SimCity: Amazing city builder, horrendous city simulator

After listening to the end of year bombcasts, I wanted to jot down some of my own thoughts about SimCity 2013.

Let me start by saying the SimCity franchise has been one my favourite over the past 20 years. I've played each iteration for hundreds of hours (except Societies), building cities, min/maxing the simulation, optimizing and routing traffic, having a themed city, etc. I would've been happy if "SimCity 2013" was a faster, modern-interface version of SC4+RushHour but was super excited about the new ideas and gameplay simplifications teased at the beginning of the year.

The Build Tools

For the most part, the building part is amazing. Fast (in performance and ease-of-use), snappy tools, super clean parseable UI, etc. This is by far the most enjoyable set of creation tools across any city building game on the market. Yes the game launched without highways and terrain deformation (added a few months later) and the cities plots are small. But I still had a blast for dozens of hours building.

Why Small Plots Are Okay (in theory)

For that latter part, I can see gameplay/design reasons reasons to have smaller city plots. Smaller plots force increased co-operation and specialization since you can't have a single city be all-encompassing anymore. The game forces you to focus your cities on only 1-2 things, each. You should think of your "old-mega-city" as the entire "region" of which each plot is a part of the whole. Based on the interviews and the way resources are shared, this seems to be what the designers were thinking. And that's a paradigm-shift, making you think about the game in different (possibly uncomfortable) ways.

To satisfy everyone, it may have been nice to have some regions with dramatically larger plots and some regions with only small plots. The larger plots would give you the old-style SimCity feel and the smaller plots would provide this new gameplay "shift". But for whatever reason (technical issues with network or GlassBox? Dogmatic adherence to this new co-operation gameplay?), the game has not seen any large plots.

Why Big Plots Are Not Okay (in practice)

The intra-city traffic simulation was implemented with some very poor decisions. Even after all the vast improvements in patches, sims still seem to clamour for the same jobs leading to thousands of sims going to a single work place, realizing it's full, and then not having enough time to go to the next work place. And because tons of sims clamoured, there are huge, unexpected traffic jams.

Forgetting their previous job is an implementation shortcut (saves tons of memory) but leads to sims repeating the previous day's mistakes, not being able to optimize their route based on final source/destination, and wildly inconsistent traffic patterns. Built a small industrial area slightly closer to your housing area? Suddenly your traffic changes dramatically, unpredictably and unrealistically.

Public transit is still somewhat broken too. Stations/stops get filled with hundreds of sims, suddenly 5-6 vehicles arrive (way more than required) and then they bounce between a few mostly empty stops while other stops not 5 buildings down are completely packed. Recent patches have significantly improved this but I still see tons of starved stations while others are over-serviced.

Now imagine all of this scaled up 4-5x. Along with the number fudging, (the game only simulates ~40k citizens), I don't believe GlassBox would easily be able to handle significantly larger city plots. Again, that's fine for me because the small plots really opened up some interesting gameplay (in theory anyway).

Where It All Falls Apart (in practice)

In a single giant city, connecting a road between 2 developments would immediately allow a "flow" of resources (water, electricity, workers, coal, fire/police protection, garbage collection, etc.) between the parts. There's no micro-management, no direct input, and no delay. When that link becomes oversubscribed, I can build another and possibly of a different modality (highway, subway, train, ferry .. my choice!).

For small plots to work in concert towards a whole "region-city", this behaviour needs to be handled just as quickly and easily. Obviously, the current implementation does NOT do this. It fails in many ways:

  • Resources (coal, iron, etc.) take forever to transfer between cities
  • Large numbers of people, freight, and resources don't move between cities (some plots have way too much empty commerce + industry while others have no jobs)
  • Insufficient inter-city transport options and bandwidth to move people out of the city. Worse, there's no way to add more.
  • Utilities sharing is easy but not instantaneous. I need updates in seconds; buildings will become abandoned in minutes.
  • Managing utilities is annoying because the selling city may grow and suddenly no longer have excess power to sell.
  • Services like fire, police, and education are not easily shared between cities (you have to go to the region map instead of just having a shared, auto-updating resource)
  • Switching between plots takes minutes. On top of waiting for newly available resources to update, realizing your purchasing city needs more water becomes an annoying chore of "switch city-build-switch back-wait" instead of a simple side track.

