Sid Meier: The Godfather of Computer Gaming

Sid Meier is one of the most influential and important computer game developers of all time. His contributions to the industry have rightfully earned him the title "Godfather of Computer Gaming".
Christopher McFadden

Sid Meier (Sidney K. Meier) is a Canadian programmer, computer game designer and producer who needs no introduction.

He has been instrumental in the world of computer game design and created one of the most important and popular computer game series of all time, Civilization.

His contributions to the computer gaming industry have rightfully earned him the nickname "The Godfather of Computer Gaming".

He has been awarded many accolades throughout his career for his contributions to the computer games industry.

He has, in no small part, been involved in the production of many strategy and simulation games. 

Sid helped build or found some of the most influential game development studios in the industry starting with Microprose Software in 1982.

It was at Microprose that Sid helped create many legendary games including Silent Service (1985), F-15 Strike Eagle (1984), Pirates! (1987), Railroad Tycoon (1990), XCOM series (1994 onwards, not lead designer)  and of course, the Civilization Series (1991 onwards).

Many of these games would help launch the games industry as we know it today and establish strategy games as a cornerstone of it. He has been the Director of Creative Development for Firaxis Games with co-founder Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds since 1996.

Sid Meier and his many, now beloved gaming titles, has become a household name to many gamers and non-gamers alike.

He has since been honored many times over by the gaming industry for his contributions to the industry, but his legacy is there for all to see.

Whatever will Sid and Firaxis create and release in the future is anyone's guess, but we can be assured they will be of very high caliber indeed. 

Sidney Meier's early years and career

Sidney K. Meier was born on the 24th February 1954 in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. His parents were a mixture of Dutch and Swiss descent giving Sid both Canadian and Swiss citizenship.

Several years after his birth, Sid's family moved to Michigan where he grew up studying history and computer science. He would eventually graduate with a degree in computer science from the University of Michigan.

After graduating, Sid Meier worked in developing cash register systems for department stores. It was during this period that Meier bought himself an Atari 800 in 1981.

This purchase allowed Sid to realize that computer programming could be used to potentially make computer games. He also spent his spare time pouring over hacker magazines and built his own version of Space Invaders and Pac-Man on his newly acquired Atari.

He even, at one point, made a space game and put it up on his office network. It turned out to be quite popular and his bosses eventually forced him to take it down.

Sid Meier: The Godfather of Computer Gaming
The Atari 800. Source: Evan-Amos/Wikimedia Commons

Bill Stealey: the beginnings of a great friendship

He found that one of his co-workers, Bill Stealey, had a similar interest in developing computer games.

Bill would later recall that the two of them went to an electronics trade conference. On the second night of the show, they both stumbled upon a bunch of arcade games in a basement.

Meier, much to Bill's frustration, went on to systematically beat him at each and every one of them. Eventually, the two came across Atari's Red Baron.

This was a squiggly flight game that required the player to steer a biplane through crudely rendered obstacles and terrain. Bill felt confident he would win this one, at least.

He was, after all, formerly an Air Force man. 

He sat down at the machine and shot his way to 75,000 points, ranking number three on the arcade’s leaderboard. 

Then Meier scored 150,000 points.

“I was really torqued,” Stealey says today. This guy outflew an Air Force pilot? He turned to the programmer. “Sid, how did you do that?”

The answer might surprise you. 

“Well,” Meier said. “While you were playing, I memorized the algorithms.” 

The two very quickly decided to launch a new company that would specialize in computer game development.

Hellcat Ace's Groundbreaking flight simulator

After defeating Stealey at Atari's Red Baron, Meier told Bill that he thought Atari's flight simulator was okay but he thought he could make a better one. Stealey immediately dared him to do just that, "if you could, I could sell it".

Sid Meier: The Godfather of Computer Gaming
Source: DatBot /Wikimedia Commons

Meier went away and after some tinkering delivered on his end of the dare after a few months. What he showed Bill would ultimately come to be known as Hellcat Ace.

Stealey quickly set about selling the new game.

This would be the beginning of a partnership that would last for a decade or more.

Meier would design and program the games, Stealey would sell them to local hobby shops. After just a year of production, the two of them had made and sold around $200,000 worth of games.

Bill quit his job and began to work full time at their new venture, Microprose. About a year and a half later Meier followed suit.

Over the next few years, MicroProse would make and market a number of very popular flight simulators. They also produced and released some Arcade games for Atari consoles.

Games like Spitfire Ace, an early platformer called Floyd of the Jungle and the helicopter sidescroller Shopper Rescue

Like many of the earliest video game companies, MicroProse felt like an upstart gang of rebels more than a professional operation.

“We put [the games] in baggies,” Meier said. “Bill would drive around to stores and sell them. It was very bootstrap round-up work process. That's the way things were.”

In an interview with Kotaku, Bill would recall, “I would call computer stores and ask to buy Hellcat Ace, and when they didn't have it, I would yell and scream at them, ‘What kind of computer store are you?’ and hang up. I would do that three times in three weeks, each time pretending to be a different person. And the fourth week I'd call and say, ‘Hello, this is John Stealey. I'm a representative with MicroProse, with this game called Hellcat Ace.’ They'd say, ‘Hey, hey, hey, everyone's been calling about that, can you help us get that game?’”

