This series of Top 10 lists focuses on several of the companies that have had the most significant impact on the video game industry through their development of many of the most influential and revolutionary video games ever created. More than just an overview of the companies, however, the goal of this list series is to be something of a step back into the shaping of the industry. This series will attempt to take us back through the evolution of the industry, as seen through the eyes of the companies that made that evolution happen. Console design is important, but at the end of the day, the video game industry is an industry of just that: games. The industry is driven by the companies that design the best games.

A few bits of housekeeping before I get started: first of all, game development is an inherently muddled process, and oftentimes it is difficult to draw lines around who developed which game. At times, this may lead to disagreement over who the developer of a particular game truly is; however, with how quickly the industry changes and the speed with which companies are bought, sold, and changed, there is never truly a black and white to what constitutes one developer's library. Secondly, there will be a lot of differentiation in the sizes of the libraries described in these lists. As such, in certain lists, I will refrain from including more than one game from one franchise and instead use one game as a stand-in for the series as a whole; in other lists, multiple games from the same franchise may be listed. Lastly, while I have a list of companies I plan to look at eventually, I am always looking for suggestions on what company to cover next; if you would like to make a suggestion, you can drop by the Top 10 List discussion board, contact me through my contributor profile, or visit either of my websites that cross-post these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com.

This week, I’ll be talking about Firaxis.

After Sid Meier departed from the company he founded, MicroProse, he co-founded Firaxis games with fellow MicroProse designers Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds. Like MicroProse, Firaxis focused mainly on PC games, most often in the strategy genre that Sid Meier essentially designed. Firaxis reacquired the rights to the Civilization franchise, but in an interesting development, they never needed to reacquire the most recognizable part of their developments at MicroProse: Sid Meier's name itself. Sid Meier's name was still emblazoned on many of Firaxis's developments, given his actual role at the company – it's difficult to retain a copyright on the name of an employee that no longer works for you. At Firaxis, Meier continued to do what he does best, releasing several incredibly high-quality strategy games that have gone on to be recognized as among the greatest games ever created in any genre. At times, this took the company back through its MicroProse roots, redeveloping old games with new hardware capabilities or revisiting their past games in new expansion packs. At times, the company even found itself in the odd position of effectively competing with its: the company's third major release, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, was specifically developed to compete with Civilization II, the brainchild of Firaxis executive Brian Reynolds that was still running strong three years after release. All but one of the company's titles are prefixed with Sid Meier's name.

Several times, Firaxis has revisited games that were previously developed at MicroProse, with one of the notable examples being the 2006 release Sid Meier's Railroads!. Railroad Tycoon, you'll recall, was released in 1990 and marked one of the founding cornerstones of the 'tycoon' genre, as well as pushing Sid Meier's development efforts toward the simulation strategy realm rather than the military simulations on which he had previously focused. The series went on to spawn five games, though Meier was only involved in the earliest ones. Sid Meier's Railroads! is an updated version of that. Like the original, the game puts the player in charge of a new railroad company, tasking them with constructing entire new industries based around their delivery mechanisms. While the game was never quite as much of a hit as the original, it was still a welcome update on the game concept.

The key different in Sid Meier's Railroads! was raising the level of abstraction at which the player works. Previous versions focused primarily on laying tracks, constructing stations, and lower-level elements of managing the business. Sid Meier's Railroads!, by contrast, put the player more in the role of managing technology and playing the role of an executive. Terrain systems were much larger and more sprawling, and tracks were laid more automatically compared to the manual approach used in earlier games. The game also featured a head-to-head mode wherein up to four players competed to construct the most successful company in the same world.

Almost all of Firaxis's games have been developed for PC (Sid Meier's Pirates in 2004 was later ported to consoles), but in 2008, the company tried its hand at bringing its most famous franchise to a console audience. 4X genre games, like real-time strategy games, are famously rather difficult to play with a controller-based console, given the flexibility and controls necessary to play them effectively. Past attempts at porting real-time strategy games to consoles have largely been subpar, with the Nintendo 64 StarCraft port providing one of the highest-profile examples. With Civilization Revolution, however, Firaxis opted to attempt to design a game from the ground up with the console release in mind, hopefully being able to dodge the problems that plague the genre on consoles with a good, focused design.

This was accomplished by effectively simplifying and streamlining the gameplay of the game to be playable with a controller. This approach accomplished a dual purpose: not only did it bring the 4X genre to a simpler control scheme, but it also brought the complicated genre to a more casual audience. It was now possible to play Civilization without being the type of micromanager that some past games required. The end result was one of the few well-rated strategy games to be released for a console: it received high scores across the board for every version, although the Nintendo DS and iPhone iterations were not quite as acclaimed as their big-console brethren.

