This new SimCity brings a whole world of change. As it turns out, PCs have gotten significantly better at running simulations in the nine years since SimCity 4, and Maxis is putting them to good use to create what's already looking like an incredibly detailed and flexible blank slate on which to found our cities. Also, though you'll be able to play alone if you want, Maxis is pushing hard to get us playing together -- or at least side-by-side -- with other virtual mayors.
On that note, those of you who can't tolerate EA's Origin and online-only games should tap out early before you get excited about this: Yes, you will have to register an Origin account in order to play, and yes, you must be online at all times while playing in order to start playing. EA has confirmed that you will not be kicked out if your connection is interrupted.Moving on.
"By himself, he doesn't seem too complicated," observed Lead Designer Stone Librande, with the game camera focused on a lone, ant-sized Sim citizen. "But what I love about it is that when you get 10,000 people, it's really fun to watch. Even though everybody's basically a stupid, very simple little algorithm, when you get enough of them, and some people are shopping, some people are at schools, and some people are at parks, you get these really rich flows through your city."
It's an impersonation made possible by a mind-bogglingly detailed simulation.
It may be a stupid little algorithm, but it does a great impression of a crowd of pedestrians. A few hundred Sims strolling around a small loop of road bears a striking resemblance to the movements of a real crowd you might see leaving a movie theater after the show. It's an impersonation made possible by a mind-bogglingly detailed simulation -- one that simultaneously keeps constant tabs on up to 200,000 of these guys as they go through their daily lives. By comparison, the four prior SimCitys are primitive, basing their simulations on statistical guesswork that has only a foggy idea of where a particular Sim might be at any given moment.
What's more, those sorta-smart Sims were walking down smooth, curvy roads. "This isn't a grid-based SimCity, it's a free-form SimCity that's all structured by the roads," explained Creative Director Ocean Quigley, a 17-year Maxis veteran who's had a hand in every SimCity except the original. When he demonstrated how the new cities are laid out, first laying down a road and then attaching residential, industrial, and commercial zones to that framework, I had to imagine someone at Maxis smacked their forehead when they thought of that. After four games of the old style of drawing zones arbitrarily and then trying to make sure that there was a road within four grid squares of every zoned square, this simple design tweak might just kill off one of the series' more frustrating quirks. And with those curvy roads, the map has effectively become a game of urban-planning Draw Something in which we'll be able to create any city layout we want, not just a gridded Philadelphia clone.
Maxis is bashful about showing actual screenshots because it hasn't yet put a lot of attention into the graphics (hence the concept art you're seeing here), but a few showcase buildings -- like the fire station -- looked sharp and colorful, with detailed animations to show when they're operating. Quigley pointed to model railroads and scale models as great sources of inspiration for the look and feel, and also pointed out a bit of diorama-like texture trickery used to efficiently create an illusion of interiors to buildings and even cars without slowing down the framerate.
That's a first for a SimCity game: there's a full resource economy.
This city, however, wasn't doing so hot. It had no power, and no police or fire protection. The citizens were picketing at city hall in protest, and rightly so -- no one was picking up the garbage on their front lawns, which (due to a lack of a sewage system) was technically at least partially poop. At the root of the city's woes was the lack of juice flowing from the coal power plant, which didn't have any coal to burn. That's a first for a SimCity game: there's a full resource economy, complete with a form of supply-chain crafting, and to use them we'll be need to either buy raw materials from the global market or extract them from the land ourselves.
Throwing down a mine in a coal-rich area set off a chain reaction: miners (actual Sims who now had jobs) dug out the goodies, a truck carried a load to the power plant, and the power plant sprang to life and began to process the coal into electricity and an unhealthy dose of pollution. Power pulses shot out from the plant along the electrical grid, lighting up the town as they went, and solving half of the problems facing the town.
Wait a minute -- I thought this was a civic simulator, but this all sounds like a business. What gives? "If everything just came from off the screen, from stage left or something, then you wouldn't care about it," replied Librande. "Now you actually need people -- someone's got to be digging that stuff up. Your community is going to be wrapped around that. When you look at cities, like the big oil cities, the government is really involved in the big businesses... So I don't see it as two separate things. There's a police station, there's a school, and then there's an oil refinery, and these are all things you have to manage." Asked if there'd be a "libertarian mode" where the government would keep its hands off of business, Librande said that it's totally possible to ignore that aspect and simply buy the goods you need from the global market -- but it'll cost you more.
