It's been 10 years since Sid Meier and Bill Stealey, a pair of computer experts, left General Instruments in Hunt Valley and started MicroProse Inc., a software company dedicated to producing computer games. The idea all along was for Sid to design the games and for Bill to sell them, and from their first offering -- a primitive flight simulation called "Hellcat Ace" -- they seemed a perfect match.
Today MicroProse, headquartered in Hunt Valley, has grown to several hundred employees worldwide, and is recognized as one of the most successful and profitable software entertainment companies in the business. The buying public has bought up games like "Railroad Tycoon" and "F-16 Strike Eagle" by the hundreds of thousands.
The most recent MicroProse release -- a Sid Meier design called "Civilization" -- has been declared by one reviewer "the finest achievement to date in computer software." At the recent annual awards presentation of the Software Producers Association in Seattle, it won the best entertainment software and best strategy game distinction, while tying for the critics award as best new consumer product.
It was three years ago that Sid Meier, a native of Michigan, made the decision to back off from management at MicroProse and concentrate full time on game design. It's a decision he hasn't regretted, he said, as we spoke in his comfortable office about computer games, leisure time and "Civilization."
Q: When you play a board game, you sit at a table with friends. Don't computer games undermine that social element?
A: Computer games are not going to replace poker or games that are really social. Still, we have other things to offer. The computer is always there, as long as you feel like playing. You don't have to spend half an hour setting up all the pieces. The computer can't cheat. The computer doesn't tip over the board if it's losing.
Q: You've talked about the "new technology of pretending." What is that all about?
A: Computer games try to take you places you couldn't really go in real life. Most people will never fly a jet airplane. But with a computer simulation you can pretend to fly a jet.
Q: Are most computer games played by men?
A: Yes, but I think women would be willing to play to the same degree as men if the games appeal to them. Quite a few women play "Civilization." It wasn't designed for women but it had a quality we didn't anticipate. For instance, we got a letter from a grandmother who said she has to fight with her daughter and grandson for computer time to play this game.
Q: What is "Civilization" all about?
A: It's set from 4000 B.C. to the near future. The object is to build a civilization from scratch and progress through the centuries and ultimately to land a space ship on Alpha Centauri. It is a game that allows you to deal with military, economic and political issues simultaneously. It kind of falls into a new category of nTC games. Some people call them "God games" because you become a godlike person looking over everything. They are kind of a departure from earlier computer games, which are more concerned with destruction as opposed to construction.
Q: You do something a board game designer doesn't do -- you've got to invent an opponent.
A: In some games more than half the game is designing what we call the AI or the artificial intelligence. That can make or break a lot of games. Playing a game against someone who doesn't play very well is not much fun. So the AI has to be good but it has to fair. It's also no fun to play a game where the computer is cheating on you.
Q: Do you have to be careful to invent a game that's not too hard to win?
A: Well, you want players to be able to win, but you want them to feel they deserved to win. You can't have them feel "I played poorly and won anyway." That takes all the satisfaction out of winning.
Q: Who do you see as your main competition?
A: I see us being in the entertainment field. We compete with television, movies, reading books. Those are your options when you have spare time. Even taking naps. We're now competing with naps. Our job is to make sure a person is having as much fun as possible.
Q: Is fun still a viable option?
A: The number of things people are worrying about and the urgency of them is growing. We try to wrap up your mind in some other world that's really interesting and fun and challenging and take you away from all that.
Q: Is it wasted time?
A: If you have a Puritan definition of time, where every minute must be dedicated to the advancement of humanity, then it might be. But games can relax you, engage you, challenge and exercise your mind. And I think those are good things.
Q: Are these games educational?
A: "Educational" has this very cod-liver-oil flavor to it. When you're young, learning is the most interesting thing you can do. That is kind of beaten out of you as you get older and I think in my games I try and tap that enjoyment of learning, of finding out and discovering and seeing something new and seeing what you can do with it but without making it feel educational. Education isn't fun but learning is. We try to have a lot of the fun of learning in our games.