NEW YORK — I had the filet mignon. The great game designer had the tuna.
On Friday, I was one of 10 people seated at a broad wooden table having a two-hour lunch with game designer Sid Meier and his wife, Susan. Meier is the creator of one of the most popular gaming series of all time, "Civilization," though he has also picked up fans for his "Pirates!" and "Railroad Tycoon" games, among more than a dozen others.
We were at the Algonquin Hotel, in a small red room called the Library that was lined both with real bookshelves and bookshelf-style wallpaper. The intention was to emulate the high-minded literary chats held on the premises by writer Dorothy Parker about 80 years ago — except with a game maker and a bunch of gaming journalists. Apparently genuine literary figures were not available. The setup made this the first gaming event I can recall during which a publicist said, essentially, yes, the developer here has a new game coming out, but we don't really think you need to talk about it.
So while Meier talked about opening games up to wider audiences and ate his meal, some of us followed orders and didn't ask him about "Civilization: Revolutions," coming out June 3 for Xbox 360, PS3 and DS.
I asked him about Bach, "Spore" and what game journalists were like 20 years ago.
Before the tuna had arrived and before the salad, too, Meier had mentioned that he liked classical music. His favorite is Johann Sebastian Bach, the first musical reference I'd heard from a game designer since three weeks earlier, when Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer of "Gears of War," told me about attending a Killswitch Engage concert. What did being a student of Bach offer him as a game designer? Meier said he was moved by the idea that Bach came from common roots, that his ordinary origins showed what a regular person who hones his craft can accomplish. And he was impressed with the kind of creator whose work can be popular centuries after it's made.
No one else wanted to talk about Bach. I didn't even know the proper Bach-related follow-up. There were reporters from Maxim, Popular Mechanics, AOL and other outlets around the table. (Sid only said, "Oh, cool!" when it was mentioned there was someone there from MTV News).
Someone asked him what the most important innovations in gaming history were. Meier should know, since he'd been making games for about two decades. I think the question came from a public-relations guy who was otherwise asking questions that somehow kept involving mentions of "Civilization: Revolutions." This one question, though, elicited a good response.
Meier stopped to think of three innovations more important than anything else in gaming history. The first he mentioned was IBM making a personal computer. Another was the development of "Sim City" and other games that encouraged construction, rather than just destruction. The third, Meier said, was Nintendo's Official Seal of Quality, a 1980s stamp of gaming quality that he said helped counter the flow of bad games that had drowned so many previous video game consoles.
Nintendo came up a lot at lunch, mostly in reference to the Wii. Meier hasn't worked on a Wii game, but he is clearly inspired by the system's broad reach. For a time, he was quiet at lunch, as the reporter from Maxim expressed frustration that the Wii's simple games — "Wii Sports" bowling, for instance — were distracting people from the cultural depth of the philosophical Xbox 360 first-person shooter "BioShock." I argued back, saying that any game could have depth or encourage a deep thought. Sid Meier wasn't having any of it. He kept quiet during this argument.
We learned things about the Meiers. Their condo has lots of games in it. Susan doesn't play games. Sid does. He likes "Guitar Hero" but hasn't really been obsessed with a game since "Gran Turismo 3." We talked about the wife-o-meter Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto introduced at the Game Developers Conference last year, an informal measure of Miyamoto's long-standing struggle to get his wife interested in any games he makes. Susan Meier revealed that the wife-o-meter still wasn't registering for her. She works at Firaxis, running the human-resources department, but she doesn't play the things — mostly. She did play one of Sid's before it was released and cheerfully mentioned finding a bug in it. Sid smiled sheepishly, laughed and turned red.
Sid and I talked about games crossing over to the mainstream and arrived at a very non-Wii idea. I proposed that "Civilization" had spread to the masses without adopting simplified Wii-style controls and asked why that would be. He said he thought that the subject matter at the game's beginning — getting food and shelter — were things people could relate to. He said even a "Guitar Hero" or a "Grand Theft Auto" has some connection to the real world but with an added layer of fantasy that makes them worth experiencing.
I hadn't thought much about realism before, nor had I considered one of Meier's casually tossed-off ideas, which seemed plenty profound. Early during the lunch, he was talking about multiplayer gaming, though I can't recall why. He seemed disappointed with where multiplayer game design is. Most of the big multiplayer games and game modes out there are simply single-player modes with added people, he observed. He hoped for progress. In a room full of journalists, he wasn't going to get it. But hopefully Meier occasionally lunches with other top developers, because that kind of group could get somewhere.
I was curious how gaming journalists have changed over the years. Aside from joking that they have gotten smarter and better-looking, Meier said they have understandably gotten more engaged with the medium. He said that early in his career, he encountered people who were threatened by games, not because such people represented the mainstream or concerned parents, but because such people, gaming reporters among them, were fans of military board games. They were part of a subculture that celebrated the complexity of wars waged on game boards divided by hexagons and populated with miniatures. They thought video games were a threat, that they'd overwhelm their hobby. And they did.
To get a measure of how much journalism about games has changed, I asked Meier how long it was before he was interviewed by a woman. He laughed and said it was awhile and that it took at least until one of his colleagues became one. Became a woman, he meant? I thought that, but didn't ask, as the inside joke reverberated from Sid to his wife to another member of the Firaxis team. We moved on.
Somehow we got to talking about Tasers. This brought us far afield of Dorothy Parker material, I'm sure. But among the 11 of us, we concocted some basic ideas for a Taser Wii game. Sid had a good chuckle out of it.
The lunch wound down. One reporter stayed to chat with Sid. The rest of us got our coats; some waited for car service. I thanked Sid and Susan for the meal and the conversation. Let's do it again, I should have said. I don't know if we made Dorothy Parker proud. Were we supposed to have a big argument? To solve a major problem?
I left with ideas I hadn't brought to the lunch. I call it a success. It felt ... civilized.
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