Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Reticulating Splines

By Sam Shahrani

Recently I was looking through some boxes and stumbled across a dusty copy of Wil Wright's "Spore" next to an equally neglected copy of SimCity 4. Seeing the two games made me wonder: What ever happened to the once-mighty SimCity franchise? Oh, certainly the "Sim" franchise is alive and well, but it was SimCity that got the ball rolling. These days it's all but vanished from the face of the earth.

In advance, I should note that I love SimCity. I have ever since a neighborhood kid showed me the original game, complete with its maroon anti-piracy codebook. Starting up SimCity felt like playing with something forbidden, accessing a WarGames-style supercomputer in which I could actually control a city and its least that's what 10-year-old-me thought. Oddly, I was less enthused about destroying my city and much more intrigued by the construction of it. I looked at population and income as a sort of "winning", a challenge to see how big and complex I could make things and, perhaps more importantly, how I could master the rules of the game as I played.

SimCity was successful and spawned several sequels, the first of which was SimCity 2000. SC2K changed the player's perspective top-down to more of a 3/4 angle. The game required, if I recall correctly, a 256 color screen and a 486SX; those technical demands would be quaint now, but were fairly steep for 1993. SC2K brought in some more complex transport options as well as futuristic superstructures called Arcologies (abandoned later in the series) and some more advanced energy and zoning options.

I loved the idea of Arcologies because they solved a lot of the late-game complexity issues, but it was also something of a cheat; you could just drop an Arcology into your existing city and poof, instant population with minimal issues, assuming you built a police station right next door. It really broke the end-game and undermined the whole adventure. A better solution would have been to make the Arcologies cities-within-cities that you could build, arrange or, alternately, a sort of "SimTower" experience where you could design the interior of the Arcologies and alter them to address issues. It would've been nice to create "industrial" Arcologies surrounded by actual zoned houses and would've really opened up design options.

SC2K was folllowed in 1999 by SimCity 3000 which kicked the graphics and complexity up another notch and added more pressing issues like garbage management. It also ditched the game-breaking Arcologies and made "linking" your city with other cities a bigger deal. Overall though, most of the changes were pretty cosmetic. SimCity 4 (2003), on the other hand, added major changes to the transport network, the calculation of how your Sims moved around, and added (very limited) integration with "The Sims". It also switched to a comprehensive 3D engine, which made the game much more detailed but also taxed computer systems heavily, particularly when the cities got bigger and more involved. Now, instead of having to do complex simulation engines and simple graphics, computers were groaning under the strain of complex graphics and modeling, leading to serious slowdowns in the late game. Right as you're trying to bask in your success, the game could become downright unplayable!

SC4, and it's Rush Hour Expansion, have apparently marked the end of the SimCity franchise, with EA/Maxis concentrating on the more lucrative The Sims series and the new "Spore" IP...though if "Spore" lives to see a sequel is still an unknown. Still, I'm forced to wonder why no further attempts to refine or improve the SimCity franchise have taken place (Yes, I'm aware that SimCity Societies was released, but as a contract development by Tilted Mill Entertainment I'm not placing it in the Maxis SimCity canon. We also shall not speak of SimAnt, SimEarth, SimFarm, SimPark, SimCopter, and the plethora of other Sim cash-ins) As such, I have a few theories:

First, the rise of consoles has possibly made the series less relevant. That is, playing strategy/simulation games using a gamepad on a console has, historically, not been terribly successful. Some recent titles like Command & Conquer, Civilization: Revolution and Supreme Commander 2 have tried it, but haven't met with overwhelming success. I think that challenge is something of a cop-out though, because there's nothing inherent about the consoles that should prevent a SimCity game from working, other than the fact that the series requires a crushing amount of computational power to run all the "background plumbing" of the simulation engine. I'm no hardware engineer, but I'm willing to believe that the 360/PS3 might not be able to handle, technically, running an advanced simulation. On the other hand, they could also try to refocus SimCity less on the simulation, per se, and more on the gameplay, adapting it to suit the console, a la Civ: Revolution.

More tellingly, Maxis may have realized that the games themselves had achieved an overall level of complexity that was too great. I believe Wil Wright himself admitted to this at one point and he also noted that he'd been thinking about creating the "virtual dollhouse" that eventually became The Sims for quite a while. SimCity was old news, and clearly, The Sims was a brilliant decision and design from a business perspective. Nonetheless, even though The Sims keeps the core development, cash management, and happiness management systems of SimCity intact, it still lacks the depth that made SimCity fun and useful  both as a simulation and an educational tool.

