The creator of Civilization, and granddaddy of prefixing game titles with the lead designer's name, then suffixing it with inexplicable exclamation marks, has won back a lost child. The Railroad Tycoon series departed from the station and ran off with another developer after his company, Firaxis, fathered the first one in 1990. Now though, it's come back to Papa, and is retitled as Sid Meier's Railroads! On the eve-ish of its release, Eurogamer chatted with one of videogaming's oldest and most respected luminaries about trains, hats and Stairway to Heaven.
Eurogamer: Whereabouts are you at with Railroads? Is it finished now?
Sid Meier: We have gone gold, it's in production and I think it's gonna be on sale 27th October.
Eurogamer: You must be glad to have it finished?
Sid Meier: It was a little bit of a relief to finish the game. We're working on a demo and some other things and then we're really done. It's a happy time to have a project completed.
Eurogamer: Do you have any traditions you do when you finish a game?
Sid Meier: We have what we call our Mastering Hats, which are funny hats we wear when we think the game's just about to be finished, cos we're always waiting for that last bug or we have to go through testing. So it's a good luck charm, we put on our mastering hats and wait to hear that everything's OK. Also, when we hear the game's in stores we have a little party and celebrate. People have put in lots of hours, lots of overtime, so we try and release the tension of all of it and have a bit of fun.
Eurogamer: So how do you refer to the game in the office? Do you call it 'Railroads' or the whole "Sid Meier's Railroads!", with the exclamation mark and everything?
Sid Meier: [Laughs]. Nah, we just call it Railroads. We drop the Sid Meier. Actually, we called it Railroad Tycoon for a long time because our original title was 'Railroad Tycoon Rerouted'. There was the Matrix Reloaded, so we thought it would be funny to call it Railroad Tycoon Rerouted, but it ended up being Railroads. A nice snappy name, rolls equally off the tongue.
Eurogamer: Did you have the option to call it Railroad Tycoon 4?
Sid Meier: I believe so. That name is owned by [Firaxis' parent company] Take 2, but it just didn't seem like the right thing to do.
Eurogamer: Do you see this as a sequel to the Railroad Tycoon series, or as a whole new game?
Sid Meier: It's more that Tycoon has gone off in a different direction [note - Railroad Tycoon II and III were developed by Popcap Games, rather than Firaxis]. There have been a zillion tycoon games, and not all of them are of the highest quality, so it was just a genre that we didn't really want to become part of.
Eurogamer: So if it's not tycoon game, what is it?
Sid Meier: Well, everything that you think is cool about railroads is in this game. Basically ,we tried to combine what's called a model railroad - the operating parts, the steam coming off the engines, the people getting on and off the trains, the loading and unloading of the cargo - with some of the strategy of actually operating a railroad, having to make money, choose routes and schedule your trains, take advantage of the newer technology, the different engines and things like that. So it's kind of all the fun stuff about railroads in one game.
Eurogamer: Does it still have much in common with 1829, the boardgame that inspired your original Railroad Tycoon PC game?
Sid Meier: In a few ways, yes. It kind of lets you enjoy the history of railroads, it takes you through a hundred or more years of railroad history in one game, so you get to start with the very primitive steam engines, then see the evolution of diesel and electric. With a computer game, we can just do so much more in terms of bringing the world to life, and bringing in the visuals and sounds and things like that. So it builds on the ideas of 1829, but really we've turned it into a full computer gaming experience.
Eurogamer: How much of a train nut are you yourself?
Sid Meier: I remember when I was a kid, having some model trains and working with my father to build track and things like that. It's a pleasant memory from my childhood. I'm not fanatic about it, but it's a lot of fun and we capture a lot of that fun in the game. You don't need to be a hardcore railroad nut to play the game, but if you think trains are fun and interesting, it's enjoyable to play.
Eurogamer: On that note, is there any concern that it is a very specialist subject matter and that may preclude it finding as wide an audience as, say, Civilization has?
Sid Meier: I think that's a question we try and convey with the advertising, with the demos, the website, that it's very accessible, easy to play, cool to look at and you don't have to be a fanatic about trains to play it. But, y'know, there may be some people that don't like trains and won't wanna play the game. We try and pick topics that have a lot of richness to them, a lot of possibilities, and this seemed like one. Going back to the original Railroad Tycoon, a lot of people have said to us "I really enjoyed that game, there was something about it." So there's quite a few people out there who do like railroads, and maybe a few that don't, but hopefully the few that like it will really enjoy this one.
Eurogamer: Are you expecting the people who do play it to spend most of their time building stuff in the sandbox mode, or playing it competitively, either against AI or online?
Sid Meier: I think there's something there for a lot of different styles of gamers. If you want to just build the railroad of your dreams, you can play in sandbox mode and have unlimited funds, or if you wanna play competitive you can play the computer, or if you want to play a social game you can play against other people. There's a lot of different types of game, depending on what you enjoy the most.
Eurogamer: But traditionally speaking, how do most people play your Railroad games?
Sid Meier: I think probably the single-player game, against the computer railroads. People like to try different strategies without other people watching. When they've gotten good at the game, maybe then they go out and start playing multiplayer.