Today’s episode features the bizarre origins of SimRefinery as well as other Sim titles which never came to be. Phil Salvador joins the Video Game History Hour to discuss a branch of Maxis, Business Simulations Division, which gives us a glimpse into a path-not-taken, alternate reality where Maxis might have only made a name for themselves in the world of business. A world where powerhouse franchises like SimCity and The Sims never existed. But alas, perhaps we could have had, but now never will have, SimArby’s. </3
See more from Phil Salvador:
Kelsey Lewin 00:00
Welcome to episode number 11 of the Video Game History Hour, presented by the Video Game History Foundation. Every episode we’re going to be bringing in an expert guest: someone who’s done their research and has an interesting story from video game history to tell. My name is Kelsey Lewin, I’m the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, and I’m here as always with Frank Cifaldi, the founder and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.
Frank Cifaldi 00:12
I did miss one, to be fair, but other than that… [laughter]
Kelsey Lewin 00:14
Oh that’s true, I guess it’s not “always.” Yeah, good point! [laughter]
Frank Cifaldi 00:28
Thank you, Kelsey. Our guest today is our friend, Phil Salvador, who describes himself – I think best – in his Twitter bio much more succinctly than I could, where he calls himself a “librarian who writes about weird old games.” That’s very true. Phil’s blog, The Obscuritory [www.obscuritory.com], made headlines earlier this year for bringing attention to what was then a last piece of computer game history: a game called SimRefinery. That blog post has since inspired a copy of the game to surface itself and replicate itself on the internet in a way that it is now preserved forever. So Phil, welcome to the Video Game History Hour!
Phil Salvador 01:08
Hello! Thank you so much for having me. It’s terrific to be here.
Frank Cifaldi 01:11
Yeah! Thanks for coming. Why don’t you go ahead and set the stage for us here when it comes to SimRefinery by explaining Maxis. What was Maxis and where did Maxis come from? Maxis, of course, being the developer behind SimCity.
Phil Salvador 01:29
Yeah, so Maxis software, like you said, they made SimCity. And I think they’re most well known for their big games, SimCity and the Sims. But it’s kind of funny because the gap between those two games is eleven years, and a lot happened in that span of time. I think some folks who are maybe fans of Maxis might know, like, SimAnt, or SimFarm or some of their other unusual spin-off games they had. But they had a very interesting, somewhat tumultuous history over the course of a decade where they started out as this kind of small, boutique software developer making SimCity. Within a couple years, they had gone public on the stock market. They had this big, giant company before they eventually got purchased by Electronic Arts. And during that big period, they experimented with a whole lot of things. And one of those things was they experimented with making simulation games for other companies. What happened was, when SimCity came out they got a ton of attention from just all sorts of folks. And they got a lot of corporations saying, like, “Hey, we really liked SimCity, could you make, like, a SimCity for our company? Could you make like, you know, ‘SimArby’s’ or whatever?” That wasn’t a real one, they did not make SimArby’s unfortunately…
Frank Cifaldi 02:43
Oh, dang it!
Kelsey Lewin 02:43
Add it to the list of lost Sim media…
Phil Salvador 02:46
“Lost game, SimArby’s!” [Laughter] But that’s the kind of inquiry they got though, and for the longest time, they kept turning it down because that wasn’t really what they did. Like, they didn’t know how to make accurate, realistic simulation games. They, you know, were a company that made games. They were inspired by real-world concepts. SimCity is based on actual research about urban planning, but they weren’t making serious things that could be used in a professional manner.
Frank Cifaldi 03:15
Right, and that’s the thing about SimCity. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, right? I mean, it’s really just refining down city management, you know, into what is essentially simulation, but it’s not one that would actually hold up in the real world.
Kelsey Lewin 03:35
Right, well I think of it more like a toy. You know, it kind of gives you an idea of how these systems interact with each other and stuff, but it’s not meant to be a… It’s not meant to teach you how to be a city planner.
Phil Salvador 03:48
Well, that was exactly the phrase that Maxis used in a lot of their marketing philosophies. They call their games “software toys.” And the idea was, it was a thing you could mess around with to explore different concepts. So yeah, they were trying to make a fun thing to mess around with that just also happened to be based on real-world concepts with, you know, some distortions or omissions in the interest of being an interesting, fun game to play around with. So it did have some educational value in that sense, but yeah: you weren’t going to use it to predict how to run a city. Which actually kind of kind of spectacularly backfired, because there was… I think it was in, was it Rhode Island? I can’t remember for sure. But there was a town that had a race for mayor that the local newspaper did a gimmick where they had the candidates play SimCity and one of the candidates did not really understand how the game was supposed to be played and just, like, destroyed the town. They swear that it costs them the election, like, they swear that was one of the factors that lost the election.
Frank Cifaldi 04:46
Wow! But again, going back to not being realistic, if you just replaced everything with train tracks, your city wouldn’t grow and be substantial and then…
Kelsey Lewin 04:57
Yeah, but if the headline is just, like, “This Guy Fails To Run a City,” like, you know he, blows up a city or town…
Frank Cifaldi 05:04
“This guy summoned a monster!” [laughter]
Kelsey Lewin 05:05
Phil Salvador 05:08
Frank Cifaldi 05:09
So we know that he did…? Did he summon disasters, do we actually know?
Phil Salvador 05:13
I think what ended up happening was, the candidate (I forget who it was), they I think just like tore down a huge part of the city and just started putting up the wrong types of zoning businesses.
Frank Cifaldi 05:23
Phil Salvador 05:24
They just low-key destroyed the city, not Bowser leveling the whole place.
Kelsey Lewin 05:28
That seems worse. Because if you just summon a monster, it’s like, “OK, that’s how you play SimCity, that’s fine.” But if you just kind of slowly suck the energy out of a city and kill it, that’s… [laughter]
Phil Salvador 05:42
Well, Vice has a whole article about it. They did a big investigative report about that whole situation.
