There’s also now a fuzzier definition of what it means to “win” the game. “In previous SimCitys there was one implicit win condition: Manhattan,” says Quigley. “Even though it wasn’t stated as a goal, that was the goal most people assigned themselves—to get the biggest buildings and the maximum population.” In the new game, there are a number of ways to “specialize” your city in a way that might not require huge population density. You can create a place like Saudi Arabia—a city that mines all of its resources and sells it on the global market—or one like Monaco, where the economy runs on tourism and gambling, or Silicon Valley, pumping out electronics all day long.
But the most fascinating thing about the new SimCity is the way it sometimes startles you with unexpected events. “In the old model, the simulation would never do something you wouldn’t expect,” says Quigley. “That’s because the simulation designer had bounded the potential states that the system could get into—so there was no novelty, no emergent behavior that could come out of it. Everything that happened in the simulation was already defined upfront.”
Now, you get what Quigley calls “cascades” between different systems. “So say for example, a person in a house gets sick. And then they carry that sickness to a factory. And then the people in the factory get sick. Then the factory goes out of business because it’s no longer got any workers. And once that factory goes out of business, then the store that it’s supplying also goes out of business—and so on and so forth. You wind up with these organic cause-and-effect relationships.”
Even though SimCity’s overall tone remains comic and cartoony—your people speak in an indecipherable chatter, and many buildings have self-deprecating names (Roach Studio Apartments, The Flea Pit hotel)—in its exquisite detail, the new game can sometimes evoke much more serious portrayals of urban life. As I was playing, I couldn’t help thinking of The Wire—SimCity mimics that show’s God’s-eye view of urban disrepair, and in some moments even its crushing bureaucratic lethargy.
“The most interesting stuff that stands out to me is around the drama of criminality,” Quigley says. “Say you have a criminal who goes into a building to rob someone. You frantically put down police departments while that’s going on to stop him.” In the old SimCity, that was all you had to do—as soon as you put down your police station, nearby crime would magically abate. “But in the new SimCity, now you actually need to hire police officers, and they need to go out and stop crime. So you put down your police department, and now it sends out a call to say, Who wants to be a police officer? So you’re watching this robbery unfold and meanwhile you’re saying to yourself, Come on guys, sign up as police officers! You’re watching people amble over to be police officers, and you really feel anxious about it. You’re just waiting for these people to get from their houses to the police station to be police officers so they can get into their police cars so they can race across town and stop this robbery.”
You might wonder whether this is all too realistic—whether, in trying to replicate the more numbing aspects of urban reform, SimCity risks losing what has made it so addictive. After all, part of the fun of previous versions was that you could exercise complete control over a city; if fire raged across your land, you didn’t need to wait to hire firefighters to put it out.
But I never felt SimCity stray from its supreme goal: keeping it fun. I had many moments of frustration in the game—times when I rushed into action to fix something terrible in ManjooVille only to be stymied by the inherent inertia of civic life. I would do bold things, like taking out a huge bond issue to fund several new schools, and then see my efforts wither. My people were slow to figure out how to get to the schools I’d created; it took me many months of game time to get my population educated enough to sustain a high-tech economy.
Sure, I got annoyed by this. But never, ever annoyed enough to quit playing. As a wise man once said, It’s all in the game.