Having spent the past five years coming to terms with DLC, microtransactions and F2P, the next five look to be about always-online games. Publishers claim it’s the natural extension of games as services. Players counter that it’s intrusive DRM, an assault on their rights and it stops them playing their games on the train. To some, SimCity just became the equivalent of Bethesda’s horse armour: an exemplar of everything they fear the future holds. Given what SimCity used to represent, and the game that’s still at its core, that’s a shame.
Let’s list the mistakes. First, it wasn’t possible to pre-load the game before the minute of release. That led to Origin’s servers being overwhelmed in the hours after launch. When players did have the game installed and ready to play, they found the servers unable to cope with demand, being either down or sticking them in lengthy queues. And once they did finally connect, they were likely to be disconnected shortly thereafter, sometimes losing progress.
EA scrambled to respond, adding more servers, reworking its infrastructure, and temporarily dropping some of the functionality used to justify the always-online requirement in the first place. At the time of writing, some features – including the fastest game speed – are still unavailable.
The result is that people bought a game that didn’t work at all or didn’t work as advertised, and it’s tempting to write the game off here. Please don’t, because there are good reasons to drive into the heart of SimCity, both to discover sights worth seeing and to discover how deep its problems run.
Released in 1989, the original SimCity was a revelation. It was a sandbox game about building a functioning city, but its simulation was balanced such that the challenges stacked: you might solve your power shortage with more power plants, but you risked meltdown and brownouts; you could provide more jobs by zoning for cheap industry, but the pollution would cause citizens to get sick. There were specific scenarios, but you didn’t need them. SimCity’s clockwork simulation was the game.
The new SimCity understands this. You begin as before, placing down roads and then zoning for three types of building: residential areas for your population to build houses in, commercial areas where they’ll do their shopping, and industry where they’ll work. Pop down a water pump, a power plant, and a sewage filtration plant, and the simulation hums to life. Construction trucks stream into town, buildings sprout from the ground, followed by moving vans delivering residents. Open one of the new data layers and you can see the heart of the simulation beating underneath. Water can be watched as it flows to each building, sewage can be seen being flushed away, and in time, you can see the creeping impact of your town’s industry as pollution spreads through the ground.
From here, the process of developing your cities is almost identical to previous games. You place health clinics, police and fire stations, and schools. These services cost money, so you need more taxpayers. You zone more residential, and upgrade the roads so your original neighbourhoods switch from small houses to apartment blocks. Traffic slows to a crawl, so you build a mass transit system. Then you might place parks, which attract wealthier inhabitants, who in turn require a higher class of shop and industry, and a better education system.
While previous games were always punishingly difficult, it’s relatively easy to build a functioning, profitable city in less than an hour. This brings two changes to SimCity’s long game. The first is the specialisations system. Each city can be focused on a single purpose. Cities that specialise in tourism can become a miniature Las Vegas, littered with casinos. A mining or drilling town built on a large supply of ore, coal or oil will deliver huge profits, but produce a similarly grand amount of pollution. There’s also trade, electronics, culture and education.
Each of these goals gives more structure to SimCity’s open play, with targets – make 800,000 Simoleons in oil profits in a day, say – gating access to buildings and upgrades. Thankfully, it never overwhelms the core sandbox. Specialisations instead force you to make extreme decisions in crafting a city, and push you towards the kinds of infrastructure problems that are fun to try to solve.
The second change is the game’s shift from micro- to macro-management. Old games of SimCity used to begin with not just the placing of roads, but the careful construction of a network of sewer pipes, water pipes and power cables. Now your roads are more than just the backbone of your traffic system: everything automatically flows down them, at least as long as there’s the appropriate sewage treatment centre or nuclear plant placed somewhere en route.