A deep foundation of my gaming tastes comes from the likes of Sim Ant, Sim City 2000, Sim Tower, Sim Farm, Sim Earth, and Sim Isle (plus Theme Hospital at my PC-owning friend’s house). As a kid, looking at the scholastic book catalogue I was immediately checking for a new Sim game. At some point in middle school I found someone had installed what was called Yoot Tower, which looked like some weird update of Sim Tower. (Only later would I realize that Yoot was the same Yoot Saito that I didn’t register in the credits for Sim Tower, and that Sim Tower was just a rebranding of “The Tower” from Japan.) You can imagine how I feel about the ultimate outcome of the success of The Sims on the overall ‘sim’ landscape that I grew up with.
Since then, I’ve always had my eye out for things with a similar flavor.
What’s a Sim to me
I suppose my most defining features for games in this discussion are:
1) Many layers of systems interacting - I’m all for a good amount of placebo-effect with this as well. Make it complicated enough so I think it might matter how X is oriented, and it is as good as if that were a real feature.
2) Many choices available - Having too many things to choose from is a good thing here. I’m generally lax about game balance with these games, since there is an element of RP involved, and the third point below minimizes my drive to ‘optimize.’
3) Tamped-down “goals” - many good games of this type have some form of ‘stage’ structure, but the drive to play and the enjoyment for me is nearly exclusive of ‘progress’ through some scenario. Some may completely eschew win conditions, and that’s all gravy.
4) Autonomous growth - I haven’t really sunk into games like Factorio because from my first-pass impression, there is little that doesn’t happen at the will of the player, aside from decay. The ability of the game to serve as a ‘screensaver’ to some extent provides some level of meditative space that is a major element for me, and the other end of the spectrum here points towards RTS in my mind. I want my well-oiled machine to feel like it has a bit of a will of its own, and not just be a crank-driven Rube Goldberg machine (which has it’s own separate merits)
In my eyes, the elder god of this genre is Dwarf Fortress. I can only imagine how the younger me would have responded to the sheer depth of simulation in that game.
I’m starting this thread namely because I’ve recently (over the last 2-3 weeks) fallen/dug into a handful of Japanese management sims that are quite nicely scratching that itch for me, and I wanted to share for those interested. I’m going to write at length about these things and I’m far from an expert, but this was a corner I wasn’t aware of and I want to just share some of my joy.
(I’ve been hanging in there language-wise, enough to get a sense for what things do, even if I’m not 100% on my readings. There may be some english releases or patches for some of these, but I haven’t really looked into them.)
ザ コンビニ スペシャル
(The Conbini Special, PS1)
I had seen ‘the conbini’ on shelves here in Nagoya a few times, and the image on the back of the box had me slightly intrigued, though it looked a bit primitive. I recently saw ザ コンビニ スペシャル for pretty cheap and bought it on a whim along with other things I had actually been looking for. I’ve been pleasantly floored by its formula. (For those at home, this is a series that had many PC releases as well, but I’m coming largely from a PS1 perspective.)
The pleasant elements of this game layer one on top of another very well. It starts off with figuring out what type of shelves you can place, where you can place them in a relatively small area and still give foot access, and what you can stock on each type of case. Then, after hiring some employees you have to tune your hours to be manageable by your inexperienced staff, and you start to survey what sells and doesn’t, when customers seem to be showing up. There are some rudimentary ‘survey’ data tools, but you can also learn by just observing the store in operation.
Then, you realize that your store really is oriented in space on a city map, and the type of customers, what they want, and when they arrive are all influenced by the nearby buildings. The city grows organically around you (like in A-Train and the ilk), and you get reports on the population as it goes from village to town to city, and special buildings pop up around you (swimming pools, middle schools, etc). Land values change, and you quickly realize that buying a second store isn’t trivial. A rival chain in the area is autonomously growing and purchasing new stores, and you can pay to have a ‘spy’ go and check out the store, which I found useful in the beginning to get an idea for layout.
However, the city is not purely up to chance. You can select to pay to campaign/advertise/promote the sale of a plot of land for a particular purchase, which costs a certain amount per month, and has a % chance of success depending on your overall standing (or something). So, you can then gamble on trying to get a big apartment building opened near your store to get a captive audience.
