SimCity Creators Answer Questions from Redditors

The developers at Maxis answered plenty of questions posed to them by Redditors about their upcoming game.

by on 9th Mar, 2012

simcity 5

Next year, the franchise that started the city building genre is about to return. Maxis presented the first trailer to Sim City at the Game Developer’s Conference 2012. The upcoming game will heavily feature on multiplayer integration and will see a complete overhaul of what made the franchise what it is today. Recently, the developers were available for an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, the answers to which we have boiled down here, presented in an easier readable fashion.

For those who want the full, unfiltered AMAA with everyones’ comments, here it is on reddit.

- [Dan]The integrity of our simulation is first and foremost – without a good simulation under the hood the game wouldn’t hold your interest. Yesterday Ocean, Andrew, and I gave a presentation at GDC explaining exactly how our new simulation engine, GlassBox, works. Here’s a recap of the talk that took place yesterday.

- [Ocean] We’re making SimCity, not some dopey casual game.

The most important thing is the integrity of the simulation underneath it, the stuff that represents the systems that make up a real city. I don’t want to enforce sustainable design principles in the game – I want them to emerge as natural consequences of your interaction with the simulation.

If you don’t deal with your sewage, with traffic congestion, with walkability & transit, with ground and air pollution – your city will reflect that! And there are lots of people who will want to explore the simulation and see what happens when they do. Making some polluted, congested, urban nightmare is a total win condition, as far as I’m concerned.

Maxis didn’t develop Societies – we did SimCity 2k, 3k & 4 (and the original of course!)

I’m not going to bash Societies, but I will say that this new SimCity was built from the simulation engine up, and is the one that I wanted to make after I finished working on SimCity 4.

[Andrew] I think the reaction to SimCity Societies made it pretty clear that something was missing, and we’re looking to bring back that ‘secret sauce’ in the new SimCity. Where we can though, we’re definitely interested in getting those kinds of vignettes in there to bring life to the city. We started down that path on SimCity 4 with our automata system, and we’re making further strides within the current game.

- [Ocean]  Like SC4, you can build out a region by yourself, and make all of the cities serially. There are lots of players who just want to control their own world, and they don’t want anybody to interfere with it. But even those solo players are going to be participating in the flow of resources that constitute the core of the games economy – the economic landscape that they’re operating in will be shaped by the actions of other players, even if they are only playing solo. In addition, there will be regional challenges and opportunities that you’ll be competing against other regions for. So you can play by yourself. More social players can play with their friends and accomplish more, faster, but that’s their choice.

As for custom content – think back to SC4 – first we just need to get the game out, and make everything work robustly.

[Andrew] As we said in the talk yesterday, we’re very much aware of and appreciative of our mod community. We don’t have specific plans yet beyond general good intentions, and the fact that we’re using similar tech to our previous games. Basically, stay tuned.

[Andrew] We’ve addressed this elsewhere, but I just want to repeat, single player is definitely still a big focus. And if you want to play all the cities in a region yourself, that’s absolutely possible. I think there’s some research somewhere showing that, even with strictly multiplayer games, people wind up soloing for the majority of gameplay hours, so you’re not alone!

- [Kip] Trust me when I say the base game is going to be loaded with content. We wanted to give our hardcore fans an opportunity for something extra if they decided to pre-order the game. We came up with the Heroes and Villains for our hardcore fans. Inspired by SimCity lore, Super Sim or Maxis Man as he’s sometimes called, was first seen in SimCity 2000. We decided to bring him back in a much bigger way in this SimCity.

The Collector’s edition is jammed packed with content. We have 3 new landmarks that will serve a function in your game, helping to boost tourism. They will also influence the building around them. The base game will include plenty of landmarks as well.

To clarify, the Limited Edition is a pre-order special of the base game and priced at $59.99, just like the base game. The Collector’s Edition is an Origin exclusive, priced at $79.99.

- [Dan] There’s no lack of data present in our simulator, we’ve been experimenting with playful ways of representing that data to the player. That doesn’t mean you’ll have any less detailed data on your city, in fact, in a lot of ways you’ll be able to explore your city data along other dimensions that weren’t possible with previous SimCities. We’ve taken a lot of inspiration from modern data visualization techniques/style and we’ve built in the notion of ‘data layers’ into the game. For example, if you want to know everything about how power is flowing through your city, you can click on the power data view, you’ll be able to see electricity flowing down the wires, buildings will change colors representing power stored, plus you’ll get global stats about your cities power system (output/usage, etc).

