One More Turn. If you have spent any time playing strategy games, this is a very familiar refrain. For decades, the Civilization games have pulled legions of gamers back to the keyboard for one more turn. The gameplay mechanics are both fundamental and straightforward, yet grandiose in scope, a combination that grants immense entertainment value.
But like Rome, Civilization was not built in a day! In this video, we are going to take a look back at the early days at MicroProse and the development of the first Civilization and also delve into the game’s legacy.
I also spoke with fellow creators Drew, Stacy, Hadrian, and Phil about their relationship with the series over the years.
Bill and Sid
Civilization started with a wager. Sort of. The journey towards developing Civilization begins up at a company called General Instruments Corp. in 1982. Sid Meier was a 28-year-old University of Michigan graduate and gaming enthusiast working for the company as a programmer. “Wild Bill” Stealy was an analyst at the company and also a member of the Air Force reserves. The two were introduced to each other during a company event in Las Vegas.
Stealy, the Air Force pilot, was sure he would beat Meier at the arcade game Red Baron, only to be surprised at Meier’s proficiency at playing the game. Meier explained he was merely analyzing the programming of the game and predicting the games actions, and he could program a better game in one week’s time. Stealy said if Meier could program that game, he would sell it. Sid made it, and Bill ended up selling it, and the two went into business together founding MicroProse with their first game, Hellcat Ace.
An interesting aside to this: in 1988, MicroProse employees were able to track down the very Red Baron game cabinet that inspired Sid and Bill to go into business together.
The Early Days of MicroProse
MicroProse was founded on the niche genre of vehicle simulators, but also produced strategy games like NATO Commander. Regardless of the style, most of the games produced by the young company stayed firmly within the boundary of the military and combat theming associated with the co-founder Stealy. This laser focus let MicroProse grow and develop into one of the more successful game companies of the mid-80s.
Meier however was beginning to feel the urge to explore other genres. Sid and a fellow designer wanted to try their hand at a role playing game with an idea that would eventually develop into Sid Meier’s Pirates! While developing the game however there was a bit of pushback from Wild Bill who was unsure about entering into a new genre. This unease about non-military based games would become a recurring strain between Sid and Bill over the next few years.
Sid Meier’s Pirates!
Pirates! was a success. Another team of MicroProse designers would use the leverage gained by Bill’s genre foray, as well as some of the technological tricks created during development, to create Sword of the Samurai. An interesting tie-in to the first episode of Origin of the Series is that one of the writers for that game was Sandy Petersen, who would go on to work for iD Software as a level designer for Doom and Doom II.
Pirates is also notable because it started a trend that lasts to this day. It boasts Sid Meier’s name above the title, a space normally only reserved for the biggest names in an industry. There are a few variations of the story as to why this happened. From all accounts, Sid is probably the last guy in the world to ask for that kind of recognition. One version of the story is that it was comedian, and noted gamer, Robin Williams who had the idea and pitched it to Sid and Bill Stealy at a gaming conference. He said it would make Sid a star. The other version of the story is that Bill did it to differentiate Sid’s new passion projects, like Pirates! from the other games that he believed to be the bread and butter of the company. Maybe it was one or the other, or something in between, but either way the naming convention stuck, and to this day Sid’s name appears above the games he creates.
Bruce Shelley and Railroad Tycoon
For those that are familiar with Bruce Shelley’s work, two games immediately come to mind: Civilization and Age of Empires. However, Shelley developed his working relationship with Sid Meier on the game Railroad Tycoon.
Shelley came to MicroProse by way of Avalon Hill where he was a board game designer. After seeing what was possible with Pirates! Shelley knew he wanted to change industries, and found his way to MicroProse. One of the games that Shelley worked on while at Avalon Hill was an adaptation of a board game by Francis Tresham called 1829. The resulting game, 1830, served as one of the inspirations for the next important game in Meier’s career, Railroad Tycoon.
Railroad Tycoon was the first “God” game that Meier designed. In it, you controlled a businessman with $100,000 in assets that is looking to build the next great railroad empire. Besides Shelley’s work with 1830, another important inspiration for Tycoon was SimCity, Will Wright’s 1989 classic that took the gaming world by storm. Much like SimCity, Railroad Tycoon unfolded as a real-time strategy game with the option to pause and start time.
