A First Look At: SimCity

Curvy Roads! Multiplayer! SimCity Or Dwarf Fortress? You Decide
RockPaperShotgun.com, March 28, 2012

Pity the simulated citizens who will live in SimCity, the reboot of the franchise of the same name, due from the god-game guys at Maxis sometime in 2013. No easy life for them, no appearing as if by magic on the streets of your town and scurrying back and forth between the busy districts of the day. No – instead, life will be a precarious crap-shoot of existential uncertainty, in which no satisfaction, however small, may be taken for granted, and no need may ever be filled in more than momentary fashion. And, as if it need be said, in the game.

“It’s not like each Sim has a specific job that’s his, and a specific house that’s his,” says lead designer Stone Librande, like this knowledge might mitigate the situation. Instead, each Sim that will inhabit your thriving metropolis (or crime-ridden housing project, as the case may be) will wake up each morning and start the day by looking for a new job – if they’re not sick, that is, in which case they’ll look for a hospital. And every evening, that same Sim will leave work and take a moment to look for a new place to live. Filling out employment applications and being interviewed by already-unbearable roommates every single day. Oh, the humanity!

But it’s in that tale of quotidian ennui – repeated thousands, or tens or hundreds of thousands of times per simulated day, once for every Sim in your city – that the real difference between this game and previous iterations of SimCity lies. For, when you finally become mayor of your own little cleverly named town at some point next year that can’t come soon enough, each of the Sims that moves into it will be its own discrete software agent, running its own little simulation of its own little life. Each car will be its own little simulated car, with a specific origin and destination. Each coal-burning power plant will have its own little simulated coal hopper, which you’ll see fill up as a delivery truck arrives (running its own little simulation of itself), and then slowly empty out as the plant burns coal. And each traffic jam will be not a simulated traffic jam, but a real traffic jam, the result not of a subroutine somewhere that decided it was time for a traffic jam, but of too many individually simulated Sims driving too many individually simulated cars along too narrow a stretch of simulated road.

“What you see is what we sim,” says the cleverly named Ocean Quigley, the team’s creative director. Rather than a top-down simulation in which the system itself might call for a traffic jam animation on a stretch of road between a high-density residential area and a high-density commercial area, the new SimCity is “built from the simulation up,” Quigley says. “All the simulation behavior is embedded in the individual buildings and objects.” The result (it’s hoped) is a world that is finally more than the sum of its sim parts.

SimCity has always been a gloriously fun exercise in spinning up a big complicated interconnected machine – and then tearing it all down again via earthquakes and UFOs. But it has also always been a game about that machine, a matter of understanding which levers controlled which chutes, and which buttons produced which widgets. If the levers dictated a system in equilibrium, the simulation produced happy Sims. If the settings spat out unhappiness and neglect, the simulation called for a fire or slum.

The new SimCity will turn this situation on its head. Rather than the city’s overall condition trickling down to determine what kind of animations you see, individual simulations determine individual animations, and the condition of the city itself is merely the condition of all of its inhabitants. Much like Dwarf Fortress (which Quigley says he hasn’t played much, though he cites it as an inspiration), it’s a god game that decidedly gives the power to the “people”.

The task of simulating all the Sims, cars, buildings, businesses, air currents and river flows (don’t put your agricultural runoff upstream of your residential areas, as groundwater pollution could send some Sims to the hospital — if there is one) is made possible by Maxis’s new GlassBox engine, designed to run not only SimCity but possible future games as well. GlassBox also brings full 3D-ness to SimCity for the first time — including fully destructible buildings that shatter nicely under the impact of enormous ping-pong balls flung from the sky. (Final decisions on available disasters have not yet been made. The smart money says ping-pong balls don’t make it to gold.) Leaving sprites behind has also brought with it the most hotly requested feature of the franchise’s history: that’s right, curvy roads! Nuff said.

Curvy or not, those roads will run past buildings that are a bit different to past SimCity infrastructure as well, and not just in their destructibility. Rather than dialing tax rates and maintenance spending up and down to determine what resources to direct toward various industries and services, most buildings in the new SimCity will be highly modular, and will be managed on an individual basis. Want more police protection for your richest residents? Add a heliport to the police station on the east side of town. Can’t afford so many cops in the poorer neighborhoods? Close down the extra jail cells you built last year. (But watch out for the arsonist’s van that will show up from time to time.)

Some of this will be directed by your Sims themselves, who will occasionally offer you optional missions to complete that can be used to guide you through the game, in addition to the news reports that will remain a fixture. Build a big enough coal industry, and a coal baron may waltz into town and offer you the chance to have his “Big Business” (akin to a multinational, see below) open its HQ in your city, for instance.

While the new SimCity will be the most granular yet it will also work on a broader level than ever before, due to the introduction of a multiplayer mode that’s intended to bring a new kind of play to a franchise that’s older than many of the 23-year-olds reading this article – and all of the 22-year-olds. In multiplayer mode, your city will be one of several – or several hundred – in a shared region. While cities won’t start out connected, the winds blowing in from SmudgeVille may actually pollute the skies above your carefully greened YouTopia. And if you do care to build some roads between the two, watch out: you may actually find smudgy SmudgeVille workers commuting in to take your higher-paying jobs.

Multiplayer does present some fascinating possibilities for SimCity. A new class of industry, the “Big Business,” can trade goods on the regional market. And if you’re connected to one of your neighbouring regional cities, you can make direct player-to-player transactions as well. The “what you see is what we sim” rule applies to trade as well: the road system between cities is crucial, Librande says, because trade actually flows via trucks between the cities in question. Power lines can be built as well. If YouTopia is producing surplus energy, you can sell some to SmudgeVille, which in turn can shut down some of its air-polluting power plants and open some casinos to generate cash.

This kind of “city specialization” will be a key to multiplayer, Quigley says. Like everything else, it will be a bottom-up occurrence, something that will evolve naturally rather than being a top-level choice like the class of your RPG character. The SimCityState you run in multiplayer will likely fare better if you don’t try to be all industries to all workers. SimGlobalization, anyone?

While you won’t be able to have any direct effect on your neighbours’ cities, creative griefing will be a distinct possibility. While details of multiplayer remain somewhat scarce, there will be a mechanism for booting players when necessary, whether because of egregious behavior (and is that really a reason?), or because they’ve simply stopped playing.

The GlassBox engine is “built to be moddable,” according to Quigley, but Maxis aren’t yet saying when or if that function will be made available. But the fact that each entity in the game runs its own simulation system opens a whole new world of possibilities on the modding front. The GlassBox engine itself is also built in modular fashion, making it easy to add new systems, according to lead producer Kip Katsarelis. No word yet on DLC, but Katsarelis says SimCity will be as easy to update as The Sims games have been in the past.

Whether thousands of individually simulated Sims and their surroundings will add up to something more than just another SimCity game remains to be seen. But Maxis have clearly been at pains to take a franchise that has not seen a full-blown release in ten years (sorry, Societies) and give it a lot more than just a new coat of paint. Not only do they want SimCity to look and feel better than ever before, they want you to care more as well. “Your Sims have to be able to suffer in various ways,” says Quigley, not holding back on the schadenfreude. “If they’re invulnerable and don’t need you, you don’t have an emotional reason to come back to the game.” And would anything really be wrong with just another SimCity game anyway? I ask you.