After splitting off from MicroProse and forming Firaxis, the first game Meier and his collaborators produced was the 1997 real-time strategy game Sid Meier's Gettysburg. In a slight departure from the earlier games he had produced, Gettysburg focused less on building up a civilization and more simply on military tactics. In a way, that represented a simplification of the more full-featured earlier games, but it also allowed the design to delve more into the actual military tactics of the simulation. One of the more interesting elements of the game is that unlike many real-time strategy games that effectively require the player to complete the mission as written to proceed, Gettsyburg is built to explore alternative possibilities as well. If the battles do not go the way history dictated they actually occurred, the player continues and explores the ramifications of the alternative history (within the single battle, that is).

The game spawned a direct sequel a year later in Sid Meier's Antietam. Built on the same engine, the game is very reminiscent of the original, providing the same kind of alternative history exploration of the Battle of Antietam. This is not the only time when the Gettsyburg engine was reused either, as BreakAway games, itself composed of several of MicroProse's old staff members (as well as Origin's), developed a series of games based on Napoleon's conquests for the same engine. BreakAway games would also collaborate with Firaxis on Antietam, and would later collaborate on Civilization III as well.

The latest Civilization game, Civilization V, was released in 2010. On the whole, it matches most of the previous games in its scope and intent; the player is still tasked with guiding a new civilization into the future, achieving victory in a variety of ways. The differences between Civilization V and its predecessors are likely most clear to fans of the game and the genre; changes included a shift from square to hexagonal tiles, the creation of computer-controlled miniature civilizations for trade and conquering, and an overhauled battle system.

Although the game still bears his name on its cover, Sid Meier's involvement with the development was rather hands-off. Jon Shafer, a long-time mod developer and intern at Firaxis, rose through the ranks and eventually was tasked with the lead developer position for Civilization V. The game was received well, but arguably was a disappointment for the franchise; it might seem strange that a game that received 9+ ratings across the board could be considered a disappointment, but that itself is a testament to the quality of the Civilization series over the years. The past games in the series were arguably among the greatest (and inarguably among the most popular) games ever created, and while Civilization V was a very solid 4X strategy game, it may not have quite lived up to its series' high expectations. The computer AI is especially a point of weakness for the game, and some of the simplifications did not sit well with long0time fans.

No, it's not just a weird sense of déjà vu: I've talked about Sid Meier's Pirates! before. Two games have been released under that title: the 1987 hit game that started MicroProse's move toward tycoon/simulation games, and the 2004 remake. Sid Meier and Firaxis reacquired the rights to the title to put out this update. The game was also one of the only Firaxis games to find a release outside of the PC; after its initial release for Windows in 2004, it was ported to Xbox, PSP, Xbox 360, Wii, iPad, and Windows Phone over the years (with each subsequent port, of course, growing more and more distant from the original).

The game never quite reached the level of acclaim that the original reached, but that standard would never have been fair: the original changed the industry as a whole, paving the way for an entire genre in which the latter Pirates! becomes only a single instantiation. The game was still highly well-received, considered a worthy update on the classic formula. In particular, many reviewers marveled at how the game managed to update the graphics and sound to create an immersive environment while sticking to the game's classic bread-and-butter gameplay. Pirates! was also successful in maintaining the original game's allowance for multiple gameplay styles; while many similar games are imbalanced in favor of certain gameplay styles (and you might expect a game titled Pirates! to favor, you know, being a pirate), Pirates! remains balanced and enjoyable in a variety of play styles.

2002 brought arguably one of the dreamiest collaborations in gaming: two of the most recognized game designers in development history, Sid Meier and Will Wright (of Maxis fame), collaborating to bring us Sid Meier's SimGolf. Not to be confused with the Maxis title from six years earlier that never really took off, Sid Meier's SimGolf united the two simulation-oriented minds toward a much more full golf creation simulation. Rather than just simulating the creation of an individual golf course, players are instead tasked with running the entire golfing operation, picking up on Meier's earlier career in developing games like Railroad Tycoon. Will Wright's experience at Maxis did not differ at all, and he brought experience in making the game a bit more managerial, with the player tasked with hiring groundskeepers, installing refreshment vendors, and other elements of successful business management.

It is thus a bit sad that the collaboration never totally took off. The game received a warm, but not overly excited, reception, and much of its attention was based more on the Wright-Meier collaboration than the content of the game itself. The game may have also suffered from a lack of audience: the tycoon games typically have rather niche appeal, and adding in a content area that is not universally appealing (unlike the similar RollerCoaster Tycoon, which draws on a bigger casual fanbase) may have missed the opportunity to bring more fans in. For this that played, though, the collaboration was a treat to behold.

The various Civilization games are all very similar – don't get me wrong, they're all very, very good, but they're all also very similar. What that means is that after writing about four of them in the span of two weeks, I'm kind of sort of running out of things to say about them. It goes without saying that Civilization IV was a solid, well-acclaimed game. It received scores in the upper ranges across the board, as well as several Game of the Year awards, both specifically for its genre and its console and for gaming as a whole (from those rare vendors that give PC games a fair shake in such awards). It's also received consideration for the best game of all time in its genre and console. None of this is much of a surprise.

