And Now The Game: A SimCity Preview

By Alec Meer on April 25th, 2012 at 4:30 pm.

After all that back and forth about the DRM, let’s see what this new SimCity really is. There’s no number because it’s not a sequel as such, or so the word goes. I can’t help but see it as a statement of intent – the series first turned fallow and then was perverted, but now it’s back, back, back on track. Pure and faithful. In the same way Dexys Midnight Runners are, in their new incarnation, simply ‘Dexys’ there’s a consciousness that a long history can be as much an albatross as a boon.

And so what might have been Sim City 6 is simply ‘SimCity’, and it is indeed a city management game. A proper one, with zoning and utilities and emergencies and traffic jams and crime and all that metropolitan jazz. My sense was that it’s more accessible than Sim City 4 was, but not in the way that Sim City Societies or – heaven forfend – a Cityville-type is. Yes, the ‘a’ word. Wait, calm down. While I can only speak from a quick, eyes-on impression of a very early build, the trick seemed be in the presentation of information, not sacrifice of the information itself. A surprisingly lavish and high-detail 3D world was backed up by a slick-looking interface, heavily customisable to show what you do and don’t personally want to see at any one time.

While there was plenty of superficial attractiveness for my id to coo at, oddly what most caught my attention was the concept of every being and every system in the game being an ‘agent.’ So electricity and water aren’t simply coloured lines that do or don’t connect to this or that area, but, should you hit the appropriate toggle, pulsing streams of power or liquid surging/trickling around your town. The size and frequency of the pulses denotes how efficient your infrastructure is: a visible sign as to where improvements are needed. It sounds tedious, but as well as the at-a-glance strategic boon, it’s a canny way of making your creation seem alive, not a frozen Lego-land. Alas, I have been given only concept art to try and prove this or any other aspect of the game with for now. Despite the fact I’ve seen a working build in action. And despite the fact you can already pre-order the game. Sigh. So, you’ll need to trust my words as best you can. You’re right, I wouldn’t either.

It extends to traffic as well, which also initially sounds more boring than a visit to the plywood factory with the lead singer of Keane, but has all manner of fascinating repercussions. When a new citizen moves into your city, they actually move in – removal van, arduous unloading of cardboard boxes, the lot. If your roads are narrow or busy, that big van parking up on the street might cause traffic to slow down or even gridlock in that area. Which isn’t necessarily a problem – this is modern living, right? But what if there’s a fire engine stuck in that traffic queue? And what if one of your buildings has just suffered an arson attack from one of the ‘personality’ NPCs who’s recently pitched up in town looking to cause trouble?

Well, then that building is going to burn down. But before that, the fire will likely spread to another building. And another. And another. It’s a panicked halfway house between the rather mathematical disasters of the earlier Sim Cities and the rolling chaos of The Sims. It’s also the butterfly effect at play, that one happy Sim on the other side of town unwittingly being responsible for mass property damage because they’re taking their sweet time hauling their futon up the stairs.

Sims too are agents, all going somewhere for some reason, rather than being purely decorative or mere statistics. If the Glassbox engine can muster what it did on the demo day for Johnny Average-PC, then I suspect I’ll enjoy zooming in and watching my systems and creations at work and play, its inhabitants tottering along like cheerful clockwork soldiers.

The look overall is inspired by tilt-shift, a video technique that’s become near-ubiquitous in TV advertising of late but you may know best from the rowing sequence in The Social Network. Via WITCHCRAFT reality is made to look like scale models, and that’s what Sim City hopes to evoke. While the underlying systems are all about flow, precision and maths, the surface is consciously toylike. It suits it, at least in the small amount of the game I saw – it makes sense visually and metaphorically for a Sim City game.

