Reticulating splines. If that phrase tickles your nostalgia bone, you probably have spent time playing SimCity. The series that inspired a genre once held a lofty status as one of the greatest ever created. But hard times have befallen both the franchise and the studio that spawned it. Today on Arcadology, we are going to examine the rise and fall of SimCity, from its roots as a level builder to its unfortunate resting place as an also-ran.
Raid on Bungeling Bay. No one would blame you if you hadn’t heard of Will Wright’s first game, The Raid on Bungeling Bay. Wright himself calls it “mediocre” but it’s clearly an attempt at self-deprecation. Raid on Bungeling Bay was a top down shooter released in 1984 in which the player controlled a helicopter whose mission it was to destroy military infrastructure such as roads and buildings. The origin of the game though starts several years prior when Wright lived in New York City. His primary interest at the time was robotics and had an Apple II computer that he used for them. While at the computer store, the only one in New York at the time, Wright noticed that computer games were going on sale. Wright had been a gamer in his youth, mostly intricate tabletop wargames, like the kind that inspired Dungeons and Dragons.
Wright’s interest piqued and he began playing games on his Apple II. Over time, he became convinced that he wanted to try his own hand at creating a game. While the Apple II market was seemingly saturated, a brand new computer system, the Commodore 64, was not. So he became an early adopter and started learning everything he could about programming on the Commodore. His inspiration for Bungeling Bay was his love of helicopters, a game that he played on Apple II called Conway’s Life, and the urge to create a world big enough for the player to get lost in.
During the production of the game, Wright created two programs called Chedit and Wedit, the former being a character editor and the latter being the world editor. The second one, Wedit, is the key to this story, as it would be this program that would go on to become SimCity Classic. By the time he finished programming Bungeling Bay, Wright had moved to the Bay Area in California and began shopping the game to the publishers. All passed except for Broderbund, which at the time was housed in an old liquor store.
Broderbund worked with Wright to finish the game. Upon its release in the US on the Commodore 64, Raid on Bungeling Bay would go on to sell 20,000 units. Wright mentions in is GDC Post-mortem that he believes piracy may have played a a part in supressing the sales numbers. Broderbund also had the game licensed and reprogrammed to appear on two other platforms, the MSX, which was a Japanese home computer, and the Famicom or the NES. In fact, Bungeling Bay, along with Lode Runner were among the first US produced games to appear on the NES.
The NES port of Bungeling Bay would sell a whopping 800,000 copies in Japan. Wright attributes the staggering difference to the cartridge system that Nintendo used being very difficult to pirate. Regardless, the money received from that allowed Wright the freedom to toy around with Wedit, which was calling back to him now that he had finished Bungeling Bay. As Wedit evolved Wright began taking inspiration from the works of Jay Forrester and his book Urban Dynamics. Wright was also inspired by the Stanislaw Lem story “The Seventh Sally” about a tyrant being given control of a simulated city. SimCity was born. However, it would be awhile still before it found its way into the world.
Meanwhile, Jeff Braun was looking to get into game developer. A font developer for the Amiga, Braun had started hosting pizza and beer parties in an effort to meet people in the game industry. At one of these parties, he met a man who had programmed a city simulator game, but was feeling kinda down on it because all the publishers he and shown it to had passed on it. The man, obviously was Will Wright, and the game was SimCity. Apparently, in the 1980s, publishers were wary about a game that couldn’t actually be “completed.”
Wright showed Braun the game, and Braun knew that they had a winner on their hands. Using the funds left over from the sale of Bungeling Bay, Wright and Braun joined together to form their own publishing company, called Maxis. The name Maxis means nothing. Anecdotally, the name was chosen because it is Six AM backwards, however the name actually comes from a contest that Jeff Braun held amongst friends and family.
Before they got to work on publishing SimCity, Braun pushed one game titled Sky Chase through the pipes in order to work out all the kinks of game publishing. Strange to think that the honor of first game published by Maxis was not actually SimCity, but this game that not many have heard of. Regardless, after the initial experience of publishing, Braun and Wright would reach out for help for SimCity. Help came in the form of Wright’s friends at Broderbund, who would work as distributors for the game.
The impact the game had on the strategy and simulation market was, well, legendary. Many games, including Civilization, were inspired by SimCity’s release and its audacity to be a game where the objective was set by the player themselves. The game would receive numerous accolades, but quite possible the biggest moments in the game’s young life was when two publications, Time Magazine, and the New York Times, acknowledged its existence. In the New York Times article, several city planning professionals were interviewed, alongside Jeff Braun, to talk about the effectiveness of SimCity in actually demonstrating how a city would behave.
