Playing SimCity 4, I'm struck by the tenuousness of my control. My tools for city management are incredibly broad. I can declare an area a commercial, industrial, or residential zone, but the simulation itself decides what to build in those zones. In theory, this gives you the opportunity to take a step back and concentrate on the big-picture problems of your city, but in practice, it means that much of its shape and character are determined by chance.
On a certain level, you can have an effect with the placement and proportion of zones, and I've made a couple of nightmarish industrial cities that are heavy with pollution, but moderately successful. Yet, attempting to go deeper into a specialization is still beyond my skills. I took a thin stretch of coast and tried to make it into a high-class, glamorous coastal playground for the rich and famous, but it turned out to be just another middle-class suburban sprawl.
The problem might be that I've plateaued in skill. I managed to get my main city up to 130,000 people with a balanced budged and effective services, but then I ran out of space and growth stalled. I think the big barrier for me is traffic. I just can't get a handle on how to manage it effectively. I want to take my cities to the next level, but the aforementioned lack of specific control makes me feel like all of my solutions involve guess-work and happenstance.
So, the question I'm left with is - is it the game, or is it me? Given that there are people who have successfully built cities with millions of people in them, it has to be the case that mastery is possible. I just don't know how to proceed from here. Look at online guides, maybe. Attempt radical experiments. All I know is that the game itself won't help me. It's not very transparent with the logic behind its mechanics.
Which, I suppose, is part of its charm. You're delving into a mysterious world where the connections between cause and effect are not easily seen, and small, seemingly innocent decisions can have massive consequences. In some small way it mimics the murkiness of real politics. What does it mean, and what does it matter when, say, a vacant field gets sold to a big corporation to allow them to build a supermarket near a busy intersection (a thing that recently happened in my real-life hometown)? What is the connection between the city planner, a typical citizen, and the city itself?
In real life, these are difficult, perhaps unanswerable questions. By its very nature, SimCity 4 must attempt to answer them, because otherwise how could it possibly be a responsive simulation? Assumptions about the nature of urban life, the role of government, and the ramifications of economic and political decision among local elites must be baked into the game's very code. Those assumptions are what make it a game.
Yet, after 15 hours with SimCity 4, I couldn't tell you with any precision what those assumptions are. Part of that is, of course, my lack of skill with the game. But I suspect a larger part is my lamentable lack of savvy when it comes to local politics. Why didn't anyone ever tell me this stuff was important?