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Maxis Factor: A SimCity Interview

The city of tomorrow!

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Shortly after seeing the new SimCity in its full bendy-road glory, I had a quick chat with one of its architects, EA Maxis’ producer Jason Haber. Tackled – its lengthy development, why we’ve waited so long for a sequel, why it’s a ‘real’ Sim City, difficulty, whether important content is being sectioned off for pre-order bonuses and DLC, and how a traffic jam could make your whole city burn down.

RPS: Because it’s not out until 2013 so you’ve announced it fairly early, how far into the design of it are you? It looked quite finished and polished.

Jason Haber: It’s still pre-alpha, so we still have a lot of work to go, but I think part of our development philosophy is trying to keep the game always playable, so that we can get a good sense of what it’s like at any one point in time.

RPS: Could you play it as though it was complete now, finished art and sound assets aside, or is it only fragments of it?

Jason Haber: We’re pretty close… it’s hard to say, it’s like any game development. You can play it at different times but it’s not finished, that’s for sure. There’s still a lot of tuning and tweaking to do to the game, there’s a lot of content to create. I think we’re getting a good sense of the game. We understand what the gameplay is and we’re very excited about it, we’re very excited to be able to show it.

RPS: When did you start on the design document stuff, how long’s it been in the making already?

Jason Haber: It’s been a looooong time (laughs).

RPS: That was a very faraway look there…

Jason Haber: Yes, I’m thinking, I don’t know… it’s been in development for quite a while, that’s the best I can say. I know that Ocean Quigley and Andrew Willmott, so Ocean’s our creative director, and Andrew’s the lead architect, they’ve been working on it for a really long time. They both came from Sim City 4 long ago, so ever since then they’ve wanted to make this game.

RPS: So did development starting predate Sim City Societies even?

Jason Haber: Depends what you mean by development; the idea’s been around for a long time, they had to wait for the technology to catch up, so…

RPS: Oh really? Was that genuinely a thing that ‘we want to wait until we can present it as we want’?

Jason Haber: They’ll have to answer that question. I would say probably, but I don’t want to put words in their mouths.

RPS: And you feel it’s at the point it needs to be now, you’re not hitting stuff where you’re like ‘eurgh, the skyscraper doesn’t gleam in the right way’?

Jason Haber: (laughs) well it depends on who you ask that, if you ask the creative art director they always would be like ‘no, it will never be perfect’, but I think really it’s about the simulation engine right, GlassBbx, and making sure we can really run that, and the internet connection, the fact that the world’s so connected now, I think we’ve really reached the point now where those came together. It’s interesting because I really feel now actually the gaming community is really ready for a new Sim City and I think it’s definitely hitting that at the right time and it’s sort of everything coming together. Really exciting and it’s great to come to an event like this, see a bunch of people, get their reaction, hear what they have to say and hear how positive they are about it, because I really think it is the right time for it.

RPS: Do you know, I guess you may not as you came to it a bit later, how much does it resemble the original brief, how much has shifted over time?

Jason Haber: From the original design do you mean? It’s really hard to say, it really started as the idea of Glassbox and this idea of a simulation engine that simulates these agents. Then that was sort of shifted into becoming SimCity. SimCity was built on top of this engine we were building, so it’s really hard to say. We like to look at it as like ‘there’s the engine itself, and then there’s the game on top of the engine, and there’s the game design on top of the game on the engine’ so I think if you could ask them, whisper it in their ear when they started it, they probably were like ‘yeah, we want to make Sim City with this engine’. But as for how it resembles the original concept, I don’t know. I think a lot of it is watching the engine, watching it work and how we use it.

RPS: I suppose game design wouldn’t be game design if you just had an idea and you just made it perfectly first time.

Jason Haber: Exactly, and we definitely have a very agile approach of ‘try things, see how they work, if they don’t work, it’s fine; try something else’. And I think that’s really where you get some of the best behaviour, and to me a good game is a game where you really nail that core gameplay, you really get that core piece first, and you understand that, and I feel like this has been there for a long time, and it’s truly setting up to be a fantastic game.

RPS: How much have 2000, 3000 and the original been watermarks that there’s been enough willingness to depart from, has there been ‘no we can’t do that because it needs to be like this’ or was it free rein almost?

Jason Haber: Well you say that as if there’s somebody up there who’s like ‘No, you have to do this’ and I think there’re certain things you have to have to be Sim City, and it doesn’t feel like a heavy hand, it feels like it’s exciting to be able to put that sort of stuff in. There’s a lot of pieces but like a gardening aspect, the idea that you zone an area and you watch it develop, that’s obviously something that’s very Sim City and we knew we had to have that and we wanted to have that. So I think more than anything that we felt like we had to put in, it was like mark setting to look at what we could put in, what we could re-imagine in some ways and still represent the real Sim City.

RPS: Is there anything specific you did decide ‘we want to leave that behind, it didn’t work, or we need a completely new pass on this’?

