August 15, 2013 4 Comments
As I’ve mentioned on here before, I’ve been considering posting up a guide to getting started with custom content for SimCity 4 Deluxe, and now, that time has come.
Custom content has been one of the main reasons why SimCity 4 has remained popular, over 10 years after its release, and there’s still an active content community out there, developing new stuff for the game. I myself picked up the game back in 2004, shortly after the Deluxe version was released, and once I finally happened across the sheer breadth of content about 2 years later, I’ve stuck with it since–now that’s replay value!
First off, here’s what you’re going to need to fully take advantage of this guide:
- A retail copy of SimCity 4 Deluxe (or SimCity 4 with Rush Hour Expansion), either boxed or from a digital distributor (e.g. Steam, Origin, Amazon, GamersGate, etc.).
Most of the custom content development tools–both first and third-party–came about after the Deluxe Edition and Rush Hour Expansion were released. If you have the original SimCity 4, not Deluxe and lacking the expansion pack, you won’t be able to use 99.9% of the content out there. It’s not terribly cost prohibitive–while the present MSRP is US$19.99, at least one retailer will have it on sale. Steam’s dropped the price to as low as US$3.99 during periodic “flash sales”. Just be on the lookout.
- At least 1GB of available disk space.
Plugins add up quickly–many experienced SC4 players have Plugins folders of 2GB to 4GB (mine’s holding station at 3.24GB). Fortunately, processing power has increased, so having that much in there won’t impact performance, like it may have in the early days of the game.
- Accounts on the major English-language fansites.
As there’s a lot of cool stuff you’re going to want, and some downloads from one site require files from another, it’s useful to have all your options open, and this will save you considerable time and headache in the long run. A little overview of the two main sites:
- SimCity 4 Devotion (SC4D) (http://www.sc4devotion.com)
Exchange Registration: [link] | Forum Registration [link] (note that SC4D’s exchange and forums use separate login systems and are not connected and you’ll need separate accounts on each.)
SC4D is currently the second-largest site, founded in November 2006. It is the home base of several major custom content developers, including the NAM Team, makers of the Network Addon Mod (NAM), the extremely prolific BSC group, which created the Colossus Addon Mod (CAM), and thousands of buildings and lots, and the RTMT Team, developers of the Road-Top Mass Transit set. SC4D’s LEX (Lot Exchange), in contrast to the Simtropolis Exchange (STEX), is a closed exchange, with a rigorous approval process, to ensure files that go up on the exchange don’t break the game. The LEX software also just saw a number of major improvements, including an incredibly easy-to-use dependency tracking/downloading system on many files, with more planned.
- Simtropolis (ST) (http://www.simtropolis.com)Registration: [link]
Simtropolis is the largest site, founded in January 2003, and, in addition to covering SC4, is also a major site for the new SimCity released in 2013, as well as covering Monte Cristo/Focus Home’s Cities XL. Simtropolis also has a very large exchange, called the STEX (Simtropolis Exchange), which is an open exchange, where any registered member can also upload files. While this means that more files are available, files are not “peer-reviewed”, and indeed, there are some “game breakers” around, so be cognizant of that. Also, despite being the largest site, the largest mod, the NAM, is not available from the STEX as a direct download.
There’s also a few other, smaller sites out there. Perhaps the best known of the remaining English-language fansites is SimPeg, which is the personal site of Pegasus, a prolific content developer who, at present, is no longer active, though members of the Night Owl Productions group are the prime movers of the site now. Most SimPeg content, including that of the Night Owls, is also available at Simtropolis. There’s also a number of foreign-language sites, such as SimForum.de and SimCityKurier (German), Tout Sim Cities (French), Capital SimCity (Spanish), SimCity Brasil (Portuguese), SimCity Polska (Polish), and a number of sites operated by independent Japanese creators (there’s lots of information on that front in this subforum at SC4 Devotion).
- SimCity 4 Devotion (SC4D) (http://www.sc4devotion.com)
- The official patches for the game.
If you’ve picked the game up off Steam or other digital distribution channels, you most likely have Version 1.1.641, which is fully patched.
Otherwise, your base install will be 1.1.610 or 1.1.613 (depending on country of purchase). Most plugins really require the EP1 patch, which upgrades the game to 1.1.638. The EP1 patch can be acquired at SimCity 4 Devotion. There are five different SKUs of the patch, and you need to download the correct one for your region. Read carefully. There’s also an additional patch to install after the EP1, which is 1.1.640, also known as the “BAT Nightlight Patch”. This patch allows the nightlights on custom buildings to function properly. You can also find it at SimCity 4 Devotion–it’s under the “Recommended Downloads” heading, about halfway down the page.
