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When SimCity got serious: the story of Maxis Business Simulations and SimRefinery | The Obscuritory

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 in 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.

Index

  1. Delta Logic
  2. SimRefinery
  3. Growth
  4. SimHealth
  5. Thinking Tools
  6. Collapse
  7. Finale
    Special thanks
    References

This article is something else! And how terrifying humans are!

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this is really incredible! boggling!

Destroying a simulation can be an educational experience too, and this is how SimRefinery was meant to be played. John Hiles said that most of the trainers at Chevron wanted to use it as a conventional training tool, “but some of the more astute teachers said, ‘Let’s just get you started here by seeing if you can wreck the oil refinery, if you can abuse the inputs and the settings and essentially get fired,’” he remembered.

One of the other few surviving screenshots of SimRefinery. The screenshot is black-and-white and depicts a top-down view of an oil refinery. Caption: "A screen from the SimRefinery simulation game by Maxis."

One of the other few surviving screenshots of SimRefinery .25

That was a legitimate way to learn how a refinery worked: if you start breaking the refinery, you can see how ruining one part of the plant will affect the other parts of the plant. “The tool – the game – was agnostic,” Hiles explained, correcting himself. “It would work for someone trying to ruin an oil refinery just as well as somebody trying to run it efficiently.”7

that is an interesting framing, this usage of the word agnostic. i like it.

While going through their home, the family of John Hiles found one of these original pitches – a proposal for an unproduced game by Maxis called SimEnergy .

Excerpt from the pitch document for SimEnergy .28

If it had been produced, SimEnergy would have been the strangest game in the entire Sim series: an educational game for schools that would teach students about energy consumption by following the impact of their lifestyle choices across multiple generations.

incredible!

In this new game, SimHealth , Hiles wanted to take that idea to another level. He wanted players to have to explicitly state their beliefs about health care – about individual liberty, or the importance of community – then see if they could overhaul the American health care system in a way that matched their ideals. He wanted the player to have to examine their own ideology and understand what that ideology might look like as a real policy.7

WAAAAT

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