Server, there's a bug in my soup
To play in any region, multiplayer or alone, SimCity requires a constant server connection. Despite Maxis' design justifications, let’s face it—it's always-online DRM. SimCity is not an MMO. Having a constant connection to the developing cities in my region is fun, but no more than than a smidgen of SimCity's total fun relies on multiplayer.
And at the time of writing, the always-online requirement is terribly flawed. I've been able to play on the live servers for a total of 50 hours, so it isn't nearly unplayable, but it is very frustrating. I've been stuck in the launcher for 20 minute wait periods to connect to a server, only to have the timer reset after the connection fails. I've made it past the launcher to the menu, only to be told it still can't connect. I've been kicked out of my cities, only to come back to find that they can't be loaded "at this time"—often meaning an hour or more.
I might have been able to play on a different server—the Oceanic server has been more welcoming—but that’s not where my friends and cities are. Starting new cities is plenty fun, but if I can get anything positive out of the always-online requirement, it should be playing with my friends. That was a challenge. Even when the server let me in, adding friends took hours, and invites to join my private region either failed on the spot, or claimed success but still required multiple attempts.
At the time of this writing, Cheetah Speed—the fastest the simulation can run—has been disabled to help reduce the server load. That's a very significant gameplay feature, and that it has been yanked for the time being to deal with service issues is an indication of the magnitude of the server problems.
There are also bugs and poorly-streamlined features. Sims will sometimes refuse to build on certain streets until I bulldoze part of them and rebuild them. Buildings have appeared on top of other buildings. Zones sometimes stack on top of each other. Feature-wise, disasters are fun to watch, but in big cities the bulldoze tool—which is necessary for clearing rubble—is an annoying hassle. Finding all the little burnt-up houses, orienting the camera, and clicking on them is needless busy work.
The launch day rush is a unique situation, and I think it’s fair to assume service will improve and patches will fix bugs and improve features. Even so, the always-online requirement is a long-term issue. It means it's up to EA when we can and can't play the game we bought. It removes the game from ideal playing situations, like on planes or wherever shoddy WiFi exists. It prevents reverting to a previous save when things go wrong, and I've desperately, fruitlessly hit Ctrl-Z after some of my mistakes. It prevents modding, which could add so much value to a game like SimCity over time. Imagine if modders were able to tweak the Sims' flowchart logic, or add new building types and looks. What insane scenarios would be unleashed? We'll probably never know.
Worst of all, the always-online requirement might even prevent us from playing SimCity at all one day, if the servers are ever retired.
What might still be
SimCity 2000 is 16-years-old and still being played. It's a legend, and SimCity has the capacity to achieve the same longevity. Despite the quirky Sim behavior and communication failures, and despite the bugs and always-online requirement, I'm still barely able to pull myself away from it at 3 a.m. It's a fascinating game to study, and a joy to play.
Just watching SimCity work is amazing. I can watch the shadows cast by charmingly archetypal apartment buildings and factories creep along the ground as the sun sets. I can zoom in to watch my residents' lives, knowing they're all going somewhere and doing something, even if they don't know why. As a simulation of a real city, it doesn't seem especially accurate, but I don't play to become an urban planner. I play to build machines, to test hypotheses, to examine vexing behaviors and solve micro and macro problems—and to tell a story.
As a simulator, SimCity advances the achievements of SimCity 4, SimCity 3000, and SimCity 2000, but as a product, it is inferior to all of them. Constant connectivity does have benefits, such as leaderboards, worldwide challenges, and the Global Market, but it's not even close to being worth the hassle for those features, and hardly touches the essence of what makes SimCity so diabolically addictive and engrossing. If Maxis and EA would just loosen their grip on the idea that the game requires constant social interaction—a feature that also happens to function as an anti-piracy measure—and we're one day given the option to run local servers, SimCity could still become the legendary series rebirth it was intended to be.
An incredible simulation and a joy to play, SimCity is tragically hobbled by the consequences of its always-online requirement.