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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

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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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11 Terrifying Facts About The Hills Have Eyes
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In the late 1970s, Wes Craven was a struggling filmmaker known for only one thing: a little horror flick called The Last House on the Left (1972). Though he was itching to branch out and make other kinds of movies, he could only find financing for horror films, so he agreed to make a movie about a group of hill people savaging a vacationing family. Though he may not have been in a hurry to admit it, Craven found that he was really good at scaring people.

Produced on a tight budget, under sometimes grueling conditions, The Hills Have Eyes cemented Craven as one of Hollywood’s great horror masters. The film was released 40 years ago today, and it’s just as brutal as ever. So let’s look back on its unflinching terror with 11 facts about the film’s production.

1. IT WAS BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

According to writer/director Wes Craven, The Hills Have Eyes was inspired by the story of Sawney Bean, the head of a wild Scottish clan who murdered and cannibalized numerous people during the Middle Ages. Craven heard the story of the Bean clan, and noted that the road near where they lived was believed to be haunted because people kept disappearing while traveling on it. He adapted the story to instead be about a group of wild people in the American West, and The Hills Have Eyes was born.

2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY NECESSITY.

After Craven released The Last House on the Left in 1972, he tried his hand at making films outside of the horror genre, but according to the late director, “Nobody wanted to know about it.” In need of money and searching for a better career path, he finally answered the request of his friend, producer Peter Locke, to write a horror film. At the time, Locke’s wife Liz Torres was performing regularly in Las Vegas, and so Locke was frequently exposed to desert landscapes. He suggested that Craven set the film in the desert, and Craven began to craft the screenplay.

Budget was also a concern, so Craven structured the film to feature a relatively small cast and very few locations.

3. JANUS BLYTHE WON HER ROLE BASED PARTLY ON SPEED.

For the role of Ruby, the filmmakers needed an actress who could pull off the flighty and feral character convincingly, so, in the words of Locke: “We had sprints.” Actresses trying out for the role were asked to race each other, and Blythe’s speed won out.

4. PETER LOCKE PLAYS A SMALL ROLE IN THE FILM.

Because of the film’s small budget, even Locke was drafted to join the cast. He appears as “Mercury,” the feather-covered savage who appears only twice: once in the film’s opening minutes, and then again as he’s pushed off a cliff by the Carter family’s dog, Beast.

5. THE TARANTULA SCENE WASN’T PLANNED.

The scene in which Lynne Wood (Dee Wallace) discovers a tarantula in the family trailer is a foreboding moment that signals the trauma to come, but it wasn’t in the script. According to Craven, they simply found the spider on the road during shooting, put it in a terrarium, and decided to add it into the film. Don’t worry, though: Wallace didn’t actually stomp the spider in the scene.

6. THE DEAD DOG WAS REAL (BUT THEY DIDN’T KILL IT).

During the scene in which Doug (Martin Speer) discovers the mutilated body of the family’s other German Shepherd, Beauty, a real dog corpse was used. According to Craven, though, the dog was already dead.

“Let’s just say we bought a dead dog from the county and leave it at that,” Craven said.

7. THE FILM WAS ORIGINALLY RATED X.

Though it might seem relatively tame by modern standards, the film’s graphic violence earned it an X (what we now call NC-17) rating from the MPAA, which meant cuts had to be made. According to Locke, significant footage was removed from the scene in which Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) kills Fred (John Steadman), the scene in which Pluto (Michael Berryman) and Mars (Lance Gordon) terrorize the trailer, and the final confrontation with Papa Jupiter.

8. MICHAEL BERRYMAN CONSTANTLY FACED HEATSTROKE.

Berryman, who became a horror icon thanks to this film, was apparently game for just about anything Craven and company wanted him to do, though he personally told the producers he was born with “26 birth defects.” Among those birth defects was a lack of sweat glands, which meant that the intense desert heat was particularly hazardous to his health. He soldiered on, though, even in intense action sequences.

“We always had to cover him up as soon as we finished these scenes,” Craven recalled.

9. THE CLIMACTIC EXPLOSION COULD’VE BEEN DEADLY.

Because the budget was small, production on The Hills Have Eyes often meant taking risks. Actors performed stunts themselves, sometimes putting themselves in harm’s way. For the scene in which Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston) set a trap to kill Papa Jupiter by blowing up the trailer, the crew members who set the explosion actually couldn’t tell Craven whether it was safe to have the actors in the foreground of the shot.

“We didn’t know how much of a blow-up it was gonna be,” Craven said.

10. THE ORIGINAL ENDING WAS MUCH MORE HOPEFUL.

According to Locke, the film’s original scripted ending involved the surviving family members reuniting at the site of the trailer, including Doug and the baby, signifying that they had survived and could finally look forward. Craven, though, opted for something more bleak, and so the film ends on a shot of Doug brutally stabbing Mars while Ruby looks on in disgust, a reversal of roles that the director liked.

