When SimCity got serious: the story of Maxis Business Simulations and SimRefinery Essay categorySimulation category

Thumbnail of the title screen from SimRefinery

Thumbnail of the SimRefinery title screen.1

SimCity wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.

The game was inspired by research on real-world urban planning concepts,2,3 and although it was created as a way for players to experiment running a city, the goal was to be fun rather than accurate. “I realized early on, because of chaos theory and a lot of other things,” said designer Will Wright, “that it’s kind of hopeless to approach simulations like that, as predictive endeavors. But we’ve kind of caricatured our systems. SimCity was always meant to be a caricature of the way a city works, not a realistic model of the way a city works.”4

“I think if we tried to make it realistic, we would be doing something that we wouldn’t want to do,” Wright said in an interview in 1999.5 But that didn’t stop companies from believing Maxis could design realistic simulations. Will Wright didn’t believe that was even possible. “Many people come to us and say, ‘You should do the professional version,'” he continued. “That really scares me because I know how pathetic the simulations are, really, compared to reality. The last thing I want people to come away with is that we’re on the verge of being able to simulate the way that a city really develops, because we’re not.”5

Maxis didn’t want to make professional simulation games. But for two brief, strange years, they did.

From 1992 to 1994, a division called Maxis Business Simulations was responsible for making serious professional simulations that looked and played like Maxis games. After Maxis cut the division loose, the company continued to operate independently, taking the simulation game genre in their own direction. Their games found their way into corporate training rooms and even went as far as the White House.

Almost nothing they developed was ever released to the public. But their software raises questions about the role we want games to play in society.

Over the past few years, I’ve spoken with employees from Maxis and the Business Simulations team to learn more about their company. For the first time, this is their story. » Read more about When SimCity got serious: the story of Maxis Business Simulations and SimRefinery

Pirate’s Plunder Board category

Title screen from Pirate's Plunder

Pirate’s Plunder is a high-seas adventure for people who’d rather play Minesweeper. It fits a whole swashbuckling caper – buried treasure, ghost ships, desert islands, deadly whirlpools – into a bite-size digital board game you could play on your break at work. In fact, the developer called it a “coffee break game.”1

It belongs to a specific style of computer game development from the 90s, short-time-fillers, distributed for free as shareware, designed to be played on what were often, at the time, people’s work computers. Shareware games like these would be created by small teams, usually one or two people, and that was the case with Pirate’s Plunder as well. It was part of a collection of tiny treasure-hunting games by Dexterity Software called the Fortune Pack,2 and for Pirate’s Plunder designer Erin Pavlina, it was actually her first time designing a game. » Read more about Pirate’s Plunder

Carnivores: Cityscape Shooter category

Title screen from Carnivores: Cityscape

In Carnivores: Cityscape, you can play as a human defending against a dinosaur outbreak, or you can play as a dinosaur. Obviously I picked the dinosaur.

Getting to play as a dinosaur was new for the Carnivores series. The first three Carnivores games, developed by Ukrainian studio Action Forms, were hunting games, set on a distant planet inhabited by dinosaurs that humans have turned into a game reserve. Cityscape is vastly different, more like a sci-fi action movie where the prey and the hunters stalk each other through jungles and cities.

According to the producers of Cityscape, this drastic change in direction was based on fan feedback. In an interview with the online gaming site HomeLAN, the producers said that fans of the Carnivores series had demanded two features: playable dinosaurs (who can blame them?) and multiplayer. Cityscape adds both those things, which explains why the game is closer to Predator than a hunting simulation. That also might explain why rampaging around as a dinosaur – the ultimate power fantasy – is so weirdly unsatisfying. » Read more about Carnivores: Cityscape

Realm of Impossibility Action category

Title screen from Realm of Impossibility

The most eye-catching part of Realm of Impossibility is the impossible architecture. Several stages in the game are designed liked optical illusions – the impossible fork and the impossible cube, among others. They’re disorienting and awesome and certainly the highlight, but they’re not the only place where the game plays around with weird architecture. » Read more about Realm of Impossibility

The Multimedia Bird Book Educational category

Title screen from The Multimedia Bird Book

I love birds, but I’m a passive birder. I usually just look for birds that I see while I’m going for walks, and typically I’ll shout “BIRD!” and scare them away. Not conducive to seeing birds. I’ve created that problem for myself. But birds are wonderful, and I love them. They make cheery sounds and have pretty colors, and they share spaces with us, hopping around our backyards and sidewalks and generally brightening up the world.

The Multimedia Bird Book from 1995 by Workman/Swfte – a partnership between non-fiction publisher Workman Publishing and software developer Swift International – is a lovely introduction to the world of birds for young children. I say that not just because I already liked birds, but because it hones in on one of the most magical things about birds, the fact that they’re all around you, and if you keep your eyes and ears open, you can find them everywhere. » Read more about The Multimedia Bird Book

Beyond the Wall of Stars Adventure categoryMultimedia category

Title screen from Beyond the Wall of Stars

Beyond the Wall of Stars sends you on a voyage to the far reaches of space. You’ve joined a scientific mission aboard the CSS Starquest to the distant planet Tara, which may hold the key to saving your dying homeworld. Along the way, there’s difficult choices to make. Do you answer an urgent distress call that sends you off your original course? When the crew’s morale collapses, do you instigate a mutiny against the commander?

