[My column Surf’s Up, as published in The Telegram in St. John's on Thursday, May 23, 2013.]
In one of the earlier Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons, there’s a segment where Lisa conducts a science experiment involving some Coke, a tooth and (courtesy of Bart) an electrical shock that makes everything go haywire. How much so? Well, the electrified tooth gives rise to a tiny society that evolves before Lisa’s eyes.
“One of them is nailing something to the door of the cathedral,” Lisa gasps. “I’ve created Lutherans!”
Making your own congregation is one thing, but the fun of seeing a miniature civilization come together is a joy that millions of people share on a daily business, and they don’t need a tooth and some cola. Instead, you can do it simply and enthusiastically with a phone, tablet or PC.
The granddaddy of all simulation games is undoubtedly SimCity, which debuted (believe it or not) in 1989, and which has spawned all kinds of spinoffs and ventures in the years since. The main allure, though, is the same: build a city, and keep the people happy and prosperous while keeping all of the elements in balance. It can be harder than it first appears!
The Sims is one of the spinoffs, and it’s a juggernaut in its own right. Meant to be played on a desktop computer, it debuted in 2000, and went on through subsequent versions to change the industry (it set the Guinness World Record for bestselling PC game), and continues to evolve for different platforms, like gaming consoles.
The Sims brand shows absolutely no sign of slowing down at all. For the last few weeks, owner Electronic Arts has been whipping up interest in The Sims 4 … which won’t even come out until next winter, at the earliest.
Of course, the success of all things Sim has spawned imitations and variations aplenty. While the Sims puts players’ minds, whether they appreciate it or not, to the challenges of urban planning, there are so-called “sandbox” games like Minecraft, in which players build something digitally from scratch. Minecraft, which I’ve written about (if not glorified) at length here before is something different, and not quite as satisfying as building a city to call your own.
Here are two that I find both relaxing and addictive.
City Story Metro
The gaming company Storm8, which makes a seemingly never-ending series of “story” games that follow similar Farmville-like templates, produces this app for users of iPhones and other Apple products. At present, it’s not available for Android and other competitors.
The idea is simple: you start with a grid, and you begin adding things like houses and buildings. It’s easy and fun to get started, with rewards and incentives coming quickly as you unlock levels and goals. That’s standard game design: they want you to stick around and keep coming back. Over the longer term, City Story Metro rewards regular gameplay with constant additions, and new ways to make a city look cool. (I spent a fair bit of time making a chunk of mine resemble Central Park.)
Megapolis takes that model, and ramps things up considerably. The graphics are more akin to 3D, and you will find replicas of many recognizable structures and world landmarks. In that regard, your city will look considerably spiffier and more realistic.
The principles are the same. You need to have a balance of residents, who pay taxes, but who need infrastructure and services, which require revenue, which must also come from industry, which requires energy … It’s all interconnected and interdependent, and the game requires balanced goals.
It also requires patience. You can speed things up if you use what Megapolis calls Megabucks, which can be gradually earned … or bought in batches, with real money. Like City Story Metro, which has a similar option, this is where the makers of a “free” game stand to earn considerable amounts of money. (This is why this kind of game is called a freemium.)
An interesting problem with Megapolis is that it is available on different platforms, but they cannot always talk to each other. For instance, you can play on Facebook, which offers options you cannot get on mobile devices, but you won’t be able to add anyone from the mobile system as a friend … which is kind of odd, given that gathering neighbours is critical to advancing through the game’s stages.
Small matter, though. I find Megapolis makes for a wee bit of strategic thinking. It may take a few weeks to get to the level I next want, but it’s fun to imagine what might happen, and it’s one of my favourite ways to unwind with a hot beverage.
John Gushue works with CBC News in St. John’s. Twitter: @johngushue.