Maxis (1987 - 2015)

R.I.P. Maxis (1987-2015): In Defense of Simcity

I was originally writing this post to be a defense of Simcity, but in light of the recent shutdown of EA Maxis’s Emeryville studio, the headquarters of what was once Maxis, after years of poor management by EA, I felt the need to speak out on this travesty. There are more complete obituaries of Maxis online–notably this one, which I enjoyed reading; this one is my personal story with Maxis and their games.

I’ve been a long time fan of Simcity, having played every version since Will Wright’s original in elementary school. Each iteration attempted a daunting task and presented the challenge to the player: the simulation of an entire city and its various layers of operation. Nothing gives you more appreciation of urban planners around the world like a game that gives you exposure to various simulated aspects of city building. Maxis took this idea and wrapped it up with addictively fun game mechanic has no formal “end”.

The studio long had a reputation for fun and intellectually fascinating edu-tationment oriented simulation games, which I had become familiar through Scholastic Apple catalogs we’d get from school. I found nearly every offering compelling because, aside from the hugely interesting subject matter, nothing like it was out there (this was the early 1990s). The real lasting appeal to those who love to explore was that many of their games never needed to end and they encouraged you to explore the limits of the simulation. SimLife and SimCity in particular could be endlessly perfected, generating a fascinating steady state of a living ecosystem, whether an entire planet, or a booming metropolis. The Maxis of the 1990s provided great experiences through quirky games like SimAnt, SimLifeUnnatural SelectionSimTower, to smash hit simulations like SimCity 2000. I played each of those, and loved them all. It was the early ’90s and was the golden age of DOS and PC gaming.

Simant (1991) – This was the first game that I ever bought for my DOS computer – This was in second grade, so I was 7 years old, in 1992. The computer I played it on was our family PC, a 386SX 16MHz / 4 MB / 60 MB HDD, and the game came on a single 1.44 MB floppy. I still have the manual.

Being a weird nerdy kid, I loved reading manuals and guides to things, and I loved the literature that Maxis provided, both in their physical manuals and accompanying publications, but also their in-game “lore”, in the form of scientific summary. I learned more about ants while playing SimAnt than I did anywhere else. Oh, the good old days, when Maxis actually cared about the subject matter, and indeed, felt more authentic to the subject matter and left the game mechanics develop around it.

The story of Maxis is a prime example of the sad fate of independent artists and thinkers when forced to operate under a profit machine. Maxis, as one of the most quirky and inventive studios may have had no hope under a monotonizing corporate giant, and sealed its own fate when on July 28th, 1997, it signed away its soul to EA. A quick read through the comment thread of the Ars article shows that this move was little surprise to many:


The Tale of Two SimCities

My latest experience with a Maxis product was Simcity 2013, and the Cities of Tomorrow expansion. Having thoroughly enjoyed both, it’s quite a challenge to reconcile the experience with the online negativity surrounding the game. It has incredibly unique IP, a great game engine, wonderful content and replayability… yet collapsed under the collective weight of player expectations, and poor management by EA. If one came to appreciate it at it’s best, it’s an incredibly awesome simulation that is quite unlike any other mainstream game out there, but I guess in EA’s world, that’s the end of the line.

After buying the game on a whim at the end of 2013, I’ve been pleasantly surprised can say that if you try to enjoy it for what it is, rather than what previous Simcity has taught you expect, or what else you want it to be, then you can come to appreciate that it is an incredibly intricate simulation of a city, that has an incredible amount of dynamic activity that come together in fascinating, sometimes unexpected ways–often in the form of snarling traffic.

Indeed, I too have had many frustrating issues, and the issues that plagued Simcity at launch continued intermittently throughout my play time. A lot of forgiveness later, there still is a thoroughly enjoyable game that is well worth whatever fire sale price it can be had at now. I’ve played quite a bit, and over time, I’ve gotten quite good at building wealthy, highly educated, virtual cities, with wacky transportation options:

Simcity - Endeavour City

Simcity - Endeavour City-2

I won’t address those criticisms individually, but I can say that the game is much more enjoyable when creating an ecosystem of cities, rather than a single gigantic one, and as i got better at engineering entire urban regions, the strategic element of game play became quite rich and enjoyable. As I came to understand the model behind the game, I became increasingly appreciative to the intricacies of what was being simulated. Dan Moskovitz gave a great talk at GDC 2013 on the SimCity engine, Glassbox, after which, I much better understood how to work with the underlying engine.

The game itself, when it works right, is quite fun, and like I mentioned before, is quite like managing a living, breathing entity in some sort of equilibrium. My favorite times in the game would be when I rescued a struggling city, and built it up into a stable steady state, and i could sit back and watch it go. I would say it has the same therapeutic benefit as tending to a garden or watching fish in an aquarium. It helps that the game has a stellar soundtrack, which alone is worth the purchase price for me–I particularly love the soundtrack from the expansion:

All of which, makes the bungled launch, the excessive in-app-purchase like add-on content, and the incomplete feature set at launch (no single player mode?), seem like a series of publisher date/design-meeting compromises, along with an odd review-score changing incident that ultimately dinged the game so badly that I can only imagine that sales must have suffered. A shame really, as it likely was the final excuse EA needed to axe what was left to go fund cheaper projects like EA Sports: XYZ 2016.

In the end, what’s left is an odd lesson on corporate acquisitions and the impact on one’s identity and soul. None of this should be news to any studios today, but Maxis, for it’s long personal history with me, is one that I’ll remember passing. As for Simcity, it’s truly unfortunate that it’s legacy is going to be the one that self-destructed under EA, but for what it’s worth, I know history will remember Maxis for the incredible contributions it made to millions of kids like me, growing up to love games and tinkering around with systems and agents.

But as you’ll notice that the internet has since dumped it’s hate on the review score. Oh well, thus is the life and end of EA franchises. I hope the spirit can live on.