1st Oct 2006 | 11:01
Sid Meier has been the master brain behind numerous smash-hit games and game series', not least the acclaimed Civilization strategy titles that have continually impressed. His latest project is Sid Meier's Railroads, a railroad empire-building experience that's due out on PC at the end of next month. During a recent press jaunt we managed to grab hold of the man himself for a little chat...
CVG: So what's Railroads! all about?
Meier: A couple of things came together to make us take another look at Railroads. I'd done Railroad tycoon in the late '80s, and I always thought railroads were cool - as a kid I had my model railroads so that was a fun memory for me. In 88, 89 we did Railroad Tycoon for the PC, at that time I remember we had 16 colours to work with and a kind of top down map. But at the time it was a fun game, and over the years people have continued to ask 'Will you do another railroad game? We like Railroad Tycoon' so I always had that in the back of my mind that it might be fun to revisit the railroad idea.
We've been very fortunate with Civilization and then Pirates! a year or two ago to take ideas we've been playing around with for a while and add new technology and rethink them and people seemed to enjoy playing them again. I was actually in Hamburg two years ago talking about Pirates and they had this incredible model railroad laid out there open to the public, kind of like a theme park based on model railroads. So we saw that and we started to think about making another railroad game that really used that idea of bringing the whole railroad thing to life visually where you could actually watch the steam engines and the steam coming out, things being loaded and unloaded - the same kind of sandbox world we try and create with other games so you feel like you are building and controlling this world, Civilization being a good example.
We started working with Take Two and they just happened to have the license to the original Railroad Tycoon. So about two years ago I began a prototype for a new game - 3D, a nice world with cities, the operation of the trains - just experimenting with what would be fun, what would be too much detail. So I put together this prototype using simple 'playmobile' graphics, with blocky shapes and bright colours, but it was just enough to realise that this could be a fun game.
We got our team together to make cool graphics and cool looking trains - all the pieces that go together to make the game - trying really to keep this balance between the model railroads and the history of railroads, the progression of different trains through time, different scenarios in different countries, an economic model that told you if you're doing well - do you have a poor railroad, should you be more efficient. We added multiplayer which is something we didn't have originally - all the modern features and interface etc. So basically we wanted to capture that essential fun of railroads with today's cool graphics and special effects, technology interface to make it even more fun to play than the original.
CVG: Would you say it's a remake, in the vein of Pirates!?
Meier: It's a lot of new elements but we are trying to keep some of the things that were fun about the original that people enjoyed - the empire-building aspect, where you start with something simple and then build it to your own unique design. Every railroad that everyone builds will be different, so you get the feeling that every game is unique. As with Pirates!, we try to focus on the fun aspects of all of it; it's not a hardcore simulation, but there's enough history that if you want to try something you've heard or read about it will probably work in the game. But there is no requirement to follow history; you can play however you want and make something that's uniquely your own.
CVG: The empire-building aspect looks interesting - could you tell us a bit more about that?
Meier: The economy of supply and demand - the whole reason to be a railroad is to carry things from where they are made to where people want them. There's a variety of twelve to sixteen commodities that can be transported and the more efficiently you can do that - you can use a train to make sure it is carrying something in both directions or use a freight engine that can carry more cargo than a freight train or faster you get rewarded with passengers for carrying them more quickly.
A track costs money so if you can use one route for multiple trains, then that's efficient, so there's operational efficiency. Then you have the stock aspect. If you think you're going to make a profit that year you can buy stock before your stock price goes up, or you can buy the stock of competing companies and buy them out. The value of the commodities that you carry also go up and down based on news events, so if nobody's carrying coal then the price goes up so you might want to get into that business. So there are quite a few operational and financial aspects available if you want to play it at that level to maximise your profit and your efficiency.
If you just want to build a train there's a table-hop mode where you just build whatever you want and run it. So I think within the community there are people who will focus on different areas, the building or some like the managing and you will find each of those things in the game.
CVG: The multiplayer and online modes sound like they could really be fun. Could you tell us about some of the more interesting gameplay scenarios that crop up?
Meier: The multiplayer mode is the most competitive mode of playing. You have the relaxed table-top mode where you can take your time or there's the single-player where you're building your railroad and there's some competition but it's not close, direct competition, and then in multiplayer is where you will be competing in a fairly confined space. There's not a lot of room on the map so it's a race to get to the key locations first to run your railroad efficiently to make money so you can buy shares in the other companies.
One of the most exciting parts is buying out one of your competitors. You can buy your own stock and protect yourself or buy the stock of competitors and try and take them over. You can bid for patents to improve the efficiency of your railroad - you have to outbid other players to secure these options. The scenarios are of a reasonable length as most players will only be able to hang together for a certain amount of time so they're designed to be playable in an hour or two. It's the same game but tweaked in certain areas to take advantage of the multiplayer aspect to create more competitive gameplay.
CVG: Why did you decide to ditch the 'Tycoon' name?
