The Rise of the Simulation Genre in Console Gaming
A Simulation Army Couldn’t Hold Me Back
The Simulation genre has been part of gaming since the beginning of the industry. Its roots are deep in 1984, represented by the games Elite, a space trading sim launched for the BBC Micro, and Fortune Builder, a city builder for the Colecovision. However, the breakthrough of the genre would happen only five years later by a game designed by Will Wright and published by Maxis. SimCity would take the world by storm and launch the long-running franchise that unfortunately faded away by its latest release in 2013.
Through Wright’s imagination and talent, the sim genre flourished in the 90’s with experimentations like SimEarth (1990), SimAnt (1991), and the evolution of the city builder SimCity 2000 (1993). By the year 2000, Wright reached his utmost success with the soon-to-be billion-dollar franchise The Sims (2000).
Years after the foundation of these franchises, their sequels and iterations would reach a high level of success, forming a niche of consumption and design-focus attached to the PC environment. This is proven by examples like the console versions of SimCity only being developed until the Nintendo 64 era, with a last attempt at a portable version for the DS. The Sims franchise, although present throughout a number of consoles and generations, did not see console releases with the same content as their PC counterparts until 2017.
Outside of the big names (The Sims, SimCity, Theme Hospital, Rollercoaster Tycoon etc), an important resurgence of the genre has occurred. The rise of independent development, crowdfunding and the ease of publishing through Early Access have all played a part in sparking this. Now, current-gen consoles like the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have also been able to offer the horsepower required for the graphical, AI and processing requirements that the genre commonly demands. As the raw processing power improves, the challenges of putting Simulation games on consoles now transform into the much needed UI reworking and tool/button assignments, shrinking down the plentifulness of keyboard commands into a controller.
While these challenges are being dealt with, the future could not look any brighter: since 2014, both Microsoft and Sony’s consoles received a wide array of titles. These include big names like Tropico 5, Elite Dangerous, Farming Simulator, Prison Architect, Cities Skylines, Slime Rancher, Kerbal Space Program, Aven Colony, Surviving Mars, Jurassic World Evolution, and many more to come. Games like Civilization VI also made a surprise appearance on the Nintendo Switch in late 2018, and despite not being described as full blown Simulation, the Strategy and 4X genres have some of the management nature and systems-guided gameplay shared in between them.
Due to the strong presence of smaller and independent games in these genres, the fact that Microsoft has the Xbox Game Preview Program makes the platform much more accessible to the developers of these titles, allowing games like Elite Dangerous and Slime Rancher to be available sooner to the players, thus leveraging the financial return possibities for the studios and publishers, which many are in need to continue development. Reapearing in the scene, big publishers like Electronic Arts are also heading this direction, and despite releasing its 4th main iteration of the The Sims franchise on PC in 2014, EA launched the PS4 and Xbox One versions in 2017, and this time the game was identical to the vanilla Origin counterpart.
Despite the aforementioned improvements needed with control, UI redesign and tool assignment, we can look at similar challenges that the games industry has tackled through time and rest assured. The Grand Theft Auto franchise, as did others, struggled with 3D camera controls for consoles in Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2004 reaching an almost future-proof scheme (yes, they released three GTA games in three years!). Thus, only time will allow the evolution to happen so that we can have smoother experiences of the sim genre on the TV and controller setups.
But what’s the advantage of playing Simulation games on consoles?
For some people, casual or not, the couch experience is essential, and regardless of that, the mere aspects of platform openness and accessibility are already a very welcome trend. The barriers to entry tend to be evermore lowered, welcoming always new interested players to the intricacies of this interesting genre.
A low point for all of this, however, if you’re already a hardcore fan of games like Cities Skylines with hundreds of hours counted on Steam and dozens of mods downloaded, is that the same experience can’t yet be replicated on consoles. This fact is most due to platform restrictions, which by exerting more control over the quality of the content offered through their store, the idea of community created content is yet a distant reality (unless you happen to be Bethesda, curating and monetising fans’ creations through an in-game mod store).
Another difficulty, although much more attainable, is the needed transition between port-based offerings to an original development consideration of consoles as core platforms, something that will take place only with positive feedback and sales from the console community. This transition is already being positively indicated by game releases like Age of Wonders: Planetfall, also attached to the Strategy and 4X fields, but that aims for a simultaneous release on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on August 06, 2019. The studio behind the title, Paradox Interactive, is also related to multiple titles already cited here, having already launched this year the popular grand strategy title Stellaris (2016) for both PS4 and Xbox One. Hopefully these efforts will inspire more studios and publishers to do the same.
Fans of console gaming and the Simulation, 4X and Strategy genres can rest assured. The environment is only going to get better! While there’s hope for that, let our voices be heard so that more titles make this transition. Games like Ubisoft’s Anno 1800, released for PC on April 16th, should at least consider console releases for the near future.
Who knows - maybe next gen too?