Do we really need more of an introduction? Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past 12 years, the NAM (Network Addon Mod) is the single most famous addon for SC4… ever. And considering there are tens of thousands of SC4 custom files, that’s quite an accomplishment. Tarkus, who has been a part of the NAMsince 2007, was kind enough to take a quick break from his busy life in the great Pacific Northwest and answer a few questions in commemoration of the STEX 100 million celebration.
ST: When did you first get SC4, and what do you remember about your first experiences with the game? Was SC4 your first involvement with SimCity, or did you already have a history with the sim games?
Tarkus: I first picked up SC4 in the spring of 2004, sometime after SC4 Deluxe was released. I had intermittently had some experiences with the SimCity franchise before that, first with the SNES version in 1991 (my dad pulled an all-nighter with it!), and sometime in the late-90s, with Streets of SimCity, which happened to include SCURK (a stripped down, sandbox SC2000). I wound up spending more time with SCURKthat with Streets (which was notoriously buggy, sadly) and meticulously plotted out a multi-tile region over several years, using TXT files to map out the coordinates for neighbor connections.
When I ran across SC4 by chance at the store, and saw they had actually implemented multi-tile regions, it was instantly a must-purchase. After that, it was a game where I went through spurts of intense play. I didn't know there were mods out there until I ran across Simtropolis by accident in December 2005, and the rest is history.
ST: What aspect of SC4 do you enjoy most – what keeps you coming back?
Tarkus: I think the two biggest things are the open-ended and (for all intents and purposes) infinite nature of the gameplay, plus the massive amounts of custom content out there, and the ability to add even more yet.SC4 isn't one of those games you “beat”, and I've never really considered any of my cities “completed”. While the advisers may try to push you in one way, I've always found it's ultimately up to the player to decide the goals, and that's something I find appealing. Believe it or not, I've never built a city over 350,000 population, because I've never really had the desire to build a skyscraper jungle.
ST: Before we jump into the all the custom content questions, I’m curious… what is your favorite Maxis lot/BAT?
Tarkus: That's a good question. I'd have to say it's probably tied between a few of the high-tech buildings, like the Accelerator and Cryo Testing. They're probably the shiniest buildings in the Maxis defaults, and I was always happy to see them pop up back when I played vanilla.
ST: Do you recall the first plugin you installed?
Tarkus: It was NAM Version 19, which I picked up about two months after its release in late 2005, shortly followed by the first RHW alpha. Absolutely blew my mind to have all that transportation functionality added.
ST: What led you to Simtropolis at first? Can you remember your initial impressions of the site?
Tarkus: I recall getting bored one day in December 2005 and browsing the fansite listing at the official EA Maxis SimCity 4 site. I had run across SimCityCentral and a couple other sites quite some time prior, but there wasn't much there on the custom content front, and I had kind of forgotten about my search for mods and such until I decided to look again that day. Eventually, I found and clicked the link to Simtropolis, and it was like SC4 Disneyland, with a bunch of custom content I had only dreamed of—like the NAM—plus a forum that seemed way more level-headed than some of the ones I'd followed for other games. Eventually, I bit the bullet and officially joined the site in February 2006.
ST: Describe your progression into the world of SC4 custom content. Was it a particular mod, lot orBAT that inspired you to take the first step?
Tarkus: It all started with the NAM. From there, I downloaded quite a bit of custom content, mostly BSC Team stuff in the suburban vein. I was really fond of building suburbs, but found Maxis' building selections on that front lacking. It was probably the potential of the then-brand-new RHW mod (the “R” still stood for “Rural” then), and the burgeoning roadsign development stuff, like artforce1's Generic Highway Sign Development Project (GHSDP) and Ryan B.'s stuff that got me thinking of getting into the content business myself.
ST: Speaking of first steps, what was the very first thing that you attempted to mod? How did it turn out?
Tarkus: My very first upload was a pack of roadsign lots, with Oregon-style “speed” signs—without the word “limit” as has been the practice in my home state for many years (though ODOT now seems to have a Commie plot afoot to convert us to the standard “Speed Limit” verbiage). They came as standalone grass lots, plus “space saving” transit-enabled lots. They ultimately got a couple thousand downloads, as I recall. I eventually deleted them as “youthful indiscretions”, as they weren't modded all that well, and there had been some controversy about the effect of TE lots on traffic simulation in the late-00s.
