Sid Meier explains how his motto infect all of his game design.
Sid Meier is an institution at GDC, having been a part of the game developer community for nearly two decades. How big of an institution is the designer of the iconic Civilization series and creative director of Firaxis? His panel at GDC 2012 “Interesting Decisions” started off by referencing a quote he made at GDC all the way back in 1989: “A game is a series of interesting decisions.” Many treat this statement as the gospel of game development, so Meier’s lecture was anticipated like a lecture on the Bible by Matthew.
Meier’s famed quote has become the subject of controversy, debated by developers and journalists for over twenty years. Some argue that the rise of the FPS, social strategy, and rhythm genres undercuts Meier’s theory, as these genres do not, on the surface, have interesting decisions.
So it was exciting to hear the man put his quote in context and discuss it more. Meier started off the talk by acknowledging the controversy, briefly pausing to reference puzzle and rhythm games as genres that don’t, at first glance, make interesting decisions. But while he wryly stated he could, in fact, argue that both genres forced interesting decisions on the player, he instead turned the discussion to clarifying and expanding upon what an “interesting decision” is for a game developer.
“Sorry I keep coming back to Civilization, but it’s a game I’m somewhat familiar with,” Meier stated at one point, eliciting laughter from the audience. Civ is perhaps the best example of his approach to game design as its patient, turn-based strategy approach is essentially always asking the player to decide between long term success versus short term gain, what playing style they should pursue, and what trade-offs they’re willing to endure in order to succeed.
But while his games are known for being complex, Meier also believes in simplification. In Civilization, for example, Meier original implemented a secondary technology tree that was eventually eliminated and Meier admitted “something that’s interesting you do once doesn’t mean it’s something interesting to do ten times.” Some of the audience could see this as a slight jab to the brand of social games made by Zynga, but repetitiveness in game design isn’t unique to the strategy genre.
Through Meier’s nearly hour-long talk, his slides kept highlighting key decisions a designer may give the player – customization, trade-offs, long-term vs short-term benefits, etc. And while ears perked up every time Meier would mention a mistake designers would make (such as not explaining how a decision would be important to the player over the long-term), Meier kept most of his discussion in generalities.
Specifics, like the simplification versus complexity decisions Firaxis made while developing Civilization IV and V, would likely have made his discussion more palatable. Instead, Meier was content giving a verbal handbook to the group of aspiring game developers assembled at GDC.