For many fans of the original city building simulation series, the idea of an online multiplayer game where even solo players had to be connected to the internet at all times seemed like a recipe for disaster. The latest creation from Maxis is for sure the most compelling SimCity I've played since the 1989 original.
It's a disaster too.
The weekend before the game started on March 5th, I had the opportunity to experience SimCity the way everyone should experience it right now. The handful of participating press representatives hardly affected the special server EA set up for the event. The game ran flawlessly (for the most part) and gave early reviewers an exquisite taste of the collaborative multiplayer that defines the release. I saw what the developers no doubt wanted every player to see after launch – a new SimCity that can bring people from all over the world together to achieve a common goal. It was wonderful.
I gathered these early experiences in an article titled "SimCity Won (And Broke) My Heart In Just Three Days". I had no idea how good this headline was going to be.
This first, teasing taste was followed by a nightmare for everyone involved. There were problems downloading the game. Problems connecting to servers. Trouble getting together with friends to play in those brief moments when everything seemed to be working perfectly. As EA and Maxis aggressively work to resolve these issues, player frustration and indignation continue to mount.
WHY: As one of the most compelling entries in the esteemed city building simulation series, SimCity's significant connectivity issues doesn't exactly give players a choice.
Release date: March 5th
Type of game: City Building Simulation.
What I Played: Several cities built, maintained, and destroyed during the press early start event. After the game launched, I tried to work with other Kotaku staff in our own private region, but only two of us (myself included) managed to play successfully long enough to build something of lasting value.
My two favorite things
- Set regions and watch them grow organically and change dynamically based on the objects I place around them.
- The collaboration with other actors for the benefit of an entire region gives my virtual cities meaning and purpose. This is how a social game should be.
My two least favorite things
- There's never enough room in these tiny lots for my ambition, and claiming there are several in one region doesn't scratch my itch in the big city.
- I don't mind a game that requires a constant internet connection as long as it does the favor.
Back-of-box offers made to order
- "Hey guys. Hey guys. People. Check out my town. No, no, check it out now."
-Mike Fahey, Kotaku.com
- "Unable to connect to the back-of-box offer server. Please try again."
- "They say I'm online? But I'm at Wal-Mart and the PC the game is loaded on is unplugged."
I am not outraged; only disappointment fueled by the knowledge that somewhere beyond these technical issues there is an outstanding game waiting to be played.
The original SimCity is one of the greatest computer games of all time. When the now legendary game designer Will Wright realized that using the map editor he created for the Raid on Bungling Bay game was more fun than the game itself, he gave this editor to the world, creating a whole new genre. The creative freedom that SimCity allowed was exhilarating. I couldn't tell you how long I played when I first started the game – the days came together. I fell asleep in my computer chair, woke up and kept playing.
Over the years I and Freedom had an argument. Giving me a sandpit to play in with little supervision is a surefire way to ensure I get away from the sandpit, possibly into the busy traffic. So much time is not my own these days that I need a more focused experience. I need more than my own devices.
This beautiful new multiplayer SimCity gives me the focus I need to get lost in the details of a virtual city again. The success of my creation is closely related to the wealth of other players. They depend on me to nurture a community of wealthy citizens who flock to their stores to sell out their simoleons. I depend on them to provide sewage treatment and medical care so that the wealthy citizens drawn to my tourist Mecca don't die of cholera.
The SimCity series has always been a balancing act. The players struggled to maintain the right residential-to-industrial-to-trade ratio while making sure enough funds were invested in services to ensure the whole thing didn't go up in flames. There are several performers in each region right now, who take turns walking the tightrope while the others hold (or drop) the safety net.
The multiplayer aspect also offers excellent opportunities to demonstrate your urban planning skills. The creative gamer thrives in the new SimCity, thanks in no small part to the addition of a curved and free-form street placement and the ability of residential, commercial and industrial areas to blend in with these wild lines. These color-coded areas are painted more than they are placed, fresh buildings sprouting like architectural flowers that blow in the wind with every little change the player makes. The GlassBox engine is a remarkable machine that turns a technical process into something organic and beautiful. It is a pleasure to see his work unfold both from the sky above and at street level.
Players more interested in straight lines and statistics will find a lot to love in SimCity too. The game is filled with color-coded cards that communicate a wealth of complex information in the most efficient way possible. The user interface, apart from the weird blunt spots, is amazingly intuitive without feeling shabby. Micromanagement is an option but not a requirement. It's one of the game's greatest strengths – it's suited to multiplayer play styles and remains fully accessible to everyone (I'm talking about mechanics, not connection).
Of course, there are also disadvantages. I wish the individual city lots were bigger or expandable so that my urban space could expand and perhaps be associated with other players' creations. I wish I had understood how trading depots work, one of the few blunt mechanisms in an otherwise intuitive game.
And I wish I could play consistently. That would be nice.
Team Kotaku had big plans for SimCity launch. We set up a private region to further study the symbiotic relationship between cities. I set out my claim, a circular piece of land that I wanted to dedicate to tourism and travel. Stephen Totilo grabbed a piece of property and his town supplied mine with garbage and sewage. Between the two of us, we managed to unlock two great works – the arcology and the international airport – massive corporations built in specific locations on the regional map that required cities to work together to harvest the resources needed to complete them.
None of the others made it into the game.
Chris Person could claim two lots, but both were faulty before he could lay a single road. He cannot access them and we cannot delete them. Jason Schreier couldn't connect. Kirk Hamilton, who received my invitation to join the region yesterday – two days after I sent it. Our great plan will never be realized.
I understand the frustration and anger players feel. For the past three days, I've slept a total of seven hours and woke up from short naps while waiting for server queues, maintenance downtime, server disconnections, and the like. Each of those seven hours was spent in my computer chair, afraid I might miss an opportunity if I went to the bedroom. I feel like I did when I played the original SimCity, only now I'm a lot older and a lot less happy.
The SimCity launch is more than just a disaster – it's a tragedy because somewhere beyond anger, pain, and technical issues, there's an amazing game that I dearly want to play.
We'll repeat that once again once EA gets the servers to a point where not playing is no longer mandatory.