If one looks back not too long ago, to the fantastical, mystical time of 2004, almost a decade ago, it was a weird, hellish landscape. Especially in Iraq, where the leader of the free world was continuing his crusade and racking up a body count of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi people. In America, election season was ramping up again, and the latest and greatest Rockstar joint had just dropped - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
It wouldn’t be until the next year that it’s deep, dark, long forgotten yet deep roasted secret would finally come to light, like finding a dead fly in a coffee filter. That dead fly being a very poorly made and kinda horrifying looking sex mini game, of course. Early Summer 2005, “Hot Coffee” was found in the PC release of GTA: San Andreas, and the entire world exploded in agony at the discovery of hidden, stashed away code nobody thought would come to fruition, yet curious minds and modders with a little computer know-how digging through the game’s files uncovered “Hot Coffee” and released a patch online that activated the content. It was a tremendous embarrassment to Rockstar Games and forced them to clamp down on loose content in their releases, and a real show that in this day and age of the Internet, anybody can find anything if they truly try hard enough.
So you would think, 9 years after this event which was all over the national news, game developers (and more importantly publishers) would learn you can’t hide stuff in your game? More importantly, this was a sign you couldn’t be dishonest about the content in your game? Especially, if say, your game was a simulator, and your code didn’t accurately simulate anything like the experience you’re supposedly simulating? I mean, it’d only be inevitable that someone on the Internet digging through the game files, or screwing around with the mechanics and experimenting, for one reason or another would stumble upon what’s actually going on?
Well, it’s 2013, and the rebooted SimCity franchise from Maxis and Electronic Arts has proven that nobody learned anything from Hot Coffee. As the new SimCity, with it’s always-online “requirement” and “streamlined” mechanics is hilariously enough, one of the most broken releases to come to market. First off, SimCity is a $59.99 release that didn’t function properly at launch for a large number of users due to the servers being overloaded with users trying to connect and play. This issue plagued a lot of players for about a week, a great number demanding refunds, until eventually Electronic Arts support refused refunding purchases - forcing disenfranchised players to initiate chargebacks on their debit/credit card. Hell, even Amazon was forced to cease sale of the game on their website, it was such an embarrassment.
Now, for those who have actually gotten to play the game, what they’ve stumbled upon is a unholy nightmare of bizarro, half-libertarian, half-surrealist philosophy that is less a simulation and more an artistic statement of how much of a sham Electronic Arts and Maxis have become, especially after the tremendous letdown that was Spore.
If you ask anyone who lives in Los Angeles and owns a car, they’d tell you the biggest nightmare they have is waking up one day and being tasked to run the urban planning office; roads, highways, and all. It’s such a nightmare of rapid growth and interlocking, interweaving webs of city blocks, freeways and highways, zoning nightmares, and bad drivers. So to properly simulate building a city from the ground up, you’d have to figure out a traffic mechanic that simulated an entire city of people going from a million different Point As to a million different Point Bs, and work your road planning around it. The previous Sim City 4 attempted this, and was improved upon in Rush Hour, with the community created Network Addon Mod vastly improving upon this system.
In the 2013 SimCity, there is nothing approaching this level of complexity. Within the mechanics, the best possible layout for your city in SimCity isn’t a set of grids and intersecting roads, like the vast majority of civilized societies over thousands of years - but instead - a singular snaking road through your entire region. Really though, this works out great for the Sims that occupy your newfound city that exists as a tribute to either the Elder Gods of Nokia and/or the Late 70s classic Snake - as they have no individual identities, and rather, operate as a hive mind that get up in the morning, go to whatever industrial zones are unoccupied and work their respective jobs, and then go home and fill whatever houses are empty. Even then, the simulation doesn’t bother to check it’s own math, ignoring the fact it sent a massive handful of sims to a house that can only hold, like, four.
This is, apparently, the magical “Agents” system that required the maximum city size to be shrunk to a tiny, pathetic square. This square, mind you, has a maximum size of 1 square mile. “SimCity,” a city simulation which somehow is now restricted to a size limit of a single square mile? Which even then, the game’s code inflates the population numbers to such a huge degree to hide the fact there’s so little actually going on. So little, going horribly wrong - like a bad, bad pot of hot coffee that had some rotten milk added for flavor.
Numerous videos have come out all over Youtube showing the utterly broken pathfinding in SimCity, which seems to possess a hive mind of digital souls that operate entirely by their own, inhuman logic. For a game that was apparently in development for the better part of a decade, and from a studio as experienced as Maxis, it’s an utter sham that the game is barely playable at launch, out-of-the-box requires an always online connection, and the game itself is not an accurate simulation of city planning at all. Sims simply calculate what the shortest distance from Point A to Point B is and go on their way, ignoring any sort of traffic management or interlocking road systems - with cars sitting for hours upon hours on a 2-lane road, blind to the empty avenue that runs parallel just a couple blocks away.
The reason for this is because SimCity’s GlassBox engine doesn’t simulate the entire population at the same time. Instead, abstractions that extrapolated data utterly made up numbers. The bigger the city, the bigger the distortion - and after a point, everything just breaks down. So much, that Maxis had to patch out game features like Cheetah Speed time acceleration and high density roads because it was breaking the game. The vast majority of the game is a utter distortion, from the bottom of the code to the top of the marketing speak. Electronic Arts and Maxis to some extent, however big or small depending who you ask, committed fraud in releasing this product to the public for sale.
