Steal This Idea: SimSprawl
By now everyone has come to accept that EA’s remix of the old SimCity franchise, titled SIMCITY, is a complete disaster. It was almost certainly the final nail in John Riccitiello’s career. From lies to just baffling game mechanics, the throbbing, pulsating slime creature that was rolled out on release date should simply be forgotten by this point, scrubbed out of history like some ex-lackey in a Soviet photo (Societies? Who?). But the hole in each of us which SIMCITY sought to fill still remains, and there is little on the market to fill it. There are many pretenders to the throne; CitiesXL, Anno 2070, Tropico 4, Stronghold, and the upcoming Banished, but few offer the same quality of mayoral management, the bar set floating at skyscraper heights. No, only the Sim series can restore the dignity and honor of the city-building genre it itself has dashed. We need to jump start the series, send some real live current coursing through its dead bones, and do to SimCity what Alpha Centauri did to Civilization– take it to the next level, show us some place new, and pump up the self-awareness, all fit into a package indiscernible from its predecessors. The powers that be can do all of this and more in one elegant solution: SimSprawl.
SimSprawl is just as it sounds. You begin as the mayor of a large metropolitan city, something you’d have at the end of SimCity 4 lets say, in the corner of a decently sized state, one with one or two other reasonably sized cities just over the hills. The idea would then be to expand your city into a sprawl, gobbling up the suburbs, the countryside, and eventually other cities, in your quest to cover the state in urban architecture and transcend the Governor’s throne as an Emergency Manager of the State. The main inspiration for the sprawl could be drawn mainly from eighties cyberpunk works, like that of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, and other science fiction since, like Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One, Akira‘s Neo-Tokyo, or Star Wars‘ Coruscant. One could also look to our own modern megalopolises like the Northeastern corridor, the GTA, Greater Mexico City, and other areas to see just how cities in the real world boil over. Even the “completion” of one of the previous Simcity games, the monolithic city of Magnasanti, offers a vision of what SimCity could be when unleashed from its boundaries. EA have toyed with this futuristic vision recently, releasing a “Cities of Tomorrow” pack which, while containing some good ideas that should be outright pillaged for this next installment, fails to remove the game’s Fischer Price mitts and ends up look like a kitschy mess.
Before getting into the mechanics, it should be understood that SimSprawl has to really hammer home the point of density as your sprawl evolves and grows, in both visuals and gameplay. SIMCITY had some interesting new features, including curved roads and new ways to manage utilities, but it was plagued by things being too spaced out, all in a sandbox that was too small, making cities feel more like toys than living hives. Comparably, SimSprawl has to run in the opposite direction. The building spaces should gradually cramp up, towers rising to shadow towers, simulating how we constrict ourselves into valleys and mazes of our own design. Even the outlaying areas of the suburbs or favelas that come to surround your city should emulate a mesh or a blanket instead of singular houses and homes. The idea is whereas previous SimCitys focused on the micro aspects, down to individuals and their livelihoods, SimSprawl should examine the macro elements. You don’t deal with individuals but demographics. Not advisers, but committees. Not utilities, but corporations. Compared to SimCity, SimSprawl goes big, but is still beneath the level of say a Civilization-style game.
In previous SimCity games, growth was among your primary goals. You had to build more to spur growth than to compensate, and your city would stagnate without it. In SimSprawl growth, in terms of population, is the antagonist. Through a fertility rate hovering around 2.0, heavy immigration, refugees escaping war and environmental disasters, cloning, and regular urban flight, the population of any SimSprawl should be coming in at a constant and high volume pace, meriting rapid construction and zoning to compensate. You do not implement policies or place structures to spur growth but cut it, doing things like clamping down on immigration, banning cloning, increasing property values, or decreasing healthcare.
You placate this rising population through zoning. In SimSprawl there are three different types of zones: Corporate Zones, Housing Zones, and Industrial Zones, with varying levels of “value”. Corporate zones are where your people would find jobs, the area filling with packed in skyscrapers of trade firms and hotels of varying opulence. Housing zones are where the majority of your population would sleep and would be occupied entirely of apartment blocks, starting as small housing projects and slowly morphing into tall Hong Kong-style concrete jungles. Industrial zones would be where your sprawl produces raw materials or generates some amounts of electricity, powering an area of neighboring zones but never enough for the whole spread. Any surplus population not accommodated by your zoning would automatically spill over into its own low class zones. These would be suburbs, favelas, and shantytowns that automatically generate along the edges of your zones and in any spaces you hadn’t filled. These low class areas would not produce any income and instead of building up vertically they radiate outwards. The further it stretches from your zones, the worse the housing quality becomes, and you incur more penalties through crime and increased healthcare spending as they grow. Eventually to expand your zoning you’d have to demolish the low class housing and map over it, which could be taken as a positive or negative effect depending on the demographic you’re displacing. Destroying a pocket of tin roof shacks for new corporate zones wouldn’t stir up as much trouble as wiping out white suburbs for new industrial zones for example. You can let a low class sprawl spread from your city, but because you are incurring little or no benefit from it, it would eventually grow enough to wear down your budget. The struggle to produce income with the zones you have, while spending it to keep up with your population, and incurring all the wrath that might produce, would be the core challenge of SimSprawl.
