February 2nd, 1989 marked the release of one of PC gaming’s most storied franchises: SimCity. Designed by Will Wright at Maxis, the studio he had recently co-founded with producer Jeff Braun, the game was initially released on Amiga and Macintosh, which was followed up by Commodore 64 and IMB PC releases later in the year. Ports to many other systems would follow, including an eventual release on the Super Nintendo.
In some ways, it’s remarkable that SimCity was ever released. Wright came up with the idea for the game in 1984, while working on an a shoot ’em up for the Commodore 64, Raid on Bungeling Bay. Famously, he found that he enjoyed creating the cities that made up each level more than he did the actual game, and he expanded that idea into a game he called Micropolis. Unfortunately, an open-ended game with no clear direction and no way to achieve a victory state was wildly unconventional at the time and his bosses at Brøderbund did not believe it would sell. Brøderbund would eventually come around, and signed a deal to distribute the game, after Wright cleared the rights to it.
Compared to it’s later sequels, the first SimCity was a very basic simulation. There were no high- and low-density zones, only two types of power plants, no subways, and no water pipes. Nevertheless, the game would strike a chord with audiences and even educators, and Maxis would go on to produce a version of the game designed to teach basic urban planning concepts.
It didn’t take long for SimCity to become a franchise, with SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, and SimCity 4 following as direct sequels over the next decade, along with tie-in spinoffs Streets of SimCity and SimCopter. Maxis and Wright would also produce what would become the best-selling PC game of all-time during this period, The Sims. Unfortunately Maxis itself suffered from management issues during this period, and the studio was eventually purchased by Electronic Arts, which would lead to a decline in the SimCity brand. The most recent game was released in 2013 (confusingly titled SimCity), which was harshly criticized for its small map sizes and always-online copy protection system.
While the franchise itself has stagnated, it did create an entirely new sub-genre of games, ones in which players were encouraged to be creative and to build new things, rather than be the cause of destruction. And while major releases tend to be few and far between, due to the complexity of their development, city builders are still popular games. Most recently, Colossal Order’s 2015 release Cities: Skylines has proven to be a major success and shown that there’s still a big market for these games.
Finally, I just want to give a hat tip to LGR’s retrospective video on SimCity, which inspired this header. It’s worth a watch if you want to see more on the original version of the game. Also, if anyone wants to play the original game, an open source version is playable in your web browser, MicropolisJS.
Have a great day everyone, and remember to keep those splines reticulated!