Even the population of the city is an outright lie: the user interface will say you have a city of 200,000 residents when really it’s only 20,000, due to the way the code would rather “fudge” the numbers, the exact word “fudge” being a part of their user interface code, which multiplies the actual population by a factor of 8.25. One player (streaming on Twitch as curvygoonette) with a 850k+ (actually closer to 120k) population is reporting issues with basic mechanics - having more than one sewage plant screws up the pollution metrics, criminals can’t commit crime, sims piling into water towers, and a cap on buildings that can be upgraded simultaneously. The below image is a screencap from their Twitch channel, and as a former New Yorker I have to ask, how in the hell is that close to a million people?!
Oh, wait, did I say always-online was a requirement earlier? Well, according to a Maxis employee by the name of Lucy Bradshaw, it is - yet, there’s already a mod, or “hack” according to Maxis, that disables this requirement and enables a truly single player experience - similar to SimCity 4 and how one could build a massive, enormous regional empire of towns and cities of all shapes and sizes. Yet, not as challenging, rewarding, or massive, due to the arcane limits on city sizes, with it’s archaic dotted white borders around every establishment. Hilariously enough, to cover for this, Bradshaw has already redefined SimCity’s genre from simulation to Massively Multiplayer Online game… somehow… because peaking at 16 people in a single region or “game” so you say, is a… on the same level as 15+ million strong World of Warcraft… somehow?
Hilariously enough, this train wreck doesn’t stop here! There’s a massive problem with the “social” “Massively Multiplayer Online” experience that has ruined a lot of players’ experiences. With the mechanics of inter-city reliance for various services, goods, and residents across a region, one bad mistake or one player dropping out can totally lay waste to an area and ruin another player’s 10+ hours of city building. There’s now a great deal of abandoned cities helping to clog up the server load, with frustrated players sitting around frustrated, and/or giving up and firing up Sim City 4 again.
With thousands if not millions of players lashing out in frustration and anger over the awful experiences they’ve had with the newfound “MMO” of SimCity, the PR team is all out in force, releasing long paragraphs acknowledging that this isn’t what the players wanted in a SimCity sequel, but this is their “artistic vision,” as utterly broken as it may be.
As a graphic designer, I understand that “artistic and creative vision” is a part of what I do, yet if it comes out bad, or wrong on a base technical level, or what I send to a client isn’t as advertised, then I’m not supposed to go and defend said screw-ups, I’m supposed to apologize and make it right. I’m one guy! An arrogant, smug, self-righteous 22 year old with an internet connect without a college degree, and I somehow know more about shipping than a multimillion dollar corporation made up of hundreds of people, whom see fit to release a broken product and then try to play smoke and mirrors after collecting millions of dollars from a now enraged consumer base, demanding refunds and chargebacks and posting angrily on the internet about this.
Of course, Games Journalism, with their commitment to their reader base, has come out in force on all fronts defending Electronic Arts and Maxis. Arthur Gies, Reviews Editor of Polygon has been outspoken on Twitter, riding a slippery slope from “Sim City can’t work offline and if you think otherwise you’re an idiot,” after this was confirmed to be untrue, now claims with the offline mode hack that “it’s not simulating the true ‘experience’ because it doesn’t let you play the ‘multiplayer’ offline,” even though this is similar functionality to Sim City 4’s regional offline play.
Hey, at least Arthur Gies is only shilling for videogames and not war profiteers. (http://exiledonline.com/failing-up-with-joshua-foust-meet-the-evil-genius-massacre-denier-who-shills-for-war-profiteers/) Plenty of other games journalists have raised swords on Twitter in defense of Maxis and EA, such as GameSutra running a repost of a “satirical” article calling players “entitled” for voicing their frustrations with a broken game. (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/188631/Ive_had_it_with_lazy_devs__a_forumgoer_puts_a_studio_on_notice.php?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+GamasutraNews+%28Gamasutra+News%29)
This sort of behavior from games journalism really goes beyond keeping their jobs. They’re “journalists” actively working hand in hand with multi-million corporations shilling terrible, anti-consumer programs like always-online DRM and micro transactions for single-player games as somehow necessary components in this day and age. Games journalists for the most part aren’t in the business they’re in to help their reader base make informed purchasing decisions, even though that’s what they’re trusted with - and being critical of publishers can actively harm their employment.
Of course, this more or less proves games journalists are largely illiterate when it comes to games as an artistic medium made up mainly of mechanics, because how did they give a game such high scores such as a “9 out of 10” from Polygon (which was soon lowered to an 8.5 due to server issues, and a week before time of writing, adjusted to a 4 somehow) when it was so deceptive and frankly broken? I’m not implying deceptiveness on the part of games journalism, or some sort of illuminati plot, but instead sheer ineptitude at being a trusted source when consumers in their collective online communities are the ones doing the real journalism behind what’s in a game.
At the end of the day, Electronic Arts and Maxis released a deceptive, broken, barely functioning game to market and are trying to run an awful, shame of a PR job of smoke and mirrors over it whilst trying to hurriedly fix the basic issues of the game. Games journalists are clawing over each other to rally to Maxis’ defense, whilst trying to appear balanced and adjusting review scores. It’s a massive trash heap of customer-unfriendly practices piling one on top of the other, to really put a stake in the heart of the SimCity so many remembered so fondly for over two decades.
As for those looking for the best possible city planning experience available right now? I would heartily recommend SimCity 4 Deluxe Edition at $17.95 on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/SimCity-4-Deluxe-Edition-Download/dp/B00457VJ3G/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363399787&sr=8-1&keywords=simcity+4) and Network Addon Mod (http://www.moddb.com/mods/network-addon-mod), which vastly improves upon the traffic mechanics of the game, and even adds the curved roads of the 2013 SimCity.
As for me? I’m going to pour a glass of bourbon and build up “Wrasslerville,” my juche ideology inspired nightmare world of broken down housing, dirty industry, and rapid expansion, with a casino and a missile silo in every city!