I wasn't in the SimCity beta, but, if I had been, my approach would likely have been the same one I use for most city planning games: plop any old thing down anywhere and see what happens. But some people used the beta's one hour demo to do some actual research into how accurate the game's simulation is when compared to real life city planning.
Norman Chan from Tested performed the test; implementing numerous layout philosophies and comparing their in-game results to their success in real world situations.
Chan found that, while widely used in real life, an urban grid system wan't the ideal method for maximising population. "In practice, the multiple times I tried using a straight rectangular grid layout in the beta, my city struggled to exceed 15,000 population in the hour played." It seems as if the tightly packed rectangles didn't give the early low-cost shacks enough room to upgrade as the Sims became more wealthy.
SimCity's residents proved receptive to the radiating sprawl of circular road networks, not carrying over the negative stigma the model has picked up in real life. Chan notes they were cheaper to build, as they used less road, but again ran into problems boosting the population over 15,000. The lack of space in SimCity's canvas soon became an issue.
By far the most popular model was the cul-de-sac system. "Cul-de-sac design turned out to be the most successful of the layouts I tried, letting me reach over 20,000 population in just half an hour of play. The generous spacing between the cul-de-sacs allowed houses to be upgraded to medium and large-sized homes quicker, though they never converted to apartment complexes in my run." Again, space proved problematic, and Chan found that with this model, rearranging neighbourhoods was much tougher.
It's an interesting exploration of the balance between simulated verisimilitude and instant enjoyment. While SimCity's residents do deviate from expected behaviour, they do so for fascinating reasons.
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