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Published on March 15th, 2013 | by Greg

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SimCity: A Plague On All Of Our Houses

“Given this currently horrendous state of both accessibility and playability… it is hard to continue to recommend SimCity.” – Polygon, in it’s second revision to the original review, lowering their rating from 9.5/10 to 4/10

Some quick background: it’s important to get a sense of why SimCity matters. There are competitors to the throne now- Cities XL and Cities in Motion, or even the Tropico series. But SimCity is the grandfather of this sort of game, the original city builder, originally released in 1989. The entire thing fit on a floppy disk, and enshrined Will Wright amongst a small set of gaming gurus that would help define gaming in the coming decades (he did not work on the latest title). It set the foundation for not just the best-selling game of all time for the PC, The Sims 2, but the second best-selling as well (and a few other expansions and sequels on the top 20 list). And many city planners grew up considering the RCI meter, which helped judge demand for residential, commercial, and industrial zones. It was one of those games that, along with The Oregon Trail and the Carmen Sandiego series, were legitimately installed on computers in schools and helped define a generation (or more). Finally, it’s been more than ten years since the last “true” SimCity game was released, and the intervening decade led to a lot of pent-up demand amongst gamers who rushed to buy the new title.

For those who have missed it, the launch of the new SimCity was a failure of epic proportions. Any other term would massively understate the issues, as legions of fans have taken to complaining in every forum possible. As Yahoo noted, over the past couple of days, “SimCity” has eclipsed “Pope” in global search volume. The developers responsible, EA and their subsidiary Maxis, admitted that they had been “dumb” and formally apologized. Even the BBC covered the topic, as Amazon temporarily stopped selling the game and EA frantically added servers to cope with the volume and disabled features in an attempt to stabilize performance. After installing the game, the vast majority of players were turned away by full servers, unable to play at all for hours or days, a situation that has improved but continues over a week after launch. MSN looked at the criticism, which has made the title “on track to be the worst-reviewed product in Amazon history”.

Most anyone could see these storms brewing- overwhelming demand regularly causes issues with major gaming releases, as Diablo III showed clearly. SimCity, though, has traditionally been a single player experience, meaning that the need to stay connected to the internet struck most gamers as draconian and unnecessary. Developers offered some design and technical reasons for the change, that taken at face value helped explain the requirement. Still, the fact remained: if you want to travel, SimCity was going to be impossible for you to play, as you’d have to have constant internet access. It was a sacrifice widely seen as an effort to thwart piracy, as requiring gamers to “check in and authenticate” would hopefully prevent unauthorized copying.

“[W]e offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud. It wouldn’t be possible to make the game offline…” – Lucy Bradshaw, Maxis general manager, interviewed recently with Polygon

A week after the release, it has become clear: audiences were widely misled. For starters, the game doesn’t actually require EA’s online services to work, despite the claims- you can test this yourself; others have been able to set the “disconnected” timer to indefinite periods. The “regional” features and cloud capabilities are lost when this is done, but every gamer clamoring for a single player mode would expect nothing else. Wait though- didn’t developers claim that many calculations are done on the server-side? Maybe those are major losses that drastically affect gameplay and compromise the designer’s vision of the game?

“From the beginning, we built this SimCity to deal with this stuff realistically. [W]e’re going to model real cities with integrity.” Ocean Quigley, SimCity Creative Director, SimCity blog

In our opinion, they do not- and in some ways, would fix some of the currently broken systems that players are unable to rely on. We admit that the promise of social gaming is strong, even if a core group of gamers would far prefer a completely solo and individual experience. Simulations are often a toy or sandbox, a way to play with disasters, something that necessarily requires breaking a town in a way that won’t help your “region”. Maxis and EA made a calculated decision to reject this approach, requiring an always-on internet connection and preventing local saving of your creations. There are twin promises here- “The Cloud” and “Regional Gameplay”- and we’ll address them each in turn.

The Cloud: There’s a nifty PowerPoint presentation that revealed the inner workings of the simulation engine, called Glassbox, which was introduced at the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC). You can see the core elements of the game, and the underpinnings that form the thinking behind the game’s creation, and there are a few key sections that we’ll focus on. Slides 57 and 59 discuss the server architecture, and make the advantages of using the cloud clear. Gamers don’t need to worry about their saved games as that is all handled behind the scenes. Plus, additional servers can be added on-demand and as-needed, thanks to systems like AWS and EC2, which allow anyone to purchase nearly limitless computing power on a whim. In SimCity’s case, though, the advantages of the cloud were utterly defeated: additional servers were, for whatever reasons, not spun up quickly enough or in sufficient numbers. In addition, many gamers (including us here) experienced issues with their save games, as entire cities were corrupted and made unavailable for play. These errors are unacceptable, and serve only to prove that “the cloud” isn’t a bulletproof solution, but simply creates different problems.

