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The rise of Civilization

Although most companies draw clear boundaries between work and play, Firaxis Games doesn’t just blur the line, it erases it altogether.

Although most companies draw clear boundaries between work and play, Firaxis Games doesn’t just blur the line, it erases it altogether. From the foosball table and XBox rooms to the detailed ping-pong tournament chart, the company encourages its employees to lead zesty, fun-filled days. In return, the staff delivers some seriously addictive games. Founder and CEO Jeff Briggs wouldn’t have it any other way.

While working at MicroProse Software, Briggs began a collaborative relationship with legendary game designer Sid Meier, and the two began producing mega-hit games like “Civilization”, “Pirates,” “F-19 Stealth Fighter,” and “Colonization.” In 1996, Briggs formed Firaxis Games and continued the hits with blockbuster titles like “Civilization III,” “Alpha Centauri,” and “Gettysburg.” Recently, Briggs was named winner of Maryland’s 2003 Ernst and Young Software Entrepreneur of the Year award. To hear Briggs tell it, the road to success was nothing but fun.

What made you decide to leave MicroProse, where you were responsible for such big games, and found Firaxis?

I wanted to start a company that approached things a little differently than what I’d been seeing around the industry. I wanted to make games that were creative and fun, but also weren’t one-shot deals. A lot of games that are developed are made to be popular for about six months and then you don’t hear anything more about them. I was interested in creating games that were the digital equivalent of Scrabble or Monopoly, games that get passed from generation to generation. I was really interested in the idea of someone giving their kid a game and saying, “You’ll love this, I played it all the time at your age.”

To build such evergreen games must be difficult, given how quickly technology changes. How do you adjust for that?

I think many companies look at what’s available in technology at the moment and figure out how to build games around that. We do the opposite. We try to come up with a good game that works with any technology. That’s what important for us, to think about the game play first and then look at how we can use technology to make it happen. If you have a good game, it doesn’t matter how the technology changes because you can update the game as needed. The hard part is coming up with a compelling game that has a good story.

Your games do seem more story-driven than many others. How else do your titles differ from what’s on the market?

We tend to pick topics that are intuitive to people, topics that people believe they already know about, that’s key. Most people don’t want to have to learn a lot in order to play it, so one of the hallmarks of our games is that they’re based on the real world. For example, one of our best-selling games is “Civilizations,” which has you discover stuff like the wheel, or currency, stuff that people already understand.

We also make the games replayable. Most other games are level-based, so you play through a level and beat it, then play the next level and so on, until you beat the game. Then you’re done. Ours are different, because we make the play different every time you play it, and they don’t have levels. It takes a lot of programming to do that, but it’s worth it. Many companies develop a game engine and then put scenarios or levels into it, but for us, it’s a question of creating one game world flexible enough to play over and over.

How much do you play your own games?

I was just playing this morning, actually. I’ve got the bug, I’m addicted. I think games are a good thing to be addicted to, especially if they have some socially redeeming value. We like to say we deliver stealth education, because you play the game and it’s cool, and you tend to walk away wanting to learn about that topic. The best thing that can happen is that someone plays our game and then goes to buy a book about Gettysburg or Egypt, or some other topic of the game.

How do you feel about all the controversy about how games are bad for kids, or promote violent behavior?

It always surprises me a bit when I hear about things like that. Games seem to have an aura of being bad for people, or they seem like they isolate kids from other people. But if you look at the statistics, you’ll see that 16 of the 20 best-selling games were rated E for everyone or T for teen, they’re not violent. Also, there’s a perception that gamers are alone in a dark room somewhere, but the vast majority of people that play games do so with friends and family.

Do you think the inclination to play games with other people is one of the factors driving online gaming?

Yes, I do, and I think that because of it, online gaming is only going to get bigger. It’s a positive for us, because online gaming puts fewer boundaries between our studio and the marketplace. All of our games have an online component, which improves the quality of the games, and gives people what they really want.

There are so many sites devoted to “Civilization,” and you have hardcore fans of all the other games as well. Do you get ideas from them about how to improve the games?

Most definitely. Whenever we announce that we’re going to do a new version of a game, we get tons of input from the people who play them, and that’s very gratifying. After we did “Civilization II,” we got a package in the mail from a player who had sent a treatise about improvement we could make. It was 200 pages, single-spaced, and jam-packed with ideas. That one was unusual because of its size, but we get things like that all the time.

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