SimCity is coming back in style, or at least that's the idea. At the EA Showcase on Wednesday, we sat down with the general manager of the series, Bret Berry, to talk about the new GlassBox engine, appealing to a broader audience, and taking a brave step into new territory with multiplayer.
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): It's been almost a decade since SimCity 4, the last Maxis-developed game in the series. Why bring SimCity back now, why 2012-2013?
Bret Berry (Maxis): Ah, it's the perfect time to return. It's like stars have aligned. We talked about the internet, and how that's allowed us to explore multiplayer; we've been working on some technology that can really make a new, exciting and unique SimCity with GlassBox; and we really wanted to differentiate from SimCity 4. With that, and the new graphical look, tilt-shift inspired, we've had teams thinking about it for the last few years; the timing was just perfect, with the synergy of everything coming together, and the drive and capabilities to set ourselves apart from previous instalments in the series.
Matt Gardner: SimCity was always quite a hardcore game, I felt. Maxis had SimTown, which was the slightly more casual equivalent, and then The Sims came along and struck almost the perfect balance between having a huge amount of depth with mass appeal and huge accessibility. Looking at this SimCity, it appears as if you're certainly trying to attract both markets too.
Bret Berry: Absolutely. If people take a chance to play the game, we're sure that they'll find it to be a rich game, but it's so much fun too. We didn't want to lose that, so we still have all of the cool detail, and this amazing simulation technology in GlassBox, more amazing than anything we've ever had before. So we have all of the depth of previous games in the series, probably even more so this time around, but we wanted to present it, as you say, in a manner that would encourage lots and lots of people to come and play the game.
Matt Gardner: The overarching 'Sim' umbrella does seem to have attracted a new generation of gamers to the industry in recent years - largely thanks to The Sims. Do you see this as a game that will appeal to newcomers, and perhaps even those who dismissed the SimCity titles of yesterday, as well as series fans?
Bret Berry: I think so, yes. I mean it is a lot to take in, but the engine has helped there. For people that haven't played SimCity before, with the new visualisations and the graphical representations of data and what's going on, it's going to be much easier to jump into the game and have fun.
Matt Gardner: Certainly for me, playing SimCity 2000 as a child, I must admit that I often had trouble when numerous things kind of went wrong at once, and identifying issues and prioritising responses became something of a jumble. Was the development of visual feedback an organic thing, or was it part of the mission statement from the start for this title?
Bret Berry: Well we still wanted to offer that level of detailed control and player choice, and keep a certain amount of that tension too - that feeling of "what do I do next?". We thought that keeping a level of urgency in there was definitely part of the core experience of managing your city, so all of that is still there. But GlassBox just allows us to explore that in a very unique way, and present the simulation engine, which was previously hidden, in a very colourful, very visual way, and that's something we've always wanted to do. Of course, having that visual representation now makes it easier to recognise and deal with the effects of all of your choices.
Matt Gardner: This is the first SimCity game to incorporate multiplayer in some form. How did that come about, and can you tell us a little bit more about how it will work?
Bret Berry: So multiplayer is actually something that we've always wanted to do. But you know, the technology wasn't really up to scratch. Now, however, with broadband speeds, and technological advances, and the multiplayer culture that we have today, it really is perfect. We wanted to create a really unique online experience.
In SimCity's multiplayer you can create regions, think of it like opening up a huge map, and you choose which city spot you want to take on this map. Different spots have different kinds of resources, and those resources deplete over time, so you have to be careful with what you do with them, how you mine them, that kind of stuff.
Matt Gardner: And so you can then invite other players into your region?
Bret Berry: If you want to. It's perfectly possible to play every single city in the region, and play the game in singleplayer. But you're still connected on leaderboards, you can still buy and sell goods on the world market, there'll be endless challenges that will pop up that you can choose to participate in if you wish, so the options are there.
But say you and I want to play together, either of us could create a region and then invite the one another, and others as well, to come and play. So you could create one just for you and your friends and people you know, or bust it wide open and get some random folks from across the globe to come and build and play in your region.
Matt Gardner: How does that balance out? You mentioned that trading can occur and deals can be struck between cities, but just as there are friendly players out there, there are also some decidedly less sociable folk. Is it possible for example, to wreck a neighbour's economy or directly impact upon another player's game in a negative fashion?
