Brian Reynolds (MicroProse/Firaxis) – Interview

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A while ago we featured a lovely Q&A with gaming legend Rob Fermier and when we tweeted the link it was retweeted by another legend, Brian Reynolds. So, as ballsy as ever, Adrian asked for an interview from him too and here it is! Civilization II, Colonization, Rise of Nations, Alpha Centauri just a few of the titles from this mammoth player in the gaming sphere. Get comfy because it’s a long ‘un…

 

How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first game you ever worked on?

The very first game I ever made money on was a game called “Quest 1” back in 1981 – I was in, I guess, 8th grade and I’d been to a friend’s house who had “Temple of Apshai” on the Apple II. Now I couldn’t afford an Apple II nor could I afford to buy any actual games as a 13-year-old, but I *could* program and I went back and spent my spring break pounding out an Apshai-style RPG game on my TRS-80 so that I could play one at home. Back in those days you could send code off to hobby magazines and they’d sometimes print them – and Quest 1 ended up being the cover feature of Softside Magazine’s August 1981 issue. I ended up making $200, a princely sum for 13-year-old me, and I’m pretty sure the money was all immediately put into more memory for the TRS-80. 😊

But then a LOT of time went by where I wasn’t in any way focused on a career in games or even that such careers could ever exist.

Skip forward to 1990…

I had been in graduate school – theoretically studying for a PhD in Philosophy – but was starting to think that graduate school was “not for me”. Meanwhile I’d been playing a bunch of Ultima VI, and when I finally finished the game all these credits started to scroll by – like a whole LOT of names – and it kind of hit me for the first time that “these people are making their living doing this!”. And despite that I was studying liberal arts I’d done a LOT of computer stuff over the years, and I remember clearly thinking “I could totally do this too”. So I went down to the university book store, spent half-a-month’s income on a copy of the Microsoft C Compiler and a couple of Peter Norton “secrets of MS DOS” types of books, went back home and started making a little game thing with graphics and music and stuff – kind of as a demo that I could make things that looked as good as the games that were out there. Well except for the art, haha, but I was doing animation with the right res & framerate and a whole bunch of systems working together. So anyway I spent a month or two working on that, and gradually stopped going to classes. I can’t remember any one moment where I suddenly switched from being a grad student to being a wanna-be videogame developer, but somehow from around November 1990 to February 1991 the transition took place. (Story continues below!)

 

How did you first get the opportunity to work at MicroProse and do you remember the first game you worked on at this legendary company?

I then sent my tech demo to some of the companies who had made games that I’d liked playing (remember, this was pre-internet, so I was literally scouring the backs of boxes and through users manuals for contact information and addresses). My first choice at the time was to go work at Origin on the Ultima series and Wing Commander and things like that, so I sent a copy there. But I also sent one to MicroProse because I’d really enjoyed M1 Tank Platoon in particular but I’d also liked some of their flight sim games. As it happened, MicroProse called me almost immediately, and they were like… “could you fly out for an interview in a couple weeks?” and so I interviewed in March and by mid-April I was loading up everything I owned in my pickup truck and driving across the country to Baltimore. (A funny side-note is that about a month after I started at MicroProse Richard Garriott tracked me down in Baltimore – my demo had finally made its way to him – and he called to offer me my original dream job at Origin. So I ended up having to turn down my gaming hero!)

The first game I worked on at MicroProse was called “Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Gender”. I ended up being lead programmer for the project (it was early days in the industry – “field promotions” could come quickly, even if they didn’t necessarily come with salary increases!) and ended up writing most of the engine that it ran on. It was a graphic adventure game (think Sierra Online games like King’s Quest) and so was an effort at diversification for the company which was primarily known for flight simulators at the time.

Meanwhile, one of the fringe benefits of working at MicroProse was getting to playtest early copies of games that looked cool. I’d always loved strategy games, so when I saw Sid Meier was making one I went and picked up some early alpha versions of the game that went on to become Civilization. I think somewhere in my basement is a 386 computer with subdirectories where I’d file away my favorite versions of the game (in case a rule changed later that I didn’t like!) So I was a few months ahead of everyone else at becoming a Civilization addict…

 

 

Is it true that you first started work on Colonization in your spare time? And If so, can you recall how this game soon grabbed everyone’s attention at MicroProse and later became a true strategy masterpiece?