If you think you’re going to go out and download 2GB of stuff and have it instantly work perfectly, you will more than likely be disabused of that notion quite quickly. It takes some time to assemble a solid plugins folder and get it to your liking, and I highly recommend that you take your time and start slow. If you’ve never used custom content before and pile a bunch of stuff into there, should you run into issues, you’ll have a difficult time diagnosing them, and it’ll require even more patience on your part–and that of those helping you out on the forums–to solve it. And if you think, “oh, I’ll just let someone else do the hard work for me”, there’s a number of reasons why that’s a bad idea.
Now that I’ve covered the preliminary requirements, I’d like to cover a few more basics with respect to terminology, and give an overview of some of the content out there.
Custom Content vs. “Mods”
“Custom content”, “CC”, or “Plugins” are generally the prevailing terms in the community of how to refer to third-party game objects. The term “mod”, used as a noun has a very specific meaning within the overall ecosystem of custom content. Here’s the overall breakdown of the basic categories:
BATs: These are building downloads–the most common type of game object. The term “BAT” comes from Building Architect Tool, the tool that EA/Maxis released in 2004, to allow for the creation of custom SC4 buildings. BATs, unless they’re part of a Prop Pack, come on a Lot, which allows the BAT to be placed in game, either through growable or ploppable means.
Lots: These are the containers upon which BATs and props are placed, generally made in the Lot Editor tool, released by EA/Maxis in 2003 (though some newer lots made by developers on the LEX at SimCity 4 Devotion were built using a tool called PIM-X). There are Lots out there that aren’t part of a BAT download (Parks being a prime example), and before the BAT was released, the primary form of custom content out there were re-Lots of existing Maxis items (kind of like a “remix” of the original), and there are also a number of re-Lots out there of custom buildings as well.
Dependencies: These are external support files that a given download also requires, in order to ensure proper functionality and appearance. The most common types of dependencies are Prop Packs and Texture Packs, which will be shared by many different BATs and Lots. There are some files that may be an expansion to a base set (e.g. Canal Sets, Park Trails, Airports, etc.), and will require the base set as a dependency. There’s also the matter of re-Lots, which, often times, will entail downloading the original BAT/Lot, and removing the included .SC4Lot file, so you can use the re-Lot in its place. Dependencies should be marked on the documentation for a given file, and, in the case of the LEX at SC4 Devotion, there’s a new feature which as been rolled out for some files, that will allow you to automatically download all the dependencies that are available on-site, in one fell swoop. The main reason why dependencies exist is efficiency, using less bandwidth on both the server and client ends, and, should you pick up multiple downloads that all rely on the same dependencies, you’ll be saving hard drive space, too.
Maps: Maps are new terrains on which you can build cities and regions. Both fantasy maps and recreations of real-world topography are available in spades, and in a variety of different sizes, the largest map out there likely being drunkapple’s “The Big Kahuna”, a full-scale recreation of the big island of Hawaii, covering some 701 large city tiles. Many older maps can be generated using the game’s built-in render capacity, but this entails a lengthy rendering process (which, for larger maps, can take 2-3 hours, easily), and only has 8-bit resolution. Most maps from 2007 or later, including the works of the New Horizons Production (NHP) team and drunkapple/dobdriver, instead rely on a tool called SC4Mapper to get the terrain in game, which allows for 16-bit resolution, and builds the terrain outside the game, allowing you to immediately start playing on it once you boot up the game.
Mods: This category is a bit more nebulous, but it generally refers to things that aren’t one of the above categories, typically with an emphasis on changing how you play the game, or altering its appearance. The best-known mod out there is the Network Addon Mod (NAM), which dials in the traffic simulation (Maxis had to tune down the pathfinding before shipping the game, in order to support lower-end computers), and adds literally thousands of new options for constructing your transportation network, including ground light rail, fractional-angle networking (that is, between diagonal and orthogonal/”straight”), roundabouts and turning lanes, wider roads and one-way roads, and a new variable-width, modular highway system, among other things. The Colossus Addon Mod (CAM) rebalances the game’s RCI (Residential-Commercial-Industrial) growable system by adding new growth stages (but contrary to simulated urban legend, it is not a mod to add a bunch of buildings to the game). There’s SimMars, which changes SC4 into a “what-if” Mars colony builder. There’s also terrain mods and water mods, in case you’re tired of the game’s default neon green grass and electric blue water, and numerous smaller cosmetic and “theme” mods out there.
When used as a verb, the word “mod” in the SC4 community generally means “mod creation”, not simply adding or installing mods or content created by others to your game. Several newbies of recent time have shown up on the forums and posted threads using the phrase “I’m new to modding”, and, instead of getting installation help, they got links to threads and tools for making mods, so it’s useful to make that distinction up front, rather than assuming it’s a given.
What’s “essential”, and what other things should I take into consideration?
There’s been an active content development community for about a decade now, and as a result, there’s a lot of stuff out there. And ultimately, it depends on what kinds of cities you want to be building. Are you trying to build your own simulated New York or Paris? Are you interested in building sprawling suburbs or small rural towns? Is Hong Kong or Dubai more your speed? Or are you interested in creating some sort of unique fusion gleaned from lots of different sources? It’s all a matter of taste. There’s also different playing styles, and different “feels” in terms of game balance, that are ultimately a matter of personal preference as well.
