First Looks// SimCity

Posted 20 Apr 2012 09:00 by
Games: SimCity
Can you believe that it’s been nine years since the last major SimCity release? So when simulation legends Maxis announced that it was working on a brand new entry to the series, tongues were collectively wagging. Now that I’ve seen a demo of the game in action, I can tell you that those tongues are about to wag some more.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for the technology to get to a place where we could make a new SimCity for the PC,” Maxis producer Jason Haber teases. “And we really felt like this was the time to do it.”

Fundamentally, things are exactly the same. You assume the role of mayor, in a city that you build from the ground up. First you find a nice plot of land, then you build some houses, a road or two, a power supply and a means for your virtual tenants to access that power... with careful planning and good judgement, you can grow from a small town to a glowing utopia.

So what’s changed in the new SimCity, and why should we care? The buzz phrase that Maxis is using to lead development of this game is ‘visual feedback’ - the ability to read the state of your town and civilians using colourful data layers, without the necessity to pull up separate screens full of charts and graphs. It’s all to make the game much more accessible to casual and core players alike.

One of the pillars that hold up this development philosophy is a brand new engine called GlassBox. The effects of this engine is astounding in a number of ways. Firstly, it allows the SimCity world to be presented in a true 3D environment. No longer are you limited to fixed isometric views and 90-degree camera turns. You can pull the view down as close as you like and angle the horizon so you can see a truly stunning view of your city as it bustles with day-to-day life.

The bustling of Sims, in fact, is another way in which GlassBox impresses. Maxis can now simulate everything that happens in your city and use this to present visual clues as to whether there are problems to address. As an example of this, protests can take place outside the mayor’s office to signal a problem, and the crowd will grow depending on the number affected.

Other examples: districts with no funding to education or policing will show up dirty and covered in graffiti. And of course, you have the traditional SimCity visual clues of massive traffic jams if you’re not paying attention to the roads. Only this time the visualisation is a direct correlation to the severity of your traffic situation.

“That’s sort of the beauty of the GlassBox engine, it allows us to present all of that data visually,” noted Haber. “But, while there is a lot going on, there is also a fair bit of trickery there to some extent. It is a true simulation and everything, but there’s always little shortcuts you can take to make things look more active, and have a lot of savings there.

“For example, one of the pieces of technology that Ocean (Quigley, creative director who created GlassBox) developed is a system that allows us to render tens of thousands of Sims for a very low cost. So we can put as many Sims as we want into the game, and its very cheap [on resources] for us to do it. That’s one example of the savings, we’ve used tricks like that all over the place to really allow us to do this on a massive scale.”

The visual clues from the Sims are only part of the story though - clicking on a number of icons at the bottom of the screen will bring up overlays to your city. Unlike previous SimCity games, where you had completely different displays of the environment, here they simply act as additional icons to bring context.

If you were a Sim, it’d look as if the world around you had an augmented reality display slapped over the top of it. Red and yellow lines detail where power is being routed, while smileys above houses can tell you if an area is unhappy with your work in some way, advising you to investigate.

“We didn’t want to get rid of the charts and graphs outright, and we’ve kept them, but what we really tried to do was not have them in your face so much,” Haber adds. “The data layers and the ability to seeing the city itself simulate what’s going on in real time are two features that really make this SimCity more accessible. You can quickly see what’s going on in your city.

“And the Sims in your city will actually interact with you a lot more. You can peer into their thoughts a bit and see what they’re thinking, and get an idea as to how you’re doing as a mayor. Sometimes they’ll even ask you to do things and you can make pledges to them, in the same way that a citizen might go to a mayor and say, ‘Hey can you do this for me?’”

As well as Sim interaction, a bunch of other refinements and quirks have been added too - for instance, building roads is much more interesting now that it’s not fixed to 90-degree angles. You can weave roads around, bend them and add all kinds of exotic curves and directions for cars to follow with a single drag of the mouse.

Zones also follow the contours of the road you have placed, and once buildings are constructed you can use the building editor to add bells and whistles to various structures. Fire stations can be equipped with extra fire truck garages and warning bells, for example, while Power Stations can have additional generators latched onto the side of them to eke some more juice out of them - at the cost of increased pollution.

Perhaps one of the most interesting changes to the SimCity formula is in its embracement of online connectivity. In past games, you could connect your city by road or power line to the edge of your region grid and offer to connect to a nearby town. This would allow you to trade and make deals with AI players across the virtual border. Now, Maxis is replacing those AI players with real-life ones. As you establish communication and trade agreements with other SimCity towns, how you perform as mayor will have an impact on the online players who are sat around you.

Haber reveals that the team hasn’t yet settled on how far it will take online interaction. “We’re still working on what level of sharing there will be and how it will all work out.” When I suggested that perhaps players could take photos of their cities and share with their friends using an in-game dialog, the producer said, “we understand the desire for people to want to do that. We’d certainly want to do it ourselves.

"But I don’t know how much that’ll all be integrated. There’ll certainly be communication between each region. That’s really what we wanna push - the ability to play with each other in a region and collaborate.”

For simulation fans the world over, SimCity has a pedigree that’s incredibly hard to beat. And Maxis is looking like it will take the genre to a whole new level when this new iteration is released. 2013 can’t come soon enough.
Games: SimCity

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