Monday, September 13, 2010

Simcity's A Ghetto Now

I haven't played Simcity 4 in a long time. I used to enjoy the game; I've spent quite a few hours in the mayor's chair. Somehow, despite all the extra features and graphics that have been added since Simcity 2000, something is wrong with the game--something I can't put my finger on that's forced the joy of creation to devolve into frustration.

I'll start with the big picture--the region.

One of the new features was the idea of a region; you build cities, and every region has multiple cities of different sizes. The cities connect to one another, exchanging demands for different zone types. In this way, you can isolate your nasty industries from your pretty, high-tech cities. People can commute between cities, allowing suburbia to develop around denser ones, eventually flowing into small, farming communities, just like real life.

This sounds great on paper. In SC4, it breaks down completely.

When starting a new region, SC4 provides two options--water or land. Land gives you a single, flat, empty plain. There are no terrain features, at all.

To solve this, Simcity 4 provides terrain editing tools. The tools are neat, but they fail to take advantage of the regional nature of the game. You can only edit one map at a time. Trying to create a mountain range that looks good on a regional scale and is built off of the nubs of nearby mountains is... difficult, to say the least. The region pictured above is one of the few built in regions--a map of San Francisco. Unless you want to leave the game and use an external program to generate a map, you're left with a handful of regions to play on.

So, you've accepted the site of an already well-developed city in real life. You start building the city. You drop a power plant--wind, coal, oil, or gas--and go on your merry way building roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones, and pipes.

This repeats until the city is big enough for a school, or a police station, or a fire station, or whatever. The game will tell you when that is. You build it; then roads, zones, and pipes. Roads, zones and pipes.

Then the game keeps going. Sure, there's small problems that come up here or there, like needing more schools or hospitals, but the problems are the same really: Issue X requires solution Y. Place solution Y on the map. They work the same, too. Each of them affects structures within a particular radius.

That's it. Even though they solve different problems on the surface, the problem is the same: area X needs coverage for solution Y. Couldn't more thought have gone into each problem? Say, for education, the game would require that the player to zone what neighborhoods go to which schools; for police, the game would make their optimal location a matter of ability to patrol areas or response time; firefighters would rely entirely on response time; for hospitals, the opposite would occur--it would be based on how fast sims can get to the hospital.

For every case, it should be about different problems being solved, not producing the correct numbers in the correct places over-and-over again. Each problem is parallel to the others, not orthogonal. They are different skins for the same problem. Perhaps some realism may be sacrificed to achieve a game with more unique combinations of solution sets, but radial projections of city services aren't very realistic either.

Terrain too does little to actually enrich gameplay--it's something that looks kinda pretty, gets in the way, but is always solved the same way--level it or build on top of it. Of terrain "challenges," the champion frustration is placing things on coastlines. Leveling coastlines so they're just perfect for a marina, seaport, or bridge--usually with my fingers crossed--can only be done through repetitive leveling efforts. There's no real formula for getting it right, so the only way to get it to work is guess and check. That's not fun; that's algebra.

The mother of all problems with Simcity 4 is guess and check as well, and it doesn't have a solution--at least, not out of the box. SC4's blight is traffic.

On the surface--and early in the development of a city--traffic looks like a fun problem to solve. At that point, it is. It's just a matter of upgrading roads to thicker ones. On top of that, SC4 provides you with a powerful tool for solving traffic problems--the traffic query tool. It does two things very intuitively: when you select roads, it shows you traffic going in and out of that tile so you can see where and why you have a bottleneck in one click; when you select buildings, it shows you the traffic that building produces and where it goes.

This tool is also quite a tease--a telescope to galaxies you'll never visit. Using it, you can build all the bus routes, subways, and superhighways available without turning your city into infrastructure, and most people still drive on the same damn route. They still contribute to the problem they loathe--the one that prevents a city from growing further. Perhaps this is Will Wright's own cute commentary on the human nature, but it's not any fun or realistic. As a result, the fully patched, Maxis version of the game cannot produce cities with the highest density buildings. The game is designed to have super-skyscrapers, but your cities will never have them without third-party corrections.

It reflects a lot about the game's designers when they fail to notice something that inhibits gameplay so dramatically. Will Wright made the original Simcity because he wanted to write a game he would enjoy playing.

When he wrote Simcity 2000, he had more resources available and added the things he wish he'd included in the original. Looking at SC4, it's as if they added pretty graphics, made sure it was stable, played a full map or two, and went on their merry way without really following through with the most important part of game development: enjoying it.

It shows, too. They hadn't designed a game that they wanted to play anymore, but a game they thought someone else would want to play. Making more Simcity games didn't appeal to a "broad demographic," so this dispassionate abortion was the final burn out.

They're wrong though--especially with the production of games that are "simplistic in nature and... geared toward a younger demographic." I played Simcity 2000 as a kid. It was hard, so initially, I used the cheats and used it as a sophisticated paint tool. Eventually, though I sat down and figured out how the game worked. I had to learn a few things, like the concepts of profit and loss, but it never inhibited the fun. SC2K turned economics into a puzzle, and that's a work of brilliance. Because the creator wrote a game he wanted to play, the result amazed everyone. Now, the creator's following up on something he's grown tired of, and his only new ideas involve prettier pictures--a gilded surface on a rusting core.

That's all Simcity 4 boils down to in the end--a sequence of pretty pictures. Even the buildings themselves just represent numerical values in a grand matrix at equilibrium; any change disrupts the system, which balances itself--maybe--and moves on. This was still ok in Simcity 2000; it was still novel. The designers could have used the amazing processing power of modern computers to explore further the development of cities' character--somehow diving into what makes cities unique economically and anthropologically. Instead, Simcity 4 gives us pretty pictures--a facade on top of a recycled concept. I played a lot of Simcity 4 looking for super-skyscrapers, but it was the heart of the city I never found.


Blogger Patrick Coston said...

SimCity 2000 remains the best version for me. I've tried SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4. There are definitely cool things about SimCity 3000 and 4 but as you point out, there is something lacking and the ingredient is a game that is actually fun to play. I think you nailed it on the head. I must give Maxis props for trying even though they failed. It was also cool that they made games like SimCopter and Streets of SimCity which could import any existing SimCity 2000 city as a map. Unfortunately the 3D was too lame on those games but again, props for trying!

Monday, September 13, 2010 6:17:00 PM  
Blogger The Emperor of the Moon said...

I agree. They definitely had a vision when they started developing the newer ones--SC4 especially--but they gave up on the follow through.

Oh, Sim Copter, how I miss thee Apache rampages.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 2:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and they really dropped the ball on SimCity Societies. I don't think there's a SimCity 6 in the works, either. :(

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 1:09:00 PM  
Blogger The Emperor of the Moon said...

Nor a Simcity 5. The series is dead. There have been spin-offs, but I don't know if anyone's really picked up the ball yet.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 2:27:00 PM  

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