Simulation Stimulation: A Peek Into Sim City’s Glassbox

Get your microscope out
If the devil is in the details then EA’s city-running sim, cunningly called Sim City, is writhing on a bed, doing naughty things with a religious symbol and being doused in holy water. Ugh! It just turned its head 360 degrees! It is wickedly detailed, thanks to an engine that shows off exactly what the simulation is up to. A building like a power plant is not just a stack of boxes, but it contains the resources like coal and workers to create electricity. The effects and animations you’ll see on the unit are tied into how the unit simulates what’s going in and what’s coming out, so the pollution spouting from the chimney is represented accurately according to the game’s logic. Clicking in garages into a fire station will make it a more efficient station: a station with a few more garages in the model will actually run according to how you’ve built it. Everything you see is a one-to-one representation of what the simulation is doing. The video is below.

It’s not that you’d be getting all your feedback by watching the simulation running, but knowing that what the game’s showing is representative seems like a wholly insane thing to do, but ultimately helpful for you to get an overview of how your city is running.

Next year, people. Next year.


  1. DanPryce says:

    I don’t half love a bit of minutiae, me. Looking forward to this one.

  2. philbot says:

    If it was a 1:1 simulation, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to plop down buildings willy-nilly, would you?

    EDIT: I should pay more attention to the video next time.

  3. HexagonalBolts says:

    I hope this is as ACTUALLY as detailed as it looks: For example, deep inside I fear that plonking down an extra garage for the fire station will simply expand its abstract “area” for dealing with fires, rather than providing a literal extra fire truck for the force to use. I hated how in the last sim city vehicles would randomly disappear and reappear, it would be awesome if this game actually accurately displayed all the vehicles coming and going – which the video seems to suggest it will. That would be amazing.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      They’ve already said that all traffic is simulated (all the cars you see are individual cars with a destination to go to), so one can assume fire trucks and police cars would be the same. I’d sure love to see more frequent fires and crime with the police cars/fire trucks actually going there on their own to deal with things. It’d certainly feel better than SC4’s “the mayor does everything” disaster mode.

    • Ericston says:

      Judge for yourself by perusing the slides linked on this page: link to

      The disappearing cars are actually mentioned as an example of the statistical nature of earlier Sim Citys (your abstract “area” would be another example). They promise to do better by using Glassbox to simulate the actual game state instead of the game’s statistics.

  4. haowan says:

    I foresee problems dealing with all the minute detail when the city reaches a certain size.

    edit: I also foresee problems simulating a city if you can only support order 10000 agents.

  5. Sp4rkR4t says:

    So how do you shoot things?

  6. starclaws says:

    All I see is how your town will have so many traffic issues.

    • RedViv says:

      Well, we do need issues that can be resolved in the expansion pack, don’t we?

    • Stuart Walton says:

      With any luck ‘Norm’ will return to give us advice.

    • stele says:

      Well, yeah – did you see all those crazy drivers? Not a single legal turn in the whole video that I could tell. Turning left from the RIGHT lane? In front of another car? Are the developers from Illinois or something?

      • Coxswain says:


        All looked like reasonable driving behavior to me!

      • Premium User Badge

        Hodge says:

        Also Melbourne, where the trams run on regular roads and all kinds of batshit driving rules have been implemented to accomodate them.

  7. Stuart Walton says:

    If I found a magic lamp, one of my wishes would be to get Dwarf Fortress running like this. Screw world peace!

  8. Colej_uk says:

    This looks really cool.

    My main concern is that this amount of attention to detail will restrict the scale. The maps in all the release media so far seem pretty small. I don’t want my city to be just the size of a town I want it to be a huge sprawling metropolis.

    Other than that though, this does look like it will feature the depth of a genuine SimCity game, which is great news.

    • Master_of_None says:

      Yup. I can imagine an elegant solution whereby you lose the 1:1 ratio as the scale gets bigger… like on a map! But perhaps that is hoping for too much.

      Otherwise I feel the game may require a significant amount of CPU capacity (i.e. more than my box can currently handle).

      • FriendlyFire says:

        Actually… One interesting way around that would be to heavily invest in GPGPU. I doubt they’re actually going to go down that route, but it’d be fascinating. GPGPU is already quite good for simulating massively parallel systems, for instance in physics, so one could assume that it could be applied to their agent-based automata quite well. This’d allow the game to quickly and efficiently simulate hundreds of agents at the same time in a very short time. With good scheduling and interaction modeling, this could actually be doable to very large scales (in excess of hundreds of thousands of agents).

        I still think using agents for power and water might just be stretching it a bit, though. We don’t really need that.

