SimCity is 30 years old - But is that a good thing?

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From video game to day job: How ‘SimCity’ inspired a generation of city planners
By Jessica Roy

Mar 05, 2019 | 5:00 AM


From video game to day job: How ‘SimCity’ inspired a generation of city planners


A scene from "SimCity 4 Deluxe." (Maxis)

Jason Baker was studying political science at UC Davis when he got his hands on “SimCity.” He took a careful approach to the computer game.

"I was not one of the players who enjoyed Godzilla running through your city and destroying it. I enjoyed making my city run well."

This conscientious approach gave him a boost in a class on local government. Instead of writing a term paper about three different models for how cities can develop, Baker proposed building three scenarios in “SimCity,” then letting the game run on its own and writing about how his virtual cities fared.

He ended up getting an A. Playing “SimCity,” Baker said, "helped remind me of the importance of local government, which is what I ended up doing for a living."

Today, Baker is the vice president of transportation and housing at the nonprofit Silicon Valley Leadership Group. He served as a council member in Campbell, Calif., from 2008 to 2016, a tenure that included two stints as mayor.

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014.

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone's job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

Bitten by the city-building bug

"I used to draw maps of cities for fun. I had no idea it was an actual career," said Nicole Payne, now a program official for the National Assn. of City Transportation Officials in New York City. When she was 10, a librarian saw her drawings and told her there was a video game she should try.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without ‘SimCity,’” she said.

A scene from "SimCity 2000," which was released in 1993.


A scene from "SimCity 2000," which was released in 1993. (Maxis)

Cuong Trinh played “SimCity” in a summer school class in junior high. Years later, after getting his undergraduate degree, he wanted to travel but because he was under 25, he had to rule out cities where he would need to rent a car to get around.

“That's what really got me thinking about urban planning and ‘SimCity,’ where you put in trains, where you help people move,” said Trinh, now acting senior transportation planner for Caltrans in downtown L.A.

In more than a dozen interviews for this article, people who went from “SimCity” enthusiasts to professional planners talked about what they liked about the game: The way you can visualize how a single change affects a whole city. The ability to see how transit, livability and the economy are all connected. The fact that no one likes to live near a landfill.

Like Baker, many of the players who went on to become planners generally said they didn’t like to activate the game’s built-in “disaster” mode, which unleashes earthquakes, hurricanes or Godzilla on cities. They got satisfaction from building pristine cities so efficient they could run themselves.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without 'SimCity.'

Simplified simulations


Will Wright, the creator of “SimCity,” imagined when he designed the game that it would be interesting only to architects and city planners. But the first version wound up selling more than 1 million copies and changing the nature of gaming.

It popularized the simulation game genre and turned Maxis — a start-up launched in Orinda, Calif., by Wright and Jeff Braun — into an industry titan. Maxis capitalized on the game's success, publishing “SimAnt,” “SimFarm,” “SimEarth,” “SimTower,” “SimLife,” “SimIsle” and “SimHealth” in its first decade, along with a handful of less popular non-simulation titles.

The company was valued at $125 million by the time it was acquired by EA in 1997. In 2000, the Redwood City studio released “The Sims,” which became one of the bestselling video games of all time.

Like most video games based on real-world jobs, “SimCity” oversimplifies some of the more mundane elements of urban planning. The game has never allowed mixed-use space. (In other words, the ubiquitous mid-rise apartment building with ground-floor commercial space currently taking America's cities by storm does not exist.) There are no bike lanes. No iteration of “SimCity” has ever accurately depicted the staggering amount of a city's square footage that's spent on parking lots.

The lead designer of the 2013 version, Stone Librande, lent some insight in an article in the Atlantic: Parking lots are ugly and boring.

Will Wright, the creator of "SimCity" and "The Sims," at Maxis Studios in Walnut Creek, Calif., in 2004.


Will Wright, the creator of "SimCity" and "The Sims," at Maxis Studios in Walnut Creek, Calif., in 2004. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

"That is a damning indictment, less of the game and more of urban planning," said Aaron Brown, a community organizer and transportation activist based in Portland, Ore., who credits his early enthusiasm for transit to “SimCity.”

