SimCity review in progress

Tyler Wilde

As I work on our final SimCity review (which I'll post on Friday), I've been documenting my observations and criticisms of the complex simulation and servers we're required to connect to if we want to play it. My analysis and opinions may change as I keep playing, but these notes represent the thought path that will lead to the final verdict.

This page covers the early game and medium-density cities, page two covers city specializations, multiplayer regions, and a failed high-density city, page three covers the always-online requirement, and page four tells the story of a metropolis with just one road.

From 0 to 50,000 in under an hour

I'm getting pretty good at getting cities off the ground. Like making RPG characters or trying to fix a router, it's always tempting to restart, and I must have built up and scrapped 20 cities by now. SimCity's early game is when I'm free to build creatively and experiment—to finally get it right —and it's terribly addictive.

To illustrate how a city grows from 0 to 50,000 residents, I strolled into Ars Technica's open multiplayer region and planted a flag in the town of Murder Bucket. It's a really nice place, promise.

Building roads and zoning RCI

This is the most relaxing phase of SimCity. Circle roads only? Why not? You can do whatever you want. You'll regret it later, but you can .

The early game is all about anticipating the mid-game, and too many intersections creates a traffic nightmare as density increases. I also need to leave space for those inevitable apartment buildings, and a little wiggle room so I can adjust the RCI (that's residential, commercial, and industrial) ratio. The three zoning types are your city's DNA, and my most common blunder is zoning too much industrial and not enough residential, which creates a bunch of unlivable, dirty land covered with unstaffed factories.

I've done a lot of trial-and-error learning in SimCity so far, and it can frustrate, but I'm enjoying much of the discovery.

The power decision

Choosing a power plant always stalls me. Coal and oil plants provide lots of juice and don't take up much space, but they pollute the air and require me to buy fuel from the global market or mine for it.

The panels of this solar plant have nowhere near the output of one coal plant, and they take up a ton of space. It's one of SimCity's most elegant trade-offs, and it strangely affects me as much as the simulation. If I have power problems later, I could bulldoze that solar plant and plop an oil or coal plant, but I never do. I feel like I owe it to my Sims to stick with clean energy. If I start with a coal plant, however, I have no problem adding generators and pumping more filth into the air if it means keeping the lights on.

Police, health, and fire coverage

The placement of my service buildings keeps me up at night. Literally, because I stay up late fretting over the best location. Ambulances, for example, have to drive to the scene of a sick Sim to help, so it matters whether they're more likely to make a right or left turn out of the garage, and how many intersections they have to cross to get to major residential zones.

The same goes for police cars and fire trucks. They're my least favorite things to manage—I'd rather focus on my next big industrial project then worry about traffic slowing down police cars—but they're vital.

Education and wealth

You can make buckets of cash running a low-wealth, low-tech city, but if that's not your goal, schools will increase the tech level of factories, doing away with smog-producers and replacing them with cleaner medium-tech industries. It's a trade-off like everything else, and educating your city will drain resources and change your residents' needs. Schools are expensive to run—especially once you've upgraded them with lots of buses and extension wings—and require lots of medium-wealth staff.

To attract medium-wealth residents, you need to build parks in residential areas. This is fun. Parks are cheap to run, there's a great variation of styles, and they're modular, so if you want to build a Central Park style block of green grass and foliage, you can.

It all makes sense within SimCity's reduction of social economics, but something about education and wealth still eludes me. When I pass 50,000 residents, my industrial bosses start complaining that their workers aren't educated enough. I plop down more schools, upgrade the ones I have, add school and city buses, and so on, and on, and on, and then... my adviser warns me again that factories are lamenting a lack of skilled workers.

Side note: cities are small, advisers are dumb

SimCity doesn't hide its simulation. I can look at data maps to see how many citizens are educated and where they are, or the tech level of my factories, or who plans to increase in density soon. What isn't clear is what the damn Sims want. The simulation is very complex, but the advisers reduce it into obtuse messages about what to do, and if you do everything they say, your city will fail .