As a result, every city needs to satisfy its own education/police/fire/health/sanitation, have its own RCI ecosystem and its own specialization buildings. If specialization takes up 20-30% of the map space and transport takes up another 15-20%, then you're really left with very little room to fit all those other requirements. Suddenly the maps feel way too small.

Here's what my typical city progression looked liked:

  1. Build a mine. Not enough workers.
  2. Add some residential area to get more workers. Not enough shops and services.
  3. Add some commercial. Not enough freight (note: this became a requirement in later patches but not in release).
  4. Add some industry. Not enough workers.

Wouldn't it have been better to import those workers, services, freight or export some shoppers? That would've left this city with far more space to play around. But I can't because the simulation does not update the flow of any of these things in an easy-to-manage manner (no I don't want to keep futzing with how many police cars go to what city) or even timely manner.

And so in the end, smaller plots was a great gameplay and technical design choice which I suspect allowed for a more detailed simulation within the city but relies on inter-city behaviour working seamlessly and instantaneously. That last part was obviously not achieved and hurt the entirety of the game for it.

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Why I don't plan on getting MW2 any time soon

I guess I'm kind of boycotting MW2 in that I don't plan on buying it any time soon. I strongly prefer PC over the consoles but with the PC version of MW2 essentially a console port, the things I don't like about the console versions will hold true for the PC.

It's also frustrating that I can't really "express" this to IW. If PC gamers don't buy the PC version, then IW will say "the PC is dead so let's not develop for it anymore". If PC gamers do buy the PC version, IW will say "What we did for the consoles is working on the PC so let's do more of that".

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Yay for DRM removal

Just saw that X3 on steam now has no more DRM. Although the product page still lists DRM.

Maybe its time to nab this, after borderlands and tropico 3 and half minute hero and uncharted 2 and... aw fuckit, let's wait for 2010.

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Initial MUA2 impressions

Pros

  • Generally really fun. Game makes you feel powerful
  • Gfx are waaaaay smoother and look better than MUA1, which was far too "glossy" and stiff looking in combat
  • Little comments and wise-cracks during combat are hilarious
  • Love the fully destructible environments.  Almost everything falls apart or blows up. Makes you feel super :D
  • Way more enemies on screen at once, and they have pretty low hp... makes you feel strong when you rip them to shreds
  • Great story helps drive the game.  Writing is excellent too and has lots of humor.
  • Fusion powers are relevant and destructive.
  • Lots of achievements and unlockables.
  • Split story line makes replaying worthwhile. 
  • Deadpool
  
 Cons
  • Invisible walls galore!  The great thing about the other games in this series is that you can explore everything.  If it's explorable, there's probably some hidden treasure.  If its not explorable, there's a giant visible wall stopping you.  But in MUA 2 the maps suddenly 'end' and this discourages you from exploring.  Lame.
  • Cut scenes (both pre renders and close-ups of the models) look ass 
  • Characters seem smaller on screen than MUA
  • No per-hero equipable items, only team-wide boosts.  I was annoyed when they scaled it down in MUA1 from Legends but now items are completely gone :( 
  • Maps are small.  There dungeons were huge in Legends and still pretty big and outlandish in MUA1.  Now some sections take 15 mins to run through and you're left wondering "that's it??".  I was surprised several times to suddenly run into the section boss.
  • Still cannot modify your character's individual stats (though you were able to in x-men legends .. yet another regression)
  • Even with gamma settings, maps are sometimes too dark
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MUA 2 review scores

Ugh.. I can't wait to get home to play this, so I've been keeping abreast of the ratings that have come out.   Besides GiantBomb, I still follow IGN and GameSpot's reviews.  Mainly, they are pretty good indicators of what the general, mainstream audience will think.  Typically, their ratings hit just about the average metacritic or gamerankings score, +/- 5%.   
 
So GameSpot gave 7.5 and IGN gave MUA2 7.7.   Decent scores, but reading the review made me think a bit.
 