With just those pieces, the game suddenly feels very deep to me. The nitpicky design choices of laying out your store feel like distant memories when you open your third store, and import the pristine layout you’ve figured out, just like any reasonable chain store would. The game becomes about monitoring the health of multiple spaces, and making bold choices in investing in your surroundings or going for more stores. You even can switch to a view that is just a balance sheet while the game runs at max speed and watch numbers go up and down till you decide to act. At any point, though, you can zoom in and decide that you want to swap where you’re selling the canned food with your cold case full of cheap sashimi.
What makes this game ‘special’? The fact that none of it is just normal conbini stuff. There are three ‘worlds’ to select at the start, each of which has different items, graphics, characters, and city design. (I’m spoiler tagging from here on out, because if you’re interested, you’ll have the most fun just finding out what’s in this game). The first option is a cat world, where every customer is a humanoid cat, and you sell cat foods of many kinds, brushes and shampoo, cat toys, and cozy places for cats to sleep, like a kotatsu. The second is an RPG world with healing potions, gauntlets and helmets, grappling hooks and tents, crystal balls and magic wands, as well as way too many weapons to fit all in one store. The third is the most ‘normal’ in that you can sell steamed buns in a case, but it’s a punk/post apocalyptic world where people need things to survive on the street.
These different themes would be simply a reskin if it weren’t for one simple fact - different world types’ shelving stocks a different cross section of goods. In the RPG world, there is a specific category of item that requires a 3×1 shelf (long weapons), which are a huge pain to fit into your store. With that simple change, the ‘optimum’ layout I had going in my cat world simply wasn’t relevant, and I had the opportunity to re-solve the entire problem. I haven’t even touched ‘punk’ world yet, aside from just seeing that you can sell things like gas masks and med packs.
But that’s not to dismiss the quality of the flavor differences. The buildings on the world map are all uniquely drawn for each world, and are pretty creative. Dark lord’s castles in the RPG world, cat fisherman guilds in the cat world. And what originally are licenses for tobacco, alcohol, and medicine (in the original conbini games), get converted to fresh fish, cat toys, and heating/cooling appliances (like laps) in the cat world, healing herbs, magic items, and special weapons in the RPG world. Plus, all the customers you get are highly varied and cutely tiny. I have a slime customer who always takes forever to shop and buys the same thing each time at about the same time of day.
I don’t yet know how ‘shallow’ this pool really is, in terms of what really determines who shows up, how successful I am at levying for a development, or what other disasters other than accidentally burning your whole interior down can happen. I’m happy with that, since undoubtedly my mind is filling in plenty of gaps that are likely there, since, after all, it’s a game made by people.
The thing I’m still split on is whether I think there should be more stuff to ‘unlock.’ A feature of Sim Tower that was fun for me was the minor goals of earning star ratings, each star unlocking some new set of facilities that you then need to consider how to incorporate. Something like a limited-time item or such might be a fun addition, but even without anything like that, this game feels rich enough. I have unlocked at least one more layout, but I’m not sure how much more there may be. I’m glad to be in some state of uncertainty, and I’ve only tried the beginner levels in two worlds, so don’t know if there are any other differences in the ‘high level’ stage for each world.
If you want to check the game out, there’s not a ton of great footage of this version of the game, but this is a pretty good video, which just shows one of the three worlds. Unfortunately they’re just playing at high speed the whole time, which misses part of the chill charm of this game for me.
Other sims in this space
On my horizon is ザ ファミレス (The Famiresu - family restaurant). Well, I guess it’s more like its on my coffee table right now, but I’ve just launched it once last night, and am pleased with at minimum the pathing dynamics of the waiters seating, taking orders, refilling water, bringing food, and clearing plates. It’s sequel (史上最強のメニュー) is not yet in my hands, but looks good as well. I’m also going to be looking into Burger Burger (and 2), ‘The Drugstore’ and at least The Conbini 4. I also haven’t ever really played an A-Train game, so I’ve been trying out the last 3DS release.
That said, I’m having enough fun with these games that just thinking and talking about them is sufficient entertainment for me at the moment, hence me spending my couple free hours after work typing this up. I’ll aim to return here to talk at least about Famiresu,
Any discussion of other games you enjoy in this class are welcome! I only really mentioned the timeframe because for whatever reason, I feel like there was a distinct period in which people had this particular focus in game design that permitted much less goal-orientation than I feel games demand nowadays. (Also I thought I was going to imbed a bunch of videos so tagged this high data, but decided against it)