Bruce Shelley (MicroProse/Ensemble Studios) – Interview

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. If you’re viewing this before Monday 27th August we have a lovely podcast with the man himself, but to tide you over until then here is our quick Q&A with the man who created Railway Tycoon and Civilisation (with Sid Meier of course) and retro gaming god, Bruce Shelley!


Bruce, before working in the video game industry you helped design a number of board games. Can you briefly run us through this part of your career and how it would help set you up for the video game industry?

I joined friends at a game University of Virginia game club to start a company called Iron Crown Enterprises, which went on to publish many paper games, including mainly Middle Earth Role Playing. I left after a year for a design internship at SPI in New York, publishers of wargames and Strategy & Tactics magazine. After my internship, I returned briefly to Virginia but was then hired by Avalon Hill, where I worked for almost six years, mostly on board games. Near the end of my time there I was asked to switch to computer games, which I did, and that led eventually to work at MicroProse.

At Avalon Hill I remember working on an NBA basketball game and a conversion of the board game Wooden Ships & Iron Men into a computer game. At MicroProse I first worked on F-117A Stealth Fighter.


Railroad Tycoon set the rails (pun intended) for many future simulation games. How did you and Sid Meier first come up with the idea for this game?

Railroad Tycoon was Sid’s idea, but I was offering a lot of encouragement. We had been playing after hours a board railroad game called 1830 that I had worked on at Avalon Hill. Sid was also heavily influenced by model railroads he had been setting up since his childhood. It was a blast to work on and see it come to completion. The team was basically Sid, myself, and Max Remington, an artist. We got help from others at the end but it was basically three people for six months or so. I did a breakdown for management and I think it cost the company $167,000 to make.


Civilisation was a revolutionary title and is rightly regarded as one of the most important games ever made. How did you and Sid begin work on this game and did you ever feel you were working on something so ground breaking?

Again, that was Sid’s idea. We had played a boardgame called Civilization and I believe he was also influenced by playing Empire Deluxe and Sim City. At one point he asked me for a list of 10 things I would change about Empire Deluxe if I could. He always had several prototype games on his PC that he tinkered with and one day he gave me a floppy disc with the first playable version of Civilization to ever exist off his PC. I dated that disc May, 1990, and kept it in my files. Last year I mentioned I still had it and he asked for it back. He told me later that the people at Firaxis got it playing again. After that first disc, I would get another one almost every day. I would play it before he came into the office then we would meet and discuss what was working and what was not. He would go back to programming and designing, and leave me a new version at the end of the day. He would not let anyone else play the game for months, but eventually opened it up to the company. From a very early day I knew we were making something extraordinary that would rock the gaming world.


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

Working with Sid was the career opportunity of a lifetime. It was like going to game design university. He is a private person but we developed a good rapport and could talk for hours about the game we happened to be working on, design in general, the opportunity that video games presented, what video games did best, the development process. I took it in as best I could and tried to take it with me wherever I worked.


How was it agreed that Sid would gain a bit more of the spotlight on the games you both helped create?

Sid was the man. He could have done those games with someone else, but I could not. He did most of the programming, design, and early art himself. It was all in his head. I was just the idea sounding board and principal playtester. I think he saw me as “every player”. Later he told me that I saw the cup half full and that was very useful working with unfinished software. I know we talked over problems he was trying to solve. I don’t recall now for certain, but during Civilization I may have suggested the palace as a way to reinforce the player doing well and may have suggested traveling to Alpha Centauri as a way to end the game. Remember that by the time I arrived, he was already well-known for having invented the flight simulator, submarine simulator, and other games. He was one of the best known game designers in America already and a co-founder of MicroProse. Putting his name in the titles was good marketing.


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

Yes, we stay in touch. Last year he asked me to join him for a presentation at the US Game Developer’s Conference to talk about the first Civilization game on its 25th anniversary. The talk was looking back and what we did right and wrong. And last year also I shipped him a box of files I had kept on our games. Lots of different versions as development proceeded and also drafts of manuals and other design documents that I was usually responsible for. I am semi-retired now and he may be close to retiring also, so I don’t see working together happening.


Why did you choose to leave MicroProse for Ensemble Studios and was this an easy decision?

I left MicroProse because my wife was offered a terrific job out of state that paid much more than I was earning. I was one of the lowest paid designers but there was no effort to do anything about that, despite my performance reviews being great. I wrote game strategy guides for a few years but then two game development opportunities came up. One was headed by Tony Goodman, a friend I had way back at that University of Virginia game club in the 1970s. The other had not quite come together so I took the opportunity to work with Tony as he started Ensemble Studios in Texas. And that was the second big break in my career.


Age of Empires is rightly regarded as one of the most important strategy games ever made. How did you get the opportunity to work on this iconic title and what was your exact role on this project?

