Remembering The House That Civilization Built

Illustration for article titled Remembering The House That Civilization Built

I don't tend to truly miss many video game studios. Businesses come and go, their developers move on, make new stuff, the world keeps spinning.


But on a weekly basis I find myself missing Microprose, who gave us Civilization. And X-Com. And Master of Orion. And Railroad Tycoon. And Master of Magic. And Falcon 4.0. And...OK, you get the idea. A lot of great stuff!

Microprose was founded in 1982 by two industry legends, Sid Meier and Bill Stealey. Combining Meier's love of history with Stealey's (at the time a serving Major in the United States Air Force) passion for military simulation, Microprose quickly made a name for itself with a series of successful sims like 1985's F-15 Strike Eagle and the original Silent Service submarine simulator.

The company took a turn in 1987 with the release of Sid Meier's Pirates! Not only was this kind of historical adventuring a departure from military simulation, but it marked the first time Meier - who only put his name on the box to ensure the company's hardcore fans knew it was an entirely different kind of game - used his name as an act of branding, one which would (and still does) come to be known as a seal of quality or sorts.

The company hit the big time in 1990-91, with the back-to-back release of two of the biggest-selling and most important strategy games ever released on the PC: Railroad Tycoon and Civilization. They would be followed by a string of hits (some internally developed, others made by smaller studios on publishing deals) like medieval RPG Darklands, unique bombing sim B-17 Flying Fortress and space strategy classic Master of Orion. There was also time for one of my favourite strategy games of all time, Napoleonic RT Fields of Glory. And those were just in the years 1992-93!

In 1994, Microprose had probably the best year of any PC developer in history, releasing three games that rank on many people's list of the greatest games on the platform of all time. The first of these was turn-based strategy title Master of Magic. The second, Meier's focused Civilization spin-off Colonization, which in many ways is a purer (and more enjoyable) version of the series than the main game. The third was the original X-Com, or as I knew it here in Australia, UFO: Enemy Unknown.

The critical and commercial success of these games masked a bit of turmoil behind the scenes at Microprose, however. In 1993 the company, which now comprised several studios in both the US and UK, was bought by Spectrum Holobyte, and a year later co-founder Stealey left Microprose. With Spectrum itself in financial trouble, it began shedding Microprose studios and staff in 1996, culminating in the departure of Sid Meier and fellow developer Jeff Briggs, who would go on to form Firaxis (who still develop Civilization titles to this day).


Adding to Microprose's woes was a messy 1997 lawsuit over the brand name Civilization (contested by both a board game company and rival publisher Activision) that resulted in the "counterfeit" game Civilization: Call to Power being released by Activision that had nothing to do with the original series.

In 1998 Microprose was sold to Hasbro, and by 1999 the majority of the company's staff began to find themselves unemployed as the once-mighty developer and publisher found itself being wound down. At least it went out with a bang, though: two of the last games to find success under the Microprose label were Mechwarrior 3 and Falcon 4.0, the latter of which has the greatest instruction manual ever printed.


By 2001 Microprose, now owned by Atari, ceased to exist in all but name, and the last game pushed out the door bearing the studio's name would be 2002's Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix 4.

A sad and ignominious end to such a mighty company that may have been, sold off and slowly shut down like a body dying of disease, but that's business. Nothing lasts forever. If you need cheering up after the fact, take a look at this list of games the company released as either developer or publisher and realise just how many of the greats - and if you're a PC gamer your personal favourites - were put out with the name Microprose on the front of the box.


Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.

You can contact Luke Plunkett, the author of this post, at You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.


Nick Ha

Oh c'mon, not even one mention? It came out in 1999 and was super duper successful for a video game of the time.