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Jul 29, 2020

SimCity is one those games that helped expand the collective public consciousness of humans. 

I have a buddy who works on traffic flows in Minneapolis. When I asked how he decided to go into urban planning, he quickly responded with “playing SimCity.” Imagine that, a computer game inspiring a generation of people that wanted to make cities better. How did that come to be?

Will Wright was born in 1960. He went to Louisiana State University then Louisiana Tech and then to The New School in New York. By then, he was able to get an AppleII+ and start playing computer games, including Life, a game initially conceived by mathematician John Conway in 1970. A game that expanded the minds of every person that came in contact with it. That game had begun on the PDP, then in BBC BASIC before spreading around. It allowed players to set an initial configuration for cells and watch them mutate over time. 

After reading about LIFE, Wright wanted to port it to his Apple, so he learned Applesoft BASIC and PASCAL. He tinkered and By 1984 was able to produce a game called Raid on Bungeling Bay. And as many a Minecrafter can tell you, part of the fun was really building the islands in a map editor he built for the game. He happened to also be reading about urban planning and system dynamics. He just knew there was something there. Something that could take part of the fun from Life and editing maps in games and this newfound love of urban planning and give it to regular humans. Something that just might expand our own mental models about where we live and about games. 

This led him to build software that gamified editing maps. Where every choice we made impacted the map over time. Where it was on us to build the perfect map. That game was called Micropolis and would become SimCity. One problem, none of the game publishers wanted to produce it when it was ready for the Commodore 64 in 1985. After Brøderbund turned him down, he had to go back to the drawing board. 

So Wright would team up with his friend Jeff Braun who had founded Maxis Software in 1987. They would release SimCity in 1989 for Mac and Amiga and once it had been ported, for the Atari ST, DOS-based PCs, and the ZX Spectrum. Brøderbund did eventually agree to distribute it as it matured. 

And people started to get this software, staring at a blank slab of land where we zone areas as commercial and residential. We tax areas and can increment those rates, giving us money to zone other areas, provide electricity, water, and other services, and then build parks, schools, hospitals, police stations, etc. The more dense and populous the city becomes, the more difficult the game gets. The population fluctuates and we can tweak settings to grow and shrink the city. I was always playing to grow, until I realized sometimes it’s nice to stabilize and look for harmony instead.

And we see the evolution over time. The initial choices we made could impact the ability to grow forever. But unlike Life we got to keep making better and better (or worse and worse) choices over time. We delighted in watching the population explode. In watching the city grow and flourish. And we had to watch parts of our beloved city decay. We raised taxes when we were running out of money and lowered them when population growth was negatively impacted. We built parks and paid for them. We tried to make people love our city. 

We are only limited in how great a city we can build by our own creativity. And our own ability to place parts of the city alongside the features that let the people live in harmony with the economic and ecological impacts of other buildings and zones. For example, build a power plant as far from residential buildings as you can because people don’t want to live right by a power plant. But running power lines is expensive, so it can’t be too far away in the beginning. 

The game mechanics motivate us to push the city into progress. To build. To develop. People choose to move to our cities based on how well we build them. It was unlike anything else out there. And it was a huge success. 

SimCity 2000 came along in 1993. Graphics had come a long way and you could now see the decay in the icons of buildings. It expanded the types of power plants we could build, added churches, museums, prisons and zoos. - each with an impact to the way the city grows. As the understanding of both programming and urban planning grew for the development team, they added city ordinances. The game got more and more popular. 

SimCity 3000 was the third installment in the series, which came out in 1999. By then, the game had sold over 5 million copies. That’s when they added slums and median incomes to create a classification. And large malls, which negatively impact smaller commercial zones. And toxic waste conversion plants. And prisons, which hits residential areas. And casinos, which increase crime. But each has huge upside as well. As graphics cards continued to get better, the simulation also increased, giving us waterfalls, different types of trees, more realistic grass, and even snow. 

Maxis even dabbled with using their software to improve businesses. Maxis Business Simulations built software for refineries and health as well.  

And then came The Sims, which Wright though of after losing his house to a fire in 1991. Here, instead of simulating a whole city of people at once, we simulated a single person, or a Sim. And we attempted to lead a fulfilling life by satisfying the needs and desires of our sim, buying furniture, building larger homes, having a family, and just… well, living life. But the board at Maxis didn’t like the idea. Maxis was acquired by Electronic Arts in 1997. And they were far more into the Sims idea, so The Sims was released in 2000. And it has sold nearly 200 million copies and raked in over $5 billion dollars in sales, making it one of the best-selling games of all times. Even though now it’s free on mobile devices with tons of in app purchases… 

And after the acquisition of Maxis, SimCity is now distributed by EA. Sim 4 would come along in 2003, continuing to improve the complexity and game play. And with processors getting faster, cities could get way bigger and more complex. SimCity 6 came in 2013, from lead designer Stone Librande and team. They added a Google Earth type of zoom effect to see cities and some pretty awesome road creation tools. And the sounds of cars honking on streets, birds chirping, airplanes flying over, and fans cheering in stadiums were amazing. They added layers so you could look at a colorless model of the city highlighting crime or pollution, to make tracking each of the main aspects of the game easier. Like layers in Photoshop. It was pretty CPU and memory intensive but came with some pretty amazing gameplay. In fact, some of the neighborhood planning has been used to simulate neighborhood development efforts in cities. 

And the game spread to consoles as well, coming to iPhone and web browsers in 2008. I personally choose not to play any more because I’m not into in-app purchasing. 

A lot of science fiction films center around two major themes: either societies enter into a phase of utopia or dystopia. The spread of computing into first our living rooms in the form of PCs and then into our pockets via mobile devices has helped push us into the utopian direction. 

SimCity inspired a generation of city planners and was inspired by more and more mature research done on urban planning. A great step on the route to a utopia and eye opening as to the impact our city planning has on advances towards a dystopian future. We were all suddenly able to envision better city planning and design, making cities friendlier for walking, biking, and being outdoors. Living better. Which is important in a time of continued mass urbanization. 

Computer games could now be about more than moving a dot with a paddle or controlling a character to shoot other characters. Other games with an eye opening and mind expanding game play were feasible. Like Sid Myers’ Civilization, which came along in 1991. But SimCity, like Life, was another major step on the way to where we are today. And it’s so relatable now that I’ve owned multiple homes and seen the impact of tax rates and services the governments in those areas provide. 

So thank you to Will Wright. For inspiring better cities. And thank you to the countless developers, designers, and product managers, for continuing the great work at Maxis then EA.