GameSpot's was written by Van Ord, who is an entertaining and interesting reviewer but I find his scores to be pretty harsh.  Relative to my personal ratings, he's consistently (5-15%) lower. Another weird thing about his ratings is that if you look at his review history, there are very few games that have gotten over 8.5.  It's like some magical jump where if the game is not a megablockbuster, super refined, and innovative game, it gets an 8.5.  Anyways, I digress.  I'll bet MUA2's avg on metacritic will be around 80-85%, based on Van Ord's history and review text.
 
As for IGN, it seems they were a little harsh.  As mentioned everywhere else, the game plays much like the original MUA with almost no innovation, save for the Fusion Powers.  Reading the review, IGN seems to have docked marks for succumbing to sequel-is-more-of-the-same syndrome, claiming that it's not much for being 3 years in production.   But Raven Software didn't develop this, Vicarious Visions did.  Switching dev teams is no easy task and it's not like this is the only thing VV did in 3 years.   
 
Anyways, I just from the text, I get the sense that the reviews aren't entirely fair.  Perhaps the annoying auto-level-is-always-selected bug or the fact that there are fewer suits, which don't convey different attributes or other reasons not emphasized brought the score down and it really is a ~70% game.  We'll just have to wait for GB official and community reviews to hit :)

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Demos: a growing misnomer

People have been lamenting the growing trend of publishers' releasing demos only to those who pre-order games.  I agree that 'demos' are a misnomer because the traditional demo is conceptually different from what the publishers are actually giving.  What they are giving is a promotional 'first look', which provides incentive to buy early, first-sales rather than a preview/sample to convince undecided people to buy.

First off, let's vet out what people generally feel a demo is.  Demos have traditionally been used as a free, extremely scaled down version of the full game, to give players a peek at the full game before buying.  Usually, the demo code is more or less the complete, final code but limited in features, levels, etc.  Gamers use these demos to see for themselves how the gameplay mechanics work, and (especially for PC games) to see if the game will run well on their system.  Conceptually, it is a validation tool, used to convince people on the fence to buy the game and hopefully that means more first-hand sales (remember: even if a gamer likes the demo, she may still pirate it or buy second-hand).

However, publishers are using pre-order-code-locked previews as incentives for gamers to pre-order the game by providing a taste before the full release.  The alternatives to buying first-hand are to buy second-hand or to pirate, both of which net the publisher $0.  So publishers need to add value, especially with relation to second-hand games.  The value added by the so-called 'demos' is time-value (i.e. get a sneak peek earlier than even the full release), plus the "cool" factor of having a sneak-peak before all your non-pre-ordering friends.  But what these 'demos' don't do (and indeed are not intended to do) is convince people on the fence that they should get the game.  So conceptually, pre-order-code-locked previews are actually incentive to buy first-hand and in practice, they do directly drive more first-hand sales.

Stardock does something similar to these pre-order 'demos' by allowing pre-order customers into a closed beta.  Zealous gamers may hit earlier bugs/performance/design issues but they also get first looks and more importantly, help decide the direction of the game by interacting with (errr... whining to?) the developers before final release.  Some may call it "charging for a beta" but Stardock intends them to be incentive to buy first-hand.

Either way, the end result of pre-order-locked demos/betas is that publishers get more money and gamers get more value via access to unreleased games.

Looking at it from a cost perspective, if the publisher/developer is going to release a (traditional) demo anyways, what does it cost them to release a pre-order incentive instead?  Adding some tracking codes.  Cheap!  Ditto for Stardock's prev-order-locked beta.

I suspect that publishers just call the pre-order-code-locked previews "demos" because they are probably implemented by releasing the actual demo with a pre-order-code lock.  Their SVN tree and entire internal nomenclature is probably the same for both, so that seeps into the marketing/promotional material as well.  Indeed, the concept of a demo (convince people to buy via scaled-down preview) is different from the concept of 'incentive preview' (give people incentive to buy first-sale and to place pre-orders), but implementation- and feature-wise, they are almost identical.

So what we end up with is what I (as an end user) would call a misnomer: a new, conceptually different thing given the name of something else.  The fact that the actual implementation is the same should be irrelevant.
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