The path to SimCity

What led us to the new SimCity? Paul has been tracking the evolution of the series...

It’s ironic for a game that would provide the foundation for so many of the ‘casual’ games that now populate smartphones and tablets around the world that SimCity was born out of a fascination with intricate mathematical modelling techniques. System dynamics is an approach to complex systems, often using ‘casual loop diagrams’, that was developed in the 1950s by Professor Jay Forrester to help corporate managers improve their understanding of industrial processes. The theory and techniques are now applied throughout the private and public sectors for policy analysis and design, including in urban planning, after Forrester wrote a number of books applying his methods to that very subject.

The books caught the eye of young developer Will Wright, who by that point had already created the well-received Commodore 64 game Raid Of Bungeling Bay. The game was released in 1984, but Wright found himself returning to the game code again and again after it had shipped. The reason for his inability to let the game go was a tool he had built for during development which allowed him to create his own maps: Wright discovered that he enjoyed making the maps more than he did actually playing the top-down shooting gameplay of the game itself. After coming across Forrester’s work, he convinced himself that there could be a number of players who shared his enthusiasm, and set to work on Micropolis, a city-building simulator.

No publisher was willing to take a chance on the game until Wright met game producer and entrepreneur Jeff Braun at a pizza party held by a mutual friend in 1987. Braun had a wire-frame jet-fighting game he was looking to get published; he reasoned that if he could get the rights to another game the two titles would be enough to create a start-up publisher. Braun was convinced by Wright’s passion for Megapolis, and the pair formed Maxis in 1987. After Wright worked on the game for a number of years, the two returned to Broderbund, one of the publishing houses that had initially turned them down, and convinced it into taking on a distribution deal. The game was renamed to SimCity, and was released on the Amiga, Macintosh, PC and Commodore 64 in 1989.

It’s another irony of the story of SimCity that it was the reasons that the game was embraced so wholeheartedly by the gaming public were the very reasons that publishers were initially terrified of it. The slow-paced, patient gameplay, coupled by a total lack of narrative was antithetical to the nature of popular games of the time, but most disturbing of all for investors was the inabilty to ‘win’ the game in a conventional sense. Surely robbing players of rewards would see them quickly lose interest?

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The opposite proved the case, of course: by removing the Pavlovian incentives and punishments created an unprecedented sense of freedom for the gamer. What was discovered in later years and over the course of the series was that when left to their own device players would develop their own end game objective. If you wanted to run your city like a tyrant, suffocating your people with pollution while strangling then with stratospheric taxes,  you could do that. If you wanted to create the utopic ideal of a town of geniuses filled with parks and libraries, then you could aim for that too.  Then if you wanted to send in a rampant monster to stamp all over everything then that was possible too.

In another inspired piece of game design that at first seemed to be counter-intuitive (destroy the city you’ve spent hours meticulously constructing in just a few seconds), Wright demonstrated that he understood the ‘god’ genre better than anyone. He knew that the opportunity to be a vengeful deity, one who casually wreaks havoc on their hapless populace, would be too much power to resist for some of the more mischevious amongst us. Plus you could always save and reload, which was a power in itself.    I’ve done a number of articles looking back at successful game franchises, and it’s always surprising to see just how much the original game gets right – the graphics get better, the presentation gets slicker, and the gameplay may be tweaked, but the core mechanics are all in place from the first iteration onwards, and this is definitely the case with SimCity. It was a smash-hit, influencing nearly every space-management, god and construction game that was released in its wake. Wright, along with fellow young developers Sid Meier and Peter Molyneux and their games Civilization and Populous, would come to characterise the atmosphere of seemingly boundless energy and ambition that would surround PC gaming in the mid-90s.

Not that SimCity was just a PC game – such was its adaptability that it has made appearances on platforms ranging from the iPhone to the BBC Micro. One of the most popular ports was for the SNES, which featured Dr Wright (named after his dad) and features some cute Nintendofication, including the replacement of Godzilla with Bowser and the installation of a Mario statue once you reached over half a million citizens.

