How Sid Meier’s Civilization was created

Civilization. Even people far from the world of computer games in general and strategies in particular know this epoch-making series. Over thirty years of support with over thirty-three million copies sold and a billion hours of play (and that’s just according to Steam). But the series dates back to 1991, when games were still distributed on floppy disks. So how did it all begin?


Everything new is improved and modified old, and Sid Meier’s Civilization was no exception to this rule. In some ways, its prototype is the turn-based Empire, which dates back to 1977, which in turn was created based on the board game Risk.
Sid Meier once asked his colleague to name ten mechanics of Empire that he would like to change. A colleague – and this was Bruce Shelley, who later became one of the developers of Age of Empires – named twelve. A few days later, Sid presented Bruce with the first version of the new game.


Empire, whose twelve mechanics Bruce Shelley wanted to change

How it all began

By the time Meier came up with the idea to fit the entire history of mankind into one game, he had already made a name for himself thanks to the successful Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon. The great game designer started by copying existing projects, and only his colleagues from General Instruments Corporation played them. One game changed everything: the Atari flight simulator Red Baron. Bill Steely, Sid’s friend and former military pilot, was confident that he could beat any civilian – it was not for nothing that he spent so many hours at the controls of a real plane. However, Meyer easily scored twice as many points by simply analyzing the program algorithm, which he reported to the surprised Bill. And then he added that he could create a better game. “If you can write such a game, then I can sell it,” Bill immediately exclaimed.

A few months later, Hellcat Ace was born, Sid Meier’s first combat flight simulator. Styles held up his end of the bargain and it was the start of a landmark collaboration. Together they founded the company MicroProse, which initially specialized in the production of flight simulators and arcade games.

After several years of working on similar projects, Sid Meier decided to create something new: a game about pirates. It was then that Bill suggested including the name of the creator in the title, believing that this would have a positive effect on sales. Although he himself later said that it was actor Robin Williams who recommended him to put Sid’s name in the title and promote Meyer as a star. Anyway, Sid Meier’s Pirates! The project was received very warmly, received many awards and had an impact on the gaming industry.


Sid Meier’s Pirates!

It is curious that Meyer’s “Pirates” impressed Will Wright, and even in some places inspired him for the first SimCity – the genre of city-planning simulators was then new to gamers and publishers, but Maxis decided to take a risk. And Wright’s SimCity, in turn, gave Sid the idea of ​​something more global and creative. Moreover, behind was the successful release of Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon – a peaceful business strategy about managing a railway company.

In general, if you look closely at Meyer’s projects, you will notice that there is no blood or direct violence in any of them. The same battles in Civilization are presented in a very abstract way: two armies clash until one of them disappears. At the same time, the player can build his story so that the world turns out to be very cruel. Or maybe try to build a utopia: as Sid himself once said, he prefers to give people the opportunity to play the game in any direction, so that in the end everyone gets a unique story.

It was at this point that the paths of Sid Meier and Bill Steely began to diverge: the latter believed that MicroProse should continue to produce combat simulators, but Meier wanted to expand the genres. Sid sold his share to Bill and became a private contractor, agreeing to upfront development fees, a lump sum upon release of the game, and a percentage of each copy sold.

Despite the success of Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon, MicroProse did not greenlight the second part of the railway strategy. Civilization was also not very optimistic, forcing Sid to pause its development for Covert Action, a spy simulator previously postponed in favor of Railroad Tycoon. As Bruce Shelley said, Steely didn’t believe in Civilization, but he believed in Sid. And Sid completely believed in his project: he fell asleep with a notepad on his bedside table so that in the morning he could immediately write down the ideas that came to him in a dream, he spent hours developing civilizations in different versions of the game… Once Sid Meier was even late for a work meeting on Civilization because he had played too much Civilization .

What inspired Sid to write Civilization?

As noted earlier, Civilization was not the first turn-based strategy game. In addition to the already mentioned Empire and Risk, a very niche project Utopia was released in 1990, in which the player developed his own island and tried to destabilize the neighboring one. But Meyer was inspired not only by turn-based games: Will Wright’s SimCity and Peter Molyneux’s Populous, one of the first god simulators, also played a role.

And, of course, there was Francis Tresham’s board game Civilization. True, Meyer always said that he became acquainted with it after the release of his strategy, but Bruce Shelley, Sid’s closest associate during the development of Civilization, was very familiar with this project.

Why “Civilization”?

Civilization was, in a way, the working name for the prototype – that’s what Meyer himself called his brainchild, and that’s how the floppy disk with the first version was signed. However, when it came time to choose the final name, after going through the options – Rise of Nations, Call to Power, Age of Empires – it was decided to settle on the simplest one, which became familiar to all participants in the development. Of course, in order to avoid lawsuits, MicroProse acquired all rights to the name from Avalon Hill, the American publisher of the desktop Civilization, for a small sum. Looking ahead, I will say that it was not possible to avoid court hearings, but the litigation was postponed for almost eight years and fell on the second part.