Because the focus is on the macro-level of development, individual placements like utilities and law enforcement would work in a similar way, just on a larger scale. Because industrial zones provide some electricity to your sprawl, your concern would be on choosing a proper method to power the rest. The smallest among your options would be placing generators like solar thermal energy farms on top of skyscrapers or artificial islands, landlocked thorium-based nuclear reactors, or expansive wind farms. Larger projects for power could including building geothermal plants underground or setting a giant mirror in space. For law enforcement, massive command centers would have to be placed in among your zones, just like police stations, but only one or two would be required. Instead, from these command centers you would designate drone coverage areas, which detect crime and call for assistance. Firefighters and hospitals could work the same way, with the focus being on larger but fewer central stations that can never adequately cover everything. In this future the personal automobile would be a luxury and roads the through-ways of the wealthy and connected. Simple roads would be created automatically in the zones, like previous games, and the player would construct either raised highways connecting with inter-states and their corporate zones, or a vast underground subway system to shuttle the working class around.
Pollution would be a major problem in your growing sprawl, and managing landfills would become tedious. Once you’re sufficiently advanced, trash could be sent out of state to a welcoming party for a certain price, buried deep underground, or potentially even put onto a rocket and shot into the sun. Air purifiers could be constructed on top of skyscrapers to help with any smog, and arcologies from SimCity 2000 could make a comeback, acting as your sprawl’s only peaceful greenspace. Megatowers could be stolen from the Cities of Tomorrow pack, taking up huge blocks of space and allowing each level to be customized with a different distraction for your people; from shopping malls, to theatres, indoor parks and pools, sporting stadiums, etc. Taking a page from Tropico, dealing with your population would be broken down into demographics with their own interests and pet issues. It would be tough to keep everyone happy, but fairly easy to prefer one group over another and silence any opposition.
Disasters in previous SimCitys could be game ending events, decimating much of your city and crushing any hope of rebuilding. In SimSprawl disasters like asteroids, alien attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, or blizzards would be more common, but would only damage chunks of your city at a time, requiring some patchwork re-zoning and construction. No singular disaster could take out the entire breadth of your sprawl, thus they become challenges that must be considered and mitigated during a normal run. If crime or dissatisfaction from a demographic is high enough, terrorism would start to sprout up, damaging utilities or taking out whole levels of your Megatowers. The longer a terrorism issue goes on, the more dissatisfied every other demographic gets, not at the terrorists, but you.
Eventually your sprawl would start to rub up against the sprawl of another mayor, either AI or player. The way sprawls interact should almost play out like a game of Go, where whoever has the most area “captured” or within their sprawl’s control would win. The other sprawl would get surrounded and eventually consumed. Once it was clear your sprawl was dominating, a pact would be made with the opposing mayor wherein he signs over zoning rights to you, allowing you to demolish and reconstruct his zones as necessary. It is important that sprawls grow almost organically, with the outlying suburban areas acting almost like feelers for the direction it would be expanding. For this reason zones could not be built separate from other zones, they must always have at least one square of connection. Once the whole state is covered, you could declare yourself Emergency Manager of the State and win the game.
For a visual style, going back to the old isometric view of the previous SimCitys would be the best bet. In a nod to the game’s 80’s dystopian vision, using modern high definition pixel rendering would be a neat way to go. It could employ all the advancements made in pixel shaders such as normal mapping, sprite lamping, etc. while still allowing for the ability to turn your view a full 360 degrees (just perhaps not in real time). The city should use darker color schemes by day, looking drab and almost uniform, but by night be all lit up by a starry field of skyscraper windows and bright neon signs. Traffic could be represented not by individual vehicles but by the trailing colors of their head and tail lights stretching across the freeways.
All in all, it’s really an idea that writes itself. For a franchise that has covered everything from ants, to people, to whole planets, filling in one of the inbetween stages shouldn’t be that big of a deal, and is really a no-brainer at this point. When EA or Maxis are ready to make some money, all they have to do is make the damn thing, I won’t even ask for royalties. Just as long as it’s not kickstarted first.