Sid Meier Retrospective

This article originally appeared in October, 2008 at the now-defunct gaming site, gwn.com. It can still be seen at: http://www.gwn.com/articles/article.php/id/811/title/Sid_Meier_Retrospective.html

If you’re looking for the father of modern PC gaming, look no further than Detroit’s Sid Meier.

Gaming Gods Among Men

For the most part, video game designers are not like film directors or rock musicians. Their creations may enjoy a massive following and one hit game can set a developer for life, but most are content to remain behind the scenes, safely anonymous to all but the most rabid of video game fans. Battlefield 2 may be one of the most popular games being played these days, but there are probably few players who can tell you the name of the developer responsible for the Battlefield series.

There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Most gamers can tell you in a heartbeat that Hideo Kojima has been the man behind Solid Snake since the very first Metal Gear game premiered way back in 1987 on the Japan-only MSX system. Most of them are probably waiting for this question to come up on Jeopardy!.

Other names that spring to mind when one considers the game designers that people actually, you know, know include Will Wright (Sim City, The Sims), Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros.), and Sid Meier.

These are the game gods, the people who shaped and molded the future of electronic gaming by acts of sheer innovation. And, just as the Wright Brothers may not have realized the full implications and applications of their invention that day at Kitty Hawk, what makes these game designers special is that they probably weren’t trying to change the world or even just the way we play games. They were just doing what they do best; innovating.

While Miyamoto-san may stand alone as the most influential designer of his day (there is a reason why he was the first person inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame), surely Sid Meier ranks nearly as highly in terms of pure influence. Like Miyamoto, Meier proved himself (made his gaming bones, if you will) early in his career and positioned himself in such a way that he can now literally do whatever he wants when it comes to game design.

Humble Beginnings and Early Efforts

In 1982, Meier made his first mark in gaming by co-founding MicroProse, a software company devoted to developing computer games. These were the days when full-fledged games were designed by one or two people, instead of the teams it takes today, and the PC as we know it today did not yet exist. MicroProse games were created for the likes of the Apple II, the Atari, and the once kingly Commodore 64 (a full 64kb of memory!). If you’re less than thirty years old you probably don’t remember any one of these. Mere paperweights today, they were the state of home computer art at the time.

Screenshot from Spitfire Ace

Yes, video games once looked like this!

Most of MicroProse’s titles at the time were flight simulator games and military simulator games, a far cry from the titles that would eventually make Meier a household name, but they showed ambition and innovation even then. The first game that Meier played a major development role in was 1983’s Spitfire Ace for the C64.

The flight sim came and went, but did enough business to keep MicroProse afloat and ensure that following titles such as NATO Commander (1984), Solo Flight (1984), and Kennedy Approach (1985), an air traffic control sim that featured an early form of voice synthesis, would see the light of day.

None of these titles are remembered as fan favorites today, but they were all solid games which helped MicroProse and Meier earn a reputation in the fledgling industry. 1985 also saw Meier venture away from flight related games for the first time with Silent Service, a WWII submarine sim that won the 1985 Charles Roberts/Origins ‘Best Adventure Game for Home Computer’ award. A few years later Silent Service would be ported to the NES by Ultra Games, a subsidiary of Konami which also published the original Metal Gear.

Silent Service would barely pass as a game today. Its blocky graphics and clunky interface were, even then, below the expected norm. Like many of Meier’s later games, however, what it lacked in visuals and finesse it made up in gameplay. Players running Silent Service felt as though they were really at the helm of a WWII sub and, if they weren’t careful, were apt to actually learn something about the sea battles of that era while they played the game.

Meier Sets Sail

Following this string of military and flight themed titles, Meier and MicroProse headed in a new direction with the ambitious game Pirates!, a game that was part sim, part strategy, part adventure, part action, and more than a little educational all at once. Putting players in the role of a privateer in the Spanish Main circa the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, Pirates! was open-ended and one of the earliest examples of the ‘sandbox’ genre made infamous by games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction years later. The goal of Pirates! was for the player to attain the highest social status possible at the end of the game in terms of land owned, marital status, and wealth collected over his career. How the player got there, however, was entirely up to him.

Players could align with one or more nations (Great Britain, Spain, Holland, or France), and act on that nation’s behalf, attacking towns and vessels of opposing nations. Missions were also available from the governors of the various lands the player would visit. They were largely of the ‘deliver these papers here or there’ variety, but success meant a nice amount of gold, a rise in standing with the nation involved and, possibly, an offer of marriage to the governor’s usually less than attractive daughter.

