SimCity "5" and My High Expectations
Now, you might argue that every game, no matter how old, has its dedicated followers, and you’d have a point. For example, every time I log onto Unreal Tournament ‘99 there are still hundreds of games running… and just as I did thirteen years ago, I get promptly destroyed on CTF Facing Worlds. These freaks have literally made this game their life, and have prospered by perfecting their “Shock Combos.” But there’s a big difference between those basement-dwellers and SimCity’s loyal fanbase. While the former just want to pwn like there’s no tomorrow, the latter are interested in keeping their dinosaur of a game relevant in 2012, nearly ten years after it’s release. This isn’t just a testament to the ingenuity of these modders, but also the success of SimCity as a franchise. But why has enthusiasm behind SC4 outshone games of the same vintage?
SimCity’s gameplay has something that other games don’t. In fact, one could argue that SimCity’s creator, Will Wright, is the godfather of this genre. What I’m talking about is “Emergence.”
For those not familiar with the term, an “Emergent Game” is a special type of Sandbox Game that reacts to a player’s actions, and it is uniquely addictive. Anyone whose spent even five minutes with SimCity knows how immensely gratifying it is - after laying down roads, power plants and Residential Zones - to watch their cities spring to life. It’s the rewarding sense of “I made that happen!” which draws people into the game and keeps them playing for hours.
But the game is not perfect, and there are a number of things that bother me about current incarnations of SimCity. What it mainly boils down to is that SimCity is NOT EMERGENT ENOUGH. The result is an inorganic, forced, city-building experience.
I write this blog having only seen EA’s SimCity “5” announcement and trailer. Many of my expectations come from having contemplated the subject of a proper sequel frequently, and discussing often it with others. What it amounts to is that they are extraordinarily high for a game which is set to be released in roughly a year. For a studio the size of EA, that means they are probably already finished developing the core game and are now working on debugging and design elements. Nevertheless, these are the features I am hoping to see in the next SimCity title.
Proper Origins of a City
Let’s start with the fundamental premise of the game: city-building. Where do cities come from? Does some self-appointed mayor take a look at a barren plot of land, roll up his sleeves and say, “Time to build a city from the ground up!” No, of course not. Cities are natural formations that tend to materialize around geographic points of interest: bodies of water, fertile ground, mineral deposits, etc. When someone realizes an entrepreneurial incentive, they will be a pioneer in an otherwise uninhabited area. Soon, more farmers, miners, and fishers will try to capitalize on the opportunity. With a group of working-folk nearby, it won’t be long before a prospective bar-owner will see an opportunity as well. Before you know it, you’ll have a whole town. With no mention of a mayor at all, you’ll have roads, industry, commerce, and residents! And of course, this city will continue to grow without that mayoral central planning, for better or for worse. I’d like to see SimCity start here… with the true origins of a city: an established, self-sufficient town of working individuals who, in their growth, have elected to appoint you, the player, as their mayor.
Role of a Governor
Let’s continue with our hypothetical town. The bar needs electricity to run, and, well, the rednecks can’t watch their NASCARs without a TV! So where does power come from? Most likely a plant in another region, but more than that, it comes from an electric company… another business that realized an opportunity and decided to capitalize on it. A mayor is not necessarily involved in deciding that it’s time for a power plant to be built and, therefore, makes it so. I mean, it certainly *can* (and does) happen that way, but the fact that enterprising Sims are too helpless to start an energy company is, to me, baffling. The same goes for schools, hospitals, stadiums, etc.
Now the last thing I want is for this to turn into a political argument, but the assumption that Sims will remain dirt-stupid without a public school is not only false, it’s historically unprecedented. To indulge the political arguments just slightly, not all Sims in this ecosystem will be educated equally, but that’s exactly the decision a governor has to make! There are very likely some services that will almost unanimously be government-provided (police and fire-department, come to mind, since I don’t think a commercial fire-department would be too successful, and vigilante-ism tends to be controversial since it relies on our subjective interpretations of justice) but I don’t want to get too far off-topic. The point is that societies will not fail to grow without the aid of a central planner and government finance. Such a city will have certain limitations, just as a city that is entirely centrally-planned and financed by government will have consequences and limitations of its own.
To me, this makes a much more interesting challenge than what has become standard SimCity fare: the mere assembling of certain components such that a city will grow.
