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Back From Simulation City: Inside Maxis' Glass Box

The Lean Streets

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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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Lewie Procter

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