Talking Maxis Business Simulations on Ireland’s Newstalk! Blog category

Screenshot from SimCity. A river runs through a large city with a marina and a stadium.

Even while I’ve been taking a break, things are still happening. In fact, this week, I stopped by an Irish talk radio program, of all things!

On Friday morning, I joined Moncrieff on Ireland’s Newstalk radio to talk about Maxis, SimCity, and SimRefinery. This was totally unexpected — Irish talk radio?! — and it was a great experience! It’s always exciting to share the Thinking Tools story with a new audience.

(This was my first time doing live radio, and I think I like it? I just recently bought a new fancy microphone, and now I want to do more!)

You can listen to the segment, “When Sim City Got Serious,” on the Highlights from Moncrieff podcast, available on the Newstalk website or wherever you listen to podcasts.

With the world unpausing Blog category

One year ago, I wrote a post about how The Obscuritory was slowing down with the onset of the pandemic. Now I’m writing a post about the opposite — how the blog is slowing down again because the pandemic is approaching its end.

I’ve been fully vaccinated for a few weeks now, and the world is starting to open back up again for me. I’ve been spending more time with friends, going on adventures, and getting my life back in order, and that means that I’m spending less time in front of the computer than usual. I’m happy, excited, and grateful to get more of my life back.

But beyond that, I’m also hitting a transitional point in my life, and I need to figure out what comes next. You may have noticed the rate of new posts here has slowed down significantly since the start of the year, and that’s because I’ve been deliberately spending more time taking care of myself and trying to figure out where I’m headed personally and professionally. The pandemic has been a clarifying moment for me, and it’s helped me understand what I want to prioritize in my life. And part of that means focusing on the other parts of my life that have been atrophying.

The Obscuritory isn’t going anywhere, but it’s going to be quiet for a bit. Writing is one of the things that I’ve realized I value most in my life, and it’s not going away, but this is a point in my life when I need to put other things first for a while. I’m so thankful for everyone who’s continued to read and offer their support, and I’ll be back here soon.

Cunningham Falls in Maryland. The waterfall is running under a rocky crevice in a wooded area.

Cunningham Falls in Maryland

If you’re new to The Obscuritory, this is a good time to read some of the back issues! I recently did some re-organization and created a new tag, “recommended posts,” that features what I think are the best articles on this blog. If you’ve wanted to dive back into the blog, this is a great place to start.

Cleanwater Detectives Educational category

Title screen for Cleanwater Detectives. The title screen features the logo for the Science Inquiry Collection

If you went to school in the United States in the 80s and 90s, and if your school had a computer lab, you probably played something by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. MECC were the developers of beloved educational games like The Oregon Trail, the Munchers series, and Storybook Weaver, but that barely scratches the surface of their enormous library of software. Beyond their biggest hits, they put out a ton of low-key educational games that aren’t so well-remembered.

If you look through a catalog of MECC’s software for the Apple II computer, you’ll find games like Subtraction Puzzles, a game that teaches kids about subtraction, or my personal favorite, Salt and You, an interactive slideshow about the dangers of a high-sodium diet. That’s certainly a wide range of products! It goes all the way back to MECC’s origins as a state-owned organization, when they developed software for use in Minnesota schools. A game like Salt and You might not’ve been as exciting as Number Munchers, but teachers could easily fit it into their classes, and all things considered, it wasn’t a bad way to use a computer in the classroom in the 1980s.

One of those unassuming school-friendly products was Cleanwater Detectives, a science education game that MECC released in 1991. And while it’s not the sort of game that schoolkids fondly remember 30 years later, it gave teachers something that was still a bit of a novelty — a way to add some depth and hands-on learning to their science lessons by using a computer. » Read more about Cleanwater Detectives

The incredible boxes of Hock Wah Yeo Essay category

The box for the Asciiware Sphere 360 PlayStation controller. The controller itself is barely visible. The box is a bizarre steel-colored cube with air holes in the side, giving it an industrial appearance. In the picture, the box is glowing purple.

Packaging for the Asciiware Sphere 360 PlayStation controller (photo courtesy of Hock Wah Yeo)

When Hock Wah Yeo was hired by the game publisher Velocity, the head of the company gave him an unusual order: “Scare me.”1

Yeo wasn’t a game designer or a writer. He was designing their packaging.

 

 

Let’s say you go to the store and buy a video game. What does it look like? Chances are, it comes in a plastic box, roughly the size of a DVD case, and there’s a logo on the top that tells you what platform it’s for — Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo. It’s easy to understand, and it’s easy to fit on shelves. Retailers like it. The platform owners like it. This is the way it’s been for decades — simple, predictable, and safe.

