We Take A First Look At: SimCity

By Mark Wallace on March 28th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.

Still all concept art at this point, for some reason.
Pity the simulated citizens who will live in SimCity, the reboot of the franchise of the same name, due from the god-game guys at Maxis sometime in 2013. No easy life for them, no appearing as if by magic on the streets of your town and scurrying back and forth between the busy districts of the day. No – instead, life will be a precarious crap-shoot of existential uncertainty, in which no satisfaction, however small, may be taken for granted, and no need may ever be filled in more than momentary fashion. And, as if it need be said, in the game.

“It’s not like each Sim has a specific job that’s his, and a specific house that’s his,” says lead designer Stone Librande, like this knowledge might mitigate the situation. Instead, each Sim that will inhabit your thriving metropolis (or crime-ridden housing project, as the case may be) will wake up each morning and start the day by looking for a new job – if they’re not sick, that is, in which case they’ll look for a hospital. And every evening, that same Sim will leave work and take a moment to look for a new place to live. Filling out employment applications and being interviewed by already-unbearable roommates every single day. Oh, the humanity!

But it’s in that tale of quotidian ennui – repeated thousands, or tens or hundreds of thousands of times per simulated day, once for every Sim in your city – that the real difference between this game and previous iterations of SimCity lies. For, when you finally become mayor of your own little cleverly named town at some point next year that can’t come soon enough, each of the Sims that moves into it will be its own discrete software agent, running its own little simulation of its own little life. Each car will be its own little simulated car, with a specific origin and destination. Each coal-burning power plant will have its own little simulated coal hopper, which you’ll see fill up as a delivery truck arrives (running its own little simulation of itself), and then slowly empty out as the plant burns coal. And each traffic jam will be not a simulated traffic jam, but a real traffic jam, the result not of a subroutine somewhere that decided it was time for a traffic jam, but of too many individually simulated Sims driving too many individually simulated cars along too narrow a stretch of simulated road.

“What you see is what we sim,” says the cleverly named Ocean Quigley, the team’s creative director. Rather than a top-down simulation in which the system itself might call for a traffic jam animation on a stretch of road between a high-density residential area and a high-density commercial area, the new SimCity is “built from the simulation up,” Quigley says. “All the simulation behavior is embedded in the individual buildings and objects.” The result (it’s hoped) is a world that is finally more than the sum of its sim parts.

SimCity has always been a gloriously fun exercise in spinning up a big complicated interconnected machine – and then tearing it all down again via earthquakes and UFOs. But it has also always been a game about that machine, a matter of understanding which levers controlled which chutes, and which buttons produced which widgets. If the levers dictated a system in equilibrium, the simulation produced happy Sims. If the settings spat out unhappiness and neglect, the simulation called for a fire or slum.

The new SimCity will turn this situation on its head. Rather than the city’s overall condition trickling down to determine what kind of animations you see, individual simulations determine individual animations, and the condition of the city itself is merely the condition of all of its inhabitants. Much like Dwarf Fortress (which Quigley says he hasn’t played much, though he cites it as an inspiration), it’s a god game that decidedly gives the power to the “people”.

The task of simulating all the Sims, cars, buildings, businesses, air currents and river flows (don’t put your agricultural runoff upstream of your residential areas, as groundwater pollution could send some Sims to the hospital — if there is one) is made possible by Maxis’s new GlassBox engine, designed to run not only SimCity but possible future games as well. GlassBox also brings full 3D-ness to SimCity for the first time — including fully destructible buildings that shatter nicely under the impact of enormous ping-pong balls flung from the sky. (Final decisions on available disasters have not yet been made. The smart money says ping-pong balls don’t make it to gold.) Leaving sprites behind has also brought with it the most hotly requested feature of the franchise’s history: that’s right, curvy roads! Nuff said.

