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The History of Simcity

The history of videogames is short and violent. As technology ramped up, early, pacifist fare like Pong gave way to the 8-bit sound and fury of Space Invaders, Asteroids, Defender and their brethren, creating a trend in gaming that continues to this day.

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Perhaps it is for these reasons that the original SimCity was met with, if not outright derision, then certainly bewilderment and skepticism when SimCity creator Will Wright was shopping the concept to publishers. Here was a game where the emphasis was on creation instead of destruction. Game-play could continue virtually indefinitely, at a time where most games of the time were designed to last mere minutes. In an era where most games cast you in the role of fighter pilot, spaceship commander or some other variant of the square-jawed hero, SimCity was all about the decidedly un-heroic concept planning. Gamers were bestowed with the very dry and civic-minded honorific of Mayor and asked to manage the growth and planning of a simulated metropolis. All together, this strange game seemed like it would disappear altogether from the annals of video game history in a flash.

simcity card game ad
In more ways than one, this ad for the SimCity card game typifies a bygone era

Instead, SimCity disappeared off stores shelves, as consumers turned out in droves to purchase the game. Millions of copies of the SimCity games have been sold over the years, and SimCity has arguably formed the cornerstone of a genre in itself - God Games, also known as System Simulation Games.

Ironically, SimCity arose from the ashes of a more typical videogame, The Raid of Bungeling Bay. Bungeling Bay featured a heavily armed helicopter laying siege to equally heavily armed islands. Will quickly discovered that he was having more fun creating the islands than he was blowing them up with his helicopter. At the same time, Will cultivated a real love of the intricacies and theories of urban planning, particularly those of MIT professor Jay Forrester, and decided that building and maintaining a city was a topic worthy of a videogame.

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A young Will Wright, sporting a vintage '80s look

The stage was set, and Will spent an entire year turning his idea into a reality. An early incarnation of SimCity was written for the venerable Commodore 64 in 1985, though the game would sit, unpublished, for four years. In 1987, Maxis was formed by Will Wright and Jeff Braun, after the two met at a now-legendary pizza party. In 1989, after a long search to find a publisher for the game, Macintosh and Amiga versions of SimCity made it to store shelves, courtesy of Broderbund. A PC version followed later that year, and the original, Commodore 64 version of SimCity finally saw the light of day as well.

Initially, sales were so meager that all technical support for the game was handled by Will and Jeff, out of Jeff's apartment. Fortunately, you can't keep a good game down, and SimCity started to garner word-of-mouth recognition, which eventually resulted in a full page story in Newsweek magazine. This brought about a complete reversal of fortune for the game. Suddenly, SimCity was achieving mainstream success at a time when PC games were still very much a marginalized medium.

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A cool, comic-book style boxfront from the European version of SimCity

System simulation games were such a new concept at the time that Maxis suddenly found itself fielding phone calls from governmental agencies the world over, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department. One can only imagine what creations would have resulted from such a pairing.

SimCity was also getting noticed as an educational tool, and made its way into more than 10,000 classrooms, a noteworthy feat for any commercial videogame, even today.

With SimCity firmly established as a runaway success, a sequel was practically a foregone conclusion, but Will Wright, ever the visionary, was more inclined to forge ahead with several new ideas he wanted to explore (including the concept for what would later become The Sims), and handed over the reins for a time to Fred Hasslam. Fortunately, Will eventually decided that a SimCity sequel was still fertile grounds for his imagination, and stepped back in to aid Fred in creating a worthy successor to the original SimCity game.

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SimCity 2000 crosses the Pacific

What resulted was a quantum leap over the first game. It greatly benefited technologically and experientially from the five years that had elapsed between releases. Will abandoned the top-down view of the first game in favor of the isometric model that has been used in all subsequent SimCity releases. He also incorporated rotation, so users could view their city from different angles. Will beefed up the whole feature set considerably, so it was no surprise when SimCity 2000 was released in January 1994, it became the top-selling game in the world, and held on to that position for half a year.

Game play aside, one of the most amazing things about SimCity 2000 was just how many of the new features were the direct result of communication between Maxis and fans of the game- a tradition that continues to this day. Sure, there was no Lot Exchange, No Lot Editor, no downloadable content of any sort, and initially, not even a website to visit. Still, untold legions of diehard fans made themselves heard via e-mail, snail mail and direct communication, and Maxis made sure that many of their requests actually ended up in the game, just like we do today.

The original SimCity had become an instant classic, and SimCity 2000 proved to the world that it was no mere fluke, and established Maxis as a development studio synonymous with quality.

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With thanks to Electronic Arts Inc.

© Electronic Arts Inc. EA, the EA logo and SimCity are trademarks or registered trademarks of Electronic Arts Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries. All Rights Reserved. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.
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