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Chapter 15. Simcity (1989): Building Blocks for Fun and Profit

Chapter 15. Simcity (1989): Building Blocks for Fun and Profit

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SimCity appears quite

intimidating, with an array

of windows stuffed with

information. However, the tidy

graphics and catchy music

suggest a less serious, more

playful tone. Players could either

build a new city from scratch or

take control of one based on a

historical scenario. Shown here is

the San Francisco setting.

charge—to make the big decisions that have a real impact not

just on our own lives, but on all the citizens in the community.

These games are also wonderfully educational, encouraging us

to see the world as a collection of complex, intertwining systems;

a constantly evolving mosaic whose pieces interact with one

another in often surprising ways. They can model anything from

economics to evolution. Will raising taxes stimulate or stall the

economy? How should a mayor plan and respond to natural (or

even extraterrestrial) disasters? How does an intelligent, sentient

being evolve from a unicellar organism? SimCity and its many

sequels, clones, and derivatives vary widely in theme and content, but they’re all about managing a complex, intricate system.

They are both virtual laboratories and electronic playgrounds.

Before moving on to a specific discussion of SimCity, it’s worthwhile to mention some games that predated or may have influenced its development. As usual, even a highly original game like

SimCity has its precedents: its gameplay concepts didn’t spontaneously come into being. We’ve already discussed Don Daglow’s

Utopia in our discussion of Dune II (see Chapter 6, “Dune II: The

Building of a Dynasty (1992): Spicing up Strategy in Real Time”),

but it’s worth mentioning again here. This 1981 game for the

Mattel Aquarius and Intellivision put players in charge of a small

island economy. The goal was to generate revenue by constructing buildings and pacifying the populace. It was intended for two

players, who would simultaneously work to build up their respective island while inciting rebellion on the other’s. Occasionally

the computer would generate a random natural event, such as a

tropical storm or hurricane.



Box back for the Commodore 64

version of SimCity.

Critics such as William Cassidy of GameSpy and T. Byrl Baker

of GameSpot have described it as an unsung hero, a progenitor of both Wright’s SimCity and Sid Meier’s Civilization, a turnbased game mentioned in Chapter 6 that we’ll discuss again later

in this chapter. However, it’s not clear whether Wright or Meier

ever played the game, and similarities could be coincidental.

Daglow began work in 1987 on a computer game version of the

boardgame Civilization from Avalon Hill, but was promoted to an

executive position at Broderbund and never completed the game

that established Meier’s legend. He also signed the original distribution deal for SimCity with Maxis and Broderbund, defending

Wright’s vision against “bureaucratic meddling.”2


See http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/column_index.php?story=8450.



Back of the box for Coleco’s

impressive Fortune Builder.

A slightly later and even more obscure predecessor is Circuits

and Systems’ Fortune Builder, a 1984 game for the Coleco

ColecoVision. This game has much in common with SimCity.

Players began with an empty map, then built roads and all manner of buildings whose earning potential depends on their proximity to other kinds of buildings (i.e., a hotel next to a factory

will not do well). The goal is to generate a specified net worth

before reaching the time limit. It also offered a two-player mode,

which used a split-screen to let players compete in real time. As

with Utopia, there were also natural disasters that could affect


Although Utopia and Fortune Builder both have features found

in later sim games, neither achieved the staggering success of

SimCity. One reason could simply be a matter of bad timing; both

were console games, a market that collapsed in 1984. By 1989,

few gamers cared about old ColecoVision or Intellivision games.


It’s interesting to speculate, though, what might have happened

if these enterprising games had been ported to the Apple II or

Commodore 64.

If Will Wright wasn’t inspired by Utopia or Fortune Builder,

where did he get his ideas? Wright himself often credits his wide

reading and research interests. These include Jay Forrester’s

urban planning theories (SimCity), James Lovelock’s Gaia theory

(SimEarth); and Christopher W. Alexander, an architect concerned with “pattern languages” (The Sims, see Chapter 22, “The

Sims (2000): Who Let the Sims Out?”). According to Wright, “I’ll

find some subject that I’m reading about that fascinates me. It

will pique my interest and then I’ll slowly become obsessed with

it. About half of those subjects I’ll end up seriously pursuing as

a game project.”3 This approach has seemed to work well, and

no doubt at least some fans of the games have found themselves

interested enough in the ideas behind them to conduct their own


A more immediate inspiration for SimCity was Raid on

Bungeling Bay, Will Wright’s first game. It was released in

1984 for the Commodore 64 and later ported to the Nintendo

Entertainment System and MSX platforms. Raid on Bungeling

Bay is an action game set in a war zone; it’s the player’s task to

fly a “helicraft” around a 2D map, dropping bombs on six different factories. The gimmick was that the factories evolved over the

course of the game, developing more powerful weapons to use

against the player and eventually a super weapon—a battleship—

to destroy civilization itself.

