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?

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