In the lull created by Bioshock Infinite's absence from every expo and event this year thus far, another game has stepped into the spotlight to take the position of what is possibly our most anticipated game of the next year: SimCity. Every time we see it at a show, it hurts a little bit more to leave it behind, given as we have been, only the briefest amount of hands-on time with the game. GlassBox has impressed us with the ease with which feedback on one's city might be assimilated. A click of a button here, a glance at the shifting data layers, and the screenshot tells you more in one second than ten graphs could.
Our demonstrator at a recent event showcased a town called Roadvania: a city designed to reveal just how easy it is to create complex transport systems, tunnels, bridges, spiralling corkscrews of motorway, interspersed with train tracks, tram lines, waterways, and more. We'd never been quite so excited about roads before. And then our demostrator clicked on a single Sim and, from our position as an ethereal architect we suddenly zoomed down from the macro to the micro, and followed this Sim on his way into work.
We followed him throughout the week, noting how he changed his working practices to take the far more convenient bus once a route or two had been set up, and watched as pollution to reflect the fewer cars on the road. At the weekend he skipped town to visit the neighbouring Monte Vegas - a gambling haven - and we watched as the demo's overlord tracked individual tourists, noted the increased happiness in the city, and chuckled as swarming Sims sporting bandit icons were doggedly chased down by police cars coming from an HQ in our Sim's home city.
"We're hoping to really put the 'Sim' back in 'SimCity'," a rep told us as we sat there, dreaming up plans for the cities that would occupy Dealspwnia.
We sat down later with producer Jason Haber to chat about the development process, sandbox specialisation, and the connected multiplayer features.
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): How do you go about making a SimCity title for 2013?
Jason Haber: I think being connected online is a huge part of that, and that's really what this latest game has been built around. We're a connected generation now, a connected society, and the opportunity to be able to have multiple, user-generated cities, all talking to one another, with system that feed off of one another, that was too great an opportunity to pass up. Cities don't exist in a bubble, urban societies are all connected.
But 2013 means that the technology is in place too. This is a game that has been made truly possible thanks to the technology, thanks to Glassbox. We finally have computers and the systems in place that are capable of simulating every single bit of detail of a city. It takes the traditional SimCity and influences every last aspect of it, because now you can see everything happening, right down to individual building blocks and the lives of individual Sims. It's turned SimCity on its head.
Dealspwn: Every time we see this game, we want to play it more and more, and I think that a large part of that is down to GlassBox. It almost seems like the coming together of Maxis' two greatest franchises: we have that city-building sense of being a civic overlord, but there's the option to zoom in and really look incredibly deeply at things happening to individuals in real time without the need for charts and graphs. Like The Sims – you can tell from a glance what's up.
Jason Haber: Well that's exactly it. GlassBox is a fantastic engine for us, and it has been revolutionary. Having a good engine takes so much pressure off elsewhere and, as you say, it's been designed to give that sense of constant levels of feedback. We still have graphs and charts and things like that, but being able to leverage the technology to allow for these multiple layers of visual feedback has been great. I know accessibility can sometimes seem to be a dirty word these days, but having a good UI for something like this is crucial, and we wanted to make it as user-friendly as possible. Of course, we've still got the simulation mechanics going on underneath, to an even greater level of detail than before, so it's really exciting, and not just for SimCity either. We've got to finish this game, but looking ahead to future projects, Glassbox is very exciting indeed.
Dealspwn: It's probably the aspect that proves the most immediately impressive: rendering incredibly detailed processes very simply indeed. How difficult was it to strike that balance?
Jason Haber: Well the inspiration for the data layers, that all came really early on, that was a huge part of the design process from the beginning for this SimCity. Christian Stratton, who's the UI/UX lead here at Maxis, these data layers have kind of been his baby, and this visualisation of data has been in huge part down to him. But the beauty of the system is that it's easy to iterate on in a big way.
The challenge, in many ways for this game, and it's kind of a new one, has been trying to convince people that there is an enormous amount of depth to the game. It's there, it really is, there's so much going on underneath the surface. You click on any building and you can see immediately how much money it's making, who's in the building, what they're doing there. At any given moment you can choose to focus in on the smallest level, right down to individual Sims, and that hardcore simulation engine will be working to tell you want they're doing.
