SimCity: Back On Track?


Probably before the year 2002 is complete, Electronic Arts will release the newest installment in the Maxis SimCity series. SimCity is arguably the most popular simulation game in existence and the grandfather of the genre. The new release is generating a flurry of excited interest among devotees of prior versions, and computer gamers in general. But many questions remain. SimCity 4 will follow a prior version- SimCity 3000- that was ultimately a modest disappointment to many purists. Will SimCity 4 represent a return to the series’ early concepts of urban planning for its own enjoyment?


The original game- SimCity (now referred to as “SimCity Classic”) was released for DOS machines in 1989 and represented a departure so removed from other computer games of the day as to represent an entirely new genre. Positioned between the many fact-paced gun-toting action games and the only other true simulation game of the time, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, it occupied its own elegant niche. It carried a left-brained creative appeal in allowing the player (“the mayor”) to design attractive cityscapes with all the amenities of home. But it also required the right brain to organize all the infrastructure: power plants, power lines, roads, trains, police and fire services so that everything all functioned together as a system. The graphic view of the city was primitive by modern standards- directly overhead looking straight down on the city as if from a satellite onto rooftops in 16 colors. But what it lacked in graphic detail it more than compensated for in imagination. It has since been revived on a Windows platform, and ported to Apple, Super Nintendo, and Palm computers.


The overwhelming success of SimCity resulted naturally in a sequel, released in 1993 and whose name, “SimCity 2000” capitalized on the building bicentennial obsession of the decade. This new version enhanced every aspect of game play many times over and added several new dimensions in complexity and variety. Instead of a satellite view, the graphic perspective was now angular, as if viewing the ground from an airplane, To enhance the appearance of a three dimensional world- now in 256 colors, the terrain grid was rotated horizontally 45 degrees, allowing a view of 2 sides of each structure simultaneously. But more than a graphic enhancement of the prior version, this was an entirely new game. Added were the complexities of managing the city’s health care, education, water and sewer systems, multiple types of power plants, city parks, and three densities of city zones. Mass transit systems were enhanced with the additions of bus service and subway lines. Even the city’s industrial makeup could be manipulated by offering tax (dis)incentives among several types of industrial sectors. A Highway system was added to the road network, allowing it to transport the city’s imaginary citizens (“sims”) farther on the new larger city grid of 128 x 128 tiles. The new pseudo-3D viewpoint introduced the possibility for a landscape with varying elevations upon which the city could be built. And a terrain editor gave the user the ability to fully sculpt the landform to perfection prior to building a city. The hallmark was the introduction of the Arcology- a futuristic vision of a “city-within-a-city” in which urban architecture coexists peacefully with the ecology.


In the summer of 1999, the third title in the series made its appearance. Its pre-release press and its title- SimCity 3000 indicated it to be a further enhancement of the same idea. Indeed several aspects of the game were improved. The graphics made an enormous leap forward, with over 64,000 colors. Some additional complexity was added, such as the need to manage trash removal, make deals with neighboring cities to sell or buy utilities, and to make deals with land developers to place complexes such as mega-malls, maximum security prisons and the like within your city’s borders in exchange for cold hard cash. The terrain was now four times the size of SimCity 2000- 256 x 256.

Some of the best aspects of SimCity 2000, however, were inexplicably removed or impaired. Hydroelectric plants, which were an early source of clean energy for a young growing city, were missing entirely. Highways were difficult- sometimes impossible- to place properly, and carried no benefit to the game’s traffic simulation. SimCity 2000 had given the mayor an ability to name individual police precincts, fire halls, schools, hospitals, libraries, and sports stadiums (even the ability to name the team’s mascot). This naming capability provided some imagined sense of regionalism within the city. SimCity 3000 has none of those. Likewise, SimCity 3000 ignored its predecessor’s ability to place signs which could be used to label streets, highway exits, imagined sub-communities, Arcologies vanished from the series and were poorly substituted by “landmark” buildings which, when placed in a city, contributed absolutely nothing to the functionality of the game other than being visually aesthetic. The ability to select specific industries to attract into your city was entirely missing from the game, with no explanation.