First versions of the game and cut mechanics

But let’s return to the history of the ancestor of the series. It is curious that the first versions of the game, known by the motto “One More Move,” were not turn-based at all: Sid wrote a prototype in real time, somewhat reminiscent of SimCity on a national scale. As in Wright’s city-planning simulator, in this version of “Civilization” the territory could be divided into zones: for agriculture, resource extraction, etc. However, this approach gradually turned the player into an observer monitoring the successes of his civilization, which did not suit Meyer . Perhaps the forced break for another project turned out to be even useful – when Sid Meier returned to the development of Civilization after the release of Covert Action, the first thing he did was change the concept of the passage of time. At first, an intermediate option was tested, in which the turn lasted several years and was limited in time, but it was quickly abandoned in favor of completely turn-based gameplay.


Along with the transition to a turn-based mode, zoning mechanics were also removed: instead they were replaced by settlers who could change the terrain and found cities. Around this same stage, the technology tree appears in the game, which has become one of the absolute innovations of Civilization. The sequential discovery of technologies was ideally suited to the game’s concept of the gradual development of society; in addition, players saw the entire tree at once and could plan development paths. Although Sid’s original idea assumed an element of chance: it was possible to fulfill all the requirements, but still not discover this or that technology. The idea was very interesting and reflected the real state of affairs with scientific discoveries, but the testers did not like this gameplay at all. As a result, due to the large number of negative reviews from colleagues, it was decided to abandon the mechanics of random discoveries. An interesting fact: in one of the versions there was a separate tree of secondary skills (for example, they included brewing, which allows you to increase the level of happiness of the population), but such a system was considered too cumbersome.




Even during the development process, Sid wanted to reproduce the rise and fall of nations – especially the falls that would occur regardless of the success of the player’s chosen development strategy. For some time, experiments were even conducted with global disasters: volcanic eruptions, plague epidemics, crop failures. But, faced with a sharp setback of his civilization due to a natural disaster or epidemic, the player would most likely simply restart the last save, so it was decided to get rid of the disasters.

And yet, some global events remain in the game. Thus, “Civilization” became perhaps the first game in which gamers were faced with global warming. It was implemented simply: when states began to produce too much waste, the level of the world’s oceans rose and, as a result, the sea flooded coastal cities.


Despite many changes and replacements of almost ready-made mechanics with more suitable ones, “Civilization” was created by ten people in less than a year – and this is taking into account the break for another project. True, in those days, computers had only 640 kilobytes of RAM (which is “enough for everyone,” according to a famous quote attributed to Bill Gates), so development proceeded much faster. And the space on the floppy disk was limited: it was planned to introduce another nation into the game – the Turks, but there was not enough space on the floppy disk for them. The only reminder of this idea was the “Turkish March” in the audio files.


“Black people?”


“Ahh. Zulu…”

Looking at the large amount of historical data and the strong emphasis on the educational element of the game (continued in Civilization II and greatly reduced in subsequent entries in the series), it would seem that the developers spent a decent amount of hours studying history books. But this is not so: Sid and his colleagues tried to use well-known concepts and technologies. The leaders were generally chosen based on a small study of childhood favorites among historical characters, so all the rulers of “Civilization” were well known to the average American schoolchild. That is why Stalin led Russia in the game.



Finish line

When development came to an end and Sid’s team needed help from MicroProse’s graphics department, work stalled. The new vice president of the company did not receive bonuses for the release of Sid Meier’s games and, accordingly, was not interested in them; The company’s resources were primarily focused on MicroProse’s own games.

Extensive testing revealed an unexpected weakness: maps that are too large, slowing down the pace of the game and making gameplay artificially drawn out. Then Sid immediately cut the size of the map in half and achieved almost “the same fun in half the area.” This wasn’t the only time a game’s flaws were cured by drastic changes: Sid even calls the rule “Double or Halve.” The point is that sometimes it is better not to waste time on gradual changes that will not give a visible effect. Under tight deadlines, don’t increase any character’s attack power by 5%, 10%, or 15% – just double it and see the result.

The final touch was the Civilopedia, written by Bruce Shelley. The game’s paper manual was 128 pages long and showed the scale of the project. Using this game encyclopedia, Shelley talked not only about the main game mechanics, but also about historical events that were not included in the game: about religious wars and slavery, about plagues that were cut because the player’s progress was too severely disrupted.
The Electronic Civilopedia was built into the game itself and contained all the necessary information, revealing in detail every aspect of the game.


Access to the market

Finally, the game was ready for release. MicroProse did not invest in advertising for Sid Meier’s Civilization, so sales were not very strong. Moreover, not so long ago SimEarth was released, a planet simulator from Will Wright, which did not gain popularity among players. But the flywheel of the glory of Civilization began to spin up even without advertising: gamers shared their impressions with each other, word of mouth spread news of the new project, and sales grew. A couple of months after the start of sales, Styles recognized the success and, as the head of MicroProse, received an award for the best game of 1991.

Of course, not everything went perfectly. Balance problems that had eluded the testers were revealed: the chariots were too strong given their price, and the chances of winning could be increased simply by building a huge number of cities. Changes were made to the code (the attack of the chariot was cut, and the “corruption” parameter was introduced to combat a large number of cities), but the era of day one patches was still far away and updates after the game entered the market did not fix problems on already sold floppy disks.

And yet, despite the technical imperfections, the game really settled in the hearts of gamers. And even though the project did not have support for modifications (which Sid Meier later regretted), and a spearman could sometimes hit a battleship (purely mathematically, such a possibility really existed, so Sid did not see a big problem in this incident), “Civilization” was delaying and beckoning to be done one more move.


You might also want to read this:

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *