By: Daniel Rehn - CC BY 2.0

Objection! Sim City


Objection! is an attempt to look critically at “industry known issues” and play devil’s advocate. While I’m going to use my opinion as basis, the focus is going to be on speaking against popular opinion. Too often, only one voice is given. This can give gamers a hive mind response to more nuanced issues. The idea is inspired by one of my favourite web series, The Completionist’s “Defend It”.

As well, when I refer to this game, I will be referring to it as SimCity.  I will be referring to previous iterations or the series as a whole as Sim City.  Mind the gap.


SimCity (2003, PC)

SimCity was released by Maxis, a division of EA, in 2013 for PC. Reviews before release were great, and anticipation was high. Over a million units were shipped in just the first two weeks. Since release, the game has reached over two million sales overall. According to vgcharts this makes it the 73rd highest selling game of all time.

If you’re unaware what happened after the launch of the game to make fans so angry, first welcome to the Internet. We hope you enjoy our kitten gifs and porn. We did work so very hard on them.

Launching an always-online platform

The launch of SimCity was not just a failure, it was a major failure. A catastrophic failure. I was one of the early adopters myself, and glitches happened. Server logins just didn’t happen. When they did, the city you worked hours and hours on might end up stuck in a state of eternal limbo. The city would keep crashing, and couldn’t be deleted. My poor, poor FreeBeer City now suffers in eternal limbo. New FreeBeer, gleefully, did not experience such issues.

In fact, for what it’s worth, I feel as if EA handled the issue relatively well. As I also suffered the annoyances Diablo III gave the world on opening night; I expected to be annoyed on opening night. I also expected the affordable healthcare website to have issues. I also expected Adobe Cloud to have issues. Over Christmas, I also expected all of the online major game retailers to go offline. Everyone else, when suffering server issues, just said we’ll be back as soon as we can. What did EA do to thank me for my time and grumbles? They gave me Mass Effect 3. Good guy, EA. For what it’s worth, I think they handled the fiasco with a certain amount of dignity left intact.

Was EA wrong to make their game always online? Well, that’s a mixed bag question, isn’t it? A lot of people complain that the always online thing is a sort of DRM-style prevention technique, something used to manage sales. I prefer to be optimistic on that. I’m not saying it wasn’t a reason, but I also do not feel it was the reason.

SimCity’s initial failure was a press magnet though. Certain websites dedicated entire sections purely to problems with the game. I can’t help but feel as if these issues were overplayed. Most of the major issues players experienced were resolved within either the first few days, or first weeks of gameplay. However, the debacle forever tarnished the good name of the game. Despite all of this, copies continued to sell. Perhaps the sound bubble of Internet opinion doesn’t go as far as we all believe.

Is always online such a terrible idea?

I ask you kindly, please put down the pitchforks, and let’s consider this from a rational perspective.

Dibalo III got a lot of flack for turning a single player game into an always online game. I admit, myself, I was a bit confused by this. However, I was reeled in to the dark side. Achievements kept popping up. I heard interesting things from my friends and their exploits. I started joining them more and more frequently. Now, if I play, I exclusively play the game in a multiplayer environment. It’s just not as fun when playing alone.

Can I say the same for SimCity? No, but that does not mean the possibility was not there. Perhaps with some tweeks, making how the cities work together a little bit more robust, it could have been better. But, useless appendages don’t make for a bad experience. In fact, I find it helpful that I can build multiple cities that independently benefit each other. It still feels extraneous, I admit, but there is value to it.

SimCity was a reboot, a chance at trying something different in a series that has grown stale and boring. There are only so many graphical enhancements that can be done, so Maxis’ big idea was to add a social element to the game. It’s obvious from top to bottom, the game was designed as a social game. I give them props for trying something different.

Perhaps, that wasn’t what you were looking for from your game. That’s fine. But there’s something that smells rotten about belittling a game for being something you didn’t want, but others might have. Ultimately, the game boils down to this. Is it still playable in a single player game? I think so. It does feel like something is missing, but it’s certainly not required to be enjoyed.

Microeconomics vs Macroeconomics

The other major complaint I hear time and time again is that you can only make your city so big, that you can’t have a sprawling metropolis as you did in previous iterations. I admit, the first time I played, I hit the boundaries of my city, scratched my head, and wondered what is there to do now.

Then, something very different happened from how I play most Sim games. I looked over this city I built, and started to see flaws. I bulldozed entire streets, rebuilding them with new purpose. I upgraded it, elevated it. The college began to expand, and as it expanded new things kept happening. I had to keep reacting; forming newer, bigger, and bolder plans.

I learned quickly, SimCity isn’t like the rest of the series. This is not a game about zoning and making sure the best resources overlap in the utmost beneficial way. When you hover over a city, it lays out what resources the city has. Is there a major coal deposit? Is it full of water? This information is vital, as each city on your map is going to be different. Planning your city from minute one is important. Are you going to be a mining city? A tourist trap? A gambler’s paradise? You can’t win the game anymore just by using the most effective grid patterns. If you try to play SimCity like Sim City, you will fail.

