disaster

I’ve been playing SimCity for several days now. Electronic Arts was kind enough to set up pre-release press servers. However, I wouldn’t dream of reviewing the game based on my time with those press servers, which gave me almost no inkling of how SimCity is supposed to play. I instead got a look at a game in which a few editors from places like Kotaku and Destructoid casually shuffled around pieces without any sense of purpose.

I also wouldn’t dream of reviewing the game based on my experience with the launch, which is an unfunny comedy of gameplay errors, frustrating login queues, and botched social networking hooha. I can understand some of the errors as matters of server stress. Not everyone can launch a popular online game. So here I am waiting on the mandatory 20-minute timer to count down to the next server error message before resetting the timer. Just 14 minutes to go!

But it’s harder to understand why the fundamentals of the game design are broken. The design is based on cities existing as tiny — yes, they’re tiny — interconnected boxes that exchange resources, including people, services, and goods. It’s a sound concept and a pretty good justification for the tiny city chunks in lieu of the usual citybuilder sprawl. Just as the islands in the Anno games are cramped and incapable of self-sufficiency, so too are SimCity’s city boxes. Furthermore, what’s going on in each box is a lot less interesting than what’s going on when you string several of them together, whether they’re played by you or your friends.

But here’s where SimCity gets tripped up by all the information it helpfully provides. I can clearly see how much power my coal plant is producing. I can then sell it to my neighboring cities for a precise sum of money. And I can then see that the money isn’t going back to the powerplant city. I can tell that the city next door has extra sewage pumping capacity because I built it. So when the game tells me no nearby city provides sewage services, I know it’s wrong. Furthermore, I can send a gift of $50,000 to a neighboring city so it can build a hospital. I can then watch the money truck arrive, load up the money, drive across the map to the recipient, and vanish. And I can then see that the $50,000 deducted from my first city is nowhere to be seen in the destination city. If the basics aren’t working among the cities, who can trust the later and more complex interactions?

SimCity does not work yet. And anyone who has reviewed it favorably at this point is reviewing it entirely on its promise. If that’s how you want to evaluate games, have at it. There is pretty much no reason any game shouldn’t get a stellar review. The industry should be grateful for your enthusiasm.

But the fact of the matter is that as of now, about midnight on the game’s first day in the wild and after about five days of press access, SimCity is a shamefully broken game that does not live up to its design goals. Hopefully, these are launch issues and we’ll soon be playing the game EA intended to design, because that’s the game I’d much rather review in about a week.