After a few tries at making graphic adventures, MicroProse wasn’t having much success at breaking into that market, and there was a feeling of “impending doom” in our department that layoffs were coming. My boss at the time told me that as long as I had all my official work done (of which there really wasn’t a huge amount at that point, given the impending winddown of the department) then I could work on whatever side projects I wanted to. By this time (1993) MicroProse had had a huge hit in Civilization and there was a lot of talk around the company about how we should be making more strategy games. But nobody at MicroProse except for Sid had been running any strategy game projects, and the company was totally geared for making flight simulators (which were still making money but the market for the genre was starting to stagnate). But there was a lot of talk about putting together a “Strategy Group” and doing more strategy games. So I just started pounding something together – my original elevator pitch might have gone something like “combine the core mechanics of Civilization with the trading game from Railroad Tycoon, and set it in the Age of Exploration”. It started as a huge map of the New World (and I mean HUGE map, like probably 64 times as much area as Civilization maps had) – and you’d move your ship around and drop off a colonist. That first prototype probably felt more like an exploration game than a colonization game, but anyway at some point the fact that I was working on this came to the attention of folks who were actually trying to put together the aforementioned Strategy Group, and Jeff Briggs came by for a peek one day and said “hey, would you mind showing this to Sid”. Now not only was I keenly aware that joining the new Strategy Group (at the time the company’s “new hotness”) was one of the few ways I might survive the next round of layoffs, but making strategy games had long been what I’d really “wanted to do”. So I completely leaned into the opportunity and pretty soon I was carting my computer over to the other building to keep working on the prototype, now as an official project under Sid’s guidance. This was also the first game I worked on as a “designer” rather than solely as an engineer – so the idea was that I was doing a lot of design work and Sid was teaching/guiding/mentoring me. This is certainly when I absorbed the most lessons from Sid’s game development tricks & wisdom.

 

Civilisation II is rightly regarded as one of the most important games ever made. Do you remember how you first got the opportunity to work on this title and what were your initial ideas and objectives for this ground-breaking game?

Colonization ended up being pretty successful for the company – although it only sold ~350,000 copies compared with Civilization’s ~850,000 at the time, that was still a sizeable and much-needed hit for the company, and it certainly validated the “Strategy Group” concept and meant the company figured I could probably make some more games that they could sell.

Meanwhile at the time, though, I was planning to get married, and my wife-to-be had just learned she would be getting a Fullbright Exchange for a year. I’d decided I was going to follow her to England for a year, whatever it took, and I had naturally assumed that this would involve giving up my job at MicroProse. But when I went to explain to my bosses that I’d really enjoyed my time there, etc, etc, but I was really set on following my wife to England so thanks for a great few years, etc… they surprisingly had a different idea: what if they set me up with a project and a computer, and I just worked on it from over in England and sometimes sent them copies over e.g. Compuserve dialup or whatever, and then at the end of the exchange year I’d come back and we’d ready the game for launch? A wild idea but definitely not one I was going to say no to! Around that time, Sim City 2000 had come out and been very successful for Maxis – it’s funny today to think about how up until then the game industry had no particular model of sequelization or how to make a long term franchise like that – but Sim City 2000 was so successful that it was kind of a paradigm to be imitated. And so the game that was suggested for me to work on was “how about if we did a Civilization 2000”? (By the way, “Civilization 2000” was the working title throughout most of the project). One irony is I think one of the reasons Civilization 2000 sounded like a good project to give me was that since Civilization “had already been designed” that I wouldn’t require as much supervision! Obviously the subsequent history of the Civ franchise makes that an almost laughable idea, but if you put yourself back in the period when doing sequels at all was a novel concept, you can see how that kind of happened.