Players could also choose to ‘go it alone’ and act completely in their own interests. They would have to procure ships, cannons, and crewmen in order to have any chance at success, much as a real pirate would. Too many months at sea without satisfactory gains could also result in mutiny. A pirate captain’s life was not an easy one and that fact was hammered home for players more clearly than any other.

Most interesting of all, the game had no real pre-determined ending. Players could continue their swashbuckling adventures on the high seas as long as they liked, or as long as they survived. As a pirate aged, however, it would become harder to recruit quality crew members and eventually the pirate’s career would end in either retirement or death.

Sid Meier's Pirates! Screenshot

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Pirates! proved to be Meier’s and MicroProse’s first bona fide hit, spawning several recreations; Sid Meier’s Pirates! in 1987, which appeared on several platforms, including the NES; Pirates! Gold in 1993 which brought the experience to countless more gamers via the various computers available at the time as well as the now in full swing Sega Genesis; and the 2004 version, Sid Meier’s Pirates! which appeared on the PC and Xbox and featured most of the same style gameplay from the original title (still holding up nearly twenty years later), with (obviously) updated graphics and a popular minigame based on, of all things, ballroom dancing.

Sid’s Been Workin’ on the Railroad

After Pirates!, Meier returned to what he knew best, releasing F-19 Stealth Fighter in 1988,

F-15 Strike Eagle II (the sequel to – you guessed it –  1985’s F-15 Strike Eagle in 1989, and Covert Action in 1990.

Pirates!, however, had Meier’s Sim-juices yearning to seek out new territory and those wishes were realized with 1990’s Railroad Tycoon, the game most directly responsible for the Tycoon explosion in low-cost software we see today. Meier’s game, however, is completely unrelated to the likes of Zoo Tycoon and Hospital Tycoon and even the MicroProse published Roller Coaster Tycoon and Transport Tycoon.

There may be umpteen Tycoon games on the market today, but Meier’s game was the first and, arguably, the best to attempt an economic simulator of its kind. In Railroad Tycoon players were tasked with the management of a railroad company and oversaw every aspect of the business from laying track to building stations to scheduling train routes based on the needs of the traveling consumer.

Of course what fun would it be to stake one’s claim in the railroad biz unopposed? Railroad Tycoon pitted several competing rail companies against the player as well, forcing him to try and compete with them for the travelers’ dollars. Opposing companies would attempt to engage in hostile takeovers by means of the in-game stock exchange and try to win passengers away from the player’s company by initiating fare wars between the railroads. The gameplay was simple to learn but incredibly complex to master, the mark of nearly any good game. It was also highly addictive.

Like Pirates! before it, Railroad Tycoon was followed by several sequels. 1993 saw Railroad Tycoon Deluxe, a lackluster update to the original which was fraught with technical problems that resulted in poor sales. Later the company Pop Top Software (completely unrelated to Meier or MicroProse) acquired the rights to the Railroad Tycoon name and released the first true sequel, the inventively titled Railroad Tycoon II in 1998.

This release was available on the short-lived Sega Dreamcast as well as PC platforms and the PC version was followed by an expansion pack known as Railroad Tycoon II: Second Century a few months later. Milking the title further, the sequel and expansion were released in one set called the Railroad Tycoon II: Gold Edition and again (with the addition of user created scenarios) as the Platinum Edition. Still not satisfied with the mileage earned by Railroad Tycoon II, Pop Top and Gathering of Developers released the budget version Millennium Edition in 2000.

In 2003, Pop Top developed Railroad Tycoon 3, the first game in the series to feature fully rendered 3D graphics. A freebie downloadable expansion called Coast to Coast soon followed. This second sequel changed gameplay quite a bit and brought back the ability to construct tunnels (a feature that was in the original game but absent from Railroad Tycoon II in all its iterations).

This year will see the railroad game return to its roots as Firaxis (Meier’s new company, formed after the closure of MicroProse) is set to publish Sid Meier’s Railroads in October 2006.

Ironically, Pop Top Software was shut down by parent company Take 2 (publisher of the modern Grand Theft Auto series) and its properties were handed over to Firaxis, giving the rights to the familiar Railroad Tycoon name back to their ‘rightful’ owner, Meier. Sid Meier’s Railroads may be the official title, but the game is commonly referred to as Railroad Tycoon 4 by fans of the series and Meier himself. This newest title will be the first actually developed by Meier since the original Railroad Tycoon.

Railroad Tycoon is the clear inspiration for several lesser econosim titles (all with ‘Tycoon’ in their names) and a few excellent ones, including KOEI’s stellar but often overlooked Aerobiz (think Railroad Tycoon with airplanes) from 1992.

In 1991 Meier and MicroProse released the game which both names are most closely associated, Sid Meier’s Civilization.

