Back From Simulation City: Inside Maxis’ Glass Box

By Lewie Procter on March 8th, 2012 at 11:00 am.


Did you hear? Maxis are doing the Sim City thing again. As Sim City 2000 was one of the games that made me, I’ve been cautiously vibrating with excitement ever since the news of the new Sim City first started spreading, but now I’m left with questions like “Is the new Sim City going to do anything clever with the internet”, “Will it have any modding support?” and “just how do those curvy roads work?”. But no longer, as Maxis took to the stage at GDC to spill at least some of the beans regarding the tech that’s powering Sim City: The New One, the brand new Glass Box engine, and here’s the grisly details:

Andrew Willmott, Lead Architect of Glass Box, told us how Glass Box is an engine that Maxis have built with scope beyond just Sim City:

Glass Box is a new data driven simulation that we have built for Maxis style games, not just Sim City, but things like Sim Copter, Sim Tower.

It’s our bet for the future as a PC driven studio.

We wanted to build a system that we could use to build Sim games quickly, iterate them quickly, and find out what is fun about them quickly.

At this point my vibrating excitement got a little less cautious.

The basis for Glass Box is a simulation of resources (Wood, Water, Pollution, Labour hours), Units (Houses, Factories, Shops, Workplaces), Maps (Uniform grids laid over the world, featuring Coal, oil, forests and land value).

Everything that is being simulated is visualised, and everything that’s visualised is being simulated. They had most of the graphics turned off, and they were using a debug interface, but it’s already looking like they’re onto something.

The quote on how many units (people and vehicles) the game will support is “Tens of thousands”. Each with their own self contained simulation logic, and all can be moving at once.

Gone are the ugly zig-zagged diagonal lines for roads, pipes and power cables, Sim City will feature “fully 3d spline-based paths”, so it looks like even when you’re trying to arrange things on uneven terrain, in awkward directions, everything will still look pretty and organised.

Sim City is going to be using the internet for a few clever features too. It’s “Fully online buzzword compliant”. It’s got support for cloud saves, you can access statistics about what’s going on in your game world from a browser, the multiplayer is based on the asynchronous server model: So you can interact with friends and enemies without needing to coordinate to be playing at the same time.


If your internet lockdown bullshit alarm is raised at this point, you’re not alone. However:

If the internet goes out for a bit, you can still play.

And:

To be clear: We’re still very focussed on supporting a focussed single player experience.

Reassuring, although the “A bit” is a little worrying. Hopefully it’s not going to be locked down by any always online DRM, but at least they’ve confirmed it’s not going to drop you out of your game if your router’s on the fritz.

When asked about mods, they were just a little cagey, and couldn’t reveal any details but said:

We’re huge fans of our modding comunity. If you look at how Sim City 4 is still relveant today, it’s mostly because of the mods. We’ve designed things to be modable, and We’re using the same patching system from Sim City 3000 and 4. Glass Box is built to be modable.

We got to see a bit of footage, and it’s certainly looking quite nice. The art style seems quite sims inspired, there’s a lot of detail up close: We saw individual boxes representing production output on factory conveyor belts, dust particles flying all over the place when a new building is placed. We even saw the camera zoom in from quite far out really fast. Lovely stuff.

That’s your lot from me, but the new Sim City is shaping up to be rather interesting. The developers are holding a Reddit ima today from 8pm – 11pm UK time, 12pm – 3pm Pacific time. Go hassle them about Llamas.

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62 Comments »

  1. Seboss says:

    You see these cities from Maxis? They’ve got curved roads. Curved. Roads.

    Wait, did it get old already?

    • RedViv says:

      I once was a straight road like you. But then I took a new engine to the corner.

      No, really doesn’t work written out loud. Nor do I write anything out loud.

    • westyfield says:

      I’m Commander Shepard and this is my favourite road in the city-del.

    • roryok says:

      Do you get to install those Cloud DRM games often? What am I saying, of course you don’t

    • Oof says:

      What was that hospital sim again? No, wait, that was Bullfrog. That, and this, are the only sims I’m kind of interested in.

      Edit: I didn’t mean to reply to Seboss, but since I’m here… @roryok What’s the matter? Did someone steal your game?

    • Wreckdum says:

      INCOMING PATIENT WITH BLOATY HEAD! HAHAHA I loved Theme Hospital. Where the hell is the remake for that?

    • psyk says:

      Theme Hospital dosen’t need a remake its still the same great game and still runs fine, a remake would ruin it.

    • somini says:

      http://code.google.com/p/corsix-th/
      Open Source implementation of Theme Hospital. It’s still starting, but it has promise.

  2. Moni says:

    Yes, but can those fully-3d splines be reticulated?

    Also, I don’t see why they would need DRM. They have Origin now, isn’t that inherently DRM in the way that Steam is?

    • RedViv says:

      That’s basically it. I think my purchase here will depend on the always-on requirements, once they are detailed. I really don’t care about the DLC scheme going on, as long as it doesn’t hinder modding.

    • Zeewolf says:

      “Yes, but can those fully-3d splines be reticulated?”

