For two decades, Sid Meier has remained atop the video game world by constantly refining and improving Civilization, a game he invented in which players build virtual empires. Now, Meier is gunning for the latest must-conquer territory on the gaming landscape: Facebook. This summer, Meier’s company, Firaxis Games, is introducing CivWorld, a scaled-down version of Civilization aimed at casual gamers on the social network. “You could spend hours doing this,” Meier says as he plants an orchard near the virtual city he has created in CivWorld.
Civilization has sold more than 10 million copies over the past 20 years by challenging gamers to create nations and achieve global dominance through diplomacy, trading, war, and scientific development. That success has earned Meier accolades in the industry. Game reviewer Gamespot.com in 1996 proclaimed him one of the world’s most influential game designers, “our Hitchcock, our Spielberg, our Ellington.”
In the Facebook version, CivWorld players must work with each other to develop a city and keep it safe from rivals, while in the PC and console version individuals simply face off against the machine and don’t need to cooperate with anyone. And where players of Civilization often spend hours at a stretch in front of their computers, Meier expects CivWorld will be played in 15-minute chunks among friends and family.
CivWorld is going up against social- gaming juggernaut Zynga, whose FarmVille and Empires & Allies (similar to Civilization) have delivered 257 million monthly users, according to researcher AppData. That’s a third more than play games offered by Zynga’s top five rivals combined. Executives across the industry are wondering where revenues will come from as sales of packaged games falter; in July, games sold in stores fell to their lowest level since 2006. “Social gaming could play an important role in the growth of our business,” says Strauss Zelnick, chairman of Take-Two Interactive (TTWO), which bought Firaxis in 2005.
Zynga makes the bulk of its money from convincing players to pay for special features that give them an advantage in games. While Meier is pursuing a similar strategy in CivWorld, even Zynga has had trouble prying much money out of the vast majority of players, who demonstrate little interest in moving beyond free versions. Zynga, which on July 1 filed for a public offering expected to raise $1 billion, says it gets the majority of its revenue from less than 1 percent of users. “It helps to have a brand name like Sid Meier attached to your game, but that’s no guarantee of success with all the competition out there,” says analyst Edward Woo at Wedbush Securities.
Meier is counting on the social-networking effort to attract new players to his console games. He says he hopes some users who play the more limited CivWorld will pay $60 for a console version of Civilization, which has better graphics and more ways to play, though he’s uncertain how many will actually do so. “Everyone is trying to figure out ‘Are [Facebook players] going to become avid gamers, or is Facebook a short-term thing?’ ” Meier says.
While Meier insists CivWorld will offer a rich social-networking experience, he acknowledges that it’s been a challenge to adapt his game to the new platform. On a sweltering summer day, Meier logs in from Firaxis’s headquarters in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley, Md., to watch testers create their virtual realms. As these people plant gardens and build fortifications, Meier explains that he hadn’t anticipated that some players developing city-states would want to include only friends on their teams. While it’s not always easy to anticipate how the social network’s users will play the game, he says, that makes his work more interesting. “There’s been a stigma about Facebook games, that they were not real games,” Meiersays. “That’s changed.”