It wasn’t always this way, especially in the computer game industry, where anyone could make a game without needing to get permission. In the early years before the industry was standardized, computer game packaging ran the gamut from loose floppy disks in Ziploc bags2 to big, intimidating boxes as thick as a dictionary. But why stop there? How about something even weirder or wilder? If there were no rules, why did you have to sell games in a rectangular box at all?

If you really wanted your game to make an impression, you called Hock Wah Yeo.

Yeo is a graphic designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and through the 80s and 90s, he created the boldest, most unusual packaging in the game industry. While other game publishers were trying to get attention with flashy, colorful, in-your-face aesthetics, Yeo was deconstructing the idea of what a game box could be altogether. He made boxes shaped like pyramids and trapezoids, boxes that conveyed emotions and movement with their physical shape, designed to stop people in their tracks and get them to pick it up. And whether he intended it or not, his work landed him right in the middle of a battle for the future of retail space.

In this article, we’re going deep into the game packaging design work by Hock Wah Yeo, the developers who hired him, and the industry that could barely keep up. » Read more about The incredible boxes of Hock Wah Yeo

Comic Bakery Arcade category

Title screen from Comic Bakery. A chef has just dropped a loaf of bread and is angrily chasing a raccoon.

Comic Bakery is a strong entry in the extremely specific subgenre of “early computer games about animals causing problems.” You are the owner of a bakery that’s under siege from a horde of hungry raccoons, who are not only snatching your bread as it comes out of the oven but are actually turning off the bakery’s equipment when you’re not looking. It’s not enough to score some free food; they also want to put you out of business.

An assembly line at the bakery. Two loaves of bread are moving down the conveyor built. Two raccoons are following the bread, one above and one below.

The bakery has limited supply today for raccoon reasons

Trying to save your bakery from the onslaught of hungry hungry raccoons is a completely hopeless endeavor. They keep coming back, crawling around in the ceiling and scooping up your delicious bread. When dinner time rolls around at 5 o’clock, you have to march out to the front of the bakery with whatever pitiful amount of bread you’ve managed to salvage and face the disappointment of your customers. It’s truly pathetic, and I have no idea how this place stays in business.

There’s something unnerving about these raccoons knowing how to operate machinery and using that knowledge to shut down the bakery. It would be one thing if it was a bunch of cutesy raccoons running around stealing loaves of bread and making a ruckus, but no, these are realistically drawn raccoons with an understanding of tools and malevolent intent. While funny, the game is also deeply weird in a way I don’t think the designers intended when they were going for slapstick mischief instead.

Today, Comic Bakery mostly seems to be known for the catchy title screen music from the Commodore 64 version. It would be even better remembered as a great companion to Aaargh! Condor, another game about people and animals trapped in a frantic, mutually destructive race to ruin each other.

Ultimate Ride Simulation category

Title screen from Ultimate Ride

Out of all the games published by Disney, Ultimate Ride is the only one credited to Disney Imagineering – the legendary, secretive R&D division of the company’s theme parks.

Granted, Imagineering has designed their share of interactive experiences, notably the defunct, hyper-stylized digital indoor theme park concept DisneyQuest. And they didn’t actually develop Ultimate Ride themselves, besides giving their “support and guidance,” according to the credits. But if they felt comfortable putting the Disney Imagineering brand name on a video game, that reads like an endorsement. That makes Ultimate Ride even more interesting, because it’s a game where, like Imagineering, you design your own theme park rides. » Read more about Ultimate Ride

Alien Logic: A SkyRealms of Jorune Adventure RPG category

Title screen for Alien Logic

When you wake up on the planet Jorune at the beginning of Alien Logic, the first creature you meet is a Thriddle. They’re a species of alien scholars who live in the Mountain Crown, and it’s a good thing they found you, because there’s a lot to catch up on. Before you even have a chance to get your bearings, the game launches into a wall of exposition that covers the last 3500 years of history on this planet, including a sequence narrated by someone who sounds almost but not quite like Leonard Nimoy.

It’s pretty excessive, but the game certainly has a lot of material to cover. Alien Logic was based on an obscure tabletop role-playing game from the 1980s called SkyRealms of Jorune. It’s a deep, weird, and politically complicated setting, and not one that’s easy to step into.

Jorune is the star of Alien Logic, with a beguilingly weird cast of characters and stories, so it’s surprising how little time on the whole we spend with them. Alien Logic is not by an stretch a traditional role-playing game. How does a world like Jorune fit into a game like that? » Read more about Alien Logic: A SkyRealms of Jorune Adventure

Wrapping up a very weird year Blog category

As this extraordinarily weird year comes to a close, I wanted to take a second to look back at where things are with The Obscuritory. Despite the messed-up state of the world, this has been a surprisingly big year.