      My purchase depends on this very question.

    • marach says:

      Actually Origin is not inherent DRM they have to actually turn on the DRM part of origin. Most games you buy on there (ME3 and BF3 being the exceptions atm) still run with origin uninstalled.

    • thestage says:

      when I saw the word “splines” in the article I got all excited to make this very joke. I was a fool to think it wouldn’t have already been done.

  3. GallonOfAlan says:

    Not long now until tilt-shift becomes as annoying as shaky-cam.

    • Zanchito says:

      I actually like the tilt-shift effect for this. It’s like my own toy city, without the clutter or the need for space. A toggle to have it on/off just like motion blur in FPS games and everybody should be happy. Even if ti’s an INI toggle, I don’t mind.

      The latest ANNO games have a tilt-shift visualization mode and it’s charming!

    • Llewyn says:

      @Zanchito: Agreed. In general I’d say that tilt-shift became that annoying a long time ago, but there are situations where it’s appropriate and works really well, particularly to represent the things we’re playing with as toys. I love it in Forza photos for this reason – unlike serious racing sims it’s basically playing with toy cars, after all.

  4. samsharp99 says:

    Glass Box is a new data driven simulation that we have built for Maxis style games, not just Sim City, but things like Sim Copter, Sim Tower.

    This makes me very excited indeed. Considering my current feelings about a severe lack of simulation and management games (which I will get around to formalising into some form of blog post or something) – hopefully this new engine will bring new life to Sim City and the Sim (Insert Object to be Simulated/Managed Here) franchise and genre as, quite frankly, there has been very little in the last 10 years or so.

    I definitely want to see a new Sim Tower game. That was definitely one of my favourites.

    • ZephyrSB says:

      Oh yes – the mere suggestion of a new SimTower that their comment strongly hints at gets me all giddy.

    • terry says:

      Yes, absolutely this. I was very taken with SimTower (and indeed most of the quirky sim-spinoffs that Maxis put out) and anything that expands on the concept excites me very much. Somehow merging the detailed world simulation of Dwarf Fortress with the visual approachability of the Sim games would make me giddy.

    • Khemm says:

      That’s actually the best part, that they admitted this will be the engine they’re going to build more games with. Right now, we’re severly lacking “sim” games, Anno being a semi-sim aside.

    • Harlander says:

      Yessssss, new SimTower, give it to meeeeeeeee

    • Hexidecimal says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who is thrilled at the thought of GlassBox being used to facilitate a new SimTower game. The original is one of my all time favorite. I would be thrilled to have a new entry in that series.

    • The First Door says:

      Yeah, a new Sim Tower game would be fantastic. Was always much more of a fan of Sim Tower than Sim City… although apparently I should never be allowed to plan the placement and control of elevators, ever.

    • psyk says:

      “Right now, we’re severly lacking “sim” games, Anno being a semi-sim aside.”?

      All those crappy eastern sims I keep seeing on here must be my dreams then.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      When I read “Sim Tower”, my immediate reaction was to squeeeeee mentally.

      I can only imagine how awesome a new Sim Tower would be.

  5. Joc says:

    Sounds like they’ve really gone to town on that engine.

    • Zanchito says:

      I hope they build it right.

    • faelnor says:

      Unless they give in to the sirens of commercial appeal.

    • JB says:

      I’m glad it didn’t get blocked in the initial stages, looks like they’re going down the right road with this one.

    • roryok says:

      I’d still like to see some concrete evidence that there’s going to be a new sim copter game after this

    • Unaco says:

      Yeah, sounds like the Engine architecture and construction are well suited to this game.

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      I hope they’ve got the FUNDing they need. It would be a disaster otherwise.

    • edwardoka says:

      I need mayor screenshots before I can make up my mined about it.

  6. BobsLawnService says:

    I predict that you will need to connect to other player cities to get the most out of yours. So those people wanting a strictly single player experience will be screwed.

    • Consumatopia says:

      I’m not sure that would be so much worse than the SimCity 4 “region” system.

      • cw8 says:

        Simcity 4′s region system wasn’t so bad and it’s all singleplayer. You could copy existing cities and paste them into the regions to boost your main city’s demands anyways.

  7. Theory says:

    We got to see a bit of footage, which I’ve included blurry photographs of

    Not seeing them…

  8. milkmansrevenge says:

    I used to get up early before school to play Sim City 2000 on the family PC :)

  9. Bluebreaker says:

    3 DLCs already anounced. Have fun.

    • RedViv says:

      You’re going to leave that under every article about this game from now on, aren’t you?

    • RakeShark says:

      You know, if they give us new versions of SimTower and SimCopter as DLC to this new SimCity at DLC prices? Fuck yeah I’ll have fun.

      • David_VI says:

        It would be amazing if this could be like how Sim Copter was with Sim City 2000. Ah Please Maxis.

