What ever happened to the once-mighty SimCity franchise?
Recently I was looking through some boxes and stumbled across a dusty copy of Wil Wright's "Spore" next to an equally neglected copy of SimCity 4. Seeing the two games made me wonder: What ever happened to the once-mighty SimCity franchise? Oh, certainly the "Sim" franchise is alive and well, but it was SimCity that got the ball rolling. These days it's all but vanished from the face of the earth.
In advance, I should note that I love SimCity. I have ever since a neighbourhood kid showed me the original game, complete with its maroon anti-piracy codebook. Starting up SimCity felt like playing with something forbidden, accessing a WarGames-style supercomputer in which I could actually control a city and its denizens...at least that's what 10-year-old-me thought. Oddly, I was less enthused about destroying my city and much more intrigued by the construction of it. I looked at population and income as a sort of "winning", a challenge to see how big and complex I could make things and, perhaps more importantly, how I could master the rules of the game as I played.
SimCity was successful and spawned several sequels, the first of which was SimCity 2000. SC2K changed the player's perspective top-down to more of a 3/4 angle. The game required, if I recall correctly, a 256-colour screen and a 486SX; those technical demands would be quaint now, but were fairly steep for 1993. SC2K brought in some more complex transport options as well as futuristic superstructures called Arcologies (abandoned later in the series) and some more advanced energy and zoning options.
I loved the idea of Arcologies because they solved a lot of the late-game complexity issues, but it was also something of a cheat; you could just drop an Arcology into your existing city and poof, instant population with minimal issues, assuming you built a police station right next door. It really broke the end-game and undermined the whole adventure. A better solution would have been to make the Arcologies cities-within-cities that you could build, arrange or, alternately, a sort of "SimTower" experience where you could design the interior of the Arcologies and alter them to address issues. It would've been nice to create "industrial" Arcologies surrounded by actual zoned houses and would've really opened up design options.
SC2K was folllowed in 1999 by SimCity 3000 which kicked the graphics and complexity up another notch and added more pressing issues like garbage management. It also ditched the game-breaking Arcologies and made "linking" your city with other cities a bigger deal. Overall though, most of the changes were pretty cosmetic. SimCity 4 (2003), on the other hand, added major changes to the transport network, the calculation of how your Sims moved around, and added (very limited) integration with "The Sims". It also switched to a comprehensive 3D engine, which made the game much more detailed but also taxed computer systems heavily, particularly when the cities got bigger and more involved. Now, instead of having to do complex simulation engines and simple graphics, computers were groaning under the strain of complex graphics and modelling, leading to serious slowdowns in the late game. Right as you're trying to bask in your success, the game could become downright unplayable!
SC4, and it's Rush Hour Expansion, have apparently marked the end of the SimCity franchise, with EA/Maxis concentrating on the more lucrative The Sims series and the new "Spore" IP...though if "Spore" lives to see a sequel is still an unknown. Still, I'm forced to wonder why no further attempts to refine or improve the SimCity franchise have taken place (Yes, I'm aware that SimCity Societies was released, but as a contract development by Tilted Mill Entertainment I'm not placing it in the Maxis SimCity canon. We also shall not speak of SimAnt, SimEarth SimFarm, SimPark, SimCopter, and the plethora of other Sim cash-ins) As such, I have a few theories:
First, the rise of consoles has possibly made the series less relevant. That is, playing strategy/simulation games using a gamepad on a console has, historically, not been terribly successful. Some recent titles like Command & Conquer, Civilization: Revolution and Supreme Commander 2 have tried it, but haven't met with overwhelming success. I think that challenge is something of a cop-out though, because there's nothing inherent about the consoles that should prevent a SimCity game from working, other than the fact that the series requires a crushing amount of computational power to run all the "background plumbing" of the simulation engine. I'm no hardware engineer, but I'm willing to believe that the 360/PS3 might not be able to handle, technically, running an advanced simulation. On the other hand, they could also try to refocus SimCity less on the simulation, per se, and more on the gameplay, adapting it to suit the console, a la Civ: Revolution.
More tellingly, Maxis may have realised that the games themselves had achieved an overall level of complexity that was too great. I believe Wil Wright himself admitted to this at one point and he also noted that he'd been thinking about creating the "virtual dollhouse" that eventually became The Sims for quite a while. SimCity was old news, and clearly, The Sims was a brilliant decision and design from a business perspective. Nonetheless, even though The Sims keeps the core development, cash management, and happiness management systems of SimCity intact, it still lacks the depth that made SimCity fun and useful both as a simulation and an educational tool.
I suppose the ideal solution here would be for Maxis (or the shell of it that's at EA) to recommit itself to the core ideals of SimCity: designing a town and then managing it. No win conditions, no way to lose other than bankruptcy. Make the graphics less important than the simulation, and really commit to making the path-finding and traffic algorithms mimic reality. A game like SimCity has the potential to let everyday people understand some of the difficulties inherent in our society... in fact, I would love to see a SimCountry game sort of like Spore, where players can zoom in from a Sims level house all the way out to a sweeping world-view. Now that would be the Sim of Tomorrow.
Republished with permission from Gamer Melodico.
Sam Shahrani is a graduate student (M.S.) in Human-Computer Interaction Design at Indiana University. He holds a B.A in telecommunications (Video Production & Design) and an M.A. in Telecommunications (Video Game Design). His interests include interactive narratives, experience design, and first responder technologies.