11. IT STARTED AN INTERESTING CHAIN OF HORROR HOMAGES.

The Hills Have Eyes is admired by fellow horror filmmakers, so much so that one of them—Evil Dead director Sam Raimi—chose to pay homage to it in a strange way. In the scene in which Brenda is quivering in bed after having been brutalized by Pluto and Mars, a ripped poster for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is visible above her head. Raimi saw it as a message.

“I took it to mean that Wes Craven … was saying ‘Jaws was just pop horror. What I have here is real horror.’”

As a joking response to the scene, Raimi put a ripped poster for The Hills Have Eyes in his now-classic film The Evil Dead (1981). Not to be outdone, Craven responded by including a clip from The Evil Dead in his classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Additional Sources: The Hills Have Eyes DVD commentary by Wes Craven and Peter Locke (2003)

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12 Fast Facts About Magnum, P.I.
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Magnum, P.I. was appointment television in a world before peak TV made that sort of thing commonplace. Starring Tom Selleck and set against a lush Hawaiian backdrop, the series was a triumph thanks to its tense action, humor, and eclectic cast of characters. Selleck’s Thomas Magnum shed the typical action hero mold for something far more relatable, and for eight seasons, the series was among the most popular on the air. To bring you back to a time when all you needed was a Hawaiian shirt and a Detroit Tigers cap to be a star, here are 12 facts about Magnum, P.I.

1. THERE'S A STRONG HAWAII FIVE-0 CONNECTION.

Magnum, P.I. made its premiere on CBS in 1980, the same year the network’s long-running Hawaii Five-0 was taking its final bow. Magnum’s location was picked because the network didn't want to let its Hawaiian production facilities go to waste, so the Tom Selleck-led show filmed many of its indoor scenes on the old Hawaii Five-0 soundstage.

The two shows are even set in the same universe, as Thomas Magnum would make references to Detective Steve McGarrett, who was famously played by Jack Lord on Hawaii Five-0. Though Lord never did accept the offer to make a cameo, the link between the two shows was never broken.

2. PLAYING MAGNUM COST TOM SELLECK THE ROLE OF INDIANA JONES.

Can you imagine Indiana Jones with a mustache? Or Tom Selleck without one? Well one of those almost became a reality as Selleck was the top choice for the swashbuckling archaeologist when production on Raiders of the Lost Ark began. Unfortunately, the actor’s contractual commitment to Magnum, P.I. prevented him from taking the role.

In a cruel twist of fate, a writers strike subsequently delayed filming on the first season of Magnum, theoretically freeing up Selleck for the role—if he hadn’t already dropped out of consideration. Though the part will forever be linked to Harrison Ford, the ever-excitable George Lucas described Selleck’s screentest as “really, really good.”

3. THE THEME SONG MADE THE BILLBOARD CHARTS.

If you think the Magnum, P.I. theme is a miracle of network television, you’re not alone. The song, composed by Mike Post, reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1982—a rare feat for a TV theme. Post is also the man behind hit TV songs like The A-Team, The Rockford Files, Quantum Leap, The Greatest American Hero, and plenty of other ‘80s and ‘90s staples. He’s probably best known as the man behind the ubiquitous “dun, dun” sting from Law & Order. (The Who's Pete Townshend actually wrote a song about Post's theme work, title "Mike Post Theme," which was released on the band's 2006 album, Endless Wire.)

The Magnum, P.I. tune you’re bopping your head to right now wasn’t the original opening song, though. For the first handful of episodes, including the pilot, the series had a much less memorable intro song.

4. THE SHOW FEATURED SOME OF ORSON WELLES’S LAST PERFORMANCES.

Orson Welles’s final years were a blur of voiceover work and jug-o’-wine commercials, and one of his last jobs was acting as the voice of Robin Masters—the mysterious author who lends Magnum his guesthouse in exchange for security services. Masters is only heard, never fully seen, in the show, leading to plenty of conspiracy theories over his actual identity (some fans still think he was Higgins all along).

Occasionally Masters would be seen only briefly and from behind. For those rare moments, actor Bruce Atkinson would provide the necessary body parts for filming. Though his voice was only heard rarely during the series’ first five seasons, Welles was scheduled to play the role for as long as the show was on the air, but the actor’s death in 1985 brought a premature end to his tenure.

5. THERE WAS ALMOST A QUANTUM LEAP CROSSOVER.

Donald Bellisario’s TV empire is one of the industry’s most impressive feats, resulting in multiple top-rated shows and critical favorites. But getting two of his most popular series to cross over proved to be more trouble than anyone would have anticipated.

In order to secure a fifth season for Quantum Leap, Bellisario suggested that Scott Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett character “leap” into the body of Thomas Magnum in the final moments of season four, leading to the following year’s premiere. But there was a snag with securing Selleck; his publicist even claimed he was never formally approached about the subject, saying, "We’re hoping. It’s on hold. We don’t have an answer.” The idea was soon dropped, and a fifth season of Quantum Leap went on without any help from Magnum.

