SimCity is what hooked me on computer gaming. It was also one of the first games I played that wasn't about killing guys or jumping on platforms. It made "urban simulation" into a fun, addictive obsession--no easy task, when you think about it.
And yet, as I was hunting down player-made patches for a bug-ridden SimCity 4 the other day, it dawned on me: this poor game is showing its age, and there's no sign of a true sequel. Has the core SimCity series been abandoned? SimCity 4 was released in January 2003. In terms of the delay between releases, this six-year span is the longest drought since the six-year wait for SimCity 2000. By comparison, exactly four years separated each of the following sequels.
What's the hold-up? Recent spin-offs like SimCity Societies and SimCity Creator miss the point. SimCity 3000 ports are fun distractions, but how many more of those can we buy?
When will we see a new version of the franchise that made Maxis? Well, I asked EA Maxis general manager Lucy Bradshaw, and this is what she said:
And then the interview was ended.
Shack: I was playing SimCity 4 last night. It's been a long time. When are we going to see SimCity 5?
Lucy Bradshaw: You know what, honestly, the Sims division owns the SimCity franchise. I did SimCity 4 with the team, and honestly, I love SimCity. It's my favorite game ever. It's what got me into gaming, and I want to see that franchise do well.
Shack: So... would you say that EA is committed to the franchise?
Lucy Bradshaw: Oh, absolutely. In fact, there's a new SimCity version that's out for the iPhone.
Shack: Yeah. It's pretty good.
Lucy Bradshaw: Yeah, and there's lots of different directions... I think, you know, Maxis games have traditionally been something that allows you to take a lot of different avenues and different directions. It's about, where would we reinterpret [SimCity]. When that comes to the fore, and that passion's in the right place, all of a sudden we'll be able to take advantage of it.
It's not much of a response--but, if anything, the term to focus on here might be "reinterpret."
In my PC gamer mind--which, admittedly, can often become stuck in 1998--the hypothetical SimCity 5 has always been a logical upgrade to SimCity 4. To this point, the series has been predictable in its progression. Curved roads were major bullet-points. Monorails became the stuff of dreams.
But based on Ms. Bradshaw's comments, and the span of time since the last SimCity, it makes sense that a SimCity 5 would be a reinvention of sorts. After all, you can only add so many layers to the existing SimCity model before it becomes more complex than even a typical hardcore gamer wants to deal with.
So what would a reinvention of SimCity look like, other than the rather disappointing twist seen in the recent spin-offs? One option might resemble this:
Well, not exactly this. These screenshots are from Cities XL, an upcoming urban simulator by developer Monte Cristo.
Cities XL will attempt to bring the SimCity formula to an online space. Aiming for a more realistic, high-detail aesthetic, the game will populate planets with interconnected, player-created cities--complete with a global economy and business simulation. It's an incredibly ambitious project, but Cristo supposedly has 80 team members on it, and the company expects to push out a release in 2009. Regardless of a new SimCity, Cities is certainly worth watching.
But while that kind of massive simulation is clearly more complicated than Maxis is willing to stomach, the MMO-style connectivity is reminiscent of Spore's planet pollination, and might serve a SimCity sequel well. This kind of large-scale scenario might simply be a natural extension of the city "regions" seen in SimCity 4.
Another possibility could see elements of The Sims and Spore directly carried over into a new SimCity. SimCity 4's MySims mode was more of an afterthought than an effective franchise-branching feature, and is ripe for improvement with The Sims 3's neighborhood expansion. And the building creation technology of Spore seems like a no-brainer for a SimCity 5. I've always wanted greater control over the look of my cities, but never had the patience to personally create any mods.
Of course, there is a good chance that we'll never see a real "SimCity 5"--that the "reinterpretation" will simply be another disappointing reduction of a once-great brand.
"'SimCity' kind of worked itself into a corner," said Will Wright of the series he created in 2004. "We were still appealing to this core 'SimCity' group. It had gotten a little complicated for people who had never played 'SimCity.' We want to take it back to its roots where somebody who had never heard of 'SimCity' can pick it up and enjoy playing it without thinking it was really, really hard."
Despite my respect for Mr. Wright, and the knowledge that catering to a base of hardcore PC gamers can mean financial suicide, I can't help but feel that this view represents the "easy way out" when it comes to dealing with traditionally complex PC franchises. It's a lot to ask to cast aside financial good sense "for the fans," but I'm not sure there isn't another path.
In the grand scheme of things, World of Warcraft is one of the more complicated titles in history, but Blizzard has managed to hook hundreds of thousands of new gamers on hotbars, item auctions and nightly raids. The Sims may seem simple on the outside, but it's not exactly My Fashion Designer. Captivating, complex games can also be made intuitive and approachable to non-gamers.
As someone that appreciates SimCity, and challenging games in general, I can only hope that Maxis is still open to taking a risk in attempting a SimCity game that services fans of the series without alienating new customers. There must be a way to gracefully streamline a new SimCity without destroying the depth of simulation that defines it. SimCity, as we know it, can't possibly have died in 2003.
What would you want in a SimCity 5? Reticulate some splines in the comments.