PSA: Looking for SC4 mods and plugins? Why you shouldn’t just download someone else’s plugins folder or unofficial “modpack”.

About 3 weeks ago on /r/simcity4 on Reddit, there were a couple common things I saw in threads: complaints about crashing, and links to someone’s complete plugins folder off of filesharing services (Mega, torrents, etc.), which some have promoted as a “modpack”. As it turns out, the crashing and this so-called “modpack” were directly related.

This aforementioned package happens to contain NAM Version 31, which, as was widely known on the major SC4 forums (Simtropolis, SC4 Devotion, etc.), is known to cause crashes upon saving a city tile on some users’ systems. I’m a long-time NAM developer myself, so I was on the front lines of this. The main cause for this issue, from what we’ve learned since NAM 31, is that the massive increase in size of the NAM Controller file in NAM 31 version, for some reason, caused issues for users whose systems had 4GB or more of RAM, and especially affected people with Intel Core i7 Sandy Bridge CPUs. Within the next month, we finally released an update to address those issues, NAM 31.1, and we’re working on NAM 31.2 right now.

One of the golden rules in the SC4 community–at least the parts of it that inhabit the major forums, and includes all the major content developers–is that content should not be redistributed without permission, unless (in rare instances) the creator has explicitly allowed it up front. This is especially true when the redistributor repackages the content in some way, which, in the case of things like this so-called “modpack” (which, again, is little more than a plugins dump) and all the people who have torrented their personal plugins folders. Often times, discussions about this devolve into a copyright debate, which, to quickly summarize and get out of the way:

  • a) the content developers have copyright on their content
  • b) the game’s EULA, however, forbids selling custom content
  • c) the prohibition on sale makes enforcing this copyright through the legal system extraordinarily difficult, as there’s no way to prove “damages”

This post really isn’t about the copyright angle. It’s about content creators’ rights and responsibilities to maintain and support their content, and the fact that this unauthorized repackaging and redistribution greatly complicates these matters. Most of the established content creators take pride in offering technical support and fixing any issues that may exist with their content, to ensure that the end user has the best experience possible. In order for this to be feasible, the creator needs to have reasonable control over distribution, to ensure that the end users are running the same version, and to be able to propagate any fixes or patches that may be required.

Admittedly, the distribution system that’s been in place for many years on the SC4 exchanges can be a bit daunting to those unfamiliar with it, and even more so if you’re trying to get yourself started with mods and custom content (or re-started, for the returning old veterans of the game). A lot of the repackaging and redistribution into these unauthorized larger packages and plugins dumps are, as far as I can tell, mostly done with good intentions. But good intentions don’t always lead to a good end result. Unless you personally downloaded all those plugins yourself and kept really good track of them (very few do), there’s no way of knowing what’s actually in there, and many of the users who are responsible for creating these unauthorized packages aimed at newbies are not far removed from being newbies themselves. That messed up plugins folder gets transmitted between multiple users, multiplying the number of potential tech support cases with which the creators/developers have to handle, taking up time that they could be spending developing more content. And the ease of simply and indiscriminately dumping a whole giant pack of files into your personal plugins foments a state of perpetual newbiedom, and sustains illiteracy about how to properly install and use mods.

The fact that torrents and the like are the main methods of distributing these unauthorized packages also complicates matters a hundred-fold. Once a file gets seeded, it’s out there in the wild, and good luck stopping it from continuing to be redistributed, buggy or not. The NAM Team actually had a discussion–mostly related to bandwidth concerns stemming from the large file size–about possibly making an “official” torrent for NAM 31, but quickly became disenchanted of the idea, specifically as it robs us of version control. Thanks to whomever created that latest package that’s been making the rounds, and stuck it on a torrent, even now that we’re a couple releases in advance and have fixed the worst of the issues, those gnarly crash-on-save issues and everything else will continue to be spread.  As things like this unauthorized package are being promoted by some here as the first thing newbies looking for mods should get, it creates a really bad first impression on the great experience that is playing SC4 with custom content, canceling out the entire reason for making these packages in the first place.

