Sim(Sh)City?


SimCity 2013

 

Saying bad things about a game that you’re admittedly addicted to sort of feels like cheating on your significant other.  As much as I complain to the world how bad our relationship is, I know where I’ll be at the end of the night.  At least until I finish my fourth “great work” that is.  That being said, SimCity (2013) is another example of a major opportunity that EA has bungled.  A great degree of anticipation was met with an initially problematic launch.  I can report that roughly two weeks later, although the game is clearly playable, it isn’t working up to its full potential.  Key game mechanics are either flawed or actually nonfunctional.  And the problem extends beyond problems playing the game; I have a dead city in my region that can’t be accessed or deleted, permanently taking up space due to some sort of corrupted server/sync issue.  You only have 16 of these spaces, however, so it’s a big problem to have one that’s just permanently out of commission.  Moreover, it’s completely unacceptable to have a game that forces you to use cloud-based storage that doesn’t work correctly.

Unfortunately, the DRM and technical problems with SimCity seem to have masked a lot of thoughtful analysis on whether this game is good or not.  It is, in many respects.  SimCity (2013) clearly has improved upon SimCity 4.  But that game came out in 2003.  That was a long time ago.  In some other ways, SimCity is a step back.

Just How Bad Are the Technical Issues?

When you have NFL players complaining about your game on Twitter, you know it’s a big deal.  Because SimCity is persistently online, high demand caused EA’s servers at the launch to crash.  This meant people who bought the game couldn’t play during peak hours, even if they never intended to do any multiplayer activities.  It also meant if you were playing that you might get kicked out for server issues periodically.  Blizzard wouldn’t have let this happen.  Steam wouldn’t let this happen.  But EA did.  That being said, if you’re making game with significant design towards multiplayer use, extensive modding, and a pretty probable stream of DLC, who cares if the first week people were inconvenienced (just think about all the kids who spent time with their families two weeks ago because they couldn’t play old SimCity)?  Well, the issue I have is that the problem wasn’t really solved…

The servers are supposed to mediate relationships between cities.  I suspect the way EA has really eliminated a bunch of the technical flaws that marred the launch is by scaling back the interaction players have with the servers.  It’s pretty well known at this point the game works pretty well when the tethered connection is separated.   But this breaks the game because certain computations aren’t being made.  These computations are made even if you’re in single player mode.  A city that’s making money should be instead updating problems.  Your progress in building a city then becomes a sort of fantasy.  The end result is that because the game isn’t updating itself as it’s supposed to be doing, figuring out periodic income and expenses are flawed.  As the game resets, there are huge budget swings, or unpredictable resource demands that make any type of long term planning impossible.

Updates from other cities frequently don’t register.  Let’s say I gift one million simoleons (Sim Currency) to a neighboring city to give a boost.  I have no guarantee that the money will ever make it there.  I’m serious too.  I can attest that I had trouble registering the shipment of resources to the construction of an international airport.  A few hours after shipping the necessary resources, the progress on the resource I was sending froze.  I switched to another city and eventually it updated, indicating the objective was 100% complete.  I switched to yet another neighboring city, and my progress was under 100% again.  What exactly is going on here?  We’re all working on the same airport, right?  This is a pretty basic question that you often can’t answer at any given time.  This type of uncertainty makes playing the game unpredictable and frustrating.  There have been large updates to this game almost every day, but these core problems haven’t been addressed.

Cloud saves are cool, but not when they’re buggy.  Getting booted off a server when you’re on a single player game is equally puzzling.  I get the distinct feeling that the bugs are not only not ironed out yet, but won’t be anytime soon.  This is discouraging if you’re planning on this being your obsession for the week/month/year.

Actually Playing

If you love freedom, you’ll hate SimCity.  Well, sort of anyway.  SimCity brings challenge of the classic 1989 version back.  It does this by eliminating the renaissance landscape of SimCity 4.

A significant number of achievements in SimCity are premised on the development of city “specializations,” of which three are premised on the development of industrial raw materials.  Players with crude under their hamlets can build oil fields, then a refinery to develop higher value petroleum products, and then eventually use those products to construct consumer electronics and massive “great works” projects which provide benefits to all cities in the region.  Creating a successful mining, drilling, or electronics empire requires significant transit and utility logistics.  High tech industry is dependent upon skilled labor.  The list of needs, coupled with the scarcity of available space is challenging and fun.  But SimCity was always about understanding and building the conditions needed to develop a successful city.  These raw materials can be exported to the broader market and will provide immediate cash upon delivery to the city coffers.  I can remember playing the original SimCity on Super Nintendo and bulldozing low-density residential slums.  No poor people in my city!  Obviously bulldozing doesn’t solve the underlying problem, either nobody could afford to live there or that nobody wanted to build a nice house like 3 tiles from a nuclear power plant.  Having the city itself own and invest in mines, oil fields, and electronics factories sort of seems a little socialist.  You don’t own the businesses in SimCity, you’re supposed to be establishing the conditions for them to thrive.  Although this feature is sort of cool, it seems to be fundamentally anathema to a key feature of the game; SimCity is about governing and not capitalism.  Not that reasonable incentives can’t be given to encourage particular developments. Maybe a state owned mine makes sense, but a state owned factory to make computers and TVs?  That’s not a core governmental function.  Maybe these SimCities are being built in the Peoples Republic of China where that sort of thing goes.

