Why Old NAM Versions Are Immediately Discontinued (Spoiler Alert: They’re Rubbish)

The NAM Team has, for longer than I’ve been a part of it (this next February will mark 14 years for me), had a cardinal rule with respect to distribution: only the most recent version is to be available for download and eligible for technical support. We’ve had a few people over the years question us over this policy–including some recently–so I felt it prudent to explain why we’ve had it all these years, and why we have no intention of changing it, compiled from some of my recent posts and replies on the matter.

To be blunt, speaking as someone who is on the credits as an active developer for every release since NAM 21:

Old NAM Versions Are Rubbish.

And if they aren’t rubbish when compared to the current release by any reasonable comparison, then we’re doing something wrong.

This, of course, begs the question: why are old NAM Versions rubbish, and why are we so opposed to their continued existence out in the wild?

The number one reason for our embargo on old NAM releases is, of course, technical support. We’re an all-volunteer team producing a freeware product–and for the past five years, a pretty small team at that. The reason we do this is because we enjoy expanding and improving the array of transportation network content in SimCity 4. Technical support is a responsibility that comes with the territory, but our goal is to minimize our need to provide it to the greatest extent possible, such that we can focus on the labor of love that is developing new versions. To that end, we’ve strictly limited those responsibilities to the most recent version, and go to great lengths with our testing routines (which have really stepped up this year) to ensure that it is a solid product, fixing many bugs and glitches that existed in previous versions in the process.

While, for instance, Microsoft might keep support for old versions of Windows going for a few years, in those cases:

(a) the user of the product paid for it

(b) upgrades to the newest major version usually come at a cost

(c) being a large company, they have paid support staff.

Even with larger open-source projects that might offer “Long-Term Support” (LTS) for old versions, they have a larger staff that can devote some resources to support, and some of those involved in development and/or support might even be getting paid for their involvement. None of this is true of the NAM or the NAM Team.

Why can’t you just make them available, but with a note that they aren’t eligible for support?

Our long history in the SC4 community has shown us that if a file is available, someone will ask for tech support for it. And as evidenced by this recent thread asking for NAM 36 support (some four months after it stopped being supported), even then, it may not stop people. I’ll also note, NAM 36 has a notoriously broken installer, which can occasionally silently skip major files–including the NAM Controller itself–making it that much more of a problem. (Those problems, of course, led to us changing to our current Java-based installer.)

Additionally, back in the early days of my tenure on the NAM Team, when NAM 21 was launched in June 2007, one major site ended up being slow on the uptake, due to their file handling requiring anything larger than 10MB to be hand-uploaded by the webmaster. The result: a rash of users mixing and matching bits of NAM 20 with things that required NAM 21, and wondering why their menu buttons didn’t work and gave them red arrows. Dealing with “red arrow” tech support was basically a full-time job until that site updated their NAM download to NAM 21. And “red arrow” issues remained a nuisance until we went back to the “Monolithic” approach with the notorious NAM 31.

Simply put, even with warnings, old versions are tech support liability, which take time away from the NAM Team’s time spent making new content, and furthering the longevity of the SC4 community in the process.

I’ll also note the fact that the NAM Team does not keep an official archive of old versions. While some individual members may have some lying around on their personal hard drives, with regards to our private file exchange, old NAM versions are thrown out–just like rubbish. Since returning to the “Monolithic NAM” with NAM 31 in 2013, NAM downloads have typically run in the 300-700MB range, with more recent releases being on the upper end of that range (our new installer isn’t as compressed). We have limits on our file exchange space, and old NAM versions would instantly eat it up, for no real benefit.

The only real long-term exception we’ve made to this policy has been with regards to translations–in large part because we are not responsible for providing technical support for them. Hence why it’s still possible to download a German version of NAM 30, and a Spanish version of NAM 17 (actually predating the addition of Roundabouts and Diagonal Streets to the mod, and before there was an installer). Those are, for those languages, the most recent versions.

Ideally, we’d like to have a variety of up-to-date translations of NAM contents and documentation available, making all the great additions of recent releases more accessible to the international community. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been possible for awhile now, as we simply don’t have the resources.

But aren’t older versions easier to use?

