It’s a classic tale of two cities, one the very model of intelligent urban planning and good government, the other a spontaneously, continuously generating boomtown undone by a complete inability to plan for long-term sustainability. When citizens of Gameologeocity, a metropolis of 80,000 simulated souls, have to move away because of septic garbage mountains and a lack of potable water, it’s time to get a new mayor. The problem is, that mayor is me. Fortunately for this oppressed multitude, the mayor of nearby Super G-Town is a towering Fiorella LaGuardia to my hapless Abe Beame. They’ll be okay.
SimCity’s premise hasn’t changed all that much since the original game’s release in 1989. As god-king-mayor of your metropolis, you’re tasked with building, growing, and maintaining the city, striking a healthy balance between public and private concerns. But this game, unlike its predecessors, requires an internet connection to play, because it encourages cooperation with your neighbors to optimize resource management and growth. A surplus of energy, police cars, or poop can be shipped to nearby towns, and your own shortages can be addressed by negotiating deals with other mayors in your region.
It’s an intriguing concept, but the game’s launch has been plagued by connection issues and subsequent cries of moral outrage among those denied access to the game they purchased. (There is no offline mode.) SimCity’s load screens have a long-running joke—they make nonsensical claims that the game is busy “reticulating splines” or “herding llamas” while you wait—but this gag took on a different irony over the past week, as the new SimCity herded llamas over and over while players waited minutes or hours or days to access the game. I won’t spend this review judging the technical shortsightedness of the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, or the righteous indignation of otherwise functional adults who froth at the mouth when they can’t reach their virtual dollhouse communities for a few days. Suffice to say that it was not an ideal debut.
For my part, I had minimal trouble, aside from getting booted from the game a couple of times and some difficulty viewing neighboring towns. This last issue actually proved a blessing in disguise. When I finally got a good look at nearby Super G-Town—overseen by Gameological assistant editor Matt Gerardi—with its clean street grids and well-developed waterfront, it brought my own beloved burg’s tragic flaws to light.
To start, players must build connecting roads branching off the main highway that goes through the entire region. Each side of your new streets can be zoned for residential, industrial or commercial use. These will grow organically. Public spaces—your city hall, parks, power plants, police stations, trash dumps, and everything else that makes a city go—should be thoughtfully placed for maximum coverage and future development. The police station, for instance, needs space for an expanding prison population, and garbage dumps quickly spill over their bounds.
My city was always being built to stave off the next crisis—literally and figuratively putting out brush fires. Sometimes it was arson (Gerardi complained of an influx of Gameologeocity-born firebugs soon after he founded Super G-Town), and sometimes it was the crackling blaze of illiteracy. To relieve traffic, I’d build insane webs of roundabouts and avenues to nowhere. It really didn’t occur to me that it would be a problem to build my water pumping station adjacent to a sewage treatment plant. In an effort to prove to the populace that this was “all part of the plan,” I raised my suspiciously, increasingly opulent mayor’s mansion on the same block. If they had to drink this brownish water, I would too.
Not only was my city’s main water source polluted, but it was also stupidly placed above a shallow water table, ensuring constant shortages. (But is it really government’s job to provide water to people? The city’s conservative elements might argue that people should go out and shoot their own water.) Matt Gerardi, on the other hand, had placed water towers all along the tributary that bisects Super G-Town. There would always be enough water there to hydrate the masses and extinguish the blazes caused by Gameologeocity’s chief export, serial arson.
My randomized developing style wouldn’t be so bad if it could expand indefinitely. Each city, though, has constricting borders, and even on the tightest city grid, there won’t be enough room to build enough of everything. This contrived scarcity of acreage, more than anything else, facilitates cooperation between cities. Topographical differences are really the only wildcard—some regions are more mountainous, some near the water—so there isn’t a ton of opportunity to maximize comparative advantage. Production costs are about the same for everyone. But cities can specialize in different areas—focusing on science, for instance, or waste disposal—and raise the economic ceiling through regional cooperation. Each town effectively becomes a semi-autonomous part of a larger super-city.
Despite all of the customizable options, there seems to be a real danger of most cities looking more or less the same once everyone learns how to play. One way to counter this homogeneity is to build a Department Of Finance off of your main city hall building. This structure allows you to tax different incomes at different rates. I told The Gameological Society’s editor, John Teti, of my plan to build a rich-person enclave and shake them down with debilitating taxes, effectively driving them out but keeping their money to finance public works. “It sounds like Cleveland,” he said, referring to my vision of a chippy, working-class utopia.
To me, that will be the thing to watch as SimCity starts working properly and regions begin to grow. How much will real-world class antagonism spread to EA’s servers? The unstated goal of the game is maximal growth, but what if you prefer a less economically ambitious city? Is it less of a success if you decide not to invite shady biomedical research companies into your neighborhoods? Sure, Gameologeocity’s star basketball player might flee to the warmer climes and lower marginal tax rate of nearby Super G-Town, but at least my people won’t be reduced to the status of industrial and commercial fuel.
That said, I couldn’t make my vision work on my first playthrough. Not the way I wanted. So there was only one thing left to do. SimCity boasts a series of unlockable natural disasters, one of which is a red, Godzilla-like monster. Mournfully, I set the creature loose on my nuclear power plant. It didn’t level the city like I had hoped, but the beast did enough damage to ensure Gameologeocity will die a natural, dignified death, and I’m hopeful that where Gameologeocity failed, the city of Toaledo will succeed.
SimCity looks gorgeous, and there is enough weird stuff to do—citizens periodically issue challenges and side quests for fun and profit—to keep yourself occupied while the city grows. If you and your neighbors grow wealthy enough, you can even build “great works”—like a solar farm, an international airport, and even a self-contained “arcology” bio-dome—that benefit the entire region. Still, I am curious to see how diverse the ecosystem becomes. Where the paths fork in distinct directions in a “god game” like Civilization, the possibilities are less well defined in SimCity. Time will tell.