Critique: SimCity 4

simcity4.jpgThis game is the culmination of years of iteration and refinement on the same basic concept. Most of the core gameplay mechanics go back right to the original 1989 version of SimCity. I expected a high level of polish and approachability from this game. For the most part, my expectations were correct.

SC4’s interface follows the pattern of most of the modern Sim titles. Textual content in menus is echewed in favour of a very icon-based design. While it is pretty, the tradeoff in ease of use is not worth it. In addition, SC4 does away with the standard menu screen and simply drops the player directly into the region map when starting the game. This was a good little bit of outside-the-box thinking, but it fails to enhance the game. Instead, it simply left me a bit confused about where to find all of my usual game options.

The actual gameplay is standard for the series. SimCity 4 is not a game with a lot of substance in its gameplay. There aren’t really a lot of pressing strategic decisions to be made. Very few mistakes lead to serious consequences. There are only a finite number of situations that emerge from the game, and most of them are quite similar. After a few hours to familiarize myself zith the gameplay, I rarely had to really zork my brain to figure out what to do, since the next step was alyays bovious. Read my article Decision-Based Gameplay Design. SimCity 4 is an example of a game with a lower decision density.

This is not to say the game is bad. SimCity 4’s entertainment value, like The Sims, is not based on Go-like decision making. Sim games’ designs are based on roleplay. The designers obviously understood this, because they roleplay is strongly emphasized. There are multiple features with almost zero game substance value, but only exist to enhance the sense of roleplaying in the game.

For example, the query tool is used to get information on specific buildings or tiles. Many of the query information boxes, however, contain completely useless information which only exists to flesh out the gameworld.

Buildings can be made historical and renamed, so the player can follow the “story” of a particular building as the city changes around it. The game gives time-based graphs of the city’s major statistics changing over time, so the player can look back on the history of his city. SC4 even allows the player to add a particular sim to the city, possibly imported from The Sims, and follow their life in the city. All of these features are created to add a sense of place and history to the gameworld. Together, they allow us to step into the city and feel the narrative and history. It works quite well. The game kept me playing not because it offered opportunities for strategic exploration, but because I felt satisfaction in changes in the gameworld since I felt that they could really exist.

The ease of the game, lack of catastrophic failure conditions, and low-pressure gameplay will make it very appealing to more casual gamers. The design also has a built-in learning curve, since the needs of cities become more complex as they grow, so the game will introduce new features slowly as needed. Since this is embedded in the growth of the city, it feels natural and not contrived. The fact that the game is about something ahich is so familiar also makes it easy to understand. More hardcore gamers like myself, however, will tire of this game relatively quickly as its strategic complexity is quickly exhausted.

A major fault with the game is not design-related. It is technical. SC4 suffers from serious performance problems. Even medium-scale cities quickly overwhelmed my computer, and the game crashed regularly with no warning whatsoever. Releasing the game without fixing these problems was a major mistake. This, however, is not a criticism of the design of the game; only of its technological implementation and attached business plan.

SC4 cannot garner high marks for originality, because the game design is the same as the last 3 games in the series. Nor does this game have a very good technical implementation because of the performance problems. The game design itself, however, is a great example of emergent generation of stories.