Curvy or not, those roads will run past buildings that are a bit different to past SimCity infrastructure as well, and not just in their destructibility. Rather than dialing tax rates and maintenance spending up and down to determine what resources to direct toward various industries and services, most buildings in the new SimCity will be highly modular, and will be managed on an individual basis. Want more police protection for your richest residents? Add a heliport to the police station on the east side of town. Can’t afford so many cops in the poorer neighborhoods? Close down the extra jail cells you built last year. (But watch out for the arsonist’s van that will show up from time to time.)

Some of this will be directed by your Sims themselves, who will occasionally offer you optional missions to complete that can be used to guide you through the game, in addition to the news reports that will remain a fixture. Build a big enough coal industry, and a coal baron may waltz into town and offer you the chance to have his “Big Business” (akin to a multinational, see below) open its HQ in your city, for instance.

While the new SimCity will be the most granular yet it will also work on a broader level than ever before, due to the introduction of a multiplayer mode that’s intended to bring a new kind of play to a franchise that’s older than many of the 23-year-olds reading this article – and all of the 22-year-olds. In multiplayer mode, your city will be one of several – or several hundred – in a shared region. While cities won’t start out connected, the winds blowing in from SmudgeVille may actually pollute the skies above your carefully greened YouTopia. And if you do care to build some roads between the two, watch out: you may actually find smudgy SmudgeVille workers commuting in to take your higher-paying jobs.

Multiplayer does present some fascinating possibilities for SimCity. A new class of industry, the “Big Business,” can trade goods on the regional market. And if you’re connected to one of your neighbouring regional cities, you can make direct player-to-player transactions as well. The “what you see is what we sim” rule applies to trade as well: the road system between cities is crucial, Librande says, because trade actually flows via trucks between the cities in question. Power lines can be built as well. If YouTopia is producing surplus energy, you can sell some to SmudgeVille, which in turn can shut down some of its air-polluting power plants and open some casinos to generate cash.

This kind of “city specialization” will be a key to multiplayer, Quigley says. Like everything else, it will be a bottom-up occurrence, something that will evolve naturally rather than being a top-level choice like the class of your RPG character. The SimCityState you run in multiplayer will likely fare better if you don’t try to be all industries to all workers. SimGlobalization, anyone?

While you won’t be able to have any direct effect on your neighbours’ cities, creative griefing will be a distinct possibility. While details of multiplayer remain somewhat scarce, there will be a mechanism for booting players when necessary, whether because of egregious behavior (and is that really a reason?), or because they’ve simply stopped playing.

The GlassBox engine is “built to be moddable,” according to Quigley, but Maxis aren’t yet saying when or if that function will be made available. But the fact that each entity in the game runs its own simulation system opens a whole new world of possibilities on the modding front. The GlassBox engine itself is also built in modular fashion, making it easy to add new systems, according to lead producer Kip Katsarelis. No word yet on DLC, but Katsarelis says SimCity will be as easy to update as The Sims games have been in the past.

Whether thousands of individually simulated Sims and their surroundings will add up to something more than just another SimCity game remains to be seen. But Maxis have clearly been at pains to take a franchise that has not seen a full-blown release in ten years (sorry, Societies) and give it a lot more than just a new coat of paint. Not only do they want SimCity to look and feel better than ever before, they want you to care more as well. “Your Sims have to be able to suffer in various ways,” says Quigley, not holding back on the schadenfreude. “If they’re invulnerable and don’t need you, you don’t have an emotional reason to come back to the game.” And would anything really be wrong with just another SimCity game anyway? I ask you.

Mark Wallace is individually simulated in San Francisco. And in the game.

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57 Comments »

  1. terry says:

    Maxis really do have a monopoly on daft names. I’m surprised Miles Kilo didn’t turn up to work there yet.

  2. thegooseking says:

    I hope they’re not underestimating the factor that fun is a lot harder to engineer from the bottom-up than the top-down approach. That would be a shame. ‘Emergence’ is a bit of a buzzword these days, but it does have its well-established failings, not least of which is a lack of any guarantee of interesting things happening at all, never mind interesting things happening with any kind of structure.