Kelsey Lewin 05:46
Phil Salvador 05:48
But point being, not really what Max’s wanted to do. But things changed for a couple of reasons. One of them that is worth mentioning is that they took a lot of venture capital money because they were starting to grow and they wanted investors. They were thinking about the stock market and their new investors were like, “You should get on this, you should start doing these serious simulation games.” So part of it was just the the money coming in, but…
Frank Cifaldi 06:10
That big Nintendo money that kicked that off, too.
Phil Salvador 06:13
Oh, that’s right! Because they had… That’s right, you were involved with the learning more about the NES and Super Nintendo version of SimCity, that was a couple years ago!
Frank Cifaldi 06:20
Yeah, I mean, they had, you know… They were doing OK, but it really was that Nintendo deal that caused them to get out of startup mode and start growing as much as they did. And I almost think of the business simulation aspect of it as being like a growing pains part of Maxis’s history.
Phil Salvador 06:22
Yeah, it was definitely them trying to figure out what they were doing. Well, what they wanted to do, I guess. And yet, they’re definitely getting out of startup mode into company mode. I think – I hope – this is an accurate story, but I remember reading that Maxis actually got audited after SimCity came out because they had so few staff, they were just like, kind of ad hoc-ing a lot of the financial stuff. And so yeah, they pretty quickly adjusted to being a bigger company. But in this case, what happened though, was they actually found a different company to make the simulation stuff. There was a company out in Monterey, California, that was run by a guy named John Hiles that had been doing this kind of exploration with serious simulation game development. And it wasn’t… They weren’t making, like, SimCity games. They were making, you know, exploring simulation modeling and other software type stuff. But after John Hiles saw SimCity, he was like, “OK, this is what we need is: we know how to make good simulations. Maxis knows how to make fun simulations. We should put those two things together,” and they got into Maxis’s orbit. And Maxis was like, “You know what, we’ll have you guys do it. That’s great!” And I think one reason they were supportive is because it meant Maxis did not have to do the work themselves.
Frank Cifaldi 07:59
Kelsey Lewin 08:01
They weren’t particularly passionate about a the idea of working with an oil refinery.
Phil Salvador 08:05
Exactly. It was like, “Here’s this brilliant group of people who are making exactly the kind of thing that we’ve been told we should make so… perfect! Like, yeah, bring them on board.” So they bought them out and turned them into Maxis Business Simulations, which was a short-lived division of the company. I think it was only around for about two years.
Frank Cifaldi 08:28
Wow, is that it?
Phil Salvador 08:30
Yeah, just two years. And in that time they explored a whole bunch of projects, only a couple of which really panned out. The first of which was the one that attracted a lot of attention this last year, which was SimRefinery. Which, I think the reason it got so much attention is just because it’s so absurd sounding? Like, after SimFarm and SimAnt, here comes a realistic oil refinery simulator for the Chevron Oil Corporation. That just seems especially weird for Maxis.
Frank Cifaldi 09:03
It is the Where in North Dakota is Carmen Sandiego of the Sims games.
Phil Salvador 09:06
Kelsey Lewin 09:09
I mean, there are other business simulations projects that, you know, most of which didn’t pan out, but they don’t sound as silly as SimRefinery.
Phil Salvador 09:17
Yeah. Like, there’s SimEnvironment and that sounds less ridiculous than SimRefinery does.
Kelsey Lewin 09:23
That sounds normal! Some of these titles I have to double check if they came out or not, you know? Because, I don’t know, they did SimAnt, SimEarth, sure, SimEnvironment, whatever. [laughter]
Frank Cifaldi 09:33
I think another reason that SimRefinery captured so much attention is that there is a press photo with Maxis founders, Will Wright and Jeff Braun, posed next to SimRefinery. So it appeared to be a real SimCity spin-off by the real people.
Phil Salvador 09:52
It manifested somewhere in the world. But yeah, I feel at this point, I had been doing research on Maxis for a little bit before I came across all this SimRefinery stuff. And at that point, SimRefinery really kind of existed as folklore. Like, there was a Wikipedia article and it had a single quote from Will Wright from, like, Wired magazine where they he just offhandedly mentioned it and that was that. And that photo, that was all anyone knew about SimRefinery; it was this weird, legendary thing that nobody was totally sure if it existed. But it turns out there was a whole big story behind it. As I was doing all the research, there was very little information about the fact that Maxis had a business simulations division. One thing they had done was they had published a game called SimHealth, which was like a realistic simulation of the American healthcare system, which was very controversial. But it was fascinating because when I learned that that was also done by the business simulations division, it was like, “OK, this isn’t just random trivia facts. There’s a story here. There is this whole separate division of the company that nobody really knows about that did all these other projects!” So yeah, the pieces fell together surprisingly quickly just from reading, like, press sources in press release databases, newspapers. There were a surprising number of mentions of this Business Simulations division, but it’s not really something that ever crossed over into the gaming press or anything because, I mean, there was so much else happening in 1992 through 1994.
Kelsey Lewin 11:27
Well, that is not meant for gamers. I mean, the reason why we don’t see a lot of information about some of the weirder – not just games, but accessories and that sort of thing is – it’s not like this stuff is really making it into the video game journalism sphere so much. Because these are business training tools in this situation. I mean, these aren’t going to be out on the shelves for someone to go buy. So it might be reported on as an offhand – to a video game magazine – might be reported on it, like a, “Look at this, this is kind of interesting that the guys who made SimCity are also doing this.” But you’re not really going to talk about something that isn’t meant for you to go play.
Frank Cifaldi 12:12
Yeah, it’s just not something that, I mean…
Kelsey Lewin 12:15
That Maxis fans are…
Frank Cifaldi 12:17
Yeah, It’s not something that sort of became a part of the video game history, or even the Maxis history canon, because, our resource materials for studying this would be sort of gamer-focusing things. And it’s like, “No, this is just a separate business division that they had.”
Phil Salvador 12:37
Exactly, yeah. I think what’s interesting is that, again, a lot of this stuff was publicly available but it was just buried a little bit further beneath the sources that I think we would tend to look towards. John Hiles, the person who ran the division, he spoke to the press. There was an article in I think the San Francisco Chronicle where it was Jeff Braun, the co-founder of Maxis, just talking about how this is a new business venture. This is going to be, I think he said, “In a couple years, this could be bigger than our game division.” They were talking about it publicly, just not in a magazine or a press where you’d be reading about SimAnt or anything like that.