ST: The NAM team was founded way back in 2004, and you joined shortly after in 2007. What was it like being a new member of the team? As a freshman on the High School swim team, we had to run through the school in nothing but shoes and our speedos. Was there any NAM initiation of the new members?
Tarkus: Being brought onto the NAM Team was just like the sense of “SC4 Disneyland” I felt when I first discovered ST. I had actually been working on RHW content for about 4 or 5 months before I got added to the team. One day in February 2007, I looked in the old private topics area that used to be on the site, where I had an ongoing thread with jplumbley, Ryan B, and beskhu3epnm about this crazy thing called an NWM, and I noticed the sudden appearance of a “NAM Private Discussion” in there. I was basically added to the team without a peep, which made it a very pleasant surprise. That silent addition is still a tactic we'll sometimes use when adding new members to the team—most recently with Durfsurn.
ST: What was your first contribution to the NAM? What motivated you to spend the hours digging through the inner workings of SC4, attempting to make it a better game?
Tarkus: The RHW project had really caught my attention when I first arrived in the community. At that point, it was still in what we know today as Version 1.2—a rough alpha with a very limited feature set, but I could tell it had potential. At that point, it wasn't even technically part of the NAM, but a loosely affiliated side-project. There was pretty much just one thing I really wanted to add to it—an Avenue-over-RHW-4 piece—and maybe a couple more along the same lines. Eventually, I ended up releasing those pieces as part of RHW Version 1.3 in April 2007. I found that once I had invested the time into learning the ropes, I got quite a bit of satisfaction out of it, so that one puzzle piece turned into 8 years of NAM development for me.
ST: I think most custom content creators would consider their work a hobby, but like anything in life, some parts are more fun than others. What do you consider your least favorite part of the moding process? What about your favorite?
Tarkus: As far as a least favorite part, I don't think anyone enjoys bugfixing, but from a personal standpoint, I've gotten to the point where I don't really enjoy making standard puzzle pieces anymore. That process has become rather tedious. Fortunately, because we're on the cusp of getting the FLEX stuff dialed in, and I haven't had to make one in some time. As far as favorite parts, it's always things like getting the first prototype of a new override network or FLEX piece into functional shape—enough that I can use it in an actual city. It's been quite fulfilling getting the new elevated ramp interfaces in place for our upcoming NAM33 release.
ST: Since this is a sort of hobby (in the sense that custom content creators are not paid for their work), what keeps you motivated to continue releasing new creations for the SC4 community to enjoy? How much do comments in the download section mean to you? Do you get a thrill seeing creative uses of the NAM pop up in CJs?
Tarkus: What's kept me motivated is my vision for projects like the RHW and NWM that I had right as I was first starting to mod. There's still stuff I'd like to add to the game, and there probably will continue to be for some time. Most of the comments in the download section we get now for the NAM are tech support-related, but looking back over my infamous April Fools' upload, the , I really get a kick out of those comments. I still get a thrill out of seeing people playing around with stuff I designed in “Show Us” threads, CJs and MDs, and I still remember how ecstatic I was once the RHW's Modular Interchange System first starting showing up there. Especially once McDuell got a hold of it.
ST: You have been moding for the NAM team for over 7 years now. Is there any one of your creations that you are particularly proud of? Are there any fun stories or facts relating to some of your works that we don’t know about?
Tarkus: It's 8 years this month, which I still find hard to believe. I'm probably the most proud of the modular interchange concept for the RHW. Before that time, just about every other post in the old NAM Requests thread was asking for new highway interchanges, but the problem was that the process of making the big pre-fab interchanges for the default highways was ridiculously labor intensive. With the clean slate of theRHW, it made sense to build up a new approach, which did everything differently from the Maxis Highways. Rather than spending 6 to 12 months developing a single interchange to add to the NAM, the modular approach broke things up into smaller chunks that could be easily produced, and then assembled by the users into thousands of different combinations. This allowed all the would-be highway engineers to take matters into their own hands, creatively, rather than sitting around in the request thread. While some folks out there may not be fond of the RHW's complexity, once the RHW 3.0 release in 2009 added elevated components (thanks to the modeling efforts of my good friend Swamper77), and true RHW-to-RHWinterchanges became possible, without having to fudge things with tunnels or one-way roads, the whole request backlog fell away. We only see maybe one Maxis Highway interchange request every couple years now, and the lessons we've learned from RHW development have paid dividends with implementing the NWM and other components, so I feel that it's been an enormously successful transit modding initiative. And we could probably keep adding to it for many years to come.