Although Raid on Bungeling Bay is considered a classic by

many, Wright himself had more fun creating a map editor to aid

in the game’s development. With that, an odd idea occurred to

him: could the process of making a map (or, by extension, a fullfledged city) be fun for other people? It was this question that led

Wright to his research on urban planning. Besides the emphasis on urban planning, the game would also have another novel

feature—there was really no way to win or lose. Wright describes

the experience quite aptly himself: “My games are more like a

hobby—a train set or a doll house. Basically they’re a mellow and

creative playground experience.”4

Not surprisingly given its radical nature, Wright had a hard time

finding a major publisher after he completed a version for the

Commodore 64 in 1985. Wright described his experiences trying

to get Broderbund interested in the concept: “They kept saying,


See Melanie Cambron’s interview with Wright at http://www.gignews.com/



See Geoff Keighley’s “Simply Divine: The Story of Maxis Software” at http://





Taken on its own, Wright’s Raid

on Bungeling Bay is a classic

action game with depth, but

its most significant historical

role would be in influencing

SimCity’s development. SimCity ’s

final terrain model would look

very similar to what is seen

in this screenshot from the

Commodore 64 version of Raid on

Bungeling Bay.

‘Where’s the ending? When do you win or lose?’ And they wanted

to have an election where you got kicked out of office or not. And

I was like, ‘No, it’s even more fun if you’re doing it badly.’ And they

just parked it. They decided they weren’t going to release it.”5

Wright ended up having to form his own publishing company,

Maxis, with Jeff Braun. Broderbund finally published the original

Commodore 64 version and ports for the Apple Macintosh and

Commodore Amiga in 1989, with a PC version following shortly

after.6 Let’s take a look now at the game itself.

SimCity puts players in charge of a city, either one they build

from scratch or an existing one that requires some type of reform

(a “scenario”). Players are allocated a budget for setting up buildings, basic utilities (electricity and water), and highways. Cities

must be divided into three zones: Residential, where the citizens

or “Sims” live; Industrial, which houses factories and warehouses;

and Commercial, where the Sims go to shop and tend to business.

Players can adjust the tax rate to receive more income, as well as

set a budget for police, fire, and transportation departments (the

Super Nintendo version adds a casino and amusement park for

generating additional revenue). All of these factors affect other

factors; for instance, densely populated areas with low property


See Brandon Sinclair’s “Spot On: Here’s the Pitch” at http://www.gamespot.com/

c64/strategy/simcity/news.html?sid=6183997 for this and other fun stories of

great developers who struggled with timid publishers.


Other versions would continue to be released over the years.



Screenshot from the Commodore

64 version of SimCity.

values have an increased crime rate. Such a situation might occur

in a city with too many factories and not enough or poorly situated residential zones. Likewise, the player has to make sure that

the city is properly powered; natural disasters can cause blackouts that, if untended, quickly lead to drastic problems.

However, the gameplay isn’t necessarily about building a

wealthy or well-ordered city, and it’s even possible for players to

introduce their own natural disasters (such as an earthquake or

Godzilla-like monster attack) just to view the awesome consequences. This is a point Wright has made frequently in interviews;

sometimes, doing poorly in this game is as much fun as doing well.

For the first few months after its release, sluggish sales indicated that Broderbund’s executives were justified in their skepticism. Fortunately for Wright and Maxis, however, word began to

spread. The game received its big break when Newsweek covered

it in a full-page story, instantly catapulting it from the fringe to

the mainstream. The game enjoyed a tremendously broad appeal,

winning over large audiences who had formerly cared very little

for computer games. The game was viewed as not just fun but

educational, and it found its way into 10,000 classrooms.7 The

game eventually sold millions of copies, a fact that made a sequel

practically inevitable. However, the next few “Sim” games would

not be direct sequels, but a plethora of mediocre spin-offs. The


See “Inside Scoop: The History of SimCity” at http://simcity.ea.com/about/




first was SimEarth: The Living Planet, a game released for a range

of platforms in 1990.

SimEarth is a planetary ecologist’s

game. The dense interface,

steep learning curve, and lack

of immediate feedback made it

inaccessible to most gamers.

SimEarth, which was never as well received as SimCity, put

players in control of a planetary ecosystem that they could affect

by altering its temperature, atmosphere, and landmasses, then

observing how these conditions influenced the evolution of living organisms. The game was based on James Lovelock’s famous

Gaia hypothesis. The hypothesis describes the earth itself as a

living organism; its organs are living and nonliving entities, who

interact in powerful and dynamic ways. Although this idea is certainly intriguing, the game’s steep learning curve and complex

interface (described in the manual as a “planetary spreadsheet”)

turned away gamers looking for a more SimCity-like experience.

Lovelock himself contributed to the game’s manual, a 212-page

document loaded with facts, theories, and even the occasional

one-liner, such as “is this a random world or did you planet?”.