In terms of the original plans for Civ 2, there wasn’t any one specific “killer app” feature we were planning – the approach was more like “let’s look at every part of Civilization, and try to make every part better”. Sometimes we’d just make very small changes, sometimes bigger ones. The other side of that lens was that I didn’t want to be remembered as “the guy who broke Civilization”! Which meant that we looked at every different system with an eye toward if we were making it better or worse – nothing was allowed to be worse! And so if there was something “right” about that approach it was probably in attention to detail – we tried not to tolerate ANY rough edges, no matter how small, and especially nothing that made the game “worse” than its illustrious predecessor. An example of how we’d go about improving an area of the game… take Wonders of the World. It was a cool part of Civilization, but it had been “sketched in pretty broad strokes”. You built a wonder that had a cool sounding name & power, and you’d see it in your city. Meanwhile the AI opponents would occasionally just randomly get a wonder – the original Civ didn’t had AI to actually decide when to build a wonder, and it didn’t go through the process of building them, they just kind of “cheated them in” occasionally as kind of a shortcut. Wonders in Civ 1 were very cool, so they were something we wanted to “double down on” and make better, and so we did several things – in addition to adding some more wonders to the game (probably the least important change), we made a more sophisticated AI that would actually build the wonders “fairly”, we introduced messages when an AI started building a wonder in order to make it feel more like a race and competition (plus to remind the player that they too should be building cool wonders!), and we also introduced “wonder movies” to give the player more of a visceral reward when they succeeded. Putting all these things together and it felt like we’d preserved the “cool part” of Wonders for Civ 1 intact, but enhanced that with more wonders, more sophisticated AI, better UX (the wonder race messages), and cool audiovisual rewards (the movies).

 

 

Can you recall any suggested changes, ideas and updates that were discussed for the sequel that never made it into the final version of the game?

Two big ones:

1 – in our original “Day 1” conception, there was going to be a tactical combat mode where you’d zoom in to fight out individual battles – we were influenced by Master of Magic in this regard – so you’d have a whole stack of units you’d move around and then if they got into combat you’d have a whole subgame you’d jump to where the forces would be deployed on a battlefield and you’d fight it out tactically. In our original planning, that was something that Sid was interested in prototyping himself, so I was moving ahead with the main-map part of the game and we figured a prototype would eventually be forthcoming for the tactical combat mode. But two things happened – one was that Sid stayed tied up in other projects, and the other was that as we moved down the road with the main map game, some of our other changes (like hit points and health bars for the units) turned out to already be solving some of the problems that we’d been planning to introduce tactical combat to solve (like the problem where a phalanx kills a battleship) – and since the main combat goals were already being achieved it started to seem less worth the systemic risk of introducing such a radically different combat mode.

2 – multiplayer. At the time Civ 2 was being developed, MicroProse was also developing CivNet, which was essentially the original Civilization graphics & rule set with multiplayer added. Obviously in hindsight one could ask why there wasn’t just one Civ project that included both gameplay improvements and multiplayer, but there’s also the principle that you go to battle with the army you have, not the army you wish you have, and for all sorts of logistical and “organic” reasons there ended up being two projects. BUT they shared a lot of engine code at the layer that made them both run on Windows (basically they shared a common graphics engine) so they weren’t completely alien to one another. And so at some point we got a fairly good distance down the road of integrating multiplayer code into Civ 2. I can even remember Doug Kaufman and I playing some multiplayer prototypes together. But polishing multiplayer would had substantially increased the technical scope of the game, and with the marketability of multiplayer for a 4X game still being a bit unproven and especially given the existence of another project (CivNet) aimed directly at testing that hypothesis, we decided not to move forward on the multiplayer – thereby keeping our ship-date intact.

 

Why did you end up leaving MicroProse and create Firaxis Games and how do you reflect back on that ambitious decision?

