Of all the games that I’ve played over the past twenty five years or so, SimCity, in its various incarnations, has to be the one that I cherish and have spent time playing the most. Ever since I laid my eyes on the first version of SimCity in the early 1990s, I became enamored with it: it possessed this rare and seemingly magical quality you’ll get by reading books — one that you seldom get by playing video games, at least as far as I am concerned: it allows you to engage your imagination, think about aspects of the game that go beyond what the game mechanics, assets and design ever intended. A bit like playing a desktop RPG game, or — even better — Diplomacy, listening to a story or reading a book.
I’ve written about SimCity in the past, in my opinion one of the most intriguing games ever to grace a personal computer. The following videos showcase some of the fundamental changes that have taken place for the upcoming game, SimCity, a reboot of the franchise that features a brand new engine called GlassBox. The engine introduces agent-like behaviour in the objects that inhabit the SimCity universe, thus creating an extremely consistent visual representation of the internal state of the game (something that, in turn, maximises realism). One of the previous concerns of Will Wright (and perhaps the rest of the team at Maxis), especially for SimCity 4, was that it was becoming too complex to be commercially successful. In my opinion, this is completely wrong. SimCity draws its appeal from the fact that it endeavours to be a realistic yet fun city-building simulator. Complexity is not the problem, it’s a benefit and I’m sure that the new agent-based engine will allow for much more complex, yet easily-graspable and consistent game concepts with higher complexity to be playable and fun. To my mind this has always been more than just a game and the concepts behind SimCity (as well as, to my knowledge, the engine) have been used for real city management needs.
It’s ironic, how ‘ease’ becomes the noose that chokes innovation and development. AOL, Facebook, iTunes, they all offer closed, proprietary solutions to ‘problems’ that — in more ways than one — are not so hard to solve. Solutions that seem to ‘work’, that ‘succeed’ because the ‘trend’ is to embrace ‘easy’, as opposed to ‘moderately challenging’, because the ‘smart money’ is behind them and because of network effects.
In the last few years, that is after the wave of ‘Web 2.0’ (ironically, yet another ‘trend’ exploited by ‘experts’ that abused it for profit) subsided, Facebook started making serious money. Its real success as an advertising platform is not only arguably minimal, but quite controversial. It took a long time for the advertising industry and the hordes of marketing monkeys to embrace Facebook’s walled garden approach and doing what they do best, counting. Only this time it wasn’t ‘impressions’ or ‘clicks’ or ‘conversions’ they were counting, but ‘likes’, another frivolous metric that doesn’t really mean anything in the real world. Facebook apps, once touted as the next big thing and a threat for the web, were stillborn, largely because Facebook itself made significant steps to expand beyond the confines of its site, by creating interfaces, programmatic and user, for other platform-owners to embed in or integrate with their platforms. So we got a slew of ‘social plugins’, more ‘APIs’, etc. But there were some exceptions, like Zynga, a gaming company living inside Facebook.
Now, Zynga just launched Zynga.com. And it’s a big deal, because this is the first Facebook-dependent business of significant scale that expands beyond the confines of this walled garden du jour.
The whole ‘frenzy’ with Facebook in the ad world is now in its third year. As with AOL’s endeavours fifteen years ago, the Facebook frenzy may be past its prime; as a teenager of the early-to-mid 1990s, AOL ‘keywords’ seemed to me like a pointless exercise, yet another ‘top-down’, force-fed business model that people never cared about.
Clearly people care about Facebook; they care about the platform that connects them to people they love: their friends and their relationships, news from their social circles, people they’d like to know better or simply keep in touch. They could hardly care less about Facebook pages, Facebook ads, the Facebook business. Sadly, marketers and advertisers, typically the last group to perceive change — and perhaps the most dependent on ‘convention’ (make no mistake, Facebook is convention, as is Google), will take a bit longer to ‘wake up’. That Zynga chose to move beyond Facebook is undoubtedly a wake up call and a sign of maturity in an industry that more than often adopts the strategy of others, instead of coming up with its own.
Will Wright on the Spore DRM controversy:
“I think one of the most valid concerns about it was you could only install it so many times. For most players it’s not an issue, it’s a pretty small percentage, but some people do like wiping their hard disk and installing it 20 times or they want to play it 10 years later.
Spore doesn’t seem to be anywhere near what it was promised to be — in 10 years it is quite probable that few will remember it (let alone play it), unless it is followed by vastly improved sequels. That cannot be said, however, for several of Wright’s other games. SimCity 3000 is still enjoyed by many, 9 years after it was released, especially as it was (and probably still is) part of several ‘classics’ low-price bundles. SimCity 4 is practically universally still considered superior to the ‘Societies’ spin-off and still enjoyed by millons globally. And while it may be true that the, ever-elusive, ‘market’ could, potentially, boycott games in lieu of their ridiculous DRM, Wright’s response is unfortunate in the way it treats both replayability and consumer rights.
Here is a truly fantastic Google eduTalk on the original XBox security system by the founder of the Xbox-Linux project. If you were or are casually interested in hacking this is great eduTainment. Don’t miss it.
I still remember clearly the first time I saw SimCity run on a friend’s computer, back in 1990. It is hard to describe the feeling, but it was more or less one of the most impressive pieces of software I’d seen, not for what it was as a game, but for what it represented: a simulator of city building, of society itself, albeit extremely simplistic, in the guise of a game a child could play. I loved SimCity, as I loved SimCity 2000 and then, many years later, its sequels. SimCity was more than a strategy game to me. It invoked my imagination, it sparked my interest for city-planning, society simulation, artificial life. Over the years it became more complex, more elaborate, multiplying the number of factors affecting a city’s prosperity, a neighbourhood’s wealth, its people’s health and education. It was, and still is, one of the very few games that can keep me from getting utterly bored for more than half an hour (I still eventually get bored, but it takes a bit longer). I got to be very good at playing mayor, consistently getting maximum approval rates no matter the conditions.
An interview with Howard Stringer, CEO and President of Sony Corporation of America. Most of the info there is well known: How Sony’s departments and engineering efforts were too fragmented for years, how politics made or broke products, how it lost the digital music media war before it even started. What really caught my attention is the fact that they still don’t seem to know what’s wrong with them. Take the PS3 quote from Stringer, for example. My response to it would be: I don’t think so. If you fail, it’ll be because you were arrogant enough to promise the world and didn’t deliver, too late to respond and frighteningly incompetent with your marketing. Technically the PS3 is the Mercedes of the video game field. And if you are really keen on automobile metaphors, part of the problem is that it’s too expensive and has a rev limiter at 2500 RPM despite its 700 horsepower, bi-turbo engine.
Hmm, can Maxis deliver on yet another edition of this once pioneering social simulator? How will SimCity fare against the promising Spore and Sims 3?