Railroad Tycoon was another success for Meier. However, it became apparent to Stealy that Meier was less interested in running the business. And for Wild Bill that business was producing vehicle and combat simulation and strategy games. I have not been able to find an exact date, but at some point between Railroad Tycoon and Civilization, Sid Meier was bought out of the company that he co-founded and stripped of his Vice President title. He would be rehired as a contractor who received money upfront to develop games and royalties on any copies of games sold. This was the situation Meier was in as Civilization entered the horizon.
Development of Civilization
After Railroad Tycoon’s success and Meier’s exit from MicroProse Meier found himself looking to his past for the next game he wanted to develop. He had fond memories of playing Risk as a child, and wanted to create something along those lines, merged with the idea of the development of a (small c) civilization. So he and Shelley began work on the first iteration of Civilization, capital c. Meier and Shelley worked with an iterative process; Meier would do a round of design, and Shelley would play it, providing feedback as to whether it was fun or not.
The initial push to design Civilization would be interrupted by business matters, though. Stealy was not thrilled with his best team working on another project that was not the company’s primary focus. Meier convinced Stealy of how important the development of Civilization was to him, and Stealy cut him a deal. If he and Shelley worked on a game called Covert Action. At this point in Civilization’s development, it was a real time strategy game like Railroad Tycoon.
After finishing Cover Action, Meier and Shelley came back to Civilization and realized something important. Real time would not work for the game they were envisioning. Instead, they reworked the game as a turn-based strategy, without which there would be no “one more turn!”
The history presented in the game was never intended to be entirely accurate, as Meier prioritized fun above all else. That’s not to say there isn’t anything true; Meier did have some reference material. It was Bruce Shelley that did the bulk of the research for the manual, which according to Meier was nearly 200 pages, and the Civilopedia, which had never really been done in a game before. For those unfamiliar, the Civilopedia has information on just about everything in the game, unit, building, or wonder.
With the game nearing completion, the final hurdle was getting the attention of the MicroProse staff that would be needed to finish the game. Meier’ s projects were considered low priority at the time. When MicroProse employees finally got their hands on the game, a funny thing happened: they couldn’t stop playing. However, the game was also overwhelming, and they needed to make cuts. Meier and Shelley ended up reducing the world size by half and cutting out a branch of the technology tree.
Civilization was released with a limited marketing push, but the game’s addictive nature gave it the word of mouth needed to spread like wildfire amongst gamers. One More Turn was born.
The Legacy of Civilization
Not long after Civilization’s release, MicroProse was purchased by competitor Spectrum Holobyte. While owned by them, MicroProse would release Civilization II, also considered one of the greatest games of all time. It was Civ II that introduced the isometric point of view that is familiar to most civilization players. Meier, however, was already on his way to Firaxis games by the time Civ II was released.
The legal status of the franchise bounced around a little bit. There were lawsuits regarding the name. MicroProse would be sold again. In the meantime, Firaxis was brought on as the developer for Civilization III and would eventually own the rights to the franchise again by Civilization IV. A rare time in gaming history where an IP ultimately ends up in the hands of those who care for it the most.
It’s hard to poetically encapsulate the legacy of a game as grand as Civilization. So I’m not going to. Here are some facts. It was one of the progenitors of the 4X strategy genre. It lead to Bruce Shelley creating Age of Empires, and inspiring strategy gamers and developers alike for years to come. Here once again are (interview subjects) to talk about what they think the “legacy” of the game truly is.
Thank you for watching the second episode of Origin of the Series. I want to take a moment to call out the sources for this video. The primary source was an article and interview found on Gamasutra. Additional sources include an interview with Sid Meier from venturebeat.com and retrospectives from Kotaku and arstechnica.com. The links to these articles are in the description below.
I’d like to give my utmost thanks and appreciation to Drew, Stacy, Hadrian and Phil for their support of this project, and for lending their voices to it.
The first episode was about the history of the Doom franchise which you can check out here. If you enjoy this type of content, please leave a like and a comment below, and consider subscribing and sharing this video. Thank you so much for watching, and I will see you next time. Take care everybody.