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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

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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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11 Single Facts About Bridget Jones’s Diary
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Miramax

While it's not officially a holiday movie, so much of the action in Bridget Jones's Diary happens around the most wonderful time of the year that the rom-com has become essential wintertime viewing for many movie fans. Based on Helen Fielding’s novel of the same name, it tells the story of a very single, and hopelessly romantic, working professional named Bridget (Renée Zellweger) who is determined to improve her love life. Enter two strapping gentlemen (Colin Firth and Hugh Grant) to vie for her heart. Get to know more about the timeless dramedy that’s been delighting audiences since 2001. Just as it is.

1. THE SOURCE NOVEL CAME ABOUT FROM AN ANONYMOUS COLUMN ABOUT SINGLE LIFE.

In the foreword of Bridget Jones’s Diary, author Helen Fielding wrote about how she came to conjure up the story: “The Independent asked me to write a column, as myself, about single life in London. Much as I needed the money, the idea of writing about myself in that way seemed hopelessly embarrassing and revealing. I offered to write an anonymous column instead, using an exaggerated, comic, fictional character. I assumed no one would read it, and it would be dropped after six weeks for being too silly.”

2. SEVERAL CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON PEOPLE IN HELEN FIELDING’S LIFE.


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These include Jude (Tracey MacLeod) and Shazzer (Sharon Maguire, also the film’s director). In a column for the Evening Standard, MacLeod described how she didn’t even realize she inspired part of her best friend’s story until Fielding’s book launch party. “At the launch party for the first Bridget book, I was cornered by a smug married friend, ‘So ... what's it like being Jude?’ she asked,” MacLeod writes. “I was outraged. Of course I wasn't Jude, with her self-help books and horrible boyfriend. My boyfriend wasn't anything like Vile Richard ... But as more people began to believe that Jude and Shazzer were thinly-veiled portraits of myself and Sharon, I secretly got to like the idea.”

3. TONI COLLETTE DECLINED THE LEAD, AND KATE WINSLET WAS CONSIDERED FOR IT.

Before Zellweger stole the show, Aussie Toni Collette and Brit Kate Winslet were up for the part. According to AMC, “Toni Collette declined the role because she was on Broadway starring in The Wild Party at the time, and Kate Winslet was considered but the producers decided she was too young.”

4. HUGH GRANT ONLY SIGNED ON WHEN RICHARD CURTIS WAS ANNOUNCED AS THE WRITER. 


Miramax

“The only reason [I was a hard sell] was because I didn't feel they had the script quite right for a long time,” Firth told Cinema.com. “And I kept saying, ‘It's not working. Just get Richard Curtis to come in and help rewrite it.’ Eventually they did, and as soon as Richard came on board, I signed on the dotted line. So that's all it was.”

5. RENÉE ZELLWEGER GAINED 17 POUNDS FOR THE PART.

Zellweger’s weight gain for the role had the media abuzz for a while. According to The Guardian, “In order to play the eponymous heroine in the film adaptation of Fielding's bestseller, the actress gained 17 pounds, consulting a dietitian and endocrinologist who devised a regime of three full meals a day, multiple snacks, and no exercise.”

6. ZELLWEGER WORKED AT PICADOR FOR THREE WEEKS.

Zellweger went full Method for her iconic role, and became a temporary employee of the Picador publishing house. “We came up with a plan: she would be Bridget Cavendish, Bridget for obvious reasons and Cavendish as she was to be passed off as the sister of Jonathan Cavendish, a friend of one of our company chairmen,” Picador publicist Camilla Elworthy told The Guardian. “That last bit at least is true, and no one was to know that Jonathan Cavendish was one of the film's producers.”

7. ZELLWEGER KEPT A PHOTO OF JIM CARREY ON HER DESK.


Miramax

While working at Picador, Zellweger kept a picture of Jim Carrey on her desk—which made her alter ego Bridget Cavendish seem like some sort of obsessed fan. “Under the name Bridget Cavendish, she answered phones, served coffee, and made photocopies—without being recognized by any of her co-workers, who offered career advice and wondered privately why she kept a photo of Jim Carrey (her then-boyfriend) on her desk,” noted Hollywood.com.