Bret Berry: [Laughs.] So, you can't do direct things to another's city, but you can influence your surroundings. So let's say you start building another Vegas or other casino-based city, and you don't care at all about crime. Well, we showed the Arsonist today, who pops up when there's a low police presence and cities are overrun with crime. So if your city is a lawless town, and you're generating lots of Arsonists, they'll eventually spread to neighbouring cities too.
Let's take another example, let's look at pollution. Let's say that I built a city that revolved around industry, and I didn't care about pollution, so my factories were pumping out smog like crazy, that pollution will go up into the air on the region map and, depending on the wind, it'll pollute my neighbours with fumes and start making their sims sick. So then they might start texting me saying "What are you doing?!" and negotiations will have to take place and the balance will have to be restored.
So you can't affect your neighbours through direct action. You can't, say, pick up an Arsonist, point him at a neighbouring city, and send him on his way. But the region will react to the things that you do, and there will be knock-on effects to your neighbours, depending on the way you play.
Matt Gardner: Under what sort of regional conditions will UFOs start appearing?
Bret Berry: Oh well you can actually call UFOs. So, if you want to, you can call them down to start rampaging around your city. There might some fun little challenges that crop up in the future that see you having to deal with a UFO invasion, but we're still working on those things at the moment.
Matt Gardner: One thing about the UI that we saw today, which you said is certainly not the finished article yet, it does seem incredibly simple and well laid out - in the best possible sense. So much so that it wouldn't be too much of a leap to see it working on console. Is that intended?
Bret Berry: We obviously keep all of our options open. The team right now is really focused on this PC game, and that's definitely where we're pouring in our energies for the time being. But who knows?
Matt Gardner: So there's a possibility we could see SimCity 5 on consoles?
Bret Berry: Well anything's possible. We're always open to new ideas, and interested in exploring new platforms. But right now, we have nothing announced, and the team is focused on finishing off this PC game.
Matt Gardner: You touched a little bit on specialisation, and being able to create cities like Vegas. In what other areas can players have their cities specialise, and how will that system work?
Bret Berry: So you'll be given choices at certain stages of the game. You might have a character that will appear in your city and say "Hey, I'm a coal baron. I think you should focus on coal! Do you want to build a mining headquarters and become a coal baron like me?" Something like that. And you get to make that choice. You might have someone come in who says "Hey, I like to build casinos. They're great, they'll earn you loads of money."
So let's say you go with coal, you're sitting on a whole bunch of coal deposits in your city, so you know that you can mine coal. You make the choice to become a coal baron and build a coal headquarters. That coal headquarters then influences the look of your city, so your city changes over the course of time to reflect your industry. So it might end up looking something like Pittsburgh back in the steel days.
Matt Gardner: Did you consider world events too? We've seen economic downturn, political upheavals, environmental issues come to the fore, and with the added multiplayer elements in this new game, and what sounds like a serious amount of depth, it's almost as if the world is ready for a game like this, as well as Maxis.
Bret Berry: I do, but I think SimCity has always been that way, even in the first game, that inspired architects. While we're not trying to make a political statement, because it is a game, we're focused on making it fun, the choices are there. I do think that SimCity has always had the capacity to make people think about the wider world. Do I want to pollute? What should I do about dirty water? What effects do we have on the world and those around us? The game throws up these questions and forces the player to make choices, and then deal with the consequences.
Matt Gardner: Finally, what is, in your opinion, the best, most kickass, most awesome thing about SimCity 5?
Bret Berry: Oh my god, I can only pick one? But there are so many! [Laughs.] You know, I think it's got to be multiplayer. While we have this great simulation engine, great new art, this brilliant interface, and huge amounts of visual player feedback, I think multiplayer is the biggest gamechanger this time around, in comparison to previous SimCities.
Matt Gardner: Why so?
Bret Berry: Well, just because we never had it before. To be able to play in this massive, interconnected world, to have your choices now not only affect you, but potentially the cities of those around, to explore new player dynamics and relationships within that context, and it opens up so many new possibilities for gameplay that we were just never able to have before, so that's probably my number one.
Matt Gardner: Brilliant stuff, thank you so much for taking the time to chat.
Bret Berry: Thanks, and glad you enjoyed checking it out.