Simulations, Simulated

This post was written as an assignment for my Technology and Play class in the fall of 2013. It may include citations for texts we were assigned at the time.

People play many sorts of games for many sorts of reasons, but they all share one very important quality: games are pretending to be something else. It doesn't matter if you play Call of Duty or The Bible Game, the point of the software is to manipulate people or events that aren't real. (p. 427) There are a lot of design choices associated with the creation of games, particularly those that simulate something else explicitly.1 Sometimes this goes smoothly and creates a good playing experience. Other times (like in the case of ElectroCity), it goes rather less well.

As with many sim games before it, ElectroCity instructs the player to manage the development of a small town into (ideally, I think) a bigger one. The game's main mechanic revolves around the cost/benefit of developing plots of land in a certain fashion and making sure you're producing more energy than you consume. For example, you can build a coal mine (cheap, effective, pollutive), but it intrudes on the tranquility of the campground that you built next door. You decide which bothers you more, then continue expansion accordingly. In chapter 27 of Salen/Zimmerman's Rules of Play, they describe in depth the markings of a good simulation game and the associated pitfalls.

I mostly focused on economic development and offsetting my carbon footprint, so my population really never grew
I mostly focused on economic development and offsetting my carbon footprint, so my population really never grew

Games are meant to be an abstraction, so the more complicated the game's systems are, the slower the game is to play. 2 (p. 440) The game does a good job of saying "Ok, click here and in X turns, you'll have a new structure". It's also very clear what stats each structure affects (coal mines are +2 coal but -1 tourism/turn). There's also a goods market that has changing prices for coal and gas each turn (allowing you to profit off of smart purchases).

The game's primary conflict is an economic (and therefore optimization) one. You want to get the most people/money with the least economic impact, so the player has choices to make. Unfortunately, the UI feels very cramped and unintuitive, which makes playing it unnecessarily hard. 3 Furthermore, though each structure has pros and cons, they're not quantitative. So, I'm not sure if my "a little expensive, but low output" wind farm is effective enough to rationalize the lowered over a "very pricey, but has TONS of energy" nuclear plant. Also, in the case of the nuclear plant, it said there was fallout and that townsfolk would be unhappy about this, but didn't indicate a way to appease them (besides, I guess, finding alternative energy sources).

Overall the game abstracts some of the details well and does force the player into (what seem to be) realistic energy development choices. It was clearly designed with good intentions, but some of the execution falls flat (particularly in the clear numbers and UI). I'm not generally a fan of sim games, but if you are… well, you could do better than ElectroCity. Check out Reus instead, if that's your thing.

  1. That is, simulation games. CoD doesn't say "hey, you're going to give instructions to this soldier so he can optimize his life duration on this battlefield", it says "you are this guy, shoot them without getting shot". This is contrasted with games like The Sims where you create fake people that simulate real lives.
  2. In some cases, this is the desired effect. Too much slowness and the game becomes very tedious to play. Luckily, ElectroCity doesn't make you manage the overtime salary for the construction workers while they're building, which would be way too much micro management.
  3. The game generates in a small window and it takes 2 or 3 clicks to see the stats that a structure gives. Additionally, there doesn't seem to be place where you could see your net tourism and resources per turn. In my experience, I noticed that I wasn't making as much money per turn anymore because (apparently) some of my new buildings had upkeep costs.