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SimCity vs SimCity 2000: My home town's traffic problems modelled
by Mike Rose on 04/02/13 10:30:00 am   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


northendenI recently built my hometown in the new SimCity to see whether the game's city infrastructure capabilities could model real-life. The virtual version of Northenden turned out scarily similar to the real thing, with traffic bottlenecking in the same place along the high street.

I carried the experiment out during the beta for the game, just before it was released to the public. Of course, as we know now, SimCity is a game that not only has some pretty awful DRM issues, but also numerous bugs and problems with traffic not using the optimal routes, but instead filing through smaller roads to get from A to B as the crow flies. I noticed a fair amount of this latter point while I was modelling Liberty City a couple of weeks ago.

Among the various complaints I've seen online, I've witnessed numerous people claiming that even past SimCity games could model traffic far better than the new game. This would be damning evidence indeed that the underlying system behind SimCity's traffic infrastructure simply isn't good enough to model real-life in the way that we've been led to believe.

I couldn't stop wondering whether older SimCity games could, in fact, model cities better than the latest version -- so I decided to find out. I dug out my old copy of SimCity 2000 (the best SimCity, obviously) and proceeded to install the game and boot it up (at which point it wouldn't work on Windows 7, so I was forced to buy the compatible version of the game from instead.)

A recap of my home town: Northenden is a very small town that you can drive straight through in around five minutes. The town mainly consists of residental housing, with a strip of shops that is known at the center of the town. And yet, considering the low number of people who live here, coupled with the low number of reasons to want to be driving around the town, you still wouldn't want to visit during rush hour. We're talking standstill traffic that you can sometimes expect to sit around in for up to an hour.

(I'd also suggest reading my previous article before you continue reading this one, as many of the comparisons made here between SimCity 2000 and the new SimCity refer back to the original article.)

northenden 3.jpg

Building the SimCity 2000 version of Northenden was a slightly different endeavour to building it in the new game. For one, I was able to model a much larger area, including the areas over the River Mersey (West and East Didsbury), and the roads off in the direction of the motorway.

Then there's the point that SimCity 2000 provides a grid, rather than letting you build in any direction. Hence, wherever there were bending roads (such as the main road), I was forced to make it a lot more rigid and straight-forward. I was careful to make sure that all roads connected up as in real-life, however, so this shouldn't be too much of an issue.

northenden 6.jpgAmazingly, the population of my SimCity 2000 version of Northenden peaked at around 16,500 people. This compares to the real-life population of 15,000, and the new SimCity's 18,000 -- all so close to each other! Again, I wish I'd done this on purpose.

But this is where the similarities end. While the new SimCity's traffic issues didn't begin to escalate until I added in surrounding areas (suggesting that through-traffic was the problem), SimCity 2000 was very keen to stress that its own version of Northenden has traffic issues everywhere. The Tesco four-way junction, as mentioned in my previous article, was immediately rammed with more than 100 cars passing through every minute.

northenden 7.jpg

In fact, pretty much the entirety of Northenden was rammed in all directions, including the main road through the town center, the outlying residental roads, and the industrial area out towards Sharston. The model doesn't really make a huge amount of sense: Why are all these people be driving around the residental areas so often, and why would the industrial area be packed at all times? People going off to work get to where they need to be and stop there, right?

So it seems like the new SimCity is winning this round -- and it can only get worse for my beloved SimCity 2000, unfortunately. I proceeded to build a bridge across the River Mersey, through the golf courses, and into Didsbury, as per real-life/my last experiment. The idea is that by adding a huge town to the North that can only be accessed via a single road from Northenden, this would cause huge traffic numbers to build up along this road and through Northenden.

This is the exact result that I saw with my SimCity build of Northenden... but not so much with SimCity 2000. In fact, the number of people using this road connecting Northenden and Didsbury together was... zero.

northenden 4.jpgNot a single person was driving between the two towns, according to the game, even though Didsbury contained large shopping areas, and Northenden housed the only way to reach the highway. Even when I upped the size of Didsbury just to see if it would have an effect, nothing happened to the traffic flow in Northenden, or between the two towns.

