May 9, 2013 at 1:40 PM ET
For gamers, the name "Sid Meier" is synonymous with sweeping epic strategy games like "Civilization." It came as a shock, then, when we heard Meier's latest game was going to iOS. After all, mobile platforms are best known for bite-sized casual games like "Draw Something" or "Temple Run." But while Meier admitted to NBC News that he's played "a lot of 'Angry Birds'" in his day, he said that he felt there is definitely "room for us to bring something new to the space of mobile gaming."
The result, a World War I dogfighting game called "Ace Patrol," is available now for iOS devices. Though Meier describes this as "flying game," it's a turn-based strategy game with an almost board-gamey feel. The result is something that works for iOS, Meier told NBC News, because "you can play at your own pace." Basically, it feels like a game of Risk, if Risk were played with WWI-era biplanes. The challenge lies in out-maneuvering your opponents and land a direct hit. More strategy game than flight simulator, "Ace Patrol" is uncharacteristically methodical and tactful compared to other mobile games.
Watching Meier walk through it on an iPad, it's hard not to pick up on the similarities he sees between the period of history portrayed in "Ace Patrol" and the current tumult of today's game industry.
"There was so much innovation and development in that short period of time because they were just kind of figuring things out," Meier said of the WWI era. And while he doesn't have all the answers for the game industry's current creative and commercial dilemmas, he's certainly excited about the untold future prospects of mobile gaming — of which, he insisted, game developers haven't even "scratched the surface."
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation with Meier:
"Ace Patrol" has a board game feel to it. Did you deliberately actions typical to mobile games, such as tilting the screen?
That would have been a different approach. If you're doing that and the phone rings, you're kind of like: "Ahhhhhhh!!!" We really wanted a sense of: "I can play this game whenever I want to as long as I want to and at my own pace." It would probably take two to three hours to play the game to its conclusion, but you can play it in whatever size chunks you want to.
It seems like you went straight from PC gaming to mobile, skipping consoles. What about mobile gadgets attracted you?
We wanted to do some strategy games on iOS basically. There's a core audience of "Civ" players that just like strategy games. Many of us are gravitating towards our iPads and our iPhones, so we're looking for games to play there as well. It's something that you carry around with you. If you've got a spare five minutes or whatever, you want to play a game!
In terms of game development, it's not really a big difference. It's kind of: how long does the game remain interesting? In a casual game, that's fairly short. It's fun, but it's only fun for so long. And then it doesn't evolve. A strategy game is going to grow and change and give you more as you continue into it.
We can't imagine a free-to-play version of "Civilization," but "Ace Patrol" is initially free, with in-app features you can pay for. What's changed?
Monetization is definitely a new area that's being explored. We honestly see a lot of questions about that. People are suspicious. You tell them it's free, they know it's not really free. They're just wondering how it's not really free: "What is the tactic you're gonna use on me this time to get me to pay?" So we're trying to be up-front about what it is—what's free and what's not. But we don't want you to pay to take the pain away. For us it's more: "Here's additional gameplay." If you want to play as the Germans, it's $1.99 for all the German planes and missions.
The difference between keyboard-and-mouse versus console controller can also be really extreme, but on mobile, we haven't really figure out the different things it can do yet, right?
On a console, you're going to play an action game very smoothly. On a PC, you've got the whole mouse and keyboard that can let you be very strategic. The iPad is actually closer in its interface to a PC, I think. It's hard to play an action game without every finger doing something. It's hard to do that on iOS, whereas the keyboard-and-mouse paradigm works very well there.
Now that you've made "Ace Patrol," what new elements are you now thinking about bringing to mobile gaming?
We haven't scratched the surface. For example: there's a GPS in here, right? That could be a cool part of your game — a game that knew where you were, and knew where other players were. That's something we haven't really exploited. There's a camera in there, a gyro in there ... there's not a phone in [the iPad], but there's a phone in your phone!
Right now, we're making games mostly based on our traditional models. But the future is to look at this piece of hardware and say: "What is unique and special about it?" It's always the second wave of games that really starts to take advantage of what's very unique and special about the platform.
When you were starting out making PC games, did you ever expect anything like the iPad? What was your expectation of the future — especially as someone who was making sci-fi games with near-future elements?
We didn't really know that it would evolve to this point. In the earlier days, it was a pretty hardcore group of gamers. It was a hobby, it was your hobby; that kind of defined you. In those days, if you said you were a gamer, you had to find other gamers. Today, if you're in high school, everybody's played the new "Call of Duty."
But we felt it had this potential to grow because it was more fun than those other hobbies! With consoles, there's just been this whole series of evolutions that brought gaming to a wider and wider audience. iOS is one of the latest steps. It's been fun to have been there in those early days and see how far we've come to really appreciate the changes over the years.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.