  10. Frosty840 says:

    So long as the clever things it’s doing with the internet doesn’t include Sims 3′s current “Spam something trivial to Facebook every ten seconds of gameplay, or so” I’ll be kind of happy with that…

    It’ll be saving to the Origin cloud, of course, and there’ll be something in the EULA that lets EA phone your local police station up in they think you’re treating your simCitizens badly…

    And then there’ll be an Anti-NPC Terrorisation Agreement (ANTA), which will compel the police to take your PC away if videogame companies make the accusation that you’re not playing the game the way they want you to…

    Sorry, cynicism kicked in there for a moment.

  11. Bluerps says:

    Hm. It does sound amazing, but doesn’t this also mean that cities are limited to a few ten thousands inhabitants? What does the engine do, when the player tries to expand his city above the limits that it can handle?

    • SquidInABox says:

      It sounds like it’s going to be heavily region based like Sim City 4. Given one of the big complaints levelled at SC4 was the small size of the cities this could bite them in the arse again. People want to be able to build a city with 500k sims without having to switch between regions constantly.

      Doesn’t bother me much because I’m used to it in SC4 but it did take me several years of casual play in that game to get there.

    • Bluerps says:

      Yeah, that could be their solution for that problem. I wasn’t a big fan of the regions in SC4, but I could live with them, so that would be ok, I guess…

  12. gwyrdd says:

    @Oof

    Oh, but I wish there would be a new Theme Hospital. Bullfrog were so immaculate in their day.

  13. krisanto says:

    I hope that they won’t reduce the size of the land area. That was one of my problems with the recent releases of Tropico. I kinda felt that the first tropico had a bigger land mass than the new ones. Or perhaps it’s just because of the slightly changed mechanics of the structure placement on the grid.

  14. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    I’d love to see them take another stab at SimSafari. It was a pretty interesting concept: build a tourist resort, manage an ecosystem (predator/prey relationships, drought conditions, etc.) that is healthy and which tourists can visit, and hire people from a small village who will have their lives improved by working with you to create a sustainable tourism-based economy rather than poaching.

    Unfortunately, it was a little too shallow for its own good. I think there’s a market for a sort-of-educational title, especially after the success of Fate of the World.

  15. rockman29 says:

    I’m sort of worried that from this news it means we will be getting a small scale SimCity. I do like the micromanaging, but on PCGamer’s preview I was wondering why a SimCity game would need sounds for every action of every pedestrian all the time, that doesn’t make sense unless

    I mean I could understand the sounds being indicators of success/failure of things, like Sims going into shops and buying things, but for every Sim? I’m glad Maxis wants to put in visual and auditory cues for us, but I hope it’s not at the expense of other things. Charts, no matter what they say, help inordinate amounts to understand something specific very fast.

    Is the game really going to simulate up to 6 million sims? Which is what a city can grow into, or even more, in past SimCity games? What scale are we talking about here?

    I am all of excited, anxious, and confused, but that should be normal for this stage of revealing of the game I think.

  16. rockman29 says:

    “We got to see a bit of footage, which I’ve included blurry photographs of, and it’s certainly looking quite nice.”

    I can’t find the pictures :(

  17. Dizzard says:

    So if we play in multiplayer with our friends….

    Does that mean our town will be simulated even when we’re not playing? Since our friends might be playing the game and might want to interact with our own city in some way.

    I’m not sure how I’d feel if I tried to interact with somebodies city and it said they were offline so the entire city is just completely dormant doing absolutely nothing.

    • SquidInABox says:

      The city wouldn’t be dormant. If it’s anything like SC4 then it will be generating/satisfying demand for homes/commerce/industry etc via the regional links that exist and giving you water/power etc if you have any deals setup for that.

      The city will still operate but the demand it creates and satisfies won’t change while it’s not being tinkered with.

  18. Dreforian says:

    Finally, the tools necessary to rebuild the greatest Sim ever, Sim Ant! No longer will our virtual ant colonies resemble the 3d pipes screensavers of old!

  19. SquidInABox says:

    Found on a German video site: http://www.hardwareclips.com/tags/GlassBox Footage of the Demonstration of the glassbox simulation engine.

    • JaminBob says:

      Nice link!

      Pleeease don’t let the origin/ea/drm thing ruin this for me.

      • The Tupper says:

        Nice link. After watching it, though, I’m not worried about Origin or DRM, I’m worried that it will take a bona fide mainframe supercomputer to make those micro-level algorithms scale up.

  20. Sander Bos says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kztNWdhRdnw

    Looks beyond nice. Never really a fan of Sim City though.

  21. gamma says:

    We’re not totaly clear yet, regarding Offline solo play:

    Ocean Quigley’s quote

    “Yeah, like SC4, you can build out a region by yourself, and make all of the cities serially. There are lots of players who just want to control their own world, and they don’t want anybody to interfere with it. But even those solo players are going to be participating in the flow of resources that constitute the core of the games economy – the economic landscape that they’re operating in will be shaped by the actions of other players, even if they are only playing solo. In addition, there will be regional challenges and opportunities that you’ll be competing against other regions for. So you can play by yourself. More social players can play with their friends and accomplish more, faster, but that’s their choice.”