It’s not often you get to speak to the man who is responsible for absorbing years of your life with a game. Sid Meier designed and programmed the first Civilization back in 1991, and the legacy that game spawned has been like siren for me, always calling me back to dash upon the rocks of its turn-based goodness. The veteran game designer has been honored in nearly every way the industry recognizes, commercial and critical success, multiple GOTY awards and the second induction into the AIAS Hall of Fame after Shigeru Miyamoto. At Firaxis, the studio behind Civ V and the new XCOM, Meier takes on more of an advisor role now even for the game’s that bear his name – answering questions the younger projects leads might have as a game designer emeritus.
Even though Sid Meier could pick any project he wanted, he prefers working on smaller teams now. He chooses to exercise his design muscles on more compact games that he designs and codes himself with only input from engine designers, network engineers and graphic designers. The latest of these is Ace Patrol, a simple yet addictive World War II dogfighting game, that just had its update Pacific Skies come out on Steam last week and pushed to iOS a few days later. I got to talk to Meier a little bit about why he’s chosen a more hands-off approach for the bigger, flashier games, how board games are an influence on computer games and what attracts him about doing a project like Ace Patrol. Oh, and what trash-talking from Sid Meier might sound like.
“Each project is different, has its own story, its own arc,” Meier said. “With Civ we’ve kind of had a history of bringing in and giving a new designer a chance to build on the Civ franchise. With Civ we feel we know how that works and I drop by and see how things are going but it’s not something that I’m programming and involved with day to day. XCOM really was Jake Solomon’s dream to do that game, and again he and I talked about things but he led that design.”
So why has arguably the greatest strategy game designer decided to step back from making the biggest strategy games of the year?
“As a designer you’re looking for new challenges, you’re looking for kind of ways to experiment and do things that you haven’t done before and that was certainly the appeal of doing Civ World, the appeal of doing Ace Patrol for iOS and Steam,” Meier said. “We’re kind of experimenting with this area [of touch-controlled games]. It’s fun to do games on a shorter time schedule with a smaller team. We get to do the same amount of gameplay essentially that we would put into a AAA game but we get to do it quicker and we might not be able to afford the full motion video or a symphony orchestra score but we get to focus more time on the gameplay and those things. That’s the part that’s the most interesting to me so that’s why these smaller projects are fun right now.”
The mobile market exploded a few years ago, and there’s still significant growth in iOS and Android games, but it’s rare to see a designer who’s made his bones in the hardcore PC market make the switch. What goes into designing a game for a mobile market and not just PC? “You’re dealing with an audience that perhaps has a couple minutes to play or is basically in a situation often where you can be interrupted or you’re kind of on the go or whatever so a turn based game is one that will play at your pace,” Meier said.
While the subject matter and gameplay elements took cues from classic pen and paper war games like Knights of the Air and Blue Max, the easy design of board games like Settlers of Catan was a huge inspiration for Ace Patrol. “We really found that kind of the board game look, or this kind of hands-on sand box felt very accessible. It was clear what was going on, things were colorful and large and fun to play with and move around and just felt like, especially as you were touching and moving fingers around the screen, like it kind of all came together. The board game feel was something that made the game more accessible and easier to jump into and play.”
In fact, the boom in the popularity of board games is something Meier has been watching with interest and he thinks tabletop games have evolved in concert with the rise of video games. “There’s a lot of synergy,” he said. “It’s interesting. I go back to when I played hex-based wargames and it took three or four hours to set up your game. By the time you set it up, you were too tired to actually play. Then I saw computer games come along and they were games you could instantly play and all of a sudden those old wargames didn’t make sense anymore.
“Then boardgaming moved to multiplayer and social, the one thing they could provide that you couldn’t get on the computer was the social experience, sitting around the table and playing,” he continued. “So they kind of switched over to this fast play style, a turn system where everybody can participate. I think board games have been moving to fill in the gaps where computer games are not. Then computers games became more multiplayer and then board games became in some ways more mass market or more accessible to kind of grab that audience that wasn’t playing as much computer games but there’s always been a, now computer games are picking up on some of these cool ideas of accessibility and shorter play times that some of the German-style board games are using. There’s a lot of back and forth but I think it’s always been the case that computers do some things better and board games do other things better and it’s been, that’s what’s kept them each their own unique and viable style of gaming.”
Meier thinks all game designers should be paying attention not only to other videogames but board games as well. “I think there’s a lot to be learned from board games,” he said. “Although when you’re talking about a first person shooter, the biggest problems of a shooter are probably not addressed by most board game mechanics but still in terms of an overall story and overall ubergame to the shooting part. I think board games are good in creating a large scale structure of things, something that persists for hours and can keep you engaged and interested.
“As you get away from the shooters and more into the strategy games there’s more and more to be learned from board games. It’s certainly where we are, there’s a fair amount of overlap but we have do things like artificial intelligence and have all the power fog of war and we have a lot of tools that board games don’t have, which makes our games different. On the other hand board games have four, five players or whatever the number is to inject their own personalities into the play of the game which we don’t have for computer games. We each have our own tools and strengths that we can work with to make the game as fun as it can be so there’s some overlap but there’s also some uniquenesses I think to each of the types of gaming.”
Meier has attempted to inject the tension of multiplayer into Ace Patrol. “What strikes me most about our testing has been how emotionally asynchronous multiplayer can get. People here [at Firaxis] are playing and they’re just from one office to the next so there are lots of opportunities to interact with the other person. It does bring a whole new dimension of emotion and intensity to the game when you’re playing against somebody that you know. I know when I play just single player I’m in a cerebral thinking mode but when I played a game against Jake [Solomon, project lead on XCOM] the other day, all of a sudden became a lot more important that I win the game.
“There’s a lot of trash talking,” he said.
Wait a second. I’ve spoken to a lot of people at Firaxis over the years and every single one of them has told stories about how Sid Meier is the nicest guy in the world. He finds it hard to even give negative notes on their games. How the heck is he talking trash in Ace Patrol?
“It was tasteful trash talking,” Meier admitted. “It might not have been trashy trash talking. It was kind of letting Jake know that since I was the designer that he should let me win and then he acquiesced, it was all good.”
Unfortunately, the asynchronous multiplayer doesn’t work with the Steam version of Ace Patrol: Pacific Skies – there is still a hotseat mode available – but you’ll still have a significant challenge in fighting against the A.I. in Meier’s new code. “We redid a completely new AI for the game and I think it makes the game play quite a bit differently in Pacific Skies than Ace Patrol. The new AI kind of evaluates all the possible new maneuvers of all the planes on the enemies side and they kind of work in a more interesting coordinated way than perhaps the individual aces of Ace Patrol one,” he said, obviously proud of the work he personally did on the game. “It’s not a big thing but it’s something I had a lot of fun working on. It doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head when you start to play it but there’s a new AI and I think it’s pretty interesting to play against.”
A new artificial intelligence is just one facet of game design, true, but it’s a very important one for strategy gamers. The fact that Sid Meier was able to tweak and perfect his own A.I. for Ace Patrol – no one did it for him – is a very cool achievement. If this game was any bigger, Meier would have had to change his role into more a project manager without staying hands-on. The fact that he still gets his hands dirty mixing up code to improve his games makes them even more personal expressions. Playing against the A.I. in Ace Patrol, you can imagine you were playing against Sid yourself and even tastefully trash-talking with him. And that’s got to be gratifying for a game design legend to have as his legacy.
Of course, there is one downfall to programming your own game on a small team as Meier admitted to me: “I wish I could hire somebody to fix my bugs.”