Having just reviewed Niche, a game that promised sciency evolution fun but instead delivered a clicky pet game made me think how untapped this specific sub-genre is and how ripe it is for more thorough exploration than Niche provided. This of course brought to mind the last time this was done well – all the way back to 1990 and Simearth.
March of the Sims
Simcity’s success in 1989 gave it’s designer, Will Wright, apparent carte blanche to mush any noun with the word Sim and make a game out of it. My younger self gobbled up Simant and Simearth while pointedly ignoring Simrefinery and Simhealth (strangely released to coincide with 1994’s congressional debates on Clinton’s Health Care plan).
Knowing what Simearth was I might have ignored it too. I was drawn to the game by promises of hurling meteors and controlling cataclysmic powers. Populous had infected my mind and I wanted more. But Simearth was more interested in science than conflict. Those promised ice meteors turned out to be the most efficient way to seed the initially barren planet with a breathable atmosphere.
The Only Goal is Life Itself
There was no specific goal to the game. You weren’t even given direct control or dominion over a particular animal group. It was up to you whether to nurture or terrorize by using your limited powers. After placement creatures did their best to survive and multiply as you messed with oxygen levels and introduced new biomes.
The game was fairly obtuse, mass extinctions followed by periods of renewal could occur without real understanding of what triggered them. But it taught me a great many concepts which I encountered later in life. Gaia theory, basic geology, biology and climatology. It was unclear and the 200+ page manual only partially helped but the promise of evolving sentience kept me doggedly ploughing ahead.
All Taxa are Created Equal
While every other game ended with humans as the jack-of-all trades, diplomatic masters of the universe Simearth was blandly neutral. 15 classes of life were modeled and each had 16 subspecies. Survival over the ages eventually produced sentience and mammals were no more likely to succeed than mollusks or birds. Because I’m no fool and because I believe their time was cut short, I used my world bending powers to help dinosaurs reach their potential.
Sentience Brings Problems
Whether I managed sentience or not is dimly remembered. Re-reading the manual I have no memory of the end-game where your cherished creations proceed to pollute and shit on your planet in very human fashion. I don’t remember ever getting that far but I do have a dim memory of humanoid dinosaurs running around with stone clubs. Maybe I never advanced much past the stone age along the 7 steps necessary to reach cities and eventually the nanotech age of the future.
Simearth came out in 1990 following the massive success of Simcity. People were surprised by the lack of game goals or any attempt at nurturing fun. Will Wright, the designer, even uses the game as an example of him learning to make games first fun and then possibly educational. In his mind he failed with Simearth and was surprised people bought it.
Excerpt from an interview with Will Wright in Game Design: Theory and Practice.
Your games always seem to have this strong educational component. I was wondering, how do you balance that with making the game entertaining?
I was never concerned with education until the game was fun. Any educational value a program might have is totally wasted if people won’t play it. Probably the one game which I learned that the most from was SimEarth. SimEarth was potentially the most educational game I ever made, but yet it wasn’t fun. A surprising number of people bought it; I’m still surprised by the sales figures. I think most of them played it for two hours and then put it away.
If SimEarth wasn’t fun it at least gave you the impression that it was your own fault for not making something out of it’s complex world size sandbox. Will kept cranking out Sim games at a rate of one or two a year. After SimEarth came SimAnt, which I also loved. It sold well moving 100,000 copies (a large number for a niche strategy game at the time.
SimFarm was boring and I’m not sure why I skipped SimLife – it sounds closer to Niche than SimEarth does. Then a new version of SimCity came out and everyone lost their minds all over again. This pattern continued until EA bought out Maxis and turned SimCity from the most reliably awesome series into a cautionary tale of how to take a beloved property and use it to first mug then poke their fans in the eye with.
In 2000 Will bottled lightning again and made the Sims. A series I only played for a short time before losing interest but one that is still going strong with over 200 million copies sold across many sequels and platforms.