Magnum, P.I. was off the air at this point, so Selleck was already on different projects. Some test footage of Bakula as Thomas Magnum was shot and shown at a Quantum Leap fan convention, but that’s as far as viewers got.

6. CROSSOVERS WITH MURDER, SHE WROTE AND SIMON & SIMON DID HAPPEN.

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A crossover between Magnum and Murder, She Wrote? That did happen, oddly enough. The event took place in the Magnum, P.I. episode "Novel Connection" during season seven and Murder, She Wrote’s “Magnum on Ice.” In the story, Magnum is arrested for murder, and the only person who can clear his name is Jessica Fletcher, played as always by Dame Angela Lansbury.

During its third season, Magnum also crossed over with his fellow CBS private investigators on the show Simon & Simon. Both series ran simultaneously on CBS for almost the entirety of the ‘80s, and in this episode the trio banded together to secure a Hawaiian artifact that supposedly had a death curse attached to it.

7. THE SMITHSONIAN PRESERVED MAGNUM’S SIGNATURE HAWAIIAN SHIRT.

If you’re not old enough to appreciate what a phenomenon Magnum, P.I. was, consider this: Selleck’s iconic Hawaiian shirt, Detroit Tigers hat, and insignia ring from the show were all donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The objects joined other culturally significant TV relics from over the years, including Archie Bunker’s chair from All in the Family, the Lone Ranger’s mask, and a Kermit the Frog puppet. Perhaps just as big of an honor, Selleck found himself in the Mustache Hall of Fame for the memorable lip fuzz he sported throughout the series. His digital plaque reads:

“Throughout his acting career, Selleck’s charismatic grin, unflinching masculinity and robust, stocky lipholstery have made him the stuff of legend.”

8. IT PRODUCED A FAILED BACKDOOR PILOT.

The first season of Magnum, P.I. was about more than just establishing Tom Selleck as a household name; CBS executives also wanted an episode to act as a backdoor pilot for an action series starring Erin Gray. In the episode “J. ‘Digger’ Doyle,” viewers meet Gray as the titular Doyle, a security expert that Magnum calls on to help thwart a potential assassination attempt against Robin Masters.

Though the episode went off without a hitch, the spinoff never materialized. In fact, Gray never reappeared on the series after that.

9. MAGNUM DIES IN THE PREMATURE SERIES FINALE “LIMBO.”

By the time season seven rolled around, it seemed that Magnum, P.I. had run its course—so much so that the network had planned for that to be the show’s sendoff.

In the season’s final episode, “Limbo,” Magnum winds up in critical condition after taking a bullet during a warehouse shootout. The episode gets Dickensian as Magnum, caught between life and death, drops in on all his closest friends (and supporting cast) as a specter no one can see or hear. He makes peace with everyone around him before he apparently walks off into heaven, punctuated by the John Denver song “Looking For Space.”

To the surprise of the cast, crew, and fans, the series was renewed for a shortened eighth season, meaning Magnum had to come back from the beyond and continue his adventures for another 13 episodes.

10. THE REAL SERIES FINALE IS ONE OF THE MOST-WATCHED OF ALL TIME.

When Magnum, P.I. actually ended, it ended with one of the most-watched finales of all time. It currently sits as the fifth most-watched series finale, not far behind the likes of Cheers, M*A*S*H, Friends, and Seinfeld. The grand total of viewers? 50.7 million.

11. SELLECK AND TOM CLANCY FAILED TO GET A MAGNUM MOVIE OFF THE GROUND IN THE ‘90s.

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Rumors of a Magnum, P.I. movie have been rumbling since shortly after the credits rolled on the series' final episode (and likely well before that). It got close in the ‘90s when Selleck teamed with famed novelist Tom Clancy to pitch a Magnum movie to Universal.

Clancy was a big fan of the show and was ready to crack the story with Selleck, but nothing ever came of it. Selleck later recounted:

"We got together, and I went to Universal, and I said ‘It's time we could do a series of feature films.’ They were very interested, and I had Tom, who wanted to do the story, and I had this package put together, but Universal's the only studio that could make it, and they went through three ownership changes in the '90s, and I think that was the real window for Magnum."

12. WE MIGHT SEE A SEQUEL SERIES FOCUSING ON MAGNUM’S DAUGHTER.

The time for a Selleck-led Magnum, P.I. movie may have passed, but there’s still hope for the franchise. In 2016, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that ABC had a pilot in the works for a Magnum sequel, which would put an end to the constant reports of a full-fledged reboot or movie adaptation of the show.

According to the site, the show would follow Magnum's daughter, Lily, "who returns to Hawaii to take up the mantle of her father's PI firm.” It remains to be seen whether or not the project will ever come to fruition.

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