SimCity! The game which, if you believe the gaming press, is irrevocably ruined by that Great Satan of modern PC gaming: always-online DRM masquerading as social functions . Many, many column inches have been written about SimCity’s disastrous launch, when (as with all online game launches these days) the servers fell over under the strain and nobody could play it for a week without sitting in an hours-long queue. The game was pilloried by its playerbase, as users flocked to Metacritic to dump SimCity’s score into the red and give it an average rating of just one star on Amazon1 It’s one of the most botched releases in recent memory, with some people blaming the resignation of EA’s CEO squarely on SimCity’s failure.
But has it really failed? Well, for starters its sold something like 1.1 million copies. I’m not sure whether that qualifies as a success these days but I certainly don’t think it’s been a failure for EA commercially – unless you count all the bad press they’ve been getting, of course, but that never stopped EA before. And the servers are working fine now; thanks to my living situation I didn’t even get around to playing SimCity until the start of last week and I’ve only been unable to get online once since then due to server maintenance2. I missed all the connection problems that generated such vehement hatred for the game in every corner of the internet. I’ve been playing SimCity pretty much as it was designed to work from the outset, and I’ve been playing it on and off for a week now. And you know what?
It still sucks.
For those of you who have somehow never played a SimCity game, let me break down how the series has traditionally worked. You start with a plot of virgin land and a small amount of money. You lay down some roads, place down a power station to give your sims electricity, and then zone areas of RCI (residential, commercial, industrial) where your sims can build homes, businesses and factories if they so desire. This RCI thing has been the key part of SimCity since the series’ inception; you can’t directly control what you sims build in the zones you designate, only being able to influence it through the provision of utilities and services to make the neighbourhood a pleasant place to live, work and shop. A nicer neighbourhood will result in more expensive-looking buildings being erected, inhabited by a higher class of citizen who pays more tax, but to achieve this level of development you need to provide electricity, water, police coverage, fire coverage, education, garbage collection, mass transit, and far more besides.
In the past, SimCity has been about balancing your provision of these services with your incoming budget while expanding from a small town into a bustling metropolis. Running a city, in other words. And from that perspective this reboot couldn’t be more different or more unwelcome. In the new SimCity your primary concern is no longer provision of services or about making your city a nice place to live, oh no. In the new SimCity your primary concern is roads. Lots and lots of roads. Big roads. Small roads. Roads with four lanes. Roads with six lanes. Roads with tramlines running down the middle. You spend probably 90% of your time looking at your road system in SimCity, to the point where the game could justifiably be renamed TrafficPlanner since it’d bring a little more verisimilitude to the experience, and this is entirely down to the Glassbox engine and the agent system it uses for everything.
Previously what’s going on on the screen in a SimCity game has been an abstract representation of the real city simulation going on under the hood. The traffic zooming around on the streets isn’t real traffic and the people walking around the parks aren’t real people; they’re just graphical niceties designed to give the player an impression of a bustling and lively city district. This was done for two reasons. One is that it was the only possible way of running the simulation given the limitations of 90s technology. The other is that simulating every individual sim in your city is an incredibly fucking stupid idea; that means endowing them with some level of semi-autonomous AI, which given the current status of videogaming AI always meant that whatever sims you had populating your gleaming future-cities were going to be dumber than a sack of rocks. Videogaming AI cannot reliably simulate the behaviour of a single person in a controlled environment; it sure as hell isn’t going to cope with an entire city full of them and won’t be able to for decades, if ever. Better to have an abstract simulation running which lacks fine detail but which more accurately represents the behaviour of a great mass of people.
Sadly Maxis disagrees with me, which is why we have the Glassbox engine squatting at the heart of SimCity like a huge and malevolent turd. Glassbox simulates everything in SimCity via agents which run along the city’s roads. When you place a power station it begins spitting out power agents that travel along the roads to your sims’ houses and businesses. When you place a water tower it generates water agents, and your sims in turn generate poo agents which must be disposed of via sewage outlets. Finally every individual sim in your city is also represented as an agent walking or driving around on the city’s streets. At first, when your city is a reasonably small place consisting of a few roads and a couple of utility buildings, it looks quite pleasant to see cars driving around your city en route to specific destinations. It’s nothing that couldn’t have been achieved with the more abstract simulation I mentioned above, mind, but it’s hardly objectionable. You can’t point to any one element of it and say “No, this is shit.” That only happens after a couple of hours of play, when your city has grown to fill all of its available space and you’ve filled out your utilities to a healthy level, and you suddenly notice five fire trucks all beelining for the same fire, one after the other. Or ten garbage trucks all servicing the same road while the rest of the city wallows in its own filth. Or a conga-line of seven school buses, the first crammed with kids while the ones following it bumper-to-bumper remain resolutely empty.
