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A Brief History of SimCity

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Video game giant EA just announced that it is shutting down Maxis Emeryville, the studio behind SimCity and numerous other popular Sim franchises. EA says they are planning to consolidate Maxis within their existing development arms, but to anyone who grew up with these groundbreaking games, this sounds like bad news. After all, the aim of SimCity was to grow your small patch of land into a futuristic megacity, not consolidate it. As Maxis looks ahead to an unclear future, it seems like a good time to look back at the history of these world-changing, world-building games.

Bungeling Beginnings

In 1984, video game developer Will Wright was working on the game Raid on Bungeling Bay.  In Raid, the player pilots a helicopter over hostile enemy territory, destroying weapons factories.  But for Wright, creating the detailed maps of the enemy strongholds was more fun than actually raiding Bungeling Bay.  So he tweaked the map software, adding the ability to create roads and construct buildings; he included real-world considerations like population growth, tax revenues, zoning districts, and crime rates. The “goal” of his simulation was to simply create a sustainable city on a small scale, so he gave the game a fitting title, Micropolis.

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Wright showed Micropolis to many game companies, but none were interested, because they couldn’t get past the idea of a video game whose only goal was to build a city.  But then, in 1987, Wright met up-and-coming software publisher Jeff Braun at a mutual friend’s house for what Wright has since called “the world’s most important pizza party.” Soon after, Wright and Braun formed their own software company, Maxis—so called because Braun’s father said a technology company should be two syllables and have an ‘x’ somewhere in the name.

After some marketing tweaks, including a name change to SimCity, the game was released in 1989, four years after Will Wright first started working on it.

SimSuccess

The very thing that other companies thought made SimCity a hard sell—the open-ended gameplay—was what made the game a hit.  Because it dealt with more realistic scenarios than magic mushrooms and missing princesses, mainstream press like Time magazine and the New York Times wrote features on the game, giving it some cachet with adults who previously thought that videogames were “just for kids.”  In addition, many teachers started using it in the classroom as a way to teach resource management and sustainable urban design, providing even more evidence that it was a game with more merit than most.

SimCity not only established a whole new genre of video game, but it spawned a very successful franchise, too.  A few of the sequels, like SimCity 2000 (1993), SimCity 3000 (1999), and SimCity 4 (2003) are some of the top-selling computer games ever, with sales of well over 8 million units combined.  But Maxis didn’t stop with cities.  They applied the “sim” concept to a variety of scenarios, including islands (SimIsle), nature preserves (SimPark), playable golf courses (SimGolf), and even entire planets (SimEarth).  Unfortunately, not every Sim game was a hit, and profits began to decline.  In 1997, Maxis was acquired by Electronic Arts (EA), a company well known for their sports simulation games.  Down, but not out, Wright still had a few tricks up his sleeve...

The Toilet Game

My Abandonware

In 1991, Maxis released SimAnt (above), a game where players take the form of an ant colony in the backyard of a suburban home. In one part of the game, ants had to avoid being stepped on. However, Wright later realized that so much time was spent creating the ants’ artificial intelligence that they were actually smarter than the person. This made Wright aspire to create a human AI that was more robust and lifelike. He eventually came up with the idea of a game where the player would build a house and then toss in an advanced human simulation to see how they’d react.  Wright initially called this concept Dollhouse.

Wright presented Dollhouse to Maxis in 1993, but it was met with very little enthusiasm.  First, teenage boys had no interest in a video game with such a feminine name. So the name was changed to The Sims, after the tiny, unseen people that live in the cities created in SimCity. The Maxis executives had another name for it, though: “The Toilet Game,” because in their minds it was the game where players were expected to do mundane tasks, like clean the toilet.

The execs ultimately shut down the idea, but Wright was persistent.  In 1996, Wright took a programmer under his wing, saying he needed someone to write code for other Maxis titles. In fact, the programmer was working on The Sims.

Shortly after Electronic Arts acquired Maxis in 1997, Wright once again presented The Sims, showing off the work he and his lone programmer had accomplished.  Like Maxis, EA was a little leery about the idea of a virtual dollhouse, but they green-lit the project anyway.  Three years later, in February 2000, The Sims—the first “life simulation game”—was released.  In a 2008 interview, Wright said, “I thought a million (copies sold) would be a hit.”

