simcity1 We review the stalled Llama that is SimCity

There are games that define an entire genre.  In 1989, a designer named Will Wright paired up with Maxis and now-defunct publisher Brøderbund to release a little game called Micropolis that would eventually be renamed SimCity.   The game was revolutionary, giving players a chance to build entire cityscapes complete with traffic, fire and police coverage, residential, commercial, and industrial zoning, and other things that would become staples of the entire franchise.  Released on a single floppy disc, this title contained more gameplay than a great many titles that came before or after it.  Since then we’ve seen SimEarth, SimAnt, SimLife, SimFarm, SimTower, SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, SimCity 4, The Sims 1, 2, and 3, SimCity Societies, and many more for a total of 37 titles, not including the deluge of expansion packs.  After 37 titles (including offshoot Spore, The Sims Online, and Facebook title SimCity Social) on nearly every platform, the announcement of SimCity and the E3 demo I sat in landed the game squarely in our Most Anticipated list.   With such a rich and storied history, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that it would serve as a paralyzing addictive addition to my library for years to come.  Having spent the last 5 days attempting to play it for this review, I’m no longer sure of that fate, and I suddenly finding myself asking a lot of serious questions about DRM, online connectivity, and pre-launch planning.

I feel like I’m repeating myself a bit given that I’ve had to make this same statement for some other recent shockingly bad releases, but this title will not be a ‘hit piece’.  It will focus on the mechanics of SimCity, including the online components, but it is not intended to pile on or indict Maxis or EA.  I will focus solely on the facts relating to the product as it stands at the time of review.

Reticulating Splines

SimCity, as a franchise, is as much a city planning series as it is one of social planning.  Understanding the needs of your Sims on a micro and macro level as you balance industrial needs against happiness wants is the premise that drives SimCity.  As the game cannot be truly won or lost, your ability to adapt to the shifting winds of catering to a small, medium, large, or colossal size city provides the challenge.  The current SimCity looks to take this concept to the next level – multiplayer experiences.  Certainly modders have found ways to tie cities together in previous SimCity products, and we’ve seen multiplayer interactions in The Sims, but the idea of regional cooperation was an alluring new feature for the team.  Interconnected and interdependent cities in a region would push players to work together to satisfy the global needs of their residents while combatting things like crime, pollution, fire, and more.  At least, that’s the theory – let’s talk about how it turns out in practice.

Let’s get the (very) rough parts out of the way…
Several of the larger outlets received a copy of SimCity prior to launch.  Reviewing on servers in a pre-launch environment gave the press a look at how the game was intended to work.  Unfortunately, the post launch experience for most users was vastly different.  “Unable to create your city at this time, please claim a city again”, “Unable to load the city at this time, please try again”, and a bevy of bugs caused players to continue to try again and again to get into the server only to be greeted by a busy server cooldown of 20 minutes before their next attempt.  Those who did get in were force to experience the tutorial city again and again.  With the tutorial completion failing to sync with the Maxis servers, players were also dropped back into the same grinder to try to start a real city.  These issues combined caused Amazon to de-list the game – a direct result of a deluge of purchasers seeking refunds.  Further drama ensued when players reached out to Origin support only to be threatened with account bans should they dispute their refused returns.  While EA has made statements that accounts will not be banned for requested refunds, it had already spurred petitions to remove the DRM, as well as a petition to the White House regarding always-on DRM in general.  Statements that players were “Having too much fun and wouldn’t leave the game” were issued, riling up already agitated player base who were actually quite sure that if they left the game they would never get back in.  Maxis had restarted the conversation that Diablo III’s horrible launch had kicked off.

Maxis and EA have tried to combat these issues since launch with both mixed and baffling results.  The first thing they did was increase their server infrastructure 120% over the course of three days.  Statements from the senior Maxis team stated that the issues with the launch were how the Glassbox engine sent a great deal of data to the servers for calculation and processing.  Their database structure was supposedly unable to support this in the post-launch live environment, forcing Maxis to patch out a handful of features.  The need for constant connection is what stitches the regional play together…right?   Unfortunately, this opportunity also gave some ingenious folks a chance to pull back the curtain, discovering that you can unplug your computer from the Internet for upwards of 10 minutes before the need for the ‘always on’ connection catches up with you.  Packet sniffing showed that only a few megabytes of data are being exchanged with the Maxis servers during this save game sync and those are sent the next time the handshake is completed – all data appears to be crunched and saved client side.

Despite all of the evidence that Maxis, her servers, and the game itself was completely incapable of meeting demand while remaining stable, EA and Maxis bafflingly chose to continue to launch in new markets.  Launching in Japan, Australia, Antarctica, and Europe simply subjected new players to continued frustration worldwide.   To their credit, publisher EA has offered a free yet-unspecified game as a peace offering  for players who have stuck with them through the troubling launch.  Maxis continues to bring new servers online, and as I write this I’ve seen a fourth patch in almost as many days hit the servers.  I suspect we’ll see quite a few more before this game is in a reliably playable state.

