As SimCity eventually returns to a playable state, we ask whether or not it's worth your money.
By James Pinnell on March 11, 2013 at 11:51 am
In the beginning, it did not bode well for SimCity. My original plan was to dedicate a solid week, at the very least, to taking apart the entire game and focusing on the various new elements that it had introduced.
This plan, however, was dashed — by the very element that I had, on many occasions, defended as a necessary evil of the modern PC age. My enforced, limited experience with the “beta” (more affectionately known as a “demo” by many), lead me to believe that EA had not actually finished up developing the bulk of the multiplayer aspects, and that the few days it was available with a playtime restriction really wasn’t enough to test anything. These thoughts were shared not only by many of my peers, but almost all of the gaming community who had the chance to play.
So it was with a plethora of face-palming that EA’s servers crashed, and crashed like a ton of bricks as soon as the inevitable flood of diehards attempted to rush in at the stroke of midnight. In the new world order of “games as a service”, many developers — including those who run the show at EA — took a look at what happened to Blizzard with Diablo 3 and made exorbitant claims that these issues wouldn’t plague their creation.
They were wrong.
A casualty of its own ambition
It’s been 6 days since the US release of SimCity and I’m sad to say that it has been one of the messiest online game launches I’ve ever seen. I was there when Half-Life 2 wouldn’t authenticate, I was there for WoW‘s queuerific maiden voyage, and I was there when we all moaned and groaned at Borderland‘s region lock. But EA really had to break some legs and dislocate a few shoulders to get things rolling at all — leaderboards were dropped, regional features cut out, and primary game functions were muted or removed altogether. It has only been in the last few hours on Friday afternoon that many of the primary functions have returned while an ounce of stability remained, but problems with recurring errors in regards to save games, or the enormous lag when communicating with other users, still plague every game.
SimCity is a casualty of its own ambitious design, coupled with overpowered DRM that only seems to be included in order to perpetuate the continued existence of Origin. But one myth does need to be dispelled from the very beginning; this is not a single player game. Any ounce of what constituted a pre-2013 SimCity has evolved into something different, which in some cases is a positive, and in others, a negative. For all intents and purposes however, this new SimCity is a multiplayer game through and through — and from the very beginning, your inclusion into a region that could be shared by other players is mandatory, whether you choose to make it public or private. Your assigned lot of land is smaller than you might be used to, and generated in a manner that provides optional incentive to move one way or another, such as an abundance of oil or a particularly strong gust of wind.
I mentioned in my beta preview that I actually enjoyed this feature — and I still do, since much of the strategy that comes out of exploiting this benefit, while creating a metropolis that represents your sensibilities, makes for a much more interesting game. The original titles never attempted to differentiate various geography or natural assets nor use them as a prop for difficulty or cooperation, thus it’s a risky move that pays off well, especially once you realise that developing your city is simply the beginning of your career. A smaller lot of land forces you to be ruthlessly efficient with placement, and the game does well in briefly providing you with overlays that analyse your existing placements to guide you appropriately.
Road placement is everything in SimCity, since it now represents the major arterial for your entire town, from traffic to power, water to sewage. No longer will you struggle with subways, or ridiculously long power poles. The developers have caught up with town planning for this decade and have realized that, like most modern cities, everything already sits underground and follows the roads. This arrangement seems rather basic at first, until the first time you see power and water travelling from the source and through the veins of your streets, visibly and audibly thumping into the homes, businesses and amenities that constitute the backbone of your town. There’s no other word for it — it’s incredible.
Your city is now an autonomous, organic being. While you are still pulling all the strings, your citizens are the ones doing all the hard work. Instead of popping down big squares of R/C/I, you zone the areas you want and the city does the rest. Cheap, diner style restaurants alongside small, 2 bedroom cottage homes are the order of the day at first, while a short distance away features a host of grimy factories that represent the engine room of your burgeoning economy. Before long, a growing population needs a clinic here, a police station there, and all the while you do what mayors (in the US at least) do best — play with tax rates, zone more land, and manage the public purse.
Great engine, awful explanation
How your city grows depends entirely on the vagaries of “density”, which is defined in the game by road grading. Just want a nice little suburban block with BBQs and Tennis Courts? No problem. The same goes for skyscrapers or the middle ground short-story towers in the middle. But density is part of the major, overarching problem with the new GlassBox engine and its real world algorithms — barely any of them make a lot of sense.
