Book Review: Sid Meier's Memoir!


Sid Meier's Memoir! book cover

Title: Sid Meier's Memoir! A Life in Computer Games

Author(s): Sid Meier

Sid Meier and Will Wright are, alongside John Carmack, probably the most influential Game Development-related people regarding my favourite titles. I've already read a few books about id Software, so this title looked very appealing to me.

It covers four decades of videogame design and development by the author, an amazing feat by itself, but considering he created Railroad Tycoon, Pirates, Civilization, Alpha Centauri and other jewels of the computer gaming market... becomes clear that Sid is a clever guy that knows and loves what he does.

We'll learn from the beginnings of MicroProse, focusing at first just in flight simulators, and how initially side projects, less ambitious titles in which not many believed slowly became the main focus of the company. With ups and downs, with good and bad decisions, challenges and problems derived of growing and being acquired, but in the end with happy endings almost every time.

The book is not only very enjoyable, easy to read and often fun, but also, at least for an uninitiated in game development like me, full of interesting design advices, stories of initially bad decisions (thankfully) corrected and how they became pivotal points in simulation games history. As an example, Sid initially opposed to Civilization II being moddable, but a colleague slipped the data files in plain text, and it proved critical, as users created countless mods and "total conversions" for the game:

I knew that modding was a great way to ensure that Civilization never saw a third installment. I was so wrong, on all counts.

It's great to read how small inspirations like "The Princess Bride” could spawn combat systems for Pirates! (and Monkey Island, but that's another story), how they cheat the battle outcomes in favour of the player, or the process behind each iteration of the Civilization series:

Civ designers traditionally follow a rule of thirds. One-third of the previous version stays in place, one-third is updated, and one-third is completely new. These days, "updated” is a synonym for "scaled back to make room for the new things,” because we don’t want the game to become too complicated for someone who’s never played.

A comment from The Digital Antiquarian serves as a good complement of the initial issues with Avalon Hill, as the book's version claims to have the boardgames at the office but not have actually played them:

Put very crudely, then, Railroad Tycoon can be seen as 1830 with a SimCity-like railroad simulation grafted on in place of the board game’s pure abstractions. Bill Stealey claims that Eric Dott, the president of Avalon Hill, actually called him after Railroad Tycoon‘s release to complain that "you’re doing my board game as a computer game.” Stealey managed to smooth the issue over; "well, don’t let it happen again” were Dott’s parting words. (This would become a problem when Meier and Shelley promptly did do it again, creating a computer game called Civilization that shared a name as well as other marked similarities with the Avalon Hill board game Civilization.)

Regarding this particular point, things would get uglier years later:

[Avalon Hill and Activision] jointly sued MicroProse for copyright infringement. Avalon Hill couldn’t have afforded the suit on their own, and Activision had no legal standing without Avalon Hill, but together they hoped to gain control of one of the most successful names in gaming history. The executives at MicroProse responded with an equally winner-take-all attitude. Instead of countersuing, they went overseas to Hartland Trefoil, the original owner of the British board game, and bought the company out entirely. MicroProse now owned the ongoing licensing deal that had been granted to Avalon Hill in the first place, and judiciously rescinded it—along with every other Avalon Hill contract.

Ironically, Sid left MicroProse and the company he founded, Firaxis Games, would handle all future Civilization games (plus Alpha Centauri, and even the X-Com series!) after MicroProse disappeared.

The book is such an amazing journey that made me want to play again all the great titles mentioned. Inspiring, enthusiastic and very interesting.

A few more interesting sentences to close up:

  • The primary job of a game designer is not to make something fun, but to find the fun
  • Rewriting history, not reliving it [...] simplified
  • One of my big rules [regarding features] has always been, "double it, or cut it in half”
  • "Simple plus simple equals complex"
  • People play games to feel good about themselves
  • Imagination never diminishes reality; it only heightens
  • If you present players with options A, B, and C, and 90 percent of them choose A, then it’s not a well-balanced set—an interesting decision has no clear right or wrong answers. [...] If players are evenly distributed among A, B, and C, but they all chose within three seconds, then it’s not a very meaningful decision. Any answer would have worked.
  • Good games teach us that there are tradeoffs to everything, actions lead to outcomes, and the chance to try again is almost always out there.
  • Ideas are cheap; execution is valuable.
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