You could think of it like being a choose your own adventure book, in a very literal sense. For one thing, it’s written, directed, and produced by one of the authors of the original Choose Your Own Adventure series, R. A. Montgomery. For another thing, the game acts like an actual, physical book. There’s a running page number in the bottom corner and a table of contents, and instead of saving your game, you place a “bookmark.”

It’s an apt comparison that also explains the limitations that the game runs into. With Beyond the Wall of Stars, Montgomery and his team noticeably struggle to make the transition from writing a print game to a digital game. » Read more about Beyond the Wall of Stars

Streaming schedule for the near future Blog categoryStreaming category

Thanks to everyone who joined the stream last week. It was fun to have everyone unpacking Beyond the Wall of Stars together. The article is still in progress; look for that in the next few days.

The Saturday streaming time seems to work well, so for the near future during the stay-at-home period, I’m going to try to stream every Saturday at 3pm EDT! I don’t have plans for a particular game this Saturday, but please stop by at twitch.tv/obscuritory!

As always, I’ll be drinking plenty of tea.

I’ll still be writing in the meantime – this isn’t a replacement for the blog! – but the streams are a great way to have a community gathering space while we’re all still isolated from each other. This is new for me, so I’ll update this post if plans change.

With the world on pause Blog category

For reasons that are hopefully understandable, The Obscuritory hasn’t been active this month. This is the first time I haven’t posted on the blog during a calendar month since 2015, so let’s talk for a little bit.

The coronavirus outbreak has been stressful, and as I’ve had to pour more energy into my job, I’ve been focusing less on anything else that feels like work. For the last few weeks, I’ve been taking a break by helping a friend with a game development project, which has been a new fun set of challenges! I’ve also been getting back into Minecraft after eight years away from the game, because there’s something soothing about chipping away at a giant tunnel, like doing a coloring book. But in general, it’s been difficult to focus, and The Obscuritory has taken a necessary break while I take care of myself and regroup.

I’m eager to get back into it again, but things will probably be a little slower for a while, even slower than usual. I had plans for long-term research projects this year, and I’ll probably need to put those on the backburner for a while too. But I want to help make things less painful, and this blog is a minor thing I can do.

(I swear, there’s this dark historical adventure game I’ve been meaning to play for over a decade, Azrael’s Tear by Intelligent Games, and I finally started on it right before the United States went into emergency mode. It’s tough to get excited about dark, moody games right now, so I’ve put that one aside again for the time being. Look forward to that in another decade, I guess?)

Given that everyone is cooped up at home for a while, I’m going to try streaming unusual old games during this isolation period, just for the sake of having a positive social space. I know I could certainly use that too, and I already have a webcam and microphone for work, so why not? I’ll update on here with more information once I get that going, but please check on Tumblr and Twitch as well if you’re already following there.

Seriously, please be well, and be kind to yourself. We’ll get through this by looking out for each other and treating ourselves well. Nobody is just the sum of their productivity or their work or their output. Rest is good. And bread. Bread is good too.

UPDATE: This is short notice, but I’ll be streaming the 1992 choose-your-own-adventure story Beyond the Wall of Stars today at 5pm Eastern! I should probably make a dedicated post for a streaming schedule, but I’m adding this here for now. https://www.twitch.tv/obscuritory

Capitalism Simulation category

Title screen from Capitalism Plus

The tutorial for Capitalism takes an hour and a half to complete.

Capitalism isn’t merely a game about running a business. It’s a game in which you manage a massive corporation down to the smallest details, down to every statistic for measuring brand loyalty and product quality. The micromanagement in this game is so far beyond useful that it feels like it’s just trying to show off how complicated it is.

The game does seem to be faithful to the subject matter, because the endless stream of statistics and relentless pursuit of profit pretty much captures the capitalism experience. » Read more about Capitalism

The dystopian information network of Perihelion: The Prophecy Essay category

The NetStation interface from Perihelion: The Prophecy. The terminal readout lists commands that can be typed in, such as help, talk, ask, analyze, and read.

I don’t usually get to talk about games from a librarian perspective, so please indulge me with this one!

Perihelion: The Prophecy, a role-playing game for the Amiga from 1994, is set in a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk wasteland, built atop the ruins of a technologically advanced society that has long since faded from memory in a nuclear war. Although this chaos-riddled civilization continues to research new technology, notably a new field of genetics that bridges the gap between science and religion to engineer cyborgs and artificial life, there still doesn’t appear to be much in the way of meaningful infrastructure that hasn’t just been repurposed from the old world.

One thing they’ve managed to get working is a crude version of the internet called the NetWork. This might be the most plausibly dystopian part of this whole society. » Read more about The dystopian information network of Perihelion: The Prophecy

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