Probably the funniest fact I can think of relating to NAM development was the nickname we had for the RHWneighbor connector pieces. Before we added those, the only way to get commuter traffic to continue onto the next city tile with a multi-tile RHW system was to build a loop connector, a visible perpendicular stretch of road that went between the two halves of the RHW and broke the override, in order to get around a limitation in the game's simulation engine. It did the trick, but it was rather unsightly. Internally, on the team, as the present-day NC pieces you know today were being developed, we called them NREEs: Nicole Richie Effect Eliminators, as Ms. Richie was well-known at that point for driving the wrong way on a California freeway, much as the sims using loop connectors did.
ST: Has your experience moding had any influence on your personal or professional life? Are there any skills that you have developed over your moding career that have helped you beyond the world ofSC4?
Tarkus: As far as my personal life, not really—pretty much no one in my RL know about my SC4 activities, and I actually keep that on the downlow for the most part. Professionally, my experiences with modding actually inspired me to take about two years of computer science coursework while working on my doctorate, and I've been putting some of those skills to use of late, developing Java-based music theory utilities.
ST: I understand that you delved into the world of local politics recently. Do you think your interest in city simulations has played a part in that?
Tarkus: Yes, I ran for a city council seat in my home town, and while I didn't get in, I was pleased with getting 10% of the vote as a virtual unknown. And I'd say it's the other way around for me—I think my interest in local politics, and particularly, in transportation and land use policy, was what got me into SC4. I spend quite a bit of time researching those issues in my spare time, looking over a lot of technical documents—transportation system plans and the like—and that's heavily influenced my approach to the game, as evidenced by Tarkusian Cities. I'd also say that the policy research I did during my campaign will influence my approach to the game going forward—for starters, discovering the dismal safety records for Oregon's multi-lane roundabouts will cause me to steer clear of those in the future.
ST: What advice would you give to a new member of this community who was interested in joining theNAM team?
Tarkus: The way that most of us have gotten onto the team is by virtue of starting on transit modding passion projects on our own, and then invited to the team once we've shown enough skill. My advice is to find something you're interested in seeing in-game, reading up on the various modding tutorials and the like (which are far more abundant than when I started), and learning how things work. We're usually happy to provide some technical assistance and answer questions for new transit modders giving it an honest go. That's how I ultimately started out—Swamper77 and qurlix were two members who helped me out as I was first getting going. Also, if you find a buddy in the community who is also giving it a go—as happened with me and jplumbley—that can also make the experience more enjoyable.
ST: Simtropolis is organized into ‘player’ and ‘builder’ categories. Regarding the ‘player’ section, do you have any favorite CJers that you enjoy following? What are your favorite SC4 ‘scenes’ (i.e., towering metropolises, urban sprawl, rural landscapes, etc.).
Tarkus: Admittedly, I haven't been able to follow CJs as much of late—heck, my own has gone MIA—but I've typically enjoyed the ones that kind of get heavy on planning and roadgeekery. and are two authors on ST today that I think do a good job with that. Going back in time, things like dedgren'sThree Rivers Region, haljackey's , , and pickled_pig's Travels Down I-85 appealed to me. I'm normally drawn to the more suburban settings, but really, anything that's done well and focuses on thinking about the game stands a good chance of piquing my interest.
ST: On the ‘builders’ side, do you have any favorite BATers that you enjoy following? If you still playSC4, what was your most recent download from the STEX?
Tarkus: I'd say that probably the most distinctive BATer for me nowadays is Bipin. He's got some interesting ideas, and executes them well. I've also been pleased to see Bobbo662's lost work coming to light, through nos.17's efforts. As far as all-time favorites, I like a lot of the old BSC stuff—SimGoober and mattb325, especially. Most recent STEX download for me, technically, was this month's challenge region. I've been considering a strictly exhibition entry for it, with the idea of siccing some new toys on it.
ST: SimCity 4 has been out for over 12 years now. Are you surprised that this community is still going strong all these years later? What do you think is the secret to its longevity? Do you think there will still be new content being created 12 years from now?
