IAmA Maxis development team on SimCity. AMAA!
Hi we are the development team from Maxis. As you know, we announced the new SimCity game at GDC this week. We haven’t revealed all the details yet but we have shown off our new GlassBox engine. We’ll be answering your questions on Glass Box and SimCity on Thursday 3/8 from 12:00 - 3:00 PM PST. It’s still early days and there may be things we can’t talk about yet. But we will talk about as much as we can!
Kip Katsarelis = Lead Producer
Ocean Quigley = Creative Director
Dan Moskowitz = Senior Software Engineer
Andrew Willmott = Chief Architect
EDIT: WE ARE NOW LIVE! ASK AWAY!
EDIT: RESPONSES CAN BE FOUND HERE!
EDIT: WE ARE DONE FROM MAXIS! THANK YOU FOR YOUR QUESTIONS, WE HAD FUN!
The only reason I played Sim City was because it was amazingly detailed and you had complete control. I tried to play Societies and just quit after 30 minutes, it was awful. Please let Sim City 5 be a return to what Sim City should be about!
Societies was great for a few hours and then it was boring. The best moment I had in that game was when I built a trailer park next to a dive bar with a gun range down the street. It was great to see the little sim sit in his lawn chair outside his trailer, walk into the bar and then wobble down the street to the gun range.
[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.
I want this to be answerd i miss awesome sim city.
[Insert ambiguous statement of how they will please both casual players and long time fans]
[Ocean] Look, if we do our job properly, the game will have the integrity that long-time fans require, and still be approachable by newbies. It’s not a casual game, but it can’t assume that you already know SimCity and have played it for thousands of hours. It can’t have a vertical learning curve.
[Dan] Great question! 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: http://www.1up.com/news/radical-transparency-simcity
This needs to be answered. I pray for a game like SimCity 4. I love the complicated mechanics, the very difficult to manage budget, traffic problems because of poor design. I want a simulation. SimCity 4 had an impressive amount of behind the scene metrics it use to calculate land value, traffic volume etc... I know there are these young kids who think building a big city with cookie cutter tools and no consequences is some how a fun game, but there are already a ton of these awful dumbed-down games.
I crave the complexity of SimCity 3/4 not because it is difficult, but because I'm in awe of the simulation. I love knowing that every citizen needs to find their way to work and back. How roads have realistic volume limits and how bottlenecks have serious consequences. How every piece of infrastructure will require maintenance, how pollution affects land values. How it is more about zoning and allowing the city to grow organically. I mean that is in essence what made SimCity incredible right? Watching how citizens reacted to your choices and having to work through those obstacles. And please please don't split up housing zones into lower class and upper class bullshit. This is a perfect example of something that was handled by the simulation and replaced with nonsense. You don't need to tell rich people where to live. In the real world they are perfectly able to find the most valuable land and live there. In SimCity 1-4 they could do that too!
[Ocean] Yeah, I agree. You’re describing SimCity. It’s 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.
To go a little further with this question, will there be different difficulty levels so that those who want sophisticated challenges and micromanagement will get it, and at the same time those who want to just casually build up a pretty looking city can also do so?
[Ocean] Well, 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.
Can you bring this guy back? http://i.imgur.com/pM5lH.png
Somewhat related note, I loved SimCity 3000's news ticker.
[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.
Online papers and blogs are a fantastic idea. In SimCity 2000 we had newspapers telling us what was going on in the city, which helped the immersion and gave us the feeling we were interacting with something organic.
Please do keep the idea of blogging sims on the table, it sounds like a great way to explore the state of your city at large!
Here is how I am imagining it.
Different political groups have their own media. So you can see the environmentalists blog cheer the addition of some Bike paths, while the drudge report equivalent talks about how terrible it is that the city is making it harder for people to drive and spending tax dollars on this, while the AARP affiliation complains about how old people can't ride bikes and all money should go to old people.
So interesting to see each segments take on what you are doing in this fashion!
[Dan] You have no idea how many email threads around the office were ended with that image :)
Does this new game promise to reticulate any splines?
[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.
Maybe I missed it in all the released details but I am hoping there is an offline mode that is full featured with region play similar to SC4. Online play is a nice gimmick and could prove to be really interesting, I would just prefer the option to play offline and develop my region of neighboring cities when I want. I'm getting tired of games that work perfectly well on their own as solo play trying to force online play. Its fine to have as an additional feature but your primary focus should be the strength of the game at its core; a powerful and robust city builder that can be enjoyed for hours/years without the need to be online.
Also what are your plans in regard to custom content development? I'm sure you're aware of the communities that have been supporting SC4 all these years with not just cosmetic but game improving mods. Releasing a product that ignores this will be a huge disappointment to those most dedicated to the franchise.
[Ocean] Yeah, 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] 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!
[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 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!
I have seen reports that you are taking out all the tables/charts and other hardcore aspects for the next game... PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS. It is so much easier to just leave them in the game and put a "simple mode" on for newbies and let hardcore players enjoy their statistics and such!
[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).
Please don't dumb the game down, like 99% of the other games these days.
[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!
If you could identify one aspect of SimCity 4 that needed improvement, what would that be, and what are you doing to fix that for SimCity 5?
I have been playing SC4 for 7 years now and my number 1 annoyance with the game is the inability to build buildings at angles and around curves, along with the few options on intersections and road pathings.
[Andrew] I think we've got the game for you, then! Curvy roads!
