Three tips for building a successful SimCity

By Kat Bailey, Jan 25, 2013 6:30am PST

It's been a decade now since the last real SimCity. Think about it: George W. Bush was still president. Pluto was still a planet. Unless you really love the series (and many do), it's probably been a long time since you sat down and had an honest go at building New Gotham City or New New York.

That was the certainly the case for us when we sat down to play EA's SimCity reboot for the first time earlier this month. But after several hours, and several abject failures, we were able to figure things out and get a real metropolis going. Here's what you should be thinking about when you jump into SimCity yourself in a couple months.

1. It's best to start with dirt roads and build up

The first thing you will probably want to do is start laying out a perfect grid, like you probably have in pretty much every other SimCity until now. After all, in those games, a well-planned grid was the only way to get a city to grow properly and fill up all available space. That's not really the case in the reboot.

For the most part, buildings will grow up in any area that you zone, so long as you follow a few basic rules. First, they need enough room to actually grow. Sims will quickly outgrow whatever tiny grid you give them. Second, they rely heavily on the type of roads that are nearby. In fact, traffic control matters more than anything in the SimCity reboot.

Rather than light, medium, and heavy zones, the type of buildings you get is determined by whether you choose low, medium, or high density roads. Of them, dirt roads are the best, because they can be upgraded as time goes on. When wealthier sims are ready to move in, you can quickly upgrade the infrastructure to support them.

The more successful cities tend to feature larger zones for high density buildings, as well as a few main arteries that can handle a lot of traffic. The upshot of all this is that you can make your city look however you want as long as you're smart about it.

City planning nuts--the same people who have driven SimCity 4's user-generated content community for years now--will probably struggle with the overall lack of realism. But even in the early going, it's made for some fascinating city designs. If you've ever wanted to design a wacky city from the future, this is your chance.

2. Regional cooperation is key

SimCity fans have been rightfully critical of Maxis' decision to make their game online-only. There are benefits though, among them a very strong cooperative multiplayer game.

For the first time, it's possible to get a friend into another city, then work and plan together to create the ultimate metropolis. Even if you don't have a cohort willing to create the Oakland to your San Francisco, you can just take over another area and start developing it on your own. And at some point, you'll need to do just that.

One reason is that many of the regions just aren't big enough to support a large, self-contained city. Sooner or later, you will have to start a new city with a friend (or by yourself) and start outsourcing your goods, services, and Sims. In fact, the sooner that you realize that, the more likely that you are to have a successful city.

Generally speaking, the best strategy seems to focus hard on suburbia early on, with minimal commercial and industrial interests. In the next region over, commercial is the best focus, and so on. The result is something akin to a major metropolitan era, albeit without the ringed suburbs that characterize many newer cities.

Playing with friends, it becomes your job to tend to and cultivate your particular area while forging deals that will send ambulances, fire trucks, garbage trucks, and ultimately, jobs between the various cities. It takes a lot of patience, and it can be a drag to see one part of the city suffer while another booms. But this sort of asynchronous multiplayer--your teammates don't even have to be online while you're working--is pretty much perfect for SimCity. It nicely captures the spirit of the original games while bringing to bear the technological advances that have been made in online gaming over the past ten years.

3. In the end, you have to specialize

Many cities are known for having a particular specialty. Tourism, for example, or industry. SimCity is much the same, and it's the final key to driving your population to new heights.

Assuming you spread across the region, take care of traffic, and avoid poisoning the drinking water (tip: don't build a sewage pipe near a water pump), your population should grow apace. But at some point, it will cap out, and you will have to start thinking of clever ways to increase your population.

One solution? Specialize in tourism and build a stadium. After all, it worked for Miami, right? Either that, you can build a casino, or a major university.

Whatever you choose, you will quickly attract a flood of talent to your region, and land values will rise appreciably. So while such upgrades are extremely expensive (and have notable downsides, such as an increase in crime), they are also completely necessary. There's no way around it.

On the one hand, it's a neat addition that allows for appreciable differentiation between cities. On the other, the decision to make it more or less mandatory comes off as a bit restrictive. In the end, each specialization puts a mayor into a little bit of a box, the result being that their decisions are defined by city rather than the other way around.

If SimCity has a weakness, it's that Maxis' hand feels a little too heavy at times, even with the opportunity break away from the tyranny of the grids that defined cities in years past. It can be felt most acutely in the somewhat rigid specializations, which feel less a component of the emergent gameplay advocated by Maxis and more like strict talent trees.

Of course, there's something to be said for scale. And if you want a glossy neon strip or a massive stadium, you've definitely come to the right place.

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