SimCity preview: preparing for the future

SimCity creative director Ocean Quigley is not the type to obsess over building a perfect replica of New York City. He is not obsessed with building the perfect seaport or an accurate toll road. Having been the art director for the series going back to at least SimCity 4, his background is in art, which may explain why he tends to paint his worlds in broad and colorful strokes.

“I don’t have a top-level philosophy on how things should go or how things need to go. I’m more of a tinkerer and an experimenter with it,” he muses, “so it’s more important to me to get a somewhat plausible representation of the systems that make up a city than to have a particular agenda about what cities should be like or need to be like.”

For some, the lack of true fidelity is a major sticking point. For others, it’s finding out what really makes a city tick within the context of making an enjoyable game. And it also provides some insight into Maxis’ decision to make SimCity online-only, beyond the obvious desire to limit piracy.

Among other things, Quigley wants to take the opportunity track the flow of resources out of the global marketplace and through the city. Things like purchasing oil off the global exchange once the local wells run dry, for example, or exporting jobs to the neighboring city because there isn’t enough room for commercial development.

“You can think of [resources] as the metabolism of the city. So instead of just being decoration, I wanted to have individual people be tracked as they go through the city. I wanted to track the flow of resources that make, for example, power work. Where does the coal come from? How does it get transported to the power plant?” Quigley says. “We wanted to make decisions about the efficiency versus the pollution of the power planet, and I wanted to track the flow of the electricity through the system to people’s houses. I wanted resources that we could keep track of, that we could count, that let you substitute for and manipulate. So that was one of the biggies.”

The genesis of some of that was in SimCity 4, which commenced development way back in 1998. Late in the project, Quigley says, he came up with the notion of regions and found a way to implement them into the game. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a lot of time to truly flesh them out: “We didn’t know how we were going to render them, represent them, or connect them to one another.”

Workers weren’t being tracked as resources as they went into the city to work, nor was the flow of electricity or other commodities. Quigley wanted to change that, which in turn helped pave the way for the franchise’s reliance on server-side integration that has caused so much consternation among the fans.

“Previous Sim Cities weren’t resource and transactionally based games, so they could be completely self-contained. In the new SimCity, a bunch of the region stuff, and of course the global market, are being simulated here on the servers at Maxis,” Quigley says.

In turn, the decision to simulate the flow of goods and services nudged SimCity toward a more cooperative experience. Friends can take control of another spot in a region and develop it, cut a deal to send some ambulances across the way for a few extra Simoleons, and provide a commercial district for Sims who are willing to commute. From there, something resembling a bona fide economy can begin to take shape, even if it’s only being painted in broad strokes.

Among fans though, the decision to focus more on multiplayer hasn’t been an especially popular one. They fear that they will lose the kind of control that they had grown used to having in previous SimCitys. Among other things, modding won’t be available at launch, though Quigley has said in separate interviews that the team will be looking into it (“We’re very cognizant of that–we’re not idiots,” he said last year).

For those worried that the single-player experience will be thrown out with the bathwater, Quigley responds: “I think [single-player] is a legitimate and probably fairly popular play style. But one of the cool things about this SimCity is that you can experiment with playing with friends if you want, and in a way that’s not terribly threatening. You’re inviting friends into your region, or you’re inviting other people into your region. It’s not as if you’re being thrown into the shark pool of the Internet. This is a private but social play space.”

He adds: “You want to avail yourself of the technology of your time. We don’t want to be historical re-enactors of what 1998 was like; we want to make a game of our era, and a big chunk of our era is connectivity, doing things with other people, and relating to what other people are doing.”

What will be interesting is how online-integration affects SimCity going forward. In a way, the reboot is really just a skeleton. Quigley describes the parts they’ve put in place as “composable.” Instead of being “a giant, monolithic object that’s impossible to change, we built it out of components you can accumulate, change, and grow.” From the sound of it, Maxis wants to establish SimCity as a platform that they can build and develop for many years to come, not unlike The Sims 3.

One difference though is that SimCity won’t be awash with virtual goods, at least not at first. Asked whether some sort of additional monetization might be making an appearance, Quigley laughed, “What would we sell? More coal?”

Having spent a day with SimCity, it’s easy to leave some of the cynicism about the project at the door. The general impression is that the online-only integration stems in part from Maxis’ desire to have as many tools at their disposal as possible, whether as a content delivery system or as a means for delivering on Quigley’s vision of a global marketplace. Inevitably, it will rub some long-time fans the wrong way. But one leaves with the sense that we’re only scratching the surface with what Maxis can do with SimCity over the next several years, and that online integration is a big part of that.

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SimCity preview: preparing for the future

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