A De-Myst-ifying Debut

The performance of The Sims took everyone by surprise.  The core game sold 16 million copies, dethroning Myst as the best-selling PC game ever.  Add in the expansion packs, which gave players new environments, items, and character options, and it sold about 54 million copies.  The Sims 2, released in 2004, sold even better, with an estimated 20 million copies, while 2009’s The Sims 3 sold a still-impressive 10 million.  Overall, The Sims have sold more than 150 million copies, making it the best-selling PC game franchise in history.

But you don’t sell 150 million copies of a game to teenage boys alone.  The Sims’ success has been attributed to the often overlooked demographic of women video gamers, which, according to EA, made up about 65 percent of players at the height of the franchise’s popularity.  While some cite the game’s emphasis on fashion, interior design, and character relationships, Will Wright sees things a little differently:

“...women have a higher standard of leisure entertainment than men do. They tend to go for entertainment that are a little more expressive. Also entertainment that connects back to them and has some personal meaning. The Sims allows a path where you can play it as a deep personal reflection of yourself.”

Mod the Sims

For the 1993 release of SimCity 2000, one of the available expansion packs was the SimCity Urban Renewal Kit (SCURK), which allowed players to modify the existing graphics to create custom buildings and game elements.  Available for every SimCity game since, some impressive “mods” have been created by fans, including pixelated replicas of the 2008 Olympic Stadium, “The Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, the Tower Life Building in San Antonio, and the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.  There are also incredible original building designs, like this library made entirely out of open books. 

A similar modification tool, Create A World (CAW), was also released for The Sims games.  Some of the odd, but impressive mods for Sims characters include the stars of the new Doctor Who (and the newest Companion, too), Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, Katniss and Peeta from The Hunger Games, and, to get really meta, your avatar can be an avatar from Avatar.  In addition, players can put on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, scoot around on a Back to the Future hoverboard, or even live inside the White House.

Lass Frooby Noo!

The Sims Wiki

When creating games for the worldwide market, translating menus and buttons, not to mention the spoken dialog, can be expensive.  In order to circumvent some of this expense, the Sim games use a fictional language called “Simlish.”  First introduced in SimCopter, the gibberish language is made up of sounds borrowed from various real languages, like French, English, Latin, and Tagalog.

Simlish has been used most extensively throughout The Sims franchise, to the point that even the songs in the game are in Simlish.  Many of these tunes are written and recorded by EA’s musicians, like the cult favorite “Mayzie Grobe.”  But some real-life pop stars have gotten in on the act, by doing Simlish covers of their Top 40 hits.  For example, Katy Perry has recorded Simlish versions of “Hot n’ Cold” and “Last Friday Night.”  Other big names have recorded their songs in Simlish, such as My Chemical Romance, Depeche Mode, Lily Allen, Nelly Furtado, Lady Antebellum, Barenaked Ladies, metal legends Anthrax, and the recent hit, “We Are Young” by Fun.  Perhaps the biggest Simlish commitment has been from Black Eyed Peas, who not only recorded Simlish versions of “Shut Up” and “Let’s Get It Started”, they also wrote and recorded all-new songs specifically for The Sims games. 

Sex and the SimCity

Compared to titles like Grand Theft Auto, the Sim games are pretty innocent.  But that doesn’t mean they’ve been totally immune to scandal. 

When the helicopter simulation SimCopter was released in 1996, tiny, bikini-clad women would sometimes dance around on the screen when the player successfully completed a mission.  Disgusted by the blatant sexism and assumed heterosexuality of the audience, Maxis programmer Jacques Servin changed the game code to occasionally make the women muscle-bound, Speedo-wearing men, who would engage in pixelated make-out sessions—complete with smooching sounds—whenever they got near one another. Servin was promptly fired, but 50,000 copies of the game had already shipped before the code could be removed.  Servin has since continued his culture jamming ways by co-founding the activist group The Yes Men.

Another sexy Sim scandal took place in 2004, when then university professor and avid player of The Sims Online, Paul Ludlow, reported on a form of digital prostitution in the online role-playing game.  Ludlow said it was not uncommon for players to enter private chat rooms where the two participated in cybersex conversations, often in exchange for Simoleans, the in-game form of currency.  This wouldn’t be a problem, except the minimum age of players was 13, meaning there were surely a few underage teens engaged in these activities with older players.  When the media picked up on the story, Ludlow’s Sims Online account was shut down by Electronic Arts.  The company claimed that he had violated the community’s policy by including a link to his commercial website in his player profile.

