Ever played a game that you know isn’t great but you can’t stop playing? That kind of guilty pleasure which consumes you against your better judgement. At the extreme end of this spectrum I’ve had that with Feeding Frenzy, an early XBLA game that saw you as a fish devour other fish. As a concept it wasn’t great, and its execution was similarly mundane, but something within it kept making me want to swim around a single-screen, two-dimensional fish tank and fill my fishy gut. It was not my proudest moment.
Though even mentioning Sim City on the same page may seem a disservice to Maxis, I equally question why I have put so many hours into that somewhat flawed experience. It was supposed to be the coming of age for the venerable franchise but instead it has been a release dogged by server issues and filled with questionable design choices. And yet it is all too easy to sit down, intending to quickly check in on your fledgling cities, only to emerge several hours later not knowing quite what happened but by the proud mayor of a town boasting a new airport, to have struck a bountiful source of oil, or feeling the pressure of your voters as a crime wave grips their lives.
Right from the start it’s devilishly moreish and keeps you glued to the screen as requests regularly arrive from your townsfolk, opening with a request for roads so they can build houses and settle down. As soon as you’ve committed that virgin strip of tarmac, a stream of new residents flow in from the region’s highways. Zoomed in you can see the tiny removal vans speed in and start assembling homes and moving equally tiny Sim families in. Before the paint is dry on their garage doors however they’re complaining there’s no power. Ingrates. So you open up the power options and decide between wind, solar, coal and oil. Certain towns will have obvious solutions, but this is only the start of it. Next come requests for water; and sewage treatment; then rubbish collection; it goes on.
What started out as a simple and tranquil town where you drew pictures using the road network as your pencil, soon turns into a planning puzzle. Certain utility buildings, such as water pumps, might upset local residents if plonked next to them, but it’s a darn sight better than the sewage treatment plant being upwind from them. The trick is figuring out where in your plot of land you can fit everything whilst annoying the fewest people. Finding the corner of the city where the smell will go away from town, or the local bog that citizens won’t mind if you taint it a little as long as their streets are clean. In some way it’s as much you making moral calls as logistical ones as in cases there may be homes or businesses already sat upon that perfect spot.
The other headache comes from the limited cash flow you start with. All these services cost money, to buy and to continue to run, and they need to be balanced against the taxes collected. Provide first rate services, costing the earth, and people may be healthy, employed, well-plumbed and happy, but the high tax rate will scare many off. Equally, dirt and germs may be cheap but don’t expect many takers.
Businesses can bring in further streams of revenue too, easing the woes of your treasury. Casual players can skim the surface and can play around with growing large industrial hubs selling goods to shops, but a more advanced set of options lets you tailor your city to be the black-gold capital of the region with oil refineries and derricks, or attract in the high rollers by erecting neon lights and casinos up and down your strip. You can focus on trading, electronics or tourism, and each will vastly alter the makeup of your city and how the cash comes rolling in.
Taking all of what’s on offer can be slightly overwhelming but the simulation underneath is at least sensible and spaces its requests out in the early days. Requests from Sims are as much a guidance along what to explore as they are indications of what’s faltering in your creation, and it’s easy enough to write the whole thing off as an experiment and start in a fresh region if the worst comes to the worst.
What this all builds towards is the fun of founding, growing and specialising. Making sure all your Sims have enough jobs and health care to keep them happy, ensuring the place is attracting in visitors from the wider world to put extra coins in your pocket, and being the mayor of a sustainable city. Where you begin to see the cracks, however, is as your first creation reaches its limits.
The cities are surprisingly small and it won’t be long before your buildings are pressed up against the border. There will be no teeming metropolises gently spilling out into suburbia and onwards to more green outlying villages, instead you will have constructed a solid square of concrete and iron and once you’ve filled it, you’re going to have to start recycling space. This may seem like a challenge, something put to you to test your mayoral wits, and to a certain extent it does as you bulldoze here and tweak there but there comes a point where it’s not worth it. The rewards earned for changing focus greatly or bowing to every Sim’s little request and upsetting the balance are negligible; there is a dearth of long term goals and so it’s often best starting afresh.
Definite advantages await with this course of action, as cities in the same region all help each other, be it through trading utilities and resources, or sharing technological and governmental developments that unlock more advanced buildings. Neighbours can often be called upon to plug a shortfall in water or to employ some of your citizens, but it’s highly buggy. Shared power supplies will cut off for no apparent reason leaving your city in darkness and with businesses threatening to leave, gifts of cash and resources take an excruciating long time to travel between mayors, and direct interaction is so minimal that at times you question the online nature of the game.
The visual representation of your city, spread out on the region plane sat in amongst whilst also seeing all your friends’, does provide a lovely diorama yet it just serves to highlight further how isolated you feel whilst playing. There are no great shared constructions of any meaning, no chance to co-mayor a city or change the face of the region, you operate in a completely solitary fashion.
This in itself could just be considered a missed opportunity but when forced to focus on your own endeavours so much you realise there are fundamental problems at home, too. Bugs and inconsistencies with traffic pathfinding, business and the general sensibility of Sims can bring whole conceptual infrastructures crashing down. Sensible little assumptions that you make about life in your world are not replicated in the thoughts of your Sims. Businesses happily go out of business claiming they have no place ship freight to despite living across the road from a freight warehouse; Sims will die queuing for hospital treatment despite there being a queue-free hospital elsewhere in town; dim-witted drivers will clog roads meaning the fire brigade are stuck in jams whilst the industrial quarter burns freely. Each in isolation is irritating, possibly humorous, but when its replicated time and time again any long term goal you had for your city is an exercise in futility.
And yet, I keep going back.
That initial period, where you have nothing but a piece of green belt, maybe a strip of land by the coast, you put to one side the disgruntlement that ended your last venture and you see only potential. Maybe a series of well-to-do mansions could have views of the sea and bring in the high-rate tax payers, possibly this time you’ll pop down a concert hall and expo centre and dedicate this town to putting on shows, each time you’ll try something a little different to see if this time it sticks.
More often than not there will be an early struggle as you balance out your ambition with the trickle of cash that comes in through tax returns. More often than not you’ll be distracted from your initial goal as you see what would happen if you unleash Godzilla through the streets. More often than not you’ll put together a working world that will quite happily tick by if you just stopped tinkering.
For all its initial ambition it’s hard to consider Sim City as anything other than a let-down. Let-down or not, though, if you give me a sandbox I will keep on making castles.