- [Kip] This SimCity is tailored to many different player’s and play styles. You can choose what’s right for you when planning out your city or region. You can choose to play in a region entirely by yourself, being the Mayor of each city. Or you can open up cities and invite your friends, so it’s a more controlled environment. If you’re feeling adventurous, hop into quick play and join others in a preexisting region. It’s really up to you.

- [Ocean] You’ll be able to build up a modest and attractive city without too much trouble, but the simulation is going to start pushing back at you and you’ll need to respond to it. You won’t need to respond by building a huge teeming metropolis! But you will need to respond. Cities are dynamic, with dynamic problems.

But I should say that we’re avoiding “micromanagement”– you’re not going to be setting the price of burgers in the diners in your city. You’re going to be making the infrastructural and economic decisions that will drive the state of your city. And it’s really important to us that you can see what the simulation is doing – that way the simulation can be sophisticated without becoming mysterious or opaque. If you can see the cause and effect relationships, then you can respond to your city.

- [Andrew] We can support a much richer set of transport options this time around, in terms of what agents (cars/people/bikes) can travel along what kinds of routes. (Hilariously so sometimes — due to forgetting a line in a data file we had cars driving in the air along power lines at one point.) What will be in there for ship, I honestly don’t know at this point. I’d love to see you building that housing area for real though!

- [Andrew] One of the biggest issues after ship was with the transport system, and the fact that people really didn’t have a clear idea of what was going on with that system. Traffic was failing to get from one point to another, and people simply didn’t understand why. We put in place some fixes for that after ship by adding new transport layer visualisation modes, but that issue has definitely driven a lot of our thinking about how we make it much clearer to people what’s going on under the hood this time around.

[Dan] Resources in our simulation engine are finite. As you extract oil or coal out of the ground it doesn’t get replaced, it’s gone. So if you’ve built up an entire city on the economic basis of extracting a certain resource, when that resource runs out your economy will collapse. For resources like water it works the same way, but can be replenished by environmental factors like rain.

- [Andrew] The news ticker was a great idea. We’re trying to update it a bit for the new SimCity, move it from the era of print to today’s online papers and blogs. But it’s a great way to get a bit of personality and humour into the game, which I think is a lot of what makes a Maxis SimCity game.

- [Ocean] [Sim City is]  a live simulation that reacts to what you do. It’s a game of indirect control, and the Sims vote with their feet.

If (for some reason) you don’t want rich Sims in a neighborhood, plop down a sewage treatment plant or an incinerator, or just don’t pick up the trash. Trust me, they’ll leave. If you want rich Sims to move in, make sure that there is employment for them and that there are amenities to attract them.

The important thing to add though, is that a deep simulation is only valuable if it’s sufficiently transparent – if you can see what’s going on. (reminds me of the observation that there are 3 kinds of fun in games – things that are fun for players, things that are fun for developers, and things that are fun for the computer). If the player can’t see what’s going on in the simulation, if they can’t understand it and change it, then it’s merely fun for the computer. Rich simulation only matters if you can do something with it.

- [Kip] We are going for a stylized look which has a mesmerizing charm about it. We are building a more accessible SimCity, one that has all the depth, the puzzle solving, the challenge that you love from the greatest city builder ever. We’ve updated the gameplay by adding missions, but maintained the sandbox. We still have a deep city simulation game, but we’ve removed the spreadsheets and explain the details of the simulation through fun info graphic style data layers. This SimCity will be a rich 3D client based PC game and not browser based.

[Andrew]  In fact, [the Glassbox engine] started off life as a general simulation engine we could use to revisit previous titles (SimAnt!), and explore new sim game ideas with. The idea to do a new SimCity came later. We have some ambitious plans here, but for now SimCity is the main focus.

- [Andrew] Our paths (e.g., roads) are fully spline based. Thus, all you have to do is draw out a network of them, and you will have reticulated splines yourself. How awesome is that.

More seriously, thinking up those load screen items was a lot of fun on SimCity 4 for the whole team. I’m looking forward to that process already.

