When Sid Meier and a partner launched the video game design firm MicroProse in the early 1980s, the industry was still in its infancy. Today, Meier is widely regarded as the "godfather" of computer gaming.
Based in Hunt Valley, MicroProse grew over the years to become a beacon to computer geeks who wanted to be part of the growing market of video games on personal computers. More than two decades later, Meier, 56, is still designing video games — his most famous is Civilization, a virtual empire-building game — for another company he helped found, Firaxis Games, in Hunt Valley.
Along the way Meier's work helped establish the video game industry in Maryland. In addition to Firaxis, several well-known companies now operate in Baltimore County, including BreakAway Games, Big Huge Games, Day 1 Studios and Zynga.
His role as an industry stalwart here grew out of his first job out of college. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a computer degree in 1976, he came to Maryland to work for electronics manufacturer General Instruments Corp. in Hunt Valley. There, he met Bill Stealey, and in 1982 they partnered to form MicroProse.
The fifth iteration of his popular Civilization game debuted from Firaxis this month. The Baltimore Sun recently caught up with Meier to talk about Maryland's computer gaming industry, his approach to game design, and the future of video games on the Internet.
Question: How did you get interested in computer games and designing them?
Answer: I'd always been interested in games before there were computers. When I went to college, I studied computers. In those days, there wasn't such a thing as personal computers. You did serious things [with them]. Games were not on the radar screen. I think my first computer cost $2,000. It was a revelation to make games and play them on your own computer. Having a personal computer was totally liberating.
Q: So you were a gamer first and a computer geek second?
A: Definitely. I really had no exposure to computers until I went to college. It's hard to imagine a world where not everybody had access to a computer. The idea that every person would have a computer was ludicrous in those days. We were amazed to have a calculator. That was the most advanced technology you could own yourself.
I jumped on it [designing computer games] because I thought it was very cool. When you could have a computer in your home, then gaming kind of became viable. When they were really expensive and you only used them at work, gaming wasn't an option. Gaming became really popular very fast on computers.
Q: You've been involved in the creation of more than 30 games in your career — any favorites?
A: The game that I'm best known for is Civilization. I'm very proud of that game. I kind of compare [creating multiple games] to having children with different personalities. No one is your favorite. Each game has its own personality.
Q: Your games have ranged from empire-building to flight simulators. How do you come up with a topic area for a game?
A: One of the [criteria] is: What would I like to play that hasn't been done yet? A lot of the game topics I take on are things I was interested in as a kid, whether it's history, the Civil War, pirates. There's a certain enthusiasm in exploring a new topic. As a designer, I can bring in the history, bring in the facts and hopefully keep some of that enthusiasm that a kid would have, but also have some depth and strategy for an adult. That's the formula for trying to make a fun game.
Q: Why do you think your Civilization series has stood the test of time and been so successful?
A: I think it does a couple things pretty well. It's in the genre of "god games," where the player is given the tools to create something of their own design. Each game is different. You get the sense that the story you're creating is unique. It's empowering. It's fun. It's a neat experience to create something of your own design. It combines the fun of learning, the fun of building and the fun of exploring in creating a brand-new story that a lot of people enjoy.
Q: Was there much of a video game industry in Maryland in the 1980's? Did MicroProse attract game development talent to the area and help spawn new companies?
A: It's possible we were the first gaming company in the area. It was such a disorganized time. Every company was young and struggling. MicroProse, certainly after a couple years, was the largest gaming company in Maryland. There are today five or six companies, but it was the company that drew people to Maryland to work in the industry. It was the hub of the industry for many years.
Q: What's your assessment of Maryland's video game industry today? How far has it come?
A: I think it's been a success story. We're not as big as California, but we're one of the four or five places where the industry has taken hold. California is one. Austin, Texas, is one. Boston is another … and the Washington suburbs. It's one of the four or five leading locations in making games.
Q: Social online gaming is the new thing right now, with companies like Zynga making lots of money with games such as FarmVille on Facebook. Is this a big part of the future of gaming?
A: I think it is a significant part of the future. We're seeing games growing out from the hard-core [enthusiast] to the more casual gamer. More and more people are discovering games and becoming part of the world of gamers. … We're actually working on a version of Civilization for Facebook. It's called Civilization Network. Its release is fairly imminent.
Q: Which is harder to design — an online social game or a regular computer game?
A: When you look at the social games today, they're not as sophisticated, they're not as deep. They're harder to test. … Many of these social games are made in a matter of months. We're still exploring and doing experimental things that don't take as long to create. Everything is kind of new and exciting and fresh.
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