GDC 2012: Sid Meier’s Decision-Based Design Philosophy


Sid Meier is a living legend — one of the greatest game designers to ever walk the earth — but in another life, he would’ve made a great high school science teacher, or even a politician. The man simply has a knack for explaining knotty problems in a simple, direct and intelligible way. His panel at GDC 2012, “Interesting Decisions” presented a far-reaching theory of game design that was refreshingly free of jargon and bluster.

As his chosen title implies, Meier explained to a packed house how to build a game around a set of interesting decisions. The first challenge? How to decide which decisions are interesting. Drawing heavily on examples from his renowned Civilization series, Meier provided possibilities.

Interesting decisions are situational, requiring players to respond to the conditions they encounter. A player starting a new round of Civilization will have to choose between two early-game priorities: exploration and defense.

Interesting decisions are also personal, enabling players to make choices that reflect their own play-style. In the same Civilization game, a cautious player might choose to build defensive units rather than scouts. Meier also recommended having a variety of decisions with short-, medium-, and long-term consequences, which also require players to weigh risk versus reward.

The Firaxis designer’s advice hinged, again and again, on understanding the player. He cautioned programmers and developers against creating decisions with unfamiliar or unexpected outcomes, urged them to take advantage of the player’s innate knowledge (like the History 101 that underpins Civilization) and reminded them to make sure that decisions always provide some sort of visual or auditory feedback.

Meier’s wise understanding was further demonstrated in a series of slides, which taxonomized gamers according to certain behaviors. Paranoid players think the game is cheating to win. Min-maxers won’t rest until they’ve achieved every percentage of statistical advantage. “Bubble-Boy” players fixate on one particular bad experience at the expense of all the other fun they had.

Over the course of an hour, the man behind Civilization, Pirates!, and Railroad Tycoon offered a wealth of useful, actionable advice. We can only hope that the assembled game developers will have the good sense apply it.

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