    Having said that, it’s not an insurmountable problem… unless you don’t know it exists. I would imagine that if anyone’s aware of it, Maxis is. But there’s always the danger that they’ve overlooked it.

    • molten_tofu says:

      Totally! The trouble with artificially created “dynamic”, “emergent” systems is that 99% of the time they go straight to a corner solution and hang out like they’ve got no better place to be.

      I remember cracking open X3: Terran Whatever and being so excited that there was an “economy”. After 5 minutes on the modding forums I learned that because they couldn’t figure out how to keep the entire universe from running out of solar cells, they just randomly reset the economy all the time. So much for a “living world”, or whatever.

      That said, the fundamental behaviors of a given Sim (or, agent) are very basic in this instance, and that may be the reason it works …when you starting adding complexity to behavior in complex systems, you start getting increasingly simple solutions. I mean seriously, wtf? Is what I said even true? It *seems* true. My head hurts.

  3. NathanH says:

    You see those Sims from SmudgeVille? They’ve got curved roads. Curved. Roads.

  4. 4026 says:

    “SimCity will be as easy to update as The Sims games have been in the past.”

    AAH! Oh, god, I just had a terrible vision of the future. Oh, also I realised I shouldn’t buy this game at release. I like to wait until I can buy all the “stuff packs” in one easy, wallet-disembowelling purchase.

  5. Cryptoshrimp says:

    Like all other renewals, I have little hope for this. DLC/Micropayments are guaranteed.

    • Kollega says:

      And that sucks huge balls. It really is too bad that EA are one of the few willing to deliver a city builder, with the only other ones i can remember being Tropico and Cities XL.

      Somehow, i think that you won’t get a whole region to build a truly huge metropolis like in SC4. And if that feature is missing, it’s not really worth picking up. What was truly remarkable about SC4, the peak of the genre, was it’s immense scale.

    • caddyB says:

      Indeed.

  6. Icyicy9999 says:

    Sounds a lot like Tropico.

    I liked Tropico.

    • Renfield says:

      Exactly my thought.

      It’s funny how Tropico’s departure from the ‘macro’ towards the ‘micro’ level of simulation is now being plugged right back into the formula it deviated from. (Broadly speaking.)

  7. AmateurScience says:

    I still play the SNES version of Sim City from time to time – it was (is) brilliant, bordering on spectacular, and worked surprisingly well with the controller.

  8. Stardog says:

    I hope it isn’t scaled down from SC4. The way these games are going is to be smaller and less in-depth, therefore shittier.

    The MP seems scaled down with more than one entire city on a map, but we’ll see how that works out.

  9. argonaut says:

    Sounds decent so far but there’s a big fundamental problem. I just don’t think the game can be better than Sim City 4, even at its best. Or if you’re into it, better than 3000. It seems to me that the genre has already been pretty much perfected, a few bugs and things notwithstanding.

    • mckertis says:

      Seriously, is there any point to build a SimCity game after SC4 ? the whole “real 3D now !!!” sensationalist factor is not worth anything, and what you got left is pure “its a new game so people will see the name in release lists” marketing plot.

  10. DevilSShadoW says:

    if it’s even remotely similar to SimCity4 then day 1 purchase. I don’t care about origin or DLC or anything. As long as the core game is there, I’m all in.

  11. Neurotic says:

    I was wondering how much they would take from Cities XL, and if or how they would acknowledge it. I think Cities did all, or most, of the things that Maxis would have done if they’d made this a few years ago – the roads, the multiplayer and so on. Of course, these are pretty basic assumptions for a city builder, and so kudos to Cities for doing them, and kudos for Maxis for embracing them at last too. All in all, I am one happy almost-40 year-old Sim City mayor. :D

  12. Kucd says:

    Well gents, SC5 is always online game, like UbiDRM.

    http://www.vg247.com/2012/03/28/simcity-to-require-always-on-internet-connection-to-origin/

    No mod support either according to the article, not at launch anyway.

    • Cinek says:

      FU*K.
      FU*K FU*K FU*K FU*K FU*K.