Frank Cifaldi 13:17
Yeah, it’s kind of like, you know, looking into Nintendo of America’s, online infrastructure from the early ’90s that never quite got off the ground. You don’t you don’t see that in Nintendo Power. I mean, I guess it’s in [David Sheff’s] Game Over book, which is the best place for it. But it’s something that would only really be in the business press, so it doesn’t tend to be sort of a part of that story that makes it into the Wikipedia entry or whatever.
Phil Salvador 13:47
Yeah, I’ll totally admit that the fact that I was able to access these sources, I think, is largely because I work in an academic library. And so I have access to a lot of the databases we have, which includes things like Newswires’s collections of press releases. And that has really helped for finding some of these, again, more business journal-oriented sources. So yeah, it helps to have a broad net for looking for this kind of thing. But yeah, I think it was especially interesting that Jeff Braun was thinking about it in terms of being a separate business. I think that also kind of goes with what we were saying. Like, it was a totally separate business business from just normal games.
Frank Cifaldi 14:27
Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but Braun wasn’t really the games guy, right? He was the business guy.
Phil Salvador 14:32
Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of misconception about with Maxis is: Will Wright was, he was the designer of SimCity and the Sims but he was definitely, like, the creative brains, messing around with stuff in Maxis. But the business side was – yeah, for the longest time – it was Jeff Braun, was the business side of Maxis. I think that’s interesting, too, because from what I understand, Will Wright was – to an extent – skeptical of the Business Simulations division. I think he didn’t speak too much about it publicly except just… I think he, from what I understand, was not the biggest fan of it. I know, since the division closed down, he had said to other folks in interviews something to the effect of, like, “I don’t want people to think that we can really accurately simulate anything, because we can’t. Because our things are games.”
Frank Cifaldi 15:19
Phil Salvador 15:20
So he was operating on a very different wavelength than the wavelength of like, “We should do this thing with Chevron because it’s profitable. And we know folks who can do it for us.” I think it’s definitely two separate sides of the company that I think get kind of lost when you just think about it in terms of this kind of weird, quirky software company making weird things like SimAnt.
Frank Cifaldi 15:38
Yeah, and I couldn’t find the quote, but I remember a quote from Wright along the lines of him saying that, after SimCity came out, a lot of companies started coming to him with the idea of just kind of duct-taping the simulation engine onto anything as if it were this concept that applies.
Kelsey Lewin 16:00
Right, just replace the graphics with with Pizza Huts or whatever.
Phil Salvador 16:05
Frank Cifaldi 16:05
Right, yeah, and I mean… It’s almost like people thought that he replicated the world? And if they could just tap into the specific parts they need then it could be SimArby’s or whatever. And the feeling that I got from him is just, like, a frustration over not understanding how this toy works and just thinking that it was something it wasn’t.
Kelsey Lewin 16:31
And to Chevron’s credit, I mean, it sounds like even they weren’t like, “We are trying to teach our engineers how an oil refinery works and this is a one-to-one replica of the real thing.” Well, you can explain better than me, Phil, but wasn’t it more geared towards the other people who just needed to understand where they existed into the greater machine of Chevron?
Phil Salvador 16:59
Yeah, it was a couple things. Part of it was for folks who were… It wasn’t supposed to teach chemical engineers how to run a refinery, because that would be extraordinarily dangerous to use a game to train someone on how to run an oil refinery! But it was because… Part of it was, there were folks in, you know, human resources and finance who didn’t really understand how the pieces of the refinery fit together. How all the different departments in different units would interact. But also, because for folks who were doing the actual work at the refinery, you know, were often so siloed in their own departments, didn’t necessarily see the big picture of how something they were doing affected the process in the workflow of other departments. And so it was, the whole point was to get a big picture of how the refinery worked. But like Frank was saying, yeah: there was an impression that to an extent there was like a simulation engine to put things in. So what I thought was so interesting about the development of SimRefinery was that when they made these games, the developers – the team at Maxis Business Simulations – had to become subject experts, essentially. Like, when you’re making a game like SimCity, you can read a book on urban planning, get some ideas, and make a game around that. But in this case, they had to learn how an oil refinery works to an extent that it would seem accurate to people who worked in an oil refinery. So they ended up doing site visits. Like they went out to the the Richmond refinery (Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California) and they actually, like, visited and toured around the plant. They worked with the staff at Chevron. I think they actually got the formulas that Chevron used for, you know, predicting and managing the flow of different components at the refinery. And they had to figure out how to do those things! They had to figure out how to translate that into a game in a way that was accurate. So it’s this additional layer of development challenge that’s so fascinating. I remember that with SimHealth, which came a year-and-a-half after SimRefinery did. They had the additional challenge of having to, again, not only model the healthcare system of the United States, but do it in a way that was accurate. Their target audience was, like, people on Capitol Hill. So that was an especially huge challenge. And I remember hearing a story about the poor programmer at Business Simulations who was supposed to program the entire healthcare system. And every variable if, like, you know, the difference between managed care and a family physician and… just losing his mind just trying to keep track of all these variables and make a unified model of healthcare. It was just as impossible challenge. It’s just such an interesting additional layer they had to deal with besides just, you know, making something that was fun and interesting and easy to play with.
Frank Cifaldi 19:48
Yeah and, again, this is a game – when we’re talking about it – that was lost. And I know that you were personally reaching out to everyone you could trying to locate this game, right? So the people you talk to you obviously didn’t have it. Where did all the copies of this game go? Why do they not exist?
