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Games that Never Were: Sid Meier’s Dinosaurs

May 20th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

One of the great might-have-beens in gaming history is Sid Meier’s Dinosaurs. Meier has an amazing track record of innovation and creativity, but lately Firaxis has been dipping into the wayback well a bit too much for that reputation to stay golden. But, shortly after Firaxis was formed, Meier and company said that they were working on a game that would allow the player to control a race of dinosaurs. The concept was original, the development house fresh and over the next four years information was leaked to press on an irregular basis.

Then production stopped with next to no information about why.

It died the way the lived – a mystery.

The first developer diary comments on Dinosaurs came out in late 1999. Apolyton has archived at least some of the information if not the diaries themselves. As you read the summaries, it becomes clear what one of the big issues with Dinosaurs was – uncertainty.

The idea of controlling a race of dinosaurs is, on its face, intriguing. But I struggle to think of how this gets turned into a game – or at least a game that looks like a Firaxis game. The concept of controlling a race automatically leads one to think Civ-like turn based gaming or Age of Dinosaurs real time. But you can’t have tech research, can you? Do you use evolution or resource management as expansion and improvement routes?

By February, the thinking was that the player would control the dinosaurs and try to help them survive in a hostile environment. Does this mean that the giant lizards would become pets of the player? What would “winning” look like?

After the demise of Dinosaurs, Meier showed three different versions to an audience at the Game Developers Conference in 2002. One was turn-based, another real-time and the third – of all things – a card game. He confessed that though each of the game designs had merit, none of them were very fun for very long.

Dinosaurs is a curious object of study because its end was unexpected. There is a certain confidence in the Meier name – that he can make anything fun if given time and the team to do it. And Meier never said that Dinosaurs was dead forever – he says that the original design for Civilization wasn’t very fun other. But there are no signs of it being revived.

Dinosaurs is, in many ways, testament to the power of the human imagination and how our abilities to translate our imagination into a product or game. All frustrated artists know how this works. The picture on the canvas never matches the one in our heads.

It’s not that Firaxis didn’t have any ideas of how to make a Dinosaurs game. They had lots of ideas. But there wasn’t a single idea that Meier and his team felt worked as a good game.

Every bad game I have ever played has had some idea why it was supposed to be fun. Even my own personal bete-noire Superpower has enough of a glimmer of live to make me think “I know what they are trying to do here.” Firaxis got to the point with Dinosaurs, it seems, where they weren’t sure what they were trying to do. They wisely stopped production in mid-2001.

So it went on the back burner, and we got Sid Meier’s SimGolf, Civilization III and Pirates!. Not a bad trade.

But a piece of me wants to see Firaxis dare to fail again. Remaking classics has some risks, but the Civ franchise is a license to print money. I will buy Civ IV the day it comes out. I think I’d rather have a T-Rex in their somewhere.


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