Widely considered to be the game that sparked the popularity of RTS (real-time strategy) titles (games like Command & Conquer and Warcraft fall under this heading), Civilization gives players the goal of creating and maintaining a vast empire that spans the course of history. Players start in 4000 BC with as little as one citizen and must attempt to build their empires from the ground up.

The player is in charge of every aspect of commanding his civilization and must be sure that his people can thrive while at the same time keeping the threats of opposing civilizations in check through diplomacy or war. Micromanagement is the key as the player must choose not only who to converse with and who to attack (or defend against), but also where to explore new territory, where cities should be established, and what technological advancements (such as the wheel) should be researched and developed. The successful civilization will span the years from ancient times to the modern era.

As the years march on, so do the advancements that a civilization can develop. What starts with fire and the wheel will eventually evolve into steam power, railroads, jet travel, space flight, and nuclear weapons, to name a few.

Keeping with a running theme in Meier’s games, Civilization is highly educational, offering players a chance to ‘live history’ although several people have called the game’s historical accuracy into question. Certain aspects of history (such as religion and slavery  both factors that had considerable impact on several real civilizations’ development) are ignored or considerably downplayed in the game. AI issues and a one-sidedness toward computer players also made the impossible possible by creating conditions in which a primitive civilization (whose armies are equipped with spears and slings) were capable of defeating a modernized army (complete with tanks and aircraft) in battle, ala the Ewoks of Star Wars fighting against a legion of Emperor Palpatine’s best troops.

Such issues aside, however, Civilization is widely recognized as Meier’s crowning achievement and, like so many of his other titles, has been followed by several sequels.  1996 saw Civilization II, a game that was more of a remake than a sequel. Meier was not directly involved in its development, but the second game builds on and improves upon the ideas he implemented in the original. This sequel updated several parts of the game, including graphics, but the game that truly brought Civilization into the modern gaming era was Civilization III, released in 2001. This remake took some of the ideas expanded upon in 1999’s Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (itself a version of Civilization set in space) and brought them back into the Civ fold.

Civ III was considered the most complete version of the game, largely due to the introduction of Alpha Centauri inspired diplomacy measures and a new emphasis on the concept of culture, until the latest title Civilization IV was released in October 2005.  (Civilization V was released to critical and fan acclaim in September 2010, four years after this article first appeared online – ed.)

Civilization IV

Civilization IV cover art

With full 3D graphics, the addition of (finally) religion and slavery into the mix, and the most complex and satisfying gameplay in the series to date (what was once 6 possible opponents is now over thirty), this is what Civilization aspired to be all those years ago.

After Civilization but before any of its sequels, Meier altered the formula and released Colonization in 1994. This game took the Civ concept and set it on a smaller scale, focusing on the European colonization of the Americas. Players would start a New World colony for a European country (like in Pirates!, the Big Four of France, England, Holland, and Spain were used) and run that colony through the year 1850. To succeed, the player’s colony was required to declare independence from its European mother and win a revolutionary war.

What’s so Civil About War?

Hot on the heels of CivII, Meier turned his attention to the American Civil War in 1997 with the release of Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!. Players could choose to control either the Union or the Confederate armies in this game that re-enacted one of the most important battles in American history. It was no monster hit, but garnered enough recognition (winning the Origins Award for Beat Strategy Computer Game of 1997) to spawn a sequel, Sid Meier’s Antietam! in 1998.

Fore!

Keeping with his tradition of trying new concepts and heading in new directions, Meier teamed up with Maxis (developers of Will Wright’s The Sims and its follow-ups as well and the much lauded Sim City series) to create Sim Golf in 2002. Combining the economic simulation concepts of Meier’s Railroad Tycoon with the watch-it-as-it-grows gameplay of Maxis’ Sim titles, Sim Golf put players in charge of their own virtual golf course and were tasked with making it a roaring success. As an added feature, players could actually play a round of golf on their courses as well as pull the strings to make sure that the course became profitable.

The Future’s So Bright, Sid’s Gotta Wear Shades

With Sid Meier’s Railroads just around the corner and CivIV barely a year behind us, it is almost impossible to say what Meier will have up his development sleeve next. If there’s one thing we can be sure of, however, it’s that any games the legendary designer releases are sure to be stylish, advanced, educational, and groundbreaking, just as nearly every title in Meier’s considerable career has been thus far.

Article by Michael Triggs.
Oct 24, 2006

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2 comments

  1. tsonoda148 · June 23, 2011

    Not a gamer, but had to pop in and read. Very well written! I will have to pass this on to my sons.

  2. awkwardsilence82 · June 24, 2011

    Loved the look back at Sid Meier. I still play Civilization for hours on end. Civ II was my favorite game for a very long time as well. Nicely put.

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