According to the counter on the launcher I’ve spent roughly 12 hours playing SimCity, though I know the first four were attributed to the first 3 days attempting to connect with zero minutes of accumulated play time.  On day four I was able to access a map and play for several hours uninterrupted.  Unfortunately when I logged out and back in (after a 20 minute wait) I found that about an hour of progress had been lost.  Since the AI is random, the challenges I faced the second time around were much steeper, leaving me with less money than the first time and unable to complete the same research.   Frustrating, but a hopefully temporary condition.

So when you can get in, how does it play?
SimCity has certain elements that I mentioned above that are present in every single title.  At its core, this title has all of those elements and more, but how the team at Maxis has chosen to provide access to them is very different.  Certainly you’ll lay roads, zone areas, and stop fire and crime, but this time you’ll be doing it on a simultaneously smaller and much larger scale.  Let me explain…

SimCity is set up, as I mentioned, to be a game you play with friends.  Tutorial aside, you’ll claim a city in a region, hopefully with other players.  The first place I managed to claim (Perpetually Poor Place) was a seaside area with a huge mountain range near the top.  In the nearby region were members of this site that had begun to craft their own cities.  Using skills from previous titles I set out to make an industrial but also environmentally conscious city.  Placing wind power and water far away from my polluting industrial zones, I quickly found myself back in the juggle of balancing the growth of my city against all of the various pulls on my budget.

More than ever, SimCity is about roads.  There are several types of roads in the game ranging from dirt up to 4-lane highways complete with streetcar rails.  These roads can now be curved, spun into a circle, S-shaped, and angled in nearly any shape you can imagine. (It didn’t take long before I saw a city in the shape of a penis). The roads determine the maximum growth capacity of your various zones, so you’ll have to plan even further ahead than before.  Thankfully there is a road upgrade tool that allows you to expand them to a degree.  Given how tight city planning gets, you’ll have to plan pretty far ahead if you intend to lay down streetcar tracks, trams, or an airport.  Unfortunately a lot of those items are locked from the start, so you will likely end up without them in your first few cities.  If I had a suggestion here it’s that upgrading is a very manual process – it’d be nice to be able to upgrade roads en masse.

Notice I said “first few cities” – this is the biggest departure from prior titles.  Before long I had found that my first city had run out of space.  Riddled with capacity problems across the board, I carefully tuned and tweaked the city to be as self-sustainable as possible and had to found another one.  The city size for this SimCity title is two square kilometers.  SimCity 4’s city size was sixteen kilometers squared – a shockingly high reduction in overall size.  Maxis claims this is to accommodate as many PC types as possible, but the whole restriction feels artificial and unnecessary based on that assumption – let us select our cities based on our individual capabilities.  The other issue is that this makes city specialization rather difficult.  Planning a proper coal industry for instance means planning for 5-6 rather large buildings that you’ll have to snap expansions on to wrench out every bit of profit.

There is a challenge to placing buildings in SimCity – there is no way that I could find to rotate a building other than bumping around the edges until the building deigns to flip the correct direction.  Additionally the hitbox for the buildings are a bit misleading for where you might need to place the snap points.  This is especially true of airports which have, in my experience, turned out to be more trouble than the space required to place it.  As annoying as that is, nobody in the game is more annoying than a man I’ve come to affectionately know as “the Zoning Douche”.

Economies of scale – specializations and observations
Every area of the game has advisors to help you learn how to effectively manage that discipline. A woman gives you advice on how regional activities occur, a beatnik-looking dude gives you advice on education.  None of them are as unhelpful as the Zoning Douche.  Mr Douche will pop up and advise that you don’t have enough residential zones built out.  Regardless of anything else that you might need, and regardless of the fact that you have no more space in the area, the Zoning Douche will say nothing other than “Build more residential areas”.  Sure, he could say “You have too much of X level of commercial zone, rezone them as residential” or “Place more of Z type of building to entice more residential growth in X area”, but no – the Zoning Douche simply keeps repeating the same phrase like some sort of construction zone Rain Man.   It points out rather neatly the lack of depth (or in many cases, the complete lack) in the tutorial / advisor system.

