The SimCity Debacle

I have hundreds of games in my Steam catalog and on my shelves that have been unplayed. My Backlog. I’m trying to get through those games one by one, and then write a short review for my friends to tell them whether it’s worth playing. I am not a writer or a games journalist. This is just me, telling my friends about a game.

Again, this post is antithetical to the purpose of the backlog section, but it’s another of those few current games I’ve mustered the finances to play so it needed it’s time in the spotlight.

It’s the day before Bioshock Infinite is released and I am tempted to pre-order. I really really want to. Bioshock is one of my favorite games of all time and with the reviews coming in saying the newest version is all that and bag of chips, I’m even more inclined. But I got so burned the last time I pre-ordered something that I just don’t want to risk it. And that last time was SimCity.

I was excited to play the game, because I had played in the 1-hour weekend beta and I had enjoyed the game immensely. It looks great and it has great feedback on the state of your people and your city. All in all it looked like a great game and an honorable entry in the storied franchise. However, the truth of the matter is the game is not great. It appears great to the novice–on the surface–but the more closely you inspect the more you notice the many chinks in it’s armor. The simulation is broken in many places, the feedback lies to you about the current feelings of your population, and fundamentally the game is broken to the core with no real way to fix it.

Some people say they really like the newest SimCity, and I understand that. I think those people have a very shallow grasp of the mechanics. That’s not intended to be an insult, but rather an explanation. Maybe they haven’t played enough or maybe they don’t want a deep city sim. Whatever the case, they still enjoy the game because they’re not asking it to be something it’s not. And what it’s not is a city simulator. Yes, it’s a simulator and yes you make cities, but the things it simulates are not realistic. It’s not simulating a real city, it’s simulating something that looks like a real city. There’s a difference, and the difference is important.

I call it TheSimsCity because of this, though I’ve heard other podcasts call it the City of Sims. The core of the game is about laying roads and watching cars drive around and enjoying the little playset you have created. It’s not about the economics of city management, or tough decisions. The game itself is not hard, as it’s practically impossible to make a city that isn’t profitable. It’s about shaping something and watching it grow–a “Sim” City, not a real city.

And being a “Sim” City it has unique concerns. The game isn’t without challenge, but the challenges come not from making good city decisions, but making decisions to compensate for the counter-intuitive AI. For example, you should place a power plant on either side of your town, or in the center because power can’t reach from one side to the other without getting lost. Or, how you need to break roads in half to get their true pathfinding value to be calculated, because pathfinding is based on intersections not road segments, so a busy segment will not be considered busy unless there’s an intersection with busy-ness on either side. If you want your sims to find the best, fastest driving route you have to insert artificial intersections to cue them in on a potentially bad route. I could go on and on, but the point is that the challenges in this game are in dealing with this game and not in raising what feels like a real city.

To that end, it’s not really that big a deal as long as it’s fun to play the game, but this is where regions come into play. Regions–as I see it–are Maxis’ solution to the problem of calculating the AI on thousands of agents per city (Agents are things that go from one place to another in the game: people, cars, and little packets of electricity are all agents). They keep the cities small to prevent there from being too much work to be simulated. As a result, regions really just feel like what you should be doing in one city spread across two or three or more separate cities, and multiplayer is likely just a distraction from this forced weakness. There are really three ways to play regions, and none of of them are very good:

The first is to spread one large city across several regions. I feel this is the worst way to play as it involves frequent switching, load times and relying on a buggy transaction system which takes time to propagate and normalize. You are going to be constantly annoyed switching back and forth, because while you are in one town the other town stops growing, earns no money and does not realize the benefits of your changes to the town you’re playing. You will have to constantly be bouncing back and forth to keep things moving forward. All in all, it’s just overhead and makes it annoying to be responsible for two cities in the same region that are part of the same ecosystem.

So the alternative, is to make each city independent. But then you become aware of the elephant in the room, which is the cities are super small and fill up quickly. Once a city fills up, it becomes about jumping through hurdles to make the AI happy and sometimes just outright exploiting it because that’s the easiest thing to do (one strategy is not to use commercial or industrial, for example–only build parks, because that is all your Sims need to be happy enough to prosper). That said, it’s impossible to be completely autonomous in a region because RCI leaks across borders. (RCI is a meter that tells you how much demand there is for residential, commercial or industrial zoning). The leakage is great if you are trying to build a region with specialization, but if you don’t then you will see either your excesses consumed by other cities or force you to overproduce to meet the needs of the rest of your region. Crime and pollution will also seep in, causing you to have to deal wiht that as well. There’s no way to turn off interaction with your fellow region mates. So then, if you really want isolation you will play in a region by yourself, but then you hit the issue that the game only allows you to play in 10 regions, max, ever. For a single player game, one of exploration and learning that’s abysmal. If in SimCity 4 I had only been allowed to build 10 cities, I would never have built more than a hamlet. I started and scrapped at least a dozen towns before I really figured out how things worked. It’s not completely fair to say you have a 10 city limit ever, you could always abandon your old cities and lose them forever. It’s just, that hurts my soul a little abandoning something just to make room for something else.

The final way to play regions is multiplayer. Possibly the way you’re intended to play, but I’d say that this is the area that needs the most improvement. There is almost no way to communicate with your fellow region mates (there’s a chat box, but chat messages are tied to server updates so can take several minutes to appear); there’s no contracts on resource exchange so if you are (for example) buying energy from your neighbor and he suddenly uses up all his excess power, you just stop receiving power and have to figure things out on your own–there’s no way to ensure a steady supply, so no one in their right mind should build a city based on receiving stuff from the other players; and then there’s the RCI bleeding as discussed above. Which gets even worse with multiplayer because at least in single player if you’re causing you’re own problem, you can fix it. If someone else is the problem you have to convince them to fix it, and how you do that without a way to talk to them–I have no idea.

All in all, regions are hugely disappointing to me, and therein lies the problem. The game was presented in the beta with no way to judge that feature, so I did not use it as a deciding factor in whether to purchase the game. Shame on me for assuming it would be as good as the demo. It also was the key justification for the always-online DRM, and since I hate the region play I no longer have a rationalization to accept the DRM. I didn’t even go into the launch-week woes, and how they negatively impacted the fun of the game as that’s just the norm of online games these days. I’ve become complacent. Complacent about crappy support for customers. But, I digress.

The launch problems are now fixed, and while I expect a majority of the simulation errors to be improved, I think fundamentally this game is broken and cannot be salvaged. The region play doesn’t make anything about the game more entertaining–even playing with friends is more of a chore than it’s worth–I play on like six different servers to meet up with four different friends. With some amazing and major refinements, I think the region play could start to be worth it but that is tantamount to Maxis releasing a different game. It’s almost as if this region play is only a placeholder and the real game hasn’t been released yet. But if that’s the case, it will likely come as DLC and cost money.

But even more to the core of the game. Agent-based simulation, while super cool to look at, is so horribly complex I don’t think Maxis can ever get it right. They might get it close, but I suspect they’ll give up long before they reach that goal. What they used to have was simple comparison, I have 10 jobs and 10 workers–everyone has a job. Now they try to fake the actions, I have 10 jobs, and 10 workers. Send those 10 workers to the jobs. The number that get there are the number of people with jobs. And so many things can intervene on the way… maybe that day they got stuck in traffic, or behind a fire engine who spent the whole day putting out a fire. There are so many ways the middle ground of the simulation can screw things up that the best they can do is create a shallow facsimile of simulation, without the depth or authenticity of past Sim Cities that the only reason you can play this game is to put together a pretty, shallow “City of Sims.”

Posted in Backlog

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