Column: SimCity 4

Loose Wire — Calling All Control Freaks: Crave power? Get a taste of it in the newest version of PC game SimCity; In it, you build and govern your own city, then fill it with characters that you’ve created

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 20 March 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Eighteen years ago a guy called Will Wright was trying to peddle a computer game called SimCity to the big boys. Their response was, “Who wants to play a game where you just build a city, and then run it?” Now SimCity is into its fourth incarnation (SimCity 4, $50 from www.ea.com) and is pre-eminent among PC games. It turns out folk did like building stuff rather than blowing it up.

In some ways SimCity hasn’t changed that much in the intervening years. You’re still the mayor of a town that’s starting from scratch, you still zone land for residential, commercial and industrial use, and you still hope that enough citizens — Sims — move in to provide enough of a tax base to fund your grand urban-design fantasies. Under the hood, artificial intelligence is still computing all the factors of life to determine whether those Sims come, how they get to work and whether they are next going to clamour for a mall, a park or an airport. What’s changed is computing: Now computers are so powerful that the makers of SimCity can make the simulations — and the artificial intelligence — so detailed that you’re no longer seeing a few dots represent traffic, but real cars, with people inside them, all driving badly.

SimCity is something of a legend among gamers. At first it was hard to imagine it appealing to anyone other than town planners. Indeed, the early manuals came packed with academic treatises on the art of city building, not the sort of thing that your shoot-’em-up brigade was likely to digest prior to an evening’s PC mayhem. Against all odds, SimCity was a hit, and remained one, as the humble graphics — everything was viewed from above, in two-dimension — gave way to the isometric version used in most computer games nowadays. SimCity 4 has added God-like powers of forming terrain, from deep oceans to volcanoes, while also extending your powers to a region, whether it’s a patchwork of dormitory towns supporting a metropolis, or separate cities linked by rail, road and garbage-disposal deals. As mayor, it’s your job to figure all this out and make it work. SimCity doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you want to spend your free time doing, but trust me, it’s very addictive.

That’s not to say SimCity 4 is perfect. For one thing, it requires a well-powered PC to run — don’t even think of running it on anything less than a 1-gigahertz PC with plenty of memory. Maxis, the maker of SimCity, has been swallowed by the computer-games giant Electronic Arts (www.ea.com). My copy didn’t work until I downloaded an “update” from EA for minor fixes, such as ensuring freight trains drop their cargo at ports and fixing a bug where industrial zones would develop without any roads in and out. Even then my cities have been unstable, tending to crash if I put too many water pipes in. Were my cities not all such appalling examples of urban sprawl and unchecked pollution, I might have been more upset about having to keep starting over. Another grumble: Will Wright’s name is not on the credits, and I have a suspicion he’s transferred his affections to The Sims and The Sims Online games, which he also developed.

SimCity came first, but it made sense that folk who enjoy directing the lives of millions might also get a kick out of micromanaging the lives of one or two. That’s what The Sims was, while The Sims Online allowed you to take your creation onto the Internet and commune with other micromanagees. SimCity 4 has wedded part of this by allowing you to move Sims you created in either game into a building in the city you’ve created and govern: Watching your Sims driving their clapped-out Beetle to work along the streets you have laid, past a monument to yourself, to the smog-covered industrial heartland you zoned is an experience to warm any closet megalomaniac’s heart.

SimCity 4’s strength is its amazing attention to detail. Build a zoo and if you’re lucky you’ll see wild animals visiting their caged cousins after nightfall. Build an advanced research centre and you’re likely to see fireworks emanating from the building before crashing into nearby high-rises. Demolish a bridge and a blue bus will appear, suspended cartoon-style in mid-air before splashing into the river below; dynamite a church and its resident spirit will float heavenwards. Look out for the town drunk wandering by, or the mayor’s stretch limo, which glides down side streets at night: Either the mayor’s a kerb crawler or he takes his duties pretty seriously.

This is all great to watch, but SimCity 4 isn’t the quantum leap many enthusiasts hoped for. Just as with the first game, you’re best advised to ignore all your high-minded ideals about pollution and open spaces and get the place running with a combination of heavy industry and trailer parks. Don’t even think about educating your Sims, let alone giving them running water or a fire station, until you’ve got a population of 10,000 and a decent income. Of course, by then, you’ll have probably forgotten all your ideals and be demanding a limo, a mansion and the odd statue.

Among other gripes, I’d have liked more options for focused management where, as mayor, you could give your attention to traffic problems or waste management by delegating other tasks. As mayor in SimCity, it seems, you’re still putting out too many literal or figurative fires to stand back and be a visionary. A bit like being a real mayor, I guess. Right down to the stretch limo.

13. March 2003 by jeremy
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