Sid Meier interview: Ace Patrol, Civ's evolution, and the future of strategy games

Cory Banks at

Sid Meier is a game design legend. He co-founded MicroProse in 1982 and created Civilization, one of the longest-running and most loved series in gaming. Now the creative director at Firaxis—and overseer for both the Civ and XCOM franchises, Meier can be choosy about what he works on. His choice: Ace Patrol: Pacific Skies, a WWI-era turn-based strategy game that's small in price but big on strategy, and even influenced by tabletop games.

PC Gamer spoke to Meier about his interest in smaller game design, and how it let his team take some risks. He also shared his view of the changing strategy game market, and how he thinks all gamers are strategy gamers at heart.

PC Gamer: What drew you to Ace Patrol?

Sid Meier: It was the opportunity to make a game in a shorter time frame, with a smaller team. I guess the last game that I actually finished was Civ Revolutions. We’ve done a bunch of big games, Civ and XCOM, and they were awesome. During that time, I got the urge to do a game with a smaller team that we could do in a quicker period of time. With a lower budget you can take more chances and do things that are a little more risky. Doing something on the iPad was an interesting new challenge—a new type of interface, a new device. I’d had this idea for a World War I flying game, doing it turn-based. Originally I designed it with cards in mind. When we put it on the iPad, we had virtual cards and things like that. It was a game design idea I’d had floating around for a while.

There’s a prevalent board game influence. What were some of the games you were looking at as you were thinking about mechanics?

There was a game a while back called Wings of War. Basically each player had a book, and you’d be on a certain page. Based on what maneuver you chose, you would both go to a different page. That was a fun mechanic. Not one that we borrowed necessarily, but it was a turn-based way of looking at air combat, which I thought was interesting. Board games are just so clear in their representations and in their mechanics. That was what we were going for, a look that you could look at and say, I get it, these plays are flying in that direction, and they’re so far off the ground… There’s a clarity and an accessibility to a board game style of approach that I think we wanted to build upon with Ace Patrol.

That’s always our goal, to give you something that you can start to play fairly quickly and easily, but has that depth and that replayability. That’s something we always strive for, going back to the original Civilization. A game that’s easy to start playing, but has this depth and replayability. I think everyone, at heart, is a strategy game player. They just don’t know it yet. We have to get them started playing, and all of sudden they realize that this is interesting, to get these new maneuvers or try these new skills.

The hex map is an accessibility thing, too. It’s pretty clear once you see those hexes… That kind of regulates the game and makes things very clear, the orientation of the planes and their relative directions and the distance you can move. The hex map, which we embraced with Civ V, has a lot of accessibility features to it, and we take advantage of that as well.

You mentioned that Ace Patrol was developed with a smaller team and a smaller scope. How big was the original team?

We had seven or eight people working on it for a little less than a year. I guess that came out in May, so it’s been about five or six months working on Pacific Skies. Compared to Civ or XCOM, that’s a very small team.

But it seems like you’re definitely experimenting with different pricing models for what’s really the same game. You were allowing a little bit of content in the original iOS game and then charging for the extra campaigns. How do you feel like that strategy has worked out so far?

The model that we really were most comfortable with was the classic PC: a free demo, and then basically a game that you pay for. When we did Ace Patrol, the closest thing to that in the iOS market looked like this idea of free-to-play, and then purchasing different parts of the game. That felt to us like, you get to kind of demo it for free, get to a certain point, and then if you like it you buy it and if you don’t like it you don’t buy it.

What we discovered was that free-to-play brings a lot of baggage with it, because of players’ previous experience. It really isn’t perceived as a demo followed by a purchase. It’s perceived almost like a game within a game. How much can I play without paying? What tricks are they going to use to get me to pay? It becomes almost a distraction from the game itself. So with the Steam release of Ace Patrol, we went to just a premium model—here’s the price of the game, if you want it buy it.

Serious players have had some negative experiences with free-to-play games. Where we are now is, we’re looking at this as a premium game, a game that you buy. If you want to figure out what the system is like, you can play the iOS version of Ace Patrol for free and get a feel for the mechanics. If you like it, you might want to buy Pacific Skies or whatever. We feel that the premium model—just buying the game—fits more with what our players want. They want to buy the game and play it, and not have to worry about if it’s all there, or if we’re going to ask them for more money.