    • Caenorhabditis says:

      I’d rather have a detailed town with these mechanics than a metropolis in earlier SimCities.

    • Ganjatron says:

      They’ve mentioned the city plots will be the size of the medium city in SC4, and also said that regions would probably come back. I just fired up the game and chose a medium city and it’s still pretty damn large, not that tiny ass CitiesXL pactch of land.

  9. coffeetable says:

    Apple with a worm in it.

  10. wodin says:

    Do we get riots? And police car chases and bank robberies and organised gangs and other excting violent things, or is it more sedate?

  11. Gundato says:

    I haven’t watched the video yet (busy), but based off the description, I don’t see this affecting scalability TOO much.

    Add another garage, you add another truck to simulate.
    Add another block for storage of a resource, you increase the capacity for that resource.

    The former just means you divide the map into units of size garage (it takes up a finite amount of space on the model and increases the are taken when you plop it down, right?). Or, you restrict models of a certain size to have a certain number of individual elements to simulate (trucks, peoples, etc).

    Then, your simulation limits are still a function of the size of a map. A map of size X*X is limited to f(X)*f(X) individual elements needing love and attention. So we are once again limited by map size, not the contents of the maps (although, I suspect save files would get huge).

  12. Neurotic says:

    I doubt there’s anything our lazy monkey brains can think of as a potential problem here, that those interstellar gaming gods at Maxis haven’t already thought of and planned for.

  13. cpy says:

    This sounds like it can be scalable to quite huge degrees, multicore-wise as it seems, also for me i think there will be agent LOD – better cpu more agents, also i forsee agent “bulking”, grouping multiple simmilar close buildings into bulks to save cpu, i mean possibilities are many. Keeps me wondering, preorder digital deluxe? Wait for better deals? Wait to see more of the stuff they are trying to sell? I feel worried that this game with so much potential of being multicore optimized my end up buggy and single core bottlenecked as CXL.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I hope that building stuff does not actually look like it’s shown for the firestation in the video. Apart from that, this video is very exciting!

  15. MrKay says:

    I don’t really care about the implementation (ok, I do), as long as they stick to their promises and it actually feel good in game. This sounds like the kind of Sim City I’ve always wanted to play!

  16. Chmilz says:

    I like building expandability. Nothing annoyed me more in previous SimCity games than having an entire tract of land dedicated to power plants, another for water generation, and so forth. Modular buildings make sense in the game, as they do in real life. A town of 5000 people might only have one police station. When it hits 50,000 it’ll still likely only have one police station, although it will have expanded.

    • RedViv says:

      Precisely what I’m happiest about. Accurate simulation is required, and this video shows that they are aiming for it, but this detail is quite possibly that one single point where I’ve always felt that SimCity was pleasing neither the aesthetically nor the optimisation-oriented players.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      I’m really hoping for something more: the disappearance of radius-based effects. Ideally, police stations and such would have an area of influence based strictly off distance to point using roads, as opposed to something perfectly circular, perhaps with the ability to stretch in a particular direction to fill gaps.

      That’d make things both more realistic and more practical.

      • Torgen says:

        In the video, they say that agents carry “power” and “water”, and shows them traveling along the roads and lighting up plots, so yes, much like the old Impressions city games.

        • Dozer says:

          I think he said the agents are the underlying game-engine ‘thing-moving-device’. A pedestrian is an ‘agent’ for moving a sim along the pavement. A car is an ‘agent’ for moving a sim along a road. A pipe is an agent for moving water along a pipe, a construction truck is an agent for moving a house to a zone, a wire is an agent for moving electricity along the route of the power lines.

          (Why do I have the ability to block my own posts??)

          I don’t know if this means you’ll see a power station with an inventory of 2345 kWH suddenly drop to 2340 kWH when an agent turns up and delivers 5 kWH over to someone’s house.

  17. Smashbox says:

    This bodes well. Really, it seems like they’re focusing on the SIM part instead of the CITY part like with the last, shameful iteration of the series.

    I’m actually getting extremely excited for this – somehow it’s still not enough to get me to order the frankly ridiculous $80 year-or-more-ahead-of-time pre order version.

  18. engion3 says:

    So how is this going to work with a controller

  19. karthink says:

    Oh wow, this is starting to look like Dwarf Fortress with better graphics.

    (Yes, yes, it’s not even in the same ballpark at DF, etc, but it’s the first mainstream game I’ve seen that appears to be trying.)

