SimCity: build cities, smash them down, build them up again

SimCityThe last time I played a Sims game it didn’t end well.

In fact, it ended pretty badly, actually.

You see, it ended with my virtual children being taken away by virtual child services because they had neglected to do their virtual homework, instead preferring to stay up all night and play.

Thankfully, there are no virtual children for me to look after in SimCity, a re-imagining of the original world-buiding game that first graced PCs way back in 1999. I’m grateful for that.

The Sim games have always had that magical ability to turn the mundane and ordinary task  into time sinks, and the original was no different with its amazingly simple concept: take a piece of land and build a bustling city on it. It was virtual city management where you had to manage all the successes and failures that growning cities do. It proved to be an incredibly addictive game, from what my jaded memory can recall.

The game spawned several sequels (and recently SimCity 4 was on special on the Christmas Steam sale), as you’d expect, but none of them held the magic that the original did. SimCity 2013 is aiming to bring back what made the original game so good: After some hands-on time, I can say Maxis has succeeded. It was one of my most favoured games during hands-on time at a recent EA event in Sydney.

Even SimCity’s producer Jason Haber agreed that more recent SimCity games had got too complicated.

‘‘Part of the goal was to appeal to a lot of SimCity players. We know that the trend for SimCity was for it to get more complicated and have a lot more graphs and spreadsheets and we wanted to make sure that it was more accessible to those players who were nostalgic players, as well as those who were new players, that previous SimCities weren’t.’’
SimCity has little details: When you build a house, little builders arrive in their vehicles, their little legs carrying them around the building site. When a home is completed, removal vans arrive to help Sims move into their new homes. A cruise liner plies its way down an estuary behind the houses. Residential, industrial and commercial zones. Smiley faces above Sims and their homes means that they’re happy.

Haber says that what you do in one city can ultimately impact on what happens in surrounding cities. Take Trashtown, for example, a city that he made to demonstrate what he meant. Trashtown, as you have no doubt guessed, is a town where all the rubbish from other cities goes to. The city transforms as more and more rubbish is dumped from surrounding cities.
When it comes to making cities, Haber says the only limit is your imagination. “You can build roads under bridges, bridges under bridges. The only limit is your imagination. It’s the only limit to what you can create.’’

SimCityfactoryDuring a demonstration of SimCity, Haber showed the data layers that work underneath the game play. Data layers let you drill down into the sub-layers of the ground, perhaps see what valuable resources are there, where there is more water for water towers, where there is oil that can be drilled for. But data layers can also be used to get more detail about underlying problems in a city. Take Montevegas again, the casino town where Haber was able to work out who was visiting the city as a tourist – but also where most of the crime was happening. IT turns out most of the criminal activity in Montevegas was stemming from the central police station – because the  holding cells were too small, so lots of criminals were having to be released onto the streets. The problem was fixed by building another police station.

Demolishing buildings is as easy as clicking on the bulldozer icon then clicking on the building you want obliterated. It collapses in a cloud of dust. Smiley faces above dwellings and buildings mean your citizens are happy: sad faces mean, well, they’re sad. SimCity is a game with depth. The attention to detail is impressive, too: when you click on a plot to build a house, builders pull up in their vans and start working on houses. Removal vans arrive when the homes are ready, unloading furniture for new owners. A cruise liner flows down a wide river. Click on any car driving around and you’ll see the aspirations of the occupant: “Geoff couldn’t find some cheap chinese food. He’s going home to read” (I can’t remember if any Sims are called Geoff so I made that name up. I’m sure Sims could be called Geoff). There are also natural disasters to cope with: a meteor strike ended the demo.

‘‘There is a lot of complexity there and asking whether it’s as complex as you want it to be is a very broad statement but there’s a lot of depth for people to look into. Even with the crime data layer that I showed today, I can see that there’s lots of crime but I can dig a little deeper and find out where is the crime and look a specific buildings and know that there is 87 criminals coming out of that building. So I can dig deeper and deeper to find out what is going on.’’

I asked Haber what he thought the appeal of the SimCity games was:  ‘‘I think everybody has a different reason they like it but for me it has a lot to do with the experimentation aspect. I like to try things and see what happens, see how they [the Sims] react and by doing that, something else comes up and I’m like ‘OK, how am I going to solve that problem?’ and I find with SimCity even after a certain stage I get so addicted: I’ll sit down and start playing and before I know it hours have passed but it’s really fun. Even the fact that I can take a city and compete with another person to see who can make their city the most productive but in the process of doing that, on building the same city on the same plot, I learned new things, I laid out my roads a little different, I had my supply chain working a little different, had my oil wells in a slightly different place. To me having that experience and rebuilding each time, and having it still be fun and intriguing, and learning something new every time, really made me feel that there’s so much to do in this game.’’

SimCityfireHaber says while there are a finite number of scenarios that players will face the Sims aren’t backwards in telling you what they need. “Things will change based on what city plot you’re playing and how you’re building your city. The Sims will ask you for what they want: wealthier Sims will ask you for education, if you’re in a coal town they might suggest you go digging for coal. There are more universal things: nobody wants dirty sewage in their back yards so all Sims will tell you what they want but it’s a more emergent style of game play.’’
The important thing for us is that it is a game first and while we do a lot of research into how these systems work, it doesn’t mean we’re going to make it exactly mimic the real world. That’s not what our goal is: our goal is to make it fun but evoke that feeling of the real world.’’

‘‘For me, I love this one. To me it does evoke the feeling of the original SimCity, which was one of my favourites. I think it’s sort of the same, but different. It definitely feels like SimCity, which to me was something that was really important – it needed to feel like you were playing SimCity the moment you touched it – but it does feel different.

Haber is a fan of classic and indie games and he tries to bring his love of those games to the games he works on.  ‘‘For classic games, the core game play was important and they didn’t have the graphics to support that. It was about the game play and making sure that it’s fun and to me that’s the inspiration I try to bring to every game that I work on, including SimCity, and it’s something the whole team was behind. Of course we want it to look great (and it does) and play great but that core game play is very important.”

SimCity is out for PC and Mac in February next year. Word is that SimCity will use require an “always on” internet connection to play. I didn’t have the chance to ask Haber this in my what turned out to be only nine minutes of interview time. It was supposed to be 15-minutes.

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