Essays on Technology and Culture

What Makes SimCity Great (and Why the Sequel Disappoints)

The first time I played SimCity was Christmas, 1991. I’d gotten a Super Nintendo, and SimCity was one of the original games released along side it. Super Mario World was fun, F-Zero was frustrating, but SimCity inspired me in a way that no other video game had before. When I got my first PC, I got SimCity. When SimCity 2000 came out, I begged for it as a Christmas gift, and got it, and played it relentlessly, building (and later destroying) digital cities in my own image. Later iterations of the game, SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4, were good, but didn’t quite capture the magic of SimCity 2000. 3000 was pretty, but added layers of complexity that took away from the core of the game. SimCity 4’s complexity was even greater, but in an exciting way, though it taxed every machine I tried running it on to the absolute limit.

When the first preview of the newest SimCity, I was incredibly excited. Here, at last, was a sequel that looked as revolutionary compared to its predecessor as SimCity 2000 was to the original. [1] The graphics looked incredible. You could build roads that curved and swayed with the terrain. The full–3D experienced that had been promised as far back as SimCity 3000 was finally coming. I watched preview and gameplay videos, and I salivated. When I bought my new computer, I checked its specs against what EA had recommended, knowing full well that when the Mac version dropped, I would snatch it up and never see daylight for a month.

Plans have changed. The Mac version isn’t out yet, but I’ve already decided I would rather pay six bucks for the [Good Old Games] version of SimCity 2000 than however much EA wants for the latest SimCity. I don’t need to retell the clusterexpletive of the game’s launch, and the continuing backlash. That’s what Google is for. Instead, I’d like to tell you what makes SimCity, as a game, as a franchise, so compelling to us. You can fill in the blanks about where the latest sequel falls down.

Actually, to even call SimCity a “game” is a disservice. For years, Maxis labelled their products as “software toys.” An apt moniker, as SimCity began life as little more than a map editor for an Amiga shoot-em-up game. Will Wright had enough fun building the cities that some would-be gamer would bomb that he spun the editor off into a new project, allowing someone to build their own city and watch it grow, managing it all the while. Crime too high? Build police stations. Earthquake, or tornado strike? Better have Fire departments. Too much traffic? Build a rail system… and make sure you’re making enough from taxes to pay for all of it.

SimCity was an open-ended box of virtual Tinkertoys that we could put together any way we want, and later versions of the game opened up the possibilities. In SimCity 4, for example, you could create anything from a dense, sprawling metropolis, to a tiny little farming village, and have it work. Earlier games in the series tended to push a bit more towards creating something more like Portland than Peoria. [2] Even still, it never told you what to do, or how to do it beyond the basics in the manual. If you want to build a utopian paradise where every citizen’s needs are met, there’s no traffic, no pollution, and no crime, you can. If you want a totalitarian state, with an ignorant populace and crumbling infrastructure, go nuts. If you want to just draw pretty pictures on the landscape with the road tool? Have fun. City shaped like a dong? You got it.

Whatever it was, you were building your own vision. SimCity was anti-social, though when SimCity 4 came out, people had taken to sharing diaries of their cities online. You didn’t have to worry about consensus, or other people taking the good parts for themselves. Few games before, or since, give you quite the level of creative freedom SimCity has, even within the same basic genre. SimCity gives you a blank slate, a few simple constraints, and all the tools you need to make something cool. The earlier games in the series don’t lose their value due to age, either. SimCity 2000, which I’ve been playing lately, is as fun and frustrating as it was twenty years ago. The graphics are a product of its time, but they still look great, but SimCity would be compelling as mere abstractions rather than attempts at realism. It’s the freedom and control that make SimCity so compelling.

  1. SimCity Societies doesn’t count. Don’t ask me about it.  ↩

  2. Please don’t e-mail me if you live in either of those places.  ↩