Mon, Nov 12, 2012 | 13:30 GMT
Sim City impressions: life through a Glassbox lens
Sim City sees the iconic simulation franchise return in 2013. VG247′s Dave Cook sees the game in action and speaks to Maxis about its grand return.
Life is full of knock-on effects. If you get a better job, you will earn more money. That money will help you buy better things, and in turn your standard of living will increase. Society is dictated by these rules, and in the reboot of Sim City, developer Maxis is sticking closely to the common truths of everyday life.
It all starts with Glassbox, the engine running the new game. It’s integral to understanding the cause and effect of everything you do as mayor. In an instant you can turn Glassbox on and see where your city is thriving and failing at a glance.
The engine goes hand-in-hand with the Maxis concept of ‘RCI’ – ‘Residential, Commercial, Industrial’. Together, all three make up the game’s cycle of society. ‘Residential’ stands for people moving into homes and from there going to their jobs to earn money.
“One of the things I should point out is, look at the bus stop system and how far that goes. One of the designers did research into city planning just to find out how far people actually walked. That kind of detail is littered throughout the game.”
That money then feeds into ‘commercial’ as they buy products to make themselves happy and to improve their living standards. ‘Industrial’ markets make the goods and use money generated by economy to maintain the world.
It may sound like an utter nightmare to comprehend, but once you see all three components feeding into one another via Glassbow view, it all starts to make sense. That’s the power of the tool, to make the complicated fathomable.
Sim City’s associate producer George Pigula shows us how this simple, yet incredibly powerful tool lends new insight into the inner workings of your creation – be it a sprawling metropolis, modest town, or an entire region with multiple cities.
The first indicator of success is desirability. After all, no one wants to live next to a nuclear power plant, so Pigula shows us that by turning on desirability filters, we can see in an instant where people would ideally want to live, and what areas they would avoid.
Sim City is full of these filters that display information down to an incredible depth. Even something as seemingly trivial as bus stop placement can be planned smartly using Glassbox.
It will show you the ideal distance people are willing to walk to reach each stop. Place them correctly, and going to work won’t be such a chore. Get it wrong, and the tired workers will become unhappy. It’s genius.
Gambling is the big topic of the day however, as Pigula shows us his three-city region, which includes two standard cities and the vast, neon mess of his gambling strip Monte Vista. There are several mechanics at play here. The casinos make Sims happy, but the downside is that crime levels rise, thus increasing the need for a solid, well-funded police force.
The came also has specialisations, and by using Glassbox, Pigula can show us that his city naturally leans towards the gambling specialisation. So if he wants, he can opt-in Monte Vista and compete on the leaderboards to see who can amass the greatest gambling income globally.
“When you get to a small-sized town things are fairly forgiving. The population’s small and if you fall down to much you can recover fairly quickly. But it’s really as you start advancing, and you decide to take on a new city or take on a specialisation, that you start learning those additional steps .”
It’s a neat system, and once again, Glassbox makes it much easier to use. It essentially strips out the visuals and colour codes the elements you want to filter down to, almost like a dynamic bar graph.
The session ends as Pigula deliberately unleashes a tornado in the middle of Monte Vista, sending people, rubble and vehicles cascading across the city like rain. Sadistic yes, but it’s no secret many gamers enjoy the wicked side of Sim City.
We grab Pigula for a chat about what we’ve just seen, and how the studio crafted such an impressive assortment of tools and features.
VG247: After watching that demo, my mind is already starting to hurt at the possibilities of what the game offers. What were your initial goals going into the project?
George Pigula: Much of this came from the guys just thinking about it since they finished the last Sim City, and what they really wanted to do was create the Glassbox engine that powers it.
Now the technology is there that they can realise that, and I mean, you’ve seen some of the simulation that’s on hand here. We wanted to make Glassbox deep enough so that people can just follow everything in their saves.
Right down to…I mean, I don’t know if you noticed, but the traffic lights work. They actually work. People stop at them. They don’t run red lights – well, actually maybe criminals do at times.
But still, those types of things are there, but at the same time we wanted to make the game slightly accessible, that was a big goal with a lot of these data-holes. Many of them have always been there in previous games.
