Back in my Apogee piece, I reminisced about how shareware games in the early 1990s were passed around on message boards and floppy disks. It was exactly through that kind of underground network that I came upon SimCity (1989) for the first time.
Primitive by our modern standards, the game in the early 1990s was quite interesting. It was a blocky 16-bit world which evolved as you played it, bringing to mind more an aquarium or an ant colony than a city simulation. Yet we all sat around burning hours on the thing. We weren’t aware at the time that we were witnessing the launch of a franchise gaming empire. But we could appreciate that nothing like this had even been done before.
We especially appreciated that here was an open-ended game with no defined ending, but you could make your own ending by sending in Godzilla to reign terror on your creation whenever you felt the need to shake things up a bit. Meanwhile the game was out there quietly winning awards, breaking ground for an entire decade of sequels, spin-offs, and eventually for its publisher Maxis to launch a whole new franchise in The Sims. But in the meantime, Maxis had founded a truly new genre of games. It then puttered around for the rest of the 1990s with no clue what to do with it.
Early SimCity sequels
A few years later, SimCity had been unexpectedly ported to every platform in the galaxy, and the follow-up appeared once again on the PC platform first. SimCity 2000 (1993) was much-anticipated but far less realized than we’d hoped. While it was still critically praised for its innovation at the time, you can clearly see now that it was the adolescent prototype for what was to come.
On the upside, the game had an explosion of added content. There was roughly ten times as many things to do. Most of the innovations which would make the series great later were crammed in here first.
On the downside, the interface was terrible! The game had the bad luck to come along at the awkward early 90s when graphics capabilities were doubling roughly every year, so that yesterday’s cutting-edge 3D was today’s butt-ugly rendering in garish colors. There were far too many buttons packed into too small a menu, and the isometric view, while an ambitious attempt, was a standard of game design that 1993 just wasn’t ready for yet. It ran like a hog on roller skates for any computer that didn’t max out RAM.
Enter SimCity 3000 (1999)! A massive improvement in so many ways. For one thing, desktop computers had caught up to the game’s ambitions. Screen resolutions could handle all the detail. For another, sound technology had vastly improved, and SimCity 3000 added a knock-out soundtrack for its time with Broadway-class show tunes and jazzy lounge numbers. It grabbed a lot good reviews. It felt like the full realization of the SimCity vision that was always intended, and was also the very last time the franchise had any success to speak of.
Personally, I lean towards three things Maxis ever did right: SimCity original, SimCity 3000, and the first two The Sims games. Most every gamer I’ve talked to agrees, with perhaps a nostalgia flash for one oddball title – SimGolf had its fans. But in between the hits, boy howdy, were there ever a gagglin’ pack of stinkers!
Later games came out in the SimCity series, of course, but by then The Sims (2000) had fully eclipsed the popularity of SimCity. The Sims seemed to be much more what people wanted, while the SimCity series just suffered one misfire after another. SimCity 4 (2003) became the game that made Maxis bow out of the franchise, claiming it had gone off the rails from its humble beginnings. It had to allow players to port in their characters from The Sims, which made it more of an accessory. Then the graphics were too demanding for the time, resulting in performance issues.
But wait, we haven’t talked about the ports!
In between, all the SimCity games had been ported to as many platforms as they could find, even if they didn’t translate that well. Take SimCity for the SNES, circa 1991:
I don’t know how you can manage to put so many improvements into a port over the original and yet end up with something so much worse. Translating the controls to a Nintendo controller was clumsy and awkward, making it feel like laying out a city with a rubber stamp pad. As noted in the video, the game took its dear sweet time loading things. The graphics managed to look worse than the PC. The whole game was filtered through the limitations of the console’s reduced memory capacity. If ever the desktop PC snobs had a reason to look down their nose at a port, it was this one.
The helpful professor dude was added because marketing executives thought kids would confuse their little snowflake heads understanding the intricacies of civic engineering without a cartoon character yelling at them. He becomes the second-most irritating Nintendo character after the snarky dog in Duck Hunt, popping up to interrupt game play every second.
But before we leave the SimCity franchise itself, we do have to mention that the game’s play logic was never anything short of irritating. Of course, they had to put some difficulty into the game so it had some challenge, but everything they tried made it artificial and an overstated political message to one way or the other. Place a single tile of roadway and citizens complain about traffic. Leave one corner of one block not covered by the fire department and it lights up like a butane cloud. Industrial was necessary to earn money, but made everybody complain about pollution. In some versions, it was possible to lower the tax rate to ZERO and the citizens STILL complained about high taxes!
None of this added real challenge to the game. What it added was the experience of driving with a nagging back-seat driver fussing and criticizing your every move. Citizens rarely moved out. The city kept growing, while still pissing and moaning at you every step of the way.
This logic is still present in The Sims franchise. In a game bent on being “just like real life,” we have characters too stupid to eat a box of crackers without setting the kitchen on fire, then get so wrapped up in cleaning up the mess that they pee a blue puddle on the floor, which causes them to feel so ashamed and dirty that they burst out crying in the kitchen, miss their car pool, and get fired. You have to wonder if any fan of a Maxis game ever liked it for the intended reasons in the first place.
