Cast your minds back, dead readers, to the forlorn days of 2013. It was a time of elation – China was busy re-igniting the space race by landing its first rover on the moon – but also a time of darkness and fear. And I’m not talking about the complete shutdown of the entire US government. That year brought about one of the most tragic, and diabolical disappointments ever to hit the games industry.
The hype around the release of SimCity, the 2013 ‘reboot’ of the blockbuster city-building game was reaching fever pitch in the weeks leading up to release. Every teasing glimpse fuelled the fires of fandom, as the series’ first venture into the 3D realm looked set to send seismic shockwaves through the industry. Yet, upon release, people’s expectations began to topple faster than a skyscraper in a Godzilla movie.
The game was a complete and utter disaster. The map size was barely enough to house a hen coop, the AI was woefully erratic and unreliable, and the game was lacking in the deep complexity and detail which defined the series in the past. Of course, you could only experience these dire shortcomings if you actually found a way into the game itself. See, EA concluded that PC gamers were a bunch of dirty pirates who were hell-bent on illegally pirating games in order to circumnavigate the process of paying for them. So in order to combat this they decided to make SimCity always online.
A great idea, right? Being constantly connected to the World Wide Web, players could team up and help one another’s cities by sharing resources to further their expansion. Each ‘world space’ allowed for multiple cities to be established, all run by different players, and they could work together to build giant super-structures such as international airports to the benefit of all in the region. It sounded like a fantastic idea, bringing an element of co-operation to a previously singular experience. This was of course just the marketing spin churned out by EA to mask the anti-consumerism of their always-online DRM policy.
The result was a spectacular meltdown on release day. Servers were soon overwhelmed, with traffic numbers far exceeding those predicted by EA and Maxis, creating digital tailbacks longer than rush hour in Beijing. People were completely unable to play their newly purchased $60 title, and the issues extended into the weeks to follow. The backlash, as you can imagine, was extreme. Gamers felt victimised by EA’s antics, treated as criminals. The fallout no doubt brought about the closure of Maxis a few years later, and left the IP, and EA as a company, tarnished in the eyes of gamers the world over.
The city simulation genre looked doomed to languish in silence in the wake of SimCity’s debacle. Thankfully, a small indie studio, by the name of Colossal Order, realised that there was a gaping city-sized hole in the industry just waiting to be filled by a full-flavoured city simulation game. The result was Cities: Skylines. The game took the PC market by storm, succeeding in almost every way SimCity failed: huge sprawling maps, not only-online, no DRM, only £30 in price, community modding and content actively promoted; it was a revelation in a genre previously squashed by greedy business practices.
Colossal Order pounced at a ripe opportunity, and have managed to capitalise on EA’s blunder, injecting some much needed competition into the genre. Competition is needed in all commercial fields, especially videogames, in order to foster innovation and high quality. Without it a genre can become stagnant, stuck in the same rut of rinse and repeat with minimal improvement. This is an issue which afflicts much of the industry, and especially EA. They hold commercial monopoly over the football, soccer and hockey sports franchises, and it’s resulting in a lack of new bright ideas and gameplay innovations. However, the company is still keeping fans of these genres happy. The games are still (generally speaking) of impeccable quality. The Sims franchise, on the other hand, is another story entirely.
The Sims is the bestselling PC series of all time, even surpassing Myst. It has sold tens of millions of copies over the years since 2000, and has generated millions of dollars in profit. Strangely, there has never really been a direct competitor to The Sims, even after sixteen years of existence. True, there have been attempts such as Virtual Families, yet none have garnered the game mass-success that the Sims has. But this might soon change.
The Sims 4, the latest main iteration of the series, has been somewhat controversial among players and critics alike. While the game ushered in many improvements, such as a new game engine, improved emotional system, more believable Sims, deeper building tools; the game also cut out a lot of content which was present in previous base games. Swimming pools, cars, an open world, even toddlers were all missing from The Sims 4 at launch, with many still absent. This is concerning. Sequels should improve upon their forebears and offer up more content, not cut some of the most fundamental and important aspects of the series.
It is painfully clear why this has happened. Since its inception, The Sims revolved around the idea of offering players brand new content via paid expansion packs. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this practice. It keeps the game healthy and the fan base active well after the initial launch. Unfortunately, the omission of fundamental content in The Sims 4 is down to the greedy practices of EA, and it is likely that many of these features will be added in later expansions, meaning that players will have to pay extra for what they once got as part of the base price. It’s unfair, and while the backlash has been in no way as extreme as with SimCity, sales of the franchise have taken a substantial hit, as evidenced by the lack of official sales figures released by EA.
The community is beginning it to rather frosty, and thus there is a golden opportunity for a rival developer and publisher to combat the bloated, gangrenous beast The Sims has become. Taking a leaf out of Colossal Order’s book, someone has the chance to, not only make a mountain of cash, but also show up EA and The Sims Team. By listening to the community, adding all the things EA wrenched out of The Sims 4, and providing new base game content such as weather without the need for countless expansions, a new lease of life can be injected into the genre. It will also, hopefully, force EA to respond in kind and give players the Sims game they truly deserve.