taking turns –
This “War Stories” video explores howCivilizationalmost wasn’t a turn-based game.
Although he comes from that wild time in gaming that gave us Trip Hawkins and the concept of “rock star developers,” Sid Meier is not loud and brash. Nor is he looking tomake anyone his bitch. These days he’s more like your friendly gaming grandpa — as we spoke, he placed his words carefully and deliberately, as if he were positioning game pieces on a hex grid. He became animated as we discussed game mechanics but otherwise answered questions almost laconically, with a slight smile — after all, he’s been dealing with the press for decades.
Meier spent a few hours walking us through the birth ofCivilization, one of the most famous and lauded franchises in the history of gaming. It’s among those rarest of titles that effectively mainstreamed an entire genre — in this case, the “4X game” (which stands for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”). AlthoughCivilizationwasn’t the first strategy game on the market, it was the proverbial 800 – pound gorilla — and it did for turn-based strategy games whatDoomwould do for the FPS genre a few years later.
But as so often happens with genre-defining games,Civilizationstarted out as a very different experience.
No wine before its time
Meier explained how the design process forCivilizationfollowed the release ofRailroad Tycoonin 1990. The idea of simulating railroad ownership had indeed translated into a fun game, and Meier wanted to expand on the concept and give players the chance to manage an entire simulated world. Armed with some solid reference material that laid out the guideposts of how developing civilizations became civilizations, Meier and his team knocked together some earlyCivprototypes.
But the concept didn’t quite gel. Those early prototypes were stuck in real-time, with the player directing units and tech development without the structure and pacing imposed by turns. The team took some time away fromCivto complete another stalled project, a real-time Tom Clancy-esque spy game calledCovert Action. Switching focus toCovert Actionended up providing the perspective that Meier needed — and when he eventually set his sights back onCiv, he decided to shake things up a bit and change the game’s flow by making it fully turn-based.
Just one more turn …
As with so many other sea changes, the magnitude of the switch wasn’t really obvious at the time. But Meier and the rest of the developers realized they had accidentally bottled lightning when early testers kept reporting that they were losing track of time while playing — they got the “I looked up and it was 3am” story from so many testers that the development team put a concerted effort into trying to figure out exactly what they’d managed to create.
The crux of the “just one more turn” phenomena, according to Meier, came down to how the game allowed players to structure their own expectations. Whether it’s in real-time or chopped up in turns, a game likeCivgives players short-, medium-, and long-term goals to head toward, and there’s rarely a moment where you’ve achievedallof those goals at once. But by quantizing gameplay into distinct turns,Civprovides the illusion that the player isn’t that far away from nailing down all the loose ends standing between them and victory. Turns become distinct steps on the road to victory — and once you’re into the mid-game ofCiv, that victory doesn’t seem that many turns away.
“You’re almost not playing in the moment, “Meier told us. “You’re playing in the future — and that future is just one more turn ahead.”
It’s hard to argue with the results –Civilizationstill dominates the 4x genreto this day.
(Make sure to stick around until the end of the video — Meier was able to rustle up one of the originalCivdev boxes and demo a prerelease version of the game for us!)
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