At their greatest scale, SimCity's cities are self-powering machines with hundreds of thousands of moving parts. They churn through endless feedback loops, feeding Sims into swirling cause and effect eddies that produce money, goods, happiness, and growth. After over a week of building, smashing, and rewiring SimCity’s machines to figure out how they work, they still surprise me.
SimCity is the series' greatest technical achievement. Will Wright's 1989 original and every Maxis-developed SimCity that came after are about the same thing: building and simulating cities. SimCity does that too, but with a drastically different method. It shifts the simulation from abstract data-crunching to the visible, real-time interactions of thousands of individual Sims, cars, residences, businesses, factories, and everything else you might find in a city.
The Sims themselves aren't exceptional as individuals—they live out their ant-farm lives with short memories and clockwork brains, behaving like small children motivated only by immediate desires and immediate discomfort. They hate crime, unemployment, pollution (called “germs” for some reason), high taxes, and death. They like parks, schools, and city services. They're dumb as individuals, but when thousands of them need caring for, SimCity balloons into a dazzlingly complex and addictive management game, and it's all beautifully rendered in three-dimensional space, scaling all the way down to blades of grass. And even with all that complexity, the game runs smoothly on mid-range hardware, happy to be Alt-Tabbed in and out of, and rarely crashing.
The joy of planning
To create a city, I choose a square plot in one of eight region layouts, all of which can be shared with other players or claimed alone. (The regions are attractive and diverse enough to quash my initial pining for the landscape terraforming in previous SimCitys.)
Then, with an empty field and a modest budget, I’m free to build creatively and experiment, pulling out straight and curved roads, as well as zoning residential, commercial, and industrial districts ("RCI" for in-the-know urban planners), and building basic services. It's a joy to seed the empty plot and watch Sims arrive in moving trucks to start their new lives.
If I wanted to play SimCity as a purely sandbox experience—more on that later—it might stay so free and easy, but I can never resist going big. Soon my content small-town Sims will have their dreams crushed by an urban nightmare of unemployment, poison-clogged air, and failing services. For now, however, I can zoom all the way to street level to watch them stroll around my city like windup toys, happy and unaware of the god-like madman peering down at them wielding bulldozers and bad ideas.
But back to the quiet town. At the macro scale, beautiful data overlays show me subterranean concentrations of water, as well as resources like ore, coal, and oil, which I can exploit when my city is ready for heavy industry. In the beginning, demand for services is low, and how you choose to provide power to your city is the most important decision early in the game.
Coal and oil plants cough out pollution and require resources from mines or the Global Market, an online feature that functions as a commodities exchange enabling players to buy and sell resources. Clean energy solutions—wind and solar plants—also pump power into the city, but require swaths of valuable land to keep the lights on. The type of power plant I choose first will influence the whole narrative of my city, not because I can't switch at any time, but because I refuse to be an inconsistent mayor. Big decisions like this happen at every stage of a city's development, and my choices often influence how I feel about my city more than my city itself.
The early game is all about anticipating the midgame. As houses become towers, too many intersections and not enough high-capacity avenues will cause traffic gridlocks, and density won't increase at all without enough space. Bigger cities also need more water, more power, more sewage treatment, and more garbage trucks, as well as police, fire, and health coverage, public transportation, parks, and schools.
Buildings can be upgraded, but even upgrades such as extra water pumps and fire truck garages need space. And because service vehicles like fire trucks have to actually drive to where they're needed, seemingly minor details like whether they're more likely to make right or left turns out of their garages really do matter. Getting a handle on such minutiae becomes overwhelming when I try to expand too fast.
The only way to learn how to plan for and balance all this is trial and error. Even after nearly 100 hours, I'm still discovering new quirks and features of the simulation. Sims sometimes do dumb things, or have unexpected complaints, and identifying and solving these behaviors takes time. Learning through failure is a frustration SimCity gets away with by allowing for failure. There's almost always room to bulldoze half a city, pass a bond measure, and start over. Weirdly, though, SimCity actually seems to encourage failure, making learning more difficult than it has to be.
For instance, the ratio of residential to commercial to industrial zoning has a very small sweet spot, which I like—it’s a hard game to master—but SimCity's advisers almost always push me to solve problems by expanding rather than by achieving balance with what I have. Industrial demand is high, even though there are 500 unfilled “low-wealth” jobs (a euphemism that would make any politician proud). Now residential and industrial demand are high. More people! More jobs! Build it all! I don't know what data it's using to inform demand, but it implies I'm doing something wrong even when I'm balancing RCI and optimizing services with the precision and efficiency of an MLG pro. Eventually, I yell back: if you want me to expand so much give me bigger borders, dummy!
The borders—every city is confined to the same sized square— put a hard limit on how creative you can be when designing high-population cities, but ultimately I like that they force tough trade-offs. Decisions about density, what to build, and how to zone are hard, and trying something, watching it all fall apart, and then rezoning to see what happens is part of the addictive fun. Do I ever wish I could defy the game and pull a road out into the untouched land beyond my dotted line? All the time. I eventually accepted it, though, because if I could solve every problem through expansion, many of the game's challenging trade-offs would be lost.
Sometimes, however, cities fail hard. When services can’t handle demand, Sims begin to leave. If too many leave, your income plummets. Now you’re losing money, so you turn off services to keep from going broke—but that makes things worse. Now there's no fire or police coverage, and even more Sims are leaving (or, you know, burning to death). And even though population is plummeting, the roads are more clogged than ever. What the hell is happening?
You may never know—cities can become unmanageable at populations over 100,000—and trying to fix things sometimes feels futile. Failed cities are ugly, claustrophobic burdens which require constant attention because they didn't achieve balance early on. Funnily, discarding them is a relief. It's actually an enjoyable part of the game, because all that frustration is replaced by the anticipation of running a new experiment in a pristine new plot. This time I'll get it right, just as long as I pay attention to the hard data more than the advisers or Sims.