In good news, instead of us telling you what we think of the book (TL;DR: thumbs-up), we thought we’d let Meier himself regale you with an exclusive Ars Technica reprint of a chapter. Most of the book’s chapters combine Meier’s personal stories with a focus on a specific game, and this one, about 2008’s Civilization Revolution, is as much an explanation of its PC-to-console transition as it is a lesson on game-industry history and on game design.
My own first exposure to video games was, like most people my age, the venerable black-and-white tennis match known as Pong. There was a small restaurant down the street from General Instrument where some of us would hang out and have dinner after work, and at some point they installed this weird little table in the lounge with a television screen facing upward underneath the plexiglass surface. The idea was you could set your drinks and bar snacks on it while you played, but it seemed irreverent to eat on the surface of a TV, so most evenings we would just wander over to play a few rounds before returning to our normal, wooden tables. The most memorable thing about it was that one side of the cabinet had somehow ended up wired backwards, sending the little white line to the left side of the screen when the player turned the knob to the right. So we had always agreed that whoever was more skilled had to sit on the broken side to compensate—perhaps my earliest experience in balancing gameplay.
Rotating dial controls were sometimes called “spinners” in arcade hardware terminology, and truly inveterate nerds recognized them as either potentiometers or rheostats, depending on their function. But to the general public, they were incongruously known as “paddles,” due to their original table tennis associations. A year after Pong’s release, the first four-way gaming joystick—a word which, oddly enough, had its roots in early airplane controls—made its debut in the arcade game Astro Race. It caught on quickly, and by 1977, the Atari 2600 home console offered a standardized plug that could support a potentially limitless number of third-party controllers, in addition to the five different styles produced by Atari themselves.
The market responded. A 1983 issue of Creative Computing Magazine included a 15,000-word hardware review comparing 16 different joystick brands and eight unique paddle sets, plus eight converters for the less-common plugs those accessories might be required to fit. Some of the products were surprisingly forward-thinking, like Datasoft’s “Le Stick,” which detected motion through a set of liquid-mercury switches that triggered whenever the freestanding cylinder was tilted more than 20 degrees in any direction. It’s easy to see why it didn’t last, but toxic metals aside, Datasoft deserves credit for predating the motion sensor craze by a quarter of a century.
Soon, however, the third-party manufacturers fell away, and an evolutionary split emerged. On one side, the traditional knobs, buttons, and joysticks of arcade cabinets consolidated into a single proprietary controller for each console system. On the other, the personal computer industry began to drift toward more established business peripherals, namely the mouse and alphanumeric keyboard. Major gaming companies tried to straddle the gap for as long as they could, but in late 1983, the North American console market crashed, with previous annual revenues of $3.2 billion plunging to just $100 million by 1985. The drop was so devastating to Atari in particular that the whole event was simply known as “Atari shock” in Japan. For various reasons, the Japanese market remained stable, and with every console company in America either bankrupt or pivoting sharply to the PC, Japan emerged as the home console champion for the next 20 years.
MicroProse dips its toes into consoles
Of course there were still regular computers in Japan, too. MicroProse [Meier’s original games publisher] had released translations of nearly every game since F-15 Strike Eagle onto Japanese machines like the MSX, FM Towns, and PC-98. Likewise, there were console owners in America who played English translations of games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. But the culture of each format was firmly rooted in its respective country, and very few games successfully crossed over. It was like baseball versus cricket: you’d find fans of each worldwide, but rarely individual fans of both, and never professionals who played both, despite the relative similarity of their athleticism.
Mechanical differences did play a partial role in the divide, at least from our perspective. It was hard to replicate the subtle movement of a computer mouse with a console’s directional pad and floating cursor or to fit as much text on the screen when console players typically sat several feet away. Personally, I don’t feel like the problem was mutual—we had more keys than they had buttons—but that’s probably not surprising given which half of the industry I work in. Plenty of people have argued that certain console games could never feel intuitive on a PC, and given our processing and graphical differences at the time, maybe they were right. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve already acknowledged that I own at least as many consoles as computers.
Silent Service makes some noise
But the embargo between the two formats couldn’t all be chalked up to controllers, as even games with simple interfaces often failed in their opposing market. It wasn’t until 1989 that MicroProse first attempted to convert Silent Service—which was by that point thriving in 13 different computer formats—to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Western console owners were considered such a long shot that we didn’t even bother with a Japanese version, despite having translations readily available from the PC-98. If any Japanese fans were broad-minded enough to accept our game on the console, we would just have to hope they spoke English as well.
I don’t remember whether the NES version made any money, but my guess is that it didn’t, because we went back to ignoring the platform for the next several games. Even Gunship, which was successfully ported to five different computers in Japan alone, didn’t get a console release in any language. We eventually dipped our toe in the water a few more times—Pirates! saw a pretty successful conversion to the NES, and F-15 Strike Eagle II made a respectable appearance on the Sega Genesis. But meanwhile, the Super NES version of Railroad Tycoon was cancelled mid-development, and Covert Action went in the opposite direction and became our first port to Linux on the PC instead.