I want to be angry about SimCity requiring an always-on internet connection in order to play. I want to rant and rave, to rend my garments in twain while wailing from the rooftops. I want to become incandescent with fury, shouting about how my singleplayer passion has been forever tainted to anyone who'll listen. On principle, as much as anything.
But I can't. I won't, because Maxis came to E3 2012 to show us exactly what this internet connection will be used for. Over the course of twenty minutes, it became apparent that collaborating with friends to create a little piece of heaven in a persistent virtual world is going to be SimCity's most important selling point, and one that promises to elevate the already-impressive simulation into something unique and rather wonderful, even by Maxis standards. Cities will finally work together, sharing their populace and resources, all while gradually building towards grand works that will benefit everyone. It's a genuine evolution, not just an alternative gametype.
So, dear reader, here's how I learned to stop worrying and love the always-on.
SimCity's demo began in much the same way as April's EA showcase: a small residential dormitory town struggling to deal with a crippling power shortage. No pedestrians dared walk through the dark and gloomy streets, and there was nowhere for them to go. Shops and nightclubs were closed, and almost every window was unlit. Players will know when areas are bereft of power without even having to cue up the intuitive overlay, thanks to the Glassbox engine finally connecting the in-game art with real simulation, all in real time. As Maxis' Bret Berry told us, "what you see, we sim."
The unfortunate player could have corrected the problem by expanding the town's sole wind turbine into an entire wind farm, building an environmentally-unfriendly coal power station or upgrading existing buildings... but being 'always on' has its advantages. Scrolling over to the region map highlighted a friend's city nearby, who conveniently happened to have a major surplus of electricity, just going to waste. Agreeing on a price for the precious power, the two players stamped down some pylons to carry electricity cables to the city limits, met in the middle and connected them. As the power came online, the city's lights gradually flickered into life, its population spilling out onto the streets in order to make good on lost time. One player gets power, another gets paid and both end up happy.
This is just one example of how players will be able to work together while pursuing their own ends, and Berry proceeded to show us several more. Zooming to an adjacent area revealed a glittering tourist town studded with sports arenas, cinemas, shops and casinos, but sadly, the tiny residential zone didn't house anywhere near enough people to satisfy the demand for jobs. In contrast, however, the aforementioned dormitory town had plenty of inhabitants but very few potential employers, so the two players worked out a symbiotic deal. Residents commuted between the two cities on a daily basis, using custom-build roads that linked the two townships together as a single conurbation. Players can use a traffic overlay to place both roadways and public transport stops (such as light rail) in the most advantageous spots, plonking down and drawing out new routes like the world's simplest Scalectrix set. Again, cooperation is dead easy, but it will completely change the way we build our cities and specialise them for certain roles.
However, the close relationship between neighbouring cities doesn't always work out for the best. Another local city, the glumly-named Stonesrow, was an mining town heaving with industrial ore smelters and power stations, the air hanging thick with choking smog. This simple visual indicator clearly demonstrated that Stonesrow was in dire need of going green before its pollution spread to other nearby players, but it soon became clear that the impoverished city was undergoing a more immediate problem: a massive crime spree. Every available surface was tagged with grafitti and littered with rubbish, getting heavier towards the worst-policed parts of the industrial district.
A car full of unsavoury characters careened out of the ghetto, crossed the city line and eventually ended up in the tourist town, whereupon its passengers donned stocking masks and held up another player's bank. Thankfully the glitzy casino city was well-policed, resulting in some individual cops leaving the station, getting into their cars, driving to the scene and arresting the sorry miscreants after a brief shootout. As well as showing off the new inter-connectivity between players, this was also a fascinating look into how the Glassbox Engine models individual sims, right down to their jobs and whereabouts at all times.
Despite their neighbour's bad habits, the surrounding players were glad to have Stonesrow on their doorstep, because all four towns were working towards a Great Work. These enormous edifices require a huge amount of resources to complete, more than any one player could ever hope to amass. But by what sharing resources they have, players will be able to massively benefit the entire region. Great Works include massive solar farms (making power loss a thing of the past) and even space centres to launch rockets, but for the purposes of the demo, the pragmatic target was an international airport.
The tourist town contributed funds. Stonesrow sent over huge quantities of smelted alloy direct from its mines. The dormitory village sent over its sole resource, people, to put the whole thing together. And finally, after what would have been many hours of preparation, the project took form - resulting in an firework display and the promise of a massive new influx of sims into the region. Every player would benefit from this transport hub, such as increased numbers of visitors to the sports stadium and better export links for Stonesrow's ore, and even new players will be able to contribute what they can in order to get an early leg up. SimCity has lost none of the careful zoning and planning of its predecessors, but by encouraging us to help each other, it's a profoundly different beast.
Should SimCity have offline singleplayer? Yes, probably. But frankly, after witnessing how powerful and versatile the multiplayer is going to be, I don't actually want to play SimCity by myself. I want to cooperative with my friends, with all of you, to create a thriving interlinked community rather than just an isolated city. I want to construct Great Works, share the wealth and help out others to pass the favour forward. I want to be connected. Always.
Mark my words: Dealspwnia will rise and it will be the greatest city of all time. Or, more realistically, we're going to have great fun failing in the attempt. Either way, SimCity's always-on requirement is better thought of as an always-connected philosophy, and it's shaping up to be a change for the better.