With the SimCity servers now comparatively stable, EA and Maxis must have hoped they would be through the worst part of what's become most controversial game launch in years. However, the chance to play the game properly has only served to reveal a number of arguably more worrying concerns about the way the simulation runs.
EA's own help forums, and the SimCity subreddit, are ablaze with players unhappy with what they perceive as mis-sold promises about the game's AI and features. Based on those complaints, here we list the six most important things Maxis needs to mend in the game.
1. Offline mode
Prior to release we were too blasť about the likely impact of SimCity's always-on DRM. In the aftermath of the shuttle crash that was the US launch, questions have rightly been repeated as to why the game has no offline mode whatsoever? It seems absurd that you aren't able to play a game you own because of an internet outage, or while using a laptop on a train. The response from Maxis has been to mutter vaguely about how much of the computational work required to run the simulation occurs on the server side.
This now appears to be demonstrably untrue, as a member of the modding community has managed to run the game's core features offline with no problems. So the suspicion remains that the always-on requirement is, and always has been, entirely about DRM.
As for the idea that the game was built to be a social experience, having sunk around 20 hours into it thus far, I can say that's largely bunk. SimCity is plenty enjoyable played on your own, and the ability to trade resources with neighbours is a cute but not particularly substantial addition to the overall experience. In fact you're as likely to find yourself cursing their visitors snarling up your highway entrance. (More on which in a second.)
If Maxis and EA are truly serious about winning back the trust that has been lost in this debacle, they need to commit to making the game playable offline, and soon.
2. Dumb Pathfinding
The shortest route from A to B is a straight line. But that isn't the case if that line is jammed to the gills with gridlocked traffic. And yet, as the video below shows, vehicles in SimCity don't think smart. All of the cars take a dirt track in preference to the wider road because the distance is a tiny bit shorter, resulting in needless congestion.
This next video arguably shows the issue even better. Again, every single car takes the snarled up dirt track and ignores the empty avenue going to the same destination because the route is longer.
The significance of this is it makes it almost impossible to plan road layouts with anything but the most rudimentary logic, because you know the little jerks will ignore the complicated network you've created in order to ease the traffic flow. In the end players have to rely on mass transit, like buses and streetcars, to help alleviate the problem.
But public transport isn't without its own issues either, as confirmed in this blog post about streetcars by Lead Gameplay Scripter Guillaume Pierre. He describes how "all the vehicles that are in the same area and want to go to the same destination type will all follow the same path, resulting in clumping and general traffic problems," adding that, "we're looking into various ways to improve the situation so traffic will spread out better."
The internet being the internet, one early commenter responded: "Cool story, bro. Now fix the game, please?" Hard to argue with the sentiment, though. Pathfinding in SimCity is unquestionably not as clever as expected, and ought to be near the top of the to-do list.
[Update: A Maxis developer has claimed a SimCity patch to fix the traffic issues will be issued shortly]
3. The 100% Residential Zoning Issue
The careful balancing act between how you zone commercial, industrial and residential districts in order to keep everyone happy and productive is at the very core of the SimCity experience. Or at least it was until this year's game. As one intrepid city planner on Reddit discovered, it's entirely possible to ignore shops and factories entirely, only using the green residential zones to make houses, and still have a fully functioning economy.
Here's a video showing how it works.
The short version is that because parks function like shops, Sims are able to spend money and gain happiness by visiting them. So long as taxes are kept low, the population will be happy enough to stick around despite the total lack of work and actual opportunities for shopping. And although that experiment was initially conducted in sandbox mode, another Reddit user has since show it working in a live game setting with the same result.
Indeed, one of the amusing side effects is thanks to the city's near 100 per cent unemployment rate (the only jobs on offer will be at the utility plants and safety services), the residential-only city will spawn 1,000s of criminals who will then make a beeline for any neighbouring cities in the region.
The trolling possibilities are pretty obvious. More significant, though, is the fact it essentially renders the key question in the game redundant: how will you apportion the space which is so limited? A fix to the way parks can be exploited surely has to be forthcoming.