The Homeless Sims

In 2009, a game design student in the UK, Robin Burkinshaw, started playing The Sims 3.  But Burkinshaw approached the game from a more sociological standpoint by creating two homeless sims, Kev and his young daughter, Alice.  Burkinshaw tried to mirror the personality of a man with mental illness, a common trait among the homeless, and the effect that would have on the little girl in his care. To that end, Kev was obnoxious, angry, and didn’t like kids, while Alice was clumsy and suffered from low self-esteem.  Burkinshaw then created a “home” for Kev and Alice made to look like an abandoned park, with only benches for furniture.  Burkinshaw then released them into The Sims environment to see how well they’d fare with minimal intervention from their human controller.  This was exactly the type of concept that Wright had originally envisioned his Dollhouse could be.


The story, played out in screenshots on Burkinshaw’s website, is heartbreaking.  We watch as Kev behaves like an abusive father, only going near his daughter to yell at or insult her.  Meanwhile, Alice attends school and tries to get good grades, but is often found sleeping on a bench in a playground or begging for food, a shower, or a warm bed from neighbors; sadly, they don’t always let help.  The story follows the homeless sims through many life stages, ending in Kev’s death, and Alice’s possible redemption when she finds a job.

Sims as Art

There’s no question that games like Farmville, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and many others probably wouldn’t exist without the Sim games paving the way.  As a testament to that legacy, both SimCity and The Sims have been declared pieces of art, thanks to their inclusion in an upcoming Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibit set to debut in March.  Along with 12 other classic, classy video games, like Pac-Man, Tetris, Myst, and Portal, the games will be part of a playable demo or a video tour that helps demonstrate why these titles were chosen as the first in what will undoubtedly be a long history of pixelated Picassos.

Top image courtesy of Moby Games.

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15 Educational Facts About Old School
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DreamWorks

Old School starred Luke Wilson as Mitch Martin, an attorney who—after catching his girlfriend cheating, and through some real estate and bitter dean-related circumstances—becomes the leader of a not-quite-official college fraternity. Along with his fellow thirtysomething friends Bernard (Vince Vaughn) and newlywed Frank (Will Ferrell), they end up having to fight for their right to maintain their status as a party-loving frat on campus.

The film, which was released 15 years ago today, marked Vaughn’s return to major comedies and Ferrell’s first major starring role after seven years on Saturday Night Live. Here are some facts about the movie for everyone, but particularly for my boy, Blue.

1. THE IDEA ORIGINATED WITH AN AD GUY.

Writer-director Todd Phillips was talking to a friend of his from the advertising industry named Court Crandall one day. Crandall had seen and enjoyed Phillips's movie Frat House (1998) and told his director buddy, “You know what would be funny is a movie about older guys who start a fraternity of their own.” After being told by Phillips to write it, he presented Phillips with a “loose version” of the finished product.

2. SOME OF THE FRAT SHENANIGANS WERE REAL.

While Crandall received the story credit for Old School, Phillips and Scot Armstrong received the credit for writing the script. Armstrong put his own college fraternity experiences into the script. “We were in Peoria, Illinois, so it was up to us to entertain ourselves," Armstrong shared in the movie's official production notes. "A lot of ideas for Old School came from things that really happened. When it was cold, everyone would go stir crazy and it inspired some moments of brilliance. Of course, my definition of ‘brilliance' might be different from other people's.”

3. IVAN REITMAN HELPED OUT.

Ivan Reitman, director of Stripes and Ghostbusters, was an executive producer on the film. Phillips and Armstrong wrote and rewrote every day for two months at Reitman’s house, an experience Phillips described as comedy writing “boot camp.”

4. THE STUDIO DIDN’T WANT VINCE VAUGHN.

Vince Vaughn in 'Old School' (2003)
DreamWorks

It didn’t seem to make a difference to DreamWorks that Phillips and Armstrong had written the role of Bernard with Vince Vaughn in mind—the studio didn't want him. After his breakout success in Swingers, Vaughn had taken roles in dramas like the 1998 remake of Psycho. “So when Todd Phillips wanted me for Old School, the studio didn’t want me,” Vaughn told Variety in 2015. “They didn’t think I could do comedy! They said, ‘He’s a dramatic actor from smaller films.’ Todd really had to push for me.”

5. RECYCLED SHOTS OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY WERE USED.

The film was mainly shot on the Westwood campus of UCLA. The aerial shots of the fictitious Harrison University, however, were of Harvard; they had been shot for Road Trip (2000).

