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The History of Civilization

July 18, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 10 Next

Take Two

After completing Covert Action, Meier and Shelley turned their attention back to their pet project. In phase two of development, Civilization took a page from Shelley's board game roots and became turn-based, losing the zoning process while gaining a more militaristic, Empire-like edge. Meier invented individual units to control and move around the playfield. "You had settlers who irrigated and could change the terrain and found cities," says Meier, "so we took the things that were zoning oriented and gave them to the settler." The more hands-on approach felt just right, and the basic gameplay of Civilization, as we know it today, was born.

During this phase, Meier also created the famous "technology tree" that allowed a civilization to advance in capability over time, while still presenting interesting, non-linear choices to players. "The technology began as a way of gradually opening up possibilities as you go about the game," says Meier. Players had to decide a course to pursue with specific technologies early in the game and stick with it to get where they wanted to go. Later, they could go back and develop older technologies or trade for them with the computer-controlled civilizations.

With a game this deep, you'd think Meier put hundreds of hours into historical research, but it isn't so. "I tried to use fairly well-known concepts, well-known leaders, and well-known technologies," says Meier. "It wasn't intended to be 'bizarre facts about history.' It was intended to be something that anybody could play." When pressed, Meier does admit that he occasionally consulted a few "timeline of history" books, just to make sure he got the chronology of certain developments correct, or to make sure he spelled leaders' names right. But for the most part, the well-read Meier drew historical facts from his reserve of personal knowledge and understanding of history. Regarding research, Shelley proudly remembers a timeless lesson Meier taught him about historical game design: for a game to be fun, the details needn't be too in-depth or cerebral. "Everything we needed was pretty much available in the children’s section of the library," says Shelley.

Hiccups On The Home Stretch

With the game mostly realized, Meier and Shelley had to get the rest of MicroProse on board in order to ship Civilization on schedule. They mainly needed help from the art department, but they had trouble securing it due to the low priority Meier's games received in the company. "Remember that the VP of production got no bonus for what Sid published," adds Shelley, "So he wanted to put resources on stuff he was being paid for. It was a struggle to get the people we needed to finish Civ." Eventually, if only begrudgingly, they received support from MicroProse management to finish the game.

Meier submitted Civilization to the MicroProse play-testing department for final gameplay tweaks. At that point, the biggest issue with the game was the enormous original size of the map. Meier recalls the problem: "I remember slogging across this continent when I was playing and I had my tanks against the lame-o units of the other guy, capturing city after city and thought, 'This map is just too big'." The huge map was too overwhelming to new players, and it slowed down the pace of the game considerably. After reducing the map size, Meier learned that he could "have the same amount of fun in half the space," a lesson he took with him to future projects.

Shelley and Meier also cut out a whole section of the technology tree, complete with minor technologies, for the sake of simplicity. "A lot of what we did was done to make the game tighter and smaller," says Meier. Ironically, Shelley regrets not having the time to add more technologies to the game and balance them out, but Meier feels the number of technologies was just right, leaving room for future versions of Civilization, like Civilization II, to expand upon and improve the original. Meier and Shelley devoted most of the remaining development time trying to even out the technologies they did have as perfectly as possible. If they added new units or technology haphazardly, or took certain ones away, it would throw the game wildly off kilter. "We realized that the game was easy to break," says Meier. They tread carefully to ensure an authentic and "fair" feel to the game.

As a finishing touch, Bruce Shelley wrote the comprehensive and unprecedented Civilopedia, an in-game reference encyclopedia on each unit, technology, building, resource, type of terrain, and form of government. Shelley also wrote a massive, detailed manual, included in every box, that he and Meier are still proud of today. "In those days, MicroProse manuals were 200 pages," remembers Meier, "and I think they added a certain special quality to the games. You felt like they were substantial and worth playing."

Into The Wild

"I remember many meetings when I reported we could not meet the production schedule without help," says Shelley. "The game shipped late at least partially because other projects were given a higher priority." The reluctance of MicroProse management to fully support Civilization was incredibly frustrating for both Meier and Shelley. "I thought it was nuts to hold back on what everyone in development agreed was going to be a big hit," adds Shelley. "I was really incensed when our bonuses were shaved considerably because we slipped, which I thought was management’s decision." Thankfully for us, it did ship. Against sizable odds and obstacles it had faced throughout its entire development process, Civilization went on sale to the public in 1991.

MicroProse devoted little money into the promotion of Civilization, so the game had to rely heavily on word-of-mouth, through fans on the street (and on the electronic bulletin boards of the day), for marketing and public awareness. Fortunately, Civilization proved so irresistibly fun that it suited itself perfectly to the gamer grapevine. It wasn't long before the gaming press routinely recognized the latest Meier-Shelley release as "Strategy Game of the Year" in popular computer magazines of the time, in both Europe and the United States. As word of the game spread, sales of Civilization soared, surprising not only MicroProse management, but even the creators themselves. "I don’t think at the time I thought it would become recognized as one of the best PC games of all time, or that it would live on through multiple revisions, perhaps forever," recalls Shelley.

Most deservedly, MicroProse was reluctantly forced to eat crow when they witnessed the phenomenal success of a game that they repeatedly tried to hold back. "A couple of months after [Civilization] had been out, I got a call at home from Bill Stealey," recounts Meier. "He had been at an awards thing, I don’t remember which one, and he had been living it up a little, and said, “We won an award for your game!”

Epilogue: Life After MicroProse

MicroProse ultimately released two arcade games in the early 1990s that did not fare well in the marketplace, including a fully 3D, coin-operated adaptation of Sid Meier's F-15 Strike Eagle. The firm's unsuccessful foray into the arcades sunk MicroProse into a hole of debt it couldn't dig out of, ultimately leading to a desperate IPO for cash. It still wasn't enough to stop the bleeding; in a last attempt to save the company, Stealey arranged the sale of MicroProse to Spectrum Holobyte, a rival game developer, in 1993. But surprise, surprise: Sid Meier was already clear of the sinking ship and swimming free, with Bruce Shelley not too far behind.

Sid Meier's Civilization lives on in three highly successful sequels -- Civilization II through IV -- and in the hearts and minds of millions of players whose lives have been touched, or perhaps grasped, by Meier's addictive magnum opus. Meier joined Firaxis Games (founded by fellow MicroProse alum Jeff Briggs), after the collapse and reorganization of his former company. He continues to produce fun and innovative computer games, including recent 3D remakes of Sid Meier's Pirates! and Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon.

Bruce Shelley found success with Ensemble Studios, a new game design firm he joined after leaving MicroProse. Ensemble is currently best known for Shelley's Civilization-inspired Age of Empires series, which has been a phenomenal success in its own right. "Working on Civilization particularly, and working with Sid in general, was the opportunity of a lifetime. It has opened doors and led to other opportunities, and for that, I will always be grateful," remarks Shelley, unmistakably proud of his role in computer game history.

As for Meier, he's comfortable with a legacy inextricably tied to Civilization: "I think that if that's what's on my epitaph, 'Did Civilization,' that would be fine." In musing about the fate of his beloved series, Meier finds himself satisfied with what the future might hold for the franchise: "There’s probably somebody getting ready for their first day of college that’s probably going to be a part of Civilization in ten to fifteen years from now. I think it’ll be around for quite a while."

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