This is a myth, through and through. NAM development cycles are not only intended to add more features to the mod, but also, to improve the general user experience.

While the new installer does require Java and the 4GB Patch (which, I might add, had user prompts to install in NAM 32 through 36), which can pose an entry barrier for some, it also eliminates the “installer skipping files” issue that plagued the latter releases with the old installer, and also vastly simplified the installation process for the small-but-very ardent userbase running the game on macOS.

The move away from the old-style puzzle pieces to draggable items and FLEX pieces (individual FLEX pieces are able to handle functions that would require upwards of a dozen old-style puzzle pieces) is also allowing us to provide users with shorter TAB Loops (and eventually, fewer and more streamlined menu buttons). This means that the user is getting more functionality, but with fewer menu items to navigate, subverting the notion that expansion means more complexity. I’ll note, we haven’t added a single old-style puzzle piece to the NAM in over 5 years.

Old NAM releases aren’t necessarily simpler, and indeed, if one goes back to the pre-Monolithic releases, the process involves running multiple installers, and making sure you’re using the correct versions of various plugins with the correct NAM version in order to get everything up and running. Go much farther back than that, and many basic features that NAM users take for granted today–like Roundabouts and Diagonal Streets–didn’t even exist, and manual install was required.

What about features I used in my old cities?

There may be some users who have complained about features “going away” in successive releases, but this is largely a myth. We go to great lengths to ensure that content built with previous versions will work the same or better with the latest version, only breaking that continuity in cases where providing legacy support is simply no longer feasible, or when old features are found in further investigation to be outright broken.

For example, in the late-00s, the old “10x commute” and similar options for the traffic simulator were removed from the NAM, because they were found to not work as advertised. We also killed the Auto Road Turn Lanes with NAM 31, after finding that their implementation would effectively prevent a lot of exciting new features–like Draggable Fractional Angle Roads, Draggable Road Viaducts, and the Network Widening Mod–from being able to operate in a reliable and stable manner.

With NAM 37 and beyond, we have pulled out support for the base Maxis Rail, and for some cosmetic reskin mods that had some semblance of a userbase (the Bullet Train Mod and the Alternate El-Rail), and haven’t yet offered up a suitable replacement for the users who are not on board with the RRW and/or stock Monorail and El-Rail. This is in part due to our needing to prioritize the solution to the existential threat to the NAM Team–runaway development cycles, like what we had with NAM 37. Now that we’ve solved that, we’re able to return to that issue.

Fair Points (and a Solution That Isn’t Rubbish Old NAM Versions)

The fair points that can be brought up are (a) the number of options in the installer (which may be complex to unselect properly to get a more basic installation), and (b) the technical requirements (the larger default NAM Controller requiring the 4GB Patch and a 64-bit OS, requiring users with less RAM and/or on 32-bit OSes to manually compile a Controller themselves).

However, treating old NAM versions as a solution for these users with old NAM versions is foisting upon them all the bugs and inefficiencies of that rubbish.  If this userbase is indeed on the newbie/novice end of the experience scale, as speculated, they’re going to want tech support, and they’re not going to get it with old NAM versions.

So, what is the non-rubbish solution? We’ve been discussing the prospect of a “Lite” version of the NAM. Effectively, “NAM Lite” would be a stripped-down, basic version of the most recent NAM, which would be eligible for tech support, since it’s operating on the same “core” as the full-blast NAM. The matter of just what would go into “NAM Lite” is still an open question, however.

The idea for it would be for it to be something that doesn’t require the 4GB Patch. Most likely, that would mean a very limited RHW, if any RHW at all. It’d also probably mean Maxis Rail instead of RRW, and no MHO. It’s not going to be something designed for advanced/power NAM users.

The prospect of additional “tiers” (i.e. between “Lite” and “Full”, and possibly below “Lite”) is not off the table, either, provided there’s a demonstrated need for it, and the process of assembling these “tiers” doesn’t prove to be a colossal pain in the rear end (which has been one of the concerns expressed with “NAM Lite”–we’re no longer dealing with just one product). We’ve finally dialed things in such that we can release quicker, and the last thing we want to do is inadvertently put the brakes on that.

-Tarkus

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