This interview is a “deleted scene” of sorts from Sid Meier’s Civilization Chronicles, the definitive Civilization collector’s edition. As part of this project, several interviews with members of past Civilization teams were conducted by journalist Troy Goodfellow. These were used as the source material for a massive article on the history of the franchise that is include in a 96 page book included in the Civ Chronicles package.
This interview is with Bruce Campbell Shelley, who helped design Sid Meier’s Civilization and Railroad Tycoon. He now serves in a managerial role at Ensemble Studios and is on the board of directors for the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.
Sid Meier’s Civilization Chronicles for PC is available for a MSRP of $69.99.
Game ideas are dropped all the time. Did you ever doubt that Civilization would work?
No. It was fun and interesting from my very first experience with it. As it started to take shape I remember thinking that it was incredibly cool to be working on this game because we had a strong feeling that it was something really special. I remember being amused by the idea that the leading edge of game development at the time was Hunt Valley, Maryland, but nobody knew but me and a few others. I was convinced that the game would appeal to a wide audience and be a big success. The only major concern was that the president of the company [Microprose] didn’t understand it and had no faith in it. I believe if Sid had been an employee [rather than a partner] it might have been cancelled.
Was the scale of the success surprising?
We felt it was an incredible game and as more and more people were exposed to it in development everyone raved about it. I don’t think at the time I thought it would become recognized as one of the best PC games of all time, that it would turn out to be probably Sid’s best game ever, or that it would live on through multiple revisions, perhaps forever. So in those terms the success was surprising.
What was the most important thing you learned in the development of Civ?
The development of the original Civilization game was the penultimate success of the design by playing process. Sid produced a playable prototype that contained most of the core features of the game. Once he got me involved playtesting it, we would test and review it every day. Then he would redesign and recode, and new version would be sitting on my chair when I got in the next morning. I would play it all morning making notes about what I thought was working and what was not, and we would meet when he got in and start again. Day by day the game took shape. Eventually it was accepted as a real project by the company and we got artists and other people involved. The essence of what makes Civilization great is that it was created by a very small team testing, adjusting, and retesting day after day. We have essentially adopted the same process at Ensemble Studios for the entire Age of Empires series.
No game before Civ had that kind of scale. How important is the “epicness” in the appeal of Civ?
I have remarked before that being assigned to work with Sid as his assistant designer was like going to a game design university. I believe one of his principles of game development is to choose a big topic, perhaps an epic topic. I don’t know if he came up with that before or after making Civilization. I don’t believe that big and epic are necessary conditions for success, but they can be very helpful, especially for games based on history. The rise of civilization covers a lot of material and from that it was fairly easy to pull out parts with which to build a game. The narrower the topic, the less there is to borrow. Big epic topics generally come with a story that can be easily turned into a simple vision. Great games put the player in the position of the hero and guiding a civilization from the Stone Age to the Space Age was big, interesting, and heroic.
Sid’s games before Civ were real time (flight sims, RRT, Covert Action) and he’s moved in real time since. Could Civ work in real time?
Yes and no. It has been done to some extent already, but the real-time games play quite differently. To me examples of Civilization converted to real time are Empire Earth and Rise of Nations. They are both strategy games that play through the rise of civilization (so maybe yes), but there are some big differences in real-time gameplay (so maybe no). In Civilization you play at your own pace, do lots of economic micromanagement, and combat is perhaps a minor part of play; real-time play is hair-on-fire frantic, much less economic, and really focused on combat. Where Civilization IV takes 6-12 hours to complete a game, the typical RTS game takes one hour or less to complete. The big epic topic is the same but the gameplay is dramatically different.
The key difference between turn-based and real-time comes in the number and pace of gameplay decisions. In turn-based play you have all the time you want to make your decisions and you don’t advance the turn until you have completed all you wish to make. In real-time you have a very limited time to make decisions so you must continually rank them in priority. You deal with the most pressing decisions first and let the remainder slide if you can’t get to them. In turn-based you see the results of the other player actions and can ponder them for as long as you like before taking your turn. In real-time game conditions are constantly changing. You have little time to ponder your response.
Some anecdotes from the experience of making the original Civilization:
- I believe I was the second person ever to play the original Civilization, after Sid of course, and I liked the concept immediately. As I recall, Sid gave me the first playable prototype in May, 1990, on a 5 ¼” floppy disc, which I believe I still have somewhere. Many of the elements of the final game were there. We had used the same iterative process of design by playing when making both Railroad Tycoon and Covert Action.
