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At the time Meier created Civilization, he wasn't an employee of MicroProse at all. He was, in fact, a private contractor.
Around the turn of the 1990s, Bill Stealey and other MicroProse executives pushed the company into risky new markets like home game consoles and arcade video games. According to Shelley, Meier didn't like the direction the company was heading at the time. He smelled trouble and wanted out. "We didn't learn that Sid was a contractor until the company went public," wrote Bruce Shelley in a recent email to the author. "In the documents related to the IPO, we learned that Bill Stealey had bought out Sid some time earlier."
In Meier's likely-exclusive contract with his former employer, he received money up front for game development, a large lump sum when a game was delivered, plus royalties on the sales of each copy after release. A new vice president of development replaced Meier's former role at MicroProse. Unfortunately, the new VP didn't receive personal bonuses on Meier's releases, giving Sid Meier titles a low priority in the company. Regardless of the rough patches in his relationship with MicroProse, Meier retained a soft spot in his heart for the company he co-founded. He was still committed to batting for the home team, even as MicroProse began to flounder.
Meier began coding Civilization on the IBM PC in early 1990, soon after MicroProse killed a sequel to Railroad Tycoon that he and Shelley had been working on. His design work was intense and nearly all-consuming: he kept a legal pad by his bedside at night so he could make spontaneous notes on game ideas for implementation the next day. Meier handled most of the programming on Civilization himself, even doing all of the early artwork for the game (Some of his art survived to the final version). But Meier still needed help with a vital part of the game's design.
"Sid gave me the first playable [Civilization] prototype in May, 1990, on a 5 1/4" floppy disk," recalls Shelley. Through the course of their two-year collaboration, Meier and Shelley had developed a unique "iterative" software development cycle. Meier would whip up a working prototype of a game and hand it off to Shelley. After extensive testing by Shelley, the two men would discuss the shortcomings of the current prototype.
"Out of that conversation, [Meier] would revise the prototype in the afternoon and leave a new version for me to test in the morning," recalls Shelley. "I usually beat him in to work and would have play-test feedback ready for discussion." The duo would continue this cycle repeatedly, revising and refining the game until it was as near-perfect as they could create within their limited resources and time constraints.
Meier remained remarkably private about Civilization during the early development process. "He rarely let anyone else play the games until he thought they were pretty solid," says Shelley. For months, Shelley was the only person allowed to see prototypes of Civilization in action. Other MicroProse employees commonly visited Shelley's office to bug him about the duo's current project, pestering him not to be stingy with the latest Sid Meier masterpiece; they were anxious to try it out themselves.
But Meier kept a tight lid on the project until he was ready, trusting solely in Shelley's criticism and preferring his feedback to all others. "He must have relied on me to be his sounding board, to represent average gamers around the world," adds Shelley. Meier recalls their fruitful collaboration well: "[Shelley] was very, very helpful. He was the guy who would play it and we'd talk about what was working, and what wasn't working. He served as a second opinion on everything."
Development of Civilization took place in two major phases. The first version Meier created did not feature turn-based gameplay, but a real-time model that borrowed significantly from its spiritual predecessor, Railroad Tycoon, and more importantly, SimCity. The prototype featured a SimCity-like zoning approach, where the player would demarcate areas of the world for agriculture or resources that would gradually fill in over time as the player waited. Ultimately, Meier found the real-time play style severely lacking in excitement. "It quickly became apparent that watching the civilization grow was like watching paint dry," recalls Meier. "The action was so [dull] that after a little bit of that, there might have been a game that intervened."
During a rare video interview with Computer & Video Game Magazine in 1994, Sid Meier talked about delays in the development cycle:"There are a number of occasions when a game has gone six months into development, and we said 'This really isn't progressing the way we want it to.' Civilization was kind of like that. We worked on it for a couple months and it was kinda neat, but we went and did something different, and then came back to it."
According to Shelley, it wasn't just the dull gameplay that made them put Civilization on the backburner. The realities of the business world came crashing through their door. During the lull in enthusiasm for the new game, upper management at MicroProse learned of the latest project that the Tycoon boys were working on. They weren't impressed.
Bill Stealey, the USAF pilot and academy graduate, understood flight simulators. He had built his company on the backs of titles like HellCat Ace, Solo Flight, F-15 Strike Eagle, AcroJet, Gunship, and F-19 Stealth Fighter. The genre worked for Stealey in the past, so he saw no reason to change a winning strategy. "He wanted a new [flight sim] every year," remembers Shelley. But Meier grew restless and bored of churning out military sims at the behest of his partner, one after another, after another. That's when Meier threw off his reigns and broke the company mold with Railroad Tycoon. Meier's move made Stealey thoroughly uncomfortable. The president had no interest in Tycoon as a game, and if it had not sold so well, future non-military games (even if they were Sid Meier games) would have had no chance of release at Stealey's company.
Like Railroad Tycoon, Civilization faced a similar uphill battle with MicroProse management. "I recall that Civ was not a game that Bill was excited about or interested in," says Shelley, who believes that Civilization might have simply been canceled if Meier had been an employee. In that case, MicroProse would have held absolute budgetary power over the project.
Despite his reservations, Stealey's faith in his original partner came through, as Shelley recalls: "I seem to remember hearing Bill say stuff like 'I don't get the game, but I trust Sid, so we're going with it'." But before the A-team could complete Civilization, they had to compromise: Stealey wanted Covert Action completed first. The two developers had previously put the action-packed spy game aside to focus on Meier's last capricious diversion, Railroad Tycoon. "It was really frustrating to be told by management to stop working on [Civilization] in favor of something they wanted instead," says Shelley. "I don’t think management had much of a clue about what it was until it started selling."