The terrain editor was removed and replaced with a “cheat”, which allowed the player to import elevation patterns from a grayscale bitmap image. This was significant, since digital elevation maps (DEM) of a real-world location can be downloaded from one of many web sites. Actual landforms from the natural world could be imported and built upon. But since this feature addressed only elevation and not surface features, the player was left with no means to further enhance the landform by placing forests, ponds, and streams. And because the game was incapable of placing buildings on sloped land tiles, and almost no land in the real world is perfectly level, this potentially very powerful feature proved to be useless.

Worst of all, playing SimCity 3000 felt more like a game than a simulation. SimCity and SimCity 2000 had allowed one to build any type of city one desired, from sprawling metropolis to tiny village, to rural backwoods. Your success depended solely upon whether you liked the habitat you created. But SimCity 3000 placed pressure on the mayor to build dense population centers. At low populations, the economy doesn’t really work well. Tax revenues are seldom sufficient to support the road network, utilities, and the police and fire services. There exists a definite win/lose criterion, which is defined by the game’s designers rather than by the player.


Near the end of May 2002, Electronic Arts offered a first glance at the fourth installment in the series. It mercifully abandons the “thousand” naming convention in favor of a simpler more straightforward title, “SimCity 4”. Details are very sparse. Less is known publicly than remains under cover. But early previews indicate that this installment may move the series back in the right direction for core SimCity purists.

For one thing, buildings can now be constructed on sloping tiles. This will be a surprisingly significant development to most players because it will allow cities to occupy many more varied types of landscapes. It will be up to sims to build retaining walls to level the foundations under their houses and other buildings. It is not known at this time whether the importation of DEMS converted to grayscale bitmaps will be retained but this would make the feature doubly powerful.

Secondly, the terrain editor will return, in the form of “God Mode”. This will restore total control of the terrain to the player, including the placement of several typed of landforms. Known examples at this time are buttes, volcanic peaks and meteor craters. Along with the placement of trees and water, “God Mode” will include an erosion effect to give the landscape an even greater realism.

Third, and possibly most telling is a new regionalism which will be an integral part of this fourth version. Each city will have up to sixty-four neighborhoods; each neighborhood will carry its own characteristics. Health, crime, educational level, fire protection must be managed for each neighborhood independent of the others. The depth to which this regionalism feature will extend is not publicly known at this time, but it can be inferred that the mayor will have the ability to customize the name of each neighborhood. At worst, this signifies a departure from SimCity 3000’s more global approach to city management, where only the city’s total quantity of libraries, hospitals, schools, bus stops and many other services were important but not their placement.

Where SimCity 3000 allowed minimal interaction with neighboring cities solely for the purpose of managing utilities and economic development, SimCity 4 will allow the player to actually BE the neighbor, by saving the current city and selecting the adjacent one. In this way the player will macromanage a large metropolitan area by micromanaging its parts.

Speaking of micromanaging, SimCity 4 will allow you to place up to five of your own citizens- sims- into your city as agents to report on the living conditions. They can be sims whom you have created using SimCity’s sister product “The Sims” or it can be one of the pre-packaged sims included in the game. The sim will live- and die- in your city, taking advantage of the educational, health and economic conditions you create. Checking in with your sims periodically will give you a sense for how it must be to live in the habitat you have created for t hem to occupy. But each sim is mobile, and can leave the slums to move into new upscale housing in a better neighborhood or, can even leave your city in disgust and move away entirely if no neighborhood exists to suit its high standards.

A day/night cycle, introduced for the first time in this release, will further demonstrate the experience of living in the city by simulating traffic flows as sims go about the business of living their lives. You will see commuter jam-ups as sims travel to and from work and school, You will see sports fans crowding streets around the stadium on game day. The result of all this will be visual feedback for how you are designing the infrastructure.

Again as in each release, the game graphics have been greatly improved. This time, three-dimensional shading has been added so that buildings and trees will cast shadows on their shaded sides, and even on their surroundings. The early screen shots are sufficiently realistic to almost give you a sense of vertigo as though you were looking at an very clear aerial photograph. But the most remarkable thing about the game’s new graphics is the fact that they are not the main story this time.

This time it appears that SimCity will give us the best of all previous worlds. From SimCity 3000, graphics will be even further improved, and the neighborhood interaction feature enhanced. From SimCity 2000, the variety of industrial sectors will be revived, as will a greater feel for the experience of an individual living in the city. Any successful city, whether real or imagined, is nothing more than the sum of all the individuals living within it.

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