The Abbreviated Dawning of Simulation Games
by William Lamb
To talk about simulators as a gaming product we must go back to before the dawn of today’s major consoles to the dark ages of what is known as the Second Generation, back to the Atari 8-Bit and the Commodore 64. We go back to a time when early gaming was two dimensional and most of it happened in an arcade. This was the age of pixelation and just on the heels of the Video Game Crash of 1983.
The earliest recorded simulation games date back to the 1980’s when Codemasters, one of Britain’s oldest game producers, teamed up with the Oliver Twins, brothers who began coding in high school. The result, among other titles, was BMX Simulator, it may not have been their biggest title however they started the trend of simulation games. The designers wanted to create sports themed games and make them feel real. This 8-bit, basic racing game was just the beginning to a genre of games.
Codemasters and the Twins had players looking from a birds eye view over a race track and asked them to race around it. The track would be surrounded with debris and have hills and other obstacles. This break from the standard dungeons and aliens motif was the refreshing change that consumers wanted. Offering slow-mo recaps and unique voice samples BMX Simulator was a product of its time and sold quarter million copies.
Since then the market for simulation games has moved beyond placing the player in a basic sports or machine centered scenario to the life of an animal, person, or alien and allow the player to do things that they wouldn't normally do or to practice them. When one thinks of a simulation game we imagine flight simulators and titles such as Forza Motorsports and FIFA but do we think of the Tycoon or Spore franchises? The players of this genre have different goals in mind than those who play Call of Duty or Diablo III. The general purpose of these games is to simulate reality in the most detailed manner possible.
One series in particular comes to mind when discussing the subject of reality: the Caesar franchise. The joys of simulators is that we control as much as we can and these games deliver. This game takes you to the heart of the Apennine Peninsula, now modern day Italy, to rise up the ranks of Roman Empire and build and run a city. What makes them so exceptional as a simulators is the attention to detail, in fact they fall into the subgenre of micromanagement games. After playing a significant amount of the third and fourth installments (Caesar III, IV) I was most impressed with how the game would respond to minute decisions such as raising tax or building a new method of distracting the masses. In the later games you must choose from one of two assignments Peaceful, the economic option, or Agressive, the military option. Everything from crime to the benevolence of the gods is on the table when ruling a city. Food production and trade also play key roles in building a thriving metropolis and building alliances and organizing trade routes is harder to achieve than one would expect. It asks the player to make moral judgements and tough decisions that will affect the outcome of the city, there is very little that the game makers did not think of.
When first released for the Atari in 1992, and subsequently ported to PC in 1993, Caesar I was recommended to SimCity players who wanted more control and interactivity. These two franchises ostensibly set the standard for many gamers, they gave a tantalizing taste of the ‘reality of reality’ and how much fun it is to control it. After the late 90’s simulation games had been firmly secured as a beloved gameplay style. Their development became more about the experience and visual aspects rather than overcoming technical bugs. We now have a myriad of titles at our fingertips from Goat Simulator to German Truck Simulator each one offering something a little different while encompassing the spirit of the genre.