With EA ramping up marketing for Maxis’ reboot of the SimCity franchise, now is a good time to look back at the series’ often overlooked entry, SimCity Societies. Many see it as the disfigured runt of the litter; an abomination that had good intentions, but failed to capitalise on its drastic propositions.
If we look closely at what SimCity is promising come February 2013, it’s clear that Maxis’ return to city planning began a lot earlier than most think. It may be controversial to say it, but SimCity Societies is arguably the reboot’s groundwork.
Before we get to that, some history is in order. For the majority of fans, Societies doesn’t even exist. The last ‘true’ SimCity game was SimCity 4 and its Sims-esque expansion, Rush Hour. This is a fair point – Societies wasn’t even developed by Maxis; instead, Titled Mill Entertainment took over the reins. The name was there, but the essence was indeed different. We’ll get to its strengths and positives later.
In fact, while this editorial’s main aim is to look back at Societies, you can rightfully suggest that SimCity 4 is equally responsible for the direction the new SimCity is taking.
We’re not talking about obvious features (zoning, power, infrastructure) which make SimCity SimCity; rather, a shift to provide more life to your virtual metropolis. Like Societies, Rush Hour’s execution might have been poor, but the ideas on show were certainly interesting.
For example, the transport mini missions may have been horrible to control, but the focus on your city as a living, breathing entity which you could drill down into was a step in the right direction.
At the time, it was a rational development – The Sims offered the perfect crossover. When it was released, the technology and programming required for such complex simulation didn’t exist. The ambition was there but it’s only possible now, as demonstrated by the individual intentions of every single sim in the 2013 version.
If you wanted to, you could plant an individual in your city and monitor their thoughts on your services. Despite their often illogical behaviour, this Big Brother style insight moved the series from God Mode planner to cultivator of virtual humans.
Summer In The City
This belief transferred over to Societies and its fresh focus on social engineering as opposed to traditional planning. It was a brave move. After all, SimCity has always been about depth. Removing a lot of its simulative aspects without providing substantial gameplay in place was a risky move that resulted in failure.
That’s not to say accessibility is a bad thing – if we look at Maxis’ return, there’s a refocus on what made the original games great while at the same time making it appealing to all demographics. The team has learned a lot from its work on The Sims 3.
The Sims 3 is a game instantly accessible to all but at the same time, possesses a huge amount of functionality beneath its surface. SimCity Societies offers this as well, but its presentation gave the impression it didn’t have the necessary guts to be called a simulation.
Societies does in fact do a lot of what the reboot plans to. The need to lay pipes and power grids was removed; a feature already scrapped by its 2013 counterpart. Larger concepts, like region specialisation, seemed both quaint and convoluted in Societies, but looks to be burgeoning in Maxis’ development.
This time around the concept seems much more thought out; there’s actually a purpose to the specialisation – the online component of the game with its fake global economy, gives you drive to specialise. In Societies it was more of a gimmick. Seeing your city change in relation to your actions/values (productivity, creativity, authority, knowledge, prosperity and spirituality) was enjoyable at first, but actually held little value past cosmetics.
That’s not to say the feature and concept was a failure. It’s been similarly used in the Cities XL series; the franchise that’s filled the SimCity gap. Its legacy can be seen in other building games; it’s just a shame Titled Mill Entertainment couldn’t execute its own plans.
Other influential Societies tropes was a focus on individual buildings and their wider effects. SimCity 4 (and previous games) definitely had this gameplay, but actual customisation and management was limited.
When Societies chose to reduce its scale (i.e. no megacities) to better focus the player’s attention on one town, moving away from zonal marking seemed reasonable.
This part of the game was relatively well thought out and accomplished. With its experience honed in its previous game, Caesar IV, Titled Mill Entertainment managed to create a rewarding system of individual building development.
This success can be seen again in SimCity 2013. While there’s a welcome return to zoning on top of individual, influential buildings, you can argue the inclusion of customisable buildings is an appropriate step forward. Yes, it would’ve occurred regardless of Societies, but we’d like to think its cousin certainly had some impact in how it has been implemented.
Societies’ full effect over SimCity will become clear when the latest game releases, but at the moment it seems as though Societies is having the right laugh. As is sometimes the case with lukewarm received games, Societies was a little ahead of its time. It does at least seem to be having the last laugh and credit is due to the team behind it.
Come February 2013 we’ll be able to see how SimCity has moved forward, but regardless of its end quality, it should definitely thank its (seeming) success to its older ostracised parent.