There are two ways to talk about Sim City.
The first is as one of the biggest release failures in recent memory.
If I take this path, I have to tell you certain things. Sim City is a game that is always online and requires a constant connection to servers in order to run properly. The best-case reason for this, and the one that developer Maxis and publisher Electronic Arts has been feeding players, is that the game relies on being able to offload certain calculations to the game servers. This has been presented as a boon to players, with the underlying narrative being that we are very lucky that the game is always online, because if it wasn’t, there would be no game.
As various people have proved since release, this is an absolute fiction. The game minimally uses server-side calculations. Why would the creators of the game lie? The worst case scenario paints the creators of Sim City not as benevolent overlords but as cruel dictators who chain the user to an internet connection in order to do…something. The forum outrage machine isn’t very clear about what the terrible ulterior motive is, but it has something to do with DRM (probably).
There’s a third scenario, however, that I find much more distressing than if Electronic Arts is now the bastion for a lizard people Illuminati who are bent on taking hard-earned chunks of $60 from people who chose to buy a video game. This horrifying scenario renders everything nonsensical about this totally botched release, well, sensible: the absolute mixing of messages from the publisher and developer, the explicit lies that the companies have been caught in, and the server system that was so poorly implemented that it wasn’t working correctly a week and a half after release (and maybe still isn’t as you read this).
The explanation is this: There isn’t anyone evil at the top trying to rob players. Instead, there is massive incompetence on a scale so large that it is almost unfathomable as mere incompetence. The failure of such a massive network of machines and people should make us all clutch our skulls and scream like we’re on horror film posters in the 1950s. I cannot imagine that anything that happened with Sim City was unpredictable. The companies were well aware of the numbers of preorders of the game, and they knew day one sales were going to be significant on a game fueled both by big promises, like the Glassbox engine, and the pure nostalgia that so many people have for the previous installments in the series. Many, many people hierarchically related to one another looked at documents and spreadsheets that could not have matched up expectations to material realities and said, “well, I guess we’re just going to go for it.”
Unlike most people who care for the series, I’m not angry about the release of Sim City. I’m just sad. I’m sad that someone knew what was going to happen, shrugged their shoulders, and put thousands of players through the ringer for some mysterious and eternally opaque reason.
So there are two ways of looking at Sim City. Everything between there and here is the dark glass version, where we’re met by abject failure in every sense of the word. I’m going to go positive this time.
The other way of looking at Sim City is as magic. In order to get to this way of seeing the game, you have to make it through the trials of everything above. You walk uphill in the snow both ways, so to speak, in order to get home to the comforting fire of metropolis management.
I want to be very clear here: Despite all of the problems and the bad taste that the game’s release leaves in my mouth, there is still something amazing about watching a barren square turn into a teeming metropolis. I watch the buildings pop up and the people get on the streetcar to see a rock show in the middle of the city and I am instilled with a deep and strange feeling of pride.
The problem with the magic of Sim City is that it is stage magic, and like all stage magic, it has all the trappings of being enchanted while remaining totally mundane. The wonder that I feel in the face of Sim City is fuelled by the simulation. When I come up with a combination of parks and roadwork that changes an apartment complex into a towering high rise, I know that the seemingly occult event is really fuelled by enough events lining up in sequence and filling some goal in the black box.
However, this also has an edge of sadness to it. In the weeks after release, it has been revealed that a number of these simulation systems don’t work in any predictable way. The entire casino system, which is intended to be a valid way of generating revenue, doesn’t work. The distribution of workers over a city has no rhyme or reason, and a successful city plan can go unpredictably into the red because thousands of workers can fail to show up to work for no discernible reason. Commercial buildings require physical supply, but they operate just fine without it, literally selling customers nothing in exchange for their money. Taxation at higher than 10% will cause citizens to flee a city in droves.
There’s a long list of nonsensical flaws and bad implementations, and I could go on for a very long time. Despite these things and my unhappiness with the release of the game, I still like Sim City. I think there’s something great at the core, hidden deep beneath public relations band aids and broken systems. There is always the possibility that the good game at the core will be polished up and repackaged for us in the next six months or year, but there’s something strange about having to wait a year after release for a game that should have existed on day one.
Cameron Kunzelman blogs at thiscageisworms.com and tweets at @ckunzelman.