Retro Gaming

The Magic of Maxis: The Game-Changers Who Established the Simulation Genre

How radical urban planning, helicopter combat, and an "X" launched one of the most creative gaming studios of the 90's.

Alan

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SimCity Classic city scene

We’re digging out our floppy disks and dusting off our CD-ROM jewel cases to revisit the early days of Maxis. Whether you’re a SimCity veteran or a first-term mayor, let’s dive into the origin of Maxis and SimCity’s genre-defining creation.

Will Wright and the Fascination with City Systems

Will Wright in 2010 when he was still at Maxis Studios under EA
Wikipedia

The Maxis origin story starts with Will Wright. As a boy in the 1960’s, Wright loved model trains, and would create intricate model cities. Wright designed systems that his imaginary citizens would use to live their lives through transit, power and roadway networks.

As he grew older, Wright’s fascination with city modeling and urban planning would only grow stronger. Policy manifestos like Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities introduced concepts of community-oriented design, mixed use development and city revitalization efforts. These radical ideas would shape his perspective on urban landscapes, and inspire his future game designs.

The Intersection of Strategy and Technology

As a kid, Wright had a fascination for the strategic depth found in games like Go and boardgames like PanzerBlitz. He recalled being drawn to Go because the game had a “simple set of rules” yet required complex strategies to win.

After high school, Wright spent four years studying architecture and engineering at two Louisiana universities. In 1980, he would move to New York to study computer programming at The New School.

Living in Greenwich Village, he explored electronics and honed his programming skills on an Apple II+. He would master Applesoft BASIC, Pascal, and assembly language. Wright left The New School without a degree, instead looking to join the world of video game design.

Brøderbund and the Raid on Bungeling Bay

Raid on Bungeling Bay splash screen from the 1984 Commodore 64 game

Wright put his skills and passion to work, quickly landing a job in game development with Brøderbund. He released his first game, Raid on Bungeling Bay for the Commodore 64 in 1984. The game followed a “shoot ‘em up” style format popular during this era of PC gaming.

The player pilots a helicopter across a series of islands, destroying enemy factories producing weapons of war. In addition to the action-packed aerial combat, players needed to replenish their bombs and fuel. This was an early example of in-game resource management beyond the main action and adventure. It was also a direct callback to Wright’s love for systems design, adding a layer of realism for the player.

From Shoot ‘em Up to Simulated Cities

In game footage of a helicopter flying from Raid on Bungeling Bay

Another of Wright’s signatures in Raid on Bungeling Bay is the terrain editing feature. Players could create custom landscapes, allowing them to influence the level design. Wright loved this seemingly unimportant terrain mechanic that would later become a hallmark of SimCity.

Playing with the terrain editor, Wright realized that he found enjoyment not just in winning or losing — but in the act of creating and experimenting within a virtual sandbox. This insight would inspire a new genre of simulation games with Wright at the helm.

In 1986, Wright met another game developer, Jeff Braun. The two would form Maxis shortly after. Naming the company “Maxis” name was a suggestion from Braun’s father. He advised that video game companies must contain an “X” and have two syllables.

With the company founded in 1987, focus quickly shifted to shipping their first product: a city simulator based on Wright’s terrain editing inspiration from Raid on Bungeling Bay. SimCity became an overnight success when it was released in 1989.

Turning a Virtual City Sim into a Real-World Success

Welcome to SimCity

SimCity emphasized creativity and problem-solving over traditional competition. The game’s innovative gameplay, which focused on city-building, strategic planning, and resource management, captured the imaginations of players around the world.

With a click a drag, you lay down roads, zone areas, and decide where the towering skyscrapers or cozy neighborhoods should go. As city needs grew, you would need to add train lines, drop in nuclear power plants, and expand your metropolis to the edges of the generous map.

Beyond the terrain and layout, being a mayor was also a full-time job: balancing the city’s budget, keeping citizens happy, and preventing disasters like fires and crime from tearing your metropolis apart. SimCity challenged the player’s strategic thinking to consider every decision’s consequences.

SimCity graphs view showing line graph of population growth, crime rate, commerce, and pollution over time.
SimCity brought realism to gaming through rich trends and data.

With this novel approach to open-ended game design, it’s no surprise that SimCity garnered widespread acclaim and several prestigious awards, including the Game Developers Choice Pioneer Award and induction into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences’ Hall of Fame. It also earned a place in the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame and ranked high on various “Top Games of All Time” lists, such as IGN’s. Notably, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) added SimCity to its collection in 2012, recognizing it as a masterpiece of interactive design.

The Start of Something Big

About SimCity dialog window showing creators and copyright from Maxis Software, 1989
SimCity about screen.

SimCity was the start of many simulated games that would be released throughout the 90’s and into the 2000’s under Maxis. The game studio would release titles helping players simulate ant colonies, rural farms, animal genomes and the entire planet. It would also keep to its city-designing roots by releasing five additional SimCity successors between 1993 and 2013.

Maxis proved that players wanted “software toys” with no win or loss scenarios. Instead, their open-ended approach meant games could be enjoyed for years or decades to come. It may be one of the most compelling reasons that these games are beloved and played today.


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