SimCity. Some Thoughts.

SimCity has been riddled with issues since launch day a few weeks ago. We’ve let the dust settle and decided to talk about how some of the game play questions that have come up while playing.

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What role has data visualization played in Sim City? How has it changed your game play?

Aaron: SimCity has the most advanced data visualization system I have seen in a game.  While there have been implementation problems, few simulation games have so ambitiously approached data visualization as it informs player decisions. I begin every game by running through the information provided via data visualization that might negatively influence my city including: wind, metals, oil and water.

Where data visualization runs into issues is zoning.  There is not enough complexity and feedback, and there’s a perpetual feedback loop for more residential and industrial. From the information presented, it’s impossible to understand that relationship and make decisions to fix it.

Jordan: I agree that the way information is presented in the game is well done and beautiful. I’m happy that they realized that part of the fun of simulation games is being able to really focus and manage a problem, and the data helps with that.

One complaint is connecting that data into something actionable. I enjoy the gratification of looking at my land value level, plopping a park and see the map change. That’s an simple example and not all issues should probably be solved so easily. But others can be frustrating, partially because some elements of the game aren’t well connected, like you mentioned, or because the information presented doesn’t feel actionable.

Would you say SimCity is challenging? Why or why not?

Jordan: The game seems to run by itself, at least in the beginning. There have been a lot of reports of people just building residential, or ignoring basic services, yet the city grows and makes money regardless. I think the design intent was to be a mayor who manages a self-sustaining town, but maybe this idea was taken too far because there aren’t many “please help us, mayor!” moments that feel really engaging. I like how the game is paced in terms of increasing complexity, but there don’t seem to be any consequences for ignoring them.

Aaron: Yes and no. When I left off with the SimCity series (SimCity 2000), there was a constant a feeling of conflict and resource scarcity.  You never had enough money and it was always a struggle to create a profitable city, but this frustration also made you feel good when successful.  The new SimCity is both too easy in the beginning and not clear enough with cause-and-effect relationships.  I appreciate that SimCity has stayed true to its sandbox approach to gameplay. However, the real fun of a sandbox game is balancing adversity with frustration, and I worry that has not been achieved.

SimCity was marketed as an “asynchronous collaborative game.” Did it work?

Aaron: There is asynchronous collaboration within the design but it does not work.  There seem to be issues with how cities interact with one another.  The global marketplace is still not functioning.  Even playing by yourself in multiple city locations feels oddly constrained.  There doesn’t seem to be a good way to specialize on one resource or specialty because you cannot rely on other zones in your region.

Jordan: I agree and this is what really gets me: the entire game platform (online-only) was implemented to allow for this function but it completely falls flat. On paper it’s really fascinating but implementation is lacking. At the moment it still feels like you’re playing by yourself with occasional regional alerts (usually about being disconnected from services you bought).

How has the size of each city changed how you play the game?

Jordan: This was the first thing that upset old series fans. I think it’s a pretty valid complaint and not simply because it’s different from older versions. I feel like the brunt of the design was focused on the early part of the game, in the early city growth period. Of course that’s capped out the smaller the city is, so you reach that end point a little quicker. City size does create a sense of consequence in how you arrange your city, which is good, but this is a little extreme: it’s not fun to bulldoze four blocks to fit your city hall and it’s really silly that the endgame buildings–the mayor’s mansion, major utility upgrades–are so huge. How can they expect you to have any room left?

Aaron: Exactly. It seems that the artificial restrictions in city size are created to force collaboration with other cities in your region.  If all the collaborative elements were fully functional, this would be genius, but because it is so dysfunctional the limitation of city size creates frustrating decisions.  I want to create a city that can be completely self-reliant, but this does not seem possible.

Beyond any bugs or current design flaws, what could be added to the game?

Jordan: I worry about replay-ability  All current issues aside, once those have been addressed you still have a game that is very short-term due to some design decisions that focus enjoy-ability and objectives in the first few hours. Of course the obvious thing to do once you’re tired of a city is to build another one, but the limited regional functions and lack of terraforming prevents cities from feeling too unique to compel that lovely “just one more” feeling. Broken regional play forces each city into the same mold. This is where the game really struggles–it needs to really break open the endgame with lots of new choices and opportunities, but because of the city size and region flaws, it can’t.

Aaron: One of the best additions that EA made to The Sims 3 was explicit short, medium and long-term goals.  Life is constantly a balance between accomplishing your life dreams and making sure you eat meals. In this same way, SimCity seems to lack motivating Mayors to continue their creations beyond the tumultuous starting phase.

Also, the other thing this game is missing is an understanding of the regional cityscape.  If the game wants to promote collaboration and city specialization, there need to be better communication to guide those decisions.  If 6 of the 7 cities in the region are low on water, a Mayor should be able to recognize this and increase the number of water pumps.  Without this regional economic information, it makes it difficult to specialize.

How compelling is the game four hours into a city compared to a half hour?

Jordan: The early part of the game feels very well designed and there are clear needs and goals as your city grows. The later part of the game seems to fall apart in terms of balance and objectives. My suspicion is that the designers didn’t have time to smooth out the later part of the game before releasing. Once your city grows into a metropolis, things start to make less sense: your population explodes, but there aren’t any workers. Traffic becomes a nightmare, and your RCI needs seem disconnected from each other. The other major issue is that a large city should be able to depend on its regional network to supply some utilities and services, but that seems completely broken at this point, which really drags down the potential to specialize or be more efficient in the buildings you create.

Aaron: I agree that the beginning part of the game is well-designed.  While you know your citizens will be asking for health care, police and fire stations, there seems to be an understanding that at the beginning you can’t put all these services down at once…

As you move into mid- to late-game, the challenges become different. Ground pollution and water supply become major sources of conflict that reflect real-life issues of scarcity and pollution. However, the goals become less and less obvious and reward get less satisfying.