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A Brief History of SimCity

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Video game giant EA just announced that it is shutting down Maxis Emeryville, the studio behind SimCity and numerous other popular Sim franchises. EA says they are planning to consolidate Maxis within their existing development arms, but to anyone who grew up with these groundbreaking games, this sounds like bad news. After all, the aim of SimCity was to grow your small patch of land into a futuristic megacity, not consolidate it. As Maxis looks ahead to an unclear future, it seems like a good time to look back at the history of these world-changing, world-building games.

Bungeling Beginnings

In 1984, video game developer Will Wright was working on the game Raid on Bungeling Bay.  In Raid, the player pilots a helicopter over hostile enemy territory, destroying weapons factories.  But for Wright, creating the detailed maps of the enemy strongholds was more fun than actually raiding Bungeling Bay.  So he tweaked the map software, adding the ability to create roads and construct buildings; he included real-world considerations like population growth, tax revenues, zoning districts, and crime rates. The “goal” of his simulation was to simply create a sustainable city on a small scale, so he gave the game a fitting title, Micropolis.

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Wright showed Micropolis to many game companies, but none were interested, because they couldn’t get past the idea of a video game whose only goal was to build a city.  But then, in 1987, Wright met up-and-coming software publisher Jeff Braun at a mutual friend’s house for what Wright has since called “the world’s most important pizza party.” Soon after, Wright and Braun formed their own software company, Maxis—so called because Braun’s father said a technology company should be two syllables and have an ‘x’ somewhere in the name.

After some marketing tweaks, including a name change to SimCity, the game was released in 1989, four years after Will Wright first started working on it.

SimSuccess

The very thing that other companies thought made SimCity a hard sell—the open-ended gameplay—was what made the game a hit.  Because it dealt with more realistic scenarios than magic mushrooms and missing princesses, mainstream press like Time magazine and the New York Times wrote features on the game, giving it some cachet with adults who previously thought that videogames were “just for kids.”  In addition, many teachers started using it in the classroom as a way to teach resource management and sustainable urban design, providing even more evidence that it was a game with more merit than most.

SimCity not only established a whole new genre of video game, but it spawned a very successful franchise, too.  A few of the sequels, like SimCity 2000 (1993), SimCity 3000 (1999), and SimCity 4 (2003) are some of the top-selling computer games ever, with sales of well over 8 million units combined.  But Maxis didn’t stop with cities.  They applied the “sim” concept to a variety of scenarios, including islands (SimIsle), nature preserves (SimPark), playable golf courses (SimGolf), and even entire planets (SimEarth).  Unfortunately, not every Sim game was a hit, and profits began to decline.  In 1997, Maxis was acquired by Electronic Arts (EA), a company well known for their sports simulation games.  Down, but not out, Wright still had a few tricks up his sleeve...

The Toilet Game

My Abandonware

In 1991, Maxis released SimAnt (above), a game where players take the form of an ant colony in the backyard of a suburban home. In one part of the game, ants had to avoid being stepped on. However, Wright later realized that so much time was spent creating the ants’ artificial intelligence that they were actually smarter than the person. This made Wright aspire to create a human AI that was more robust and lifelike. He eventually came up with the idea of a game where the player would build a house and then toss in an advanced human simulation to see how they’d react.  Wright initially called this concept Dollhouse.

Wright presented Dollhouse to Maxis in 1993, but it was met with very little enthusiasm.  First, teenage boys had no interest in a video game with such a feminine name. So the name was changed to The Sims, after the tiny, unseen people that live in the cities created in SimCity. The Maxis executives had another name for it, though: “The Toilet Game,” because in their minds it was the game where players were expected to do mundane tasks, like clean the toilet.

The execs ultimately shut down the idea, but Wright was persistent.  In 1996, Wright took a programmer under his wing, saying he needed someone to write code for other Maxis titles. In fact, the programmer was working on The Sims.

Shortly after Electronic Arts acquired Maxis in 1997, Wright once again presented The Sims, showing off the work he and his lone programmer had accomplished.  Like Maxis, EA was a little leery about the idea of a virtual dollhouse, but they green-lit the project anyway.  Three years later, in February 2000, The Sims—the first “life simulation game”—was released.  In a 2008 interview, Wright said, “I thought a million (copies sold) would be a hit.”

A De-Myst-ifying Debut

The performance of The Sims took everyone by surprise.  The core game sold 16 million copies, dethroning Myst as the best-selling PC game ever.  Add in the expansion packs, which gave players new environments, items, and character options, and it sold about 54 million copies.  The Sims 2, released in 2004, sold even better, with an estimated 20 million copies, while 2009’s The Sims 3 sold a still-impressive 10 million.  Overall, The Sims have sold more than 150 million copies, making it the best-selling PC game franchise in history.

But you don’t sell 150 million copies of a game to teenage boys alone.  The Sims’ success has been attributed to the often overlooked demographic of women video gamers, which, according to EA, made up about 65 percent of players at the height of the franchise’s popularity.  While some cite the game’s emphasis on fashion, interior design, and character relationships, Will Wright sees things a little differently:

“...women have a higher standard of leisure entertainment than men do. They tend to go for entertainment that are a little more expressive. Also entertainment that connects back to them and has some personal meaning. The Sims allows a path where you can play it as a deep personal reflection of yourself.”