The grand dollhouse mentality extends to construction too – place down powerlines and they’re like elastic, stretching and eventually snapping as they’re pulled too far away from the station they’re connected to. Once you do manage to connect a zone to the power grid, a series of bulb noises and a flurry of sudden light denotes that it’s gone to plan. The game as a whole seems similarly draped in incidental detail. It’s tactile, packed with toybox sound effects and visual tics: an ant colony rather than a dusty model. Leave an area unpowered for too long, though, and as well as looking dark and miserable eventually it will turn to crime, which is denoted by the appearance of graffiti on its rooftops rather than purely as a statistic buried in the menus. At a glance, the idea is, you can tell more or less what’s going on with your city and what the shortfalls are.

The other major new idea on show was quasi-freeform upgrades to important buildings. If you want to upgrade a power station, it’s simply ‘spend $x to reach level 2′, but instead placing a new chimney by hand. Or two. Or three. Or four. And you drop ‘em all over the place rather than onto fixed nodes, so you could make a brickwork flower or a confused, sprawling mess. Doesn’t matter, because the important thing is the power station is improved, as you’ll see by the pulsing electricity bubbles having expanded in size. However you design it, zoom in close to the plant and you’ll see coal being hauled up its conveyor belt from a slowly dimishing pile. When that pile is depleted, more coal will need to be brought in via truck. But what if there’s a traffic jam? Oh, right, I did that one already. Again – everything is an agent. That’s the promise. Hopefully, that means cause and effect all over the shop.

As for the online and multiplayer aspect/controversy around the game, this wasn’t documented too much during the demo and I confess it wasn’t the first question from my lips either while watching the game or while interviewing one of the devs (which I’ll publish later), so I ran out of time before I could ask it. What I can tell you is that they’re at least trying to lend purpose to the onlineness – so your goods can be transported to friends’ towns and vice-versa, or sold on the world market. That does sound a little Farmville admittedly, but from what else I saw of the game I’m reasonably confident this is more about interconnectedness, not grind.

This was, of course, just one tiny, hour-long slice of a game that won’t be released until some time next year, so this sort of statement is reckless and more than capable of coming back to bite me on the bottom, but… This really did look like I want Sim City to look. Some of the self-expression aspects of the Sims fed back into the urban management of Sim City, without actually undermining the inherent strategy. Then there’s that element of making the interface part of the game world to some extent, which I’m always a sucker for.

I am, however, worried about the potential for exploitation of the online aspect, not so much in terms of DRM (it’s a rare day I leave the house now, alas) but in terms of, as with The Sims 3 and assorted social network games, it being an excuse to constantly flog DLC. That your city can’t be complete until you spend just a bit more, and then more, and then more. That fear is tackled in my interview with one of the senior devs, which I’ll put up in the not-too-distant. In the meantime, I’ll you leave with news that the new curvy roads do exactly as hoped. Long may arcing tarmac reign.

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59 Comments »

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  1. Iconik says:

    Oh Lord. Here we go….

  2. Eraysor says:

    This preview could have just been “It has curved roads” and I would have been equally pleased :D

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      Those sexy, sexy curves!

    • mr.ioes says:

      You can play SimCity 4 with curved roads if you use nam mod. But then again, it didn’t feel right when I used it. It was obvious that it was a mod and not a professionally developed feature, sadly.

      So hooray for curved roads-support indeed!

    • muut says:

      You see that new SimCity game? It’s got curved roads.

      Curved.

      Roads.

      • yurusei says:

        First thing that came to mind when I read Eraysor’s comment.

        Just to reiterate, they’ve got curved roads

  3. Lemming says:

    On the one hand, it makes sense there is this level of micromanagement, because it’s…well..a SimCity game. But on the other, how on Earth can you juggle that many balls in the air? How many people moving-in and traffic jams and shit can one person cope with when they have a sprawling city?

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      I think, the idea is that you have to design your streets in a way so that this traffic jam problem cannot occur in the first place. I don’t think you’re supposed (or even able) to manually clear up problems like that.

    • starclaws says:

      There isnt much else to the game… Water, Power, Traffic, Schools, Police, Fire, and then other misc buildings. Once you figure out the best way to do avenues, streets, highways. There isn’t much of a challenge.

