I hadn’t played SimCity until the UK version unlocked at midnight and I’ve barely slept since then. Intravenous coffee, fresh from the bean, and a sumo wrestler’s weight of dry roasted peanuts have seen me through the night and now I shall convert the experiences of the last twelve hours into words. This is not ‘Wot I Think’, it’s just a step toward a closer study of the slickness of the systems as well as their shortcomings, and it’s also a minor chronicle of the European launch.
A quick side-note: the most expensive, lavish launch party in the world wouldn’t receive as much attention as the disastrous US release of SimCity. Parties are for the people with an invite but the game is for everyone. It’s the kind of publicity that nobody wants to buy and so much of it could have been avoided. Perhaps the next couple of days will bombard me with tasks and disasters that require me to interact with everybody else trying to play, but so far I’ve encountered absolutely nothing in the game that justifies the online requirement.
Edit: Since around two o'clock, when I finished the bulk of this feature, I've been unable to access the server that is storing my cities, even though it's listed as 'available'. The other European servers are 'busy', which means queuing to play. I can access one American server at the moment, which would involve starting from scratch and then either continuing with that or abandoning it at a later date and returning to my original developments. I remember keeping Amiga save games on floppy disks, all neatly labelled and stored within reach. This is like the time the dog ate the disks, except EA will probably regurgitate something in a few hours.
Judging by the pre-release trype, I expected to be shackled to four cretinous neighbours who would pump sewage into my most stately residential districts and steal all of my power to light up their crime-coddling casinos. My main import would be thieves and scoundrels.
But what’s this? Create a new game and there’s an option to set the region to private, invite-only, meaning you can leave the entry-ways closed and be the mayor of every plot in the area. All of the trading, sharing and sabotage is under your control, with no interference and a great deal more freedom. My first town – and they’re not cities, but more on that in a moment – has a coal-burning power plant but my greedy urchins quickly burned every natural resource they could find and the lights flickered. We were heading for a new dark age.
There were two large deposits of coal on the map but one was next to a thriving and high income residential district and the other was next to it. That wouldn’t do a great deal for house prices or my popularity rating, so I sought an alternative source. Heading to the region map, I discovered an area abundant in the black stuff nearby, so I zoomed in and set to work.
Coketown is the sort of industrial hellhole that would have provided a mighty line of business for William Blake, Amateur Engraver and Poet of the End Times. Look at it, he would have said, what a stinking pile of bobbins. I cannot argue. It’s bloody horrible there. It’s a productive pile of bobbins though. Trailer parks surround belching great factories and every day the mines claim another life. Occasionally an ambulance will pop over from Horaceburgh to pick a broken wretch up from the street, but they have no clinic to call their own. Eventually the whole place will probably burn down but, for now, it serves its purpose.
That’s the social element sorted then. I’m socialising with myself, which is great because I know how to satisfy my own needs. There’s a Woody Allen quote that’s relevant to my experience of SimCity ‘multiplayer’. I did plan to play with friends and we’d agreed on a server but they are in USA USA USA and by the time I was allowed to join them, I wasn’t allowed to join them. The server that their towns are on is full and the enforced social element has prevented me from playing with people I know. Blake would probably have written something dour about that as well.
The servers didn’t want me to play at all for about twenty minutes but by half past midnight, I was plopping down zones (that’s the game’s term, ‘plopping’) and saving up my Simoleans so that I could hire the beginnings of a police force. Since then, I’ve been able to access my regions at will, which isn’t something to celebrate, it’s something that I shouldn’t even have to mention at all. I do find that when I alt-tab out of the game, it’s often kicked me back to the menu when I return and I have to quit and restart to access my games. Perhaps it detects a slight ripple in the forces of Internet, one so minute that the rest of my computer fails to notice? I’ve never lost progress but it’s irritating and every single time I expect Horaceburgh to have upped sticks and vanished into the Cloud.
That would be distressing but it wouldn’t take long to rebuild. Each plot of land is quite small, something like a Sims 3 neighbourhood but with a little bit more leg-room. An entire region will eventually resemble a city but the individual sections, which are connected by magical highways that transport every essential urban ingredient, are boroughs at best.
The magic of roads is at the heart of the game. In their various densities, they fulfill every necessary function, from moving workers around the place to funnelling poo into landfills. They are the town’s pipes and powerlines. This can make SimCity seem like the Duplo to Sim City 4's Meccano. Draw up the outline of a city, using roads and zones, and buildings will swiftly appear. The game begins with a tutorial but it’s a waste of time because each new beginning is a guided experience anyway. While you’re choosing the layout, the services and higher functions are unlocked over time, which makes for a lot of dead air. This isn’t helped by the (temporary?) removal of the speediest setting, another wound inflicted by the always-online requirement. Too many cities running at high speed would apparently cause the servers to burn up faster than a cramped, rubbish-strewn shanty town.
When fires did begin to break out in Horaceburgh I had to wait until I had enough cash to build a fire station, so expansion was on hold for a while as the money trickled in. Then the criminal element appeared and, conveniently, approval for a police station came through. I waited for my coffers to fill again and then built the police station. In the early stages, that’s how the game flows.
I’m taking considerable pleasure in watching my neighbourhoods evolve, planting parks and amenities to boost land value and upgrading roads to allow for higher density traffic, which leads to apartment buildings and larger department stores. Before I’d had a chance to play, I was excited by the idea of a simulated world, with all of the systems having an effect on one another. As towns grow denser, which is the alternative to an actual increase in scale, SimCity does become a more intriguing toy. Traffic jams can prevent fire engines and police cars from fulfilling their function, and bottlenecks often require extensive re-zoning and redevelopment, but those multi-functional magical roads make for a rather simple model.
More thoughts on the late-game details, global trading, resource management and any hidden complexities in the systems will follow. Even though the European launch has been stable in comparison to the troubles earlier this week, I’m yet to find one user-friendly reason for the online anchor and as I tab back into the game now, I see that I’ve been ejected once again. Spotify hasn’t stopped playing and my ghostly online presence in the RPS offices hasn’t been interrupted, but SimCity has decided that the tether between us is too flimsy.
Reloading has brought me back to my citizens and Horaceburgh still stands, but every reminder that my these constructions exist elsewhere only serves to make them seem flimsy and disposable. It’s lovely to see a world grow and to nudge it in a new direction occasionally, but I haven’t formed a bond with SimCity yet, and I’m not yet convinced that there’s enough complexity or variety to make the attachment worth nurturing.