Somewhere along the way, MicroProse had been bought by Spectrum Holobyte out in California. For a while the merger had gone pretty well (Colonization was published under it for example, and Civ 2 was started), but by the time Civ 2 had come out some of us internally were very unhappy with what we perceived as a lack of vision on the part of the Spectrum HQ crowd for the potential for Microprose’s games – they understood how to market their own games, but not ours, and therefore we’d get projections of e.g. 38,000 worldwide lifetime sales for Civ 2 which then led to under-resourcing of projects and marketing campaigns. Civ 2 succeeded despite a lack of early marketing spend (I think it beat that original sales projection by about 3 million units, haha!) but in any event that was the general feeling that made some of us think we could do better on our own.

Because Sid was personally involved in the founding of Firaxis and therefore the pitching of it to publishers, getting a publishing deal was much (muuuuuch) easier than it has ever been since, and so it was complete great luck for me to be along on that awesome ride. The way it worked was… we announced we were founding the company, and then publishers flew out to Baltimore and pitched us (I mean, figuratively speaking they only looked at Sid, haha, but you get the idea) on why we should sign with them. Bobby Kotick personally flew out from Activision. Ed Fries and Stuart Moulder came out from Microsoft. Richard Garriott and crew (my original videogame hero!) flew out from Origin/EA. Let’s just say, that’s NOT how pitching a new game or company to publishers has ever worked for me after that! But Sid was at the height of his fame & powers, and etc, so it was a veeeery soft landing jumping ship to Firaxis. I mean there was definitely negotiation and lawyers and all that stuff, just like there were game ideas that needed to be articulated pitched and so forth, but let’s just say that my first run up the independent game developer hill was played on “easy mode”.

 

 

Alpha Centauri pretty much did the impossible and improved on the amazing Civilization series. When did you first realise that you wanted to take the strategy genre into a whole new direction and introduce future and sci-fi elements? How big a challenge was it to think up new future technology, ideas and factions into the game, without the luxury of the history books to help aid you?

Okay I’m gonna add that first sentence to my bio if you don’t mind 😃. (oh we don’t mind! – Ed)

When we started, we were all used to making history games, and just naively started applying that model to doing a “Civ in Space” game. So instead of “mathematics” just call a tech “non-linear mathematics”! And there were a few obvious opportunities like playing around with the ability to terraform the planet. But very quickly we discovered that there were a lot of things from the history side of games that we had been taking for granted before that were now missing – history had given the Civilization games a certain “pacing” and also gave players a kind of instant accessibility to the topic – everybody came pre-wired with a sense of how important the discovery of “The Wheel” is and what sorts of new possibilities opened up once you discovered it. Not so much “monopole magnets” and “superstring theory”, if you see what I mean. I remember when we were at least a full year into development and the game felt really… dry. There was a lot of really technical stuff (and some more technical-sounding stuff) but it didn’t hang together all that well, and whereas Civilization had captured the emotional “magic” of being made the leader of an ancient civilization, no similar magic was happening for the early Alpha Centauri. So at some point during the desperation that comes from realizing that one’s giant project isn’t really heading toward success, I remember thinking maybe instead of trying to directly port our history methods “to the future” and reinventing that wheel (so to speak), we should instead look harder at where future history had been getting done successfully, in other words science fiction. So I started “researching” the game by reading craptons of science fiction, and trying to bring some of the magic of that into Alpha Centauri, and what turned out to be essential was story & characters. Once we started to cast some characters as the leaders of the factions, it made the factions seem a lot more interesting, and we realized that (not being bound by trying to stay true to history) we could now give the factions much more exotic and crisp political points of view – and have the game pit the various points of view against each other. That then worked its way all through the game, with the “design your own government” part of the game then interacting with the diplomacy in that different characters would approve and or disapprove of your position on the social issues, and this overlaid into your interactions with them in a way that made diplomacy seem much more sophisticated than the “I’m bigger than you, pay me tribute” model of our previous games.

So to sum up… it took us a (long) while to embrace the science-fiction elements of the game, but once we did THAT was what made Alpha Centauri a good game. Without the science fiction, the characters, the factions, and all the interaction between those elements and the core game system, I don’t think we’d be talking about Alpha Centauri now because it would probably have been a dry boring failure!