A good example is residential zoning — in the beginning of the game, things are simple. Everyone sits within the same income bracket, and they grow wealthier over time. The problem lies with the game’s philosophical definition of class and labor, and its attribution of these factors to density. Why do rich people only want to live in towers? In such a tiny block, why can’t I have high density living for all three types of worker?
The same problem can be attributed to commercial and industrial zoning. Then there’s education, which is even more confusing and random in its mysterious granting of power. The rule of thumb is that educated citizens are wealthier, smarter and healthier, and their presence inspires local industry to become cleaner and more high tech. But occasionally, putting a lot of money and effort into building an educated populace doesn’t always result in this occurring. The point I’m getting at is that SimCity does a brilliant job of advising you in the beginning, and an awful job of explaining its complex algorithms in the late game — especially when they’re so unpredictable.
This lack of explanation becomes even more quixotic when the game, as it stands, is still effectively so broken that you have no idea of the difference between SimCity‘s features and its bugs. Is there a reason my residential indicator never goes down? Or that my populace are still pissed at me for things I fixed ages ago? Or that “germs” (outside of their barebones connection to pollution) are never explained in a manner that offers resolution? This extends to the multiplayer features also, where players can focus on a particular specialization (such as exploiting fossil fuels, playing the trading market, or manufacturing high tech electronics) whilst playing off the strengths of their friends’ in the same region.
But, even in this playing field, is there a reason for the enormous delay in communication? When does my ally “officially” recognize my existence? Can I prevent them from creating agreements with me for rubbish collection or using my educational buildings? The crazy part about all this confusion is that, at the core, much of it works very well and makes for a lot of fun. I like seeing my friend’s city grow alongside mine, or being able to offer them some cash or extra ambulances when a disaster hits. I might have a ton of coal I don’t need, so I can sell it to them for a reduced rate, in exchange for some cheap power during a period where I can’t afford a new plant. At best, these features are fluid and organic, offered in a way that is ridiculously smooth and simple to operate and oversee.
The “connected strategy”
SimCity is, largely, fighting to define the a new future of PC gaming. It’s all of those things publishers love to talk about — it’s “intuitive”, and it’s “social”. It breaks a lot of ground by implementing features other games (Cities XL, primarily) have failed miserably at, by incorporating them into the fundamental game design. But at the same time, Maxis have decided to put a Ferrari engine inside a Suzuki Swift. 2013′s SimCity is arguably the easiest yet to pick up and play without much of a learning curve, but falls over once players actually need to understand or directly control their own experience. The power is there and you can see it in the overwhelming coolness that exudes from every orifice — but it’s clouded, in the end, by some atrocious decisions around DRM.
There have been numerous justifications for this extraordinarily deep and connected internal highway of online paths. The most mentioned explanation by Maxis (other than the self-fulfilling “we designed it as an online game”) is that, due to limitations on many PCs, the complex calculations of the GlassBox engine require cloud computing to accomplish. The other is due to the essential connections to regional and global markets to define supply and demand over commodities. Even if these two reasons are entirely valid for this purpose, why did EA sit back and grow so blase about their launch expectations?
We’ve had over 11 years of MMO launches now, and many of these enormous headaches have been avoided due to developers and publishers taking stock of mistakes that were made by others. EA should have had a proper beta, one that lasted longer than 3 days and did not limit players to hour-long sessions. I said this then and I have been repeating this now, in the hope that the next inevitable evolution of some other genre into this realm of constant connectivity takes note — you can’t simply bang up a couple of medium-sized boxes and hope for the best. In 2013, this sort of collapse is completely unacceptable and gamers won’t sit back to give you the benefit of the doubt anymore.
Should you buy SimCity? The short answer is yes — but not now. Try again in about two weeks time, and don’t put up with EA’s price-gouging for Australians if you can avoid it. The dust still hasn’t settled on the server implosions of March 5-9, and many of the game’s core features are MIA. But there’s something here that still managed to draw me in for hours at a time. Maxis’ new GlassBox engine is easily the best example of what Will Wright attempted to demonstrate with the original SimCity — that you could make an entity that has a mind entirely of its own, over which you are only the guiding hand. Whether your city flourishes or fails is based on your relationship with the citizens you lead.
The same could be said about the ultimate success of this game and its inevitable sequels — so, will you listen to us, EA?
- The GlassBox engine is phenomenal
- The regional system is a great idea (when and if it works)
- Forced specialization creates interesting challenges
- Complete failure to anticipate demand
- DRM that actively proves why DRM is awful
- Much of the advanced GlassBox features aren’t explained or seemingly even working