[Renowned game designer Sid Meier tells Gamasutra how his traditional "find the fun" design philosophy can translate to the fast-paced, metrics-based world of social gaming, with his latest title, CivWorld.]
When Sid Meier launched the original Civilization strategy game back in 1991, he never could have predicted the paths that the constantly-evolving games industry would take the franchise over the next 20 years.
Since that first entry, we've seen four more entries in the core Civilization turn-based PC series, plus all their expansions and spinoffs. And in 2008, Meier led development of Firaxis' Civilization Revolution, a version of the franchise tailored for a console experience that also arrived on handhelds and mobile devices.
Meier chooses his projects carefully -- he only has so much time. While designer Jon Shafer was busy heading up the creation of last year's Civilization V (still prefixed "Sid Meier's"), Meier couldn't help but to continue to explore new platforms for new audiences, this time with the Facebook game CivWorld.
CivWorld launched in open beta form this week. Gamasutra spoke with Meier, who is just now making his social gaming debut. While there are certainly examples of hugely successful social games on Facebook that are riding a new wave of game development methods, Meier is still taking an old-school designer philosophy: use your gut to "find the fun" first, then little details like income will fall into place.
That means that he's ignored the "launch soon, update often" mentality of the biggest social games. Meier said he's been at work on CivWorld for about a year-and-a-half -- way longer than typical social game projects. Here, Meier admits it's an "experiment," but he's hoping that social gamers will catch on to his traditional take on the fast-paced world of social gaming.
Christian Nutt: How much of a challenge was it to approach designing social games for the first time?
Sid Meier: It was definitely a challenge. I think that was actually a big part of the appeal of the project, kind of taking the core ideas of Civilization and expressing them in this new medium. We had a lot of fun a couple years ago taking Civ and bringing it to the consoles with Civilization Revolution, and doing a version for the Xbox and PS3 and the DS. That eventually kind of turned into an iPhone version and an iPad version as well.
It was just a lot of fun to kind of take those four Civ ideas, and then figure out how to do them with a console controller instead of a mouse and keyboard and different interfaces and different audiences. That's kind of a fun design challenge.
So, when Facebook came along, it was also intriguing to see how we could take the core ideas of Civilization and use them in this whole different kind of play style, where people aren't playing in concentrating blocks from beginning to end but are playing 15 minutes, a half hour a day, an hour a day, whatever their particular schedule is, and also really explore the cooperative gameplay side of Civ.
That's something we don't get to do a whole lot with a traditional Civ game. But cooperative gameplay is a lot of fun and can really add an extra dimension to the game. Where Civ has traditionally been essentially a single-player experience, civilization in the real world is a multiplayer experience. A lot of people are involved, and to get to explore that, the idea of people working together, playing together, playing in an environment with your friend, cooperation, all that kind of stuff, were the new elements that we really wanted to explore with CivWorld.
So we wanted to kind of keep the core of Civilization, those basic ideas, but use this new technology and this new kind of gameplay as kind our starting points.
CN: Was designing for a cooperative multiplayer experience -- not just for a couple people, but for a couple hundred of people a time -- change Civilization a lot? How did you approach that?
SM: It changed it a fair amount. What we were really looking for were opportunities for people to work together -- to really reward teamwork, reward communication, reward the teams, the groups of people that really worked well together. That was really one of the fundamental changes.
In PC Civ, you kind of are king, and you get to make all the decisions, and nobody can say no to you. [laughs] In CivWorld, it's really more about the social aspect, convincing people that you've got the good idea, working together with other players. And again, it's a real Civ game. We've got technology. We've got culture. We've got battles and military and economics.
You can do a lot of things on your own, but the game really comes into its own when you start cooperating and working together with other players, specializing and figuring out what's going to be your role in Civ. That was a very new element, but I think it really fits with the whole idea of Civilization and the concept. I think it worked out pretty well.
CN: You talked about just now just bringing in all of the elements of Civilization is known for, all of the depth, but at the same time trying to design for short session duration, which you alluded in your first answer. So, how does that work?
SM: Right. Well, we actually did the math, and the amount of time actually corresponds a lot to PC Civ game. For example, Civ IV or Civ V, you might play 15 or 20 hours to complete a game. Well, in CivWorld, you probably play those same 15 or 20 hours. You just spread that time out over a couple weeks. CivWorld is a game, and it has a beginning, middle, and an end. It's just a different rhythm, a different schedule for players. So, we're giving them, in that sense, a similar amount of gameplay, but it's just done in a different pace and schedule.
CN: Is that driven by the design of the game in the sense that you gave people things that are digestible quicker or in smaller chunks? Or is it just due to player expectations of how to approach a game on Facebook?
SM: I think it's about the players. The fundamental idea is you can play in a world together with your friends. So, you probably don't have enough friends who can spend 20 hours straight playing a game to play classic Civ. So, we designed a game that was a fun experience if you were able to play from 15 minutes to an hour a day, and we think that your friends can probably afford that amount of time.
Or you can find a group of people that would enjoy spending that amount of time playing Civ. So, the game rhythm, the tempo of the game, the things that you can do, and how you accomplish things are based around the idea, of playing one or two sessions a day, coming back, checking in every now and then. So, it's really about how do we make a game that you can realistically play with a bunch of your friends. That's the kind of time commitment that would seem to make sense.