The Land Before Genre
At the time of Civilization's conception, 35-year old Michigan native Sidney K. Meier led an idyllic life with a dream job. "I was having a wonderful time as a game designer at MicroProse," says Meier. "It was really what I loved doing, and still love doing." Married with one child on the way, Meier settled near Baltimore, Maryland, close to company headquarters. MicroProse had been in business for eight years, and things were going well. "We had assembled a pretty good group of designers, programmers, and artists," recalls Meier. "That represented the golden years of MicroProse, where we had some good games and we really felt we could tackle new topics and give new things a try."
During those halcyon days of the nascent PC game industry, computer game design had not yet been restrained by the single-minded adherence to narrow, hit-proven genres or skyrocketing hundred-million-dollar production budgets of today. Instead of looking at focus groups and market conditions to guide his designs, Meier says he'd simply propose potential topics for games, like "pirates," "trains," "civilization," or "the Civil War," and then act on them. He recalls the period fondly, as if pining for simpler days: "There was a lot more experimenting. The graphics and the sound technology were limited, so the investment wasn't so high to make a game. It was a little less risky, so we could take a chance with games because they didn't cost as much money."
For some years before, Meier had been working with a collaborator at MicroProse by the name of Bruce Campbell Shelly. Around the time of Civilization's development, the recently-married 42 year-old Shelley had been making games professionally for eight years. As a veteran of Avalon Hill board game development, he seemed like the perfect fit for Meier's strategy games. "He had actually done the conversion of Francis Tresham's 1829 railroad game and turned it into 1830 for Avalon Hill," recalls Meier. The board game market, under onslaught from the new field of computer and video games, wasn't doing too well in the mid-1980s. "Board games were at a tough point at Avalon Hill," remembers Shelley. "I didn’t think I had any future there. When I found out the company that had created the Commodore 64 game Pirates!, I looked into trying to get a job there. I thought computer games had more of a future."
He joined MicroProse in 1988 and worked with Meier on important projects like F-19 Stealth Fighter, Railroad Tycoon, Covert Action, and, of course, Civilization. "I was on the F-19 game right away, and that took up much of my first year," Shelley adds. In his second year, he worked on porting of existing games to other platforms. "Somewhere in that year, [Meier] asked me to become his assistant designer, which was a great opportunity," says Shelley. Since Meier was a co-founder of the company with an impressive resume of games already under his belt, Shelley was "predisposed to be impressed" by the humble programmer. Shelley found his new boss's subtle sense of humor and keen intelligence compelling. The two quickly gelled and became an inseparable team -- the "A-team," as they were known by some in the company.
What's In A Name?
The story of Civ's genesis is neither simple nor straightforward. It's clear that a large confluence of inspirations ultimately combined in Meier's brain to form Civilization. As popular culture continually feeds on itself, the ingredients and influences that make up any particular work tend to be varied and complicated. In this case, add three parts Risk, two parts Sim City, one part Railroad Tycoon, and a heaping teaspoon of Sid Meier's design genius. Stir in a little Bruce Shelley for taste, set your oven to "Wild Bill Stealey," and out comes Civilization.
One of the most repeated and touted inspirations for Sid Meier's Civilization is the earlier Avalon Hill board game of the same name, designed by Francis Tresham for Hartland Trefoil in Britain. While Meier had no doubt heard of the game prior to 1990 through his connections with Bruce Shelley, he insists that the influence is not as strong as some claim. "I had not played that before I did Civilization," says Meier. "I played it later. I remember there were some cards and trading. It was more ancient; it didn't really come into any sort of modern or medieval times."
But connections, however thin, were there: Bruce Shelley had not only worked for Avalon Hill, the American publisher of Tresham's Civilization, but he created the American localization of Tresham's 1929 railroad game, a game which served as an admitted inspiration for Meier's earlier Railroad Tycoon. It should come as no surprise, then, that Shelley was intimately familiar with Tresham's Civilization. "I had played it many times," recalls Shelley. "I believe Sid had a copy of the game and looked at the components. I owned the original board game, but don't recall if I brought it into the office."
Regardless of the actual influence Tresham's classic had on Meier, players familiar with Avalon Hill's Civilization commonly note the significant difference in approach between the two, making Meier's software creation uniquely his. Soren Johnson, lead designer of Civilization IV, weighed in with his opinion on the issue in an interview for Civilization Chronicles: "The board game [is] quite linear. The difference in Civilization is that it branches, and I think that’s what the board game didn’t have."
Still, MicroProse wasn't willing to take any chances with any similarities between the two games; the company licensed the title "Civilization" from Avalon Hill for a small sum, delaying any legal wrangling over the title or intellectual property for nearly a decade.
According to Meier, his Civilization actually started as a glorified version of a favorite childhood board game. "It was kind of like Risk brought to life on the computer," muses Meier. "That was the original idea. And then we added the technology and the whole sense of history to it." Meier was also a big fan of an early computer game called Empire, which combined Risk-like world domination with intricate city management. "At one point, [Meier] asked me to make a list of 10 things I would do to Empire to make it a better game," says Shelley. "That was some of his research on Civilization."
Groundbreaking games like Bullfrog's Populous and Will Wright's SimCity had recently invented the "god game" genre, where an all-powerful overseer, controlled by the player, directs the course of a population from an overhead view. With their release in 1989, both games -- especially SimCity -- had a profound effect on Meier as a game designer. SimCity taught him that a computer game didn't have to be about chaos and destruction, but could focus on "building things up" instead. Wright's masterpiece provided a vivid illustration that a game could be a "software toy" that let a player experiment with and manipulate a virtual world without a specific objective.
That lesson, along with Meier and Shelley's love of trains, served as the basis for Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon, an overhead, real-time track building game released in 1990. As Meier's first non-destructive "god game," Tycoon marked an important turning point in his design career. Nearly all the games he made before Tycoon had been combat flight simulators or military strategy games, keeping perfectly in line with the desires and comforts of MicroProse's military-fixated president. But the growing differences in direction between the two founders -- Meier's need to branch out as a designer, and Stealey's laser-like focus on combat simulators -- led to major changes in the structure of the company they founded.