Will they be curvy enough to make European-style city centers? The American block system gets boring after a while :)
[Andrew] I live in London, so I'm very aware of this. 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., http://darmansjah.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/regent_street-london.jpg. We're working on it!
[Andrew] Well, there's definitely more than one. (And it's great reading through threads on reddit and elsewhere to see what we may have missed.) However if I had to pick one, 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.
SimCity is what inspired me to seek a career in architecture and urban planning. I know the game doesn't quite reflect reality, but how much focus will there be on the new sustainability trends with mixed-used zoning, complete streets, public-transit/pedestrian friendly development, waste management/recycling, etc?
I've heard a lot of concern that the game will appeal too much to casual players like Societies; how will the level of gameplay depth compare to SimCity 4?
[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.
Is this an admission that Societies was a dopey casual game, and that this will be back in the classic vein?
[Ocean] 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.
How different is it now having Will Wright off the team? (As in the Maxis team.)
I understand that being able to individually interview sims (and even being able to plop sims into your city), was a great way to learn about concerns in certain areas. With regards to gameplay elements around that and what SC4: Rush Hour had, will we be seeing much implementation of vehicle driving, exploring the city through missions, and just overall hands-on interaction with your city?
Any new utility management elements we'll have to worry about (such as SC4 bringing Garbage to the mix)?
How is the software looking performance-wise? I know that even with SC4 Rush Hour, my rig (Intel 3.4GHz i7, 16GB DDR3, Nvidia GTX 580) had a lot of issues loading the different zoom levels. This was a common issue that I've found throughout the community.
What benefit will the Digital Deluxe edition's "building themes" have aside from aesthetics?
[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.
Will SimCity5 be a "return to roots" like SimCity 4 in terms of complexity and management, or the casualness featured in Societies?
How do you feel about the relationship between your games and the players? Meaning, do you think SimCity and the Sims would have an impact on how an emerging youth view the growth of cities, culture, and people?
[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.
The unveiling trailer suggested to me that all buildings will be dropped specifically into place, as opposed to placing traditional zoning (Residential, Commercial, Industrial) which grows more unpredictably and dynamically. Will the game still utilize traditional zone placement?
I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that I really hope there will be traditional zoning because it allows your city to grow more organically instead of feeling lifeless and static.
[Ocean] Yeah, 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.
Will zoning be similar to SC4? Or does every building need to be placed individually?
[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.
Can we expect another excellent jazz soundtrack?
[Kip] We’re going full orchestral on this one! Kent Jolly is the Audio Director on the project and was sound designer on SC 3000, SC4, and Audio Director on SC Rush Hour.
I know a lot of Urban Planners and Geographers love your game, so my main question is will there be some sort of multiple use zone? In previous SimCity games it is practically impossible to have commercial and residential mixed, but modern planning uses a lot of multi-use structures and districts for more efficient use of space and minimization of driving times. Will there be any of these in SimCity 5 or does it still work on the older planning model?
[Andrew] The underlying simulator definitely supports this. 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.
What do you expect the hardware requirements to be for your game? I remember when Sim City 4 came out, which I absolutely loved, even with a relatively good computer I was having trouble playing it when the city got large.
How are you planning to keep hardware requirements accessible for large cities? What kind of music can we expect (loved Sim4 music especially "ElectiCITY")?
[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.
Hello Kip, Ocean and Dan,
I have two questions:
Could you tell something about the maximum size of a city? Will it be the same scale as a massive city in 3 & 4, or should we expect final cities to be a bit smaller because of the new Glassbox engine?
What do you think will be the biggest gameplay improvement over Simcity 4?
I think it's great you are doing an AMA. Old time fans have become very cynical about a new Simcity and I imagine it's very difficult to make a sequel that will satisfy the fans. I wish you all the best.
[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!
A few questions...
1.) Are there any developers left at Maxis who worked on Simcity 4 that will be working on this version of Simcity?
2.) I know this is a bit early to ask, but are you planning on having an open(ish) beta for the game?
3.) Although your team wasn't involved in the production of simcity: societies, what have you learned from the game based on its reception?
Again, thanks for doing this AMA! It is awesome to see the the devs are taking an initiative to keep the community involved.
[Ocean] 1) Yes! A lot of us.
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.
2) [Ocean] Open beta? I have no idea.
3) [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.
Can a city (or region) run out of resources such as water and oil? And in the case of oil. Can a city (or region) develop technologies that will allow it's vehicles and plants to run on other resources?
[Dan] Yes absolutely, 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.
Dear Kip, Ocean, and Dan: If there was anything I could ask, are your hands tied to dumb this down? I really want this to be like the complex simulator that was Simcity 2000. If that is lost and freemeals are given out (like loans without dire consequences), many new players won't understand what this franchise really meant to them. If you want a legacy, please keep the one you have going.
Also, could you attach a beautiful soundtrack? Believe me, those make -amazing impressions-, just look at Minecraft.
[Ocean] We’re making this the richest, most sophisticated simulation we can. SimCity is only as good as the simulation underneath it –that’s what makes it worth caring about.
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 synched 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.
Would I be able to build a real transit friendly walkable city, because the sims in simcity 4 would never walk up the block for anything and hardly use mass transit to go anywhere.
plus will there be mixed use development in the game like big apartment buildings with stores at the bottom or something like the time warner building in NYC.
[Dan] Yes, 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.
Will we see a return to the relatively sophisticated planning required in previous titles, or just another example of the dumbed-down, "casual" gameplay we've seen in SimCity Societies or the Cities XL franchise?
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