You Must First Invent the Universe

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Sid Meier describes the allure of Civilization, his groundbreaking 1991 game:

We really didn’t design it in, but as I look back, I realize there is a really interesting growth path in the game. In the beginning, you have one or two military units, just a couple of technologies, and just a couple choices to make. The game opens up and unfolds gradually at your own pace. And before you know it, you’re dealing with lots of interesting decisions.

There is also that one-more-turn quality. There are enough different things going on that there is never really a good time to stop. In one city, you’re building something, and when that is done, you’re exploring this other continent. And then you meet the leader of another civilization, and you’re wondering how that is going to turn out. There are enough different threads in your imagination at any one time. One of the reasons that Civ has become this well-known phenomenon is that people remember the night when they stayed up to 3 a.m. playing it. It’s these experiences that stick with you.

So true.

The game was originally going to be about the rise and fall of civilizations:

There would be occasional setbacks, such as the Dark Ages, that you would have to overcome, and the glory of overcoming them would be satisfying. But what we found was that when bad things happen, people would just reload the game. They were not interested in the fall of civilizations. Just the rise of them.

So we ended up with a game of constant progress. We actually started to understand the psychology of gamers. When something bad happens, often they blame it on the computer, or the designer, or some other outside force. They would think it wasn’t fair, and they would reload the game.

We also found the same phenomenon when nuclear weapons came into play in the game. Players did not have much hesitation in using nuclear weapons against the AI-controlled civilizations. But if somehow the AI used a nuclear weapon against them, it would be: “wait a minute, that’s not fair.” The message of Civ is that [nuclear weapons are] a lose-lose for everybody. But we found that we couldn’t allow the AI to use them, because it was destroying the player’s experience. If the player is destroying the AI’s experience, then it’s only the computer that suffers.

Stupid computer…


  1. William Newman says:

    “we ended up with a game of constant progress”

    Constant seems to be very standard for any game which represents a long time (as opposed to e.g. games of a single battle or combat mission). It might be because people don’t like decline, but I don’t think Civ is strong evidence for that. The specific kinds of mechanisms that Civ prefers for decline — global warming, corruption unless you turn Communist — could be getting under players’ skin in other ways. And more generally the real-world dysfunction in recorded declines — like all the shenanigans in deposing Roman Emperors — seems to resist simulation even with modern computers, much less 1991 computers.

    “if somehow the AI used a nuclear weapon against them, it would be: ‘wait a minute, that’s not fair.’”

    Maybe they did hear that phrase from the playtesters, but I think the main problem in that area was a little different. IIRC the early Civ AI was extremely annoyingly aggressive against the player nation (compared to aggression between NPC nations). Mixing that with nuclear weapons naturally promotes the annoyance to a new level. I replayed Civ III recently and was reminded that (at least at the Monarch difficulty) its AI is less consistently anti-player: NPC nations are aggressive against the player, but also aggressive against each other, which would be somewhat less annoying with nukes. But the AI is still annoyingly prone to starting horribly destructive war with or without nukes, probably unrealistically so. No one really understands the game theory of nukes, but the rate at which Civ AI started nuclear wars is hard to reconcile with our incomplete understanding (and with fifty years of history); some might say “that’s not fair” but “that’s ridiculous” is another natural reaction.

Leave a Reply