But we wanted to provide that visual feedback, to incorporate those data layers, for people who'd maybe never really played SimCity before. It's not just for them, of course, it just makes it easier to receive and process the information that you need as a player.
Dealspwn: We've seen and heard a fair bit about specialisations, particularly the casino and mining avenues for players to go down, but you mentioned in your presentation that players can create their own. Could you elaborate on that perhaps?
Jason Haber: I think, to me, that's part of the sandbox gameplay. If you're playing an entire region yourself, you can make the entire area up of specialist cities. I think one of my favourites has to be the Trash City: you could take one of the cities in your region, fill it with garbage dumps, treatment plants, and recycling stations, and then outsource all of that throughout the region to all of the neighbouring cities. So all of your garbage is going to one city, and you have to kind of hope that the pollution doesn't spread out to all of your other cities. But that's what I mean about choosing your own routes for specialisation. These larger, multi-city ecosystems allow you to do that, and that's not been possible before.
Dealspwn: Having seen SimCity a number of times now, I’ve been struck y something, and yo kind of encapsulated it nicely in the presentation: Sims build houses, move in, get jobs, buy stuff, and become happy. Is SimCity really just Ultimate Capitalism: The Videogame?
Jason Haber: (Laughs) You know it's funny, you're not the first person to come to that conclusion today! I look at it from the other way round. What you're really trying to do in SimCity is prevent your Sims from being unhappy. So, sure, Sims find happiness through shopping, but it's really more about them not being unhappy because their needs are fulfilled. Cleanliness, employment, recreation, there are lots of things that affect their mood, not just shopping. But I suppose you could potentially say that SimCity is something of an embodiment of a consumer-driven capitalist culture. That's one way of looking at it.
Dealspwn: So say I leap into a region with three friends. You talked a little bit about outsourcing garbage, how else might we help one another out or hinder each other's urban evolution?
Jason Haber: Well you can outsource a number of services. Say I'd invested a lot into my health departments across the city, I might unlock the option to build a general hospital. Or say I've been building a casino town, but the crime level has led me to invest heavily in policing and I now have the option to build a Police HQ. Those higher tier buildings then influence the entire region. It really pays t have complimentary cities in a region, because then everyone wins.
In similar fashion, though, there are a number of ways to adversely affect your neighbours, and pollution is probably the highest on the list in that regard. If you have a really polluted city, it'll spread through the air or the water. Crime is similar, particularly if you have a city that's big on recreation but low on policing, so you have to make sure that your city is ready for anything if you can.
Dealspwn: If I create a public region, will someone be able to come in and troll my city?
Jason Haber: Not directly, I mean they won't be able to come in and destroy your city, or hurl a bunch of UFOs at you and ruin everything. The things that they can affect in your game are really secondary in nature, and you can choose how to set up your region however you like. But equally, we wanted this to emulate real-life, and sometimes you do get cities that are a bit unclean or a bit dangerous, and it's really up to you to deal with that as you see fit.
Dealspwn: For the sake of clarification, just to be utterly clear on this, will players be able to run SimCity offline?
Jason Haber: No, you can't. Multi-city play is enormously important to this game, to this SimCity. That just wouldn't be possible offline, and that's the game we've made, that's the experience we've created. You get the cool stuff as well though, so you have leaderboards, and a global market, and Citylog. These are integral parts of the experience, so no, you won't be able to play it offline.
Dealspwn: You mentioned Citylog there. Obviously EA's been working their various -logs into a number of games, and it's easy to see how it might benefit racing games and competitive shooters, but what does Citylog bring to SimCity?
Jason Haber: It connects you to your friends in really swift, accessible fashion, and that's important, especially if you're sharing a region. So you'll now when they've joined a region, when they're chosen a city site, or moved up and down on the leaderboards. But you'll also get all of the information on the macro scale. So Citylog will provide updates on what's happening on the larger scale, market fluctuations, news from other regions. GlassBox creates this fantastic world that's sculpted and shaped by the payer, and Citylog provides the social glue that holds it together.
SimCity is due March 8th, 2013 for PC.