By Josh Ortiz
He’s known as the “Godfather of Computer Gaming.” In 1997, he was dubbed the “Most Influential Person of All Time in Computer Gaming” by Computer Gaming World. In 2008, he made his way into the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Most Videogame Awards Ever Received.”
Who is this noteworthy man, this game design giant? He is none other than Sidney K. Meier, affectionally known by fans as Sid Meier. Born in 1954 in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, Meier’s family later moved to Michigan. Growing up, Meier loved games and history. Whether it was his toy soldiers covering the living room floor or playing classic strategy board games by Avalon Hill, Meier’s interest in playing out history showed itself early.
Eventually, Meier attended the University of Michigan where he studied computer science at a time when personal computers were not in every home. Shortly after Meier finished up college, the Atari 800 console came out. Meier began tinkering with some code on his Atari and before long he had made his first game – a knock-off of the famous arcade game, Space Invaders. Meier’s illustrious game design career had begun.
In the early 1980’s, Meier was working at General Instruments Corporation, an electronic component manufacturer, alongside a former Air Force pilot named John “Wild Bill” Stealey. The two men attended an electronics trade show where Meier soundly whipped Stealey in Atari’s 1980 flight simulator, Red Baron. However, to top it off, Meier told Stealey that he thought he could build a better flight sim. Stealey agreed to sell it, and a robust partnership took off the runway.
By 1982, both Stealey and Meier had quit their jobs at General Instruments and were working full-time for the company they had co-founded, MicroProse. Behind Meier’s design and programming and Stealey’s marketing/administrative prowess, MicroProse flourished even as other companies like Atari or Magnavox struggled.
From 1982 to 1986, Meier designed games for MicroProse ranging from combat flight simulators to tactical wargames to a submarine simulator. Then, in 1987, everything changed. Meier surprised Stealey by saying he was doing a pirates game. But who would buy a pirates game from MicroProse? The solution: Put Sid Meier’s name on the box. Meier says this was Stealey’s idea. Stealey says it was the actor, Robin Williams’ idea. Wherever the idea came from, it worked, and in 1987, Sid Meier’s Pirates was published.
Meier’s Pirates was a ground-breaking success. The single-player game allowed you to assume the role of a swashbuckling pirate seeking to make a name for themselves in the Caribbean. You could do everything from attacking enemy ships or towns, searching for buried treasure, rescuing family members or trading. The game was particularly known for its rich open-world and player-guided gameplay where players were given a “series of interesting decisions” – a line Meier has used again and again to describe his concept of a good game.
In 1989, Will Wright’s famous city-building game, SimCity, was released, and Meier, who had primarily made military-based games to that point, was profoundly impacted. Computer games didn’t have to be about destruction and tearing down. They could also be about building up and giving players the opportunity to manipulate a virtual world and develop it over time. With this new-found inspiration, Meier went on to design Railroad Tycoon (1990), a business simulation game where you assumed control of a railroad company and competed for a century against other companies to lay track, build stations, buy/schedule trains and deliver goods and passengers. In 1990, Computer Gaming World gave the game a perfect five stars. However, Meier’s best was still to come.
Still in 1990 and working with his assistant designer, Bruce Campbell Shelley, a famous game designer now in his own right, Meier began to develop another new game. This game would improve upon a 1970’s computer game, Empire, which combined the classic board game, Risk, with city management. The game was called Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991).
Although it started out in design as a real-time strategy game, Civilization ended up being a turn-based strategy game which allowed the player to guide the history of a single nation as you sought to “build an empire to stand the test of time.” Starting in 4000 BC and then progressing turn-by-turn through the years, you could build settlements and cities, engage in diplomacy with rival nations, research new technology, wage war, etc. Civilization was truly epic and enthralling, and its replayability, seemingly endless. Its reception was fantastic. To this day, fans and critics alike rank Sid Meier’s Civilization and its numerous sequels among the most influential video games. For instance, in 2016, PC Gamer enthusiastically designated Sid Meier’s Civilization as one of the 50 most important PC games of all time.
Eventually, Meier left MicroProse (which was sold by Stealey in 1993 to another game developer). In 1996, Meier help found Firaxis Games where he continues to work as the Director of Creative Development to this day. Although he has humbly handed the reigns of Civilization sequels to other capable game designers, Meier continues to crank out delightful strategy games, including notables such as Sid Meier’s Gettysburg (1997), Sid Meier’s SimGolf (2002), Sid Meier’s Pirates! (2004) and Sid Meier’s Civilization: Revolution (2008).
In the end, Sid Meier’s legacy is already firmly cemented in gaming history. Meier is not just beloved because he is a smart, affable, creative and industrious game designer, but also because he has given so much joy to generations of fans. His games often put the player in the driver’s seat. His games often make history come to life in a whole new way. And his games are often hard to put down. Sid Meier and his games have changed the face of the gaming industry and will likely continue to do so for as long as Meier sits down to the computer to make his expansive imagination come to life.
Josh Ortiz is a volunteer with Gospel & Gaming.