Jason Haber: If you look at the way the simulation works, and this is one of the reasons that we’re calling it SimCity, Sim City 5, it’s really a bottom-up simulation with integrity, so everything you see is actually simulated. I know you’ve heard that line many times but it’s true and it’s something we really believe in, and I think that’s a fundamental change in the way that the game works, and so it’s interesting because that’s the game and it’s a very different approach, it’s no longer saying ‘ok, there’s a statistical simulation running in the background and we’re going to represent it with this effect of a crowd’, it’s an actual crowd of people running around, so that’s a fundamental shift in the way that it works but yet it still really is true to the original itself. That’s not really a yes/no answer…

RPS: (laughs) Most answers are. I like the way with that that even the electricity is an agent, it’s not just like some graph paper you look at underneath and see it working…

Jason Haber: It’s great. It’s fun because once you sort of understand that aspect it really gives you an entirely new perspective on the game and how it works. It really helps you play the game as well, I would say.

RPS: Can you turn on all the layers of that, so the civilian movement, the water, the electricity, and have a sort of ‘I am seeing the matrix’ view?

Jason Haber: (laughs) We’ve talked about it actually, because we know that there’s people out there who love to see all that stuff, we’re actually having that debate now about that balance of like ‘how much do you see at once?’

RPS: It can be an option surely?

Jason Haber: Right, how much can we show you at once without it being a miserable mess, it’s such a new area, we have to figure out how we want to use it and how we want to show it, but I think there’s some other really cool data layer that we didn’t even show today but you’ll be seeing at E3 that’s really cool, so…. I’ll just tease it some more [laughs].

RPS: What about the difficulty, because in the earlier games it’s actually quite easy to really get things horribly, horribly wrong, even to the point that you almost had to start over – are you going to allow that in this?

Jason Haber: There’s always fun fail states, I think that’s any part of a Maxis game, so we definitely want to have those in there. I think the difficulty will all be about the tuning, and it’s definitely going to be a challenge for tuning this game, and we’ve got some really, really good guys on it so I feel like we’ll be able to do it, but there’s interesting things like the importance of traffic is so important in this game now, because if your fire truck gets stuck in traffic, you can’t get to the fire, so you have to be really smart about things like that.

RPS: That’s an interesting concept. Thinking of the demo, the moving truck was there parked up on the road and blocking traffic…

Jason Haber: Right, imagine if you fire truck was stuck in the middle of that, right? So I mean even if they pulled over you’re still going to slow them down or something when you’re trying to get there.

RPS: And that might be enough for another building to catch alight in the meantime…

Jason Haber: Exactly, so I think that’s the sort of challenges that are going to be really interesting and really emerging. A nice thing is that we can always play with the tuning as needed to see how things go, and once we have the game out there they’ll give us commentary on what people are doing, if they want us to, we’ll be able to look at that and see what’s happening in the game, and keep it as well balanced as we can.

RPS: Presumably for the first time in a Sim City you could potentially have a closed Beta mass online and work that stuff out before you ship the new thing?

Jason Haber: We certainly could do that (laughs).

RPS: Heh. I’m not trying to weasel a beta date out of you, it’s more thinking about the difference between how Sim City used to be made where it was a pure developer design, but this time you could go in with potentially the input of hundreds of thousands of people and it becomes a different sort of development.

Jason Haber: We’re already listening to the community out there, we already look at what people say on the forums, not just our forums either, all forums out there.

RPS: I see that you can already pre-order it, and it’s already announced a few, it’s a loaded phrase but I’ll say it, nickel and dimey add-ons and preorder bonsues. Does there need to be any concern that we’re going to get the game and loads of it is going to be sectioned off from us despite having bought it, because it’s been chopped up in the way the game hasn’t been in the past?

Jason Haber: First of all you should do your research into Sim City 2000, all sorts of editions came out, I just throw that one out there, but I would say, it’s a difficult question to answer…

RPS: It’s a thorny topic for sure.

Jason Haber: I’m just trying to figure out how to best put it. You will get the full game no matter what gig you buy, I think that the additional content you get with the digital deluxe edition, there are city packs and so if you want to make your game look different, it won’t play any different, I don’t know how else to describe it…

RPS:…so there’ll be no mechanics…

Jason Haber: We’re not cutting anything out of the core game so it’ll be like ‘oh, we need to put this into those city packs’. They’re more something special for people that love Sim City and want to spend extra to get the deluxe edition. It’s interesting because I know it’s a hot topic now across the whole industry and I think if we look at the history actually it’s not that unusual to have.

RPS: I think expansion packs were easy to quantify, you know you’ve spent this much, you get this extra stuff; the microtransactions become harder to know what you’re eventually going to spend and how much of the game you’re going to get for it.

Jason Haber: And I think people will be satisfied, I would hope people are satisfied that they’re getting the full game because they are. You certainly get extra packs with that digital deluxe edition, but it’s nothing that’s adding new gameplay or cutting out of the game.

RPS: Your city can’t have water unless you spring an extra $10…

Jason Haber: (laughs) Exactly, if you could see how hard we’re working at getting everything into the game that we want to get into the game, I would hope that you’re satisfied that we’re doing everything that we can to put everything in the game for everyone.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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