15 Things Former 'SimCity' Mayors Should Know

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Running a city—even a virtual one—is a time-consuming task. If you stepped up to rule your own SimCity town in the early ‘90s, here are a few things you might’ve missed out on (in addition to food and sleep).

1. INSPIRATION FOR SIMCITY WAS PART WAR GAME, PART MIT PROFESSOR.

While working on the 1984 bomber game Raid on Bungeling Bay, SimCity designer Will Wright found he was most enthusiastic about creating the game’s detailed maps. Taking cues from Jay Wright Forrester’s writings on system dynamics, a methodology for simulating interactions in complex systems, Wright decided to combine his love of maps with his interest in urban planning by breaking ground on SimCity.

2. THE GAME’S ORIGINS INCLUDE A SCIENCE FICTION DICTATOR, TOO.

Wright also attributes his development of SimCity to Stanislaw Lem’s “The Seventh Sally,” a short story about a cast-off tyrant who rules an electronic version of his former empire that also moves to overthrow him. Wright told the LA Times in 1992 that he was drawn to the idea of electronic life becoming “real,” and wanted to help players create such a detailed world that “if a hurricane strikes, [they] really empathize with the citizens."

3. WRIGHT HAD TO FOUND HIS OWN GAME PUBLISHING COMPANY TO GET THE GAME RELEASED.

In 1987, SimCity had been finished for two years but remained unreleased; publishers didn’t think players would flock to a game that offered no clear way to win or lose. To market the game themselves, Wright and Jeff Braun co-founded Maxis that year and released Mac and PC versions of SimCity in February and October 1989, respectively.

4. IN FACT, SIMCITY DEFINED A (VERY POPULAR) NEW GENRE.

In June 1989, Braun told The New York Times that, unlike with prior videogames that had clear objectives, "there's no one way to do something" in a game with the sole goal of making a city that works. "Everything affects everything else," he explained. "The real goal is to try to create the most wonderful city you can and learn by experimentation what works and what doesn't." Today, many gaming scholars credit SimCity with establishing the super-genre of simulation video game, which now includes a wide range of life simulation, sports management, and construction-based titles.

5. SIMCITY INSPIRED EMPIRE-BUILDING GAMES LIKE CIVILIZATION.

Sid Meier, the creator of games like Civilization and Railroad Tycoon, told a group of journalists in 2008 that SimCity was one of the three greatest innovations in gaming history “because they broke the accepted videogame mold by inspiring creation, not destruction.”

6. IT’S AMONG THE 10 MOST IMPORTANT VIDEO GAMES IN THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

In 2007, a committee of game experts created a canon of the 10 most important video games in history, modeled on the National Film Preservation Board’s top-10 list, and submitted it to the Library of Congress for archival inclusion. At the time, Stanford archivist Henry Lowood told the New York Times that the list was “an assertion that digital games have a cultural significance and a historical significance." Currently, archivists are working to catalogue over 3000 video games and 1500 strategy guides in the national collection.

7. BEFORE SIMCITY, THERE WAS MICROPOLIS.

The original working title for SimCity was Micropolis, which was changed before its Maxis release. In January 2008, the game’s source code was released under a free software GPL 3 license to support the software’s donation to the One Laptop Per Child program. Because Electronic Arts (EA) still holds the SimCity trademark, the open-source version—developed with Don Hopkins and translated to C++—bears the game’s original name of Micropolis.

8. SIMCITY TAKES A STAND AGAINST NUCLEAR POWER.

The game includes several options for generating a city’s power, but nuclear power—the most expensive to build but most efficient choice—is boobytrapped. ''We sort of tease people into thinking it's a good deal,'' Maxis co-founder Jeff Braun told the New York Times. ''It doesn't pollute, and it generates three times as much power as a coal plant. But it will blow up, and when it does, it's a major disaster.''