 

Do you have a personal favourite faction and piece of future technology that was used in Alpha Centauri?

Well I tried hard not to have a favorite faction while we were designing it, because the idea was to make all seven of them equally cool & inviting to play, depending on the player. There are some that in hindsight I think we probably did a better job on, like Deirdre and Morgan, but we were trying our best to make them all cool.

What piece of future technology that was perceived in Alpha Centauri would you most like to see introduced on Earth?

I would be surprisingly open to be absorbed into a massive planetary intelligence!

 

 

Sid Meier is obviously a gaming legend. What was it like working with him and how do you look back on your highly successful partnership?

So I have to start with one funny side-fact, which is that I had never even heard of Sid until after I was already working for MicroProse and there was this guy who seemed to get to work on all the coolest projects. But he was always super-friendly and even when I was an opinionated 23-year-old who’d only been in the industry about 2 months and playing his Civ 1 prototypes, he was willing to sit and listen to all my random ideas for a very long time and was so friendly about listening to people’s ideas (I guess it’s a great skill to be able to listen to people’s ideas even when they’re terrible!). Later when I moved over to work in the “Strategy Group” (i.e. for Colonization) he mostly let me make whatever game I wanted – he didn’t ever tell me what kind of game to design – but he’d give me plenty of good “methodological” advice, about how to go about prototyping a game, techniques to try to “find the fun” when it was missing, how to deal with the overwhelmingness of the beginning of a project when everything needs to be done (first get it to play one turn, then worry about getting it to play 10 turns, then worry about getting it to play 100 turns). There’s no question that when it comes to “making a game fun”, I learned most of my key tricks from Sid!

 

You and Sid worked extremely closely on designing such legendary titles like Civilisation II, Alpha Centauri and Gettysburg. How do you reflect on those days within the video game industry and why do you think your games struck such a chord with gamers?

Games were way cheaper to make in those days, substantially because they didn’t require as much hi-res 3D and artwork and animation and movies and voice-acting, etc, etc. So that meant it was easier to try ideas, easier to experiment, and easier to take some time “finding the fun” without going bankrupt. Colonization’s development budget was probably around a quarter million dollars; Civ 2’s might have been an entire million dollars; Alpha Centauri’s was more like 3 and a half million. Rise of Nations… 10 million! So you can kind of see the curve going on there, and AAA budgets just continued to get bigger and bigger. So that was a neat time to be working in games, when you could still get a lot done with a smaller team. Periods like that have sometimes reoccurred in the industry for new platforms (like there was a renaissance in inexpensive-to-make games when smartphones first appeared and that market wasn’t established and figured out yet), but trying to get a new AAA game off the ground these days you’d be going in asking for a minimum 8 figure budget (that probably wouldn’t start with a “1” either) and so the logistics of even getting a project funded and then keeping everyone employed for the 3+ years of a development cycle have become increasingly daunting. So I’m lucky to have come of age when I did – much sooner and games weren’t a viable profession yet, much later and the barriers to entry would be much higher!

 

 

Are you still in contact with Sid and would you ever be tempted to work with him in the future?

I just talked to Sid a couple months ago at a colleague’s 50th birthday bash (we were the old guys standing outside on the street so that we could hear each other talk, haha). Since we both perform the same function on a team (lead design), we’re a lot more optional to each other than when I have a colleague who’s, say, an art director or a producer or something like that, but there’s no question we improved each other’s games in the time we were in the same building together. “Getting the band back together” is always tougher logistically in reality than you think, what with different employers, non-competes, etc, etc, but it’s fun to think about!

 

You are well known for working on top class strategy games. Is this your personal favourite genre of games and what do you believe are the key ingredients of making a successful strategy title?

