Working with legendary Civilization designer Sid Meier and his relentlessly gameplay-driven development ethic has both advantages and challenges, according to Firaxis executive producer Barry Caudill -- but in the long run, mainly advantages.
Speaking at the IGDA Leadership Forum in San Francisco, Caudill -- who was a professional saxophonist in the Glenn Miller Orchestra and then a golf pro before he ended up at Microprose, and later Firaxis -- reflected on the principles of the Maryland studio as exemplified by "The Firaxis Way" as well as by its subset, Sid's Way.
The Firaxis Way
The essence of The Firaxis Way, said Caudill, is that gameplay is king. "It's a big deal for us that tech, audio -- all of that stuff -- can never be more important than gameplay," he said. "Everything else can come right up to the level of gameplay, but it's still in a supporting role, and that's how we've maintained our success."
To facilitate that, "We don't go any farther until the prototype is done and we've proved it's fun," Caudill said. "We find the fun early and we hone that fun for the entire process."
At Firaxis, pre-production doesn't start until there's a playable prototype, he went on, which usually means there's a very small team working on its own developing that prototype for some time before the rest of the studio starts working with it.
And from a producer's standpoint, in addition to ensuring gameplay is paramount, "We find it mitigates the risk and the cost across the whole project," he added.
Sid's Way, the personal design ethic of Meier as an individual, is even more single-minded -- both literally and figuratively.
"There is absolutely no design document whatsoever" when it comes to Meier's work, Caudill said. "The game design document lives in Sid's brain. The publisher would say, 'Can we have the document?' and I'd say, 'Well, I'd have to chop Sid's head off.'"
As a result, Firaxis goes to great lengths to ensure the in-progress prototype is never broken, because when it is, it slows down Meier's ongoing design process, which proceeds at an uncommonly rapid pace.
"Sid absolutely works faster than anyone I've ever seen, anywhere," Caudill said. Illustrating both that pace and the occasional downside of Sid's Way, Caudill recalled a story from the development of 2003's remake of Sid Meier's Pirates!
"There was a different design team starting [on Pirates!] while Sid was doing something else," he said. "We were trying to convince Sid he needed to be involved, but he was working on his thing. Finally, one weekend, he decided he was going to get involved."
At the time, Meier had never worked in 3D as a programmer, so he had a team member quickly work up a system that would allow him to program in a 2D environment, controlling the 3D game.
After that was done, "In three days he wrote an entire ship battle system that brought the whole team to a stop," Caudill said. "It was so much more fun than what was in the game before, that everyone just wanted to play it all day long, and didn't want to do anything else."
That head-on attitude typifies Meier: "He's absolutely not afraid to do anything himself," the producer went on. "He'll just go do something and leave the team behind."
It's one of Firaxis' greatest strengths, but it can also introduce challenges, noted Caudill, for a few reasons. On the technical side, some of Firaxis' modern C++ coders often don't like Sid's code, which tends to be more old-school.
And on the broader scale, Meier's style can cause production headaches. "This is a problem for a producer, because I'm trying to ship this game," Caudill said, "but I have a designer in there who's changing this game. A lot."
Within Firaxis, that conflict is associated with "Sid's cold dead fingers" -- referring to his willingness to let go of design.
Responding to an audience question, Caudill admitted that Sid's overriding design tendencies can sometimes be "incredibly demotivating" for more junior designers.
"We had a guy we sent off to do a prototype, and he was making some junior designer mistakes of digging down into some minute things," Caudill said. "This guy spent six months on this particular [prototype], and at the end of it, we decided we couldn't continue, and we'd put him back on the main team.
"Then, out of the blue, Sid decided to make a very similar kind of game, and in a week, he had a wonderful prototype that worked amazingly well," the producer continued. "The poor guy was just beside himself. Sid did what he was trying to do in six months, and did it in a week."
Still, stressed Caudill, "At no time do I want to create the impression Sid isn't great to work with, or the nicest guy in the world, because he is. And he doesn't fall into the traps that junior designers fall into. He knows that just because we can add something to the game, doesn't mean we should."