Inside the Maxis studio in Emeryville, Calif., the next SimCity is taking shape. The new game won’t debut until 2013, but Electronic Arts recently revealed enough of it to get longtime fans of the series — which originally debuted in 1989 and hasn’t had a real blockbuster version since 2003 — salivating for more.

We went to the studio and got a sneak peek in a briefing from Kip Katsarelis (pictured left, see our interview), lead producer at EA’s Maxis. Katsarelis revealed that the team has envisioned a huge game that takes advantage of a full decade’s worth of progress in computing power. The new SimCity is going to have outstanding graphics and a mind-blowing level of detail, but it will also be easier to play. That is a must, Katsarelis said, in an age of simple city simulators on Facebook.

As with the earlier games, you serve as the mayor, setting the policies that allow your city to grow as you wish. If Maxis pulls this game off in the right way, you’ll be happy running your town, and the company could have a  blockbuster hit.

A massive simulation

The new, reimagined game will have a constructable, full 3D world based on what EA calls its GlassBox Engine — simulation software that enables an intricately connected world.

“We track every Sim [person] in the world,” Katsarelis said. “We know if that Sim is sick or happy.”

Ocean Quigley, creative director, said in the briefing that the engine gathers all of the lessons of games such as The Sims, which simulates individual people and families, and brings them together on a much greater level.The game does not take the programming model of The Sims and scales it up, since it was never meant to grow that big. The developers simply redesigned it from the ground up.

Each building in a city is now fully simulated, Quigley (pictured left) said, with full details that describe its purpose, show its status as a working cog in a larger world, and translate its impact on everything else. It is a world designed from the bottom-up, put together by a team of around 80 people who have already been working on this for a year or two.

“Everything is connected,” Katsarelis said. “One of the key pillars here is the way that SimCity makes you think about the world. To prove that, Katsarelis rolled some giant bowling balls through a town to show the havoc they cause as they crush each tree or building.

Each vehicle, person, or building is considered an agent, which lives in the world and interacts with the objects near it. The simulator can support tens of thousands of these, and they trigger certain rules when they arrive at a destination. For example, a truck may drop off water at a containment tank, which will then be able to supply that same water to a home. At a glance, you can look at an overhead map to see which parts of your city need power or other resources. As with older SimCity games, you can create a zone for industry, commercial, or residential buildings, and construction will organically grow buildings in those zones, as agents deliver the necessary resources for this to happen. With enough zoning, you’ll have lots of jobs and many Sims moving into your metropolis.

Wherever you look, you’ll notice details. Businesses will have fictitious names on signs that make the city blocks look alive. The graphics have cool features: clouds, smoke, sunlight glinting off glass windows, waves and boat wakes in the water, and the flashing lights of sirens. The simulation uses depth of field, where the section you are looking at is in sharp focus, but more distant objects are fuzzy.

Despite all of that, the game is designed to run well on PCs that will be about five years old by the time it launches. It should have sufficient speed to run without boring gamers to death because it is too slow.

>99 problems

If you haven’t built enough police stations, you’ll notice evidence of crime, like graffiti. Characters such as arsonists, driving black vans with orange flames, will show up and set fire to buildings. If one is burning, it will produce smoke that contributes to pollution. The fire can burn individual citizens — or Sims — who will cry for help. An ambulance will be dispatched to pick up the burning Sims, douse them, and take them to a hospital. But if the hospital is full, the Sims will be unhappy, and that will lead to further problems for the city. Meanwhile, a fire engine is on its way to the original crime scene. If it gets there in time, it can put out the fire. But if not, the flames will spread.

Each Sim will have a mind of its own with wants and desires. If the Sim has no job, it may organize an Occupy-style protest at your City Hall and demand work. The Sim will be unsatisfied at home and spread more unhappiness. Eventually, the Sim may move out and leave the city, and abandoned buildings will bring down the property values in the neighborhood. Stores where your Sims used to shop may shut down.

