A Guide to Simulation Games
What Are Simulation Games?
The simulation game is an incredibly broad genre of computer games. True to the name, these type of games attempt to produce virtual simulations of real world concepts and ideas in action, implementing as much detail as possible for accuracy and believability. Such concepts come into a broad range of categories, the two most prominent being vehicle driving simulators, and construct and manage simulators.
From Vehicles to Planes to Building a Business
Vehicle driving simulators are just that: they mimic the real-life experience of operating a vehicle in a computer environment. The player takes control of something, such as a car or airplane, and uses the mechanics of that vehicle to beat various challenges.
There are, indeed, many games on the market that involve piloting and driving, including racing games such as Need For Speed and Trackmania. However, the most pure of these vehicle driving simulators would be none other than the Microsoft Flight Simulator series. These games involve little overt racing or fighting, focusing instead on pure, un-distilled flying with a growing number of civilian aircraft over numerous types of terrain. The player needs to master the skills to take off, land, navigate, and maintain flight, all the while dealing with potential hazards including the weather, the size and weight of the vehicle he or she is piloting, and the presence of air traffic. Everything in Flight Simulator is modeled in as realistic a fashion as the computer can handle.
Construct and manage simulators are more common in the genre, and the type that come to mind whenever the term “simulation game” ever comes up. They often involve gathering resources from the game world, like money, and using them to build something like a business, usually from the ground up, and run it to try and turn a profit in-game and acquire better assets that grant new abilities.
In this way, construct and manage simulation games are very similar to strategy games, both real-time and turn-based. Both require careful management of resources needed to acquire new abilities. However, strategy games more often than not, have a violent bend to them, being games that heavily involve fighting and war, with most abilities geared towards unlocking new kinds of weapons. The player also sometimes (if not always) has to take a direct hand, using tactical knowledge to win battles against enemy forces.
Simulation games, on the other hand, cover a wide variety of concepts. Though they can include computerized opponents, usually, the real “enemy” is more often than not the game world itself and the rules it imposes. Examples of construct and manage games include the aptly titled SimCity, where the player makes and regulates a city, setting up buildings, roads, and power stations to keep it running. Another, Roller Coaster Tycoon has the player manage his or her own theme park. And The Political Machine puts the player into the shoes of a politician running for president, with the object of the game being about running a successful enough campaign to get elected.
The most popular and well-known of these kinds of games is The Sims. Combining aspects of construct and manage games with life simulators, which often involve the raising of virtual characters, this series has the player controlling any number of in-game characters in a house or neighborhood, doing whatever they can to better their lives; this includes finding a decent job, keeping the home clean, interacting with other characters in the world to build relationships, and purchasing items that they enjoy. This series also includes a great deal of customization, as the player is free to design rooms, houses, and in effect, whole towns to whatever specifications are desired.
Realism Isn’t Always Required
Though simulation games often try and mimic real life as best they can, not all of them are all that realistic. The aforementioned Sims is notable for having a quirky sense of humor, where people can be abducted by aliens, haunted by ghosts, or try and cheat death by making a deal with the Angel of Death himself. Likewise, SimCity often throws a number of disasters at you, which range from natural to being attacked by a giant radioactive monster. And another, Lemonade Tycoon, is what you expect; you build a thriving business empire in the juice business, starting as a humble lemonade seller on the street. Indeed, there are also plenty of simulators that take place in fantasy or science fiction settings, like Dwarf Fortress and Space Colony. The rate of silliness and fantasy varies from game to game, but the idea of simulators remains the same regardless.
The History of Simulation Games
Simulation games have a long history, and when precisely they began is pretty unclear. Perhaps the earliest example could be traced back to 1973, when programmer Bob Jamison of made a little economic sim dubbed Lemonade Stand for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. In it, the player would take control of a child running a, you guessed it, lemonade stand, and it would be up to him to make the little enterprise succeed. The player would use the weather to determine how much he would spend that day for maximum profits, deciding how many glasses of juice he would make, how much he would charge for them, and how many signs he would print out. In 1979, Lemonade Stand was ported to the Apple II computer, and was included for free with all of their subsequent machines over the next decade.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
As the 1980s began, so too did the long history of the famed Microsoft Flight Simulator series. Bruce Arwick had envisioned a game to simulate flying an airplane using three-dimensional graphics since 1976, and the idea caught a lot of interest. After forming his company, called subLogic, he managed to complete the project four years later. Then called Flight Simulator, it used simplistic wireframe graphics and was initially sold for Apple II computers. It proved to be a hit, and in 1982, Microsoft was able to purchase the rights to port it to IBM computers, under the title Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.00. It was substantially improved, with better graphics, a day-to-night cycle, and a brand new navigational system. Though new versions of Flight Simulator were released well into 1986, Arwick eventually left his own company to continue working on Microsoft’s versions.
The Rise of Sim City
The 1980s also saw the beginning of the modern simulation game, and the start of the illustrious career of the man most responsible for making it popular. While developing a title called Raid on Bungling Bay Will Wright found that the level editor to be more fun than the actual game, and came up with the idea for the player to plan out his or her own city. In 1987, he and Jeff Braun established their own company, Maxis, and brought the game, called SimCity, to life two years later.
