A 10-year break can make one expect a lot from a game franchise, and sometimes that expectation is the hope that the formula that made that series so well-known and loved is not messed around with or lost. For the highly anticipated return of SimCity, much of the project feels like Maxis is finding that rare balance of sticking to that formula while using new technologies to reinvent SimCity at the same time.
It’s difficult to picture any other studio to handle a SimCity reboot other than Maxis. Although Will Wright is not involved in the game, the team brings some immeasurably valuable experience from veterans who have worked on SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, and SimCity 4. We recently took part in a studio visit to Maxis, and you couldn’t find a more enthusiastic group of developers, and they had the goods to back up that excitement.
One of our hosts during this visit was 17-year Maxis veteran and SimCity creative director Ocean Quigley. His starting point in discussing the game’s visual direction was in citing tilt-shift camera work as a huge inspiration. While this type of camera movement has been around for decades, it gained a great deal of popularity in recent years for its head-turning depth of field effect (eg. The Henley Royal Regatta crew race in The Social Network).
As Ocean put it, “Tilt-shift gives surroundings a sense of being large but intimate. Time is sped up, and we’re much more aware of its flow on the larger scale.” It almost feels like tilt-shift was made for SimCity. It was also unsurprising to hear Ocean cite model railroads as the second visual inspiration, “Model railroads abstract out the boring bits, focusing on activity that is actually happening.”
Yet a promising visual direction would go to waste if there wasn’t a solid engine powering a game like SimCity. For Maxis, this brand new, from-the-ground-up engine is known as GlassBox. One of its major capabilities is essentially making each object in SimCity a simulation in itself.
Ocean and his team went on by showing a traffic simulation, packing a simple road layout with numerous cars, enough to cause a traffic jam. Each car is both a working car and a statistical approximation object. It might sound obvious, but giving cars interior mapping gives a sense of volume that a non-3D model car would lack.
This then led to an example of the importance of good road design and how it affects the circulation of a city. A fire in a building was triggered, (thanks to a Sim arsonist) which resulted in alerting a nearby fire truck. Unfortunately, it wasn’t close enough and was briefly held back from the scene by heavy traffic. And yes, people died, as evidenced by the flaming Sims running out of the building.
The depth of GlassBox also stretches to the modularity of buildings, that a school isn’t just a single structure and how the placement of structures adjacent to main building (eg. gym, lab, etc.) will affect the flow of foot traffic and efficiency. As corny as it sounds, Maxis clearly has a mission to ensure that users will only be limited to their imagination, if the GlassBox-powered user interface has anything to say about it. They illustrated how easy it was to lay down a strip of road, and a curved one at that. Within seconds a residential area was created. Now it will be up to the user to make sure there’s proper waste management to take care of the garbage and help maintain happiness among the populace.
People also love their electricity, which led to another feature of the user interface: the ease of seeing and working with a city’s power grid. This was illustrated by placing a coal power plant, one of a number of power supplying possibilities. By changing the view settings to reveal the power grid, you can see how electricity from the coal plant was being distributed and what areas were not powered. The simple solution to a disconnected part of town was to add a connecting road and plop another set of power lines.
Ocean also briefly touched upon skyscraper physics simulations and how these building react differently compared to two-story structures in the presence of a disaster. The folks at Maxis were having a lot of fun throwing generic white spheres at the city to show a bit of destruction, although they weren’t ready just yet to reveal how disasters will properly look in this new SimCity.
“Nothing is ever ‘correct’.” was the main message from Stone Librande, SimCity’s lead designer. His portion of our studio visit was a reminder of the importance of every Sim's wealth level, the degree of population density in every area, and how it’s not a race to make every piece of land a high value commodity.
If too much of the land is expensive, how many within the low income bracket can you keep? Without those folks, where will you find janitors and assembly line workers? Stone’s point was that everything is a trade off. You might want to recreate Silicon Valley but it will most likely take more than high-tech industries and a highly educated workforce to sustain such a metropolis.
Beyond the GlassBox, an equally important factor into the reinvention of SimCity is the inclusion of multiplayer. The benefit of this 10-year break has given Maxis time to learn a lot of multiplayer best practices, whether it’s the lessons from The Sims Online to the integration of shared goals and achievements in The Sims. The latter will surely be a prime motivator to support other players’ cities. Or will Maxis actually add adversarial rewards?
If the prospect of having a crime-ridden, polluted wasteland only a bridge away from your prospering utopia sounds scary, then I suppose you can simple play offline or better yet, meet the challenges of such regional diversity. Everyone online is connected, complete with a global market that is user-controlled and isn’t an auction house. Everything is subject to and affected by the powers of supply and demand.
If everybody decides to sell oil and no one buys it, prices go down. If only a few folks sell oil and everyone buys it, prices go up. You’ll have to ask yourself if you’ll be the versatile capitalist who’ll jump on the next market scarcity or will you focus on one specific industry regardless of the direction the global SimCity market? Will you focus on being the number one coal capital, putting yourself atop the infographic-style leaderboards?
If so, you’ll have to anticipate how the pollution will affect the water, which will ultimately lead to sick residents, the same folks who go to work at the coal factories. All this micromanaging is what draws many to this series. There’s certainly a great sense of satisfaction in planning 10 steps ahead and having your city operate in harmony (for the most part).
In looking at the unprecedented depth that GlassBox offers, it’s easy to picture this new SimCity to be the first in the series to offer a positively demanding pace that we’re only used to seeing in real-time strategy games.