Maybe. It depends on your governing style. But one thing is for certain: with emergent games, watching cause and effect is part of the fun! Games aren’t enjoyable just because you’re “doing stuff,” especially when it’s painstakingly monotonous stuff like drawing every single minute road and power line. Players don’t care about that crap. They care about the IMPORTANT STUFF. Where are the main arteries of my traffic network? How do I optimize the locations of my public services? Only someone with severe OCD (or perhaps a major God Complex) cares about planting down every object one-by-one.
Certainly, as a city begins to expand, a governor is going to care more about, say, zoning areas for certain kinds of development (you wouldn’t want a fast food restaurant popping up in the middle of a neighborhood, despite how efficient it might be for some consumers), but to burden them with every little happening in the city is not only unrealistic, it’s not fun!
Other Fall-Out from Non-Emergence
“The Grid” -- I would hope that this is enough-said, but in case it isn’t… locking this game to a grid is completely inappropriate. I can understand why it has been done in earlier versions. Basically the processing power hasn’t really been available, but it’s 2012, and you have the resources of EA at your fingertips. If one guy at an indie game studio can make what’s in this video, you can break the freaking grid:
Cookie-Cutter Buildings -- In SC4, there are a limited number of pre-rendered buildings that can appear in the game. Sure you can always add more in mods, patches and DLC, but pre-set models get so BORING! Take note in the video above how building geometry fits the constraints of its lot. If you break the grid, you’ll almost have to take a dynamic building-generation approach, which I hope is the case. Even if you don’t break the grid, you can still take a lesson from this next guy, who managed to create beautiful, unique buildings in this tech demo:
One of my disappointments with SC4 is that when I create a monster city that I think looks really cool, I go online and see a hundred more exactly like it. Uniqueness is important in a game like SimCity. The player wants to feel like they created a masterpiece; something that could’ve only been created by their hand and their artistic touch. Breaking the grid and procedurally-generated buildings are requisites to this.
Other Missing Bits of Realism:
The Economy -- Now, I confess that I have absolutely no idea how SC4’s economy works, but I do know that the reason I am clueless is because these details are not presented to the player. Most people won’t give a crap about tracking all the gadgets widgets, and what-cha-ma-whoozits. What an advanced player might care about is making sure that if they have to destroy part of their city for a public project, they don’t throw their entire economy out of whack by leveling something critical. What I’d like to see in the next SimCity is an economy that is based off on actual inventory of produced goods, and where mayors actually feel the pain of blindly ripping through a section of town to build that fancy new freeway.
Most of what SimCity has called “light commercial” doesn’t cover an expanse of land like the game encourages you to zone. It happens along areas of high traffic. Sometimes it’ll compliment other, denser areas of commercial development (a mall or an urban plaza), but even then its survival still depends on traffic. I’d like to see support for this kind of development in SimCity.
Competitive Play -- EA stated in their announcement that this game would have a social aspect, but being EA, they are bound to screw it up somehow. SimCity, though typically played solo, has always had a competitive element. You want your city to be the biggest, most beautiful, most prosperous, highest-tech, best-educated, pimpinest town in the land. So here’s how you play a competitive SimCity “match”. Put (N) players in a region, each with equal ruggedness, and equal resources. The game lasts (X) days, and is always running server-side (allowing for towns to grow – or not grow – whether you are actively playing the game or not). While this may favor players who can commit more time to the game, one could easily implement a “play clock,” where players could have a maximum (Y) minutes per day in any one competitive city match.
As cities begin to grow, the competition will get fierce as players will have the ability to lure Sims from other cities into their own. Neighbors may have to forge alliances and cooperate to pull Sims away from leading cities.
At the end of the (X)-day period, all the cities are scored, and a winner is declared.
Cooperative Play -- This is pretty much a no-brainer: Let multiple people work on a shared, active city. This is a much more interesting “social experience” then merely being plopped down in a region with other real people who may or may not be your friends. I mean, that’s fine too, but it’s sort of a cop-out to call that social gaming.
I know it’s a lot to ask, but I want the most realistic, deeply emergent city-building experience possible. I know a studio like EA has the resources to make it happen, but they also have a lot of baggage. The good news is that the Maxis team is working on the project, and they’ve never made a terrible SimCity game (remember, “SimCity Societies” was a third-party title). I realize that I have a lot of pie-in-the-sky ideas, but I believe they’re necessary implementations to make SimCity as engaging and realistic as possible. With respect to EA’s development timeline, I know it’s probably too late to change the core game at this point, but if Maxis (or a … *cough* … competitor) is looking for a game designer to help with SimCity “6,” my e-mail can be found below!