Sid Meier lets fly with mobile game -- and why you'll be happy to pay

CNET sits down with the gaming legend as he talks about his first foray into mobile gaming with Ace Patrol.

Take the skies on your iPhone or iPad with "Ace Patrol." 2K

Sid Meier is not a fan of "freemium."

The model of giving a game away only to charge for extras such as new levels, features, or power-ups, has swept up the mobile gaming industry, much to the chagrin of gamers who would prefer to pay once for the complete experience.

Meier, a legend in the gaming business thanks to his beloved "Civilization" franchise, couldn't agree more.

"It's about designing unhappiness," Meier told CNET in an interview on Friday. "You have to design a game so not fun that people will pay to make it fun. That kind of goes against the grain of game design."

Meier's new game -- and first foray into the mobile world -- is "Sid Meier's Ace Patrol," a turn-based strategy game based on World War I fighter planes. Rather than embrace the freemium model of many others, he is using a "try to buy" model in which the first few levels are free, and each nationality is $1.99 (for a total of four). The entire game can be purchased for $5.

Under this model, the quality of the game and its ability to make money are pushing in the same direction, Meier said. But with freemium, those two motivations start to diverge, and game makers have to deny some features and access in order to make money.

"That's a situation we don't want to get ourselves into," he said.

Meier's comments contrast with many in the gaming industry, including giant Electronic Arts, which has fully embraced freemium with many of its mobile games.

"The vocal minority lashed out at freemium," Nick Earl, vice president of EA's mobile and social studios, told CNET in March. "We respect them and understand, but the market has spoken. That's just where things are going."

Ace Patrol, meanwhile, is a return to roots of sorts for Meier, whose first game, a fighter simulation called Spitfire Ace, came out more than 30 years ago. But rather than a frenetic shooter, Ace Patrol relies on a top down view and game-play that would be familiar to any Civilization veterans. The player starts with one fighter, and slowly builds up his squadron and catalogue of maneuvers, which can be collected and used like playing cards.

"It's all the coolness of flying World War I planes, but in a turn-based iOS-friendly format," he said

Ace Patrol will be released on iOS devices on Thursday. That Meier built a game specifically for iOS speaks to the gaming industry's shift to mobile. Meier has traditionally built games for the personal computer, with some of his franchises branching out into console or mobile gaming at a later point. Even as some question the longevity of console gaming, the market and interest for games on smartphones have exploded.

A mobile device, by virtue of the fact that gamers hold and touch the screen, is more intimate and provides a more direct connection, Meier said.

"There are new things you have to integrate into the game," he said.

For instance, gamers can rotate and move the battleground, which displays ally and enemy planes on the battlefield. That kind of 3D motion lends itself well to touch, he said.

"Ace Patrol" cuts into brief cinematics like this one when you engage in a dogfight. 2K

The game features a cartoon-like quality to the graphics, and staffers of developer Firaxis, including Meier, are featured as the Ace pilots you can recruit.

Meier opted to do a turn-based game rather than a real-time strategy game or simulation because he said it lent itself better to the kind of casual gaming one would do on a mobile device.

On why it's launching on iOS, he said he got direction from his publisher, 2K games, to start with that platform. In addition, he felt more comfortable with it because he personally uses an iPhone 4 and iPad. 2K said there are no plans for an Android version now.

Real Racing 3 accelerates EA's "freemium" push

The larger emphasis by the industry to move into mobile games comes as the big console makers, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, are making a push with their next-generation consoles. Nintendo is already selling its Wii U, which hasn't really caught on, while Sony held an event to discuss its PlayStation 4 in February (without actually showing off the hardware). Microsoft is expected to unveil the next Xbox at an event later this month.

Meier said he's interested in the next-generation consoles, but didn't say whether he would create any games for that platform.

"It depends on what's suitable," he said.

With the constant improvement in the PC arena, he understood the need by the console makers to up their game in terms of graphics and performance. He said the console makers also understand the need to make their hardware more relevant, acting not only as a gaming device but the entertainment hub of a living room.

On Civilization, the game that brought him such acclaim, Meier said he no longer has an active role in the development of the games. Instead, he praised folks such as Civilization V lead designer Jon Shafer, who he said grew up on the franchise.

"I talk to them, but they are leading that now," he said.

That doesn't mean Meier is standing still.

"You can count on us to keep working and make more games," he said.

 

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