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Only a bit impossible - six things we learned from Sid Meier's Memoir!

Published: 09:36, 13 October 2020
Updated: 09:41, 13 October 2020
Sid Meier's Memoir!

The man behind Railroad Tycoon and the Civilization series prefers to let his games do the talking for him. However, as the pioneer of an entire genre of gaming, Sid Meier has some very interesting things to tell us in his book.

Is there such a thing as a casual Civilization player? We tend to think not. After all, the term "casual player"  can only be a relative one set against a benchmark of how much time others spend playing a given game, limited only by eating, sleeping, falling in love and other such purely functional concerns. The famous "Civ Anon" advert remains only so much of a joke.

With that in mind, we're wholeheartedly recommending Sid Meier's Memoir! to everyone we know who plays or who has played any of the Civilization games. And if you're reading this, that includes you. We're not saying it's an ideal Christmas gift, but it's an ideal Christmas gift.

The legendary games designer Sid Meier Sid Meier: All hail the creator of an entire genre

Sid Meier's contribution to gaming is beyond dispute and you'll be pleased to know that he comes across in his book as the humble, likable individual you'd want him to be, with a perspective on life and work that many of us would be pleased to emulate. Make no mistake though, it's clear that when it comes to game design, Sid Meier believes in his own judgement and follows it, even when others question his thinking and direction. And that's why he has been the success he is.

He's given many talks over the years, providing anecdotes about game design, an idea of the rules he follows and a good picture about what inspires him, so some of the things below have been mentioned before. Never before though have they all been collected in one place, in the written word and in mostly linear fashion. That's why his book is an excellent read. 

With that in mind, if you need to be further convinced, we're offering up a few of the things we've enjoyed from it - and rest assured there are many more in there.

• Sid Meier should have been fired from his first proper job for making a Star Trek game that his colleagues could play that actually damaged the productivity of the business. Meier worked for a company called General Instrument, which unusually for the time, had a networked computer system. Meir made a real time ASCII Star Trek game which he then distributed across the network. The entire office then began to echo with the small beeping sound effects he had added, until he was eventually told he must delete it as productivity was going through the floor. The reason he didn't get fired was because "not even management could cast the first stone when it came to playing on company time".

An early game by designer Sid Meier Sid Meier's Silent Service submarine game

• Meier writes about playability and uses the example of one of his earlier games, Silent Service, a submarine warfare simulation. His business partner Bill Stealey, a USAF Reserve fighter pilot, didn't like the slow moving, considered gameplay of Silent Service and urged Meier to give him the ability to surface and "shoot it out with guns". Meier subsequently added a deck gun to the submarine and the move paid off when Stealey was demoing the game to an important audience of salespeople and, out of torpedoes, narrowly managed to win by dramatically surfacing and killing off the last attacker with the deck gun. Not so silent then. "Deck gun" became the duo's shorthand phrase for the importance of excitement.

• Discussing one of the people who had a positive effect on him, Meier writes about Danielle Bunten Berry, who made the famously groundbreaking multiplayer M.U.L.E game in 1983 and was "evangelical about multiplayer".  Danielle Bunten Berry transitioned to a woman in 1992, and Meier writes gently of it, pointing out that "social rejection" was something the nerd community could understand and weren't going to inflict on one of their own. Writing of his now deceased friend, Meier observes that while "pronouns are a big deal these days" and that it's "almost impossible to talk about my friend without angering someone", he pays tribute to Berry's efforts throughout her life in being a "strong voice for equality in gaming".

Loading screen for Sid Meier's spy game Covert Action Sid Meier's Covert Action

• Meier writes at length on the "Covert Action Rule". If you're unfamiliar with this, it's his rule that a designer must never make two games in one. Covert Action is an espionage game in which the player has an overarching story and within that a bunch of minigames - lock picking, code breaking and the like. Meier feels that this approach simply broke player immersion to the point where people forgot why they were playing the minigames in the first place. It's important to note Meier was experimenting with procedurally generated stories in Covert Action, and concedes that they needed "cutting back". Instead, he observes, "combining two great games had somehow left me with zero good ones".

A nuclear armed Gandhi in Civilization Nuclear Gandhi meme from the Civilization series

• The myth of the integer overflow nuke happy Gandhi is explicitly and humorously laid to rest. The myth goes as such: All Civ AI leaders had values from one to twelve across a variety of characteristics. Gandhi had a default setting of 1 for aggression. Upon adopting Democracy as a government, aggression is lowered by two points, meaning Gandhi would have minus one aggression. The code didn't allow for this negative number and instead  "overflowed" and went all the way back up to an aggression level of 255. This made a Gandhi a nuclear armed psychopath.  Meier points out this kind of bug would require the use in code of "unsigned characters" which are "not the default" in the C programming language he used for Civ I. And they weren't used in the C++ language used in Civ II either. More likely, Meier notes, is that Gandhi, having a science focus, acquired nuclear weapons earlier than most players, and was able to threaten players with them. Nevertheless, he embraced the memes and of course, in Civ V, Gandhi did indeed have his preference level for nuclear warfare set to 12. The most interesting part of the story is how it came to be accepted as fact, and Meier identifies a post from 2012 as the originator, when a user called "Tunafish" posted it on the site . The rest, as they say, is history. And Tunafish was never heard from again. Buy the book for the full story!

Chinese leader Qin Shi Hunay in Civilization VI Civilization VI - Qin Shi Huang plays it cool

• Speaking of AI, Sid Meier explains the thinking behind it in his games. From time to time, Civ players will express their frustration at the simple advantages AI leaders get at higher difficulty levels in the game. Those simple advantages are things such as additional settler and combat units at turn one. "Why can't the AI just play smarter rather than have advantages?" is a fairly concise summary of such frustrations. Meier's take is that a genuinely good AI would frustrate players even more: "Computers are too smart to be crazy, so if they start acting that way, we can't shake the suspicion they know something we don't."

One last thought on the great man: It's quite apparent from the reading the book that Sid Meier never really thinks he's reached a dead end on any concept, idea or project. At one point in the book he describes an idea as "only a bit impossible", which is to say, not fully impossible.  If it's not working, he just files away it for the moment until a new approach comes to him. It's a kind of passive relentlessness that may just be the secret to what he has achieved. And for those achievements, as gamers, we sincerely thank him.

Sid Meier's Memoir! is published by W.W Norton & Company and is available from all good bookshops and online retailers.

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