And of course, that’s because of the SimRefinery post. From time to time, I’ve had things get attention on this blog, mostly for good reasons, but nothing prepared me for the incredible response this article received. I’ve been continually humbled by the reception – Longform named it one of their top five tech articles of the year! – which has led to some soul-searching about why I’m doing this blog.

I love writing about game history, and I’m so excited there’s an audience for it. I also realize that I can’t always keep publishing 10,000-word articles that take years of research, and I’ll be honest that in the wake of all the attention, I’ve felt a lot of pressure to keep that up. It’s left me a little unsettled about what people are expecting and where to go next.

The best thing I can do is continue what I’ve always been doing. I feel more confident in my writing than I’ve ever been, and part of the reason is that I’ve started caring more about the big picture. I think the reason the SimRefinery article blew up, apart from the nearly mythological stature that game has taken on over the years, is that it was a good story, and it meant something. It’s about something bigger than just games; it’s about technology and society, local history, and the human story behind it all. Asking myself why something matters has been beneficial every time I sit down to write.

Not everything needs to connect back to some bigger story; I love writing about weird old games for their own sake. But I want to keep broadening my perspective and looking for connections in the world around me. I want to do more like my write-up on Tom Clancy’s ruthless.com that was just as much about the dot-com bubble as it was the game itself. Curiosity, more than anything else, has become a guiding principle for me. Whatever I’m writing about, I love when I end up in a different place than where I started.

I think that’s something that has helped get me through the last nine months. I want to keep sharing that energy. I have a few big projects in mind that I’m eager to start in the new year, and I can’t wait to see where they lead to.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished this year in spite of the circumstances. Thanks to everyone for your kindness.

Read about Kyle Choi’s Comer in ROMChip! Adventure category

The box for Comer by Shine Studio. The front of the box reads: “COMER is an interactive adventure into the surreal world of natural and architectural wonders. Be a COMER and experience the story, 3D graphics, stereo sound with a quality of no compromise. In an ancient oriental script of prophecy, life was referred to as ‘The Game of Zao Hua.’ In modern terms, it might be ‘The Game of Creation and Evolution of Life.’ The study of prehistoric earth reveals that there were periods of lifeforms such as that of dinosaurs and that of mammals. Usually in a drastic ‘Bang!’, one period ended, lives were wiped out, new cycle started. Here and now, another ‘Bang!’ is taking shape...”

Let’s end the year with something new and exciting: I’ve published an article in ROMchip: A Journal of Game Histories!

Over the summer, a reader sent me a rare physical copy of Comer, a spiritualist CD-ROM adventure game that was produced entirely by one person from Hong Kong. Not only did the designer Kyle Choi make it entirely by himself with no prior game development experience, but he manufactured and published it by himself as well. That was no small feat in 1998!

Comer is an extraordinarily weird game, and seeing a physical boxed copy of Comer drives home the fact it doesn’t fit into any standard mold of video game production. So where does it belong in gaming history? That’s the big question in my article, “The Long Silent Journey of Kyle Choi’s Comer,” which is now available in the latest issue of ROMchip.

ROMchip is the first academic journal dedicated to gaming history. It was a great experience to work with their editorial team, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to bring my perspective on the weird outliers of video game history to an academic publication. This is an open-access journal, which means anyone can read this article for free without needing to sign in or get a subscription.

Since this was written for an academic journal, it’s more formal than my usual writing, but I hope it’s still fun and interesting to read! And while you’re there, check out the rest of the issue, which includes an essay about using historical materials to understand game production, as well as article about reconstructing political games from 1980s Czechoslovakia.

Talking Maxis and SimRefinery on the Video Game History Hour! Blog category

Video Game History Hour logo and screenshot from SimRefinery

This week, I stopped by the Video Game History Hour to talk about SimRefinery!

The Video Game History Hour is a podcast by the Video Game History Foundation, where the organization’s co-directors Frank Cifaldi and Kelsey Lewin bring on video game historians to talk about their research. I was glad to have the chance to join Frank and Kelsey to chat about my report on Maxis Business Simulations, the division of SimCity developer Maxis that made games for corporations, like SimRefinery.

Two years ago, Frank was responsible for a huge project about the unreleased Nintendo Entertainment System version of SimCity, and he was curious how SimRefinery fits into the story of SimCity. We talked about how it represents an alternate timeline for what Maxis could have become – and we went on some tangents about the weird company that they did become. Did you know that they briefly had a Maxis Sports brand? Really!

Listen to the new episode here. You can catch the Video Game History Hour on all major podcast platforms and follow them on Twitter at @gamehistoryhour.

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