My problems with education are duplicated just about everywhere else. My factories close because they say there aren't enough businesses to ship freight to, so I zone more commercial. Then my businesses close because there are no shoppers, so I zone more residential, then my factories say there aren't enough places to ship freight to...and so on. Theoretically, I can build trade depots with freight storage, and that should make industry happy. I can never tell if it's working.

The RCI ratio has a very small sweet spot, and I'm fine with that—it's a hard game to master—but the messaging is too confusing to even guide me toward that balance. Even if my city is completely gridded, it constantly tells me there's high residential and industrial demand, which implies I'm doing something wrong. "Zone more residential!" is says. "GIVE ME BIGGER BORDERS, THEN."

Yes, cities are small. I like that this forces hard trade-offs, but 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.

On the next page: City specializations, multiplayer, and building a metropolis

City specializations

I really like the new specialization system. 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.

You don't have to "choose" one specialization—they're just specialized buildings which you can build or not build, and they enable mining operations, raw materials and consumer goods production, Global Market trade, and the development of a tourism industry. Murder Bucket is rich in ore and oil, so I've opted for the dirty job of ripping it out of the earth.

Specialization operations balloon quickly. As I pull ore out of the ground, it needs somewhere to go, so I start building trade depots to sell it on the global market. When I reach a certain daily profit, I unlock the Petroleum HQ, Metals HQ and Trade HQ. Building and upgrading those buildings gives me access to new buildings, such as a smelter which can turn ore into metal or ore and coal into alloys. Now I'm building a supply chain, making sure my trucks can get to and from mines, storage facilities, and processing plants. The more refined my products, the more I can sell them for.

A big part of a city's story is told by its specialization buildings. 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.

Interacting with other cities

Every city is built on a plot in one of eight region layouts—the smallest layout has two plots, while the largest two can house 16 cities each. You can keep your region private, or allow others to found cities with you.

The idea is that a successful city can't be successful at everything—and it really can't—so it must live in symbiosis with other cities in its region. If I lack water, for example, 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 so far I'm having trouble exploiting it in a meaningful way. I've bought power when I needed a little extra while I saved up for a new plant, but trying to run a city with no power plants does not work. In the screen below, Video Wolf has a 250 MW power surplus, but I'm only buying 20.8 MW despite having a huge power deficit. If I need to upgrade something to increase the amount of power I can purchase, I don't know what it is.

I have the same problem with passive benefits. 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 really work. The suburban city wouldn't grow like I hoped, and was losing money, so I started building up the commercial sector. That got freight and shoppers in from my first city, but I still hadn't solved the worker shortage. It felt like it was intentionally doing the opposite of what I wanted, though I know the game probably wasn't being vindictive.

It does work in a few places, as long as the region's players are communicating. City Hall upgrades are region-wide, so if I add a Department of Transportation, everyone gains access to advanced transportation buildings. That's really handy.

I'll keep experimenting. I know there's a way to intentionally exploit passive benefits, but I have to dig deeper into the incredibly complex simulation to figure out why one thing works and another doesn't.

The climb to 150,000 residents

SimCity starts out easy. You lay out a few roads, zone your RCI, plop down a coal plant and water tower, and everything's peachy. Residents are moving in and you're making money—lots of money if you get the RCI ratio right. Low-tech industrial plants have plenty of workers, shops have plenty of customers, and your residents are happy to be both. It doesn't last—SimCity is hard.

As building density increases, your services fail, so you build more and more until your plot is completely gridded, but there's still something wrong. There's always something wrong. As I mentioned in regards to Murder Bucket, the messaging about what's wrong is often confusing, but this cause and effect seesaw keeps the game engaging--the goal might be perfect homeostasis, but if getting there were easy, you'd just be watching. Welcome to Rectango, the city that failed.

Rectango's failed grid

I thought I'd be clever with this one. I crossed the plot with avenues, then plopped roads in nested rectangles. It worked really well at a population of around 38,000, and even at 150,000. In the screen below, I'm raking in cash with ore mines, smelters, and tourist attractions.

Just before I reached 200,000 residents, however, everything went to hell. I don't know what changed (the wind, maybe?). Traffic from the freeway crawled to a stop, backing up the entire city. Police, health, and fire services couldn't reach anyone, workers couldn't get to jobs, students couldn't get to schools, and everyone was complaining about everything.

So they started leaving (or trying, at least). With businesses closing and my population declining, I went from earning $10,000 an hour to losing $10,000 an hour. I turned off services to save money, but it only made things worse. I had to fix the roads. Below is my embarrassingly haphazard attempt.

It didn't work, and I've given up on Rectango. I think the tourist attractions, which included Tokyo Tower and a high-capacity expo center, might have done me in, but I'm not completely sure.

Side note: the problem with problems

Before I get into Rectango's problems, I'll expand a little more on my issue with SimCity's "advice." Every bit of infrastructure comes with a talking head (what is that beautiful house?) who just loves to nag. Your water pumps are polluted. Waah. Your citizens are getting sick. Boo-hoo. These complaints are all part of the seesaw, but they're also incessant and frustratingly inconsistent.

If you build water pumps near dirty industry, for example, they'll start distributing polluted water. If it's just a little polluted, my pumps will claim that the water is "safe." My advisers and citizens, however, will prod me until I stop what I was doing (something fun, probably) to deal with a tinge of "safe" pollution.

That might be a forgivable matter of word choice, but what's worse is when one business has plenty of places to ship freight to, while its neighbor went out of business for the opposite reason, or when one household loves that there's plenty of shopping, while its neighbors ask "where's the shopping in this town?"

It's confusing, and I wish the Sims were able to identify the cause of their problems so I didn't have to follow them around to figure it out. I love that I can do that, but it takes ages.

On the next page: updates on the always on-line experience

Update on the live servers

Tuesday: I played a retail copy of SimCity Monday night from about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. (it will do that to you). I experienced one problem: I tried to create a region and it failed. I tried again, and it worked the second time. I then played with no further problems, and a few people from around the world joined my region. One annoying thing: if you switch servers, it starts the tutorial again. I couldn't find a way out of it, but I'm told you can escape to the menu. Anyway, given the launch problems other always-online games have experienced, SimCity has been pretty successful so far.

Wednesday: It got worse. I've been able to play for hours at a time, but it's been frustrating. Last night I was stuck in a queue for my chosen server for about two hours. I could have played on a different server—the Oceanic server has been smooth sailing—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.

Just getting this far has been a pain, and many friends are still waiting to join my region.

The launch day rush is a unique situation, and I think it's fair to let it settle down before judging the overall quality of service. We often compare it to seeing a big movie opening weekend: you'll have to wait in line, and you probably won't get great seats. Even so, it presents long-term problems. We never buy a game with a guarantee that we'll like it—we trust that we will, and sometimes we're let down—but EA can't even guarantee that we'll be able to play SimCity when we want to. The requirement also removes it from ideal playing situations, like on planes.

SimCity is not an MMO. Multiplayer regions are fun, but the bulk of the experience is solo. I'd love a solution which enables off-line play by putting neighboring multiplayer cities in temporary stasis and updating the region when the server is available. I don't have any deep knowledge of the game's back end infrastructure, so I don't know if that solution is possible, but I expect it's irrelevant.

I won't write the final review as an activist or cheerleader for the anti-DRM sentiment, as I don't think reprimanding EA and Maxis for their business and design decisions is valuable in that context. These frustrations will affect the verdict because I'll analyze the whole experience critically. Now back to the fun stuff...

On the next page, the tale of a one-road metropolis

Building a one-road metropolis

Welcome to New Tyblurg, population 130,000! A rapidly-growing cultural center, New Tyblurg attracts medium-wealth residents and tourists for luxury living, high-density commercial sectors, and a smidgen of dirty low-tech industry...but don't mind that, the mayor will probably turn the college back on eventually.