Maintaining your city is a constant balancing act. If you build a lot of parks, you’ll have less land for commerce, industry, and residences. But the values of the homes alongside the parks might be high, and you’ll be able to collect more property taxes. You can raise taxes to build a lot of infrastructure. But that may drive people out of your city to towns with lower rates. You might be trying to build your dream city, but if you’re not careful, you may create a ghost town.

City specialization

You can plop individual buildings down as if they were physical objects, and they spew a bunch of dust as you do so. You can also choose to specialize, like creating a coal-industry town, for example. It will draw blue-collar workers who are interested in jobs and don’t mind if they have to breathe in pollution. The air will turn a hazy brown, but you may find that your city is highly successful, with a huge coal company corporate headquarters, explained Stone Librande (pictured below), lead designer.

A power plant will receive shipments of coal via trucks, then convert them into electricity. If it uses more and more supplies, the price of coal will rise in the regional market.

“The free market is at play in the game,” Quigley said. Whoever has a big supply of coal may make a killing. If your neighboring city has mines and you don’t, you’re going to have to pay more for your share.

The animations on the buildings will indicate whether the plant has run out of supplies or if it is functioning fine. You can buy upgrades to add to your buildings, such as more garages or a bell tower to a fire station. If you do that, the station will be able to protect a wider swath of your city.

A cultural arts center may draw an entirely different kind of citizen who has more refined tastes and wants more luxury locations in the area. In the multiplayer version of the game, each city fits within a region that includes your friends. These players can compete with each other or cooperate. The coal city might produce pollution that creates smog for its neighbors. The cultural city might run out of electricity and have to buy its coal from the coal city. As you mine coal and bring it into a power plant, the building will produce electricity that powers the whole grid. The walls of buildings may turn grimy. Heavy sludge may form in the rivers. And an explosion at the power plant might cause outages for other players.

City variety will be huge. You can invest in universities to become a college town. If you create a green city, you may see that your Sims are driving around in electric vehicles. You can build your own version of Las Vegas, designing it in a way so that visiting tourists from other cities will come with lots of money, spend it, and then return home with less than they started with. Casinos require a lot of electricity — and they also bring in a lot of crime, so you’ll need more police stations. You may notice homeless people on the streets.

Collectively, the creators of the cities in a region may want to work together, or they might face social or environmental disasters.

Ambient sounds

The designers reworked the audio to deal the new complexity. The sounds you hear when you zoom in on a home will be different from those on commercial buildings or when you’re listening from a bird’s-eye view of the city, said Kent Jolly (pictured left), audio director. A car generates a different noise than that of a truck. The sounds of traffic are real, and they pile up in crowded areas.

If you visit a barbeque restaurant in the city, you may hear country and western music. But if you visit a ’50s diner, you might hear rock music from that era.

Los Angeles-based composer Chris Tilton created a full orchestral and interactive score for SimCity. If there is a natural disaster happening, like a tornado for example, you will hear dramatic tunes. The music also responds to the overall happiness, so you’ll know the mood of the city at any given moment. The music is a clue if you’re doing something right or wrong.

Ease of use

Given all of those details to worry about, it might be very easy to get lost in the weeds. You might tend to one part of the city and find that another is suffering from neglect.

“The key is finding the right granularity for the simulation,” said Katsarelis. “We didn’t want to go hyper-realistic. We think of this more as the model railroad town that you made when you were little.”

Missions exist so that the designers can guide you to take proper care of your city. It’s not just a giant, open-ended sandbox. Gamers want to be led to rewards, and they want to know the road map that will help them reach their biggest goals.

“That adds structure to the game,” said Katsarelis. “Players are going to have lots of tools to build out the city as they wish.”

Conclusion

I can’t wait to play this game. It’s a massive undertaking. About a year ago, the team was tiny. The whole game design existed on a handful of illustrated documents produced by Librande. Somehow, the game is coming together as the work of scores of developers gets done.

“This is what we wanted to build since SimCity 4,” said Quigley. “This is not just a painting of a city. It’s a real place with real behaviors.”

[Image credits: Electronic Arts; Photo credits: Dean Takahashi]


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