      • Neurotic says:

        Bwaaaaahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!! Oh dear God, that’s effing hilarious. Say it again!

  4. Milky1985 says:

    Can we at least get a claification over what type of DRM it is?

    Check at launch is annoying but i’m ok with it (at a push can tether the phoen to do the check then disconnect it again if i’m away from home)

    Always on however they can go shove it

    News reports so far have been confusing with them saying its the second type (always on), then saying its the first type (on launch) but then activly saying that they are defending the always on DRM , implying its the second one again!

    • Shortwave says:

      I felt bad for laughing at that.

    • enobayram says:

      The worst kind is the Diablo 3 kind of DRM, where, as soon as your connection is shaky for a second, you’re suddenly looking at a pre-Alpha build of a game that your friend stopped developing a while ago, and you have it because he’s sent it to you.

    • rocketman71 says:

      Can we at least get a claification over what type of DRM it is?

      Yep. It’s of theI’m not buying that shit kind.

    • Lemming says:

      Was that a Screamers reference? :)

    • tyren says:

      It’s check-at-launch, and thank you for providing an example of exactly the kind of thing I was talking about in the DRM article when I said it was disingenuous to keep calling it “always-online” when it’s not.

  5. SamC says:

    Upgrading buildings sounds like they’re incorporating some of the customization tech from Spore, which is a good thing. I’m genuinely looking forward to this.

  6. Lanfranc says:

    Okay, well, sounds promising enough, so I guess I’m cautiously optimistic.

  7. Funso Banjo says:

    What do you mean this is effectively Sim City 6.

    Where the hell did Sim City 5 go? I know Sim City Societies was never a canon addition to the Sim City series, so was there an actual SIm City 5 that I just never knew about?

  8. Cooper says:

    I like how you keep calling it DRM despite protestations by the developers that this isn’t about piracy at all but about multiplayer online sociality being ‘integral’ to the game.

    Online communities of gamers have limited lifespans. SimCity 4 is played a decade later. Were an active, online community “integral” to playing the game properly (not to mention the existing support of server infrastructure for this), SimCity 4 would be a dead game…

    If it is not DRM, it is developers unecessarily hamstringing their game…

    • Premium User Badge

      Llewyn says:

      Yeah, but the multiplayer online sociality is only integral on launch. I think calling that DRM is just fine.

      Unless, unusually for the internet, your “I like how…” was sincere, in which case I apologise for assuming you were both sarcastic and wrong ;-)

    • Brun says:

      It is DRM, “multiplayer online sociality being integral to the game” is just their justification for forcing it upon us.

      Even if the online components really did have nothing to do with DRM (dubious), many people still wouldn’t like them. Why? Because it’s not a feature SimCity fans wanted, nor was it one that the franchise needed. It’s being forced upon us against our will, shoehorned into a franchise in which it has no place. The developers are unnecessarily burdening a traditionally single-player game with a multiplayer component that it DOESN’T NEED.

      It’s a trend that’s all too common in gaming these days. It’s like sometime around 2008, someone decided that EVERYTHING had to be multiplayer. There are plenty of days when I don’t WANT to play games with other people. Period. Stop forcing me to do it, and stop wasting development time and resources on multiplayer when you could be using it to make better single-player experiences.

      • RegisteredUser says:

        Yea, screw that trend.
        Its like with life or (classic) RPGs; if you try to do too many things at once, you excel at nothing.

        If I want a MP experience, I’ll play tribes or Counterstrike:Source or RTCW:ET or L4D2.
        ALL of which excel at MP and are made for that and do NOT pretend to be decent SP.

        What happens when you fucking make bullshit games with SP modes that are really just excuses to not have it be MP only? You get the SP failure that is Borderlands and similiar unfun BS.

        They need to seriously fuck off and make SP games for SP experiences again and if they want to make a game for or about MP, _focus_ on that, too.