-Tarkus

The CAM (Colossus Addon Mod) – Separating Fact From Fiction

The CAM, or Colossus Addon Mod, is arguably the most misunderstood SC4 mod out there.  The reasons for this most likely lie in the fact actual concept behind the mod is somewhat abstract to someone who is not terribly familiar with the inner workings of SC4–which most new players aren’t–and also perhaps due to community politics from the time the CAM was released, some 6 years ago.  As I’ve seen plenty of misconceptions being repeated across many corners of the internet, including a lot recently, I’d like to clarify things, and finally separate fact from fiction with the CAM.

What the CAM actually is.

To put it in short and simple form, the CAM is a mod that alters the game’s Residential-Commercial-Industrial (RCI) simulation, changing when and how growable buildings grow, and adjusting the mechanics of population and job balance.  That’s all it does.  It includes altered properties for some Maxis lots, to mesh them with the new settings, meaning you can use the CAM right out of the box, without downloading anything else.  In other words, zero dependencies.  None.  Zilch.

The centerpiece of the mod is that it adds new growth stages for each type of zone.  The notion of a growth stage is roughly equivalent to the concept of density.  A Stage 2 residential will have more residents in it than a Stage 1 residential.  A Stage 4 commercial office will have fewer jobs than a Stage 5.  The default game settings include 8 growth stages for Residential and Commercial, and 3 growth stages for Industrial.  The CAM ups the number of Residential and Commercial growth stages to 15, and the number of Industrial growth stages to 10, excluding Agriculture, which has 7 growth stages with the CAM.  The reason for these new stages is to better distribute population and job density.  The default settings end up introducing a pretty wide variance at the upper stages (especially Stages 7 and 8).  The CAM smooths out this variance.

There’s a popular notion out there that the CAM is basically a mod to get more skyscrapers and a larger population.  While you will see more sustained growth with the CAM at the top end of the scale, making the process of getting those skyscrapers that much more satisfying, it also gives your Industrial zones a lot more potential, and has some other nice effects on the overall balance of the game, even when you’re not trying to build your own Hong Kong.  You’re by no means forced to start throwing up skyscrapers by installing it, and you can build rural towns and suburbs like before.

Note, however, that there is a workforce issue with the CAM in its present form.  You’ll want to check out this thread [link] by whatevermind at SC4 Devotion for details on how to fix it.  It requires more than just installing files into your Plugins folder.

What the CAM isn’t.

This one cannot be overstated: the CAM is not a modpack to add buildings to the game.  There is a sizable number of people who mistakenly think it’s a building pack–and one with an extremely long list of dependencies to boot.  It’s not.  Those who think it is a building pack have it confused with the so-called “CAM Starter Packs”.  The CAM Starter Packs are optional downloads, which include modified properties for a number of already existing pre-CAM buildings from various places, making them fit into the higher growth stages added by the CAM.  Obviously, to use those modified settings, you have to have the models for those buildings; hence, all the dependencies.  The reason those packs exist is due to the fact that when the CAM was released in 2007, there wasn’t really any custom content designed for the CAM’s new growth stages. But on the whole, the CAM Starter Packs are not needed to use the CAM.

6 years later, in 2013, there’s plenty of custom content designed to take advantage of the CAM’s expanded set of growth stages, and there’s plenty of CAMeLots and CAMpatible items available off SC4 Devotion’s LEX with fewer dependencies.  I’ll be exploring those as part of a future post here at SimTarkus.  The tool to create your own CAMeLots, wouanagaine’s “SC4 PIM Extended” (also called PIM-X and “The X Tool”) has also been available for some time now–it wasn’t publicly available until a couple years after the CAM itself was released.

The CAM, despite its “-AM” ending, has virtually no relationship to the Network Addon Mod (NAM), which is a transportation mod, and wasn’t created by the same team of developers.  It generally doesn’t affect the same parts of the game.  The one exception is that there are “Traffic Plugins” in the current CAM download–the advice both of the CAM developers and the NAM Team is to use the NAM’s Traffic Simulator Plugins instead of the CAM’s.  The CAM’s are vastly outdated, and the NAM’s options reflect the latest developments in traffic simulator research, along with ensuring full compatibility with all NAM options.

Now to answer a couple of burning questions I’m sure you want to ask after reading that.

Why do the optional CAM Starter Packs have all those dependencies?

