How to improve deeply flawed one-year-old SimCity 5

I was exposed to the SimCity franchise at the beginning, when SimCity boasted a 2D top-down view with zoning represented by green, blue, and yellow squares with a letter centered in the middle of the shape. I watched the simulation game evolve into a 3D landscape with farms and waste added in SimCity 3000, and regional play added in SimCity 4. Every release of SimCity was marked by critical acclaim from professionals and gamers alike. This history leaves SimCity with a special place in my heart. It is one of the few games that has stood the test of time through iterations of DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows XP, not to mention a few consoles along the way.

The fifth iteration of the SimCity franchise, which is plainly titled “SimCity,” has failed to live up to the franchise’s history of critical acclaim, even after a year of bug fixes. While the game is certainly playable, no longer are the days of long-term engagements or even true cities. The Great Works feature in SimCity 5 is still exceptionally buggy and the agent system boated by Maxis has been an utter failure in terms of performance as well as artificial intelligence.

Wish #1: Increased complexity

In the past, the SimCity game was complex enough to make a person frustrated. In this iteration, regardless of the chosen region, landscape, etc., the game is extremely simple. Gone are the days of laying pipes and power lines; instead, power, water, and sewage follow roads. By widening the audience to which this game may appeal, the developers have effectively alienated their user base.

Wish #2: City planning tools

Unless you have played the game on a long-term basis, city planning is nearly impossible. First, the guides provided for roads are very complicated and unclear. It takes a long time to understand what the guides mean for avenues versus roads, and even then, it can be very confusing. For certain road layouts, the user must first place the road to get the guide, and only then create the desired layout. This is extremely wasteful. Also, mayors are unable to determine whether a particular building will fit in a given area without (1) having access to that building, or (2) placing the building and testing individual components.

Wish #3: Larger maps

This is by far the biggest problem with the new iteration of SimCity.  Anecdotally, it appears to be the most popular feature request, even garnering more support than requests for an offline mode.  The current city size is 2 km by 2 km, which is comparable to the medium city size in SimCity 4.  To put those numbers into perspective, a “city” in SimCity 5 is smaller than NYC’s Central Park.  In this Simtropolis post, the forum user provided a real-life comparison between potential city sizes (1×1, 2×2, 4×4, and 8×8).  In truth, a more apt title for SimCity 5 would have been SimTown.

When pressed, SimCity developers finally released the following statement:

After months of testing, I confirm that we will not be providing bigger city sizes. The system performance challenges we encountered would mean that the vast majority of our players wouldn’t be able to load, much less play with bigger cities. We’ve tried a number of different approaches to bring performance into an acceptable range, but we just couldn’t achieve it within the confines of the engine. We’ve chosen to cease work on bigger city sizes and put that effort into continuing to evolve the core game and explore an offline mode. Some of the experiments we conducted to improve performance on bigger cities will be rolled into future updates to improve overall game performance.

Instead of allowing players to choose city sizes based on their hardware specifications, Maxis has opted to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  For the players who will encounter performance issues with larger map sizes, let them continue on with the current map size.  For players like myself, who have high-end PCs, allow us to use the larger map size.  My feeling is that the real reason Maxis issued this statement is that they released a product based on an incomplete and deeply flawed simulation engine.

Wish #4: Greater diversity for Great Works & buildings

Quite simply, it would be nice if the Great Works actually worked.  The Space Center still gets stuck at the worker stage, even if you create an unemployment crisis in your region, even if you have plenty of skilled and unskilled workers.  With that said, there are only four Great Works projects.  In addition, after playing the game for a while, the buildings start to feel stale.  Adding new core buildings (non-DLC) would go a long way in reducing this feeling (e.g. schools of varying quality, farms, toll roads, etc.).

In addition, there are only two structures geared toward shorelines—cargo and passenger ship docks.  It would be nice to have the ability to add and maintain beaches (i.e. charge for entry, deal with erosion, etc.), and have it affect nearby land values.  The way land values are computed in SimCity 5 highly simplistic (e.g. parks, hospitals, etc.).