      And I was about to run into the store at a day of release.
      Damn you Maxis!

    • HexagonalBolts says:

      why in gods name would you tie anything to that corpse

    • Oof says:

      Sigh. Why is anyone surprised.

    • TormDK says:

      Lets put down the torches and pitch forks for a minute and use that brain of ours instead.

      Can you start games in offline mode on Origin? : Yes, you can.

      Will it therefor be an always online requirement? : No, since games can be started in offline mode in Origin – just like on Steam.

      Besides, we’re still a year off release for this title. Alot of things on Origin (As well as on Steam) will have changed by then.

      In short – relax and enjoy the simulation.

      • Kucd says:

        No mod support either, at launch anyway though the article hints at a gimped mod support at best if it happens.

        “EA Maxis also said while the game wouldn’t launch with mod support, the potential for said support was still a probability later on down the line. “

      • Kucd says:

        @TornDK

        “EA Maxis has confirmed to SimCity will be sold on digital distribution platforms other than Origin, but the game will still require players to be logged in to EA’s service while playing. It has also said there won’t be mod support for the game, at least at launch.”

        I think it’s pretty clear we need to be connected to the net at all times from the article.

    • Jimbo says:

      Just when I thought I was in, they push me back out! I stopped buying (the affected) Ubisoft games when they introduced unnecessary always-online requirements and I’ll do the same here.

      To be fair though, the proposed pricing was so obnoxious (£65 on Origin for the full version, £45 for the gimped version) that I probably wasn’t gonna buy it anyway.

    • Khemm says:

      Didn’t they say a while ago there a persistent online component will be there, but WON’T be obligatory? Maybe they got Origin “log in” requirement confused with always-online.

    • kaffis says:

      I was heartbroken when I saw the news that Maxis was doing a new SimCity, and that it looked very good.

      Why? Because I was pretty sure it would get burdened with Origin. I told myself “well, maybe EA will have a change of heart and offer it on Steam, so I can buy and play it.” Then, I laughed at my moment of irrational optimism.

      So the notion that EA is talking about keeping options for multiple digital distribution platforms open is rather surprising to me, even if I suspect I still won’t care. Because what that likely means, to my reading, is “Sure, we’ll let gog.com sell it, and gamestop.com sell it digitally, and anybody else who will allow us to force you to run Origin once you download the installer itself, so we can control microtransaction payments without a middleman. But Steam won’t let us do that, so no game for them.”

      Which means it’s still a no-buy for me.

      As an open explanation to EA: I am boycotting Origin, and any product that requires its use or interacts via an Origin account. Why? Because I already have a digital distribution system that has satisfied me, has earned my trust, and is run by people whom I consider to be both open with their customers and genuinely interested in providing their customers and their partners added value and a good experience.

      You, EA, have done none of those things in anything close to resembling recent memory. You went and converted the account I had signed up to the SWTOR forums (several years ago) into an Origin account without my permission or notice. Your customer service has been atrocious every time I’ve ever called it. You have built a reputation of lack of accountability to your customers. And now, with Origin, you’ve put your pursuit of the microtransaction dollar ahead of your customers’ user experience and choice of platform.

      In this day and age where hackers, both of the malicious profiteering sort and the simple (so they claim) Internet vandalism sort, run rampant daily through databases world-wide, I have made a choice in my best interest to limit the sites with whom I maintain an account, thus limiting the exposure of my personal information against financial fraud and identity theft. Your feud against one of those outlets (Steam) has, does, and will continue to result in lost sales for every game you refuse to distribute digitally through my service of choice. This is not a vendetta against your company, but merely the results of the decisions I have chosen to make in my best interest, and how they intersect with and interact with your own business decisions. I feel it’s worthwhile to let you know this, hence my freely offered open letter here — My fondest wish is for you to see my complaint, and others like mine, and realize the scope by which your decisions hinder the market, so you can properly assess whether the refusal to partner with Steam as a digital distribution network is truly in your best interests or not.

