The conception and birth of Alpha Centauri

February 22, 1999

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was created by 31-year-old designer Brian Reynolds and his colleagues at Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley. A rising star in the game industry, Reynolds is a self-taught programmer from Huntsville, Ala., who studied history and philosophy at the University of the South and started writing code at Microprose under legendary guru Sid Meier.

Reynolds designed Microprose's Civilization II, the best-selling follow-up to Meier's landmark Civilization. Both titles sold more than a million copies - a rare accomplishment. We asked Reynolds what make a good game and how Alpha Centauri came to be.

What makes a good game?

Sid Meier, my partner, has always said that he comes up with game ideas by asking himself, ``What was something that was really cool when I was a boy?'' Railroad trains, for instance, pirates or being a spy. And those are the games he's done. You can see the little boy in it, as it were.

What was the genesis of Alpha Centauri?

With Alpha Centauri the goal was: Let's see if we can do a game that people will call a masterpiece. We'd done it before occasionally - Civilization was considered a masterpiece. We wanted to see if we could do a different game and get back to that point.

Before Alpha Centauri, pretty much every game we did was based on a historical topic, whether it was the Civil War or railroad trains or pirates. We'd never done a science fiction game, so we thought it would be interesting. But rather than do just a Star Wars or Star Trek fantasy, we wanted to try, in some sense, a history of the future.

How do you do that?

We tried to kind of start with some near future stuff that was pretty plausible - things that make you think, ``Oh yeah, we could do that in 80 years or a hundred years,'' and then work gradually into the far future where things get a little more speculative.

And not just future science. One of the fun things you can do with the future that you can't do with a history game is explore future philosophies, future society, future economics, and things like that - then have the player come up with his or her vision and see how that vision plays out.

Alpha Centauri has a multicultural feel with Asian, black and Latina characters. You don't see that often in games. Was that on purpose?

It just felt right. People from Japan and Europe are always going on the Space Shuttle. It felt like it captures the feel of how the space program is already moving, and at the same time gives more depth and personality to the characters. It wasn't like we were thinking, ``Well we've got to make a politically correct game.'' The idea is if you sent the United Nations to explore a planet in a hundred years, that would be a fairly multicultural thing.

In the manual, you allude to a deeper purpose in Alpha Centauri.

What is the human race going to do in the future? That's sort of a theme of Alpha Centauri. In the past, civilizations would undertake huge multigenerational projects. A lot of the great cathedrals in Europe, for instance, were built over 500 years, which means if you were working on one of these or were the architect, you were never going to see the end of the project. Nonetheless it seemed like something that was important. That's not something you see much of anymore.

I think Alpha Centauri kind of points the way to what some of those long term projects could be and why they would be important. For instance, is it worth trying to develop the technology to terreform Mars or Venus? It's not so much the technology that prevents us from doing it, it's the willpower to undertake a project that takes 500 years to finish. For me that's been one of the more fun parts of doing Alpha Centauri because I haven't done that before. It's like game as social commentary.

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