In the early days at Ensemble Studios (ES), the designers were Rick Goodman, myself, and later Brian Sullivan. We explored a few game concepts and then Tim Deen suggested we look at Starcraft and Command & Conquer. We decided to create a real-time strategy game, but base it on a historical theme, borrowing from Civilization. Rick was the lead designer. I lived out of town and we communicated most by email and regular visits to Texas. I proposed we design as I had learned making board games and working with Sid: prototype early, play every day, design by playing, fixing, removing, and adding. Rely on our judgement as players to tell us when parts were working or not. I remember coming up with lists of civilizations to include, types of units, buildings, technologies, and designing scenarios. I lobbied for randomly generated maps, levels of difficulty, non-cheating AI, an interesting economy, multiple victory conditions, and maybe other features.


Age of Empires was a huge success and clearly stood out from the crowd. Why do you personally think this game struck such a strong chord with the gaming public and how do you reflect back on the first game in this series?

As we approached the finish of AoE, an article in a game magazine listed over 50 RTS games in development around the world, but all were either sci-fi or fantasy. AoE was the only one drawing on history. Plus, our game and our worlds were bright and lively. The sun was always shining in Age of Empires. Tony Goodman served as our art director and our artists created beautiful worlds people wanted to learn more about. All of that worked to make AoE a great game. Plus, Microsoft was our publisher and that made a big difference in marketing, software management, and exposure. We felt we were making something special, just as I had felt making Civilization a few years earlier. Later, AoE II was even better and turned out to be a perfect storm of a game.


You have worked on many of Age of Empires game and expansion packs. Which is your personal favourite game in the series and can you explain why?

Hard to say. They were all good and great fun to work on. I liked learning more about the era of each game as we made them. Age III was set in my favorite period of history, but knights and castles make for a great theme. Age of Mythology was fun also because the theme let us break free a bit from reality.


Was there ever any random armies, expansion packs or quite crazy ideas which were mooted for Age of Empires, but never made it to the final version of the game?

I believe other people may have better memories of stuff like that. I know we worked hard to get formations into Age III. We thought it would be cool to see Napoleonic armies marching across battlefields, but we never got that working sufficiently well to publish.


How did you get the opportunity to work on Halo Wars and are you a personal fan of the Halo games?

Sometime around 2007, ES had the idea of taking RTS to the console and Microsoft liked the idea in support of the Xbox. I did not work on Halo Wars, except to test it. I am not a big fan of any FPS. I got into games playing multiplayer social games and complex wargames. I liked games that required thought and strategy. I was never good a quick reaction games.


When you are set the task of designing a new game, can you run us through a typical day and what inspires you?

Much of the inspiration comes from other games. I remember for AoE 1 we did a whiteboard exercise of listing the things that Starcraft, C&C, and Civilization did well and did not do well. The things they did well were most of our minimum requirements. What they did not do at all, or do well, was our list of opportunities. I have learned that at a high level it is best to clearly differentiate your game from the competition, so people know they are not playing the same game. Then you have to innovate some at the game play level to provide a new experience. The look and periods of the Age games clearly made them different at a glance. Then when you played them, we provided enough new things to make it interesting. A typical day usually involves playing your current project’s latest build. Then a discussion and review, and list of things to put in a new build for tomorrow. Designers are usually building content (missions?) and tweaking numbers (attack strength, loot drops, etc.). Every change usually must pass a test: are we providing the player with an interesting choice/decision? Uninteresting choices/decisions kill player engagement (fun).


How did you get the opportunity to work at BonusXP and reconnect again with Dave Pottinger?

I was part of a large layoff at Zynga in 2013. I took the summer off but as a friend of the founders of BonusXP, I was playing builds and offering feedback. By the fall I was doing some contract work but it was not taking all of my time so I offered to do some more work for Bonus if they could use it. They insisted on paying me and later offered me more work, and began working for them as a part time employee.


Stranger Things: The Game is excellent! I really love the retro/SNES look and feel of the game. Are you a personal fan of Stranger Things and what was it like working on this hugely successful title?

I had not played anything like ST:TG before but I really enjoyed it. I was again mostly a playtester giving feedback, but it was a lot of fun. I think the small team that built it did an outstanding job, bringing in a quality game on time. They captured the vibe of the show, the importance of the key characters, and kept it all engaging to play. I think it has over 8 million downloads by now with very high reviews.


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?

At every company I worked for there were ideas that got started but were never given an OK to proceed. I think perhaps the best was an MMORPG based in the Halo Universe. ES had made a lot of progress on that but then management changed at Microsoft Games and the new leaders thought the project was a mistake. It was cancelled and eventually we were all laid off. (we would have like to see that game! – Ed)


What projects are you currently working on?

BonusXP has several projects in prototype stage but nothing announced. Not sure any will be published, so I have to keep mum about them. Sorry.


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

Chief Hopper from Stranger Things, probably because I like the character in the show. You don’t learn enough about him in the game probably. And truthfully, in strategy games that I prefer, characters are rarely developed to any degree.




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