exactly what you would expect from someone named one of the "Coolest Dads in the Universe" by AOL Games last year. He is an unassuming man of 52, exceedingly polite, and wears a slightly rumpled polo shirt. He gives the impression that he would be much happier programming, or playing Guitar Hero with his teenage son, than sitting down to an interview.

Meier leads the way into a back conference room at Firaxis Games, past the model train set, past the foosball table, and away from the incessant tak-tok-tak of a spirited table tennis game that he indicates is more or less constant.

"Are you a gamer?" he asks. "That will make things easier."

In the world of gamers, Sid Meier--both the man and the name--inspire a sort of fanatical devotion. He was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1999--the second person to receive the award. He has carved a niche for himself in the multibillion-dollar video game industry. In a world where "adult" is usually a coded reference to violence, profanity, or nudity, he makes games for actual adults. In an industry propelled by better graphics and faster machines, most Firaxis titles are designed to be played on the personal computer, although this is changing--a version of Pirates! was released last month for the PlayStation Portable to rave reviews.

"Video games have grown to the point where there's a large audience, and different people like different kinds of games," Meier says. "People who like the kinds of games we make will find us. It's really the kind of games we enjoy playing. We don't make ultraviolent shooters. We want to entertain people."

While the season's big shooters may inspire some strategy books to give aspiring armchair warriors an edge, Civilization has inspired a body of literature normally associated with bookstores specializing in chess. Apolyton.net, a Civilization fan site that sprang up in 1998, boasts an online university, sharing strategies for the game through various "courses": AU101, for example, challenges players to spread their state religion around the world.

"The game is called Civilization," Meier explains. "It's not called, you know, War. We wanted to feel like it encompasses many different aspects of history, not just the military side of things." He started with the basics--exploration, diplomacy, military and economic systems--and through the different iterations of the game religions, governments, and social structures have been added. "We did civilization in space with Alpha Centauri," he says.

Civilization, like most of Meier's games, is "kind of considered in the God game genre, or the building game, Lego game, however you want to think about it," he says. "The kind of game where you start off with just a few things and keep adding to make a special thing you've built yourself."

In Civilization, for example, the game starts with the founding of a city. As it progresses, the player decides what technologies are important for the survival of the group--learning archery, for example, or building boats for exploration--as well as how to deal with other civilizations encountered along the way--does one declare war, or make friends with the barbarian hordes across the river?

The Sid Meier formula has proved successful. Last year, Civilization IV was one of the top-selling games for the PC, and made No. 10 on game news and review site IGN.com's list of the top video game franchises of all time.

Lest you think the creator of God games has a bit of God complex, it was not Sid Meier who suggested that Sid Meier's name be plastered on his various games.

"Hopefully it identifies a certain style of game," he says, "or a certain approach to gaming or whatever. But it really came about because I wanted to try something different."

It was a marketing ploy by his former business partner John "Wild Bill" Stealey, who worried that a pirate game was too great a departure from the pair's previous flight simulators, and branded it in the hopes of some crossover business from their other efforts. To be fair to Stealey, few could have envisioned the success of Sid Meier's Pirates! when it was released in 1987 or the games that followed.

"Once something works," Meier says, "you've got to keep doing it over and over again. My name went on there."

He cast about for other subjects. "The history of the world seemed like a good topic for that."

Meier grew up in Michigan, and brought his University of Michigan computer science degree to Maryland for a job at a business computer company, General Instruments, programming cash registers and the like. In the early 1980s, he and co-worker Stealey were at a convention in Las Vegas when they tried out a video game flight simulator. Meier beat Stealey at the game, he says, despite the fact that the latter was an actual fighter-jet pilot.

The pair founded MicroProse software in Hunt Valley in 1982, where an East Coast video game industry grew up largely because of their company. In 1996, Meier struck out on his own, to form Firaxis, where he is currently the director of creative development.

"I'm primarily a game designer, that's what I enjoy doing," he says, "I also do a lot of programming. . . . That's the fun part for me--coming up with an idea and seeing it come to life.

"A lot of it comes from your childhood," Meier explains. "Whether it's pirates or airplanes or, you know, the Civil War. I went through phases of my life where I was young where you kind of discover a new thing. `Oh, these pirates--sounds like a cool thing. I want to read about that.' So these are kind of all topics that sparked peoples imaginations when they first heard about them, and we try and keep that fun of it--the discovery part."

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