When SimCity proved to be a hit, Wright went on to make numerous other titles that could allow the player to simulate other things. In 1990, SimEarth was made, allowing the player to guide the evolution of organic life on a planet over a course of ten billion years. This was followed by SimLife in 1992, which allowed the player to control genes through the interaction of various virtual animal species. Neither of these games, as well as others, proved to be as popular as SimCity, but thankfully, that title was able to carry the company long enough for it to make several sequels, including SimCity 2000 in 1994,SimCity 3000 in 1999, and SimCity 4 in 2003. Many worthy competitors also spawned over the years, including The Settlers, Caesar, and Tropico. The last of those reached its third iteration in 2009 and as of 2011 is currently the most prominent city-building simulator.
The Sims Begin Their Reign Atop The Simulation Game Genre
However, it was in 1997 when Maxis released by far its most successful title, and the best-selling simulation game ever: The Sims, which had the player take control not of vehicles, cities, or planets, but people. It was certainly not the first game to do so; 1985’s Little Computer People had already accomplished that. But The Sims was the first to actually sell well enough. Playing out like a virtual dollhouse, and featuring limitless customization thanks to some powerful modding tools, it went on to sell 16 million units worldwide. A sequel was inevitable, and one came in the form of The Sims 2 in 2004, and The Sims 3 in 2009, along with countless add-ons, expansions, spin-offs, and ports for all that were sold separately.
Today, the simulation game is still going strong. Various titles have been released that bring all sorts of innovation to the genre. Assorted business sims have come and gone, from Roller Coaster Tycoon to licensed titles like Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis. God games, that started as far back in 1989 with Populous, have evolved into the like of Black and White. The independently developed Dwarf Fortress goes into extreme detail to mimic the daily going-ons of a society of Dwarves in a fantasy world that is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Microsoft Flight Simulator has seen steady improvements since its inception, culminating in Flight Simulator X in 2006. And Maxis’ 2008 Spore allowed unprecedented creation of creatures, vehicles, cities, planets, civilizations, and even entire galaxies.
Casual Simulation Games Make Playing Less of a Time Commitment
Many of the simulation games mentioned above are known for their incredible value in providing an immersive and long lasting experience. However, many of those games required quite a time commitment to play. Players could lose days in games like Sim City. If simulation games were to appeal to a wider audience, they would need to adapt.
Enter the casual simulation games sub-genre (many of which are featured on this site). Casual sim games revolve around the same basic ideas behind traditional simulation games but distill those game mechanics into more basic components that require shorter and less complex gameplay. Thus, someone who doesn’t have the experience, or interest, in diving into the complexity of a game like Sim Earth, could still enjoy the genre on a simpler level.
Today’s causal sim games run the gamut from starting and growing a business to starting a career to starting a family. Life Quest takes players fresh out of high school and challenges them to get an education and move up the job ladder in a competition against former classmates. Virtual Families is like a mini-Sims where players start and grow a family. The Build-A-Lot series caters to the real estate bug and has players building and selling homes. Virtual Villagers puts players on a deserted island and challenges the player to survive by growing in population, developing shelters, discovering new technologies, and unlocking the secrets of the island.
Where the genre will go from here remains to be seen, but fans should be excited as the simulation genre has grown to include a wide variety of players and their diverse interests.
Who Will Like These Games?
The construct and manage simulation game genre is for people that enjoy a more slow-paced experience. Few, if any, twitch skills are needed; these products instead require careful planning and strategic thinking to succeed. It takes a lot to turn a small burg into a sprawling metropolis, or to make a young single woman into the matriarch of a branching and wealthy family, and it’s not always a clear-cut process. But along the way, tons of unforeseen complications and disaster happen to impede the player’s progress, and challenge them to make alterations when necessary. And it is these instances that the simulation gamer thrives in.
Furthermore, there is a good deal of escapism to be found. It’s not everyday we get to decide the layout of a city while making it as earthquake-proof as possible, or run our own dinosaur theme park as we can in Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis.
Alternatively, simulation games can be fun if they are played wrong! Some gamers get a kick out of turning all disasters on at once in SimCity, laying out railroads in a way to ensure the trains will inevitably crash in Sid Meier’s Railroads, or by walling an unfortunate person within an inescapable prison until he starves to death in The Sims. It may be cruel, and does little to prevent the media watchdogs in arguing against the violent tendencies they accuse gamers of holding, but admit it: watching a metaphorical or literal train wreck in a computer game is amusing no matter who you are!
Fans of faster-paced games might enjoy vehicle driving games. Racing games are plentiful on the market, and reward speed, tight control, and an understanding of car mechanics to build and customize the vehicle to operate at its maximum performance. Regardless, others, such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, put more emphasis on the actual piloting part of the game than on any serious combat or mission-based objectives, though those do exist to a degree, and can give players an inkling of what it is like to operate one of these fascinating machines, if not educate them if they intend on pursuing a career as a pilot.
Regardless, simulators are a very wide genre of games that can appeal to a lot of people. They can play out similar enough to Legos, Erector sets, toy trains, dollhouses, and are hands down cleaner and more convenient to use on the computer than those will ever be. Anyone who remembers playing with all that good stuff when they were a kid can usually find something to their tastes in a simulator that is hopefully enough to sate that little part in all of us that just never grows up.