Bigger, Better, Even More Crazily Addictive

The new SimCity is the best urban-planning simulation ever created. And it’s fun.


Courtesy of © 2013 Electronic Arts

SimCity has been lying to you. For decades, the legendary city-simulation game has given players the sense that they possessed real power over virtual people. When you played SimCity—whether you got hooked by the original game, created by Will Wright and released in 1989, or its many wonderful sequels—you imagined yourself as a city-planning savant who had the power to make life awesome or awful for thousands of hapless simulated citizens.

Sure, they weren’t real people, but the genius of SimCity was the way it elicited empathy for your digital constituents. When you hiked taxes or shut down a fire station or plopped a coal power plant in a residential neighborhood, you imagined, if only briefly, the tragic consequences of your callous reign. Somewhere deep down in the game engine, a simulated salaryman was losing his job, someone’s sim apartment was burning down, and little sim boys and girls were coughing in their sleep. And it was your fault.

But that was all a fiction. In truth, SimCity’s simulation engine has never had a place for simulated citizens. Instead, under the hood, the game has always modeled the city the same way the Soviets did—from the top down. For instance, if you decreased funding for your city’s hospitals, SimCity would simply apply a macroeconomic function to approximate how increased levels of sickness would affect the overall economy. The game’s designers knew this was something of a hack, but they had no choice. Early computers didn’t have the horsepower to keep track of how every individual’s deteriorating health might change how he behaved, and how those behaviors might ricochet across the city. Indeed, if you looked closely at SimCity’s screen, you’d often notice cars and people fade in and out of view. “That’s because they weren’t really there,” says Ocean Quigley, a longtime game designer at Maxis, the studio that makes SimCity. “The whole city was just an abstract, top-down, statistical representation of how a city worked.” It was, in other words, a simulated simulation.

Well, until now. On Tuesday, Maxis will launch the sixth major version of SimCity. (For now it’s for Windows PCs only; Maxis says it will put out a Mac version this spring.) For the first time, the game does something it has long pretended to do: SimCity simulates discrete urban behavior, tracking how every person and every object interacts. “We now have every car and every person and every garbage truck and every criminal represented by an autonomous agent in the environment,” says Quigley, who served as the creative and art director on the new game. “Then we give each of them simple rules about how they should behave—so a criminal goes around looking for a place to commit crime, and a policeman goes about looking for places where crimes are being committed. What you get is a city built out of the emergent interactions between all these agents.”

The end result is incredible. I’ve been playing SimCity since late last week, and, like every previous version, I’ve found it to be unyieldingly addictive. (I’ve got a 2-year-old and a 3-week-old at home; my wife texted me to let me know they’re doing fine.) But SimCity isn’t just habit-forming. It’s also deeper and more realistic than any other sim game I’ve played. Because previous versions weren’t really tracking citizens’ activities, the game could only give you limited information about what was going on in your city. In fact, a lot of what happened was just luck—the work of a random-number generator. The new game, by contrast, floods you with real-time data about what’s happening in your city (in my case, ManjooVille).

What do you know about your metropolis? With regards to the economy, you can find out how much money every business is making, how many workers it has and how many it needs, where it’s shipping its products, and why it had to just shut its doors. The game provides you this data on micro scale—you can follow every object in the game—or in the aggregate, painting color-coded maps across your landscape.

In some ways, all the data makes the game easier to play. In the old SimCity, I’d often find myself creating some version of Los Angeles or Houston. I’d have a large, prosperous city hobbled by a few problems—pollution, traffic, crime—that I could never lick, because I had no insight into how they were occurring. Now that there’s an inner logic to ManjooVille, an illustration of the way each of your decisions filters down to every John and Jane Sim, you can usually spot how to fix whatever’s going wrong.

In other ways, though, greater authenticity makes SimCity a lot more difficult. For one thing, like in real life, your city’s resources are now finite. When you set up your city, you’re shown how much water, oil, coal, wind, and other natural resources are available. You’d be wise to pay attention—if you create a sprawling metropolis based on coal but then find you can’t buy any once your mine runs out, you’ll be hosed.

There’s also now a fuzzier definition of what it means to “win” the game. “In previous SimCitys there was one implicit win condition: Manhattan,” says Quigley. “Even though it wasn’t stated as a goal, that was the goal most people assigned themselves—to get the biggest buildings and the maximum population.” In the new game, there are a number of ways to “specialize” your city in a way that might not require huge population density. You can create a place like Saudi Arabia—a city that mines all of its resources and sells it on the global market—or one like Monaco, where the economy runs on tourism and gambling, or Silicon Valley, pumping out electronics all day long.

But the most fascinating thing about the new SimCity is the way it sometimes startles you with unexpected events. “In the old model, the simulation would never do something you wouldn’t expect,” says Quigley. “That’s because the simulation designer had bounded the potential states that the system could get into—so there was no novelty, no emergent behavior that could come out of it. Everything that happened in the simulation was already defined upfront.”

Now, you get what Quigley calls “cascades” between different systems. “So say for example, a person in a house gets sick. And then they carry that sickness to a factory. And then the people in the factory get sick. Then the factory goes out of business because it’s no longer got any workers. And once that factory goes out of business, then the store that it’s supplying also goes out of business—and so on and so forth. You wind up with these organic cause-and-effect relationships.”

Even though SimCity’s overall tone remains comic and cartoony—your people speak in an indecipherable chatter, and many buildings have self-deprecating names (Roach Studio Apartments, The Flea Pit hotel)—in its exquisite detail, the new game can sometimes evoke much more serious portrayals of urban life. As I was playing, I couldn’t help thinking of The WireSimCity mimics that show’s God’s-eye view of urban disrepair, and in some moments even its crushing bureaucratic lethargy.

“The most interesting stuff that stands out to me is around the drama of criminality,” Quigley says. “Say you have a criminal who goes into a building to rob someone. You frantically put down police departments while that’s going on to stop him.” In the old SimCity, that was all you had to do—as soon as you put down your police station, nearby crime would magically abate. “But in the new SimCity, now you actually need to hire police officers, and they need to go out and stop crime. So you put down your police department, and now it sends out a call to say, Who wants to be a police officer? So you’re watching this robbery unfold and meanwhile you’re saying to yourself, Come on guys, sign up as police officers! You’re watching people amble over to be police officers, and you really feel anxious about it. You’re just waiting for these people to get from their houses to the police station to be police officers so they can get into their police cars so they can race across town and stop this robbery.”

You might wonder whether this is all too realistic—whether, in trying to replicate the more numbing aspects of urban reform, SimCity risks losing what has made it so addictive. After all, part of the fun of previous versions was that you could exercise complete control over a city; if fire raged across your land, you didn’t need to wait to hire firefighters to put it out.

But I never felt SimCity stray from its supreme goal: keeping it fun. I had many moments of frustration in the game—times when I rushed into action to fix something terrible in ManjooVille only to be stymied by the inherent inertia of civic life. I would do bold things, like taking out a huge bond issue to fund several new schools, and then see my efforts wither. My people were slow to figure out how to get to the schools I’d created; it took me many months of game time to get my population educated enough to sustain a high-tech economy.

Sure, I got annoyed by this. But never, ever annoyed enough to quit playing. As a wise man once said, It’s all in the game.