From Ant to City and Beyond: A History of All Things Sim
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.