8. ZELLWEGER INVITED HER BOSS AT PICADOR TO BE AN EXTRA ON SET.

In Camilla Elworthy’s write-up for The Guardian, she noted how she became a part of the production. “Renée sent me a thank you letter and gift after she'd gone and I have seen her a few times since then," Elworthy wrote. "She invited me on to the film set one day. She informed me that I had to stick around and be an extra and made sure that I was put somewhere that I would be seen ... As a result, half my head can be seen for half a nano-second in the launch party scene.”

9. THE EPIC FIGHT SCENE BETWEEN GRANT AND COLIN FIRTH WASN’T CHOREOGRAPHED.

You can thank the two actors for the hilarity of the iconic scene. In a Vulture article about the greatest fight scenes in movie history, writer Denise Martin recalled the improvised spar, writing, “No stunt coordinators. No elaborate choreography. Just a perfectly realized wimp brawl between two upper-middle-class Englishmen coming to awkward fisticuffs in front of a Greek restaurant.”

10. FIELDING ASKED FRIEND SALMAN RUSHDIE TO CAMEO IN THE FILM.

Recalling how he came to be part of the film, famed novelist Salman Rushdie told Texas Monthly, “Helen Fielding, the author of the book, is an old pal of mine, and she asked if I’d come along and make a fool of myself, and I said, ‘Why not?’”

11. GRANT DIDN’T HEAR ZELLWEGER SPEAK IN HER AMERICAN ACCENT UNTIL THE FILM’S WRAP PARTY.

Zellweger was so engrossed with Bridget Jones that one of her leading love interests didn’t meet the real actress until the end of the shoot. “Not once did she stop speaking with that accent, until the wrap party,” Grant told Cinema.com, “when suddenly this weird ... Texan appeared. I wanted to call security, I didn't know who the f*ck she was!”

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15 Surprising Facts About Scarface
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Universal Home Video

Say hello to our little list. Here are a few facts to break out at your next screening of Scarface, Brian De Palma’s gangsters-and-cocaine classic, which arrived in theaters on this day in 1983.

1. IT WASN'T THE FIRST SCARFACE.

Brian De Palma's Scarface is a loose remake of the 1932 movie of the same name, which is also about the rise and fall of an American immigrant gangster. The producer of the 1983 version, Martin Bregman, saw the original on late night TV and thought the idea could be modernized—though it still pays respect to the original film. De Palma's flick is dedicated to the original film’s director, Howard Hawks, and screenwriter, Ben Hecht.

2. IT COULD HAVE BEEN A SIDNEY LUMET FILM.

At one point in the film's production, Sidney Lumet—the socially conscious director of such classics as Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men—was brought on as its director. "Sidney Lumet came up with the idea of what's happening today in Miami, and it inspired Bregman," Pacino told Empire Magazine. "He and Oliver Stone got together and produced a script that had a lot of energy and was very well written. Oliver Stone was writing about stuff that was touching on things that were going on in the world, he was in touch with that energy and that rage and that underbelly."

3. OLIVER STONE WASN'T INTERESTED IN WRITING THE SCRIPT, UNTIL LUMET GOT INVOLVED.


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Producer Bregman offered relative newcomer Oliver Stone a chance to overhaul the screenplay, but Stone—who was still reeling from the box office disappointment of his film, The Hand—wasn't interested. "I didn’t like the original movie that much," Stone told Creative Screenwriting. "It didn’t really hit me at all and I had no desire to make another Italian gangster picture because so many had been done so well, there would be no point to it. The origin of it, according to Marty Bregman, [was that] Al had seen the '30s version on television, he loved it and expressed to Marty as his long time mentor/partner that he’d like to do a role like that. So Marty presented it to me and I had no interest in doing a period piece."

But when Bregman contacted Stone again about the project later, his opinion changed. "Sidney Lumet had stepped into the deal," Stone said. "Sidney had a great idea to take the 1930s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems that we had then, that we’re prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. There’s a prohibition against drugs that’s created the same criminal class as (prohibition of alcohol) created the Mafia. It was a remarkable idea."

4. UNFORTUNATELY, ACCORDING TO STONE, LUMET HATED HIS SCRIPT.

While the chance to work with Lumet was part of what lured Stone to the project, it was his script that ultimately led to the director's departure from the film. According to Stone: "Sidney Lumet hated my script. I don’t know if he’d say that in public himself, I sound like a petulant screenwriter saying that, I’d rather not say that word. Let me say that Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al."