9. THE SIMCITY TEAM PARTNERED WITH BIG OIL TO PUSH A GREEN AGENDA.

In 1992, Braun told the LA Times that the game was “pushing political agendas" with its built-in preference toward public transit and away from nuclear power. In 2007, EA partnered with fuel powerhouse BP to further its agenda by introducing more pointedly green elements to the game. The companies explained in a press release that players would be able to “strive to create a greener environment and avoid hazards caused by excessive carbon emissions by choosing from a variety of BP Alternative Energy low-carbon power options.”

9. CITIES COULD BE HIT WITH HISTORICAL AND SCIENCE FICTION DISASTERS.

While nuclear meltdowns, shipwrecks, and (in Las Vegas only) UFO attacks could happen without warning, players could also choose to inflict earthquakes, fires, floods, monster attacks, and tornadoes at will, and—despite Wright’s hope at creating empathy for SimCity residents—they often did. "Children typically love to blow up their cities," Braun told the LA Times.

Certain scenarios had specialized disasters, too: “Hamburg” would suddenly be bombed from above (based on its World War II record), while “San Francisco, 1906” had an 8.0 earthquake, “Detroit, 1972” suffered a crime wave, “Boston, 2010” faced nuclear destruction, and “Tokyo, 1961” had to stare down a Godzilla rampage.

10. YOU COULD WIN THE GAME THROUGH A LOOPHOLE BY SLASHING TAXES.

Many players discovered that, rather than patiently solving scenarios through strategy, they could drop a city’s tax rates to zero to make residents happy and spur rapid growth. Because a city’s taxes were only collected at the end of the year, players could then pause the game on December 31, raise taxes in time to collect, and then drop them again in January.

11. SIMCITY HAD A CHEAT FOR UNLIMITED FUNDS—BUT IT CAME AT A COST.

To get a $10,000 boost, a player could hold [Shift] and type “fund” up to eight times. After hitting the $30,000 mark, however, another money cheat would cause an earthquake. Thankfully, a work-around was discovered: players could pause the game and max out at $30k with the “fund” cheat, save and exit the game, then pick up where they left off in a new session with the crisis averted.

12. MARIO MAKES A CAMEO IN ONE SCENARIO.

The dullish landscape of the “Freeland, 1991” scenario in SimCity for Super Nintendo must be the site of a 500,000+ resident megalopolis for this easter egg. However, a successful Freeland mayor was rewarded for the feat with a statue of Nintendo hero Mario.

13. SIMCITY WAS DESIGNED AS A FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND LEARNING TOOL.

In a 2014 interview with Medium, Wright explained that SimCity was meant to help players understand the complex workings of the real world through play:

I really think our brain is wired to consume entertainment and enjoy entertainment, precisely because of the fact that it’s inherently educational. And we’ve made this artificial distinction between the two, we’ve almost kind of put a chasm there that didn’t exist … I think SimCity was just a simple example that for a lot of people started to remove the wall between the two.

14. REAL-LIFE POLITICIANS AND CITY PLANNERS USED IT THIS WAY, TOO.

In the early ‘90s, Southern California city planners tested their urban management skills with the game, while Rhode Island’s Journal newspaper set up a SimCity competition between five Providence mayoral candidates. Vincent Cianci, who won the competition by reducing crime, avoiding new taxes, and solving housing issues in a simulated version of Providence, went on to win the position of real-life mayor.

Simulations of real-world cities offered retrospective wisdom, too; as the LA Times reported, Detroit News columnist Chuck Moss set Godzilla loose in the “Detroit, 1972” scenario, compared the resulting state of affairs to those prompted in real-life Detroit by its mayor at the time, and concluded that “Detroit would have been better off with the monster.”

15. ONE SIMCITY TITLE WAS A CUSTOM CORPORATE TOOL.

Speaking to Wired in 1994, Wright explained how the franchise’s one simulation-for-hire game—SimRefinery—came about: After ignoring many companies’ requests "to do ‘SimPizzaHut’ or ‘SimWhatever,’" the team finally developed a prototype for Chevron that simulated its refinery operation. “It wasn't so much for the engineers as it was for the accountants and managers who walked through this refinery every day and didn't know what these pipes were carrying,” Wright said.

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April 20, 2015 - 1:00am
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