One thing that SimCity does, much to the chagrin of SimCity 4 players, is significantly limit the amount of space available to develop a particular city.  I suspect this is done intentionally.  With a low density, poor road design, and clumsy placement of key civic buildings, your city can quickly be out of space.  This is in contrast to SimCity 4, where players were presented with the opportunities to establish custom-terraformed mega-cities with thousands of tiles.  You can easily accomplish the many objectives of SimCity 4 with unlimited space.  In the new iteration, the lack of space forces some real decisions to be made.  This is a switch back to the classic SimCity style of playing, where getting to the Megalopolis was a real test in governing.  Each city in the region needs to be contributing not just something to the region, but something needed in a big way.  It’s a lesson in interdependedness, and also forces differing play styles.  My only gripe is that extreme density, or extreme specialization, seems to be the only way to proceed in the game.  SimCity 4 offered multiple objectives.  I think this is a good feature because it adds some serious challenge to the planning aspects.  Building a town in SimCity 4 based on agriculture unlocked unique rewards.  Agriculture is gone now.  SimCity 2013 is all about heavy industry and high technology.  So, although the core challenge is back, so is the linear nature of the objective.

Other design features have been dumbed down.  All structures not require roads to be built before being plopped down.  Although this prevents issues in other SimCity iterations where you would have buildings that no one could get develop or access, it also can be a pain to place large buildings in a small confined area.  Roads also now are a fiat for all civil service connections; a road is a power line, water line and sewage line, thus eliminating a lot of tedious additional construction.  I can’t think of any reason to complain about this; it eliminates a tedious aspect of prior volumes that never really served any type of purpose.

The scarcity of space is really apparent here too.  You have one highway connection leading out of your town.  This might be in addition to a train track or a waterway, but not necessarily.  That means you have to be careful to avoid gumming things up with traffic.  The point of this is to make region access, and transportation management, paramount to building.  And it’s how cities actually work too; there are basically  three highways in my state.  I would imagine 50% of the people living here take these roads to work every day. This is another way the difficulty has been upped.

Graphics are good. They are not simulated 3D but actual 3D, which can be scaled and rotated without breaking.  Music isn’t bad, but it doesn’t accelerate with the pace of the game and repeats too quickly.  Developers, take note.  If you want people to play a game for a hundred hours or so make more than 15 minutes of in game music.  Or at least try to encourage people to import from their iTunes or something.

Finally, the GlassBox Engine is cool, and when it’s working right.  The real cool thing about the engine is that the game is supposed to be taking a literal approach to the agents in the economy.  If your coal power plant needs coal, a truck from a global market or coal mine needs to physically drive it over.  No coal means no power.   Unlike before, where congested roads made noise and air pollution, and just made people less happy, inadequate transit can literally cripple your economy.  Power plants stop producing power, export warehouses get jammed up with goods.  Oil refineries stop producing petroleum products.  Fires burn out of control (although this is dumb because the police and fire trucks shouldn’t have to wait at red lights).  Mass chaos.  But when you can’t get from point A to B that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Unfortunately, other aspects of the algorithms in the game need some serious work.  For example, every new municipal building has a demand for workers when it opens.  One problem, though, is that once a sim person has a job, it won’t switch.  So, police station you just laid out 85K of simoleons for sits empty because there is no labor.  That doesn’t really make much sense.  I shouldn’t have to build new housing because my economy added a few jobs.  Sometimes new construction begins because the service you’re adding makes the area more desirable  but it’s frustrating to see a building you just plopped down idle because of the lack of employment.  Another big issue I have is the lack of express information regarding specific population and other metrics for buildings.  Some parts of the process are sort of obscured, although the game generally gives you a lot of cool graphical data to analyze all sorts of metrics (fire coverage, police, health).  The agent approach also is flawed with respect to power, water, and sewage services, especially when purchasing from a neighboring region.  Power comes on instantly, it doesn’t move around slowly stumbling from building to building.  What a dumb model.

End Thoughts

The region system was available in SimCity 4, however, and although it didn’t really work that well in that game.  Despite being the major update feature in the new SimCity, it somehow works worse.  I suspect the real purpose behind the persistent online experience is not so much about combating piracy, but rather is based on control of an online experience EA is banking on.  The control of the modding community certainly features into this.

Much like building a SimCity though, the first rule of developing a community is laying the ground work for a reliable infrastructure.  People want power, water, sewage, and gaming when they need it.  If they can’t get these things in a reliable fashion, you won’t have any growth.  Perhaps Electronic Arts could learn a few things about developing online games from it’s own products.

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