Mod the Sims

For the 1993 release of SimCity 2000, one of the available expansion packs was the SimCity Urban Renewal Kit (SCURK), which allowed players to modify the existing graphics to create custom buildings and game elements.  Available for every SimCity game since, some impressive “mods” have been created by fans, including pixelated replicas of the 2008 Olympic Stadium, “The Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, the Tower Life Building in San Antonio, and the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.  There are also incredible original building designs, like this library made entirely out of open books. 

A similar modification tool, Create A World (CAW), was also released for The Sims games.  Some of the odd, but impressive mods for Sims characters include the stars of the new Doctor Who (and the newest Companion, too), Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, Katniss and Peeta from The Hunger Games, and, to get really meta, your avatar can be an avatar from Avatar.  In addition, players can put on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, scoot around on a Back to the Future hoverboard, or even live inside the White House.

Lass Frooby Noo!

The Sims Wiki

When creating games for the worldwide market, translating menus and buttons, not to mention the spoken dialog, can be expensive.  In order to circumvent some of this expense, the Sim games use a fictional language called “Simlish.”  First introduced in SimCopter, the gibberish language is made up of sounds borrowed from various real languages, like French, English, Latin, and Tagalog.

Simlish has been used most extensively throughout The Sims franchise, to the point that even the songs in the game are in Simlish.  Many of these tunes are written and recorded by EA’s musicians, like the cult favorite “Mayzie Grobe.”  But some real-life pop stars have gotten in on the act, by doing Simlish covers of their Top 40 hits.  For example, Katy Perry has recorded Simlish versions of “Hot n’ Cold” and “Last Friday Night.”  Other big names have recorded their songs in Simlish, such as My Chemical Romance, Depeche Mode, Lily Allen, Nelly Furtado, Lady Antebellum, Barenaked Ladies, metal legends Anthrax, and the recent hit, “We Are Young” by Fun.  Perhaps the biggest Simlish commitment has been from Black Eyed Peas, who not only recorded Simlish versions of “Shut Up” and “Let’s Get It Started”, they also wrote and recorded all-new songs specifically for The Sims games. 

Sex and the SimCity

Compared to titles like Grand Theft Auto, the Sim games are pretty innocent.  But that doesn’t mean they’ve been totally immune to scandal. 

When the helicopter simulation SimCopter was released in 1996, tiny, bikini-clad women would sometimes dance around on the screen when the player successfully completed a mission.  Disgusted by the blatant sexism and assumed heterosexuality of the audience, Maxis programmer Jacques Servin changed the game code to occasionally make the women muscle-bound, Speedo-wearing men, who would engage in pixelated make-out sessions—complete with smooching sounds—whenever they got near one another. Servin was promptly fired, but 50,000 copies of the game had already shipped before the code could be removed.  Servin has since continued his culture jamming ways by co-founding the activist group The Yes Men.

Another sexy Sim scandal took place in 2004, when then university professor and avid player of The Sims Online, Paul Ludlow, reported on a form of digital prostitution in the online role-playing game.  Ludlow said it was not uncommon for players to enter private chat rooms where the two participated in cybersex conversations, often in exchange for Simoleans, the in-game form of currency.  This wouldn’t be a problem, except the minimum age of players was 13, meaning there were surely a few underage teens engaged in these activities with older players.  When the media picked up on the story, Ludlow’s Sims Online account was shut down by Electronic Arts.  The company claimed that he had violated the community’s policy by including a link to his commercial website in his player profile.

The Homeless Sims

In 2009, a game design student in the UK, Robin Burkinshaw, started playing The Sims 3.  But Burkinshaw approached the game from a more sociological standpoint by creating two homeless sims, Kev and his young daughter, Alice.  Burkinshaw tried to mirror the personality of a man with mental illness, a common trait among the homeless, and the effect that would have on the little girl in his care. To that end, Kev was obnoxious, angry, and didn’t like kids, while Alice was clumsy and suffered from low self-esteem.  Burkinshaw then created a “home” for Kev and Alice made to look like an abandoned park, with only benches for furniture.  Burkinshaw then released them into The Sims environment to see how well they’d fare with minimal intervention from their human controller.  This was exactly the type of concept that Wright had originally envisioned his Dollhouse could be.


The story, played out in screenshots on Burkinshaw’s website, is heartbreaking.  We watch as Kev behaves like an abusive father, only going near his daughter to yell at or insult her.  Meanwhile, Alice attends school and tries to get good grades, but is often found sleeping on a bench in a playground or begging for food, a shower, or a warm bed from neighbors; sadly, they don’t always let help.  The story follows the homeless sims through many life stages, ending in Kev’s death, and Alice’s possible redemption when she finds a job.

