The Problem with City-Building Games

For me, that something was SimCity 4.

I loved it – and that is probably an understatement. I built villages and towns on rolling hills, coastlines, and plains. I enjoyed laying out cities and watching the grand effects of my policies. I loved watching the skyscrapers spring up and the wealthy sims move in.

My cities always ran deficits and eventually went bankrupt, but then I discovered cheats!

…And then I discovered that by governing conservatively, you could actually make money and play the game as intended.

The great thing about the SimCity series is that it’s organic. The problem with city-building games these days is that you build everything that you want. Literally. You want a house? Click the “house” button and plop it down on wherever your heart desires. A business? Gas station? Factory? Same idea! These games might seem fun at first, but they quickly get stale. Because you control everything, they’re predictable and boring.

Contrast this to SimCity, where the game is built around zoning. You zone areas for residential, commercial, and industrial establishments, and they build themselves automatically. Not only that, but they also upgrade themselves when they are redeveloped by wealthier sims or when you zone the area for higher-density buildings.

That’s what makes SimCity so great – you build the infrastructure, you set the policies, and then you kick back and watch as your awesome city starts growing. Compared to those dumb “move the cursor around and collect all the products made by the factories,” there’s very little micromanagement.

Another area where SimCity stands out is transportation. In most city-building games, transportation is limited to roads (and sometimes railways). But SimCity gives you busses, subways, freeways, airports and seaports, and proper train stations. Best of all, transportation in SimCity is organic too. The cars that move around on the map aren’t random – they represent the actual commutes of sims going to work. And since they can interchange between multiple modes of transportation and commute across city limits, you could spend literally hours designing an incredibly complex network dedicated to moving sims between their homes and their jobs.

SimCity 4 went one step further, introducing graphs and overlay views that could show you exactly how sims moved along roads and networks. That let you get really in depth and build bus stops and subway stations exactly where they were needed. Then you hit the fast forward button and watched as the sims adapted to your new infrastructure. It was magical.

Maxis eventually released a single expansion pack for SimCity 4, dubbed Rush Hour. It was a must-have, adding even more transportation possibilities, like elevated metros (compatible with existing subways), more freeway options, toll booths, and ferry terminals. But Rush Hour also opened the floodgate for modding. Soon, SimCity 4 players found they could make nearly limitless changes to the gameplay – from custom buildings to game-changing mods that added even more transportation options.

Compared to this level of customization and simulation depth, everything else was a joke.

Thus, EA caused quite a stir when it announced the development of a SimCity reboot, called not “SimCity 5” but simply SimCity, set for release in 2013. There was a closed beta and the pre-release press gave it excellent reviews. The Maxis developers released a number of “making of” videos detailing SimCity’s new “Glassbox engine” and the depth of simulation now possible using newer hardware and cloud computing technologies. It looked like it was going to be a slam dunk.

Then release day hit.

Players were extremely disappointed to find that EA had once again screwed up their servers – nobody could log on for hours at a time, and loss of progress was frequent. SimCity was no longer a refined, solitary experience. It had devolved into a cookie-cutter MMORPG that happened to be a city builder.

“Cloud computing” in SimCity also turned out to be a guise for always-online DRM. Hackers proved that the game would run just fine without an Internet connection, at least until it tried to check in with EA.

Now most of the server issues are ironed out, Maxis has committed itself to content updates, and recently an offline mode was even announced. But the new SimCity is still fundamentally broken:

  • Sims go to work at a random business and return to a random home. They no longer have an identity! If sims do not have predictable commutes, then it is almost pointless to design proper transportation infrastructure.
  • Traffic pathfinding is still simplistic. Sims take the shortest route, rather than the fastest and least congested route. This was forgiveable in older SimCities because computers were not fast enough back then, but SimCity promised to fix this with “the cloud.” Obviously, that did not happen.
  • City sizes are ridiculously small compared to previous SimCity installments. Maxis’s reason? “Technical limitations.”
  • Transportation options have been axed severely. There are still railways and highways, but they only connect cities; you cannot build them for intracity transportation. Trams have been added, but only within the medians of 6-lane avenues. Meanwhile, subways have been cut entirely!