- [Dan] The buildings aren’t procedurally generated, the geometry for each is modeled by our artists. However, to minimize repeats there’s a decal system for adding random signage to the buildings, and we can also drive building colors by tweaking color palettes. All of that combined is designed to minimize the number of repeat buildings you’ll see. Of course, at one point in development we only had one asset for each of the 9 Wealth/Density combinations… everyone’s commercial sector was road after road of gas stations .

As for disasters, oh yes, there will be disasters. Disasters + physics engine == awesome. As for details about how disasters work in multiplayer, we’ll be talking about that at a later date, but it’s clearly something we’re thinking about and driving towards.

- [Kip] We’re targeting the fans who grew up with the franchise for sure. We’re very happy with where we landed with our art aesthetic. We decided not to go hyper real, but hyper fun. We able to get more detail and are able to tell true simulation states through the art, which is critical for a city simulation game.

- [Andrew] We have no idea [if this game will be released on Steam]. We’d like you to be able to get the game from as many places as possible. The exact details invariably depend on legal and business negotiations that are above our pay grade, and likely won’t get hammered out until close to ship.

- [Ocean] Let’s see – I worked with Will on the Sims, Spore, SimCopter, and Streets of SimCity.

But I’ve never worked with him on SimCity! By the time I started working on SC3k, he was pretty much done with it. I did get him to play SC4 and give me feedback, but I’d have to corner him first. He’s come by a few times since we started working on the new one, he’s seen it as its progressed, he’s given some suggestions – and I think he likes where we’re taking it, but I can’t put words in his mouth.

- [Andrew] Zoning is pretty much the same as SC4. Without that it’s not SimCity! You do plop key buildings like fire stations as usual (unless you’re okay with your city burning to the ground every so often), but most buildings are simulator generated.

- [Ocean]  Lucy Bradshaw was executive producer for SimCity 4, and is very much involved with the new one I was creative director and art director for SimCity 4, and art directed SC3k. Andrew was SimCity 4’s lead graphics engineer. Kip was test lead on SimCity 4. Guillaume Pierre (our scripting lead) was another lead tester on SC4, Venkat Ajjanagadde did roads for SC4 and he’s doing them for the new one. There are a lot of SimCity veterans on the project, but we’ve also got new people who grew up playing SimCity and are bringing fresh ideas to it. It’s a good mix.

- [Kip] City games need a true simulation under the hood to be viable. There were some great ideas in Societies, which fell flat because of the lack of depth in its simulation. For this SimCity we started with simulation first, by building our GlassBox engine.

- [Dan] The size of our new cities are roughly equivalent to the SC4 medium sized city (2 kilometers square). That said, you can connect cities together inside a region and build out a network of connected cities – each city providing different resources and abilities to its neighbors and the region. For example, one city could be a residential suburb which provides workers every day to a nearby industrial city. The industrial city could be providing power to the suburb. You can play both of these cities yourself, or even run the entire region by yourself, or invite a friend to help out.

As for the biggest gameplay improvement, we’re moving from a purely statistical simulation model to an agent based model. So one example of how that’s different would be that the vehicles you saw in SC4 were just visual representations of ‘traffic density’ at that location, they weren’t real, if you watched them long enough they’d fade out as they turned corners. By contrast, with our new simulator, each and every vehicle and person is a real simulation entity heading to some real destination.

So traffic jams occur naturally – it’s really fun to build out a road structure, start zoning, play for a while, and ‘discover’ where your busiest intersections are. Thanks for your support, we really do take our community seriously and are trying to deliver the game that we all want to play!

- [Ocean] SimCity is all about creating and controlling a pretty complex simulation. The trick is to make the simulation intelligible, so that the cause-and-effect relationships are apparent to the player. So that you can see what’s going on.

It has to be accessible to people who have never played SimCity before. Just because the simulation is complex doesn’t mean that it should be hard to understand.

And we’re doing our best to model real-world systems with some degree of integrity, so that you’ll understand something of how they actually work. And you’ll make the tradeoffs that real cities have to make.

For example: sure coal is filthy and will sicken & kill Sims who live down-wind, but man is it cheap! And it makes plenty of power! And it works at night! And when the wind doesn’t blow! Sure, I can put up with air pollution and increased mortality for that!

So we’re not trying to lecture people and tell them what to think, we’re building a game that lets them try stuff out for themselves, and see what happens.

