With the upcoming March release of its latest iteration of SimCity, Maxis seeks to stoke the inner city planner in all of us once again. The classic franchise, which started way back in 1989 with the release of the original SimCity, has always strived to make us all into mayors and chief planners of our own living, breathing cities. I played the original SimCity when I was 10 years old, and as crazy as it sounds -- the game had a lot to do with my career choice...and here I am almost 24 years later. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQNagqH6mO4]
You've Come a Long Way, Baby
Video games have come a long way since the '80s, and with each of its subsequent releases: SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4, Maxis increased the level of detail and control that mayors had on their cities. Their latest iteration, simply named SimCity, seeks to take sandbox gaming to an entirely different level.
The game still utilizes single-use zoning (residential, commercial and industrial) as its primary planning tool, but the interactions between these land uses are much more complex thanks to the new GlassBox simulation engine. While the previous versions of the game simulated high-level statistics and then created graphical animations to represent the simulated data, the new gaming engine replaces those statistics with agents. These agents are simulation units that represent objects such as water, power and individual workers. In previous versions a traffic jam animation would be shown to represent a traffic flow problem; the new SimCity will produce a traffic jam dynamically by masses of Sim agents that simulate travel to and from individual work locations. This is heady stuff! You can actually click on individual Sims in the game walking, riding the bus or driving their car and see in real-time where they live, where they work, where they are currently heading and even their individual happiness level.
Testing 1, 2, 3
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take part in the first closed beta period for the new game back in January. While I had not played SimCity in quite a few years -- since SimCity 4 -- it came back to me immediately, much like riding a bike. Instantly, I was transported back to the fond childhood memories that the previous versions had provided me. The closed beta began with a "Getting Started Scenario," which gave a quick overview, and then I was on my own to build and create my city. The beta was limited to a one-hour gameplay period, and then I was forced to start all over. In the limited time I was given, I was able to get a good idea of how the game played and just how much it has improved.
For starters, while SimCity 4 relied on a simple grid pattern much like the previous versions had, the new SimCity is much more free-form. This increases player control on the look and feel of their cities exponentially. For example, laying out a road in any shape and alignment desired will then determine the lot sizes and shapes accordingly to match. Another nice feature is that all of your infrastructure needs (power, water, sewage) are provided underneath the roads, which is a welcome improvement to those of us who were used to manually building power lines and water pipes to service our Sims.
You still have plenty of options when it comes to power generation. From coal, oil, wind, solar and even nuclear -- you get to make the decision, but must be wary of the upfront costs, lifespan and environmental concerns that go along with each. SimCity mayors have total control over what kind of city they want to build. You want a medium-density city? Fine. You want to legalize gambling and have a casino -entered economy? Go for it. However, be prepared to deal with the high-crime and other societal ills that may come along with that decision.
While my time with the beta was limited, Norman Chan wrote a great piece at Tested.com -- where he tested different real-world development patterns including urban grid, radiating sprawl and cul-de-sac segregation to see how they fared in the new game.
As a transportation planner, the most intriguing aspect of SimCity to me is the transportation system. It has always been the most important part of the game for me since I was a child. From the early days of 2-lane roads only in the original SimCity, to the very detailed transportation options in SimCity 4, this newest version takes it to an entirely new level. The SimCity roadway network ranges from dirt roads to 6-lane boulevards with streetcar tracks. An interesting improvement of note is that now the type of roadway built determines the density of development that will occur adjacent to it. Want a high-density corridor like Manhattan's Avenue-of-the-Americas? Build a grand avenue with lots of transit service to support it. That brings me to public transportation.
Good public transportation, long exclusive to large, dense metropolitan areas, is increasingly being looked to as a priority in many small to medium-sized American cities. This is no exception in SimCity, which includes bus and train (light and heavy) terminals, shuttle buses, streetcars, subways, park-and-ride lots, ferries and planes -- there are a multitude of options to get your Sims out of their cars and connect them to destinations both inside and outside your city.
Regional Planning or a Tale of Two Cities?
Probably the most important new feature of the new game is the multiplayer aspect. Playing with friends adds a new dimension to how SimCity is played. The decisions you make will affect not only your city, but the other cities in your region as well. "Thanks a bunch for opening up that new casino and bringing all that crime my way, Uncle Nick!"
But in all seriousness, planning has become increasingly more regional in nature over the past decade -- and the new SimCity is heading in that direction as well. Cities within a region can make deals for trash removal, power and water treatment in much the same way they do today. You may decide to take a neighboring city's garbage or provide them power for the extra income they can provide, but the problems that come with those deals are left for you to mitigate. Connecting your city to theirs via airports, seaports, rail terminals and highways gives you access to their population and employment. One must consider, however, that this also creates more competition for those denizens and their hard-earned simoleons (the national currency of SimNation).
In addition to regional planning, there is now a world economy. Prices of key resources like food and oil will fluctuate depending on the game's world supply and demand. So if players around the world are selling oil onto the global market, the price of the resource will go down -- of course the opposite is true as well. A little too real? I wonder if I zoom in far enough, will I be able to see my Sims grimace at the pump like I did this morning?
While SimCity does a great job at making us all mayors and planners of our own cities and regions, it unrealistically gives us unlimited power and control of the city budget, unlimited bulldozing power (eminent domain), and provides no legal hurdles to development. While this makes things much easier than reality -- it's most likely necessary as they probably wouldn't sell as many copies if you had to wait the weeks, months or even years for development to get through all of the public involvement, permitting and possible funding problems that occur in reality. Both gamers and developers alike want as much reality as possible, but not THAT much... SimCity does, however, realistically base population and economic growth on planning policy and documented economic theory, which is about as real as you're ever going to see in a video game.
I highly recommend that you pick up a copy when the game is released in a few weeks. Whether you want to build our own version of utopia or just need a break from the realities of urban planning. Whether you choose to emulate Daniel Burnham, Ebeneezer Howard, Andrés Duany or Robert Moses (I'd advise against the latter), the SimWorld is your oyster.