It is at this point that you start to suspect that maybe this agent business wasn’t such a great idea, since it is using the most simple pathfinding system imaginable: the agents simply pick a destination, calculate the shortest path to it and then follow that path come hell or high water. This is a phenomenon that has been documented in painstaking detail by a number of people, and it is never not utterly and awfully laughable. When a fire truck leaves the fire station it’ll simply calculate the shortest route to the nearest fire. It doesn’t care if that route is clogged full of rush hour traffic, or if there’s a fire truck already responding to that fire, or if there’s another, bigger fire just a little way on down the same street. The pathfinding system is too primitive to handle any of these extra factors and results in service and utility vehicles moving around the city in vast herds as they all follow the same pathfinding algorithm to a T. Rush hour is simply ridiculous as all your sims attempt to drive down the same two-lane utility road when there’s a six-lane highway that’s being totally ignored because it happens to be ten metres longer. And it even leads to problems with the sewage, water and power agents, which are able to flow freely past the gridlock; I’ve seen power agents get lost on their way to the furthest reaches of the city, so that despite there being a good 5-10 megawatts of excess power in the system there are still buildings without power because the power agents won’t take the right road turnoff. Sewage agents will always flow to the nearest sewage outlet available regardless of whether or not it’s overcapacity, so that if you have two sewage outflow pipes next to each other on the same road all of the sewage will flow into the first one and give you Excess Sewage! warnings while completely ignoring the second one.
The reason I said that SimCity is all about designing and placing your road network is because you’re trying to avoid all of the horrible idiosyncracies of the agent pathfinding system. It soon becomes apparent that the more intersections you have in your city the worse it will be for you, as intersections create holdups and dilute your agent flows. If you make a traditional grid layout – which incidentally has been proven to be the most efficient traffic system in modern city planning, which is why all American cities use it – you’re committing traffic suicide since it’s full of intersections. I’ve had moderate success with a single high-capacity trunk ring road that my sims have to use if they want to get anywhere from their residential branchoffs, but in truth the most efficient road layout for SimCity is one which has no intersections whatsoever, and which basically consists of a single road winding its snakelike way throughout your region. This has also been done by enterprising players and proven to work marvellously, but seeing it in action is like watching a moving version of an M.C. Escher drawing. What it most definitely does not resemble — in any way whatsoever — is a realistic city.
By this point I hope you can see what I meant when I was talking about the abstract simulation. SimCity might be simulating the behaviour of every individual sim but all it results in is this bizarre, unnatural behaviour that has to be actively gamed in order to make it work for you. They’ve moved the series further away from an actual city simulation than it’s ever been before, and emphasised this by including weirdnesses in their system that go beyond simple pathfinding. Residences generate three types of sim agents: workers, shoppers and students. Shoppers will look for commercial businesses to spend their money. Students will look for the nearest educational establishment, And workers will drive to the nearest job available, no matter what it is. This leads to the following situations:
- SimCity makes no distinction between different levels of education; the needs of the student sims will be just as well served by a university as they will by a grade school, with each being able to take X number of student sims. The university provides other benefits like research projects and high-tech industry, so once you’ve built one you can demolish that grade school without ever looking back. The students will just go straight to university and they’ll be happy to do so.
- Similarly, the educational levels of workers makes no difference to the sort of job they’ll look for. University-educated workers will beeline straight for the job in the donut shop in the morning. If there are no more university workers the nuclear power plant will be staffed by uneducated morons, which is why you should never build a nuclear power plant unless you want it to melt down because the sims running it didn’t know what all those flashing red warning lights meant.
- And when work has finished for the day, the worker agents will all leave and attempt to drive to the nearest residential property. This can lead to dozens of sims all trying to cram into the same three-bedroom house, as documented here.
