The desire to maintain high profit levels put pressure on Maxis. The company had grown very quickly to support SimCity. But when its sales began to level off, Maxis found it difficult to reach its earlier profit levels. The company had so many employees that just paying salaries left the company with few resources for game research. Instead of original games, Maxis employees rushed to create SimCity spin-offs in order to keep a steady flow of income. But the games that Maxis hastily sent to market were less and less appealing to customers. By 1996 Maxis posted a loss of $1.7 million.
"We were forced into a lot of short-term decisions," says Wright. "The quarterly calls were what the company planned most of its decisions around." The predicament was especially troubling for Wright, who had finally decided on his next project: SimCopter.
Though the concept was sound, there was an element of time pressure and lack of resources associated with the project that Wright didn't expect. Maxis developers were given a mandate by management: You must ship four games by the end of 1996. The goal seemed completely unrealistic, especially to Wright. "To start off with, I didn't even have the resources I needed to do SimCopter!" But the company spread those limited resources across the four "must-launch" games: SimCopter, SimPark, SimTunes and Full Tilt Pinball.
Simcopter: "SimCopter puts the player in the role of a jobbing helicopter pilot seeking a living by moving from city to city existing on the meager payments they receive for such deeds as plucking citizens from the roofs of burning buildings and suppressing riots. Sim City 2000 is not required to play SimCopter as the game comes with 30 cities of its own. Should you own a copy of Sim City 2000, you can load any city you have created into SimCopter and fly through it.
There are two modes of play. In the career mode, you fly through SimCopter's own cities trying to earn enough points to proceed to the next city where tougher tasks will await you. In user mode, you are flying through a city you have created yourself or downloaded. There is no career to follow but a number of sliders allows you to choose what kinds of missions and their difficulty will be offered to you.
SimPark: SimPark is primarily aimed at children and the game has a considerable educational element. You are put in charge of a huge American or Canadian wilderness park. You can choose the geographical region within the USA, which determines its climate.
You can choose from a wide variety of trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and where they should be sited. Although you receive regular government funding, you can also attract human visitors in order to supplement your income. Apart from developing a wide variety of species, this is also done by providing various facilities such as paths, campsites, benches, drinking fountains, picnic tables and so on.
SimTunes: Originally a Super Nintendo game called Sound Fantasy. It was completely finished and almost ready to ship when Nintendo pulled the plug on the project. It is a music game that is a successor to Mario Paint. A nice tool for "painting" music. You program lots of bugs that make music as they move and interact.
Full Tilt Pinball: This pinball game includes 3 boards: Space Cadet, Skulduggery, and Dragon's Keep. Each featuring the usual amount of bumpers, targets, ramps, etc. as well as a big payoff for the successful completion of each table, such as slaying a dragon on Dragon's Keep, or creating a black hole on Space Cadet.
Full Tilt! uses a non-scrolling 3D view and supports resolutions up to 1024x768. Modern-style tables with multiballs, magnet fields and realistic sound effects including background music and speech.
At Christmas 1996, Maxis did manage to ship all four games. But no one was very happy about meeting the deadline, as corners were cut on all the projects. Wright was the most disappointed of all. "The low point for me was releasing SimCopter when we did," he says. "The gameplay was developing nicely, but we just had to ship it too soon."
SimCopter launched with one of the most controversial bugs in gaming history. Read all about it here: Wired article
The Maxis games released at the tail-end of 1996 would all sell relatively poorly, although Wright's SimCopter would do better than the rest, in part because the immense fanbase of SimCity 2000 was keen to see their cities in full 3D. But the
picture for the rest of the company wasn't very positive. "Maxis hadn't done anything significant in a while," explains Quigley, "and there was a sense that if we didn't do something big in the near future, we'd run out of money and disappear."
"We were driven to collect revenue by bringing on a lot of products that would bump up our numbers, but not our margins," explains Wright. To this end, Maxis acquired an unknown Texas game studio named Cinematronics to develop games such as Crucible, a dungeon-crawl game in homage to Diablo. The company would also get into full motion video games, attempt a children's line of software featuring a mouse named Marty, and launch a sports brand.
Another reaction was to do another SimCity game. Whether it was the right thing to do creatively wasn't the question. Maxis had to have it to survive.
"After SimCopter, I think everyone thought SimCity 3000 would be in 3D," explains Wright. The problem was that the existing 3D technology simply wasn't capable of handling SimCity's microscopic level of detail.
Unfortunately, Maxis management wasn't interested in this analysis. 3D was the new buzzword of the industry, and the next SimCity had to have it, period. The development team knew the game was doomed to fail, but nonetheless spent a year working on it and displayed it at the E3 trade show in 1997, an experience still regarded as an embarrassment.
By mid-1997, Maxis was in big trouble. With a loss on the books and no A game in sight. And worst of all, everyone knew if SimCity 3000 was released in it current condition, the Sim brandname would be destroyed, vaporizing Maxis' final trump card.
"My stress level was increasing exponentially," explains Wright. The best-case scenario was that the company would delay SimCity 3000 and endure a potentially deadly financial crunch; the worst case was that one of the most successful franchises in PC history would be ruined by desperate executives seeking a way out.