      I would write as such on your forums, or send feedback through your own site, but… ironically, I would need to create an Origin account to do so. Which kind of defeats the purpose, huh?

  13. cpy says:

    I will buy this game, seriously, this game sounds too good to be true, i honestly wait for multiplayer, that’s the most interesting thing for me in this game.

  14. runbmp says:

    I still go back into Simcity 4 to this day, it just one of those games I never got tired of.

    As much as I want to play it, i’ll have to wait and see which digital distribution system the game will end up with and how intrusive its going to be with Origin…

  15. HexagonalBolts says:

    I REALLY hope this is as detailed and complex as they are making it sound.

  16. sysdefect says:

    My question is, what is the actual average player proficiency in SimCity? Imagine this, you’re young, and/or stupid and now there’s a million of you online creating the single largest digital ghetto outside of Second Life. I was personally abominable at SimCity until it suddenly struck me like a hail of meteors how to actually play and not sink into the red, and I can tell you it doesn’t involve decking out a 1000 pop city with multiple nuclear power plants. Now imagine being the good player in the middle of that region.

    There has to be some sort of simulated region economy for singleplayer, or else how would you cheat?

  17. kalelovil says:

    I am getting a bit worried by the lack of any mention of rail transport.
    Has anybody seen any screenshots including it or the developers mention it?

    (Their choice of naming also makes it difficult to do a google search for this kind of information).

    I hope they aren’t going to pull a CitiesXL on us.

    • LoneGazebo says:

      I see light rail (monorail) in the last two pictures above. While by no means a true ‘railroad,’ it does bode well for other forms of non-road transport.

  18. Jams O'Donnell says:

    Obviously the most important aspect of this article is: Mark who now?

  19. wodin says:

    The sort of sim life in this is what I’ve always wanted in these games. If it works well I may end up buying into the series. The only one I played was the very first I think.

  20. karthink says:

    Finally, a game that takes a clue or two from Dwarf Fortress. Of course, it’s not going to be nearly as complex–no AAA game can afford to be–but this might make up for that with the shiny.

    (Sometimes I think Dwarf Fortress was created in a parallel timeline, where the graphics race never happened and a simulation race did.)

  21. the_r says:

    Am I the only one who read “schadenfreude” as “Scootin’ Fruity”? :D

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3_DjiLLDfo

  22. mckertis says:

    “the reboot of the franchise”

    Sooo…will it be another one of those “its a sequel but we refuse to put a number on it to deliberately screw up your google searches” ?

  23. ActionFlash says:

    I find the hate for Origin quite odd tbh. I’ve been playing BF3 and ME3 through Origin with no problems at all. For Mass Effect 3 I even purchased a boxed copy from the UK and had it shipped to Australia for the half the price of the Origin store, entered the CD key into Origin and all was good!

    They have already said that they will sell Sim City through other outlets, so no problem there.

    As for the always on internet connection, the amount of people this must affect has to be tiny! Who seriously plays PC games on a regular basis where there is no way of getting some kind of internet connection? You don’t even need a 3G modem these days as any smartphone worth it’s salt can be used to get online.

    • kaffis says:

      As I commented elsewhere in this thread; it’s not hate for Origin per se.

      I simply do not like creating accounts willy nilly that get linked to password, email, credit card, and identity information. I don’t *hate* EA. I just won’t make twenty accounts at different websites when 3 will do. And when EA’s competition is Steam, they haven’t earned my trust and faith in the same way Valve has, nor do they have the awesome indy and cross-developer partnerships Valve does. So Origin loses to my Steam account, every day of the week.

      Because I simply don’t want to create a new account and have another client on my computer. It’s a risk mitigation decision, not a decision against EA.

      It’s EA that turns this into a decision against EA, when they refuse to allow Steam to publish their games because they’d rather force users onto Origin. My concerns about the security and exposure of my identity information trump any number of awesome games they make Origin exclusive, because my finances and identity are, frankly, more important than video games.

  24. paddymaxson says:

    I’m confused…first look? Hasn’t Sim City been out for like 2 decades?

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