6. VINCE VAUGHN FANS MIGHT RECOGNIZE THE CHURCH.

In the film, Frank gets married at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, California. Vaughn and Owen Wilson were in that same church two years later for Wedding Crashers (2005).

7. WILL FERRELL SCARED MEMBERS OF A 24-HOUR GYM.

Frank’s streaking scene was shot on a city street. As Ferrell remembered it, one of the storefronts was a 24-hour gym with Stairmasters and treadmills in the window. “I was rehearsing in a robe, and all these people are in the gym, watching me. I asked one of the production assistants, ‘Shouldn’t we tell them I’m going to be naked?’ Sure enough, I dropped my robe and there were shrieks of pure horror. After the first take, nobody was at the window anymore. I took that as a sign of approval.”

8. FERRELL REALLY WAS NAKED.

Ferrell justified it by saying it showed his character falling off the wagon. “The fact that it made sense was the reason I was really into doing it, and why I was able to commit on that level," Ferrell told the BBC. "If it was just for the sake of doing a crazy shot, then I don't think it makes sense.” Still, Ferrell needed some liquid courage, and was intimidated by the presence of Snoop Dogg.

9. ROB CORDDRY WAS NOT NAKED, BUT HE STILL HAD TO SIGN AWAY HIS NUDITY RIGHTS.

Old School marked the first major film role for Rob Corddry, who at the time was best known as a correspondent for The Daily Show. He had a jewel bag around his private parts for his nude scene, but his butt made it into the final cut. He had to sign a nudity clause, which gave the film the right to use his naked image “in any part of the universe, in any form, even that which is not devised.”

10. SNOOP DOGG AGREED TO CAMEO SO HE COULD PLAY HUGGY BEAR IN STARSKY & HUTCH.

Phillips admitted to essentially bribing the hip-hop artist/actor, using Snoop Dogg’s desire to play the street informant in the modern movie adaptation of the classic TV show (which Phillips was also directing) to his advantage. “So when I went to him I said, 'I want you to do Huggy Bear,' he was really excited. And I said, 'Oh yeah, also will you do this little thing for me in Old School a little cameo?' So he kind of had to do it I think."

11. SNOOP WANTED TO HANG OUT WITH VINCE VAUGHN ON SET, BUT NOT LUKE WILSON.

Snoop Dogg in 'Old School' (2003)
Richard Foreman, Dreamworks

Vaughn and his friends accepted an invitation to hang out in Snoop Dogg’s trailer to play video games on the last day of shooting. Vaughn recalled seeing Luke Wilson later watching the news alone in his trailer; he had not been informed of the get-together.

12. WILSON WAS TEASED BY HIS CO-STARS.

Vaughn, Wilson, and Ferrell dubbed themselves “The Wolfpack”—years before Phillips directed The Hangover—because they would always make fun of each other. A particularly stinging exchange had Ferrell refer to Legally Blonde (which Wilson had starred in) as Legally Bland. Wilson said it didn’t make him feel great. Wilson retorted by telling Ferrell that "the transition from TV to the movies isn't a very easy one, so you might just want to keep one foot back in TV just in case this whole movie thing falls through!"

13. TERRY O’QUINN SCARED HIS SONS INTO THINKING THEY WERE TRIPPING.

Terry O’Quinn (who went on to play John Locke on Lost the following year) agreed to play Goldberg, uncredited, in what was a two-day job for him. He neglected to inform his sons he was in the movie, and when they saw it, one of them called their father. “I got a call from my sons one night, and they said, ‘What were you doing in Old School? We didn’t even know you were in it!’ They said, ‘We’re sitting there, and the first time we see you, it’s, like, in a reflection in a window. And when we saw it, and we both thought we were, like, tripping or something!’”

14. THE EARMUFFS WERE IMPROVISED.

Before filming, Vaughn worked with Ferrell to figure out their characters' backstories and how they knew each other; he credited that with helping him figure out who Bernard was, which led to several ad-libbed moments. “The earmuff scene where he swears in front of the kids, and then I tell the kid to earmuff, that all is off the cuff. But that stuff is a lot easier to do when you know who you are and your circumstances, and who your characters are,” Vaughn explained.

15. FERRELL AND VAUGHN DIDN’T LOVE A SCRIPT FOR A SEQUEL.

Armstrong had written Old School Dos in 2006, which saw the frat going to Spring Break. Ferrell said that he and Vaughn read the script but felt like they would just be “kind of doing the same thing again.” Wilson, on the other hand, was excited over the new script.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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