What are some of the things that you think have worked in recent editions of Civilization—and some things that haven’t worked?

It’s been interesting that each Civ has been led by a different designer: Soren Johnson with Civ IV and then Jon Shafer with Civ V. They’ve each brought a little bit of a different perspective to the game. They’re all building on the core mechanics and the core gameplay flow that is fundamental to Civ. Civ V specifically has supported a couple of really good expansions as well. Even though a new Civ only comes out every couple of years, there’s still energy and new stuff happening all the time with that franchise. In terms of what didn’t work… I cannot think of anything. [chuckles]

I think what maybe didn’t work on Civ V is that it’s a PC-only kind of game. I think that’s fine: most of our players are on PC. But the world is moving. In our dreams we’d love to have it on more platforms. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be on iOS and other places. That’s really kind of a resource and strategy question. We’d like to have it on more platforms. But the PC supports what we’re trying to do the best right now, so that’s where we start.

Strategy games are going through a renaissance, where a lot of people lay a lot of arguably complex games, such as Crusader Kings II. Do you still see strategy gamers as this small hardcore niche market, or is that growing and becoming a more substantial part of the market?

Well, we’d certainly like to believe that it’s growing. We’re seeing that kind of growth, certainly, in the reception to things like Civ and XCOM. There’s certainly a very avid and active strategy game audience out there. They’re our bread and butter fans. We get a lot of encouragement and ideas and support from them. I think the growth is modest, but continual.

You have to convince people they like strategy. It seems a little daunting at first, when you hear about Civ. It takes 20 hours to play, and then you want to play again? [laughs] Not everybody says that’s what they’re looking for. But once you get them to try it, they see how it works and what kind of fun it is. So I think we’re gradually accumulating more and more strategy players. But when you look at the market as a whole, it’s not the same kind of hit-driven or fad-driven market that you see with other things. The strategy market is pretty solid and steady. Facebook games kind of grew, and then they didn’t grow. Certain styles and genres appear, and they’re innovative and new and they catch on, but they might not have the depth that a strategy game has, and so they have a limited amount of appeal. Then they’re exhausted.

There’s good news and bad news with strategy gaming. It’s pretty reliable. The audience is there for the long term. But you don’t get these flashes of popularity that some of these other genres might experience.

What’s the next big thing for strategy games? Is it something like getting lots of people together playing a strategy game at once? Is it more about accessibility, like getting on other platforms? Is it creating the biggest, most epic grand strategy game in the world?
We actually have a philosophy in terms of Civ—that with every new feature we put in, we need to take something else out. We think it’s reached the appropriate level of epicness and grandness, and going beyond that is going too far, in terms of complexity or length of play.

Back when I was young, we used to make flight simulators. They kept getting more and more complicated. The cockpit started taking over more and more of the screen, and what you saw outside got less and less. With every generation… There were some great games, like the Falcon series. But with every generation, some people said, this is getting to be too much for me, I won’t buy it anymore. Eventually it just out-complexified itself.

What we want to do is avoid that with Civ. We think we’ve found a good balance of playability, depth and complexity. With Civ, we’re actually deliberately keeping the complexity at the current level, because that seems to be what people enjoy. So I don’t think the future is a super grand awesomely complex game. That’s not something that we think makes sense for our players.

I think your idea of a multiplayer strategy game is really intriguing. If anything has changed over the last couple of years, it’s the accessibility and the almost 24/7-ness of connectedness. We take it for granted these days, that our internet access is always there. Translating that into a game concept is probably one of the possible next big steps in gaming. Five years ago we had to go somewhere and sit down and push a button to turn off our normal life and go to a place to game. Today we have the tools to game with us every waking and sleeping moment. You’ve got your phone or your tablet or something right there with you. So integrating that into a game idea is maybe something that’s around the corner.

I think the other possibility for the future is this migration of casual gamers into more dedicated gamers and eventually into strategy gamers. We’re seeing people move in that direction. We’ve always seen that over time, but now there’s probably a larger audience of casual gamers with iOS and things like that. It may be inevitable that they evolve to become more serious gamers.