        And for all you whiners with the “But I do so much wanna also play it co-op with my friends!111″ bug, that’s fine by me, just as long as it is tacked on _after_ an optimized SP experience and not the other way around.

        And fuck DRM, which an online check always is and will be if the actual SP game refuses to run without it. It CONTROLS when and how you can enjoy the game, thus it is DRM.

  9. Njordsk says:

    I’d like some ingame shots to be honest.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      AFAIK there are none yet. The in game assets are not even made, let alone the graphics engine. This is all “pie in the sky” thinking so far. Hmmm pie…

      • Salt says:

        Alec indicates in the article that he saw the game running (for about an hour!), so it’s fairly certain that the assets and engine do exist.
        They’ve just decided not to allow publication of screenshots yet. Which is unfortunate as it sounds like it looks excellent.

  10. wodin says:

    First Sim City game that has caught my eye. I like the fact that everything is there for a reason and the little people are actually living their little sim lives.

    Count me on.

    Would be cool if you could slowly transform your city into a cyberpunk gothic blade runner style metropolis.

    • Struckd says:

      i think the saying goes, “count me in”

      though i digress…this to me is the only thing missing from the game, a theme to your city, which would make sense if it was online, give everyone a uniqueness, so to speak…i wouldn’t mind a bat signal either, or a “dino signal” they seem to like dinosaurs

  11. Blackcompany says:

    Way I remember it, an Albatross was a ship’s good luck, until some fool went and connected DRM to it….

  12. Premium User Badge

    Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Udibzedot, the Syrup of Lobster, is a finely crafted *Coal Power Station*. It is crafted from concrete. It menaces with spikes of steel. On the side is a picture of a cat and a dwarf. The cat is dead. The dwarf is talking to the cat.

  13. GallonOfAlan says:

    “It extends to traffic as well, which also initially sounds more boring than a visit to the plywood factory with the lead singer of Keane”

    Chortle!

    • Torgen says:

      I wonder if anyone’s made a decent tablet city-building game. I’m eyeing that Asus Transformer 300 what goes on sale at the end of the month, because you can add a proper keyboard to it and make it a mini laptop.

      EDIT: uh, this was supposed to be a reply to the next comment down. Howdat happen?

  14. Alexandros says:

    No offline mode=no sale. In a world where tablets, laptops and other mobile devices are sellng by the truckload, these types of copy protection are at best misguided, at worst idiotic. EA, fix this.

    • wuwul says:

      Most mobile devices have always-on Internet via 3G or 4G cellular service.

      • Lemming says:

        Yeah and we all know how enticing that is. Either you have a decent connection and are therefore paying some mobile company ludicrous data connection fees, or it’s barely better than the 56k modem days….and still a rip off.

  15. Cryptoshrimp says:

    I really, really hope this is as good as this article makes it out to be. In theory, I’d never need another game. Just, y’know, boo, DRM. It makes kitties sad.

  16. RegisteredUser says:

    Is this the part where I tell them to fuck off with their idiotic DRM yet?

  17. poisonborz says:

    I’m still disappinted that they didn’t go for a more realistic presentation. 2000’s and 3000’s graphics were eye-pleasingly cartoonish, but realistic, but the pictures above contain domed skycrapers and futuristic, or overly stereotipic industrial buildings, that remind me of the meh-ness that was Societies. I know this is just an early preview, but I have my fears.

    • Premium User Badge

      RedViv says:

      The graphics are far from finalised, from what I read in several shorter interviews. And which is mentioned during every gameplay presentation.

  18. rocketman71 says:

    I don’t care about onlineness, especially when it is “quick, think some excuse for this shitty DRM!”.

    I want my single player, and I want no over the top DRM (Origin = automatic no buy). If on top of that they put some OPTIONAL multiplayer, or rankings, or whatever, hey, nice detail. I might even look at it. But if they force me to play my single player online, and worse, they try to convince me that that’s how I should play it, then I can only say “fuck you Maxis”. My money, your loss.