MicroProse is born

Sid Meier and Bill founded Microprose in 1982. It was here at Microprose that the groundbreaking Civilization series started.

This has become one of the world's most recognized and best-loved computer games series of all time. By 1986, Sid's name and face were commonly being used to advertise the company and its products.

MicroProse would, at first, develop simulation video games the likes of Silent Service and F-19 Stealth Fighter.

By 1987 MicroProse successfully developed and released the now classic game, Sid Meier's Pirates!

This began the trend of beginning to include Sid's name in the title of games developed at the company. Sid would later explain that the inclusion of his name was due to his dramatic departure in the design of Pirates! compared to the company's other earlier titles. 

Bill Stealey decided that this strategy would improve the company's branding going forward. It did, in part, add a seal of quality to the computer game, especially flight simulators, that would make them more popular with their target audience.

Bill would later recall "We were at dinner at a Software Publishers Association meeting, and Robin Williams was there. And he kept us in stitches for two hours. And he turns to me and says 'Bill, you should put Sid's name on a couple of these boxes, and promote him as the star.'

And that's how Sid's name got on Pirates and Civilization."

This advertising strategy really paid off for MicroProse. By 1992 an entry in Computer Gaming World's poetry contest praised Meier's name as "a guarantee they got it right".

Despite this, Meier is not always the lead designer for games that carry his name in the title.

For example, Brian Reynolds is credited with as the primary designer for Sid Meier's Civilization II, Alpha Centauri.

Jeff Briggs designed Sid Meier's Civilization IIISoren Johnson led Sid Meier's Civilization IVJon Shafer led Sid Meier's Civilization V and Will Miller and David McDonough were the designers of Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth.

The rise and rise of Sid Meier's Civilization

After the successful launch of F-19 Stealth Fighter, Sid Meier decided to begin focussing on strategy games.

He would later say "Everything I thought was cool about a flight simulator had gone into that game."


Meier would be inspired by SimCity and Empire to create the very popular game Railroad Tycoon as well as later games, like Civilization, for which his name is now synonymous. 

According to Sid Meier, a great computer game is one of a series of interesting decisions. It needs to have set of situations in which the player must constantly make a series of meaningful choices.

This way of thinking about games and gaming has served Sid and the gaming public at large well. Most of his games have, after all, been well received and critically acclaimed. 

A 2009 Develop survey asked some 9,000 game makers their “ultimate development hero”—Meier came in fifth, Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario came in first place.

No one can doubt that Sid Meier's games are anything but a series of interesting decisions. Each play, and replay, of any of his games, offers you unique experiences.

Each of his games offers new immersive experiences for gamers but, ultimately, there exists the behemoth that is Civilization.

So stunningly successful has this game series been that even eight-figure budgets and cinema-quality cinematics have a tough time beating the immersion of a game built and released over 20 years ago. 

The game's scope is incredible when you think about it.  Pick a faction and guide them through 4,000 years of history to the modern age and beyond.

Spend each turn exploring the world, building settlements, research technology, develop land, wage war and, of course, attempt to engage in diplomacy.

This formula hasn't really changed that much throughout the game's descendants and is still very popular today. 

Sid Meier's game structure and style

For any gamer, casual or addict, who has played more than one of Sid Meier's games, you may well have noticed a running theme.

For one, there is never any blood. This despite Sid's interest in covering historical, often violent, events.

This violence is often not shown in gory detail but rather represented abstractly, especially for battles in Civilization, at least those titles he was the lead designer for.

"I prefer games where the player can lead the game in the direction that they want, and then they kind of end up with that unique story that only they can know."

Sid is also renowned for his desire to give players as many options as possible and avoid linear story arcs.

He prefers to allow the player, as much as reasonably possible, create their own story or narrative during the game.

For games like Civilization, this is obvious to anyone who has played it, as you could, conceivably, conquer the world with any nation you wish to start the game with. 

“I prefer games where the player can lead the game in the direction that they want,” Meier said during an interview. “And then they kind of end up with that unique story that only they can know.”

This game design style came to its climax with the release of Civilization, but it can be seen in its predecessor titles like Pirates! and games that followed it like Railroad Tycoon.

Interestingly the average blockbuster title today takes around 3 years to complete and a team of around 100.

Back in the day, Meier recalled, Civilization was built using a team of 8-10 people and was completed in under a year. Absolutely incredible.

“Ultimately we had 640 kilobytes [of memory] in the computer,” Meier said during an interview. “When that was full, we were done. We couldn’t put any more code in there. So development time was a little less in those days.”

Civilization was released in 1991 and it became a huge success, at least eventually. This was a time pre-internet, and it took longer for news to travel.

As we now know today, it has since become known as a masterpiece of gaming and has won many awards over the years.

It is even ranked the number 1 best game of all time in some surveys. To date, it has sold around 800,000 copies.

