What’s Up With NAM 37, And With MacOS High Sierra/Mojave Support?

I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about the future plans for the NAM, given the relative quietude in recent months, and also questions from the small-but-ardent Mac fanbase as to what will be happening with support for the newer versions of macOS, so I thought I would put together this Q&A to hopefully shed some light on the latest developments.

1. So, when is NAM 37 being released?

The answer to that is pretty much the same as it always is for the NAM: there is no scheduled release date or timeline for release.  We like to surprise people.

And if anyone wonders why that is, remember back 6 years ago, to March 2013.  Just a few days before the infamously disastrous launch of the 2013 “reboot” of SimCity, the NAM Team had its own infamously disastrous launch with NAM 31, which, for the first time ever, had a publicly announced release date: March 1st, 2013.  That date was chosen to re-assure the city-simulation community of the NAM Team’s commitment to SimCity 4, in the wake of a new title in the series releasing, and it also led to a rather delightful GIF-based promotional campaign, since March 1st (by US date format) happens to be 3/1.

NAM 31 Promo GIF

NAM 31 Promo GIF/wishful thinking from 2013.

The end result, however, was an unmitigated disaster.  There were some late issues that arose, prompting a lot of internal insanity, which resulted in the release actually coming a day later, on March 2nd, and it still ended up being a glitchy nightmare that required three months of non-stop bugfixing to address, and the embarrassment of having to still distribute NAM 30 (yuck!) for a time.  The whole experience only served to reinforce the merits of not announcing a release date.

2. What has been responsible for the prolonged development cycle?

This development cycle has been absolutely plagued by two things: a number of inexplicable technical setbacks with the various projects that have been proposed to be part of NAM 37, and an especially heavy dose of RL (“real life”, for the uninitiated).  The development team has actually grown slightly since NAM 36, but despite this, the main core of the dev team (still in single digits in terms of membership) has, at times, been completely out of commission due to RL, which makes going forward with large projects with significant technical hurdles all that much harder.

There’s also the fact that our installer system seems to have been gradually coming apart at the seams with each successive release.  The NSIS script we’ve used some form of since NAM 31 was a very technically advanced piece of code that significantly pushes the envelope of that system, designed by a brilliant retired software engineer (z, who also designed the core of the NAM Traffic Simulator that has been in use for the past decade).  Unfortunately, he has since had to retire from SC4 modding, following NAM 32, and no one left has nearly the same level of skill with NSIS, all while the crosslinking between various options has become significantly more complicated, with all the cosmetic options and reskin mods that have been incorporated into the NAM proper.

Subsequently, the installer has become more and more capricious in terms of what it does and does not install.  The installer issues have had the unfortunate effect of causing some users to stick to old NAM versions, which is a real problem–and frankly, an existential threat–in a gaming community that is driven by the continued development of new content, especially considering the NAM’s visibility as a flagship product in the SC4 world.  Combating this “holdout” situation is a major priority going forward.

3. What does this mean for the project going forward?

We are presently exploring the feasibility a scaled-down NAM 37 release, with a much smaller slate of new features and bugfixes, for a nearer-term release, while trying to nurse our installer system along for one more cycle (primarily by not adding anything that would require complicated crosslinks).  If we were to go with a larger release, as originally planned, the development cycle could easily go on for years, potentially suffocating the project in the process.

The massive revamp of the RHW’s RUL2 override code, presently codenamed “Project 57-Mark IV” (P57-MkIV), is farther along than any of the NAM 37 content, and due to its technical requirements, is being considered for release as a public open beta, initially independent of any core NAM release.

Beyond NAM 37, barring a sudden increase in the size of the development team, the plan will likely be to move toward release cycles with smaller feature sets and fewer large-scale projects, and to try to gear whatever changes are made to the installer, packaging, and file architecture to be conducive to this approach.  There are a lot of potential options on the table as far as how to accomplish this.  How things go with P57-MkIV will likely inform our next move here.

4. What will happen with the Mac version of the NAM, particularly with respect to versions of macOS beyond Sierra (10.12)?

The Mac version of the NAM is effectively nothing more than the Windows installer package in a Wineskin wrapper.  At the time NAM 36 was released, the present version of macOS was Sierra (10.12), and the Wineskin was assembled on that version, on a (seldom-used) Mac Mini that happen to I own.  However, major updates to macOS have lately had a tendency to significantly complicate the operation of Wineskins built on previous versions, if they don’t break them outright, and this appears to be the case with both High Sierra (10.13) and Mojave (10.14), which Apple has released since NAM 36.

With respect to later macOS version support for the NAM, at this point in time, it will depend on what happens with the plans with NAM 37, getting my Mac Mini updated to Mojave, and also how well the NAM installer runs in a Wineskin on Mojave.

Apple’s plans to completely end support for 32-bit apps in the as-of-yet-unnamed macOS 10.15, rumored to release in Fall 2019, is also a major complication on the horizon.  Aspyr has announced that it is evaluating the situation regarding its 32-bit ports, and trying to determine the feasibility of converting those ports to become 64-bit apps, but it is unclear at this point if SimCity 4 will be one of the titles that makes the leap.

If they do decide to create a 64-bit Mac port of SimCity 4, it would potentially become the superior version of the game in a key area.  32-bit apps can only address 4 gigabytes of RAM, whereas with 64-bit apps, the theoretical limit is measured in exabytes (1 exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes), though different OSes may have lower caps coded in them (macOS 10.9 and later uses a 128GB cap, and depending on the edition, Windows 10 runs from 128 to 512GB).  The memory limit, and the single-thread/core restriction, are the main performance caps on SC4.  EA is very, very unlikely to convert the Windows version to 64-bit, so this is the only foreseeable way that could happen at present.

However, if they decide not to go forward with conversion to 64-bit, the Mac version of SimCity 4 would be rendered completely inoperable with macOS 10.15.  The two potential scenarios couldn’t be more different in outcome.

It should be noted that no one presently on the NAM Team actively runs SC4 on a Mac, which is a large part of the reason that our ability to provide technical support with Mac-specific issues has remained virtually non-existent.  There are also very, very few SC4 modding tools out there that run on a Mac, and none that are equivalent to ilive’s Reader, which is the main program we use in creating the NAM.  Diagnosing and fixing Mac-specific NAM issues is, as a result, extraordinarily difficult, and requires a tedious process of ferrying files between Windows and Mac systems/partitions, unless one has the wherewithal to code their own tools (which memo did back in 2014 for his personal use–an effort without which there probably wouldn’t be a Mac version, since a file encoding issue prior to then resulted in CTDs when running the NAM on an Intel Mac).

The installer also happens to be a 32-bit app at present.  We are, as mentioned above, examining what all will happen with our installer and packaging setup after NAM 37, so Aspyr’s decision with regards to their SimCity 4 port is something we will carefully monitor.

5. I want to help.  Are there any tutorials out there?

There are some tutorials around–mostly on SC4 Devotion (both in the NAM How-Tos and Tutorials Subforum and on the SC4 Encyclopaedia), but they are on the older side, missing images in some cases, and not particularly up-to-date in others.  If there is a specific area you are interested in potentially learning, however, we are generally happy to answer questions.  Our main development board is over at SC4 Devotion, and that’s probably the quickest way to get answers to any questions you may have.