In the period following SimCity’s release, Wright, Braun, and Maxis began the expansion of the Sim empire. SimEarth put the player in the position to simulate the development of an entire planet by giving them control over temperature, atmosphere, and other elements. SimAnt was probably the weirdest of the original entries, by allowing players to take control of a simulated ant colony. Though both games were well received, they weren’t the hits that SimCity was. Another game that Maxis would publish was A-Train, which was actually the third game in the Japanese “Take the A-Train” series. Though it wasn’t developed by Maxis, A-Train would have a similar isometric point of view that the upcoming SimCity 2000 would utilize.
In 1993, Maxis released the highly-anticipated sequel to SimCity, called SimCity 2000. The game was a smash hit. 2000, co-designed by Will Wright and Fred Haslem, is probably the most well known version of the game among the late 20s and older set. Among the changes between SimCity 1, or Classic and 2000 were: a new point of view, dimetric instead of top down, allowing for placement of individual development tiles instead of 3×3 blocks. Educational facilities, water pipes, subways, more power plant options and so on. Most importantly, however, was the introduction of the phrase I started this whole episode off with. Reticulating splines. Something very soothing about that.
During the development of SimCity 2000, Wright was thinking about the future of game design. In interviews that come packaged with the special edition of SimCity 2000, Wright mentions the idea of data being interconnected between games. This was a pretty intriguing idea back in the early 90s, however putting it into practice, at least for Wright, would have to wait for the better part of the rest of the decade. For now, though, SimCity 2000 marked the departure of Will Wright from the SimCity series as the project lead.
SimCity 2000 was a critical darling and a best seller for Maxis. The company would find the game ported on a variety of platforms and it remained a strong seller for the following several years. During that time, Maxis started to experiment a little bit more with its Sim releases, and the board became more interested in simply just shipping games for the sake of shipping them, rather than because they were ready. Will Wright and Jeff Braun would be put aside at the top for a man named Sam Poole, who had no prior experience running a game studio.
Maxis went public in 1995 and for a time, between its public offering and the sales of SimCity 2000, the gravy train wouldn’t end. However, with a bunch of failures and dodgy acquisitions, such as the Texas based studio Cinematronics, it wasn’t long before Maxis was in dire straits. During this time they turned to the thing that they knew best, the SimCity franchise. Will Wright, as I mentioned before, was no longer involved in any meaningful way. In an interview, Wright once stated that he only could only muster about 10 years of interest in any given franchise, so he was off to work on something new, a game that the board had no interest in pursuing. But we’ll touch on that later.
SimCity 3000. The company pinned its hopes on SimCity3000. Coming out the gate the idea was to push the game as a 3D, which to many in management at Maxis at the time, made sense. 3000, 3D. Right? Sure. Anyway, the game was a disaster at this point, with computers being unable to generate the horsepower to manage a 3D city simulation in the vein of SimCity. Following a disastrous showing at E3, and on the brink of ruin, Maxis started looking for buyers, and one came willing to spend. Electronic Arts, one of the largest publishers in the business, purchased Maxis in June of 1997 through a $125 Million stock swap.
Upper management would be weeded out in the months after the purchase. What EA had acquired was a company with low morale, but sitting on a gold mine of an IP as well as one of the sharpest game designers on the planet. EA placed Luc Barthelet in charge of its newest subsidiary, and he looked at what was going on. SimCity 3000 in 3D appalled him and he quickly put Lucy Bradshaw in charge to right the ship.
The 3D design was entirely scrapped. Instead, the game would be the same style as 2000. There were a few other changes, including the introduction of tunnels, the ability to trade with neighboring cities, and switching out the newspaper for a ticker. The game was a well-received continuation of the franchise, however I’ve seen some articles in my research that claim that 3000 is the weakest of the middle three games in the franchise. In an article by Richard Moss on arstechinica.com, he states that the problems were many: poor terrain tools, annoying water management, as well as contradictory advisors, and poorly thought out historical landmarks. That 3000 was released in a good shape though, after the disaster that was the 3D version is amazing.
SimCity 3000 was released in January of 1999 and would go on to become a multi-million copy selling game for Maxis and EA. SimCity 4 would be a few years off, and in the interim, a new champion for the company would step forth- The Sims. We will talk more about The Sims in the next episode of Origin of the Series, however the impact that it had on Maxis and EA was massive, and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that around this point, The Sims became the studio’s primary focus.