Tarkus: I'm maybe a little bit surprised, mostly at the fact that it's been 12 years, but I've always pegged this community as being in it for the long haul. It's crazy to think that most of the pioneers of the SC4 modding scene, from the 2004-2005 era, thought we'd have “jumped ship” to the mythical SC5 by 2007—and we're 8 years past that date. I think there's been a few things that have led to the longevity. First, there's just so much custom content out there, and it's still coming. The rate of production isn't nearly what it was in the mid/late-00s, but it's still coming. The game's still readily available and is selling well on Steam and other digital retailers, and that's bringing a steady stream of new players in, which is astonishing for a game of this age. Also, the other attempts at making city-simulators haven't quite captured the balance of SC4. People find the new SimCity, and that actually becomes somewhat of a gateway to SC4.
As far as 12 years from now goes, that'll be 2027. I'll be turning 42 that year (yikes!). Retro gaming is a huge phenomenon—one I'm into, personally—and as this generation gets older, provided Steam and the like are still around, SC4's going to become a big nostalgia trip for people. Consider that SC4 will be the same age then that Super Mario World and the original Sonic the Hedgehog are in 2015. I could see at least some diehards continuing to make content then.
ST: Cities:Skylines... have you played it yet? If not, what are you first impressions based on the mountain of feedback available here on Simtropolis or around the web?
Tarkus: I have not played it yet--RL has been absolutely insane recently--though I am certainly curious about it. A lot of people in this community, whose opinion I trust, some of whom are as hardcore about SC4 as they come, have had very positive things to say. And I've been impressed with what I've seen.
ST: 12 years later, many are calling this game the 'successor' to SC4 and the city building genera. What are your thoughts?
Tarkus: Colossal Order and Paradox have been very smart about how they've handled things, and while I haven't personally been able to play it yet, the approach they've taken and the widespread support they've gotten seem to suggest that Cities: Skylines may in fact be "the mythical SC5". As soon as I heard they were entering the market, I had a feeling about this game. Being a smaller operation with a proven track record, who seem to learned from SC4, I think really allowed them to avoid the pitfalls that plagued the other post-SC4 city simulators. They didn't try to make it an MMO or an online game, or build it around some other sort of gimmick. It actually fits with the current direction in hardware and OS development by properly supporting multi-core processors and 64-bit architecture, which is really critical if you're going to produce a city simulation platform that can handle the sort of complexity and depth that many of us enjoy. And it's very fairly priced--the standard edition is only $10 more than SC4's MSRP, which is pretty astonishing.
I don't think SC4 is going to die off--there's still people playing SC3000 and earlier out there, and the NAMTeam still has the gears turning for NAM 33--but this game is getting an unheard of adoption rate among the real core of the SC4 community. I have no doubt it is going to change the face of the community across the board, here at Simtropolis, on Reddit, and over at SC4 Devotion. In fact, it already has, in just a week after release.
ST: It will take plenty time before C:S can rival the amount of custom content available for SC4, but the developers have really encouraged modding, and there are already many new buildings and 'assets' that can be found on Simtropolis and the steam workshop. Are you encouraged by the leap into C:S custom content?
Tarkus: I think that the content side of things, and how it's already exploded in just a week's time, shows that Colossal Order really gets what made SC4 tick, and they were smart in getting Steam Workshop set up for the game. And consider that it took the SC4 community sometime to really crack that game open. NAM Version 1 didn't see the light until over a year after the game's release, and the content development scene didn't really resemble what most of us recognize today until the second year after release, when you had the BSC, the NAM Team, NDEX, and Pegasus firing on all cylinders. Given that the developers seem to be indicating they'll be opening up more stuff in the near future, I think the C:S community may very well have an accelerated trajectory, compared to how things unfolded with SC4.
As for whether or not you'll see me enter the modding scene with C:S, it's too early to say at this point, especially as I don't yet have the game. I'm also not normally one who buys games with a predetermined intention of modding them--it was 2 years between when I purchased SC4 and when I started developing content. But the way things are integrated, as far as I can tell, the way they've done it, the modding is kind of a seamless part of the game with C:S. I'm certainly interested to see how it all works in practice, firsthand.
ST: What question have I not asked that I should have?
Tarkus: Just kidding on that one—I could certainly go another 12 years without hearing it, as could about half the site. Thank you for the interesting questions, and to ST and its staff for continuing to foster the SC4 community—congratulations on this significant milestone!