The next Sim game was SimAnt, released in 1991, also for

a variety of platforms. This ant colony simulation attracted a

bit more attention than SimEarth, probably because of its less

intimidating interface and subject matter. This game was followed by another abstract/scientific title called SimLife, a 1992

game that focused again on ecosystems. However, this time

players could modify the genetic code of plants and animals.

Wright would return to this theme in 2008 with Spore (discussed

later), though in a much more accessible fashion. In 1993, Maxis

released SimFarm, a game that, as the title suggests, had players

managing a farm.



SimAnt put players in charge

of an ant colony. The colorful

graphics and zany situations

(such as being destroyed by the

“evil lawnmower”) made the

game more accessible than other

sim titles, but it never attained

SimCity’s level of success.

SimCity 2000 offered a

substantial leap in audiovisuals,

along with new buildings and

events. Shown here is a disaster

caused by a giant robot.

None of these spin-offs achieved anywhere near the popularity

of the original, which finally received a true sequel, SimCity 2000,

in 1993. This game marked a huge leap forward in audiovisuals,

with the city now shown in isometric perspective instead of the

top-down view of the original. This angled perspective made the

structures look more realistic; taller buildings visibly looked taller.

The sequel also added many new structures and options, such as

subways, airports, and seaports. Although all the new bells and



whistles pleased fans and critics, others were more impressed

with the SimCity Urban Renewal Kit, which allowed players to

alter the in-game images to represent particular buildings or settings. The award-winning game reestablished the franchise and

was widely discussed in gaming circles and beyond.

SimCopter is one of the more

unusual sim-games, casting

players in the role of a helicopter

pilot. The gimmick was that

maps from SimCity 2000 could be

imported into the game, allowing

players to fly through a 3D

re-creation of their own cities.

Nearly a dozen other spin-offs followed SimCity 2000. Two

of the most intriguing of these are SimTunes and SimCopter.

SimTunes (1996), designed by Toshio Iwai, is a musical game

for children. Players draw a picture using dots of various colors,

each of which represents a certain musical note. Then up to four

“bugz” crawl over the picture, playing the notes of the resulting

composition. Players could also add functions, such as having

the bugz turn or jump. SimCopter (1996) is a 3D game that puts

players in the cockpit of a helicopter. Gameplay consists of redirecting traffic, apprehending criminals, fire fighting, rescues, and

(naturally) transporting people. One nice innovation was the ability to import maps from SimCity 2000. However, Maxis was later

embarrassed when it was discovered that a disgruntled designer

named Jacques Servin had inserted some unauthorized code.

The code caused mobs of shirtless male “himbos” with fluorescent nipples to appear on certain dates, hugging and kissing each

other. Maxis quickly removed the code, but the word had spread.8


See Ben Silverman’s “Controversial Games” article at http://videogames.yahoo




Streets of SimCity, released in 1997, was a racing and “vehicular

combat” game that also allowed players to import maps from

SimCity 2000. However, the game is now considered the black

sheep of the Sims line, mostly because of its poor collision detection, driving simulation, and quality assurance.

Along with better audiovisuals

and more buildings, SimCity 3000

was significantly more complex.

Players could now negotiate

with neighboring cities, selling

or buying services like water or


The third official sequel, SimCity 3000, appeared in 1999. By

this point, 3D games had taken over the industry, and Maxis’s

management “wanted the game to be 3D so much that it wasn’t

receptive to the people who were actually making the game telling them it wasn’t going to work,” according to Ocean Quigley,

Maxis’s art director.9 Unfortunately for Maxis, the intricate detail

of the SimCity series made a move to full 3D difficult indeed; the

graphics and processors of the era simply couldn’t handle it. The

long line of so-so Sim titles had cost Maxis much of its credibility

and revenue, and the floundering company was finally acquired

by Electronic Arts. Luc Barthelet was named the general manager,

and the young French engineer faced a difficult job salvaging the

project. One of his first decisions was that SimCity 3000 would

not be a 3D product, a choice that finally brought focus back to

the project.

SimCity 3000 may not have been 3D, but it did boast great

graphics and even more sophisticated gameplay. Naturally,


See http://www.gamespot.com/features/maxis/page7.html.



there were more structures to build, which now included farms

and wastewater management services. Players could also interact with neighboring cities to work out business deals or purchase services. There was also a greater emphasis on land values.

A jazzy score by Jerry Martin rounds out the package. Incidentally,

SimCity DS (2007) for the Nintendo DS is based on this version of

the game.

SimCity 4 is the latest official

SimCity game. The audiovisuals

have been enhanced for modern

hardware, with an interface

reminiscent of The Sims. Shown

on the bottom is the “night mode.”

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Chapter 15. Simcity (1989): Building Blocks for Fun and Profit

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