- Before Civilization appeared on my radar, Sid asked me to list 10 things about the game Empire that I would change or add if I could. This was part of his research on making Civilization. As I recall, the big influences on him at the time were the experience of making Railroad Tycoon, Sim City, Empire, and perhaps Populous. As we neared completion I remember him commenting that he didn’t know what he would do next because Civilization incorporated every good idea he had on making a game. I left the company about 9 months later after working with him on an American Civil War game that was never completed.
- It seemed like a struggle at the time to get the company management on board with Civilization. They didn’t seem to get it. They wanted more flight sims.
- I wrote the original big manual that included a lot of historical material on the rise of civilization. I had to choose some illustrations and one I chose was Michelangelo’s statue of David. The artist assigned to sketch the historic objects was a woman and she questioned why I had chosen a naked man. I had been doing a lot of reading for the game and manual and just thought it was a breakthrough piece of art. I didn’t consider anyone would be offended by it or if there was any gender bias in my selection. She didn’t raise either issue with me, but just her query made me think about the choice, which wasn’t changed.
- The original Civilization was made in a relatively short period of time. I remember writing most of the blurbs for the technologies in the Civilopedia and feeling embarrassed that we ran out of technology. In the original game you could do research on future unnamed projects. There just wasn’t time to invent new stuff and consider what game implications they might have.
- I was incredibly impressed by Sid’s creativity. For the early months of development at least, all of the art in the prototype was Sid’s work. He would whip out Paint or some art program, create a new object, and it would go right into the game. Remember these were the days of 16 color graphics (and we were very glad to have the bounty of 16). As another example of his creativity, when he started toying with the morale of the people in cities I thought it was very clever to invent the entertainer specialist and have him look like Elvis.
- I remember Sid being remarkably private about the development of the game for the longest time. For many months I was pretty much the only person that was playing it and discussing it with him. People would come into my office to watch and question me, and I believe he was constantly being pressed to pass it out to others, but he kept it tight. If he explained why to me then, I don’t recall the answer. Today I feel that getting many people involved is a good thing for the design by playing process. A few years ago Sid complemented me during a speech he was giving by saying I was fun to work with because I had the ability to always see the glass as half full, not half empty. That ability is perhaps a requisite for a game developer. Maybe it is just imagination.
- Al Roireau was head of playtest on Civilization and he had strong opinions on game design that occasionally clashed with those of the game teams. As we started getting real artists assigned to Civilization, somebody created a head of Al Roireau that was used as a temporary fill-in for all of the opposing kings on diplomacy screens. So for months of playtesting Al’s head was constantly popping up. He took it well.
- At the time we were working on Civilization the company had a bonus plan paid for projects based on sales and meeting milestones. I believe that because Sid was not an employee and the VP of development’s bonus was tied to projects Sid was not working on, it was very hard for us to get artists and other assets as the game started moving to full production. I remember many meetings when I reported we could not meet the production schedule without help. The game shipped late at least partially because other projects were given a higher priority. I thought it was nuts to hold back on what everyone in development agreed was going to be a big hit. I was really incensed when our bonuses were shaved considerably because we slipped, which I thought was management’s decision.
- During the three-four years that I worked with Sid as his assistant designer, one of the playtesters started calling us the A team. I don’t think I ever commented on that or acknowledged it, but I came to be very proud of it. Working with Sid, especially on Railroad Tycoon and Civilization, was a fantastic opportunity for which I will always be grateful. That experience led to other wonderful opportunities for me. I have tried to pass on what I learned to my colleagues at Ensemble Studios.
- There is certainly some Civilization in the Age of Empires series. The vision for the original Age of Empires game was something like the historical and economic aspects of Civilization merged with the game play of Warcraft and Command & Conquer.
Bruce Campbell Shelley is a computer game designer who helped design Sid Meier’s Civilization and Railroad Tycoon with MicroProse and the 1997 hit real-time strategy game Age of Empires with Ensemble Studios. He now serves in a managerial role at Ensemble and is on the board of directors for the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.
Troy Goodfellow is a freelance gaming journalist based in Maryland. He has been playing computer strategy games for almost twenty years and still vividly remembers the day Civilization appeared. His work is often found in Computer Games magazine. Troy keeps a blog devoted to strategy games at www.flashofsteel.com.