5. STONE HAD FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER.

In order to create the most accurate picture possible, Stone spent time in Florida and the Caribbean interviewing people on both sides of the law for research. "It got hairy," Stone admitted of the research process. "It gave me all this color. I wanted to do a sun-drenched, tropical Third World gangster, cigar, sexy Miami movie."

Unfortunately, while penning the screenplay, Stone was also dealing with his own cocaine habit, which gave him an insight into what the drug can do to users. Stone actually tried to kick his habit by leaving the country to complete the script so he could be far away from his access to the drug.

"I moved to Paris and got out of the cocaine world too because that was another problem for me," he said. "I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of L.A. with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally f***ing cold sober."

6. BRIAN DE PALMA DIDN'T WANT TO AUDITION MICHELLE PFEIFFER.


Universal Home Video

De Palma was hesitant to audition the relatively untested Pfeiffer because at the time she was best known for the box office bomb Grease 2. Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Kelly McGillis, Sharon Stone and Sigourney Weaver were all considered for the role of Elvira, but Bregman pushed for Pfeiffer to audition and she got the part.

7. YES, THERE IS A LOT OF SWEARING.

According to the Family Media Guide, which monitors profanity, sexual content, and violence in movies, Scarface features 207 uses of the “F” word, which works out to about 1.21 F-bombs per minute. In 2014, Martin Scorsese more than doubled that with a record-setting 506 F-bombs thrown in The Wolf of Wall Street.

8. TONY MONTANA WAS NAMED FOR A FOOTBALL STAR.

Stone, who was a San Francisco 49ers fan, named the character of Tony Montana after Joe Montana, his favorite football player.

9. TONY IS ONLY REFERRED TO AS "SCARFACE" ONCE, AND IT'S IN SPANISH.

Hector, the Colombian gangster who threatens Tony with the chainsaw, refers to Tony as “cara cicatriz,” meaning “scar face” in Spanish.

That chainsaw scene, by the way, was based on a real incident. To research the movie, Stone embedded himself with Miami law enforcement and based the infamous chainsaw sequence on a gangland story he heard from the Miami-Dade County police.

10. VERY LITTLE OF THE FILM WAS ACTUALLY SHOT IN MIAMI.

The film was originally going to be shot entirely on location in Miami, but protests by the local Cuban-American community forced the movie to leave Miami two weeks into production. Besides footage from those two weeks, the rest of the movie was shot in Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Barbara.

11. ALL THAT "COCAINE" LED TO PROBLEMS WITH PACINO'S NASAL PASSAGES.

Though there has long been a myth that Pacino snorted real cocaine on camera for Scarface, the "cocaine" used in the movie was supposedly powdered milk (even if De Palma has never officially stated what the crew used as a drug stand-in). But just because it wasn't real doesn't mean that it didn't create problems for Pacino's nasal passages. "For years after, I have had things up in there," Pacino said in 2015. "I don't know what happened to my nose, but it's changed."

12. PACINO'S NOSE WASN'T HIS ONLY BODY PART TO SUFFER DAMAGE.

Still of Al Pacino as Tony Montana in 'Scarface' (1983)
Universal Home Video

In the film's very bloody conclusion, Montana famously asks the assailants who've invaded his home to "say hello to my little friend," which happens to be a very large gun. That gun took a beating from all the blanks it had to fire, so much so that Pacino ended up burning his hand on its barrel. "My hand stuck to that sucker," he said. Ultimately, the actor—and his bandaged hands—had to sit out some of the action in the last few weeks of production.

13. STEVEN SPIELBERG DIRECTED A SINGLE SHOT.

De Palma and Spielberg had been friends since the two began making studio movies in the mid-1970s, and they made a habit of visiting each other’s sets. Spielberg was on hand for one of the days of shooting the Colombians’ initial attack on Tony Montana’s house at the end of the movie, so De Palma let Spielberg direct the low-angle shot where the attackers first enter the house.

14. SOME COOL TECHNOLOGY WENT INTO THE GUN MUZZLE FLASHES.

In order to heighten the severity of the gunfire, De Palma and the special effects coordinators created a mechanism to synchronize the gunfire with the open shutter on the movie camera to show the huge muzzle flash coming from the guns in the final shootout.

15. SADDAM HUSSEIN WAS A FAN OF THE FILM.

The trust fund the former Iraqi dictator set up to launder money was called “Montana Management,” a nod to the company Tony uses to launder money in the movie.

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