- [Andrew] Like most of the games we make, we’re targeting a broad audience with this game, we don’t want to limit ourselves to only those who have the latest-and-greatest graphics card. What we do is scale our graphics options depending on what hardware you have, so it’s playable on our min spec, but we can still turn on all the cool bells and whistles on the high end. (Did someone say tilt-shift?)

SimCity 4 was unfortunately the victim of changes to GPU drivers. To support the high building count and detail, it was a so-called “dirty rect” based game, where only stuff that actually changed from frame-to-frame was re-rendered. This required being able to copy the depth buffer around on the GPU, particularly when panning the camera. There was a standard path for doing this at the time, but it became deprecated in later versions of DirectX, and drivers started falling back to slow paths which copied the depth buffer down to the CPU, shifted it around, and then copied it back up. Even with today’s cards and PCI-X buses, this is still a pretty slow process.

[Dan] You can build a walkable city! To geek out about our simulation for a moment – when buildings with jobs need workers, they actually send out invisible “Help Wanted” requests for that travel along your road network looking for residential buildings. First they send out a request for walkers that only travel a few blocks, and if that goes unanswered they send out another request for drivers that travels much further. This means that by mixing up areas of residential with commercial and industrial in close proximity, you’ll tend to get much more foot traffic. If you want, you could build a city where everyone is forced to drive, by putting a lot of distance between homes and businesses.

- [Andrew] The general enthusiasm for flying/ driving/ boating/ swimming/ hot-air ballooning around your city has been noted =). But first we need a SimCity you can explore, so that’s what we’re concentrating on right now.

I will say this is the kind of thing we love doing — enabling players to build and explore their own worlds, if that doesn’t sound too foofy.

- [Kip] Our goal for this SimCity is to deliver on a robust city simulation game but also make it easy to play and understand. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be “dumbed down”. I equate it to what we did with our Spore Editors. We put a complex modeling tool in the hands of kids and turned them into 3D modeling experts. We want to serve information in quick and simple to digest ways and offer tools that are powerful, but painless. Curvy roads alone will up the complexity of your city planning power. That’s just the start!

[Andrew] The underlying simulator definitely supports [mixed use zones]. It’s more of a gameplay/UI question to be honest, namely, how we handle designating mixed use zones, and how much that would impact the gameplay in the core game. Would the resulting game be as fun for all players? It’s something we’ll try and see how it works out.

Even if it doesn’t make sense as part of the core game, you make a good point. Because the sim is completely data-driven, maybe in future we could think about releasing an “urban planning” version of the game that emphasises urban planning tools over the more traditional SimCity gameplay.

[Kip] We’re going full orchestral on [the Soundtrack]! Kent Jolly is the Audio Director on the project and was sound designer on SC 3000, SC4, and Audio Director on SC Rush Hour.

[Ocean] And as for music – Yes! Kent Jolly is our sound designer, and he’s very, very good, another long-time Maxis veteran.

One cool thing I can say about the game’s audio is that we’re binding it to the pulse of the simulation. When buildings are running simulation rules (like generating power, for example), they’re driving music and sound effects (that are synced to the overall beat of the simulation). The audio is telling you what the simulation is doing, it’s not just filler. And that’s a general aesthetic rule for us – there shouldn’t be any filler in the game, everything is there to show you what the simulation is doing. Everything you see is doing a job.

- [Andrew] I live in London, so I’m very aware of [European city layouts being very different from American ones]. The road part of this is pretty straightforward, what makes it an interesting problem is getting buildings to follow the roads, particularly when they all join together as you traditionally see in the town centre, e.g. We’re working on it!

- [Andrew] Definitely from 2000 to 3000 to SC4 the game got progressively more complicated as we added features for the biggest fans of the game, and I think we did lose some people along the way because of that. We’re aware that if you survey people, typically 2000 is the overall favourite in the series. So we’re definitely trying to recapture the sense of whimsical fun in the original, while still taking advantage of the speed of modern machines to make the simulation deeper where it makes sense.

- [Ocean] You still zone for RC & I (among other things) and things construct in them. You plop civic buildings (like water towers and police stations) that effect the Sims’ buildings. The biggest change is that zoning isn’t on the “grid” anymore. Now that we’ve got curvy roads, zoning is all road-relative.

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