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June 5, 2011 / jwaxo

SimCity 2000 (Learning by Observation)

Why use hydroelectric when you can just pollute?

There’s only one game in the running for “best city simulator of the ages”. Everyone has played it. Everyone has heard of it. For a while, it was “that video game” that everyone knew about. Trust me, this is golden truth, because even my grandparents knew about it. It was the ultimate game, one that captured the minds of young and old, and was possibly the first step toward games that were more serious. Its creator called it a “virtual toy”, mayors called it “a little too realistic”, and we all called it “pretty stonking awesome.”

This game, of course, is SimCity 2000.

There have been sequels, both true and spiritual, from the blander-named 3000 and 4, to SimCity Societies and Cities XL and even, in a way, The Sims. But none have held the impact, both on the world and on our memories, as SimCity 2000.

My copy arrived via that fabled Scholastic Book Club, after experiencing the magic at my friend’s house (although, as you might recall, there were several crashes involved). I rapidly installed it and booted it up, only having a few minutes of time to get it running before having to rush off to a Cub Scout meeting. I wasn’t sure what was in that game, but I knew it was big and complicated and awesome.

By the time I got back from Scouts I had talked up the game enough to get both my brother and dad interested. And so, all three of us sat around the computer and tried to get that game figured out.

“But why aren’t people moving in?”

“We don’t have water to the zones, I guess.”

“Let’s lay pipes for the entire section, then!”

It was like some giant puzzle game that the three of us worked on together, separately or in a group or with a partner. And, as time went on and I realized that my cities were dying out far too quickly for my liking, I found myself voluntarily plopping myself down onto a stool and watching over the shoulder of my brother or dad.

I know, I know, it seems like I’ve been over this topic before. However, you’re wrong. While watching my brother play was a big part of Metal Gear Solid (and the sequels), there wasn’t much of a lesson there for my future self, other than “Ha, this game works just as well as a movie!” The lesson for SimCity 2000 was that there is an awful lot that one can learn just by watching other people do things.

List mode engage:

From my dad I learned that hydroelectricity, while requiring a lot more preparation in the terrain phase (to set up waterfalls), and a lot more care than the recommended oil plant, helped out a lot in the long-term in that it reduced pollution and kept your citizens happy. From my brother I learned about pacing the layout of my zones, and that balancing residential densities with the industrial densities was really key. My best friend, who probably is even now still playing SimCity taught me about the importance of controlling traffic and the various tricks to do so. My dad taught me that building residential on the more scenic areas was a great way to score some nice profit. I learned all about the different kinds of trade routes and that the military zones were virtually impossible to do anything with from my friend. And, finally, my brother taught me that cheating does not really pay off in some games, as having huge loans at impossible rates makes the game go downhill quickly.

Also that reducing funding on roads caused all kinds of problems, many of them funny.

And yet, despite all of these great role models with all of their highly successful cities, I still failed constantly. I could never get the awesome arcologies that my brother unlocked, or the sweet transportation system that my friend made, or the just ridiculous income that my dad accrued. Watching what they did and trying to follow it did not help me in the slightest. I would always end up in debt with no citizens and hundreds of abandoned buildings.

That’s a really bad example, I guess. There are plenty of games that this did work for me, where I would go from watching a friend or sibling play it for a while, then take those lessons. Master of Orion II, for example. I learned all about the best ways to take advantage of my allies diplomatically by watching Best Friend do it over and over again. Most of my best Starcraft strategies are lifted straight from Joel’s library, and my Warcraft II ones were my brother’s.

This translates so well into real life. At my current job I sometimes watch my coworkers do what they do, only to realize that there’s some basic functionality of Dreamweaver that I wasn’t aware of. In college I learned more in the first week of my animation class than I did for the entire rest of the semester, purely because the instructor knew those basic things that I hadn’t discovered in my self-teaching.

And SimCity 2000 was really a bad example to pick, but I wanted to because it was such a cool game. Even when you constantly lost at it.

SimAnt, now. I rocked at that without even trying.

I never want to draw another GUI again.

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