But we digress. SimCity on SNES: Nevertheless, it was still a huge hit on Super Nintendo, because, duh, SimCity! This is why they kept porting it to the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 and everything else. Even the lousiest SimCity version when it was ported was the most popular game on that platform.
Not so for the spin-offs.
How many ways can you mess up a franchise?
It’s an absolute mystery how Maxis managed to miss-read the appeal of the franchise for so long. They poured years and years of effort into cheesy knock-offs of their own franchise, all while failing to understand what fans wanted. Don’t get me wrong, some of these ideas might have sounded good on paper. But they mostly varied between being too grand a plan for tech of the time to support, or too mundane to the point of being boring. All of them skewed wildly away from anything like the gameplay which put Maxis on the map. And even where they managed to land a fairly decent inspiration, the execution would end up just plain goofy.
What did fans want? Was it being a god? SimEarth (1990) was literally their first response to SimCity’s success. Here it is on the SNES:
Do you see any connection to what made SimCity popular here? This is a game about evolving lifeforms via controlling a planet’s biome, except using the same screwy Maxis logic that makes it necessary to build railroad tracks leading to every house’s front door.
I sure hope these whales are enjoying their comfortable jungle home. If you watch that video, that’s not even a playthough, that’s just somebody trying to figure out what to do. I’ll tell you this much, if you manage to tweak a species to start reproducing more so it will evolve faster, the continuous loop of the screaming “OO LA LA!!!” sound effect every time an animal on your planet breeds will drive you to set your console on fire.
And then Maxis said, “Ants, I know, we’ll do ants!” SimAnt (1991), ladies and gentlemen:
I mean, it was OK for a game about ants, I guess. But stop and think how the logic could possibly go between “people like our game about building a city into a big metropolis” and “therefore they want to play with bugs that live in a hole in the dirt!” So what we have for a challenge here is spider attacks.
At least they didn’t have the ants complaining about high tax rates or all the smog produced by the one wheat field on the opposite end of the map.
Would you believe that Maxis came out with SimHealth (1994), a game where you have to manage the US healthcare system, released during the height of the congressional debates over president Clinton’s health care proposals? That must be fun, right kids?
Mind you, you don’t even get to answer a massive viral epidemic or cure cancer or do thrilling ambulance runs, oh no, that would be the fun side of health care. You’re a politician in office and your sole game function is to pick your political values when you’re elected and then stick to those values no matter what until the conclusion of your term. That’s right: The goal of this game is to deliberately be a partisan hardass who will not compromise with any other side. It’s like somebody had a political agenda here!
The fact is, political agendas have always been present in the SimCity franchise. Since it’s a game where you play as a political figure, that’s to be expected. But the heavy-handedness ruined the message regardless of the stance. We’re all for environmentalism around here, but when even a single lane roadway with one car on it makes smog worse than an industrial block in China, you’re not doing the cause any good. You’re giving opponents reasons to point their finger and say you’re being hysterical.
Maxis almost sniffs a clue again
Finally Maxis decided “people want to play in a city, ooooooh!” So with Streets of SimCity (1997), they at least finally had a good inspiration again: import your SimCity 2000 maps into this 3D simulator and drive around.
Streets of SimCity matched its pedantic realism when building your car only with the refreshing liberty of the actual driving itself, where you get to take off and fly in the air at a whim, drive right across water like it was nothing, and run over cows for points.
Streets of SimCity‘s main issue was that its release was beset by glitches and bugs, as well as most PCs being incapable of running the game at the time. But give it credit, it did look forward to franchises such as Grand Theft Auto. On the other hand, check out the legendary DOS game Stunts for just about this level of graphics in an interface where you can design your own race track and drive on it too, plus the game actually ran on PCs of the time.
The fact is, the cars in Streets of SimCity could all fly because they reused the engine from SimCopter (1996):
SimCopter was yet another over-ambitious title, only it was released earlier, so it had even more glitches, bugs, and crashes. It also had a disgruntled developer story, which led to, uh…
> “Servin, however, decided to vent his ire directly via the code of the Simcopter game, which was nearing release at the time, back in 1996. He inserted assumedly gay ‘himbo’ characters into the game, clad in Speedos, hugging and kissing each other, and, dauntingly, with fluorescent nipples.”
Now see, this is the kind of story that gives us a glimpse into why so many titles from Maxis bombed. Between rushing out four titles per year, taking grants from thinktanks (as stated in the SimHealth video) to make political brainwashing tools disguised as games, and having coders mad enough at you to sneak glowing-nipple pixies into your game, all this points to rotten management.
Maxis and company pulled this all the way through the 1990s before finally having a hit with The Sims. Even after that, they couldn’t seem to fathom what made their most popular game popular and tried to blend Sims with every other genre, producing SimAnimals and MySims Racing.
No Maxis! No! Stop it! Your two successes are SimCity and The Sims. Stick to what you’re good at! Come to think of it, now that EA bought you up, we’re sure you’re learning new lessons in bad game company management every day.