CIVilized conversation with Soren Johnson

Soren Johnson is best known for his work at Firaxis, where he’s been deeply involved in the Civilization series since its third incarnation. He was Project Lead on the definitive Civ IV, while still coding all the game’s artificial intelligence. Now he’s moved to Maxis to join Will Wright, working on the cutting edge of PC games design. And he knows a lot about post-punk records. Clearly, it was high time we had a chat with him.

Which landmark games inspired you?

Soren: The one which stood out for me was Seven Cities of Gold. And I know there’s a number of other people who say the same thing. At that point, we were so used to the repetitive stuff you saw in arcades, and here was this game which would create a random new world for you every time... when you were creating a continent, it actually took four or five minutes. It took so long your imagination was thinking... Wow! What’s going on inside my computer? And then it spits out this huge world for you to explore. The idea that there could be so much inside your computer, which could be so different and it wasn’t just randomly scattered. It looked intelligent... That really opened my eyes.

Fantastic. What else?

Soren: Sid [Meier] had a string of three games, which were hugely important in terms of making me think about what topics for games and how dynamic they could be. They were Pirates!, which he says was his response to Seven Cities of Gold. Then Railroad Tycoon, which showed how fun it was to run a business... That game was all about planning, these overlapping goals. And Civ just took it to the next level, with probably the best topic I could imagine for a game. That is, all of the world’s history. And obviously SimCity was a huge one. I played a ton of that on my Mac.

Recently we’ve been thinking about how history could have been different if certain things never happened. Imagine a world without Civ...

Soren: I remember when it came out. The thing that was funny to me is that there was no sense of surprise. It was obvious that someone should make a game like this. Railroad Tycoon had come out. SimCity had come out. Populous had come out. Someone was going to make a great game about the history of the world. If Sid hadn’t made it, it would have gotten made. Sid did it brilliantly of course. [But] he wasn’t the only person working on it. Chris Crawford was working on his own game - Guns and Butter, I think - and Dan Button, the guy who did MULE and Seven Cities, was working on his own idea. And these are great game designers... but Sid’s the one who managed to work out how it worked. To me, it’s interesting that while it’s clear that game was going to happen, a lot of the specifics of how the game played out depended on what Sid decided to do... which means there must be other ways to do a history of the world.