Failure to communicate
Sims are really good at communicating what they're unhappy about, so much that it can be annoying, but they're terrible at communicating why they're unhappy about it. They constantly contradict each other: one house is concerned about crime, while its neighbor compliments the neighborhood's great police coverage. One house says shopping is great, the other can't seem to find the stores. Which are across the street. What the hell.
The problem seems to be with what I began this review praising. SimCity isn't run by spreadsheets, it's a simulation of hundreds of thousands of dynamic parts, and I think it's unable to tell me the real reason Sims are unhappy because it doesn't know. If a Sim has money, it will try to find shopping. If it can't find shopping, it will complain. It won't tell me if it sat in a traffic jam all day, or if there are plenty of shops but no medium-wealth Sims to run them, or if it happened to go toward a shop that went under renovation and ceased to be a shop for a short period.
To diagnose problems, I have to ignore the implications of complaints. "Where's the shopping in this town?" suggests I should zone more commercial, but that's not always the case, and my investigation must begin with the roads, the shops themselves, and the people living near them. SimCity is saved by making its data available for study, and by representing every interaction in the world. It's a lot to analyze, but I still wish I knew even more about the simulation so I could make even better informed decisions. For example, how far are Sims willing to travel to shop? Is there a limit? Learning through trial and error can't teach me everything.
Everyone wants to be special
When I'm not worrying about all the things that make my childlike Sims sad, I'm playing an industry mogul and loving it. SimCity's specialization system is great. It adds a layer of challenge on top of RCI zoning, adds to the long-term story of a city, and can make you filthy rich if played right.
"City specialization" is a deceptive term. It implies that you choose one specialization, such as an ore mining town, and run with it. It doesn't work that way—you can select any specialization building from any category, so long as you've unlocked it by meeting a few prerequisites. The buildings enable mining operations, raw materials and consumer goods production, Global Market trade, and the development of a tourism industry.
One of my earliest cities, Murder Bucket (it's actually got great police coverage), was rich in ore and oil, so I opted for the dirty job of ripping it all out of the earth. As I pulled ore out of the ground, it needed somewhere to go, so I started building trade depots to sell it on the Global Market. When I reached a certain daily profit, I unlocked the Petroleum HQ, Metals HQ, and Trade HQ. Building and upgrading the headquarters gave me access to new buildings, such as a smelter which produces metal and ore. I was building a complete supply chain, making sure my trucks could get to and from mines, storage facilities, and processing plants. At first, my ambitions caused my city to hemorrhage money, but it was a proud moment when I solved blockages in the chain and started turning a profit.
The specialization system could almost have been its own game, and it adds a wealth of story to every city. As mines and oil wells run dry (resources are not infinite), a trade port enables the purchase of raw materials on the Global Market, so I can stay in the refinery business as an importer/exporter instead of sole producer. Or, I can imagine that when the wells dried up, my sad sack Sims turned to booze and gambling. Or maybe the city reinvents itself, investing in cultural landmarks and high-tech industry. I construct a personal story for every city I build, and specializations add context and detail, making my city’s past as important as its future.
A successful city can’t be successful at everything, however, so it must live in symbiosis with the whole region, some of which can house up to 16 cities. If I lack power or water, I can buy it from another city, and if I see that a city in my region can’t handle all its garbage, I can volunteer some of my trucks to help. There are also passive benefits. If I have no schools, my population will head to other cities for education. If I have a surplus of low-wealth jobs, unemployed low-wealth residents in other cities will hop on my municipal buses and add to my labor force.
The idea is exciting, but it can be difficult to exploit meaningfully. It's missing information I need, such as what data influences whether or not Sims will commute to other cities, or what the limit on resource sharing is. I can buy power when I need a little extra, but trying to run a city without its own power plants doesn't work. I wasn't being cheeky or trying to test the simulation, I just thought it would be neat to have a dirty city dedicated to coal power supporting a larger, medium-income residential city. I tried: I built a city with a 250 megawatt power surplus to support another, but my powerless city refused to purchase more than 20.8 megawatts despite having a huge power deficit. Why limit how I exploit regional interactions, especially when it's supposed to be the answer to small city sizes?
Multiplayer also makes things tricky, because if I'm just supplementing power with surplus from a friend's city, I've got to yell at them every time their surplus dips. And it will dip—they aren't going to be watching it every second as their city grows.
Passive benefits sometimes confuse me too. When one of my cities needed more low-wealth workers, I founded a new city nearby and filled it with low-wealth residential. I tried not to include too much industry, instead focusing on region-wide public transportation, but it didn't work. The suburban city wouldn't grow like I hoped and was losing money, so I started building up the commercial sector. That got shoppers in from my first city, but I still hadn't solved the worker shortage.
City interaction works in general—I can see that workers sometimes commute, as do shoppers and students—but it can be hard to create intentional symbiosis, except with the simplest shared benefits. City hall upgrades, for example, unlock new building types for the entire region, and if I'm out of space to dump garbage, another city can send a specific number of garbage trucks to help. The hardest part of it is learning to not try to solve everything in one city. There just isn't enough room to be everything, so I have to avoid the temptation to try for a high-tech mining town and electronics producer.
That is, unless I'm playing in Sandbox Mode, which starts you off with 1,000,000 Simoleans and every building unlocked. It's a great place to experiment or just amuse myself with absurd cities. Only circular roads? Why not!