The death of SimCity

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.

SimCity 4Yet there are limits to how complex and how demanding a commercial game like SimCity can get. And while its code has been used as the basis for real city-planning, urban simulation software, EA is not in it to create realistic simulators, but to make money.
SimCity 4 was developed without Will Wright’s personal supervision. He was busy with Sims. Nevertheless, it was still developed by his company, Maxis, by then a subsidiary of EA. For years, since SimCity 4 came out in 2003 there was widespread speculation regarding the future of the series; in 2004 it was leaked that SimCity 5 was under development, but no more details were known, beyond the fact that the team was looking for a ‘different direction’. And then, in January 2007, EA announced that there was indeed going to be a new version of SimCity called SimCity Societies. The game would break away from the standard city simulator that the franchise has spearheaded for almost twenty years. It’d be something new that would maintain some of the features and qualities that made SimCity an amazing experience to millions of people, but also aim to ‘attract new gamers’. When SimCity 4 came out it already indicated the company’s intention to include such features: for example the Sims mode within the game allowed you to follow the life of some citizens and see what you could change in the city to make it easier. It — effectively — introduced a subjective micro-feedback layer to the bird’s eye, macro view of the game. It was done tastefully and although I never felt like bothering with it too much I was never annoyed by it.
SimCity Societies takes this to the extreme. Gone are many of the core features of SimCity, the advisers, the zones (city-planning), even the cute, realistic micro-management tasks one got to mechanically perform after a while, such as laying pipes, setting up the power grid etc. One might argue that some of those features were not that much fun anymore and detracted from the game’s appeal. Yet SimCity Societies does not seem to improve upon the experience. It ruins it. While SimCity provided concrete, tangible concepts that as mayor you got to understand and control, SimCity Societies’s focus seems abstract and vague: the notions of ‘Wealth’, ‘Obedience’ and the other ‘Social Energies’ that the new game contains make the game a vastly different experience to the one we know and love: It turns implicit, esoteric simulation concepts that you as a player are asked to figure out into explicit priorities and associated ‘controls’, in the process destroying the ‘magic’ of SimCity, the core notion of controlling simple everyday things that somehow —- magically — translate to something more important in the lives of your ‘citizens’ individual and collective lives. SimCity Societies seems much less like a simulator, and more as a meta-simulator of social organisation; But wouldn’t you agree that any meta-simulator of city-planning would require a working, amazingly rich simulator in order to be of any value? SimCity Societies does not seem to deliver (how could it), at least for those looking for a realistic city-building simulation experience.
To add insult to injury, the upcoming sequel was developed by a team completely different to the one that did the previous games; a team that does not call Maxis home. The game was outsourced by EA to Tilted Mill, a games development house in Massachusetts. Will Wright and Maxis were (and probably still are) busy with Spore, his upcoming game and had nothing to do with SimCity Societies. Judging from the screenshots and the description of the game, it shows.
Now Spore is a new, promising game by Will Wright and one that is certainly much wider in scope and ambitious in its goal than SimCity. It combines aspects of multiple games Wright has released such as SimEarth and, indeed, SimCity, as well as aspects of games like Molyneux’s Populous and — arguably — Sid Meier’s Civilisation. It also adds the MMO twist to wrap it all up. While huge in scope — and an interesting game to follow — Spore is not a realistic simulator in any way and it doesn’t try to be: from the demos and presentations Spore seems easy to play and get used to in no time. It is more ‘fun’ than ‘real’. In an interview in 2004 Will Wright stated that SimCity had become too complex for (too) many people and that this was the reason they were looking for renewal. And perhaps he’s right. Yet the new game seems to have — for the first time in the series’ eighteen years — distorted the core meaning of SimCity so much that it seems alien to many of its long time fans. While I’m sure that many people either tire or do not care for a realistic city-building simulator of the SimCity type, I cannot but wonder how much more complex, exciting and realistic newer SimCity titles could have been under the guidance, supervision and talent of a team truly dedicated to the game, as opposed to a company that primarily wants to milk a franchise (and brand) that millions of people are familiar with.
From what I’ve seen and read, SimCity Societies more or less signifies the end of the SimCity series as we know it (at least for now). EA’s move and Will Wright’s preferences make sense as additional complexity (realism) taking advantages of ever increasing storage and processing capabilities of computers would probably make the game unattractive to most people, harder to develop and commercially unsuccessful. Still it’s a shame for the few of us that loved SimCity for almost twenty years and looked forward to an improved realistic city simulator. Oh, and more complex too! 🙂
You can find a preview and screenshots of the upcoming SimCity Societies game here.