Phil Salvador 20:14
So I think a big part of it is that honestly people didn’t… It wasn’t really a high priority for a lot of people. It wasn’t something that people were especially passionate about. And I say that not to at all disrespect the folks who worked on it because they were really invested in the project. But for Chevron, it was this weird training thing they had worked on that eventually got shelved because I think it came at a bad time when they were like in the middle of layoffs, and it was the optics of moving training over to a computer program… So it didn’t get off the ground. For Maxis, it was this weird side-adventure from a division that they eventually spun off and got rid of. So, no one was especially invested in at Maxis either. It was just the kind of thing where it was such a weird, odd thing that never really fit into, like… it was a peg that didn’t fit into anybody’s hole, essentially.
Frank Cifaldi 21:02
Phil Salvador 21:02
And someone did evidently save a copy of it. I think the person who came forward was, like, the friend of an anonymous, retired chemical engineer who happened to have a copy of it. And the game did have a very small second life in academia and apparently some other… I think there was just some general interest within, you know, the oil industry about it. But it wasn’t the kind of thing that was especially valued, I guess is the point. I was thinking about this earlier and it’s, like, if you’re working on the next Halo game or something, that is a super-exciting big, giant, high-profile game that has a huge media presence. But for something like SimRefinery, that could have just been a weird work project that you had worked on. And then 25 years later, here comes somebody asking, like, “Hey, can you tell me all the details about that random thing you’ve worked on at work for a couple months 25 years ago?” And it’s not necessarily going to stand out. And I experienced this too with a lot of the folks who were involved in the Business Simulations division, that a lot of their memories on some of these projects were kind of hazy, because it was work. It was just a project they’d worked on. It wasn’t, like, this groundbreaking historically important game. It was that weird oil refinery game they had done for half a year.
Kelsey Lewin 22:19
And this is also a group that’s working on a ton of these, right? I mean, SimRefinery was special in that it sort of came out. You know, Chevron – at least – kind of used their copies, because it was never quite finished right? It’s still in the like, “This is the workable prototype, this this plays…”
Phil Salvador 22:39
Yeah, it got to a prototype phase, which was further along than a lot of the projects did. I think there were a couple of ones… A lot of the times, it sounds like the head of the studio, John Hiles, was really out there on the road talking to people, getting people interested in making simulation games, coming up with ideas. And then a lot of them either made it to the prototype stage and fizzled out or didn’t really go anywhere. There’s even press mentions. There was a project that was supposed to be a power plant simulation game called SimPower, that never really happened. I actually have a copy of a design document for one called SimEnergy that was supposed to be a… this is such a weird one. It’s supposed to be, like, a simulation of power usage. It was supposed to be made for a Japanese power company. But it was supposed to also be, like, a generational life story where you make choices in your life that affect power consumption. And then the game flashes forward to your grandchildren talking to you about how your energy use impacted their life. So it’s this like, multi-tier complicated… Like, I kind of get why they’re probably passed on this idea. But the point is, like you said, they had a lot of projects in the works they were juggling. So SimRefinery, the folks on the team seem to remember that one well because it was their first project. It was them and learning the ropes. It was them learning how to, like, make a game with graphics, which they had not done before. Which is weird to think about, because they had always just done, you know, kind of hardcore simulation work. So it was a learning process. It was exciting for them. But it was just, yeah, one project among many other unusual projects they had been working on. So definitely it was… it took on this kind of folk legend quality, I think, because it was one of the ones that the public knew about.
Frank Cifaldi 24:24
So the the people you spoke to, did they understand why you were speaking to them about this game? Did they did they get it?
Phil Salvador 24:33
To an extent.
Frank Cifaldi 24:34
Phil Salvador 24:35
So I will say, John Hiles, the head of the business simulations division who actually passed away very shortly after we talked, I feel like he had been waiting for that interview his entire life. [Laughter] I think that was the most fun interview I’ve done. He just went on about cognitive theory and I give him a chance to, you know, defend some of his work that had been criticized and he was just pulling no punches, and he was cantankerous, and it was awesome. He was so excited about it! So I think he realized that his work was interesting and important. But the other folks, I think, were maybe a bit surprised because it’s just been a while since any of that really came up. Just for context (not to go into this part of the story yet), but the division eventually got spun off of Maxis and they did operate for a couple years independently before they finally shut down, just making more business simulation-type games. And everyone I spoke to remembers the company fondly and, you know, was very happy with their time there and thought it was this great environment and all that. But was, I think, not something that a lot of folks realized had this interesting historical significance to it. Especially SimRefinery. Like I said, it was, for a lot of people, just a project they had worked on. I think it was especially interesting because the art director at Maxis Business simulations was a former teacher who just took the job because it was something that was employable in her area. She had gotten into computer graphics and it was like, “You know, what? Sure, I’ll be an artist, let’s let’s go work for this company.” So it was just, like, an odd couple years in her life working this unusual job. And, especially since these folks are kind of unplugged from the game industry, I don’t think there was necessarily an understanding that it was this really interesting chapter in this legendary game developer. It was just this interesting, small business that was operating in Monterey that had these weird brushes with bigger companies and getting things released in game stores. Very briefly. SimHealth was the other one.
Kelsey Lewin 26:46
And that brings up a larger point. This company, because they existed… they were part of Maxis, but they really existed outside of Maxis, and then they were their own company for a while. It’s like, would anyone have even cared about any business simulation software if it hadn’t been linked to this iconic company?
Frank Cifaldi 27:11
Kelsey Lewin 27:11
There’s probably dozens of businesses exactly like this one that were making business training software, and because they don’t have any connection to Will Wright or whatever, it’s not something people might pay any attention to.
Frank Cifaldi 27:25
Kelsey, we are not expanding our scope.
Kelsey Lewin 27:29
Not suggesting that per se… [laughter]
Phil Salvador 27:33
When I published the article, I heard from a couple folks who work in the oil industry who are like, “Oh, yeah, this is just like a program I use right now.” I think it was called Aspen, was the program that they’re referencing? So like, there is other stuff out there like this in the world. There are still SimRefinery-type simulation programs used in the oil business. But yeah, I certainly wouldn’t have learned about it. I think there wouldn’t be the same, you know, folklore-level mystique around a healthcare simulation game that was made to be played in Congress if it didn’t come from the developers of the Sims. That’s just such an odd connection to have.