  20. Gap Gen says:

    I am really pleased that Maxis (or EA puppeteering their husk, I guess) are thinking about simulation as an integral part of their games. One of the things I loved about them was their approach to simulation, and the fact that they’d make a model of the whole planet and release it as a game. One of my gripes about Spore was how light-weight it felt, more like a series of minigames than a meaty simulation game. By comparison, this looks rather neat.

  21. krisanto says:

    8 DLCs already planned even though the game’s still far from completion. This kinda makes me sad. I hope vanilla’s solid enough without any expansion packs.
    link to

    • engion3 says:

      I’ll pay 80 bucks for a game. I like this concept as long as they justify the price with more content/features obviously.

    • Milky1985 says:

      And zero development time will have been spent on this until the games goes gold. Because games companies are happy and trustworthy people and have NOT gone down the route people feared they would when dlc first started oh no.

      Sorry i need to go replace my sarcasm detector, something broke it, not sure what.

    • Ganjatron says:

      I don’t really see an issue with selling the city skins. It’s similar to what they’ve done in the past, and the base game comes with 4 packs. Personally I don’t care for any of them, will pick up the game at $60 and be incredibly stoked. Please remember they have said mods will be in the game, so don’t fret. :D

      • Smashbox says:

        Mod support confirmed? Fantastic news.

        The only reason anyone still plays SimCity 4.

  22. Edawan says:

    This looks a lot like how Tropico is working. Except (hopefully) with more layers and a lot more agents.

  23. TheMerricat says:

    As much as I want to be excited about this, I have to remind myself a couple things.

    This whole “Agents” thing was promised before, anyone remember how the previous Simcity was going to let you zoom in and watch your citizens in real time? They cut it then because it was insanely impossible, has tech really advanced that much that we’d think an even higher fidelity version would be possible today?

    Maxis has been dead for a long while now, this is EA we are dealing with. Can we really expect the kings of “The Sims” not to give into the dark side and release a ‘full’ game at the start or shall we expect something more along the lines of that series, where every 3-6 months they dribble out another building pack & twice a year they release a new expansion that breaks most of what you were doing.

    I’ll allow myself to dream a dream and hope this is what it says on the tin. But it’s hard to trust EA with promises and it’s even harder to swallow that this sort of simulation is going to be possible at anything larger than a ‘sprawling hamlet’ level city.

    • Ganjatron says:

      CPU’s have an incredibly more computing power then they had back in 2003, standard RAM amount (512 at the time) have increased by 8 fold, HDD’s are now into the terabytes instead of sub-250 gig drives, and don’t even get me started on GPU’s because those have skyrocketed in power since 2003. So the tech is here don’t doubt that, also SC4 had some big issues with how it rendered and the pipelines it used, let’s just say it wasn’t the most efficient.

      Yes, Maxis has been dead, but not anymore. This isn’t new, several developers have slowed down, only to release a big product. Also the team making this is mainly made up of people who all had significant positions in the development of the simcity, simant, simtower, etc.. So I think we are in good hands, but of course a little caution in attitude is never harmful, so pleas stay cautiously optimistic.

  24. PearlChoco says:

    Looks great, but why does everything have to look cartoony these days?

    Also: I demand Transport Tycoon 2 based on this engine!

    • Brun says:

      Less performance-intensive and stylized cartoony graphics typically age better than ultra-real graphics.

      • KillahMate says:

        Settlers II 10th Anniversary aged pretty good for a semi-low-budget 3D strategy game. Good thing they didn’t go for realism.

  25. ThaneSolus says:

    god, the art direction and colors will completely ruin the game for me.

    • Pointless Puppies says:

      Yeah, if only they’d somehow let us know that the graphics in the video are not representative of the final game somewhere…….

  26. SuperNashwanPower says:

    If they sell it on Steam, I’m interested.

    • engion3 says:

      I don’t see that happening anytime soon even though it would be a prime candidate for steamworks. Perhaps Origin will launch a steamworks of there own that debuts with this title.

  27. sophof says:

    This feels like overkill, I love it!

    This has to create a lot of overhead, but should enable the game to support any play style or idea. Also, if this is successful, I hope it in turn will lead to more investments in AI, which to me seems to be more or less the same thing (lots of parallel ‘decisions’).

  28. Dozer says:

    Trivia of the day: the Windows 3.1 version of Sim City had a bug, a piece of badly-written code, which didn’t have any effect in Windows 3.1 and DOS. The game would try to read memory after it had been deallocated and given back to the OS.

    When Windows 95 was in beta, Microsoft’s testers discovered this bug, because in Win95 the bad code would make Sim City crash. Microsoft tracked down why Sim City was crashing, and wrote special code into Windows 95 which detects when Sim City is running, changes the rules about how memory is handled, just to stop Sim City from crashing.