Regional Gameplay: The game does, in fact, perform calculations on the servers. But these are, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, totally regional in nature. Nothing is really “offloaded” from your local PC- instead, the servers handle interactions between your city and neighbors. Utility sharing, price modeling, cross-region pollution, progress on “Great Works”- those things are handled largely in the cloud. And, if all goes well, those will all be working again as intended. But they fall short of anything approaching essential, and instead serve to damage the experience as a whole. For each fun tweak- specializations, or the fluctuating economic model- there are corresponding failures, errors, and omissions. Communication with neighbors is hidden and fairly difficult. If another person starts a “Great Work”, you’re stuck with it. Abandoned cities litter public regions, and though we had a good time playing with friends, there was a major downside. Relying on another player for water or power is fine until something goes wrong, and it can very easily result in your city falling apart in incredibly short fashion. This might be a powerful social message, except for the things that go wrong are typically due to bugs and core issues with the simulation that are unlikely to be easily resolved.

It should be said that much of the presentation of the game shines like polished crystal. The art and graphics teams deserve acclaim for making even the problematic sections gorgeous. Night and day cycles are reflected, water laps around your harbors, and pollution creates a haze that even appears visible from the region view. You can rotate everything freely, and explore the lovely animations from every angle. The audio and music are top notch as well- subtle pings as you define your regions, noises of an impending disaster, and yet another excellent SimCity score (this time from Chris Tilton, who worked on the music for Fringe) that builds upon the previous excellent ones yet is distinctly it’s own. The sound also adjusts dynamically to what is happening in the game and what you’re looking at.

“Sims in each city will have jobs or can lose them, buy homes…” – EA Press Release

Casual gamers will likely be happy. We’ve logged dozens of hours, and there’s no denying the value of a $60 game providing that level of entertainment. There is humor to be had, and plenty of eye candy. But our current feeling is, as Joystiq put it: SimCity is gorgeous and bland. You’ll be able to explore much of what the game offers within a few cities, and they’ll be largely successful without much effort (or fail through no fault of your own, thanks to poor AI and bugs like recycling systems that can crash your burgeoning economy as they simply stop working for no reason). You can, in fact, create a 100% residential city with no industry or commerce and your people will be totally happy- as long as you build a sufficient number of parks and basic utilities. You can create a single, long, winding road that ends up being perhaps the most effective current traffic solution even as it makes you groan in dismay.

“We’re building a simulation engine that captures the world as it is today. We want you to be able to affect that individual sim, or that particular car.” – Lucy Bradshaw, Wired UK Preview

It’s critical that gamers recognize the how the simulation itself works. The developer’s diaries are fairly clear about how many of the systems function, even if gamers expected something different from what they received. The “sims” are dumb agents, which explains the traffic woes at the very least. Each person takes a new job every day- the closest one that is open- and goes to the closest house after they leave work. This is disappointing, and definitely appears to contradict claims like being able to “affect that individual sim, or that particular car”, as well as the idea that your population would “buy homes”. This, in our opinion, greatly diminishes the “simulation” part of the SimCity name. In the latest developer update, they clarify what is persistent in the simulation, but it’s clear to us that the very nature of this “dumb agent” approach is extremely limiting.

“Each person living in your city will be simulated by the game’s engine.” – Mashable Preview, titled “Every Citizen Has A Life”

What’s missing and likely to remain missing for some time? Bike lanes. Real mixed use development (real-world residential towers have businesses in them). Highways, subways, overpasses, one-way streets. Farms, agriculture, crops or food. Weather, of any kind, including storm-related disasters other than tornadoes. The touted “global” economic model also would seem hamstrung as even once the servers are working, they appear to be independent from one another. Prices seem to be based on the specific server you join, as are your achievements at press time, oddly. It’s wildly unfair for anyone to expect the game to include every possible feature that makes a real city… well, real. But again, there are explicit and implicit promises of “realism”- and the more obvious the exclusion, the more disappointing.