Kelsey Lewin 28:15
And I’m sort of underselling SimRefinery too, because it does come out of the literal guts of SimFarm right? Like, this wasn’t developed independently of Maxis, it was built on top of the foundation that Maxis had already laid with their Sim games, right?
Phil Salvador 28:31
Oh, yeah. Because, like I said, they didn’t really know how to work with graphics yet. They were still kind of learning the ropes. So Maxis gave them… Yeah, at that point, SimFarm was still in development and Maxis gave them the guts of SimFarm and said, “Build on top of this!” And they made their own kind of pieced-together engine that could slam together the graphical interface of SimFarm with their simulation programming. And it worked well enough that they kept using it. But yeah, they definitely were operating mostly independently. I think as you know, they would occasionally have to call in the Maxis mothership to help out with some projects. I think SimHealth, in particular, was a little troubled towards the end of development and they had to bring in the main Maxis office to tidy things up and get things ready for release. But otherwise, they were kind of just off in their own world a bit. And that actually came up when they spun off the company, when they finally let them go. Because for Maxis, they were this… They were going in the direction, like I said, of going on the stock market and turning into this big… They wanted to be the next, you know, Electronic Arts basically, which is ironic now. But they were trying to expand into all these new areas. And they were still getting calls from Chevron like, “Hey, can you please update your software you gave us two years ago that you kind of worked on as a prototype?” I’m actually not sure they were contacted by Chevron specifically. But the point is that Jeff Braun said that there’s the model of selling software in stores and there’s the model of selling a product to a company that you provide ongoing support for. And it was getting to the point where it was like, this is too much work for Maxis. They are going in the direction of being a game publisher. This other division is still kind of hanging around and making things like SimHealth and they are two hours away. It just got to the point where they were like, “It makes sense to spin them off.” It makes sense to just let them go be their own company because this just didn’t match with what Maxis was doing at that point.
Frank Cifaldi 30:28
Were they trying anything else that’s kind of strange for the Maxis that we think of, other than this business division?
Phil Salvador 30:36
Oh my goodness, yes! They had so many unusual divisions in Maxis. Did you know: in the last year Maxis was an independent company, they had a line of Maxis sports games? Which is really weird! They made some questionable choices in terms of how they wanted to expand the brand. Like, you know, Tony La Russa Baseball 4 from the creators of SimCity doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. It was kind of an odd way to push what the company did. But they were just I think… There was a former Maxis staffer who described the last couple years of Maxis as an independent company as them entering an era of I think they said, “frantic desperation,” was how they characterized it, of just trying all these idas and exploring all these different concepts. But at least in that case, by the time they were putting out baseball games, and pinball games – Maxis, were the folks behind Space Cadet Pinball that was on Windows XP – they were going down all these unusual avenues. That was at least still in the avenue of making retail game products.
Frank Cifaldi 30:49
Uh… I did not know that, no. Right.
Phil Salvador 31:47
Yeah, as this was them trying to enter the world of, like, making simulation games that would be sold to companies and nonprofit organizations and the government, which is a whole different business model. And I think pretty quickly they realized, was too much work for them and they weren’t (on a corporate level) super interested in it. So they were just like, “You know what? You folks go do your own thing. You seem to know what you’re doing in terms of tracking down clients and starting on projects, at least. So have at it, we’re gonna go do our thing. We’re making, like, Sim Park, or whatever.” And they went their own ways.
Kelsey Lewin 32:20
On that note of, you know, making all kinds of projects and stuff. I see some lists floating around sometimes that are like, “Here’s all the lost Sim games!” What are the odds that any of those are actually… I mean, what are some of the lost Sim games? And what are the odds that any of them are actually real things that might have been playable at one point, and not just a pitch document that was mentioned at some point in an interview?
Phil Salvador 32:49
So internally at Maxis I can only think of, as far as “SimBlank” kind of games…. In terms of Maxis itself, there were only a couple that really ended up in that direction.
Kelsey Lewin 33:00
Sorry, I meant [Maxis] Business Simulations.
Phil Salvador 33:01
Oh, sorry. Yeah.
Kelsey Lewin 33:03
Because you were talking about how John Hiles was kind of a, you know, pitch everything and try everything, and…
Phil Salvador 33:11
Right, yeah. I think a lot of them made it to the proof-of-concept stage, or they were still trying to finalize deals. But, like, SimPower probably never went anywhere, SimEnergy probably never went anywhere. They had a lot of projects as an independent company that, also, names have come up before. And it sounds like, again, everyone’s memory from the company is somewhat hazy on these. But for example, they had a a justice system simulation they were working on for a textbook publisher. And there was even a title screen on their website; they had a picture of the title screen of the justice system. And according to their engineer, that really never made it past early proof-of-concept development phase. The one that I know that they finished, that they completed, was a game called TeleSim, which was it was a simulation of telecom companies competing in the wake of the big… When the Bell companies were broken up and they was suddenly a ton of competition in the phone industry, these companies didn’t necessarily know how to compete for business. So it was meant to show them how to compete with other companies in their region over their share of the telecom industry. And that one they did finish. Actually, I have a screenshot from that one, and this is just one of those research serendipity things that is so spectacular. So I’m in the Washington DC area. George Washington University in DC hosted John Hiles to give a talk about the development of SimHealth and the business simulation market. And he gave a talk and they taped it, and they just had a VHS copy in the archives at George Washington University Libraries.
Frank Cifaldi 34:55
Phil Salvador 34:56
Which was amazing. And I went they were like, “Do you want to watch this VHS tape? It’s like, we haven’t hooked up the VHS player in a while, you sure about this?”
Frank Cifaldi 35:04
Hold on: in that in that moment, do you roll up your sleeves because that’s part of your job? [laughter]
Phil Salvador 35:08
That’s part of my actual job! I’m born for this! And like, credit to the folks at the George Washington University Libraries. It was cataloged, it was tagged with the name “John Hiles” and “SimHealth.” It was discoverable, so thank you to the librarians and archivists who did that! And it was just him talking about his development philosophy and the development of SimHealth and games like TeleSim for, like, an hour. And it was awesome. And it was just this totally random, happenstance thing that helped inform my research. So that was a win. That was fantastic.