It seems that SimCity 2000 simply decides how much traffic there is in an area dependent on how built up the area is, and doesn't take in account whether people will actually be driving around there. Even some of the backroads that realistically should have barely any cars driving on them at all had a good 15+ cars driving on them each minute. Madness!

northenden 2.jpgOne area that SimCity 2000 did model better than the new SimCity was the highways. Obviously you can't build highways in the new SimCity and you're forced to connect up to those that are already provided, but these rarely become clogged up. SimCity 2000's Northenden highways were as clogged as the real thing, and showed exactly why I wouldn't be found dead around there during peak time (although you can see from the above picture that there's a sudden disappearance of cars partway along the highway, as if cars can just jump onto the highway and then not actually use the full length of the road - again showing that SimCity 2000 models traffic based on what is nearby, rather than logic.)

So it would appear that the traffic modelling capabilities of the 19 year old SimCity 2000 aren't as great as we might remember. And so ends my messing around with SimCity and real life -- I really need to put this to bed before it becomes an obsession.

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Stephen Chin
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"I really need to put this to bed before it becomes an obsession."

Maybe. But experiments like this are both interesting and important I think. Interesting in seeing how the various models play out as well as how they compare. And important because they provide concrete evidence.

With more testing and comparison (perhaps with other versions of SimCity and real life models), it may turn out that even in real life, most people gravitate towards the shortest route as SimCity initially did - for lack of knowledge of other routes, impatience, assumption that others will so they don't have to, and so forth.

Kevin Reese
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I wish they took 1/20 of the dev budget spent of graphics and assigned that money to adding depth to the simulation engine of the game.

So much programming potential in the concept of modelling a city. This game only models on a very basic level IMHO. I avoided the game because of the DRM but from what I read, the modelling/sim aspects pale in comparison to the versions released over 10 years ago, which is a shame.

But I guess the figured the sizzle would sell more than the steak.

Mike Rose
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Hey Kevin,

I know SimCity bashing is in right now (and for good reasons!), but it's quite obvious that you didn't actually read the article, and just spotted a place you could post something negative about the game. You say that "the modelling/sim aspects pale in comparison to the versions released over 10 years ago," but I proved the exact opposite of that in this very article, at least as far as traffic modelling is concerned - the new SimCity's traffic behaves far more like real-life than SimCity 2000's.

I do understand that many people are not happy with the new SimCity, and I myself have my own reservations about it. However, taking every possible opportunity to berate it doesn't really do any good for anybody. The fact that you haven't actually played the game makes your comments even more pointless.

Kevin Reese
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I have read the article, and with respect, I don't see how your specific focus on traffic establishes the strength or weaknesses of every other dynamic in the game.

I stated upfront I have not played the game myself, and thankfully, certainly do not intend to. However, I have read a large number of articles and/or user comments or reviews that have pointed out weaknesses in the simulation system for almost every element of the game's modelling, including the traffic system.

I certainly have the right to berate the game. While I haven't played this one I've played the others. I'm doing so honestly by saying I haven't played the game. Anyone can take whatever the like from my comments, be this nothing.

IMHO that may or may not be correct, this was a supremely bungled product featuring a poor design that was so mistakenly executed that it would be difficult to match by a semi-sober fresh-out-of-highschool aspiring game designer with zero programming experience. While the game sold well I believe the series has suffered a mortal blow in the minds of the majority of the game's fans.

If you like I'd be happy to spend a few minutes googling the -- no doubt numerous -- online conversations regarding how lacking the simulation department is in this 'sim' game.

Christopher Plummer
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Why didn't you build your hometown in SimCity IV Rush Hour? That is the comparison I hear from most people, and it's a 10 year old game (will be this year).

B Reg
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Best of all... you can fly through your city with Sim Copter!