He spent many hours trying to build a city with no space for driving at all — only buses and trains. But like in real life, mass transit is expensive to build and maintain in “SimCity,” and some of the residents still want to drive, no matter how convenient your rail system is. He was never able to make it work. (Today, he's a self-described "rabble rouser" working to halt a proposed freeway expansion.)

That issue speaks to a larger criticism of “SimCity”: Wright's vision imposed an old-school approach to city-building, influenced by Robert Moses and the Chicago school. For those early urban planners, and in “SimCity,” there were binary solutions to problems. To lower crime rates, build police stations. If people complain about traffic, build more roads. If you need space to build a freeway or a stadium, raze working-class neighborhoods.

“A lot of the assumptions baked into that game are the normative assumptions that we need to be questioning,” Brown said.

Some of that includes examining what the game chooses to leave out: The environment wasn't a consideration beyond air quality. The race of a city’s populace was largely a non-factor.

Greener, more global games

The next generation of “SimCity” players may have a different perspective.

The “SimCity: BuildIt” app, developed at EA's Twentytrack studio in Helsinki, Finland, has 6.1 million players and more than 200 million lifetime downloads, according to EA. Inka Spara, the game manager, said the team has purposefully brought a more European perspective to the game.

Many of them played previous versions of “SimCity” in the early stages of app development. She said they recognized that Wright's approach stemmed from a very American, very 20th century style of city-building.

It struck them how the buildings and maps all appeared American. So they added different types of architecture and topography from cities in Asia and Europe. As of the most recent release, players can build on a map with fjords.

"We've actually had a lot of fights about parking spaces," Spara said, specifically, working with the artists to keep visible parking in their residential building models. Like their predecessors, she said, her team's artists prefer the way the houses look without any parking. But it was important for her to maintain some level of realism.

Bike lanes are something they've considered adding to the game in the future, she said. "People just love biking here."

In general, Spara said environmentalism and climate change are topics they've worked hard to address. You can play a "Green City" map in which residents have urban gardens and there's less pollution. Solar power is now an option.

"We can see that those things resonate really well with folks that play the game," she said.

Jarrett Walker is a consultant in public transit network design and policy who runs the blog Human Transit. Call him “SimCity”-critical: He has written at length about the game over the years, with posts such as "Did SimCity make us stupid?" and "SimCity will continue to mislead on transit."

For people who become planners, Walker said, the “SimCity” games are a good introduction to the field. Those people will go on to understand what the game gets right and wrong. But the vast majority of players, whose exposure to city planning begins and ends with the game, might come to think “SimCity's” approach is the only way to build a city. By masking the real-world effect of car-oriented transit and only allowing single-use zoning, he said, “SimCity” veers from entertainment into ideology.

Top of mind among city planners today is a set of problems not present in the game.

Jose Sanchez, an assistant professor in the architecture school at USC, tried to address some of “SimCity’s” oversights in his game, “Block'hood,” namely ecology and verticality, instead of sprawl.

"‘SimCity’ establishes a very fundamental literacy in systems," Sanchez said. He hopes games like his will extend that literacy to some of the finer points of city-building.

He's currently working on a sequel, “Common'hood,” which takes into account neighborhood-level problems such as homelessness and drug addiction.
Really enjoyed 2k, 3k and 4. Too bad EA is ... EA.

What's your thoughts on the SimCity series?
 

_01

INITIALIZED PARAMETERIZED
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Really enjoyed 2k, 3k and 4. Too bad EA is ... EA.

What's your thoughts on the SimCity series?
Like learning how to speak a dead language without a Rosetta stone. But that's partially why it's such a good game. If you want to do well at it, you need to do the scenarios, read the given material, and it feels like a genuine skill which you're building (and to be honest--it partially is). It is optimized rather unusually, though, and runs a little slow on even modern hardware, but it's not too bad since it's not an action game. Each Sim City, but 4 especially, has an almost unobtainable status which would seemingly never be translated into a game which could be released today. The most recent edition, beyond the various internet-related problems it is, was dumbed down completely while missing the point that the complexity is what made it so great.