Frank Cifaldi 35:40
Is there… I mean, yeah, they had some of the the tools (or at least maybe source code for an early SimFarm or something), but is there any real DNA between SimRefinery and what we think of as the quote unquote, “real Maxis?”
Phil Salvador 35:59
I think they shared some stuff. So for instance, Jenny Martin, who was one of the art directors at Maxis, helped with the Business Simulation stuff. So she was responsible for a lot of the art in SimRefinery, which actually looks very, very similar to the art in SimFarm. It’s not identical but, like, there’s a barn randomly at the refinery in SimRefinery. And it’s like, “That is an early SimFarm asset, that’s got to be.” Like, there’s no other explanation for that. And they shared, I think there was some of the the producer staff, or I think they had some testers work on the stuff. But generally, they were kind of working on their own. I spoke with the Maxis producer, Mike Perry, who… He said that when the business simulation division split off, and he said something that, they kind of accepted it as a matter of course, because they were just kind of always on their own doing their own thing. And again, they would call in staff as needed on stuff to, like, helping set the art direction, especially. But generally speaking, they were largely kind of going about it their own way. It’s especially interesting because from the family of John Hiles, they gave me a demo copy of one of the projects they worked on as an independent company. And it’s very similar to SimHealth/SimRefinery in terms of presentation style. Even the interface still seems very similar. So it seems like they just kind of got the the skeleton from Maxis and then just kind of went off in their own direction with it.
Frank Cifaldi 37:29
I mean, it’s almost tempting to react to this story almost with a sense of loss for me, because I think I had built this game up as a real Sim game, right?
Kelsey Lewin 37:47
Like, as an actual Maxis relic.
Frank Cifaldi 37:49
Right, and I don’t mean to crap on the Business division. But as I hear the story, it’s like, “Oh, that’s just… it’s just the name.” You know what I mean? It just doesn’t feel like it’s a part of the SimCity story. And I hope you didn’t also feel that sense of disappointment. And I guess the other way of putting that is: convince me otherwise.
Phil Salvador 38:12
Well, I think what’s interesting about it is that it’s almost like an alternate timeline version of what Maxis this could have been, like a Sliding Doors scenario. Because SimCity came out and they were still a pretty, you know, small developer kind of figuring out what they were doing. And this was one possible avenue. It could have gone down the route of becoming this kind of simulation oriented company. But I think through the process of doing this, through the process of making SimRefinery and SimHealth, I think they realized that was not necessarily what they wanted to do. That they were more interested in making games, they were more interested in the fun side of simulations, I think, was what Will Wright said at one point. So it’s this kind of a parallel universe where they ended up making these kind of simulation games. It’s a really interesting glimpse into that. I think it also kind of speaks to the the hesitancy in Maxis about making this kind of product, or thinking about their own games in these terms. Because, you know… Something like SimRefinery was so different from I think even at that… so what did they have? SimEarth, SimFarm, SimAnt, SimTown was coming out around that time, too. At that point, they were starting to move away, I think, from the kind of games that would be taken seriously as realistic simulations. For an example: SimEarth, one of the one of their earlier games, comes with an earth science textbook. The game it came with a, like, 300-page manual that includes an earth science textbook, and that’s, um… Which is awesome, but it shows that they were trying to make these sort of products that were, you know, that level of grounded in real-world research. I think this was also them going through the process of understanding that maybe that’s not necessarily what they wanted to do. Not that they weren’t, you know, brainy, curious people. Will Wright said he wanted to keep exploring all sorts of new areas and making games based on different things he wanted to research. But I think they want to move away from the business of making games that would be played by candidates for mayor of a town Rhode Island. I think they want they want to move towards publishing stuff like SimTunes. Was one of the later Sim games. And that was, I mean, that’s pretty far-flung from something like SimCity, but it represents that they wanted to… For Will Wright, it was less about the the realism of the simulation, as we talked about, and more about having a thing you could inject your creativity into and mess around with. I think he referred to it as a garden, almost. That was more interesting to him. I’m sure he would have been – like, not he’s not dead, he’s alive – I’m sure he would be more interested in something like Animal Crossing than something like SimRefinery. So I think it’s also kind of showing, if you took that one aspect of SimCity and kind of mutated it off in its own path, “what would have been?” Versus the direction that ended up going down.
Frank Cifaldi 41:12
OK. I think the way I’m starting to think about it now is, we might not have gotten to the Sims if they didn’t scratch this itch first.
Phil Salvador 41:24
Possibly, yeah. And Will Wright have been working on the Sims for a long time. Like, even in the early ’90s, he had been batting around ideas for the Sims. But yeah, I think there is a possible future in which Maxis decided to pivot and go down this route. I don’t know what would have made that future happen, but it’s not impossible. Again, there’s a quote from the co-founder of Maxis saying that SimRefinery was the future of Maxis.
Frank Cifaldi 41:50
Kelsey Lewin 41:51
I mean, this started making them a bunch of money, they probably would have taken it a lot more seriously instead of it being, you know, two projects that worked out and the rest being… I mean, I don’t know – maybe a couple more of them did, but really, it was two projects and not a lot of money and a lot of management resources.
Phil Salvador 42:11
Exactly, yeah: SimRefinery was a pilot. It was them, you know… I think the total cost was, like, $75,000? So it wasn’t a huge budget, but it was really just like, “Let’s try this, see what happens.” And it went OK-to-“eh,” was kind of how the response within Chevron just because of what was happening internally at Chevron. And yeah, there could have been a totally different future if it had been, you know – the response had been glowing or something like that. I’m trying to imagine a scenario in which it would be like, “Hey, did you know that this company that makes management simulation tools for the oil industry at one point made this, like, city game back in 1990?” I could imagine the alternate version of that story. It’s very unlikely. It seems like that’s kind of a stretch. But yeah, that definitely, it represents them figuring out what they actually wanted to do with Maxis.