In my second city (Funky Town) I decided to crank up a pair of specializations – oil and coal.   Despite my resource meter’s claim that I was maxed out on it, I found that I only had a year’s worth of oil left – after that, the resource would run out. Similarly, my coal supplies were capped at 18 months.  As I progressed through those months, I realized that I needed a backup plan – Funky Town would also be home to a Vegas-style strip that would be able to attract visitors when my resources dried up.   I was surprised to see my strip ebb and flow either making $12,000 Simoleans an hour or losing $3000 an hour with almost no rhyme or reason to it.  I also noticed that my two resource sources seemed to stick at two months and three months worth of capacity, never reducing to zero.   I’m not sure if that’s a bug, a feature or something in between.   Despite that fact, Funky Town makes over $15,000 a month, easily hitting the two million Simolean mark.  It also, much like Vegas, has a serious homeless problem.

Roads are a huge part of what you do in SimCity, but parks are equally as important.  To maximize growth I plopped down a huge amount of parks.  While my city thrives, my parks are riddled with homeless people.  It occurred to me at that point that I have absolutely no way to reach out to my community to help these people.   They will congregate in abandoned buildings (which I bulldoze instantly to prevent fires) or in parks.   Churches (and cemeteries) aren’t in the game this time around, and there is no such building or add-on like “Soup Kitchen”, “Homeless shelter”, or “Re-integration College” for me to help their situation.   It got me thinking about the other aspects of the macro and micro economy that freaks like me love to manage.  I noticed that mass transit of all types are free.  Airplane rides to shop in another city?  Free.  Bus rides all around the town and into other parts of the region?  Free.  While we are talking about busses, why can’t I designate routes to alleviate some of the traffic congestion in the city – the very purpose of mass transit?  I’ve only played the game for a few hours – I can’t be the only one thinking these things.  Shoving money in my pockets as fast as I could, I made a 1.2 million Simolean donation to my third city for some additional starter seed money.  Since I’m donating money to another of my cities in the region, let’s talk about regional gameplay.

“Petting Llamas”

It’s clear that Maxis wants us to play with our friends, and the way you do that is with regions.  Supporting up to 16 players, the regions give you a chance to pool resources.  My nuclear power plant (I gave up on Solar and wind in Perpetually Poor Place – it took up too much space) with a snapped on extra plant pumped out a whopping 400 megawatts, the excess being sold to various neighbors.  I also had beefed up my fire department with enough trucks to help support my friends in addition to my own city.  There was one area that the Triple-P was suffering though – handling trash.  I didn’t want to pollute any more than I already did so I refused to burn my trash, instead purchasing landfill space.  This passive supply system is pure genius, giving players a way to coordinate specializations between them.  Or it would….if it worked as advertised.

Creating TVs requires several industrial resources.  While it would be awesome if you could say “I want to give all of my metal to X city!”, you can’t – instead you can either import it from the global market for local use or export to the global market for profit.  This means if your friend needs metal you’ll have to manually gift it to them.  Additionally, the cities seem to be essentially frozen in time when you leave them, neither expending or generating resources.  Perhaps this feature was among the disabled items in attempts to restore stability and we might see a more real-time interaction between sister cities, but for now it’s a manual process of leaving one city, gifting it, and then coming back to the city you are working in.

There is one area that continues to flow regardless of whether you are actively working a city or not – commuters.  If your city lacks the workers for your zoned commercial or industrial infrastructure, commuters and shoppers may come in from other cities.  It speaks to the promise of interoperation between cities, even if it seems to be (at this point) illusion.

Sims living in Glassbox houses…
I see where Maxis was going with SimCity.  I see what they were trying to accomplish.  The product underneath the debris of one of the roughest launches I’ve seen in quite some time is not without merit.  The problem that I see is that the game just seems to be somewhat incomplete.  Previous titles supported mods where users could fix some of these shortcomings, but I have the sneaking suspicion we’ll see some of these features appear as paid DLC instead.  Ground pollution and air pollution that you can’t fix?  Buy the SimScumScrubber 2000 for $0.99 and the SimAirDefunkifier for $0.99 and all of your problems are solved!  That tastes a little like snake oil to me.   Throw in the fact that if this game doesn’t do well, EA could shut down the servers that allow this game to be played at any time and it’s an ash chaser to go with your shot of snake.  It’s not far-fetched and not without precedent.

With cities being as small as they are, players are asked to push between various portions of the region.  In the current state it’s hard to know whether the regional portions of the game are functioning as intended or whether small cities are meant to be snapshots with limited shared resources.   Specialization suggests gameplay well beyond the veneer of the product as it currently stands.  The problem is that, in the game’s current state, we have been handed the keys to small neighborhoods with large tracts of lands between them instead of the sprawling metropolises we are used to.  As EA prepares us for a rolling-blackout downtime this evening to patch their database structure, one thing is very clear to me – I’ve purchased an MMO, not a SimCity title.

NOTE:  I am continuing to play this title and will revisit this review with supplemental updates as things progress over the coming weeks.  Until that time, I’m overriding the score manually.