SimCity was followed up, after a series of unsuccessful attempts by Maxis to attach the ‘Sim’ prefix to pretty much anything they could.. The game got a true sequel n 1993 with SimCity 2000. For the sequel, the game switched from the top down view to an isometric perspective, and added new buildings such as libararies, museums, as well as renewable energy sources and the chance to build routes to neighbouring cities to increase trade.

SimCity 2000 is still a favourite amongst fans – it could be that this marked the point where the game was still complex enough to be satisfying, yet simple enough to not be intimidating. Or it could be because it’s a remarkably geeky in a playful way – cities are named after characters from Blake’s 7 and Red Dwarf, there’s that hidden essay from Neil Gaiman we talked about here, that you can access by selecting ‘Ruminate’ when querying a library. Hell, the game can end by all of your populace moving into rocket propelled domes and launching into space in a mass exodus.

The long-in-the-offing follow-up to SimCity 2000 was – naturally – Sim City 3000. Maxis had struggled to follow-up the immense success of SimCity 2000, and spent the middle of 90s appearing directionless, releasing titles that ranged from FMV games based on Miami Vice to half-hearted Diablo clones. Rapidly losing both money and prestige, the studio turned to their most valuable property in SimCity – only this time, in glorious 3D. The only problem was that at this stage, 3D technology was woefully inadequate for rendering the level of detail required by SimCIty’s unique gameplay, and the unveiling of the horrible, blocky graphics of the first iteration of SimCity 3000 at E3 in 1997 briefly made the company a laughing stock in the industry. An unikely saviour arrived, however, in Electronic Arts, who were looking to acquire brands and still saw potential both in the SimCity franchise and Wright himself, who by that point had declared himself unwilling to make another game in the series. Sensing an opportunity, EA bought Maxis and quickly made two key decisions: to make experienced French engineer Luc Barthalet the new manager of Maxis; and to give Wright the funding the support to make his ‘dollhouse’ game, a life-simulator that had been met with derision at Maxis but executives at EA saw as a chance to develop into a potential franchise. Barthalet almost immediately realised that a 3D SimCity at that point would have been unplayable, and so instructed the developers to return to the isometric perspective of SimCity 2000, while adding even more layers of complexity including placing an increased importance of land value, waste management, and on business deals with neighbouring cities. While SimCity 3000 worked out as a SimCity game everybody could be happy with, it’s still probably the least essential game in the ‘proper’ series, falling slightly awkwardly between the fun pick up and play nature of SimCity 2000, and the series-defining intricacy of its follow-up, SimCity 4. Before SimCity 4 however, Wright was to finally push his ‘dollhouse’ game out into world: renamed The Sims, it went on to become for a time the highest selling game in history, with the franchise selling over 150 million copies worldwide. Not only did the success of The Sims result in a whole new audience for a new SimCity game, but making milllions – billions – for your benefactors will tend to persuade them to give you the money and freedom to do whatever you want, and Maxis wanted another SimCity. It resulted in SimCity 4, a game so staggeringly detailed and well-realised that it is still played by a huge community even today, a decade after its initial release. Now not only were computers able to render the city in full 3D,  the sheer level of micro-management and detail that was possible was and is mind-boggling, with education, transport, and tax systems not much less intricate than their real-life counterparts. Naturally, this was also the first SimCity game where you could move your Sims into your city, where you could watch then either move out in disgust or die of old age/being submerged by lava.

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While the die-hards immediately took SimCity 4 to their hearts, others were turned off by the often punishing difficulty – for those less obsessively inclined, the game was something of a turn-off. The fact that there are reports that architecture students use SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4 to test out urban planning theories learned in class should speak volumes.

One perhaps unlikely proponent of this view was Will Wright, who claimed he had tired of the increasing complexity of each subsequent city. Now we find ourselves with the first proper SimCity (discounting SimCity Societies, which was the first SimCity game not to be developed by Maxis and was derided by fans for its hugely over-simplified gameplay) in a decade, and its re-appearance on the gaming scene asks a lot of questions. Can Maxis succesfully bridge the gap between new players and the rabid hardcore fans? Does SimCity have a place in today’s gaming landscape? Will Wright? All that is certain is that in the complex, ever-changing world of SimCity, there are no certainties.

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