Civilization creator Sid Meier returned to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, in early May to help future game makers learn the ins and outs of game development. Along with some well-known industry names like Brian Reynolds from Zynga, Nick Laing from EA and Matt Gilgenbach from Binary Creativity, the man behind one of the most successful real-time strategy (RTS) games of all time spent two weeks teaching students how to make games. Meier talks about his love of game development and looks to the future of games in this exclusive interview.
How did the Sid Meier Boot Camp at the University of Michigan come about?
It started with my son becoming a college student — he just graduated this past December from my alma mater at their computer science program. I’d go out there once a year to talk to the game design students. They would do things through the Wolverine Software computer gaming club like 48-hour Game Jams. A lot of students wanted more time than two days, so they could focus on a game and iterate and see the idea evolve. We decided to take two weeks to allow them to develop games and also provide lectures and discussions and other activities to work in groups and exercise their game design brains. We had 22 students this May and I think we learned something from the students and hopefully they learned something from us.
What are the opportunities for graduating students today compared to when you entered the games industry?
The industry is constantly evolving, and that’s part of the fun of being in it. It’s an interesting time to be a developer. You have this wide range of opportunities from indie games and social games from these very small teams, all the way up to the Blizzards who have hundreds of people working on games, to studios like ours that have a moderate size team. All of these types of games are evolving and we’re still trying to figure out social gaming and the free-to-play model and what’s going to happen with mobile gaming. The young designers are often more informed on these kind of things than those of us that have our heads down working on one or two games at a time. It does actually remind me a bit of the early days because there are these opportunities for very small teams and designers to get their games up on the App store or on a mobile platform somewhere and have the possibility of getting exposure and being successful.
I think so. So many games are copies of other games and that is not really what the industry is looking for. If you have a special interest, make a game about something personal, something that’s going to be different from every other game out there. We focused on that on our first day. We don’t need another first-person shooter or platformer or a game that looks like other games out there. It’s about what’s unique about you as a person, that you can bring to game design to make a game that reflects something that you’re really interested in. One student thought that fireworks were cool and he made a game about fireworks with interesting gameplay mechanics that played with gravity. Over two weeks they were able to try some things that were more innovative and more risky.
What opportunities do you see today specifically within the strategy genre that you’re so well known for?
Strategy in some ways works really well on a mobile platform because so many of them are turn-based games. There are certainly opportunities in that genre on the iPad.
What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into game development?
If you want to work at a big game company there are certainly play testing positions. A lot of people we talk to are in the mod community that are making mods and updates for games and posting them. If you have a game that you designed and you show us, that is also really helpful. If you have one of the traditional skills like programming, art, sound design and things like that, that will help you. I think the decision for most young people is to choose between going the indie route, where you have a lot more creative control and flexibility but not the support of a large corporation, or going to an established company and having that stability but being part of a bigger team and maybe not having the ability to control the game design. It’s rare that you can step into a company as a game designer. Most of those people have worked their way through the process to become designers.
We have the new Civilization: Gods and Kings expansion coming out and there’s a bunch of cool stuff we’re doing there. We’re also showing our new X-COM: Enemy Unknown, which is a really exciting to bring the classic game back to life with modern technology.
What do you think it is about Civilization that has allowed it to evolve and continue to be popular over all these incarnations to this day?
I wish I knew the exact answer to that so that I could bottle that and do it over and over again, but I think it had a pretty fundamental appeal with people. I think it’s a nice balance of being easy to start playing, but it unfolded the more you played it and the more you found different strategies. Turn-based turned out to be a topic that most people were familiar with and it’s a great mechanic with that “one more turn” quality, where you’re always working on something that you’re looking forward to that’s going to happen soon. We’ve only done a new version of the game when we had really good ideas to add to it. We’ve listened to the community and by enabling modding we’ve actually included them in the design process through the evolution of the game. We started off with a strong idea, which is still alive and vibrant, and we’ve added our best ideas and the best ideas from our fan base. For this game to thrive for 20 years now is pretty amazing.