The only mod that is universally recognized as essential, by the majority of SC4 players on the scene, is the Network Addon Mod (NAM). There’s two official, fully-supported distribution sites: ModDB and the SimCity 4 Devotion LEX (where you’ll need to be registered and logged on). ModDB doesn’t require registration, but SC4 Devotion will get you a quicker download. It’s a roughly 300MB download, and there’s really a lot of stuff in there. I’ll have more details on getting going with the NAM in a future post. And if you’re curious to get a peek at the documentation for it before downloading, you’ll find links here.
You’ll hear a lot of people also discussing another “-AM”, the Colossus Addon Mod, or CAM. As I mentioned before, it is a mod developed by RippleJet of the BSC Team, which rebalances the game’s RCI simulation–there’s a lot of false information out there about it, which I’ve attempted to clarify here. It’s a popular package–and I use it myself–but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s also worth noting that you’ll need to watch what you download if you have the CAM as well. The game uses a system of “growth stages”, which are basically equivalent to densities of residents/jobs in a certain zone size. The default settings include 8 growth stages for Residentials and Commercials, and 3 for Industrials. However, there’s a wide variance out there in terms of the ranges of residents and jobs with buildings/lots at the top end of the growth stage progression–esp. Stage 7 and 8 on Residentials and Commercials, and Stage 3 on the Industrials. The CAM provides a different progression, and expands the number of available growth stages to 15 for Residentials and Commercials, 10 on Dirty, Mechanical, and High-Tech Industrials (I-D, I-M, and I-HT), and 7 on Industrial-Agriculture (I-R, the “R” standing for “resource”). And if you’re curious to read the documentation beforehand, it’s right here. It’s worth noting you can use the CAM right out of the box, without downloading anything else–it includes modified settings for many Maxis lots, meaning you can enjoy the new game balance with the game’s original content. However, do not use the CAM’s traffic plugins under any circumstance, as they have vastly inferior pathfinding to the NAM’s current batch of traffic plugins, and won’t work with many newer NAM features.
Growth stages are something you should take into consideration when deciding what buildings to download. Here’s a few rules of thumb:
- If you’re not using the CAM, anything that goes beyond Stage 8 for R and C, and above Stage 3 for I, is off-limits. These buildings will usually be marked specifically as “CAMeLots”.
- As the CAM is only available on SC4D’s LEX, virtually all the CAMeLots are only on the LEX.
- And if you are using the CAM, it’s also advisable to be careful when downloading buildings that are marked as Stage 7 or (especially) Stage 8 from anywhere other than SC4D (e.g. Simtropolis), as these are, in every case, designed for non-CAM users, and will potentially throw off the RCI simulation in your cities, should they grow.
- There’s also the matter of badly-modded buildings–if you’re downloading off an open exchange, where there’s no pre-screening process, be careful you don’t pick up a building where the stats are so skewed that they will screw up your RCI simulation, CAM or no CAM.
- If the download description on the file exchange doesn’t tell you the growth stage or other critical stats like that, stay away.
There’s also a series of “starter packs” that were released at the same time as the CAM, and much of the misinformation out there about the CAM is the result of people conflating these packs as being part of the CAM download itself. They are strictly optional, and as the CAM is now a 6-year-old mod, and there’s lots more content out there on the LEX, which is easier to download and enjoy. I’ll have more information on my top picks for starting out with the CAM in a future post.
What about money cheats?
You might hear some whispers of a supposed “Money Tree” lot download. However, it’s badly-modded, difficult to obtain, and there’s a far easier method. You’ll want to pick up the Maxis Extra Cheats DLL file. This was a file that Maxis originally used for debug purposes when developing the game, and eventually, they allowed modding pioneer Buggi to release it to the community on their behalf. Once you’ve installed it to the root Plugins folder, it enables a some rather interesting stuff. One of the things it enables is the “Moolah” cheat. Press Ctrl-X, and in the little light blue box that appears in the upper-left corner, type “Moolah”, followed by an amount (1000000, for instance), and press Enter. Your city’s cash on hand will be
augmented by changed to the amount you specified.
The “cheat” file also has a number of other non-cheat applications, such as the “DrawPaths” cheat, which many NAM Team developers (including myself) use for testing and debugging purposes, as well as diagnosing issues that users bring to us in tech support. If you run into a pathing-related issue with a NAM item, chances are that we might ask you to produce a DrawPaths screenshot. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what that nifty little file can do, and even if you find the idea of “cheating” at SC4 deplorable, it’s well worth having. You can read more about it here.
I’ll leave it at that for now, and return with follow ups–if any readers out there have any questions, I’m happy to at help. Happy city building!