Angry About Cities: SimCity, One Month On

Spark_2013-04-20_00-58-52 I felt justified in choosing to pre-order BioShock Infinite instead of leaping aboard the new SimCity train -- just after my purchase, the city simulator barreled, top-speed, into the wall of always-online DRM. BioShock turned out to be worth the wait, so I got to observe the misadventure of a release from a distance, with the occasional snark-ful comment.

But a couple weeks ago, one of my friends from the local LAN scene found he had an extra copy of SimCity, not the first time he’s come across swag that he missed while raffling at an event. He ran a twitter sweepstakes (#angryaboutcities), the entrant’s names were thrown into a random number generator, and my name popped up at the top of the list.

So here I am, writing about the latest “Sim”-game. And yeah, I guess I’m pretty angry.

Maxis managed the same hat trick twice in a row. First, they offered up gameplay footage of a very pretty, very complex simulation game, with the promise of wall-to-wall customization. Then, to a salivating, eager public, they deliver the withered husk of that game. Spore, so radiant in its trailer, so mediocre in the flesh, was the previous example of this approach to business; SimCity is merely the latest.


To say SimCity had a troubled release is to say that Pompeii had a troubled interaction with a volcano. The game was a hot mess at launch, a shitshow on the order of Diablo 3. You probably heard about it: servers crashed, features were patched out to improve stability, hardware was frantically added to EA’s end. Critics panned the game in response; it currently sits at a Metacritic rating of 64 - or, in academic terms, a “D.” (The user score, as one might expect, is considerably worse.)


At its core, SimCity is good. The graphics are crisp and clean, the city management feels solid -- easier than its predecessors, but without sacrificing complexity and challenge. It has the soul of earlier entries in the SimCity series, down to its wonky sense of humor, complaint-prone citizens, and reticulating splines. I’ve spent a lot of hours on it (even in a city that I destroyed by neglecting education, placing a nuclear plant, and causing a meltdown) and the core gameplay has never failed to satisfy. And therein lies the problem. It’s not just the core gameplay.


After the past couple years, I’m tempted to say that EA has a fetish for horrible, crippling frameworks. I’ve spoken of Mass Effect 3 and Battlefield 3 before; each was crippled by the addition of a lousy delivery and support framework (Origin and Battlelog, respectively). SimCity was designed to be a single-player game from the start, but late in development the brass at EA decided they wanted an MMO, one that could be used as an advertising platform. What we have now is the unfortunate result of that desire, and a month after release, it's still very broken.


The most important part of any multiplayer game is the synchronization of data between clients. In shooters, person A needs to know the direction to shoot at person B. In strategy, the position and strength of enemy forces needs to be uniform between clients. This is assumed, of course - you’re probably rolling your eyes that I even bothered to mention the need. I only bring it up because nobody explained the basics to Maxis. While allegedly an MMO, “designed” for multiplayer (according to EA leadership), SimCity can only barely handle client/server synchronization. Since I started playing, I’ve encountered “processing errors” at least a dozen times, rolling back my progress by anywhere from five minutes to two hours. Sync issues caused one of my regions to be a total clusterfuck: one city built a Great Work, a friend’s city only saw it as half-completed, while a third city thought it didn’t exist. This isn’t a launch problem -- the game’s out, the launch is over. SimCity just doesn’t work consistently, nor well. For as good as the game is, the metagame (region management, multiplayer, and the like) is appalling.


Not all multiplayer is great, but if your game is multiplayer-only (never mind an MMO), you should probably nail the basics. Otherwise, it might seem like your game wasn’t multiplayer, but you decided you wanted always-online DRM a month ahead of release. Otherwise, you may accumulate a slew of negative reviews from indignant consumers. Otherwise, you could drive people back into the waiting arms of SimCity 4, 3000, or 2000, or on to other series entirely.

You’re goddamned right I’m angry about cities.