* Starts playing Wagner's Valkyrie *

Miguel Castarde
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Sim City 2000 is a game from 1994. A bit of stretch. I would like to see the comparison with Sim City 4 too.

Corey Mueller
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I registered here specifically to make a comment on this one particular article. I don't know you, I've not read Gamasutra much, and I don't intend to offend or anything like that, but I wanted to say my piece. Allow me to also preface this by saying that I do not, and do not intend to, play the new SimCity. Primarily this is because of the all-but-arbitrary always-online requirement, but the massive outcry over poor simulation is another reason for me to stay away. If you wish to ignore my entire comment based on that fact, then you may, but know that it shouldn't affect the argument I'm about to make. Now, on to the actual comment...

You tested the new SimCity against SC2k and say you found the traffic modeling better in the new game. That's fine. But here's the problem - SC2k is 19 years old, was designed to run on a 386, and I would expect it to have less accurate modeling because of that. However, SC2k wasn't the most recently released SimCity game prior to this new one. Just because the new game beats SC2k doesn't mean that the people saying the old versions modeled traffic better are wrong. There are two more recent versions of SimCity than SC2k - SimCity 3000(SC3k), and SimCity 4(SC4). Three if you want to count SimCity: Societies, but most people want to just forget about that one and will agree that it did nothing to earn the SimCity moniker and as such counts as one in name only and not in spirit.

SC3k is currently 14 years old. SC4 just hit 10, with the Rush Hour expansion turning 10 later this year. Both were designed to take advantage of vastly more powerful hardware than SC2k. It stands to reason that at least some of that extra power went towards better handling of the simulations, on top of the fact that they had an extra 5 years at the minimum to get updated models and data from civil engineers that they could use to improve the game. Given that, one would think that SC4 with the Rush Hour expansion should be the pinnacle of the previous versions because it had the most recent real-world models to base itself on and was built to harness the most powerful hardware for putting those models to use in the game.

So it would stand to reason that the way to test it would be to test it against the most recent example of a true SimCity game, that being SC4 with the Rush Hour expansion. Or, if you so chose, you could test it against each and every previous incarnation and see if the belief that the old versions modeled things better held true for any of them, which would have been the absolute best way to end the argument. Instead, you chose to the second game in the series, which is 19 years old and runs on the same level of hardware you'd expect to find in a microwave oven these days.

Is there a reason you chose SC2k specifically? Was it being called out in the majority of the complaints that you saw, or was it just an arbitrary decision on your part because it technically fits the definition of an older version? I ask this because while you may have proved that a particular older version of the game didn't model traffic any better than the new SimCity does, you didn't answer the question as definitively as you seem to think you did. And so the argument of "older versions did it better" can, and will, still stand. If even one version has better traffic modeling than this newest game does, then the new game has clearly not lived up to its potential and has added yet another backwards step to its path.

The newest version of a simulation game should always be improving on its predecessors. At no point should it take a single backwards step because everything that the previous simulation was built on should still be around and able to be re-used. All the observations, the data, the math. It's still around because reality hasn't changed. At the very least, they could have re-used the data sets that were used in previous versions to achieve the same result.

Apologies for the length and somewhat ranting-nature of the post, but I wanted to get it out there and hope that you reply.

Kris Vanherle
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After just playing simcity5 for a short while, I can see where things are going wrong. To some extend it's a relief to see Simcity doesn't quite succeed in replicating traffic in the same way purpose built micro-simulation software does. At least my job is not obsolete yet :p

The agent based approach from a logical point of view is the most correct. Individual agents make own decisions and aggregated decisions result in a traffic situation. It is, however, also much harder to calibrate agent decision parameters to replicate real world traffic situations.

I'm still quite happy with the way traffic is dealt with in SC5, it's a bold attempt to try an agent-based approach and I'm happy with that approach, but there indeed is much room for improvement.

I'd say, Maxis, contact me anytime if you're looking for someone to recalibrate agent parameters! ;)