This stuff isn’t weird, it’s downright counterintuitive. At this point SimCity is acting in a manner that’s actively contrary to the way you’d expect a city simulation to behave, and it’s entirely down to fundamental design flaws in the way the game operates – and these are just the ones to be found in the mechanics of the Glassbox engine. If you widen things out to the overall design of the game – the stuff that isn’t fundamentally broken – there’s still a lot to hate. I will admit to not having a huge amount of experience with the region features as I’m only playing with one other person at the moment, but the region play seems to exist mostly to justify the tiny size of the cities you create3. The argument is that once you’ve built up one you can move on to another in the same region, and that the two cities can coexist and use each other’s facilities in a very limited fashion; emergency services can be shared, workers and students commute from one city to another, and as ever in a SimCity game you can sell your excess power and water to a neighbour. The idea that not having enough room in your postage-stamp of a city plot to place a fire station and a hospital is okay because you can just get those things off of a neighbour is completely ludicrous to me, since it’s so detrimental to the general replayability of a SimCity game. You might notice that the screenshots scattered throughout this review are basically all of the same road junction; that’s because that’s all my city is. That one road junction represents about 95% of the buildable area in that city plot. This ever-present lack of space completely straitjackets the player when it comes to experimentation, and the game becomes more a consideration of trying to lay your roads down in such a way that you’ll have room to build something – anything – rather than any sort of conscious planning on your part. Building cities therefore becomes a tedious and repetivive exercise that follows the same formula each time, and since you’re supposed to build multiple cities in SimCity I’d say that counts as a pretty damn huge handicap.
I also have issues with the way the game’s economy functions. The RCI system has been shattered into tiny pieces with industry being completely divorced from the rest of the system; all it does is provide jobs for your sims, and since commercial will do that and give them somewhere to shop and produce no air pollution, there is literally no reason to ever zone industrial beyond the tiny amount required to unlock your city specialisation buildings. And as it turns out, you don’t even need commercial either. One of the more bizarre fudges in SimCity is the way parks work; they no longer make your sims happy through dint of being a pleasant environment to have in the neighbourhood, and instead do it through providing shopping and jobs for local sims. This happens to be exactly what commercial zones do, and so it’s possible to build a 100% residential city if you simply provide enough parks for your population of impoverished and uneducated hobos to spend their days in. I haven’t done this myself, but I have noticed my buildings growing in density from houses to skyscrapers entirely on their own with no input from me. Sure, I’d put down a park nearby and made sure basic services had been provided, but I’d always understood this to be the minimum level of effort required to get people to move into the damn place to begin with, not the sum total of everything you had to do in the game. Sims will be bitching about overflowing garbage, cholera epidemics and rampant crime rates, but the population of your city will slowly increase and your buildings will improve in spite of this. I’m almost starting to suspect that the density of your zones and the size of the population number at the bottom of the screen is linked solely to how long you’ve been playing a given certain city for rather than anything you actually do there.
So yeah, I intensely dislike SimCity and I haven’t even run into any of the more infamous bugs out there; all I’ve really had to put up with is Cheetah speed being disabled (because EA’s servers can’t cope with it) making the wait for more tax income even more agonising than it would be otherwise. It may be pretty, and it might have good music and even the odd decent idea here and there – I do like the modular building construction – but the fundamental unsuitability of the Glassbox engine for simulating a city really does expose just how meaningless the gameplay is this time around. There is no experimentation, no joy of watching your city grow and evolve. By the end of hour two it’ll be just as good as it’s ever going to get, and playing past that is pointless unless you want to tackle one of the Great Work projects. I had my sights set on a regional Solar Plant, but my efforts were rudely curtailed when my trade depots suddenly and spontaneously decided to halt all processor exports. My city was dependent on processor exports for survival. Nothing I did would induce the automated delivery trucks to stop topping up the alloy storage areas and export the thousands of crates of processors rotting inside my warehouses, and so I had to abandon that city. I have felt utterly disinclined to start a new one. That’s SimCity’s greatest crime; starting a new city no longer makes you think “What can I do with it this time?” but instead “Oh fuck, not another city.”The only expectations SimCity has exceeded were my expectations of how awful it would be; it is far, far worse than even I predicted and confirms my post-Spore suspicions that Maxis are utterly spent as a creative force in the industry.
- Amazon even stopped listing the game for a few hours based on the number of refund requests they were getting and there’s still some bad business going on between them and EA. ↩
- You can argue that this is ludicrous for what has always been a single-player series and I’d be inclined to agree with you, but unfortunately the people who made it no longer agree with me. ↩
- I suspect the city size is also the reason why they’ve taken away the terraforming tools that have long been a staple of the series; in SimCity any halfway interesting landscape feature you managed to sculpt would reduce your buildable area by about fifty percent. ↩