Sims as Art

There’s no question that games like Farmville, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and many others probably wouldn’t exist without the Sim games paving the way.  As a testament to that legacy, both SimCity and The Sims have been declared pieces of art, thanks to their inclusion in an upcoming Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibit set to debut in March.  Along with 12 other classic, classy video games, like Pac-Man, Tetris, Myst, and Portal, the games will be part of a playable demo or a video tour that helps demonstrate why these titles were chosen as the first in what will undoubtedly be a long history of pixelated Picassos.

Top image courtesy of Moby Games.

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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15 Fun Facts About Army of Darkness
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Universal Pictures

On February 19, 1993, Army of Darkness—the third installment in Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead franchise—made its way into U.S. theaters. You probably know all about Ash’s boomstick, but on the occasion of the hilarious horror comedy's 25th anniversary, it's worth a closer look.

1. ARMY OF DARKNESS ISN'T THE ENTIRE TITLE.

The film’s title is stylized onscreen as Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness. This phrasing was Sam Raimi’s homage to the defunct Hollywood tradition of putting stars’ names in movie titles (like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein)—but the studio feared the long title would confuse moviegoers, so it was shortened for official purposes to just Army of Darkness.

2. EVEN THE SHORTER TITLE WASN'T RAIMI'S FIRST CHOICE.

Army of Darkness is the third installment of the Evil Dead series and the first to take place during the Middle Ages. Raimi’s original title for Army of Darkness was The Medieval Dead.

3. BRIDGET FONDA FINALLY GOT TO WORK WITH RAIMI.

Bridget Fonda makes a cameoas Ash’s girlfriend Linda during the beginning flashback sequence. She is the third actress in three films to play Linda (following actresses Betsy Baker and Denise Bixler). Fonda—a huge Evil Dead II fan—had originally auditioned to be in Raimi’s previous film, Darkman, but didn’t get the part.

4. ASH'S CAR HAD A LOT OF SCREEN EXPERIENCE.

The 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 allegedly appears in all of Sam Raimi’s films.

5. DARKMAN MADE ARMY OF DARKNESS POSSIBLE.

Raimi wanted to make Army of Darkness immediately following 1987’s Evil Dead II, but he struggled to find funding to finish his trilogy. The financial success of Raimi’s 1990 film, Darkman, eventually convinced Universal Studios to split the $12 million budget with executive producer Dino De Laurentiis.

6. A SUBTLE SCIENCE FICTION REFERENCE PLAYS A KEY ROLE.

The words Ash must utter to safely retrieve the Necronomicon (“Klaatu verata nikto”) are actually a variation on a phrase from the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that film, “Klaatu barada nitko” is the phrase one must say to stop the robot Gort from destroying Earth.

7. THE SKELETON DEADITES WERE AN HOMAGE.

Their design is a tribute to visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen.

8. THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Billy Bryan, the actor who portrays the second monster in the medieval pit, also portrayed the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters.

9. SAM RAIMI'S BROTHER WORE A LOT OF HATS.

Ted Raimi—who makes cameos in all of his brother’s films—appears as three different background characters in Army of Darkness. He is first seen as a sympathetic villager, then as a dying soldier during the final battle, and, finally, as an S-Mart employee in the last scene.

10. RAIMI HAD TO FIGHT FOR AN R-RATING.

In keeping with the gory first two films in the series, Army of Darkness received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. It was subsequently bumped down to an R rating after the filmmakers pointed out that the ostensible gore in the film was happening to skeletons.

11. PLAYING EVIL ASH WAS TOUGH FOR CAMPBELL.

It took makeup artists three hours to get Campbell ready for shooting.

12. RAIMI STORYBOARDED EVERY SINGLE SHOT IN THE MOVIE HIMSELF.

About 25 shots in the final battle are taken from storyboards originally used in the 1948 Victor Fleming film Joan of Arc, which were brought to Raimi’s attention by visual effects supervisor William Mesa. Mesa got them from a friend, who got them from Fleming himself.

13. THERE'S AN EASTER EGG FOR TREKKIES.

Star Trek fans will recognize the location where Ash learns the “Klaatu verata nikto” incantation. The scene was shot at the iconic Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, California, where the famous “Arena” episode from Star Trek was also shot. The movie also shot in the Bronson Canyon area of Griffith Park in Los Angeles that served as the Batcave for the 1960s Batman television show.

14. THE STUDIO CHANGED THE ENDING.

Bruce Campbell stars in 'Army of Darkness' (1992)
Universal Pictures

The original conclusion of the film—which Universal Studios deemed too negative—featured Ash taking too much potion to get back to the present day and waking up in a future, post-apocalyptic London. The ending can be seen on subsequent director’s cuts of home video versions of Army of Darkness.

15. EVEN AFTER YEARS OF TRYING, A SEQUEL NEVER MATERIALIZED.

Beginning in 2015, Bruce Campbell reprised his role as Ash in the Ash vs Evil Dead TV series. While fans of the Evil Dead franchise love it, Raimi spent years trying to get a sequel to Army of Darkness off the ground. On the commentary track for the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, Raimi even shared a few of the discarded ideas he had for the film.

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