My introduction to the games of Sid Meier came at my friend Richard's house in the late 1980's. The game was Pirates, and it was a blast to play.
Next came Sid's Railroad Tycoon, which spawned a whole new gaming genre. I played Railroad Tycoon to death, including busting the scoring mechanism multiple times and figuring out how to "halt" the score before the scoring bug would hit, to post the maximum possible score on the high score boards. Then I did it for each of the four maps. Railroad Tycoon came out (I think) in 1990, and I was still playing it as late as 1995. "Games that stand the test of time." Sid didn't make Railroad Tycoon II, but I had a blast with that, too.
My friend Wayne introduced me to Railroad Tycoon in late 1991, and I remember both Richard and I staying over at his apartment for days on end, playing RT1. A running joke started amongst my friends when one day I was playing RT1 and Wayne asked me if I wanted some of the food the guys had ordered in, and I turned to him and "answered" his question by informing him of some new discovery I had just made on the US East map. They all laughed, and I am told that they asked me several more questions, including some wild and wacky stuff, and all answers came back something Railroad Tycoon, because I was completely oblivious of anything other than the game. That whole incident became our metaphor for "immersion into a game" as you can imagine, and I got teased about it for years.
Then Wayne got Civilization. At one point, I practically moved into his house for two months, playing Civ all day while he was at work. My first bare knuckles PC I got (used) was obtained so I could play Civ to death. And play it to death I did, topping off with a 456% score obtained on the largest, most fertile possible map type, including exploitation of the settler bug. (My best "clean" score was just under 300%).
As much as I loved Civ, though, I burnt out on it pretty badly. The AI... *shudder*
The AI in Railroad Tycoon was no big prize, either. It was not even competing by the same rules as the player (one of the grandest achievements of RT2 is that there is a real AI in there, which plays the game just like you do).
Neither the Civ1 AI nor the RT1 AI could provide me with a meaningful challenge. The challenges in these games came from competing with myself, trying to max my scores, exploring every viable and interesting game plan available. Once I'd been there and done that, there was nothing left to do.
I skipped Colonization, too fresh off of my painful eventual divorce from Civ1. I tried Civ2 at Wayne's house and hated it. "It's just more of the same, only longer." I hated the AI. The Civ1 AI was programmed to declare war on specific dates (on Emperor difficulty, at least) and that grew quite tedious after a while. That is only the start of my gripes with it. The games always played out the same, after I reached a high level of proficiency. Civ2 AIs were not significantly stronger. In fact, in some ways there a tad weaker and just as predictable.
After sampling Civ2, I passed on it. By then I had joined the aborning internet gaming revolution and was immersed in the intensity of playing Descent against live human opponents. Descent (single or multiplayer) is the most intensive strategy game I have ever played. That it's a 3D First Person Shooter is beside the point. Shooters at their best, when well balanced, can be played out on a huge variety of maps, each with its own unique blend of strategic subtleties. They are (or can be) bigger games than most "strategy" games. That's quite a setting in which to play games, but it ultimately relies on connection quality to play multiplayer, and one can tire of connection inequities (for -or- against you). Too many instances of bad connections spoiling the fun or leading somebody to become upset and angry is just as damaging to my fun as an AI who always does the same things over and over. Even gaming paradise has its limits.
I passed on Sid's Alpha Centauri. That's how deep and abiding my Civ burnout had been. While millions continued to enjoy the Civ line of games, I was staying far away, watching, waiting, hoping. I longed to return, but not until the games got better. Better AI, better diplomacy, better game balance. Alpha Centauri had some of that, but not enough to lure me back.
Wayne gave me his battered, worn old copy of Civ2 Gold in 1999. After all, he had Alpha Centauri to play, and he was loving it. I took the Civ2 disk home and installed it. I played some here or there, and I came to appreciate many things about it. I avoided overdoing it, and I had finally gained enough distance from my Civ1 burnout to feel lukewarm toward the franchise. In 2001, when I heard that Civ3 was coming out, I checked out the hype and my spirits were lifted by what I read. The AI was not going to repeat the "player vs the world" scenario of which I had grown bored. I got out Civ2 and played it some more, to warm up.
When Civilization III came out in 2001, it was the game that I had been waiting for for most of a decade. FINALLY, the franchise broke new ground in terms of core gameplay, and I could play the game without rubbing myself raw against obsolete game mechanics of which I had had my fill. Civ was fun again, and I dove in all the way.
My Civ1 enthusiasm was back again for Civ3, and I decided to share my excitement with others by creating my own fansite.
My excitement and the depth of my passion for Civ3 showed in my writings, and folks at Firaxis caught wind of my efforts. They chose my site as one of only a few that they featured on civ3.com.
Soren Johnson (Civ3's AI programmer) liked my fansite, liked the writing. I did not produce dry reports of fact. My writings included lots of good humor and candid reporting. I kept my criticisms fair and clean, and I dished out praise in the same fashion, proportionate and sincere. On occasion, Soren may have relied on my fansite reports to help him identify deeper issues for patching. Not many folks write about the game in depth, and even fewer assembled their writings into accessible forms. At my site, Soren could pop in when he wanted, learn within a few seconds if I had written anything new and go directly to the new content, knowing that my site would never waste his time.
Soren wrote to me at one point, and that is where direct contact initiated. He's a nice guy, and I especially appreciate his affection for candid talk. We developed a degree of mutual trust and respect. After that, when I ran across bugs, I sent my bug reports directly to him. When he asked, I provided saved games or screenshots to go along with the bugs to help pin them down. I sent him a heads-up now and then about important games that had been played amongst the members of the Realms Beyond community, whenever results turned up new insights about the performance of his AI. Sometimes I critiqued AI behaviors. Most of our interactions were on his initiative, and when I did contact him, I kept it brief and to the point. I did all of this without seeking attention from any of it. I never tried to get anything out of Soren or Firaxis.
I turned down the opportunity to participate in the beta for Civ3's second expansion pack, Conquests. I told Soren that I would help him out with stuff off the top of my head, but that if Firaxis wanted more, if they wanted me to spend significant time working to help them with deeper issues, that they would have to pay me. Soren said that was out of his power at the time but that he appreciated whatever help I was willing to offer. Because of our good relationship, I took some time to help him out. Soren wanted suggestions for improvements that could be made without requiring new programming widgets, so I gathered a list of suggestions, minor balance tweaks. I assembled them into a mod and tested the mod out in the open in succession games at CivFanatics. Most of my suggestions were used, including changes to the space race, some Great Wonders, and citizen specialists.
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