    Of course, that fuck you goes for Blizzard as well, and anyone else onlinenizing my single player experience. And no, Diablo 3 is not an MMO from the moment they themselves are telling us that we can play the complete game alone.

  19. Torgen says:

    Back to traffic and power stations: Locally, the power stations run on coal, but they wait until the dead of night to bring the long, long, LONG railroad trains with 100+ cars of coal, so that blocking major roads on the outskirts of town don’t lead to thousands of angry, late commuters and delivery trucks.

    Instead, it only several dozen.

    So, will this new Sim City know not to run a 200-car coal train across a major business artery in the middle of the day, or is this something the player can set?

    • Premium User Badge

      li says:

      So power stations need coal to run, right? Where the coal comes from?

      And then what are the resources for industries? My understanding is that there is only one level of industries, i.e. they all consume raw materials and output end-consumer goods, is it?

      Well, if you had several layers of industries (with semi-finished in between) and localized resources, and trade amongst players, then online mode could be hugely interesting.. SimCity is not Railroad Tycoon, but… I have this dream…

  20. wuwul says:

    Maybe we finally have a game that can actually use the 8/16 GB of memory decent PCs have? (to store the dynamic world)

  21. Premium User Badge

    stahlwerk says:

    As long as there’s lots of llama references, I’m buying.

  22. Jac says:

    What happens when you bulldoze a bunch of stuff to build a lovely new monorail??

    Also do these agents die and require a slow moving and traffic jam inducing hurse to get to the cemetary?

    Looking forward to this but like you say im worried about dlc abuse more than net connection issue.

    • Premium User Badge

      RedViv says:

      Given how they have talked about easy mod support and its importance for SC4’s players, I’m not quite bothered by that either. The Sims 3 is as bad as is usual for the franchise, and the modding scene is thriving nonetheless.

    • iniudan says:

      Only thing I think that could happen.

  23. Nameless1 says:

    “it’s a rare day I leave the house now, alas”
    Than be worried for all the other people, if that doesn’t bother you too much. Thanks.

    • Lemming says:

      Wut?

      • Nameless1 says:

        I’t a quote from the article, in a sentence that sounded like “I’m not too worried for the DRM, I rarely leave the house nowadays”..let’s say I didn’t like it too much.

  24. Premium User Badge

    Big Murray says:

    The most hateful words in gaming:

    “Images not representative of actual gameplay”.

    • Premium User Badge

      Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      *Images deliberately misleading to generate hype and possibly get a few presales from people who impulse buy.

  25. kaffis says:

    It’s truly disappointing how awesome this continues to sound. Because EA bought Maxis back whenever, and thus Maxis is forced to saddle their likely brilliant and engaging game with the demand that I trust EA with my personal information so it can Origin-integrate. I don’t care whether that integration is for DRM purposes or not — the end result is the same:

    Giving something I value to somebody I don’t trust to protect it, let alone want to give it to.

    Put it on Steam or in a box that I can install without creating some damned account, and you’ve got a sale. Until you do, I will occupy myself with banging my fists against your windows and screaming my rage at the uncaring sky, ignored by you corporate overlords who just absolutely must have some of that delicious pie Valve innovated itself into, and damn what your customers think.

  26. Joshua Northey says:

    I absolutely loved the first four games, and thought Societies was tolerable (though I would never have bought it if I had known what it was).

    I could care less about the DRM, but please don’t integrate the MP into the SP too tightly. It rarely if ever turns out well in strategy games like these. I am also a little concerned about the silly art style (I realize it is not close to final art).

    Really I just want Sim City 4 with an actual functioning commuting/travel model, which it looks like “glass box” can provide. Can they just focus on that and only try for 1 or 2 innovations at a time? That always works so much better than going whole hog and possibly screwing up something that already works.

  27. indexrps says:

    Where’s the interview article?? I want the interview article!! Give it to me damnit!!!! AARRRGGGHHH!!! D:<