I suppose the ideal solution here would be for Maxis (or the shell of it that's at EA) to recommit itself to the core ideals of SimCity: designing a town and then managing it. No win conditions, no way to lose other than bankruptcy. Make the graphics less important than the simulation, and really commit to making the path-finding and traffic algorithms mimic reality. A game like SimCity has the potential to let everyday people understand some of the difficulties inherent in our fact, I would love to see a SimCountry game sort of like Spore, where players can zoom in from a Sims level house all the way out to a sweeping world-view. Now that would be the Sim of Tomorrow.


Evan said...

I just installed SimCity 4 on my new Macbook and started playing it heavily for the first time in years. Despite all the issues and bugs the Mac version contains, I'm constantly reminded why it's one of my favorite games of all time. No other game that I've ever played allows me to mindlessly lose so much time. I enjoyed the writeup, and am equally disappointed in the abandonment of the series.

Oh, but let's not give SimCopter too much crap...being able to fly around a 3D version of your SimCity 2000 city was AWESOME.

Sam Shahrani said...


You make a good point about SimCopter, and they kept that, at least in spirit, in SC4 by letting you drive certain cars, fly helicopters and planes. It was a neat idea, and some of the mini-missions were fun, but it left me feeling a little bit like I did at the end of Spore: I was so busy putting out "small fires" that it was detracting from my overall experience. At least in SC4 you could sort of ignore it and enjoy the game, but I kept getting penalized in Spore for just staying out and doing what I was doing!

Andrew said...

Your last paragraph sums up why I didn't play anything past Sim City 2000! Get back to what made the series great - it being a simulation game!

I still have that and reinstall it when I want to play on newer systems too.

I actually posted the videos that came with the CD version on the Internet Archive, which is interesting to see what grand plans were - and how obviously it changed;

It is a real shame they basically dumbed down, graphic-upped a series - which, unlike Civilization series - a perhaps good parallel of complexity yet simplicity - it grew into a jumbled mess (to me), and in no way was something I wanted to play.

Perhaps it was Wright being not involved?

I actually also had a good run in Streets of Sim City - that kind of game interaction where you quite literally could play one city in another game was pretty damn cool (although the game itself wasn't massively great) and those games interactions never really came back.

In any case, main thing I disliked about newer versions was the micro element. You zoomed in loads, you had massive amounts of detailed houses (which look even more ridiculous being all together) and so forth which just took away from the macro - the actual city planning, grid laying or nice formatting and so forth.

Actually playing Tropico 3 now puts me into a half-SimCity mode - nice road layouts, grids of influence, and similar civic stuff to do. Although it is on a smaller scale (numbers of money especially which allows fine tuning, or quick bankruptcy!) which allows clicking on individuals and using your avatar to help run things directly (and gives you something to do other then hitting fast forward). It's pretty nice to have that kind of half way house, especially being an active presidente avatar. The genre certainly is still alive at least which is pleasing! It was a lot more fun then my experience with SimCity 3000 and 4 though. Still, I'd love more macro thus more SimCity...

...but you know they'd have to tie in more The Sims crap. Gah!

Flatfingers said...

Agreed -- with the transition of development money from PCs to consoles, there are several genres that get little love these days. Simulation-toys is one; turn-based strategy is another. It's a shame.

WRT simulations, I'd also love to see someone produce a "country simulator" that straddled the line between simulation and game/toy as effectively as the original SimCity (or SC4) did. My one concern would be that -- as in Sim City, especially SC2K and SC3K -- some of the rules governing how things work would really just encode various developer biases.

To consider just one example (with some resonance for today), suppose your country goes into a recession. How should the developer decide which actions on your part would lead you back to prosperity? A rigorously fair developer might allow both Keynesianism (government spending to "prime the pump") and supply-side monetarism (reduce income and capital gains taxes to stimulate private sector activity) to be successful... but isn't it much more likely that someone would just pick one "correct" approach based on his personal beliefs?

One way around that problem might be to code the game so that many of these rules are defined as XML (or some other expression) and exposed to the player. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri did this; if you thought one of the Social settings was defined badly, you could change its values by editing the data files. You'd then bear the burden of potentially unbalancing the gameplay, but at least you weren't hostage to some developer's personal political beliefs masquerading as game design.

If a SimCountry could be designed that way, with real depth and nice graphics while also being both a good sim and a fun toy, they'd get my money.

J said...

"A better solution would have been to make the Arcologies cities-within-cities that you could build, arrange or, alternately, a sort of "SimTower" experience where you could design the interior of the Arcologies and alter them to address issues. It would've been nice to create "industrial" Arcologies surrounded by actual zoned houses and would've really opened up design options."

Simtower/Yoot's Tower arcologies would indeed have been a wonderful sequel feature, but FYI if people routinely live or work outside an arcology it's not an arcology anymore.