Building Cities

I need to write about something that matters to me.

I like building. That feeling of planting a small seed and having an impact on it through every stage in its development. Coming to know every vein and leaf: its history, its purpose, and its future. The small sadness of pruning a tiny masterpiece to make room for a larger, better picture. The grand vision of “something wonderful” that slowly takes shape.


I’ve always been fascinated by simulations. That solving problems in artificial environments with rules far simpler than reality can not only challenge but give insight into the real world. It’s what brings me back to Sim City 4, a game I’ve been continually playing for fifteen years.

When I began playing I avoided complex, mountainous terrain because it meant that I couldn’t fit as many people into my city as possible. There was some “maximum score” of population per square kilometer, and I had to reach it. In returning to the game as an adult, I’ve come to value both the challenge of designing a city around hills and rivers, and the beauty of a city that adapts to these features. Designing for a perfectly flat plain turns into an abstract math problem; it no longer holds my interest as it feels like solving something one too many steps divorced from life.

Working in a simulation a wholly different mindset than programming, but it has given me so much intuition towards solving problems with logic automation. I can’t tell the game “automatically build a road that follows the contour of the mountain.” I can’t say “replace old power plants when they stop functioning properly.” I must do it all myself. Not that it wouldn’t be a rewarding experience to do so – when programming city simulators for myself I often automate away such things, but the experience is different. The act of deciding where to place a road, of having to regularly check on how well a wind turbine is doing, make me feel more like the city is something I’m creating. Automating that feels like teaching a mind that gets to have all the fun.


This is very much a game where “the fun is in the journey, not the destination”. I’ve had people over the years ask me what the point or goal of the game is since the game doesn’t directly give you one. The goal is not to have built cities, but building cities.


Post Script: Mods

I can’t play Sim City 4 without plugins. The SC4 modding community has remained strong all these years – they’ve made many quality-of-life improvements as well as changes that make the game fulfill the creators’ intents better than the original. These are the ones I currently play with:

CrimeDoesntPay – makes crime in big cities reasonably manageable

IH_census – makes high tech industry offer high paying jobs

Network Addon Mod – makes public transit and traffic flow better, as well as fixes many traffic bugs

OperaHouse – the original behavior was bugged

radius_doubler – makes many services have more reasonable service radii, especially in low density cities

SPAM – fully builds out the farming system which wasn’t finished for the final game

Leave a Reply