I 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 GOG.com 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.)
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.
Amazingly, 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.
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.
Not 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!
One 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.