For anybody looking for a more modern entry in the Sim City franchise, I'd highly suggest Cities: Skylines. It's as complex as the older games (perhaps even more so, with systems like flooding during weather, water flow in rivers and oceans, drug usage maps, and so on) but fixes a minor quirk that you may or may not like. In Sim City, you would often need to have an idea of your final city from the very start of the game due to how expensive (and permanent) some of your decisions are. In Cities: Skylines, new features are unlocked progressively to an extent much greater than Sim City (which also makes it so you're constantly reaching an obtainable goal), so you'll have to be willing to make major changes to your layout at a moment's whim. It makes it more approachable to people who didn't learn or excel at Sim City, but it's an unusual change to adjust to if you're a long time player. I'd still high recommend it, although you need a somewhat beefy computer to run it.
 
  • Agree
Reactions: Antique Rice

Xarpho

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SimCity 2000 is definitely top-tier comfy (the early 1990s SoCal aesthetic is pulled off well) and well-designed (under the surface, it's a bunch of calculations and random integers running for every tile and how they interact with each other). SimCity 4 is good, but it's poorly-built, incomplete, and trying to add mods will ultimately ruin your game (it still is better than Cities Skylines though). SC2K's difficulty curve is definitely a pitfall though, the "bonds" are basically a trap to get you in permanent debt. The proper solution is to build slowly enough so that you make a small profit in the first 50 years to pay off the power plant when it needs to be replaced (otherwise, the power plant dies and everyone moves out--a game over scenario), and at some point you'll be making so much money you won't know what to do with it.
 

Clop

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SimCity 4 is good, but it's poorly-built, incomplete, and trying to add mods will ultimately ruin your game (it still is better than Cities Skylines though).
Could you give a detailed comparison between the two? I'm interested. Use as many curse words as you want.
 

Glad I couldn't help

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SimCity 4 is good, but it's poorly-built, incomplete, and trying to add mods will ultimately ruin your game (it still is better than Cities Skylines though).
Agree with you on SC4 being incomplete, IIRC the region editor is pretty, requiring you to edit bitmaps to get it to work properly. And "reconciling your cities" would just fuck them up.

What's wrong with Cities Skylines? Everybody else says it is the SimCity replacement.

The proper solution is to build slowly enough so that you make a small profit in the first 50 years to pay off the power plant when it needs to be replaced (otherwise, the power plant dies and everyone moves out--a game over scenario), and at some point you'll be making so much money you won't know what to do with it.
Yeah, I found that strategy kind of ruined it for me.
 

Jackass RN

Schmuck in Scrubs
True & Honest Fan
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Cities: Skylines is more a glorified traffic simulator and city building sandbox than a simulation. Two levels of density, no citizen wealth levels, and the relative imbalance of some of the forms of mass transit compared to others. The lack of wealth means that land value translates to your population density instead of being able to have slums, and pretty much every service is required everywhere, so it just becomes a matter of plopping things into a location that ensures all areas are perfect at all times. It isn't a bad game, but playing it as a sandbox makes much more sense than trying to make a functioning city.

Sim City 4, for the dated mess that it is, gives you a lot more flexibility in actually planning out the city. Different wealth, medium density, the fact that you don't need a hospital in the middle of your slums. It just feels more like I'm actually building a city, instead of designing a socialist utopia. The big thing C:S has over SC4 is that you have visible and tangible effects of traffic.

edit: There's also Paradox's DLC love, but that isn't a huge deal, considering each expansion adds a fair number of new systems to the game, even if a lot of them are useless.
 

Sam Losco

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Did anyone here play SimCopter? I loved that game. It was cool that you could build a city in SimCity 2000 and then import it to play in it in SimCopter. If another good SimCity could ever be made (:optimistic::optimistic::optimistic::optimistic::optimistic::optimistic:), I would love for SimCopter to be remade with that same city import feature.