Wish #5: No more futuristic DLC packages

SimCity is supposed to be a simulation game.  The Cities of Tomorrow expansion pack crossed the bridge into fantasy territory.  With the release of the expansion pack, several components were added to the core buildings.  These components are not accessible to non-CoT players without having a CoT player in the region with the appropriate buildings (e.g. ControlNet).  These features need to be removed for non-CoT players.  In addition, it would be helpful if we could create regions excluding the unrealistic buildings provided by the CoT expansion pack.  Many of us want to create a realistic city and region, and prefer to stay away from the strangeness of Cities of Tomorrow.

Wish #6: Additional statistics

In SimCity 4, there were a plethora of reports and graphs detailing every aspect of the city from labor to crime.  In SimCity 5, we are provided with a simplistic real-time overviews for each category.  The only historical report we have at our disposal is the number of citizens per month detailed over the course of about a year.  There is no way to keep track of casino or export profits, nor is there a way to keep track of how we are affecting crime, fire, or health over the long-term.  There are also no long-term reports for electricity, water, sewage, or trash demand.

On top of that, the global statistics are difficult to navigate and understand.  If EA invested a tenth of the time they spent on Battlefield 4’s Battlelog web site, we would have an amazing tool for tracking statistics locally, regionally, and globally.  In short, SimCity 5 should have had all the reports of SimCity 4, as well as a Battlelog-type web site considering EA’s focus on regional play.

Wish #7: Reduce staleness and abandonment in regions

There are two big problems with regional play.  Too often players begin a city in a region, and end up focusing on other cities without ever abandoning that city.  As a result, dedicated users may end up in a region with numerous “stale” cities that should have been abandoned a long time ago.  There is another subset of players that frequently abandons cities, which negatively affects the region.  If the city was based on the CoT expansion pack, there is no way for a non-CoT player to claim that city.  It also makes the region must less desirable for users are much less likely to claim abandoned cities.

There are a few simple solutions to this problem.  First, start tracking city abandonment per user.  Next, start tracking the number of stale cities a player has in his account.  If a user has not touched a particular city after, say, a month, perhaps there should be negative consequences.  At the 30-day marker (or the regionally-set limit), perhaps the region could like vote to remove that player from the region.  Players starting new regions should be able to set minimums for each of these statistics.  This would allow users to create regions restricted by city abandonment and staleness statistics.

Wish #8: Improve resource specialization

On most plots, the user has access to either raw ore, coal, or oil.  There is a lot of potential to improve gameplay using the concept of resource specialization.  Instead of making all resources available at the start of the city, require certain aspects of specialization to be researched.  For example, offshore oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing (i.e. fracking) could be researched at a university in the region, granting regional access to oil in the sea, or natural gas in shale.  In turn, natural gas could affect the water supply as it does in the real world, and unskilled workers at an offshore oil platform could cause an environmental disaster.  The possibilities are endless—diamond mining, pharmaceutical development, even marijuana cultivation for recreational use or industrial hemp!  Currently, when resources run out, the player has the option of converting to a casino city or wholesale abandonment.  This is far from realistic.

(Note: There are also issues with trade that need to be worked out.  For example, both processor and television production require plastic.  Often, even with mountains of plastic, the plastic will not be delivered to the production facilities that need it.  This can easily cause economic problems.)

Wish #9: Integrate challenges in game

Currently, challenges are implemented using surprisingly antiquated techniques.  In order to read about challenges, you must exit the game (or switch applications), open your web browser, navigate to the SimCity web site, go to the blog, find the challenge, and manually enter yourself into the challenge.  Challenges should be automated and in-game only.

Wish #10: Offline mode

Many of us also asked for an offline mode, which Maxis will be delivering within the next month or so.  The interesting development is that a lot of SimCity players have come to enjoy the online regional play.  The primary complaint was that the online requirement was nothing more than a strict DRM feature.  SimCity players want to be able to use the game without a permanent connection.  The ideal scenario would be one in which players can play in a region with others while allowing that city to be developed offline when a connection is not available.  After a string of disappointments, it is imperative that Maxis get this one right.


As I said from the start, SimCity 5 is a playable but deeply flawed game.  The developers have made a lot of very public mistakes. Despite these mistakes, the game has the potential to be the greatest iteration of SimCity in the history of the franchise.  Maxis and EA have the ability to fix every issue brought up by gamers.  I also feel the need to say that these issues should not be part of a new SimCity release or expansion pack, but rather, a free update to the existing software.  Maxis and EA owe at least that much to their still-alienated customer base.

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