It was certainly my personal favorite genre at the time I was making them (and I do feel like the amount I was a total Civ-addict from 1991-1995 definitely came through in Civ2 in a positive way!) but I have tended to gradually drift around looking for novelty and new interesting challenges. Such as when I switched from doing the 4X games like Civ2 and Alpha Centauri and into real time strategy like Rise of Nations. And then later doing Facebook games and then mobile games. Often my favorite genre to play is one I haven’t worked in yet (like right now I love RPG’s and shooters) – maybe kind of like when you’ve worked in a particular restaurant that’s no longer your favorite kind of food after a while. I’m sure if I ever got to make an RPG or a shooter (come on, don’t you want to play an RPG/Shooter in the Alpha Centauri universe?) then I’ll have to find a new genre to want to play.

 

We have had the pleasure of interviewing Bruce Shelley on Arcade Attack. Did you ever work closely with Bruce and are you still in contact with a lot of other industry legends you have previously worked with?

Bruce and I were down the hall from each other for a few years, but he left the company shortly after Civ (1) shipped which was before I joined the Strategy Group. I remember he did some work on the manual for Colonization so we had a little bit of light working together, but he was living in a different city by then. I was a huge fan of Age of Empires which he went on to work on, and it was definitely a primary inspiration for Rise of Nations, but we’ve never really gotten to “work on a project together”.

 

How did you react on the news when PC Gamer honoured you as one of twenty-five “Game Gods” of all time?

Well THAT was a pretty big deal for me, especially because I was relatively young at the time (maybe about 30?) and some of the other folks were literally my own gaming legends and heroes from long before I was ever in the industry. I remember standing around during the photo shoot with one of the other younger guys, Chris Taylor who’d done Total Annihilation, and we were both kind of like “I can’t believe we’re here”. And then they eventually kind of retired that feature so we just went down as “THE” 25 game gods for all time – which worked out extra-convenient as far as I’m concerned. 😃

 

Out of the other 25 “Game Gods” on that stellar list, who would you have most liked to work with on a video game together, and do you have an idea of what type game that could be?

The dream was always to work with Richard Garriott! And I guess it would be an RPG because Richard! But man, there were so many folks there who would be great to work with – I can remember flying back having been especially charmed by Warren Spector for example.

 

 

Are there any games you started work on but were never released, and if so, which unreleased game do you think would have been the most successful?

Weirdly there are hardly any – almost everything we started ended up shipping, not that they were always successful. I’m not sure “Rise of Nations 2” really counts as having been started, since when our Microsoft dev/pub relationship got cancelled we were only at the “pitch” stage for RoN2, not actually funded as a contract, but that’s probably the one that would have been the most successful if we’d gotten to do it (although you could also argue that the team members went on instead to work on games that were even more successful net than RoN2 would have been). When I was at Zynga my team did have an almost complete Facebook game based on (of all things) the fashion industry, and at the last minute we didn’t release it and went on instead to make FrontierVille, so that’s probably the game that best fits the definition of something we did significant work on. I think it would have done okay if released, but not nearly as well as the things we went on to work on instead, so I think that was the right call.

 

If you could step inside any of the games you have worked on and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?

Depends on if I could choose which day! I mean hey, if I could join up to a game of Alpha Centauri right in time for planetary transcendence, then by all means sign me up! Not so interested in the day the mindworms attack, though, if you see what I mean. I would certainly be tempted by the idea of going into one of the history games for a day, just to really see history and stuff, but I definitely wouldn’t want to live in any period before the present on a permanent basis!

 

What are your personal favourite video games of all time?

That’s way too hard a question! I guess if I at least went by period then from the 70’s I’d say “Adventure” (Colossal Cave) and “Empire”, from the 80’s I’d pick Ultima (VI is my favorite) and Populous, from the early 90’s Civilization, from the late 90’s Age of Empires 2, from the early 2000’s Half Life 2, from the late 2000’s Mass Effect and Bioshock, and from more recent years Fallout New Vegas and Skyrim.

 

What projects are you currently working on?

At Big Huge we have a new mobile game that’s not announced yet so I can’t say much, but we’re having some quiet beta tests and I think it’s pretty fun – stay tuned! 😊

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

Commander Shepard is probably my personal favorite video game character, and I’m sure she can hold her liquor just fine!

 

Adrian

All screenshots taken from Moby Games

 

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