There's only one catch: all 130,000 residents have to share one road.

Surprisingly, traffic in New Tyblurg flows well. I had the idea after Rectango failed: my traffic problem there seemed to be caused by cars backing up at too many intersections, so I decided to build a city with no intersections at all. New Tyblurg is one long street which starts at the freeway exit and snakes back and forth until it reaches an end.

In my previous notes I was having trouble understanding SimCity's feedback, but New Tyblurg's conveyor belt design made it easy to observe the flow of Sims and identify the simulation's logic. Here are a few things I like and don't like:

1. When a Sim wants something, it will always go to the closest instance of that thing. Every morning in New Tyblurg, a line of Sims filled each factory with workers, then moved to the next, down the block until they were all staffed. The only exception—I think—may be with player-placed buildings like power plants, which Sims seem to give preference to for obvious reasons. I'm fine with this logic, until...

2. Sims do dumb things. It's impossible for cars to pass each other on one lane roads, so when a firetruck stops to put out a fire, traffic backs up. That makes sense, but when multiple fires are burning, their simple logic becomes a problem. Rather than sending the first truck to the furthest blaze, the second to the second-furthest, and so on, fire trucks always go to the nearest fire whether or not they're needed. In New Tyblurg, that meant that the first truck to leave the station prevented all the other trucks from helping. A smarter AI would favor high-value buildings, or areas with the greatest surrounding fire risk, and I wish that were the case.

3. Demand is a poor indicator of what to zone. Commercial zoning is rarely in demand, but New Tylerburg became very successful with heavy commercial zoning and only light industry later in its life. Instead of looking at demand, I started checking my population panel before each decision. It shows how many unfilled jobs exist in each sector and wealth class, and I zoned residential accordingly to much more success than when I'd based zoning decisions on demand.

SimCity doesn't always give the best advice, but there is a slightly-flawed logic to it, and it's saved by giving us all of its data to study for ourselves. Had it hidden that data, it would be baffling and frustrating.

4. SimCity's fundamental goal is to keep your Sims from leaving . As population increases, services and wealth distribution become more difficult to manage under budget. When Sims aren't happy about that, they leave and income plummets, creating a population fluctuation that seems to max out at around 350,000. It's not a hard limit, but do better and I'll be damn impressed.

This is SimCity's difficulty curve, and how it prevents the creation of cities with higher populations than it can handle. It's logically sound, and without it, SimCity would be about free-form creativity instead of challenging decisions. When a city reaches that high-population state of fluctuation, however, it becomes a dull thing. Population goes up, money comes in, [insert complaint] causes Sims to move out, money is lost, new Sims move in, population goes up, money is earned, and so on, forever and ever.

But of course that happens. If a city can no longer grow, all it can do is fall so it can rise again. It's a good thing much of the joy of SimCity comes from starting a fresh city with a new idea. I'm playing SimCity even when I'm not playing, designing new cities in my head on my commute or when I go to bed, finding new ways to test the simulation, such as with Tyblurg's one-road design.

SimCity's logic isn't quite like a real city's logic, but that doesn't really matter, because I don't play SimCity to become an urban planner. It's an enigma I'm eager to study; a machine I can randomly rewire every night, then turn on and watch as it invariably does something interesting. Its flaws are its limits on the interesting things I can try and it can do, and its strength is the complexity that makes it difficult to identify those limits. (In most cases, that is. The border size is a hard barrier that's instantly noticed.)

That's all for the review in progress! Check back Friday for the final review, which will organize my criticisms of everything—the simulation logic, the UI, the multiplayer, the online-requirement, and so on—into one clear verdict. In the meantime, keep up with our progress in Celebrity SimCity , where we've pooled some of our favorite gaming and internet personalities into a region to see what they build, and how much pollution they can dump into a region.

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