Over the past couple of days, “SimCity” has eclipsed “Pope” in global search volume. Electronic Arts has finally created something that has captivated the world with an intoxicating melange of drama, tragedy and sick humor. Too bad all of these elements emerge from EA’s project management, not the game itself. The first stage of the SimCity fiasco stemmed from how EA’s servers spectacularly failed to cope with the entirely predictable launch week traffic. But the next stage is potentially even more damaging. On EA’s Answer HQ website, one of the most heated discussion threads is now about whether the entire pathfinding and traffic management systems of the game are badly broken.
Several players have noted that the characters in the game don’t actually have any permanent jobs or homes. They simply walk to the nearest available open job or a suitable home at certain times, a simplification that creates major headaches in city planning. Sims that start walking don’t switch to mass transit if they don’t find a job nearby; kids don’t get to schools easily; all cops go to a single crime scene even if police stations are carefully spread in different parts of the city. School buses, fire trucks and tourist hordes all seem to have trouble finding obvious routes to their goals. As a result, designing a functional city may mean planning a street grid and placement of different facilities in a deeply counterintuitive way. Players have to design their cities to suit bad algorithms, not realistic goals.
One popular emerging strategy is to construct a city with a single street winding back and forth like a snake. This enables players to reduce the problems of having school buses that cannot find students and fire trucks that refuse to go where they are supposed to. A popular way to avoid suffocating traffic jams is to fill the city with wide avenues, resulting in weird maps where normal streets are used as sparsely as possible.