Sid Meier's Game Theory

July 5, 1995

Deists believe God to be sort of the ultimate clock maker. Just as a watchmaker would craft a timepiece, the heavenly one created the world and left it to wind away on its own accord. In other words, no divine intervention is coming down to save your sorry ass. Your survival tools are luck, smarts, and, maybe, the ability to run faster than whatever it is that wants to eat you. You get one turn.

Sid Meier too is a creator of deistic worlds. Tiny ones, on computer screens. Certainly, this 41 year-old Hunt Valley resident is no god, but he is revered by many computer game players. His titles have sold more than two million copies worldwide. He's been in Wired. Internet newsgroups bustle with speculation as to how best win within his designs. Julie Cohen, a senior editor for Home PC Magazine calls him a "forefather" of the field. "A select group of personalities have emerged in the industry, and he is one of them," she says.

Yet, "if you met him on the street, you'd never guess that he was this genius-type rich guy," says Jeff Briggs, Director of Product Development at MicroProse, the Hunt Valley company Meier works at, and once co-owned. He's no computer geek. But, described by friends as unassuming, even shy, he's not exactly Indiana Jones either.

When I talked with Meier in his sunlight-filled first floor office, he seemed puzzled as to why anyone would want to interview him. I ask him what was the strangest thing success brought him. He answers, "reporters coming around to ask me questions."

Nonetheless, he humors me. "When I was young, I played all sorts of family games such as Monopoly and Candyland," he recalls. "When I got a little older, I got involved in the military board games from Avalon Hill." The young Meier also became interested in history, reading volumes on the subject. At University of Michigan, he majored in history, along with computer science.

After graduating, he moved to Hunt Valley to work at General Instruments. He installed operating systems for computerized cash registers. At night, he designed "Space Invader-like" games on an Atari 800.

Meier might have remained a gaming hobbyist had he not met his polar opposite, the ever-extroverted John "Wild Bill" Stealey in 1982. Stealey had worked as an advisor to the Pentagon, a jet fighter pilot, a flight instructor for the Air Force. With a MBA under his belt, he was then itching to start his own business.

The two scraped up $1500 in start-up cash and formed MicroProse. The plan was simple: Meier would make games, Stealey would sell them. "It was a unique business to get into," Meier says. "You didn't need a factory. Our first games came in baggies. The manual was photocopied." The market was boundless. Within a year, the two quit their day gigs. By 1990, MicroProse was amassing 25 million a year.

It was Sid Meier's Civilization that put Meier on the gaming map though. "Civilization is very widely known, and not just by those in the simulation game field," says Frederic Paul, editor of Electronic Entertainment Magazine. Released in 1990, it became a huge seller and was highly influential.

Simulation games (sims) replicate a certain environment. MicroProse's own F-15 Strike Eagle, for instance, put the user in a the cockpit of a fighter jet. Just aim, shoot, and rack up the points.

Civilization, in contrast, required not speedy eye-hand motor coordination, but rather planning prowess. Literally, you had to manage the growth of an entire planet. There had been large-scale strategy-based sims before Civilization (notably SimCity), but Meier raised the genre to an art. "At the time Civilization appeared, not many games had that same level of depth," Cohen tells me.

Others I talked with also admired the game's depth. "Depth is having a lot of different avenues you could go through," Meier himself explains. "Each time you play you can only go through one of them. People were still finding things six months after they started."

According to Briggs, Meier's ability to "take complex elements and turn them into computer codes is phenomenal." Sometimes this ability leads into pretty hairy metaphysical terrain.

Briggs recalls another program, C.P.U. Bach, on which he collaborated on with Meier. Briggs has a Ph.D in music theory and composition. In 1991, the pair embarked on a two-year experiment to write a program that would generate music sounding like something Bach would have written, but never did. Briggs taught Meier the rules governing baroque arrangement. He even analyzed some of Bach's works in order to "find the things that made the music so great." Meier incorporated those findings and played back samples for critical evaluation.

Reducing Bach to code may sound mechanistic, but, as Briggs points out, it does grapple with a question that has plagued theorists for years. If a certain music operates under strict rules of harmonic theory, why couldn't a computer use those rules to spin out endless variations in that style? "That was what we wanted to answer," Briggs says.

In the late '80s, Meier retreated from management, leaving the operation of the MicroProse to Stealey. "I don't believe there is such a thing as management," he jokes. "There had come a time where we were so large I really couldn't try to understand everything going on and still have enough time to create. I like writing games, so I'll stick with that."

A wise move, opting out. The recession soon sent the company into a finiancial tailspin. Only by merging with the larger California-based Spectrum HoloByte did MicroProse recover. By then though, Stealey had bailed.

Now that HoloByte cushions the bottom-line, MicroProse breathes easier. There seems to be much faith around the office that Meier's newest creation, Sid Meier's Colonization--an obvious follow up to Civilization--will mark the return of better days.

Colonization simulates the settlement of America, a subject that has long fascinated Meier. He's read much about the revolution. However, the trouble with reading about history, as he sees it, is that "it's kind of passive."

"What's interesting about computer games is that you can create a model to test out all these alternatives and say `Well if I would have been there, I would have done this.'"

Set in motion, Colonization takes on an eery will of its own. You settle a new land and declare independence from England. Other countries may or may not attack. Prices fluctuate according to how much you purchase or unload on the market. Religious and political uprisings crop up. You have to navigate in a world that seems to be operate more by the laws of cause and effect than by morality.

Colonization takes 400 years in game time (that's 16-20 hours for you and me), and winning does not come easy. On an America Online newsgroup devoted to the game, one exasperated player griped about elusive victory. He declared independence and won the ensuing war, "I got to 1850 and my people went back to English rule. They name a friggin' school after me, for chissakes!!! HELP!!!"

Given the chance to converse with anyone in the business of creating worlds (even tiny ones), I'd have but one burning question. So I ask. Meier pauses, but then runs with it. "Yes, I think so," he replies.

"I guess I have to believe in free will. Making choices is an interesting part of games. They're an interesting part of life. You're thrown a lot of curves. How you respond to those things determines. . ." He pauses again and smiles, "determines whether you win or lose, what your score is."

--Joab Jackson

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