When we at Ars Technica notice that several contributors are silent at the same time to read another site’s article in its entirety, a rare switch is flipped: time to tell our readers to click somewhere. other than Ars (destroy the thought) and give someone else a well-deserved click.
The breathtaking candidate you need to read today comes from a rarity in the modern publishing world: a self-published, years-in-the-making report on the history of a major slow-shutter game studio from the glory days of computer games of the early ’90s. . In other words, it’s our jam.
This feature — written and researched by Washington, DC-based reporter, game historian, and librarian Phil “Shadsy” Salvador — covers the life and death of Maxis Business Simulations (MBS), which began in 1992 as an official division of the game studio behind it. SimCity† After four years of reporting, Salvador has come forward with insights and quotes from every major player (meaning, yes, SimCity creator Will Wright is here). Crucially, the article contains a wealth of stories and insights from MBS co-founder John Hiles, who passed away in 2016.
The MBS story begins with incredible serendipity. Hiles struggled to create a legitimate computer-based agent-based modeling business as early as the mid-’80s, but his pie-in-the-sky thinking and infectious spirit left him looking for a ideal mate. He found one in Maxis, whose debut PC game exploded so quickly that the staff struggled with corporate requests: they wanted their own. SimCitylike games to use for training and data analysis, and they were willing to pay.
With a handshake, Maxis was able to push off a shaky business proposition – as Wright once said, “I know how pathetic [SimCity‘s] simulations have actually been compared to reality’ – while Hiles finally got what his existing company, Delta Logic, was sorely lacking: in one word: ‘fun’.
For example, Maxis acquired Delta Logic and renamed it Maxis Business Simulations, which operated for two years before merging into its own company (renamed Thinking Tools Inc.). And Salvador does a great job connecting the through-line of everything relevant here: the rising appetite for PC video games, the mix of curiosity and skepticism applied to computer simulation games by larger industries, and the venture capital-driven march for profits. which ultimately doomed the company that MBS eventually became.
Unfortunately, it also confirms why we’ve seen so little output from MBS/Thinking Tools: nothing was archived properly. Part of this is due to the fact that the company’s remaining staffers have been chased away by things like a clean transition to a new company or severance pay, which marked the end of Thinking Tools’ existence with a bonfire in late 1998. Draft documents, diskettes and other evidence of their export went up in flames in Monterey, California. (Our game archivist brains convulsed at the sight of this detail, but then our bureaucracy-hating hearts figuratively poured some gas on the fire in solidarity.)
While the gallery above contains examples of how Thinking Tools’ software turned out to be dry, the full length story is a lot less dry than the subject would lead you to believe. Set aside some time to review Salvador’s incredible report, then jump from there to read other in-depth, software history content he’s posted on his personal site, Obscuritory.