Frank Cifaldi 43:07
Do you get the feeling that the business division was maybe tasked with this challenge that Wright already felt was impossible? To just create a simulation engine that could be applied to any aspect?
Phil Salvador 43:25
Well, this is what I think is interesting is, John Hiles had a very different philosophy for simulations than I think either Will Wright or the public had. And John Hiles went on the record saying he disagreed with Will Wright about his thoughts on simulation games. I think the way he approached it was he said, “We can’t simulate the world. But what we can do is we can create something that people can use to help guide their thinking and help them understand how parts of the world work by just being kind of a broader canvas for seeing the relationships between concepts.” So for something like SimHealth, for instance, he said, “It was not supposed to be a game that would show you direct one-to-one simulation. Like, here’s the engine, plug into healthcare variables that shows you what happened.” His idea of simulations was, “We can make an engine that if you plug in variables, it can show you what MIGHT happen. It could show you if you do XYZ or this variable, how could it affect something else?” Not accurately predicting, but just showing like, “Here’s relationships you should be aware of.”
Kelsey Lewin 44:30
It’s the “might” that gets lost in translation when played by the general public then?
Phil Salvador 44:35
Exactly, yeah. And SimHealth is loaded with disclaimers. Like, I think there’s a point you can click a button to load up specific health care proposals, like President Clinton’s health care proposal. And it says, like, “Just so you know, this is not an accurate prediction! This is meant to show you what the different variables are.” And if you have to put that many disclaimers on the game and in the manual, people are going to take the wrong message – you know people are going to take the wrong message away! My favorite example of this was post-Business Simulation division. John Hiles kept doing some simulation development stuff and he made something for the intelligence community that he called SimIraq, which is a name that is very evocative. But it was meant to show how, like, different groups and factions in Iraq during the lead up to the Iraq war would respond to different destabilizations, or whatever. And I remember he said people were furious about it. Were just livid that he would make this thing presuming he could predict what would happen and blah blah. And apparently, when he did the demo of it, some of the stuff that he showed was a possibility, some of that did eventually – I forget what specific scenario it was – but some of it somewhat panned out in reality. And his point wasn’t that, like, “I successfully predicted the Iraq war.” That was not the point he was trying to make. But it was more like, “Here are all the variables, here are the situations. We can make software that can show you if this happens, here are other things you should be thinking about.” Which is a hard thing to communicate when you’re making a game, especially when it’s like a fun game that looks like SimCity.
Frank Cifaldi 46:15
So… is your quest now over?
Phil Salvador 46:19
Frank Cifaldi 46:19
I mean, do you have… you have been trying for so long.
Kelsey Lewin 46:25
I have attended several Phil Salvatore talks that were like, “I’m still looking for SimRefinery.”
Frank Cifaldi 46:31
Phil Salvador 46:31
There was there was one guy who kept coming to them asking about SimRefinery. I think that the last one, I just… I think I just sighed at the last one…
Frank Cifaldi 46:40
But I mean, like, do you… do you have a next quest? Do you feel accomplished? Do you feel empty? I mean, like, you did it! It’s out there now.
Phil Salvador 46:50
Well, on the one hand, I feel really validated! I feel like it’s been… The response to the article was really a relief. Like, I felt glad that I knew there was an interesting story here and it felt terrific that it resonated with so many people, especially outside the video game sphere. But I think it kind of goes back to, I started this stuff because I was doing some research on Maxis. I wanted to learn more about Maxis. I had always liked Maxis games. I wanted to learn more about their software toy philosophy. And this was a wild detour I took for a couple years. But it has helped inform, again, a kind of a general research I’ve done about Maxis stuff. I think I have more things I want to research in the world of game history and especially in the world Maxis. I think I’m less interested in continuing to learn about serious simulation games and more about how this feeds into the broader narrative about Maxis as a company because they were, I think, a really complicated and misunderstood company. And this is one particularly interesting wild chapter. I’m not sure anything else lives up to this particular story. But I do want to continue learning more about this company itself. Just because of – like the Max’s sports stuff I mentioned earlier – just some of the other routes they went down. I don’t know that there’s a thing that I want to find, but I just become really invested in the stories about this particular company because they had such an unusual, decade-long history.
Frank Cifaldi 48:18
OK, so your next Grail is Will Wright actually talking to you.
Phil Salvador 48:23
OK, so this is the thing, though. Will Wright – I have been very, very glad – has given a lot of interviews to the public, including to a lot of academic textbooks and game studies folks. Around the era of the Sims 2 and Spore, he was giving a lot of talks about his development philosophy. So it’s to the point where, I feel like I don’t necessarily need to talk to Will Wright. Like, he’s said so much about his thoughts and he’s moved on to a lot of other stuff. He’s moved on to, like, I think he has a new mobile game he’s working on that’s I think about… I forget, it’s cognition or something?
Frank Cifaldi 48:56
Yes. Like, weren’t they soliciting people’s dreams?
Phil Salvador 49:01
Something like that, yeah! He had mentioned in interviews that after SimCity 2000 he was burnt out of the city simulation thing. He was ready to move on to something else. He had his independent company, called the Stupid Fun Club, where he was messing around with, like, programming robot brains. He is such an eclectic person and he’s just doing his thing. It’s like, I feel like he has shared so much about his perspective. And in terms of, you know, the running of the company, he I’m sure knew very little about the Tony La Russa Baseball 4 side of Maxis. Will Wright, if you’re listening, I would still like to talk to you please! But I also feel like it’s not necessary for this stuff I’m interested in with Maxis research because he has shared so much of his perspective.
Frank Cifaldi 49:45
Phil Salvador 49:46
I think my… this is gonna sound really weird: if we have to pinpoint a thing I want to find, the Grail. I really want Maxis’s stock market prospectus from when they went public in 1995. I can’t find a copy of that.
Frank Cifaldi 49:59
What’s that going to tell you?
Phil Salvador 50:02
So they gave a lot of… In the lead-up, they had a lot of interesting information about the finances of Maxis. When they went public, like, in the year leading up, 60% of the company’s revenue was just SimCity and SimCity 2000, which is wild. They had published a lot of other games. They had published all these other Sim games, they were publishing educational games, and the company was just SimCity and SimCity 2000. I think Will Wright even said that, like, “The success of SimCity paid for a lot of mistakes they made.”