So, what's interesting about it? It spawned two expansion sets, Warlords and Beyond the Sword. It also was used to build a remake of the original Sid Meier's Colonization. Maybe one of the more interesting elements is that the game is significantly more easily modifiable than past versions of the game; the game ships with a world builder, and the source code has been released in the form of a development kit to allow for modification of the game's AI, as well as many other principles. Although the game itself is, of course, not written in the language, many of the extraneous elements are written in Python, making them relatively easy to modify.

As the first Civilization released by Meier at his new company, Civilization III mercifully gives me a bit more to write about. Civilization II, you'll recall, was actually released by MicroProse after (or shortly before) Meier's departure, and he had relatively little to do with the game's development. Instead, that game was designed primarily by Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds, the former of whom also served as the lead game designer for Civilization III. If you're starting to wonder what exactly Sid Meier was doing all this time, then don't worry, so am I. The continued success of games with his name on them, though, has preserved the power of affixing "Sid Meier's" to the start of a game title, regardless of his actual level of involvement.

Like basically every Civilization game, the game was released to near universal acclaim, won several Game of the Year awards, received multiple expansion packs, and remains popular to this day. If that's starting to sound like a broken record, then good; that fact alone should serve to demonstrate the dominance and quality of the Civilization franchise. This is a franchise where excellence is expected and normal. The anticipation that surrounds new Civilization releases can be matched only by the most immensely popular franchises in gaming, such as the Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy series (with the former's significantly more conservative number of releases making it a much stronger parallel). The very fact that the franchise can take that level of success for granted is, ironically, a testament to its success.

Only one game on this list, and indeed only one game in Firaxis's entire library, was published without Sid Meier's name affixed to the front: their most recent release, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rewind in time and recall that X-COM: UFO Defense was developed by MicroProse Games (along with Mythos Games) back in 1994; despite commercial success, the game would go on to be considered something of a cult classic rather than a popular hit. That game would also spawn numerous sequels, although few if any reached anywhere near the same level of acclaim as the original. The series lay dormant for over ten years, after the lukewarm reception received by the 2001 Hasbro release X-COM: Enforcer.

Firaxis, though, acquired the license to create a new game in the franchise, and the result was a doozy. Released only a few months ago, the game has received nearly universal acclaim. Several outlets, including Game Spy, Giant Bomb, and GameTrailers, named it their own Game of the Year, and the game is far and away Firaxis's most acclaimed hit outside its iconic Civilization series. Perhaps the most notable achievement for XCOM was its ability to span console boundaries. As discussed above, strategy games are famously better-suited for PC than for consoles, but the dominance of consoles in general has limited the genre's growth potential. XCOM somehow manages to create a successful strategy game for a console – no small achievement for a company that almost exclusively develops for PC.

Perhaps, then, it is ironic that arguably the best game Firaxis ever developed wasn't a Civilization game at all, but rather a game developed in part to compete with the Civilization game developed by MicroProse around the time of Meier's departure. The 1999 release Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, retroactively included in the Civilization franchise by some analysts but a standalone game at the time (recalling that the Civilization brand name still lay with MicroProse), is among the greatest games of all time. It represents one of those rare games that is perfect in nearly every way: it showed the hallmark balance characteristic of all of Sid Meier's designers; its faculties for user-created content were astounding for the time; its complex strategy and technology trees rivaled any Civilization game, previous or since then; and its ability to transition the 4X gameplay to an alien world, without the benefit of actual world history from which to build, is astounding.

But arguably the best part of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was the plot. That's an interesting element in and of itself, given that most Civilization games built their plots largely on alternative world history. Alpha Centauri, though, gave an all-new plot that has since been favorably compared to some of the all-time greatest science fiction works; perhaps it is fitting that science fiction was one of the first genres to receive a true literary masterpiece in game form. Since its release, Alpha Centauri has been referenced in most subsequent Civilization games, with launching a spaceship that reaches Alpha Centauri remaining a common victory condition.

Honorable Mentions: Sid Meier's Antietam!, Sid Meier's CivWorld.

In an interesting turn, Firaxis became in 2005 the second company founded by Sid Meier to find itself acquired by a larger game publisher. Just as Spectrum HoloByte had purchased MicroProse, Take-Two Interactive, most famous for owning Rockstar Games and 2K Games, purchased Firaxis for over $25 million. The purchase was not out of nowhere: Take-Two subsidiary 2K Games had been the publisher for several of Firaxis's games, starting with Sid Meier's Pirates! in 2004. Unlike purchases of similar studios by companies like EA, Take-Two largely preserved Firaxis's staff and culture. It remained a fairly distinct entity until it was consolidated with PopTop Software in 2006, and even that maneuver was not wholly unreasonably given PopTop's history of developing games in the style of MicroProse, including Railroad Tycoon II and III as well as the Tropico franchise. Firaxis executives Sid Meier, Jeff Briggs, and Soren Johnson were left in charge of the studio, although today only Meier remains as Briggs departed later that same year while Johnson joined EA to work with Will Wright on Spore (before moving on to Zynga more recently). Even without many of its heavyweights, though, Firaxis remains on extremely firm standing, with its last two games receiving significant Game of the Year attention.

If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!

List by DDJGames (02/08/2013)

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