Thus, many hardcore city builders are sticking with SimCity 4. But the game isn’t aging well. It was designed for single-core processors while today’s computers have two or four cores (not to mention hyperthreading). It runs quite slow and chugs on metropolises, even on modern machines. Crashes are common, the game forces a 2D isometric perspective, and there are no updates in sight. Mods can only go so far.

Thanks, gaming industry. You killed another genre. Was it because it wasn’t a first-person shooter?

Windows: Combat Evolved: a Halo Satire

What would Microsoft’s Halo video game series be like if it involved Microsoft itself?

The Introduction

Halo tells the story of 26th century humanity, which has organized itself under the auspices of the United Nations Space Command (Microsoft). Humans are fighting a losing war against the Covenant (Apple), a theocratic collection of alien races that worship a long-dead alien species called the Forerunners (pre-2000 Macs). Already, many colony worlds, including the military stronghold Reach (IBM), have fallen.

In the Beginning

In the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved, a lone starship (Windows XP) crash lands on a mysterious Forerunner ringworld (Best Buy) that is thought to be some kind of superweapon. Its human survivors, including the superhuman cyborg Master Chief (Bill Gates), fight the Covenant for control of the ring (store). However, the Covenant accidentally release a zombie-like parasite known as the Flood (Android). It is discovered that the purpose of the halo is actually to cleanse the galaxy of all sentient life, thereby depriving the Flood of all possible infection vectors. The Chief then destroys the ring and its Flood infestation before returning to Earth (Redmond, Washington) to warn of an impending invasion by a new Covenant fleet (the Intel Macintosh).

The Story Continues

In the sequel, Halo 2, the Covenant locate and invade Earth. Despite a valiant defense by the UNSC Home Fleet and Earth’s orbital defense platforms (Windows Vista), a single Covenant carrier punches through and lands at New Mombasa, an African metropolis. With the Master Chief’s help, the UNSC destroys most of the initial assault. However, the carrier makes a hasty slipspace jump to Delta Halo, another halo installation (New Egg). The Covenant and the UNSC once again battle for control of it. Meanwhile, the Chief assassinates a key Covenant leader (Steve Jobs) and the Flood are once again released. This sets off a complicated chain of events that leads to the primary warrior race of the Covenant, the Elites (Mac OS X), seceding from the theocracy. They are opposed by the new warrior race, the Brutes (iOS).

The Elites make a temporary truce with the humans to stop the rest of the Covenant from firing the halo ring. They succeed, but all rings are put on standby, ready to fire remotely from a location known only as “the Ark” (Amazon). The remaining Covenant leadership plan to bring the entire fleet to Earth and uncover a major Forerunner artifact (iOS 7).

In one of the worst cliffhangers in gaming history, the Master Chief stows away and prepares to “finish the fight.”

Finish the Fight

Halo 3 opens with the Chief jumping from the ship and landing outside the ruins of New Mombasa. He helps the UNSC (Windows Phone 7) launch a last-ditch attack against the Covenant excavation site, but they fail to put a dent in the operation. The artifact is activated by the Covenant; it turns out to be a portal to the Ark (flat UI design). The Elites and the UNSC (Windows 7) follow the Covenant through the portal to stop them from once and for all. After an epic three-way battle, the Master Chief kills the Covenant leadership and blows up the Ark to eradicate the Flood. Unfortunately, his ship fails to make it back through the portal in one piece, and he is left stranded in unknown space.

A New Era

Halo 3 was followed years later by Halo 4, which is intended to begin a new Halo trilogy.

In Halo 4, the Master Chief crash-lands on a mysterious Forerunner planet called Requiem (Power Mac G4). The UNSC Infinity (Windows 8), a massive capital ship commissioned after the war with the Covenant, attempts a rescue mission, but instead finds itself trapped in Requiem’s gravity well. The Chief helps to free it, but accidentally releases an immensely powerful Forerunner warlord known as the Didact (Steve Wozniak). The Didact intends to take a Forerunner ship to Earth and wipe out humanity with the Composer (Mac OS), a Forerunner weapon that allows him to turn sentient beings into his own soldiers. However, he is stopped in the nick of time thanks to the efforts of the Chief and the Infinity.