Frank Cifaldi 50:33
Yeah, I’m surprised it’s ONLY 60%.
Kelsey Lewin 50:35
Yeah, isn’t the rule usually 80%-20%?
Phil Salvador 50:37
So, it’s 60%. Another 11% was, they had licensed a print shop program called Printmaker, and that was 11% of Maxis revenue.
Frank Cifaldi 50:47
Phil Salvador 50:47
And so I don’t know what the prospectus would say, necessarily, but I’m just super interested in when they went public, just being like, “What were you thinking? What was the goal there? What was your your outlook on this?” It’s just somewhat difficult to find a lot of that financial information. So I don’t even know if it’s something I necessarily need but I’m just kind of fascinated by learning more about that side of Maxis to get an idea of where they thought they were going.
Frank Cifaldi 51:11
Well if you bought shares in Maxis when they went public, please contact us at email@example.com and we will connect to you…
Phil Salvador 51:23
I need to go on one of those, like, personal… not personal, there’s a lot of finance podcasts. I’m sure they have finance history podcast, I’m sure that’s the thing.
Frank Cifaldi 51:30
I’m sure they’re very interested in this particular story in the wider world of finance. [laughter]
Phil Salvador 51:36
There’s a podcast on not failed but defunct simulation game company finances. I’m sure this is right up their alley. [laughter]
Frank Cifaldi 51:48
Search Spotify after the show? [laughter] Well, gosh, I think that’s it. Kelsey, you got anything else for Phil?
Kelsey Lewin 51:55
No, I don’t think so. This is something you wrote a little while back but it resonated so well with not just people who are interested in game history, but my favorite part of it was that it resonated really well with journalists who cover the oil industry. And that’s something!
Frank Cifaldi 52:11
Phil Salvador 52:12
The Bloomberg energy people, I think they were waiting on, like, an OPEC call or something? And when the game came out, they were all playing it. Like, live tweeting playing SimRefinder, which was… That was awesome! [laughter]
Kelsey Lewin 52:23
Phil Salvador 52:25
But I think – if I can go on a little tangent for a second as we’re nearing the end of our time. I think one thing that really mattered about it was that it was an interesting story. And I think that sounds like a really vague thing to say. But when I started doing the research, I was really interested in – the thing I was really interested in – like, “I want to get the copy of SimRefinery!” And I think that may have closed some doors to me early on because I was this weird guy asking around if people had this oil refinery simulator thing. But as time went on, it became clear that the interesting part was the existence of this company, what it says about why we play games, what we think games should do, and the role they play in society. As I was working with the family of John Hiles, it became clear. For me, this is this weird rabbit hole I’m going down and learning about SimRefinery. But for them it’s like, this is their family history. And I think that came more to the center as I kept doing the research. It was like, this is an interesting story about people and ideas and that was what was exciting about it. I think if the copy of SimRefinery came out of nowhere in a vacuum, I think that would have been less exciting and interesting than having this, I think, compelling story around game development and what it means to different people.
Frank Cifaldi 53:39
Yeah, and I don’t think people would have sought out the story wasn’t, you know, this last piece of media.
Phil Salvador 53:45
Yeah. And again, I started just trying to find the thing. And as I went on, it was like, “No, there’s a story. There’s interesting people in the story. And there’s a broader message, a broader question worth asking.”
Kelsey Lewin 53:57
I think this is a good journey that a lot of historians end up doing at some point, is the the quest for a thing that ends up being a story about people. I’ve certainly run into that myself, where it’s, you know… The SimRefinery ends up being maybe not the most important or exciting part of the story. The interesting parts come from the people and the history of the people who worked on it.
Phil Salvador 54:27
Yeah, I’m gonna totally drop a quote from the historian Laine Nooney, who… I feel like I’ve used this quote so often in podcasts because it’s such a good quote. But I remember she said something to the effect of like, “The interesting thing about games isn’t that it leads us to games, but it leads us to everything else.” [“The value of studying video game history should not be that it leads us back to games, but that it leads us somewhere else.] That it’s about this bigger, you know, pulling the camera back and looking at the bigger picture and seeing how it connects out to some broader thing in the world. And not just having the thing but people stories, some bigger phenomena in the world that in society that’s, that’s what I think is really exciting about game history. And I think this doing this four years of research on the [Maxis] Business Simulations division, well, yeah – it was a journey for me of moving from getting the thing to caring about the bigger picture.
Frank Cifaldi 55:11
We got to interrupt Laine’s book and get her on here.
Phil Salvador 55:15
Frank Cifaldi 55:16
Yeah exactly! [Laughter] Well, Phil, thank you for joining us on the Video Game History Hour!
Phil Salvador 55:25
Oh, thank you for having me. This was terrific.
Kelsey Lewin 55:26
So where can people find you?
Phil Salvador 55:28
You can find me on obscuritory.com, which is my blog where I’m continually writing about unusual games. I’m also on Twitter @itstheshadsy. So I’ll be in both those places writing more about weird, old games people have not thought about in about 25 years.
Frank Cifaldi 55:44
What’s the next one?
Phil Salvador 55:46
Oh, good question. Um, there’s some more Maxis stuff I’m staying relatively quiet about because I want to make sure I can get in touch with the folks involved. But there’s some other interesting, weird chapters in Maxis that there’s not really a lot written about. So stay tuned.
Frank Cifaldi 56:04
All right, thanks a lot, Phil!
Phil Salvador 56:05
Kelsey Lewin 56:06
Thanks for listening to the Video Game History Hour, brought to you by the Video Game History Foundation. If you have questions or comments for the show, you can find us on Twitter @gamehistoryhour or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Did you know the Video Game History Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and that all of your contributions are tax deductible? You can support this podcast and all of our other work on Patreon or at gamehistory.org/donate. This episode of the Video Game History Hour was produced by Robin Kunimune and edited by Michael Carrell. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.