Meier: There have been so many 'Tycoon' games that it's almost become a cliché. Railroad Tycoon was the first 'Tycoon' game and we clearly made mistakes trying to patent it! If you're not familiar with the original, then the 'Tycoon' name is attached to a lot of games, some better than others. We don't see this game as fitting into this genre. There is an aspect of management and an aspect of running the railroad but there's also the important aspect of creating the railroad, creating the trains - the building part of it. We thought the name 'Railroads' encompasses all aspects of it as it's not just a business game or tycoon game, it's also about the building and running of trains. We just went with a nice, general name and put an exclamation mark on it and hopefully people will like what they see.
CVG: How do you feel about becoming a gaming 'brand'? 'Sid Meier' is now in the name of most of your titles...
Meier: It's a weird thing, because it's almost another person or persona. I still enjoy writing games so I created a prototype for the Railroads game and I'm involved in writing code for a lot of the games that we do so it's not just a brand as I still enjoy the process of making a game. It does give us a little flexibility with the publisher, a little credibility in the industry so we can try new things and people give us the benefit of the doubt because it comes from 'Sid Meier'. That's what every games designer dreams of - the freedom to explore new ideas and try new things. You can talk to a developer about an idea that no-one has really done before and they're more likely to say 'okay' because we have the brand and the history and people kind of know the type of games that we do.
CVG: A lot of what you would consider to be traditional PC-only developers are now jumping on the console bandwagon. Are you interested in developing for the new consoles?
Meier: We are very interested in the new consoles. Last year we did a version of Pirates! for the Xbox which was a first real console development. That was a really positive experience for us, we enjoyed that. We play a lot of console games and we do see some evolution in the PC marketplace although a lot of the excitement is with the next-gen consoles. Whenever new hardware comes out it's exciting, so we're looking very closely at some possibilities to develop for next-gen consoles or consoles in general.
We'd like to see when Vista comes out what that will do for the Windows market because we like PC games as well. Hopefully they'll both continue to be strong and we can pick and choose which system is best suited to develop a game on. Pirates! was a good game to do on a console because it was originally for the Commodore 64 - it was a joystick kind of game - so it leant itself pretty well to the console controller. The significantly different control scheme from the PC to the console is something we are constantly dealing with, whether we can map the interface and screen resolution was a problem although with high-def things are becoming less of an issue.
The power of consoles is becoming equivalent to PCs as well, graphically etc. and PCs used to be strong in terms of online multiplayer compared to previous generations of consoles but that is changing as well. In terms of power and capability there is now a lot more overlap between the PC and consoles, so the consoles are something we are definitely taking a look at.
CVG: Where do you think the PC market is going? Do you think it's declining?
Meier: I think we're seeing a decline at the moment that is temporarily based on what's happening in the console marketplace and we're waiting for something new to come along hardware-wise so it's just a little easier to put a disc in a console and start playing. When I buy a new PC game I've got to install, and because we're programmed for instant gratification the consoles are more of an entertaining experience in many cases right now - I just stick my disc in and soon after I'm playing. The PC has a little catching up to do in terms of ease of playing and being as user-friendly as the consoles, but still the PC is a great platform for online play. For example MMOs are still very strong on PC, and if you're not a hardcore gamer you may not have a console in your home whereas most of us will have a PC. So there are still some advantages, but right now the excitement is with the consoles.
CVG: So what do you think of the London Underground?
Meier: (laughs) I've been on the London Underground a few times, I love the maps. It's a fine way to travel. I was actually on the New York City subway for the first time a couple of weeks ago and I think that probably the London Underground is a better underground.
CVG: Have you been playing Guitar Hero recently?
Meier: I have! I spent quite a bit of time playing Guitar Hero in the spring and had a great deal of fun with it. My 16-year-old son also enjoys it, we play it together - actually he got to be very good at it. Great idea, great execution, and when those two come together it's magic. It's a very well designed game from the progression of difficulty to sticking with fantasy - in so many ways a game can go wrong by taking itself too seriously or by becoming too complicated and get off track.
I think that game knew what it was about and stuck with that. I'm sure making the controller was a great risk but it added a lot to playing the game so I think they made some very good decisions in terms of design and gameplay. It turned out to be a great, fun game! I think it's one of those games we'll look back on in a few years from now and see the influence, how it influenced other games in a positive way.
CVG: Has Guitar Hero influenced your development in any way? Do you want to venture into something similar?
Meier: I think they've done a great job but when we play a game that we really like we're not tempted to copy it. We prefer to look at what elements make that game unique, what makes it as fun as it is and how can we apply those principles to our game. What I see in that game is a real commitment to the rock star, air guitar fantasy. There's a vision and it carries through the whole game; I think that's powerful. The way it progresses from easy to very difficult is very well done. One of my hobbies is music, as I guess everybody's is, and I understand what they had to do behind the scenes to create that technology.
Essentially they had to record every note individually and create these sounds that sounded like the original but actually had to be totally re-recorded to be able to break everything up so that if you played the note wrong they could sneak in the 'thwang' sound. The technology, I appreciate, is tricky but it feels natural when you play it. And that's a great lesson in games - if you have a tough problem, don't make it seem tough for the gamer. We did the hard work to make the game play easily.