Review: Sid Meier’s Memoir!

For the amount of time I have spent playing Civilization and its various sequels and offshoots I had to listen to Sid Meier’s Memoir!. For nostalgia’s sake it was fascinating to learn how Sid had become a games developer and then one of the greatest of all time. My other reason for listening to this particular memoir was that I figured understanding game development better might help me understand customer experience better.

Overall I think that Sid Meier’s Memoir is a great book to either listen to or read. I did the audiobook and the narration by Charles Constant was excellent. When I can imagine the narrator as the author him or herself then I rate the narration as excellent. The details shared in the memoir seem honest and in some cases expose Sid as a human like the rest of us.

If you haven’t played Civilization I don’t blame you. It’s a complicated game that takes a while to get going and then lasts for hours and hours and even days, weeks, months, and years. There are sub charts for technology, politics, and religion. Winning the game takes patience and dedication that goes well beyond Super Mario Brothers or Pac Man.

If you have played Civilization and enjoyed it though then you probably understand my reverence for Sid Meier. Here is a person who managed to put all of human history into a video game and make it entertaining. The technology chart is a marvel for any kid who liked to read the Encyclopedia, like me. The economics of building cities, managing armies, and destroying or cooperating with your competition is endless.

My first exposure to Sid Meier games though came with the F-19 Stealth Fighter flight simulator game. As a kid I was obsessed with flight and planes and the military. The game came out in 1989 and I played it religiously for at least a year. Before then I had spent most of my time playing games on the Nintendo NES which were fairly basic. With F-19 there was a manual that detailed various types of aircraft, armaments, flight dynamics, and stealth strategies.

I was not great at F-19 mainly due to its complexity, but the game stuck in my mind. It was the most complicated thing I had ever experienced. Unfortunately I did not have many friends in my area who were into complicated video games. I fell back into playing less complex console games and then even stopped playing those before I went to University.

It was at University that I was reintroduced to gaming. During my Junior year, 1997/98, I studied abroad in England. My dorm was full of Computer Science majors, and each room had a 10Mbps Ethernet outlet. Not only was I reintroduced to gaming, but to online gaming. That was also the year Quake 2 came out and I spent a good amount of time blasting demons. I was also introduced to an ‘older’ game called Civilization which had come out in 1991.

While Quake had the best graphics, Civilization had complexity and intelligence. Quake was pretty simple: kill or be killed. Civilization was not as clear cut. Sure, you could play aggressively and attack everything in sight, but when you came up against a stronger civilization or multiple civilizations which had banded together you got wiped out. To win Civilization you had to think more high level and consider many parts of your civilization. If there was a food shortage workers would revolt and stop building. If you were a democracy your population would tire of war more quickly than a more authoritarian form of government.

The sheer complexity of the game made me revere Sid Meier as a higher level being who was able to simplify so much of human history. In his memoir Sid recounts getting into gaming and how various parts of his childhood helped him later in life. He also recounts getting into business and creating his first games.

The chapters about creating Civilization and its subsequent and ongoing success are intriguing in many ways. Naturally the executives at his gaming company were against it. They wanted to get back into Arcade gaming which Sid saw as a dead end. Once the game was released users started modifying it which Sid was unsure of how to approach that. Eventually they embraced the mod-ers and realized that they were improving the game as well as building a rabid fan base.

He also talks about managing other developers and handing over the reins of Civilization so that it would continue to be improved upon. This part of the book intrigued me the most. Since Sid’s name is on the game I always imagined that he was the main developer of each release, but this is not the case. 5 years after Civilization was released Civilization 2 was released with a different developer leading the project. Sid was still involved but had stepped aside to let someone else build on his creative vision.

From a customer experience perspective Sid Meier’s Memoir gives insight into how to balance customer needs and expectations with the businesses capabilities and options. Similar to how Steve Jobs is quoted as saying “Customers don’t know what they want till you give it to them.” Sid would start projects based on what he wanted and enjoyed. Then as the creative process progressed he would work with other developers and users to make sure it was enjoyable and fun.

That said Sid’s games history is littered with failures like C.P.U. Bach. Sid was obsessed with Bach and wanted to create a game that would let users learn to appreciate the music. Unfortunately the market disagreed and the game was a total failure. Sid picked himself up and kept going.

Even if you aren’t much of a gamer I think that Sid Meier’s Memoir! is an interesting read about a pioneer of the gaming world. The business lessons are relatable to most companies and the developer and programming lessons are high level enough that non-developers can follow without much effort. I enjoyed the book very much.


Comments

Leave a Reply