Sid Meier: The Godfather of Computer Gaming
Screenshot from original Civilization game. Source: ronnybiggs/forums.civfanatics

Firaxis is born

In 1994, Computer Gaming World reported that "Sid Meier has stated on numerous occasions that he emphasizes the "fun parts" of a simulation and throws out the rest". 

"Meier insisted", the magazine reported that year, "that discovering the elusive quality of fun is the toughest part of the design".

According to PC Gamer, "Though his games are frequently about violent times and places, there is never any blood or gore shown. He designs and creates his games by playing them, over and over, until they are fun."

Sid would eventually leave MicroProse in 1996 to found Firaxis Games along with fellow veteran game executive Jeff Briggs.

Firaxis Games continued Sid Meier's penchant for developing strategy games, many of which are continuations of the classic Civilization series as well as Pirates!.

Today Firaxis is one of the world's most renowned game development studios that strives to “build games that stand the test of time”.

In 1996, Sid also invented a "System for Real-Time Music Composition and Synthesis" used in C.P.U. Bach. 

Next Generation listed him in their "75 Most Important People in the Games Industry of 1995", calling him "a prolific developer of some of the best games in [MicroProse]'s catalog."

In 2011, the people search company PeekYou claimed that Meier has the largest digital footprint of any video game designer.

Sid Meier: The Godfather of Computer Gaming Old MicroProse HQ at 180 Lakefront Drive, Hunt Valley. Source: Magnus Manske/Wikimedia Commons

Sid Meier Easter Eggs you might have missed

-Sid Meier had a likeness of himself in Sid Meier's Civilization and Civilization III for the games science adviser.

-In the gameplay tutorial for Civilization IV, Sid Meier voiced the character himself. The character's likeness is also modeled on Sid.

-Many of Sid's most popular games were actually inspired by board games designed by Francis Tresham of Hartland Trefoil Limited. Early examples include Railroad Tycoon and Civilization which actually include acknowledgments to Tresham's boardgames. In 1998, MicroProse purchased Hartland Trefoil Ltd., eliminating any risk of copyright conflicts.

-There is a hidden faction in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri where the leader is actually Sid himself. It becomes unlockable by opening a file with the faction editor.

Sid Meier: The Godfather of Computer Gaming
Former Firaxis HQ, Hunt Valley. Source: Magnus Manske/Wikimedia Commons

Sid Meier Honors through the years

Sid Meier has received many accolades and honors throughout his career.

These include:-

-In 1996, Sid was made Gamespot's Most Influential Person in Video Gaming of All Time. They even called him "our Hitchcock, our Speilberg, our Ellington". 

-Also in 1996, Sid was ranked eighth on Computer Gaming World's list of the "Most Influential Industry Players of All Time", noting that no game designer has had as many CGW Hall of Fame games as Sid Meier.

-This was followed up in 1997, when Computer Gaming World ranked him number 1 on their list of "Most Influential People of All Time in Computer Gaming", for game design.

-In 1999 he was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Video Game Hall of Fame.

-Sid was entered into the Computer Museum of America's Hall of Fame in 2002.

-In 2006, Sid has given a Walk of Game Star.

-In 2008 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Game Developer's Conference.

-In 2008 Sid was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most video game awards ever received.

-2009 saw Sid coming in fifth place in a Develop survey. This survey asked 9,000 game makers about their "ultimate development hero".

-In 2009, he was ranked second on IGN's list of "Top Game Creators of All Time", and was called "the ideal role model for any aspiring game designer."

-In 2010, September the 21st was declared "Sid Meier's Civilization V Day"

-Sid Meier was awarded the Life Achievement award in 2017 by the Golden Joystick Awards.

Sid Meier: The Godfather of Computer Gaming
Sid Meier's Hall of Game Star. Source: BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons

Meier's and Firaxis' legacy

The company name is actually a fusion of "fiery" and "axis".

The combination is meant to communicate the company's dynamic process of game development.

Firaxis has, through proof positive of the many great titles it has released, shown it can deliver unparalleled gameplay has proven difficult for other developers to top. 

Under the creative direction of industry legend Sid Meier, Firaxis has released dozens of hit games on multiple platforms and is recognized as an industry leader in game development.

In 2005, Firaxis was acquired by Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc., joining their 2K Games publishing label.

In 1999, Sid became the second ever person to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. The first inductee being Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo fame. 

From around 2000, Sid actually began working on a dinosaur-themed game. It was later, in 2001, announced that it had been shelved on an online development diary. 

Despite trying various approaches, including turn-based and real-time gameplay, he said he found no way to make the concept fun enough.

In 2005, he said, "We've been nonstop busy making other games over the past several years, so the dinosaur game remains on the shelf. However, I do love the idea of a dinosaur game and would like to revisit it when I have some time."

Sid Meier currently lives with his wife, Susan, and son, Ryan in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Sid met Susan at the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Faith Lutheran in Cockeysville where he actually played the organ.

Both Meier and his wife also frequently sing in the church choir. 

Sid Meier: The Godfather of Computer Gaming
Sid Meier (left) and Bruce Shelley at the 2017 Game Developers Conference, Feb 2017. Source: D5X_1111/Wikimedia Commons
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