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SimCity was originally developed by game designer Will Wright. The inspiration for SimCity came from a feature of Wright's own game, Raid on Bungeling Bay, that allowed players to create their own maps. Wright soon found he enjoyed creating maps more than playing the actual game, and so began creating SimCity.

The game sparked a new paradigm in computer gaming by creating a game that could neither be won nor lost. This was not immediately recognized by the game publishers, who did not foresee the possibility of successfully marketing and selling such a game. Brøderbund declined to publish the title when Wright proposed it, and he pitched it to a range of major game publishers without success. Finally, founder Jeff Braun of then-tiny Maxis agreed to publish SimCity as one of two initial games for the company.

Wright and Braun returned to Brøderbund to formally clear the rights to the game in 1988, when SimCity was near completion. Brøderbund executives Gary Carlston and Don Daglow saw that the title was infectious and fun, and signed Maxis to a distribution deal for both of its initial games.

The subsequent success of SimCity speaks for itself: "Sim" games of all types were spawned—with Will Wright and Maxis developing a myriad of titles including SimEarth, SimFarm, SimTown, Streets of SimCity, SimCopter, SimAnt, SimLife, SimIsle, SimPark, The Sims and SimMars, which was never released. They also obtained licenses for some titles developed in Japan, such as SimTower and Let's Take The A-Train (just called A-Train outside of Japan). The most recent development is The Sims, and its sequel, The Sims 2.

SimCity is predominantly a single-player game (the exception being a "Network Edition" of SimCity 2000, and an obscure Unix port of the original SimCity). SimCity 4 also makes an attempt at multiplayer gaming with the ability to share regional maps and cities with other players, allowing players to collaborate, but not play in real time.

In 1990, SimCity won the Origins Award for "Best Military or Strategy Computer Game" of 1989.