Gaming, just like technology, is about progress, and no series embodies that idea better than SimCity. To refresh your memory, SimCity got its start way back in 1985 as a little game known as Micropolis for the Commodore 64. You were the omnipotent planner, molding the landscape and imbuing it with all the trappings of modernity. In the 28 years since, the series has evolved onto platform after platform, incorporating new elements like true 3D, online play, touch, and motion control to a core that's ever improving while still throwing in a few earthquakes. This year, SimCity returns and it's already better than ever. Terraforming anyone?
The last ten or so years have seen an explosion of innovation in gaming, all building up and even upending what it means to simply play. It'd make your inner city planner proud. So, to celebrate the release of the latest SimCity — out for PC on March 5 — let's have a look at the history of gaming in the 21st century.
When you think of second screens, you might think of that tablet sitting on your coffee table, waiting to be used while you watch TV. Pretty commonplace, right? But the idea of a screen that serves up complementary content while you're doing something else isn't that new.
The OG second screen award has to go to the Sega Dreamcast, released way back in 1999, and, truly, the VMU. The VMU, or Visual Memory Unit, was Sega's attempt at deepening the gaming experience in a novel way. While it served as the console's memory card, it did double duty as a tiny console unto itself, armed with its own D-pad and buttons. Players could plug the device into their controllers, where they could see in-game content where no one else could. And when they were done, the VMU could be taken out to play mini games and share data.
Where Sega laid the groundwork in ‘99, other companies would continue to build and further develop the idea. Just last year, Microsoft unveiled Xbox SmartGlass, allowing you to control your Xbox 360 from your smartphone, tablet, or computer. And Nintendo just came out with the Wii U, whose Gamepad not only lets see second-screen content during gameplay, but can even let you take the whole game away from the TV and into the next room.
Online gaming as a concept is ancient — almost as old as the internet itself — and plenty has already been written about the very first Multi-User Dungeons and the virtual worlds of yesteryear. But online console gaming has only recently become a thing, and we've seen the ramifications of that shift come to bear just in the last several years. We can once again look at the Dreamcast as the trailblazer in that department, as it came equipped with its own 56k modem (how retro!), and every major home console has followed suit since.
With consoles slowly becoming more and more like computers, players could not only play with friends at home, but also connect with entire online communities on the fly. Nowadays, said communities give us the option to download whole games and stream content with ease. Game consoles are now an open door to the outside world, the first sign that the living room is truly the next frontier in web connectedness. Here's looking at you, Steambox.
Ah, the sweet joy of overclocking...
PC gaming tech from the turn of the century to now has been about power, and power — we're talking 3D graphics, polygons and pixel shading here — takes muscle. It takes a certain class of hardcore gamer to build a beast of a gaming rig from scratch just to lay waste to her enemies, and PCs have always been the province of that more serious breed. Video card companies like 3dfx Interactive, Matrox, and others spent the ‘90s and beyond developing and innovating like mad to stay at the top of the high-end graphics race. With time, though, the aughts would become a two-horse race between Nvidia's GeForce line of GPUs and ATI Technologies's (and eventually AMD's) Radeon processors that continues to this very day. At the same time, Intel and AMD would do battle throughout the ‘00s, introducing new technologies like multithreading and multiple cores to their lines of superpowered processors.
These advances allowed for incredible strides in game development, as companies did their level best to keep up with the innovations. Taking full advantage of the technology of the day, SimCity's Glassbox Engine is a from-the-ground-up redesign of how any SimCity functions. Not only is the environment beautiful, but everything — be it the resources, economy, or Sims themselves — has bearing on everything else. Everything can be controlled and viewed from a micro level, giving you unmatched power and responsibility in your city. And with the heretofore unheard-of addition of multiplayer, players will now be actively building a world with global consequences.
Touch gaming exploded in the last decade, and it's still maturing. The Nintendo DS hit the big time in 2004 with its built-in touchscreen and stylus, which allowed players to interact with their games by tapping, stroking, and doodling through levels and menus. The more recent PS Vita took things a step further by incorporating multitouch and even a rear touchpad.
But it was the iPhone and the subsequent opening of the App Store that was the real game-changer. Just look at Angry Birds. Look at SimCity Deluxe for the iPhone and iPad. At this point, smartphones could be seen on the same level as bona fide consoles, something Apple likes to boast about to this day.
Gaming at home is a remarkably sedentary activity — never mind all the times you touchdown-danced during Madden. So for games to actual compel you to get up off the damn couch is pretty incredible. The Wii really broke ground in this area with the Wiimote, which detects the player's movements in three dimensions. Suddenly you could bowl, play tennis, box, fight off demons, and, yes, build your cities from the ground up as if you're in the game, a la 2008's SimCity Creator. It opened the market to a whole new demographic of casual gamers who just wanted to come over and feel like they were really playing.
Sony would make that concept their own with the PlayStation Move, which improved precision and even incorporated an augmented reality component that further immerses the player in games like EyePet and Start the Party. But the Kinect? Full-body detection. Which means we're currently attempting to find the balance between numerous independent projects and of course dance games that will either reveal your inner Baryshnikov or embarrass you spectacularly. Win win.
Remember the App Store? Well, that made waves within the industry because it created an avenue for everyone from the average programmer to large corporations to develop an app and release it to the masses. It's a simple equation: the populace's love for games + more and more of said populace buying smartphones = opportunity.
Consoles weren't left behind either. Indie games like Journey have come out ahead as shining examples of a new guard in game development. And if you take things one step further by taking mobile's impact and anchoring it in the living room, you get something like the Ouya. The Ouya promises to be an indie gamer's dream. Powered by Android, the console's developers are inviting indie designers and hackers to create a new, open form of gaming that takes the app store model to disrupt how conventional consoles work.
Forget consoles and over-clocked computer rigs as you know them. Forget discs — you won't need them. Gaming is moving towards the cloud in a big way. Services like OnLive allow computers with low-end specs to play top-tier games because they handle the heavy lifting in terms of graphics and frame-rate. All so you can play your PC games on a smartphone. Pretty impressive.
The big players have taken notice, too. Sony bought cloud gaming service Gaikai last summer for a cool $380 million. Meanwhile, Nvidia debuted its own gaming supercomputer at CES this year in the form of the Grid, armed with 240 GPUs ready to stream your favorite games to wherever you are at any time.
So we've come a long way, all in little more than a decade. This industry, like any other, has been built and rebuilt time and time again, looking vastly different with each new generation.
SimCity made similar progress, and it returns just when things are starting to get really exciting. And who knows where things will wind up in another year?
Be sure to think about all the progress we've made when you fire up the new March 5 release of SimCity for the first time. Because you're not just building your city. You're committing to the act of progress.
Kwame Opam is a tech writer and content producer for Studio@Gawker.
Image by Ramóna Udvardi, Studio@Gawker.