SimCity: the game that became a genre

How SimCity went via SimCity 2000 and The Sims to become SimCity again...

For something that would eventually launch one of the biggest franchises in the history of gaming, it’s interesting to note that SimCity’s creation was essentially the result of a happy accident. In the early 1980s, developer Will Wright was working on an otherwise inconsequential shoot-em-up game called Raid On Bungeling Bay for the Commodore 64. Having created a bespoke editor to assist in the creation of maps for the game, however, Wright found that he was taking far more enjoyment out of building these maps than developing, or playing, the game itself.

Reasoning that others might also enjoy building towns and terrain in this way, he decided to turn that experience into a game of its own – immersing himself in urban planning culture and eventually completing, in 1985, something that started out under the name Micropolis but would ultimately be known as SimCity.

Like so many revolutionary ideas are, however, SimCity was initially unappreciated. Publishers Broderbund rejected Wright’s pitch – unconvinced by the notion of a game with no fixed end ‘goal’ – and so the initial C64 version languished unreleased. It wasn’t until a tiny publisher called Maxis saw potential in the idea that versions of the game were finally released for the Amiga and Mac in 1989, followed swiftly by PC and – finally – C64 editions. It even made it to the peerless ZX Spectrum in the end.

A key element of SimCity’s success – and success is the word, as the game topped a million sales and would eventually be ported onto just about every format imaginable – was that although the concept of building and planning had drawn Wright in in the first place, it wasn’t all there was to the game. SimCity kickstarted a series of games that would constantly push and pull at the player – forcing difficult decisions at every turn, and playing on a person’s ability not just to plan, but to react and adapt to ever-changing scenarios.

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The series itself, meanwhile, showed an ability to adapt as top-down strategy games quickly became a relic of the past in the early 1990s. While not the first isometric strategy game – Peter Molyneux’s Populous had beaten it to the punch as early as 1989 – the release of SimCity 2000 in 1994 heralded a seismic shift in the genre. The isometric landscape made for a truly immersive environment, fostering in players a much greater attachment to, and fondness for, their creations – lending an even greater sense of heartbreak when the game’s increasingly devious ‘disaster’ scenarios struck with devastating destructive effect. (This sense was no doubt added to, mind, by the inclusion of an editor called the Urban Renewal Kit with some editions of the game – enabling players to customise the look of buildings and objects further. Where most games rely on fans to build editors after their release, it’s hard not to draw a link between the SCURK’s existence and the series’ very genesis as the product of an in-game editor itself.)

A quite frankly staggering hit – fully deserving of the bombastic nature of its title – SimCity 2000 had two distinct, branching effects on gaming. In making the resource management simulation a genuinely hot property, it established a template for the genre that has barely changed in the two decades since. In a handful of cases, developers elsewhere made thrilling and inventive additions to the genre – most notably Chris Sawyer’s Transport and Rollercoaster Tycoon series, and Bullfrog’s similarly isometric Theme Park and Hospital. The better examples of the genre built directly upon Wright’s tropes, and inspired similar feelings of intense emotional attachment combined with frequent, deliberately-instilled frustration in its players.

The second effect SimCity 2000 had was to turn the Sim name into a genuine brand and franchise. Other Sim games – Ant and Life among them – had started to spring up immediately after the first game’s success, but it was after the second game that we saw a proper explosion. In the years between SC2000 and 1999’s SimCity 3000, Maxis released games titled (deep breath) SimFarm, SimTower, SimHealth, SimIsle, SimTown, SimGolf, SimCopter, SimTunes, SimPark and, finally, the fairly well-hyped but ultimately disappointing Streets Of SimCity.

It was this last game, however, that despite being a critical and commercial flop would show where the Sim games could go – the prospect of bringing the player down to the level of the people who actually lived in Sim Cities would drive the development of The Sims. And it was this game, essentially an ‘everyday human life’ simulation, that would make the Sim franchise the biggest in PC gaming history.

In development from around the time Maxis were bought out by EA in 1997, The Sims was finally unleashed upon an unsuspecting gaming public in 2000. An instant success – and a rare example of a game that appealed far and wide beyond the usual core audience of regular gamers – the first game and its two sequels, along with various ports to other formats, have sold over 150 million copies between them. Even without taking Wright’s other games into account, this makes The Sims behemoth easily the biggest PC gaming franchise of all.

While all of this was going on, however, the SimCity games themselves weren’t standing still. While the basic template laid out by SimCity 2000 was pretty bulletproof, 3000 – in addition to beefing up the quality of the graphics – added further depth and micro-management options. 2003’s Sim City 4, meanwhile – with the multiples-of-thousand naming convention finally dropped – placed greater emphasis on the wider region in which cities were built, allowing for simultaneous development of multiple cities, and management of the interaction between them.

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The SimCity sequels have generally offered evolution rather than revolution – a consequence of establishing such a strong and timeless gameplay core so early in the series – while their basic template has become a staple of the wealth of ‘freemium’ city- and world-building titles that dominate online and handheld gaming (such as The Simpsons: Tapped Out and EA’s own SimCity Social). What these games lack, however, are the frequent challenges and dilemmas posed by SimCity’s resource management – substituting this difficulty for the ability to build anything you want so long as you’re willing either to wait or pay for it.

It’s fallen, then, to the upcoming series relaunch – titled simply SimCity as an indicator of its approach – to offer more satisfying innovation, with early indications that its increased emphasis on the sociological development of your city’s population is set to be a particular strength. While Wright may not have been involved directly in the new game’s development, the genre he created will be in safe hands so long as his successors continue to understand just why his original blend of design- and management-based gameplay was so potent.

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