“Together, players will address real global challenges such as climate change… Everything you see in the world we sim.” – EA Press Release

Some specific features were definitively promised, and not delivered or implemented. The words “climate change” appear in the press release, and though pollution is a menace, it mostly creates germs that make your Sims sick (whether by air or water). There’s no way to “address” the issue as it’s utterly absent. There’s no acid rain, no environmental collapse ala Jared Diamond, no rising flood waters or global warming. Your coal or oil can run out (in months of in-game play!) but you can always buy those things from the ‘world’ at large. And there aren’t gas stations or anything; the insistent headache of traffic jams are fed by cars running on magic fuel, even though your public transit is completely free (and you cannot modify this).

And then there are features that were in previous SimCity titles, like the ability to modify terrain. Let’s say you’d like a river running through your city, or want to fill in some land to make an airport like Korea or Japan did for Incheon or Nagoya. Sorry- no dice! Also lacking are the fun political “ordinances” you could select, opting to make your town a “Nuclear Free Zone” or encourage car pooling. There are no zoos or marinas or the military bases you might remember. Prisons have been folded into police stations, which makes a certain amount of sense, but why not allow players to offload their prison population regionally as well? Gone as well are hydroelectric dams from SimCity 2000 (OK, we don’t really miss those).

Granted, many of the new additions are actually quite good- for instance, the “add-ons” to buildings allow them to be upgraded with more firetrucks or ambulances or school rooms. And most people didn’t want to run pipes and electricity lines separately, so utilities have been folded in to the road system (power and water and even sewage travel automatically as part of your roads, and you can watch them go). The user interface is excellent, with many clear indicators, and helpful information highlighted. You can click on a delivery truck or resident and see how they’re feeling and where they are going, and get a real sense of your city from both up close and afar, as graffiti visibly builds up in high-crime areas. As Rock, Paper, Shotgun put it aptly in their preview, “[e]very layer of information in this game visually ebbs and flows – living infographics.”

“simcity.GetFudgedPopulation = function (a) { a = “undefined” !== typeof a ? a : simcity.gGlobalUIHandler.mLastPopulation; if (500 >= a) return a; if (40845 < a) return Math.floor(8.25 * a); a = Math.pow(a – 500, 1.2) + 500; return Math.floor(a) };”

But these are largely cosmetic tweaks to a game that fails to deliver either challenging, long-lasting fun or anything approaching a real-world simulation. In fact, it even fails to live up to the “City” part of the title- populations are artificially inflated, likely due to the fact the game engine could not function well with actual levels of simulated agents. It’s more of a SimTown or SimBurrough- and the code that fakes the numbers is even openly visible in the game files (the segment above is the actual function, strikingly named “GetFudgedPopulation”). Many complaints have focused on the small plots of land available (take a look at SimCity gameplay areas through the years for a striking comparison). We found these limitations unsatisfying, but the claustrophobic city limits are just another of many poor decisions.

SimCity (2013) was botched on nearly every conceivable level. Do we really need to render and show power flow slowly bubbling, especially given that electricity moves essentially instantaneously? Shouldn’t EA have tested basic traffic patterns before releasing the game? Bugs are natural and even occasionally fun- this is complex behavior, and we don’t mind terrain problems or an occasional issue with textures. But we do expect a deep, immersive game, one that offers both scope and scale, and SimCity fails to live up to the predecessors, the decade of expectations, the marketing hype, or even the name itself.

 

Sure, it’s fun. It will even be worth buying, once the server woes are under control. But it’s kind of like a fast food meal, prettier but less than satisfying, a broken promise and one that leaves you a little bit sad.

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About the Author

Greg dreamed up the idea for the Truly Network while living in Hawaii, which began with a single site called TrulyObscure. In 2010, when advertisers and readers were requesting coverage beyond the scope of that site, TrulyNet was launched, reaching a broader audience over a variety of niche sites. Formerly the head technology correspondent for the Des Moines Register at age 16, he has since lived and worked in five states and two countries, helping a list of organizations and companies that includes the United States Census Bureau, TripAdvisor, Events Photo Group, Berlitz, and Computer Geeks. He also served as the Content Strategy Manager for HearPlanet, a multi-platform app that has reached over a million users and has been featured in the New York Times, Hemispheres Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Fox Business News, PC Magazine, and even Apple’s own iPhone ads. Greg has written as a restaurant critic and feature journalist for a number of national and international publications, including City Weekend Magazine, Red Egg Magazine, the Newton Daily News, Capital Change Magazine, and an arm of China Daily, Beijing Weekend. In addition, he has served as a consulting editor for the Foreign Language Press of Beijing, as well as a writer and editor for the George Washington University Hatchet, the school newspaper of his alma mater. Originally from Iowa, Greg is currently living in the West Village of Manhattan.



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