It’s even deeper now, so with the visual labels we’re making them more accessible by helping people read them easier, which helps them make decisions, and gives them more time playing, rather than deciphering data.
The desirability heat map is a neat touch, and helps make things clearer where they weren’t before. Would you say that was lacking in previous Sim City titles?
I wouldn’t say it was lacking, but I do think it’s the evolution of what we’ve been doing in previous games. We’re always listening to our community, always on the forums, and always on Facebook.
Many of the innovations we’ve done in this game have been made in response to us following the community that has grown over the years.
Glassbox really is smart though, especially as you can see quite clearly how one thing affects another. How challenging was it to engineer all of those systems?
I wouldn’t say it was simple [laughs]. We have a lot of extremely bright people working in the studio, and the masterminds behind this have done such a great job. We’ve overcome a lot of problems, and in doing so, you really appreciate those great minds.
“You can drop disasters on other cities. You can do negative things. You saw our big casino city, so say I didn’t have a police force there. It would generate a lot of crime, and that crime can reach out into neighbouring cities.”
Your concept of ‘RCI’ is interesting because it mirrors how real life works. Did you have to employ specialist in these areas or say, an economist, to make sure it worked properly?
A lot of our designers have done heavy, heavy research. One of the things I should point out is, look at the bus stop system and how far that goes. One of the designers did research into city planning just to find out how far people actually walked. That kind of detail is littered throughout the game.
We have a great team of designers who thinking about this stuff all the time. Like, if someone has to travel a long way to the bust stop every morning, it’s natural that he doesn’t want to live there.
I really like dhow balanced everything is. You built a park in the demo to increase the desirability of your city, and as a result tons of homeless people started sleeping there at night.
This can create problems yes, and too many homeless can have an adverse effect, just like too much crime, pollution and so on. These are problems that mayors deal with in real life, so we have to provide those for people. If you fail at one aspect of your RCI, the game’s going to push back as its way of telling you.
The Sims franchise has particularly brought gaming to the attention of those who weren’t perhaps gamers before. Say someone isn’t a good strategist but wants to try out Sim City, how accessible will it for them to get started?
We’ve talked about multi-city play, and for people who are new to the game – city games and strategy in general – they would start out with one city. Because really, that’s the first peel of that onion if you know what I mean?
You go in, you start one city, it’s fairly simple. When you get to a small-sized town things are fairly forgiving. The population’s small and if you fall down to much you can recover fairly quickly. But it’s really as you start advancing, and you decide to take on a new city or take on a specialisation, that you start learning those additional steps, and growing with them.
So as it becomes more challenging, not only do you have to think about it more, but you’re learned a lot more. So you’ll become a better gamer for it.
During multi-city play one city affects another, and you may find yourself next to another player’s city online. Is that a multiplayer session you have to create, or is this persistent?
Well there’s actually multiple ways. When you create a region your choice is to make it public, and if you make it public that means anyone from the world can go in and join in. Say I have a region but I want to try a new one, I can look at the lobby, see if a region is open.
I could look at your region and see you’re building a coal-fuelled city. I could then go in, make a tourist city and ask you for some power. But yeah you can meet people that way, meet them in challenges too.
But you can also lock it down a lot by making regions private, and when you make it just private you have two choices: make everything yourself and stick to maybe just once city, or choose to invite friends directly.
The cooperative angle is appealing but what’s to stop a guy coming into my public region and unleashing a meteor strike on my city?
Well you can drop disasters on other cities. You can do negative things. You saw our big casino city, so say I didn’t have a police force there. It would generate a lot of crime, and that crime can reach out into neighbouring cities.
Residents travel back and forth a lot, so I could make a police force that can go everywhere as well. We’re not going to tell players that they can’t do anything.
So as I understand it, if someone in my region were to drop meteors on my city, then all of a sudden that becomes his problem as well as he’s my neighbour?
The disasters do look brilliant though and they got me thinking about spec. Will this be a fairly scalable experience if I don’t have the best rig at home?
Yeah definitely. If you check out the Sim City website now for specs on both Mac and PC, and you can see that it’s pretty scalable. We test this on a really wide variety of devices back at the office. I play this on my work rig while I’m running about 800 other programs. It scales to that experience as well.