First off, I’ll reiterate: the Starter Packs are optionalThere’s plenty of easier-to-install building sets on the LEX.  The reason why there’s those long lists of dependencies is because they’re set up as files to CAMeLot-ize buildings that existed at the time the CAM was released.  Those dependencies are basically the models themselves for those buildings, and any other props or textures used on the lots.  At this point, you might also be asking, “why not just include those?”  Well, there’s a few reasons for that.

  1. As many of those packages are common prop/texture packages used across a huge number of different files, you’d be redownloading the same files over and over again (which isn’t an efficient use of your bandwidth, let alone the site’s bandwidth), and should there need to be an update to one of those packages (additions and bugfixes have been known to happen), keeping track of which version is current would be a nightmare for creator and downloader alike.  For those who feel the need to interject, “but Skyrim and my favorite FPS have handy tools to track this stuff–why is the SC4 community so out of it?”, remember–this is a 10-year-old game.  Back in 2004, when custom content started showing up in massive amounts, when it was the time to do it, no one dreamed of doing that.  Additionally, the modding communities for those games tend to have a lot of heavy-duty programming types milling about, whereas with SC4, there’s much more of an “artist” archetype among content creators, and few people with the programming skills or time to do that sort of thing.  Additionally, people expected SC4 to die off in about 2007, when many predicted the “mythical SC5” to come and cover SC4 in a layer of dust.  True to the “prophecy”, there was a new SimCity title that year–but it was SimCity: Societies, which quickly faded into obscurity, and we’re still playing the game from 2003 instead.
  2. Historically, SC4 exchanges have had low filesize limits.  Back at the peak of the first wave of SC4 content in 2005, the STEX at Simtropolis was the biggest exchange.  And it had a strict 10MB filesize limit.  Unless you got the webmaster to make an exception–usually only granted in very special circumstances–that was it.  Everywhere else had a similar policy around that time, and for quite some time after that.  You can’t fit that much in 10MB.
  3. It’s beyond the purposes of the CAM.  The creators kept the actual CAM mod download itself simple, and just included the files necessary to implement the gameplay changes, leaving your choice of buildings up to your personal taste.
  4. The CAM’s creators (BSC) tried to get permission from many of the creators in the community who made buildings suitable for CAMeLot usage, to create prop “mega packs”, conveniently packaging up the model assets and uploading them to the SC4D LEX.  Some creators were happy to do so.  Others weren’t, and that’s why there’s all those links to Simtropolis and elsewhere in the lists for those Starter Packs.

You might hear some whispers from some about “underground” CAM distributions on file-sharing services, that claim to have “all the dependencies”–these are based on the completely untrue “CAM has 100 dependencies” trope, and in most cases, they’re basically badly-organized Plugins folders that well-intentioned but horribly misguided novice users have just dumped willy-nilly online.  You really don’t know what you’re getting, and if you’re a novice user, you’re pretty much screwed if you need any tech support help with those.  Stay far, far away.  I’ll talk more about the problems with these in a later post.

Should I install the CAM?

If you understand what growth stages are, and like the sounds of the CAM’s modifications, it may be worth considering.  I’ve personally used it since it was first released, but I know plenty of other advanced players of the game (including folks like Haljackey) who don’t.  Looking at the adoption rate among SC4D LEX users, it’s probably about half as popular as the NAM (a mod most consider “essential”,  because it fixes the broken traffic simulator and adds a veritable “Swiss Army Knife” worth of new transportation options).  From that standpoint, it means you’re looking at a mod that has a pretty substantial userbase, but isn’t necessarily essential.  It’s a matter of taste in that case.  But if you’re just looking to add buildings to the game, unless a file you’re really wanting to download says it’s a CAMeLot and lists a growth stage of 9+ in the description (4+ on industrials and farms), it’s not necessary to download the CAM.  Repeat after me: the CAM is not a modpack to add buildings to the game.

I hope that clears up some of the mystery and the controversy surrounding the CAM.  I’ll be making more posts of this sort in the near future, clearing up misconceptions and hopefully shining some new insight on the game, the community, and custom content.

-Tarkus

Welcome to SimTarkus

First off, welcome to SimTarkus.  This will be an additional venue that I’ll use to provide commentary, tutorials, and more about SimCity 4, to the broader world.

-Tarkus