In the early 1990s, the videogame company Maxis had a major hit with its SimCity franchise: players designed cities from scratch and experienced an array of intended and unintended consequences in the process. Wanting to apply the successful model to other games, Maxis published one that remains the closest the mainstream gaming business has come to coastal management simulations: SimIsle. In it, the player manages a tropical island and must balance development and conservation to achieve various goals.

"SimIsle started out as a game idea called 'Eden' and I think that name points to my original intention to do a simulation of the rainforest and the tensions caused by development and deforestation," says Matthew Stibbe, who designed the game for Intelligent Games under contract to Maxis. "A friend of mine from university, who knew the subject well, prepared a detailed report on the rainforests of Borneo as a basis and inspiration for the game. I recognize some of its elements in the game such as ecotourism, deforestation, the interplay of salt and fresh water marshes, etc."

Later, says Stibbe, it became clear that islands were useful ways to package different game challenges for the player, as well as to bound the simulation to make it manageable. The game map became an archipelago and SimIsle was born, reaching stores in 1995.

"With a game like SimIsle the big requirement is to make the world believable, which is not necessarily the same as realistic," says Stibbe. "So actions such as chopping down rainforests, damming rivers, or building cities have understandable and, to some extent, predictable consequences. Testing and programming focused on creating a world where things behaved in interesting but internally consistent ways. We also spent a lot of time trying to make it entertaining and, although it sold pretty well, it wasn't a huge smash hit like SimCity so I guess we only partially succeeded."

Much has changed in game development since when SimIsle was created. In fact, some of the mathematical design strategies that Stibbe and his team considered using – but discarded for being too complex at the time – now provide the foundation for marine simulation tools like Marxan and other programs. Stibbe says if someone were to create a new, scientifically rigorous SimIsle today – as a training tool for coastal managers, for instance – it could be done fairly cheaply. "Twenty years ago, we did SimIsle in about 18-24 months at a cost of around US $400,000," he says. "You could do it today for much less."

For more information: Matthew Stibbe. E-mail: