When Maxis’ latest title, SimCopter, shipped on Halloween 1996, several things about it seemed likely to transform the gaming scene. It was the publisher’s first foray into a fully 3D open world, in which the player could pursue missions in any order. Players who also owned SimCity 2000 could import their cities, turning them into playable levels or use SCURK, (the SimCity Urban Renewal Kit,) to customize their cities outside of the constraints of typical SimCity gameplay, and likewise import them to SimCopter.
However, Maxis discovered that SimCopter itself had also been transformed under their noses. A programmer, Jacques Servin, slipped in a new feature while becoming increasingly dissatisfied at the unsympathetic crunch conditions that escalated as the game’s release date neared. This tiny hack became apparent only after the game shipped. Maxis released a patch and copies created after the initial run, estimated to be over 70,000, had the unauthorized code Servin inserted scrubbed from them. But what did this code do?
Typically, when you beat a level in SimCopter, a brass band would show up at your hangar. Servin’s covert modification however, replaced the band with “himbos,” men in speedos with fog-piercing lamps for nipples who would kiss each other and even the helicopter pilot if you exited your chopper. The mod became apparent on special dates, including Servin and his boyfriend’s birthdays, and Friday the 13th. Servin was doing what most modders at the time already did, changing games to match their sense of humor and aspects of their identity excluded by mainstream gaming, but on a much larger scale.
SimCopter’s compatibility with SCURK demonstrates what would become an increasingly common feature, condoned transformations of videogames through provided editing software, establishing a formalized give-and-take between developers and players. However, Servin’s hack shows the other, unauthorized side of this relationship. While he was fired for his actions, Servin continues to participate in “culture jamming” activities with activist group The Yes Men. That these two transformative elements coexist in one piece of software make SimCopter a snapshot of modding at a crossroads during the late 90s.