As you enter the understated Hunt Valley, MD, studio that houses Firaxis Games, it feels like any other office. Only after you pass the front desk and see the display case overflowing with 30 or so gaming achievement awards does it really hit home: This is one of the pillars of the gaming world.
The casual feel of the studio mirrors the man responsible for its existence, Director of Creative Development and co-founder Sid Meier. Despite the legendary game designer status and a cult following to every game that bears his name, the man is as down to earth as it gets.
The Escapist: What’s it like to be an icon, an institution in the gaming world?
Sid Meier: I think it’s the best job you could ask for. Designing games is tons of fun; there’s a lot of creativity involved. You get to work with talented people; you get to be part of an industry that is changing all the time. It’s a very dynamic and exciting industry to be a part of. There are a lot of ways it’s the coolest job I can imagine, outside of being a rock star. I have nothing but great feelings about the things that I’ve done, the things that I’ve worked on and the things that are still to come. I’m a happy person.
TE: As a pillar of the videogame industry, do you feel a responsibility or a need to protect or influence it?
SM: I do. I think we all have a part of making the industry what it has become and what it will become. There’s a sense that we’re more partners than competitors within the industry. We’re trying to develop this new form of entertainment in its very formative stage. Our job is more to convince people that they should try computer games as opposed to other ways of spending their time. That’s more what we’re about than “play my game and don’t play their game.” That’s not the goal.
Someone might try one of my games and it would cause them to try someone else’s game or vice-versa. I’m happy when someone puts out a great game because people that enjoy that game might come back to the store in a month or two and see one of my games and say, “Oh. I guess I’ll try that.”
I think we’re really more about helping establish computer entertainment and making it something people will really enjoy. So we do feel that we’re as much part of an industry as we are a single company trying to establish ourselves. We still have some convincing to do with a large part of the population that computer games are something they might enjoy, might want to try. There’s certainly a strong base of people that really like it but there’s still quite a bit of room for growth. So I think that’s our role.
SM: We do think strategically about what kind of people we still need to reach and how we can do that. So, every once in a while, we take a step back and take a strategic look at the industry and ask ourselves, “How can we continue this growth?” and “How can we bring the fun to more people?”
TE: With the current state of game development as collaborative efforts between dozens, even hundreds of people, do you think it’s possible for modern game designers to reach “icon” status?
SM: I’d like to think so. In other areas where there are large groups involved like films, you know the names of directors and … not the writers … or the marketing team.
TE: Unsung heroes?
SM: I think it’s a lot harder for a single designer to stamp products because of all the technology and the size of the teams and the amount of polish and things that are expected in games. I do think there is still a personality – a Miyamoto game, a Will Wright game, one of my games, a CliffyB game, David Jaffe game – they are different. I think there’s still room for a style, approach, a way of making games that can be unique to a designer.
TE: What advice would you give designers today to establish that voice and get noticed or brand a game as their own?
SM: I think originality is what’s really going to differentiate a new designer from all the other things out there. It’s actually a pretty good time to be a budding game designer. There’s a lot of activity in independent games, in PC/desktop games; games that are really doable for a small team or a single designer. Independent games get a lot of attention if they have that original, fresh quality.
You know, if you want to become a game designer, design a game. That’s really the only way to do it. There’s no doctorate in game design …
SM: Yet! It’s pretty much if you want to do it, do it.
TE: While there is a big draw for independent games right now, have you also noticed a demand for more of the same? For instance, you’re remaking Colonization right now. Do gamers want something new or do they want more of what they already love?
SM: They want it all. I think there’s always been this tension between sequels and follow-up products and something new, and I think a lot of that has kept the industry growing and evolving. But I don’t think there’s ever really been a right answer to that question. I think it’s great that we’ve had the innovation like the Guitar Hero games, MMO games. Those have been big steps forward that have added new energy, brought new people into the industry. Then you’ve got Rock Band and a rationale that you need to expand on those new ideas and genres. So I think both answers are right, there needs to be innovation and new ideas, but once an idea’s out there, there’s a lot you need to build on. I think Civilization is a good example. We’re now up to Civilization IV and each of those games has brought something new that appealed to the audience that was designed to appeal to the audience of the preceding game. A good balance of both those things is really what’s good for the consumer, and also good for the industry. Like Madden 2009, I think EA can afford some risk-taking because they know a game is going to reach a certain audience. It’s the same thing here; we can take some risks with some ideas we have because we have our track record.
TE: Do you think the pressure for a studio with a successful game to make a sequel ties their hands or distracts them from making something new or different?
SM: I think it liberates them to a certain extent. I think the only reason we’re able to try new things when we do is because we have this established track record. I think if your product isn’t successful, you aren’t encouraged to really take risks. You’ll probably have a conversion. If you’re a studio with a successful product, you’ll be encouraged to make a sequel, but at the same time you might be asked to bring in another team and make a new game. The challenge is more managing growth at a successful studio than coming up with new ideas.
TE: At what point, when you’re working on a title, do you know that you’ve done what you set out to do with a game? How do you know when you’ve delivered the experience?
SM: That’s actually a key point in development. We end up trying three ideas for every one that we end up creating a product for. There’s a tipping point about two to three months in that either the momentum is building or an idea runs out of gas. We’re very much believers in early prototyping and in those two or three months, we have a playable game and we try to identify the risky or key areas and figure out how they’re working, how they’re not working in the prototype. There’s generally a point when we’re playing it and the clouds part and we see what this game will be like. The core game is there. Some ideas reach that point and others just fall apart.
TE: With the release of Civilization: Revolution on consoles and the DS, have you noticed any advances to the process of distribution as opposed to developing for the PC?
SM: I think the console world is much more razzle-dazzle. With television advertising and things like that, it’s a much more mass-market, consumer atmosphere than the PC world. I think it’s much more in the public consciousness with the console wars between the 360, PS3, etc. You’ve got the surprising success of the Wii. I think there’s more focus on what’s happening in the console world these days, and to be part of that is really exciting. The process of making the game isn’t much different; we’re still just trying to make a fun to play game and take advantage of the particular technology that we’re making the game for.
TE: With the PSN and Xbox Live achievements and trophies, do you think PC gaming will be able to remain relevant if the consoles continue to gain popularity?
SM: I think PC gaming and console gaming have different strengths. I think we’re seeing a lot of people taking advantage of those strengths. That’s why we’re seeing more independent games being made for the PC because of the internet being a more open environment. You also see MMO games flourishing on the PC because they kinda lend themselves to that platform. And a lot of the high-tech action games are flourishing on the consoles, ’cause the consoles do a good job with that. With [Xbox] Live and the PSN, we’re seeing a lot of multiplayer in consoles where that used to be an exclusively PC thing. We’re lucky to have a game concept in Civilization that works well on both platforms.
TE: Do you keep up with the modding community for the Civ games?
SM: To a certain extent; I don’t follow it that closely. But I’m certainly aware that it’s an active, vibrant community and it’s been a significant part of the charm of Civ ever since Civ 2, when that was made part of the game. In general, I think the rise of communities like that has been one of the big stories of the past four or five years. I think The Sims has been a big part of that. Now with MMOs, we see guilds and things like that.
The whole idea of interacting with people through a computer game was very much a foreign concept. The whole reason we played computer games was to get away from other people a few years ago. But to see that arise has added another dimension to gaming. It’s not just for antisocial people anymore. You can play games and be social and interact with other people. And modding is one dimension of that. It feeds into that desire that all gamers have to be designers. You get to make that mod or that level and really feel like you made a game.
TE: You’re a big figure in the gaming world, and you have a career that many have paid close attention to for nearly 20 years. So what’s something that nobody knows about you?
SM: There are lots of things people don’t know about me. They probably don’t know I’m getting serious about playing the guitar. That’s my latest hobby. I went to see [Eric Clapton] a couple months ago – I was inspired.
But I guess what people don’t realize is that I’m a person. I think people that play the games think that I am the game, or to be a game designer you have to be obsessed or weird. When I go to a trade show there are a lot of people that go, “Oh! You’re like a normal person, a regular guy.” So I hope the message that sends is that you can be a game designer and still be a normal, sane person. There can be a balance.
I won’t name any names, but I think there are certainly some personalities in the game industry that have traded on their eccentricity to get attention. So for a while there has been this perception that to be big in game design you have to have this out-there personality. I don’t buy that. We’re trying to identify with our players and figure out what they want, and we have to be normal to do that.
Jeremy Monken is the former interactive entertainment editor for The Examiner and a lifelong student of all things comics and videogames. He currently freelances, designs and works on his comic strip, “Striving for Mediocrity,” which can be found on his personal blog, The Church of the Red Barrel.