It sounds to me like this economy is designed to make us more dependent on the new multiplayer aspects. It's an interesting setup -- players won't be operating in the same city map, so you don't need to worry about your friend bulldozing your stuff, but cities in the same "region" (a map made up of between four and 10 cities) can help or hinder each other. For example, a player producing a surplus of electricity can sell some to a neighbor, but if he's producing all that juice by burning tons of coal, he'll also unintentionally export pollution. Other than competing for leaderboard scores, though, there won't be a great deal of competition between mayors -- although I did catch wind of plans for a sports team rivalry system.
Two or more mayors playing together and specializing their cities' production roles can make sweetheart deals.
Maxis has come up with an interesting asynchronous multiplayer system that doesn't require you and your fellow players to be online at the same time to play together (which is great, because otherwise no one would ever finish one of those games), so it shouldn't have a traumatic effect on your city if your friend goes AWOL. But from the sound of things, two or more mayors playing together and specializing their cities' production roles can coordinate and make sweetheart deals that give all the cheap power, clean water, and other goods they need to build a metropolis-level city much more efficiently than a solo player.
So now the city had power, but there was still no police or fire protection. With no police, when a very conspicuous black van with flames painted on it started driving around the area, there was no one to stop him and ask if he was an arsonist. It so happens he was, and moments after he pulled into an apartment building a blaze broke out, so Lead Producer Kip Katsaelis paused the action to show off the new modular building system. He plonked down a basic fire station, which by itself would provide basic protection, but then he used a Spore-like modification system to add on an extra fire truck garage to increase coverage.
I wondered if this system, which applies not just to fire stations but police stations, hospitals, schools, and more would increase the micromanagement load on the player, but Katsaelis seemed confident that wouldn't be an issue. "We feel like we hit a nice balance there with the amount of 'plopables' that you had to place -- the amount of fire stations that you needed to place in previous SimCities versus the number of modules you need to place in this SimCity -- and we're hitting about the same amount of management game."
Katsaelis resumed time, and in moments the fire station was fully staffed up and had dispatched a truck to the scene of the blaze, where panicking Sims were pouring out in droves. Again, those Sims are each represented individually, whether on foot or in a car -- and that proved to be a problem for the fire truck, which was caught in a traffic jam on a narrow road. It seems wider roads and smoothly flowing traffic are essential to a city's well-being, because this delay cost lives: before the truck finally reached the fire and extinguished it, several Sims in the building caught fire and ran outside before burning to dust. And that'swhy you pull over when there's a fire truck behind you.
The arsonist is just one type of criminal we'll need to watch out for -- among others, Maxis says that the Limited Edition will include both the heroic Maxis Man and his arch-nemesis Dr. Lu, a supervillain (complete with lair) who will do some serious damage if left unchecked.
Maxis knows the power of a good mod community. "We're not idiots."
I asked Quigley whether we'd see mods, and the news was encouraging -- a surprise, given the online requirement. "SimCity is a data set that sits inside a GlassBox. It's all just text-based rules. We've built an infrastructure that's moddable," he said. However, exposing all those guts to modders would take some work, and it's yet to be determined exactly when that work might happen. But Quigley added that he and Maxis know the power of a good mod community. "It's worth pointing out that the reason people are still playing SimCity 4 today, 10 years after we shipped it, is because the modding community essentially recreated it. They filled it with new content and fixed bugs, and made it as much of a hobby as a game. We're very cognoscente of that -- I mean, we're not idiots."
For the grand finale, Quigley attacked some skyscrapers with giant marbles, shattering buildings and sending chunks flying everywhere to show off the demolition physics. Giant doom balls won't be a disaster in the final game, but we'll definitely see things like fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and (most likely) alien invaders. This will certainly be the most destructible SimCity yet, and for me at least, demolishing a megalopolis has always been the greatest reward for building one.