SimCity 4 was the first Maxis SimCity game to be created using 3D graphics, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it as the game utilizes a similar isometric style point of view as the previous games. One of the interesting aspects of SimCity 4 was the introduction of the MySim mode, which allowed for the player to import their characters from The Sims into the game. I find this neat given Will Wright’s thoughts on this very idea 10 years earlier with the release of SimCity 2000. Though SimCopter and Streets of SimCity allowed for importing of maps, the MySim mode was a more fleshed out version of Wright’s ideal, though not to the extent that games would take it in the future.
Released in January 2003, four years after SimCity 3000, SimCity 4 was generally well received by the critics, however it was noted for having a very steep learning curve. Will Wright in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, would be later quoted as saying, “SimCity worked itself into a corner. We were still appealing to this core ‘SimCity’ group. It had gotten a little complicated for people who had never played ‘SimCity.” Regardless, there is an overall aura that 4 was a step in the right direction for the series, after many felt that 3000 was a step backwards. Even if that step involved creating a possibly overwhelming game. Personally, I probably have spent the most time with 4 out of all the games, and it is my favorite, so tastes in this matter are very subjective.
We could say that the franchise, for the most part ended here. I don’t mean that to disparage what followed, but what did follow were two games that were disappointing. One because it was incorrectly labeled a SimCity game, and another because it’s sheer number of technical difficulties and reduction of scope.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on SimCity Societies. It wasn’t developed by Maxis, and in all honesty, its not that connected to the series proper. It was more of a game with SimCity flavoring, rather than a SimCity game. SimCity Societies basically stripped away all the city building elements of the SimCity series, in favor of focusing on the social engineering element. Players managed concepts like prosperity as resources in order to make certain buildings work. It’s an odd game, and undoubtedly disappointed fans that at the time were looking forward to something more along the lines of SimCity 5.
And here we are. SimCity 2013 is not a bad game. With a few slight changes to its launch, and without the weight of expectations as the first proper SimCity game in a decade, SimCity 2013 might not have had the negative backlash it initially received. Unfortunately, the game for better or worse is irrevocably tied to its time and place in gaming history. And until we hear otherwise from EA, it may have been the final bow for this legendary series.
Stone Librande, lead designer for the game, said that Maxis took feedback that SimCity 4 was too complicated to made an effort to strip away some of the unnecessary complexities in the game. This was part of the reason why the game was not called SimCity 5. He mentioned in an interview with The Atlantic that this decision was particularly freeing, because they could redesign SimCity from the ground up, rather than just make SimCity 4 with some more stuff thrown in. SimCity 2013 ditched the traditional isometric-style view its predecessors for a full 3D camera. Additionally, 2013 was the first game in the series to allow for curved roads without the use of mods.
Before the game’s release, SimCity was receiving a huge amount of buzz however clouds started to form almost immediately with concerns over the “always online” component to the release. The DRM for the game required an internet connection to validate, which prompted people to wonder what would happen when the servers for the game were ultimately shut down. As the game circulated around publications for review however, the initial feedback was positive. But when the game was released on March 6th, 2013, and EA’s servers could not handle the load. Players had to wait for hours to play the game and EA and Maxis scrambled to try to push out adjustments to make the game work. In an interview with Game Informer, Ocean Quigley, the game’s creative director, said that although he was proud of the work they had done, watching this happen was like being on a sinking ship.
SimCity 2013, would never quite recover from the early launch woes. A game that should have taken the same gaming mind space as grand strategies like Civilization, slowly petered out over the past several years. The most recent release in the series, has been a mobile free to play version of SimCity. The game’s value as an intellectual property is seemingly damaged, and with games like Cities: Skylines taking the lead in the city simulation genre, it’s tough to imagine the franchise rising back to prominence. In what may be the final nail in the coffin, EA shut down Maxis in March of 2015.
This episode feels somewhat somber. It’s easy to pin the fall of the franchise on SimCity 2013, but in all honesty, there was rot in the bones since the near disaster that was SimCity 3000. The closure of Maxis, even if it was just a name at this point, seems like a metaphorical stone tied to the feet of the franchise. Will we see another SimCity in the future? I’m unsure. However if the past few years have shown us anything, with franchises like Doom and Resident Evil finding new life, its that we shouldn’t count out the comeback.
That will do it for today’s episode of Arcadology. My name is Spoiler Kevin, follow me on twitter at spoilerkevin. If you enjoyed this video, leave a like and a comment down below. Today’s question, what is your favorite simulation style game? If you enjoy this content, consider subscribing with notifications. Thanks for watching, and take care everyone.