Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Why the newest edition of the city-building game has fans in revolt.
Great cities aren’t born in the lonely light of the elbow lamp, but in a series of bureaucratic deals: trade-offs between neighbors and politicians, partnerships public and private, negotiations of transit and trade. Rarely does anyone get to play Robert Moses, let alone Romulus and Remus.
Except, of course, in SimCity. The decades-old city-building game, unlike Legos or Lincoln Logs, never taught cooperation. No, SimCity has always been a solitary pursuit with a single aim: to create, develop and maintain one's very own computer-animated metropolis. As such, it became one of the most successful PC game franchises of all time.
It comes as no small surprise, then, that the newest iteration, SimCity 5, released on Tuesday, is a multiplayer game. Users still control the vital functions of their cities, but with the added context of regions that contain cities controlled by players from around the world, with which they are encouraged to trade and collaborate. The game's developers believe they have created a virtual universe of unparalleled richness and complexity.
"Real cities don’t live in bubbles," Ocean Quigley, the game’s creative director, has said. "Real cities are connected to each other."
And so, in SimCity 5, released Tuesday, are the players.
It is still possible to play the game alone – personally managing all the plots in a region, shifting from city to city like a grandmaster playing chess against a half-dozen challengers at once. But it is not possible to play SimCity 5 without being connected to the Internet.
In this, Sim publisher Maxis has stirred one of the biggest hornet’s nests in PC gaming. Polled on an official game forum, only 10 percent of respondents – “Say no to forced collective gaming!” – said they would prefer permanently online play. Other gamers have threatened to boycott SimCity 5.
Are they bluffing? Or is SimCity too popular for so radical a change?
• • • • •
On December 14, seven Maxis developers hosted an "Ask me anything" thread on Reddit. For public figures from President Obama on down, the AMA is a surefire publicity generator. But it can backfire, too.
The top-rated comment on the thread, which clocked over a quarter-million page views, was a compendium of 81 users (the text limit had been reached) attacking the game’s Internet requirement.
"Deliberately preventing players from saving their cities offline," wrote one, in one of the less profane remarks, "is insulting to a long-standing, dedicated and loving fan-base that deserves more respect."
The uproar – AMA turned WTF, as TechDirt put it – was only partly SimCity’s fault. Perhaps nothing stokes more fury in the gaming world than the restrictive licensing of games, of which the “always-on” Internet requirement is, so far, the most extreme example. Traditionally, games -- whether on CD, cartridge, or hard drive -- have been possessions that could, once purchased and properly maintained, last for several decades. SimCity 5, by contrast, is a service that remains dependent on its provider.
Typical complaints are as follows: Remote play (for soldiers, say, or travelers) is impossible. The technology is an impediment aimed at stopping piracy rather than a feature. If Electronic Arts, which owns Maxis, goes under or cuts support to the servers, the game and its history cease to exist. (EA has a reputation for abandoning server support after a few years.)
Online play touches a deeper nerve, too: the paranoia among PC gamers that single-player games – like the legendary SimCity 2000 – are slowly being phased out. Frank Gibreau, the president of Electronic Arts, once boasted that he was leading the push to eliminate single-player gaming. "I have not green lit one game to be developed as a single-player experience. Today, all of our games include online applications and digital services that make them live 24/7/365." He later walked back that statement, but could not quell the concern that social play is encroaching on a medium enjoyed, as often as not, as an escape.
"These are games that a lot of people like to play single-player," says Graham Smith, the editor of PC Gamer magazine. "People don’t want to play with other people. They want to play alone."
Quigley, who has overseen the game’s development, isn’t trying to make SimCity a soldier in this perceived culture war. But he finds the strategic possibilities of multiplayer too good to forgo.
"I could imagine making two versions of this game," he explains to me over the phone. "One where it works on people’s computers and one where it doesn’t. But we can’t make different versions of the game for different people with different preferences. We can only afford to make one version of the game, and that’s going to be the one with rich multiplayer functionality."
The revelation is not just that cooperative play – and the new SimCity is cooperative, not competitive – comes closer to approximating real-life political geography, though Quigley and the game’s other developers have repeatedly stressed this verisimilitude. It’s also that introducing multiple live actors exponentially expands the paths of play. It’s like comparing the outcome matrix of solitaire to that of Go.