What's wrong with Cities Skylines? Everybody else says it is the SimCity replacement.
Cities Skylines is good, I still occasionally play it for a couple of hours until I get bored, but it has some major flaws. The biggest would be how traffic works. For example, building highways just causes problems because traffic will backup in one lane at a busy offramp even if half the cars aren't getting off at that exit. Their path finding tells them to stay in that lane only. They have improved it some, it seems, with updates and DLCs, but I still find it easier to just build my city as a massive grid layout never getting above a standard 4 lane road (2 each direction), and then only small amounts of those. 99% of the roads will be 2 lane (1 each direction).

It may be just because I didn't know what I was doing with buses, but I stopped using them. I would always get hundreds of people waiting on bus stops and the buses only hold 30 people. Which actually brings me to another annoying aspect of the game; passenger counts don't make sense. A cruise ship for example, only holds 100 people. A commercial passenger plane is 200 people, and a train is 240. Why is the biggest vehicle the smallest passenger count? At least make it 500 to somewhat realistically simulate needing to deal with a sudden influx of tourists.

Monorails I actually use a lot, but I use a modded station that lowers the noise pollution.

Population sizes don't match city sprawl size either. It irks me that my city size will only be like 40k but I'll have huge areas of skyscrapers and the traffic problems of LA. I think it might work better if they stopped trying to account for every citizen and just do vague calculations of things like traffic. I'm running a city, not playing the Sims, I don't need to be able to pick and follow around any citizen I want at any point in time. Seems like they must eat a lot of resources to do that.

The water elements are kinda cool, but very slow to react. I never bother with using dams because they are too annoying to get placed how I want, particularly elevation. And with the way water works, even if you do it with the game paused, building a dam, deleting it, and building it again to fix bad placement, will often cause massive issues with the river's water flow and usually flooding that will take a long time to work itself out.

Power plant output makes no sense either. A nuclear power plant should be the end game plant and you should only need one, especially when your cities can't get anywhere close to even a million in population.

The progressive unlocking is good for some things, but they over do it. Why do I need to hit a certain population to build a proper highway ramp? Or certain parks? Or sidewalks? Makes no sense. Certain buildings, like a court house or something, sure, that makes sense. Needing to get a couple thousand population to build roads with trees on the shoulder is stupid.
 

Thiletonomics

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Did anyone here play SimCopter? I loved that game. It was cool that you could build a city in SimCity 2000 and then import it to play in it in SimCopter. If another good SimCity could ever be made (:optimistic::optimistic::optimistic::optimistic::optimistic::optimistic:), I would love for SimCopter to be remade with that same city import feature.
I remembered that game, along with Streets of SimCity. Sure, those games didn't age well at all (Streets in particular would crash a lot), but it was cool being able to drive or fly around in SC2K cities at the time. The radio music and ads in both of those games had some funny moments too.
 

CWCissey

Charming Man
True & Honest Fan
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Sim City 4 was a minor addiction for me at one point, especially with the likes of NAM, RHW and other mods helping to create some distinct cities and neighbourhoods with noticeable character.

Cities: Skylines is pretty great, especially if you just want to chill, but you just can't get the same effect. Colossal Order needs to get their heads out their arses and stop trying to push 'My Pretty Pretty Utopia'
 

Just Some Other Guy

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Me and my brother killed many hours playing "MP" Simctiy 4, where you would share the save file with dropbox or something so that you could both work on the same region together and it would periodically update the map with the changes. Mods are a must for SC4, as the base game feels very incomplete.

Played some C:S, and can agree with the points made of it. The traffic is better than SC4 and I like the district tools. Honestly though, I hate the look of it. SC4 has a much nicer aesthetic to it. The towering skyscrapers looked nicer too, especially at night. Then there's the much more nuanced density levels and wealth levels.

One thing that always irked me about C:S was the major unrealism of the powerplant options. As soon as I saw them, I knew the angle they were trying to push.
 

Smug Chuckler

Rape Joke Man
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Gonna stick with C:S as long EA has its claws on the Simcity franchise. C:S having futuristic buildings would be great though.
 

Raging Capybara

kiwifarms.net
Some guys made a game called "Parkitect" recently, it's basically a remake of Roller Coaster Tycoon. I wish someone does something similar with Sim City 2000/3000 soon.

I really despise those modern tycoon games with 3D gameplay. I want my square tiles on the ground! Splines are ugly.
 
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