There’s a lot of strategy in SimCity that is very different from the Sim games I am used to. It takes far more cues from The Sims than it has other previous iterations of the franchise. Comparatively, every game of Civilization I’ve ever played, I’ve been caught up in expanding my borders. Holy Warfare is more of the same. I find it way more interesting to be caught up in the ebb and flow of a vibrant city. This, though, leads me to…

The AI

Here’s the problem. The Sims‘ AI has never been terribly intelligent to begin with. The games just went to more pains to hide it. Getting a little personal here, in college, I was enamored with the work of Will Wright, the original designer of Sim City and The Sims. This lead to me working with developing AI routines for Khepera robots. What I’m getting here is, I am a legit nerd for AI and AI routines, and every Sim AI has been greatly obfuscated. That is to say, made to look like it was doing things it didn’t.

SimCity, on the other hand, does not bother with pulling punches. You can tell, outright, that the Simlings are an abstraction. They go to the first house they find. They go to the first job that needs work. The first iteration of their AI was so bad it was causing traffic congestions and this was an obvious problem.

It was, frankly, months before they worked out the bugs with the AI, and made traffic congestion a little more sane. Is this wholly forgivable? Not really. However, it also was not entirely a game breaker either. It was relatively easy to work around the AI as it was in the beginning. Perhaps it’s because I had a bit more interest in learning their mechanisms. Perhaps it was because I had more experience. But, I never found the AI to be the big deal others made it out to be. As well, it’s certainly gotten far more accessible over time. That being said, I wholeheartedly don’t blame anyone that was initially turned away by this. I’d welcome you to give it a second look now.

I think the game was relatively underbaked when it first came out, and releasing a “mostly functional” game, at the level of gameplay mechanics, isn’t cool. That being said, in all honesty, the problems here never made me want to punch babies. It was simply a nuisance to be dealt with.

No revert to save

I think save scumming is about an engraved in a Sim game as is Simlish. Perhaps it’s cheating, but any time I’ve ever seen a tornado coming in a Sim City game, I’ve reverted back to save.

As well, it’s ridiculously easy to plant something you didn’t want down, and blow a lot of work on a building you’re eventually going to have to rebuild. There’s something to be said about consequences though.

See, I never had to live through the tragedies that alternate versions of Free Beer had to go through. What did it look like after Godzilla wrecked a nuclear power plant? Who had to know? Not me, never particularly cared. This game, however, is a little more intimate than that.

I have to say, now that I’ve lived through a few tragedies, it also has forced me to live with a more interesting reaction when a tornado touches down. It gives you a new chance to experiment. If it weren’t for SimCity, I may not have realized how much fun I was missing by just reverting to save in past versions.

The difficulty of rebuilding roads is something that I will say is bit more annoying. If you wish to upgrade a road, you also have to rebuild all buildings attached to the road. That being said, my solution has ended up being always building high-density streetcar avenues regardless of immediate necessity. I’m sure there are better ways around this, but frankly, I never liked dealing with traffic to begin with. Just take a look at any SNES Sim City I ever built. All rail roads. Traffic management be damned.

That’s all well, but is it fun?

The short answer is, yes.

The long answer is, if compared to previous Sim Cities directly, you’ll come up short. Comparing this to another Sim City, or even comparing it to almost any other city or empire building game on the market, is like comparing apples to oranges.

All of the alternatives the game gives you are short term vs long term solutions. Bandaids can be applied, but the game isn’t about that. It’s about long term future-proofing. Every other sim game I’ve played, the world expands for you. Give hell to repercussions, the future can be save scummed and visited in the future.

SimCity requires you to play the game on its terms, which a lot of people don’t like. However, waiving it off because the multiplayer is a bit lackluster is ridiculous. I’ve revisited the game today by spending the whole day playing it, and I don’t regret a single hour of it.

Is it the game of the year? Definitely not, but I’d put it in my top 20 for 2013 without hesitation. There were poor design choices. The game was quite obviously rushed. Week one was a catastrophe that could have easily been avoided with more reliable servers. However, the core game play itself still makes me happy. The UI is fabulous and intuitive. The core structure of the game, once you get into it, is solid. As well, Maxis continues to work on, and announce, changes and updates to the core gameplay. Following along on their blogs, they have continued to be transparent in their ideology and design.

If you play it for what it is, separate of its lineage, there’s a wealth of fun to be had. It’s smooth, intuitive, and can perform in a variety of ways. Each different build feels like its own learning experience. There are certainly problems, some linger to this day. However, shutting it down because it is an EA franchise with some glitches is a bit short sighted.

Travis is a tech nerd that spends far too much of his time drinking beer no one drinks, listening to music no one likes, and playing video games where he rolls larger things over smaller things. He also makes Let’s Play videos and posts on twitter for grins and giggles.

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