"I imagine that the traditionalists will be slowly drawn into the multiplayer experience," Quigley says. "It deepens and enriches the experience of playing the game when somebody else is depending on you, and cares what you do."
Do gamers want their peers to "care" about what they’re doing? To depend on them? Depending on your taste for video game realism, that sense of social connectivity could be a feature or a burden.
• • • • •
On a recent Sunday, I was invited to play SimCity 5. Maxis had set up shop at the Future Cities conference in a Hyatt hotel in Crystal City, Virginia. It was a windy day on a particularly desolate stretch of the concrete-laden business district south of D.C. The streets could not have been emptier at midnight. It was enough to stoke the fires of mixed-use city planning in even the most detached observer.
When I arrived, the team was having server issues, which may not bode well for Tuesday, when hundreds of thousands of players will begin building cities through the Internet. (At a previous test day, the servers had to be restarted while reporters watched a movie. "The launch of this game may well be pretty interesting," Kirk Hamilton wrote. "And by 'interesting,' I mean, 'possibly a disaster.'")
On my computer, there were no such issues. I breezed through the tutorial. As the mayor of Sandy Shoals, I bought water and sanitation services from nearby Lucky Shores and purchased coal on the global market.
Then I got started on Petrol Bay, a low-lying territory with a full water table and significant oil reserves. While SimCity’s multiplayer mode may be making headlines, it is by no means the game’s most significant difference from its predecessor. What Quigley calls the "foundational distinction" is a deep change in the game’s architecture. The simulation runs bottom-up rather than top-down. Street traffic isn’t a visual representation of a program. It’s the sum of the decisions of all the Sims in your city. You can click on each one of them and see where they came from and where they’re going.
The landscape is also no longer built on a grid, which is a good indication of the other changes in simulation. The algorithmic structure on which the cities of previous games hung has been dismantled and replaced by a calculus that processes thousands of individual information bytes. The result is dazzling realism that's especially noticeable in the game's more banal features. You've never seen a morning traffic jam like this.
It's not overwhelming, though. Some of the game's more onerous elements have been simplified – power lines, water pipes and density have all been folded into road construction. The bigger the road, the higher the density. (Jane Jacobs would have a conniption.)
As always, it was hard to botch the game’s beginning, and Petrol Bay grew quickly. With Stone Librande, the game’s lead designer, at my side, I was soon pulled in six different directions. Pollution from my industrial neighborhood was drifting towards Main Street. Residents of my beachfront bungalows were stuck in traffic. An oil production facility – one of dozens of new features that allow cities to personalize themselves – was pumping black gold from an array of derricks near downtown. It looked like Los Angeles, circa 1910. And I was making a small fortune in the global commodities market.
Librande thinks this new SimCity, with its infinite capacity for variation, fulfills one of his maxims for good video games: it always creates new stories to share with friends. It’s not just that unhappy cities fail in different ways. Successful cities have hundreds of ways to distinguish themselves, through design, as always, but also with new specializations enabled by the support of a regional network.
One city might become an industrial superpower, providing jobs for workers throughout the region and exports for neighboring cities. Another is a leafy, suburban utopia with quaint main streets, parks, and a university, selling its clean water to neighbors. Still another is a gambling mecca, at once ritzy and seedy, a draw for tourists from other cities but a magnet for crime. Welcome to SimMetroArea, where your city no longer needs to do it all.
On the other hand, beyond the various issues of technology and accessibility, it’s easy to sympathize with those who feel their support has been betrayed. Following a video game franchise can be very much like following a band. Fans are consumers, but their relationship to the product is deepened by hours of play during which games (like songs) take on new, personal significance. Fans become attached and expect producers to keep on playing the hits. And SimCity, like Dylan at Newport, is having a transformative moment. Will it unleash the game’s potential? Or compromise its essence?
In order to find out, gamers will need to put aside their anger and give it a shot.
"PC gamers, especially, tend to get very outraged about things," says Smith.
The last time a game’s DRM feature incited such controversy before release, he points out, was when Blizzard introduced an "always-on" requirement for the 2012 release of Diablo 3. From Forbes to Wired to gaming magazines and forums, writers urged gamers to "stay angry" and threatened to boycott the game.
It sold over 12 million copies.
"The proof of the pudding," Quigley says coolly, "will be in the tasting."
All images courtesy of SimCity/Maxis/EA.