E3 2009: A chat with Cities XL's Alexandre Zambeaux

Last week at E3, we had a chance to sit down with Alexandre Zambeaux, Marketing Director for Cities XL developer Monte Cristo Games, for some more info on the current state of the game, and what MMO gamers can expect from such a project. You may remember a pre-beta Q&A we did with the Monte Cristo team a few months ago, and as the game hasn't hit an open beta just yet, it will later this year. The info we got from that initial interview helped carve an idea in our heads of what this whole city-building MMO could possibly be, but now we're happy to offer a few more details.

Even though this meeting was very informal, we took some great info away from Alexandre to relay to you, the readers. Follow along after the jump to find out more about the business model, expandability, gameplay and more.
How will this be an MMO? Does it redefine the genre, or simply introduce something fresh?

Well, here's the thing: it's not just an MMO. At launch, the game can actually be purchased off the shelves at your favorite retail store and played as a single-player city-builder, much like SimCity 4. Yet, at any time, you can go beyond the single-player experience to jump into the online mode. Alexandre tells us that this is a great feature for Monte Cristo, because it will appeal to two distinctly different groups of players, while offering the opportunity for each to crossover.

"This is a great feature for Monte Cristo, because it will appeal to two distinctly different groups of players, while offering the opportunity for each to crossover."

What about gameplay?

Essentially, each player can make up to five cities on different planets. Each planet holds something like 2000 cities, and each city will need to work together to survive. If you wanted to make an agricultural city, you would be set on food, but where would you get your entertainment? Or your technology? You'd need to trade with other players who made cities that compliment your own. This is how each world can work together to thrive. All of the traditional MMO mechanics are there like trading, crafting, harvesting, leveling and even "guilds", as each planet could be considered a "guild".

Although there is no combat, there is actually still a chance to get rare "drops" in the game. Each day, ultra rare recipes are given out to a few lucky players, which can be used to build monumental structures. This could include something like the Sears Tower or the Statue of Liberty, which would have certain major perks for your city. But don't think it's that easy. Even with a rare recipe (or more accurately, schematic), you'd still need enough raw materials that would take you weeks to gather.

This is in addition to the way Cities XL distributes resources. Each day, you will gain a certain number of resources, used as currency in the game. Let's say you get 20 resources per day, but you don't log in to use those resources. This doesn't cause these resources to accumulate, but instead, they stay at 20 until you spend what you have. That way, you can only become rich and successful by actually playing the game and spending your resources.

But what if you're helplessly addicted to the game, and you don't want to waste a day's resources, but you're away from your computer on vacation? Simple! Many of the economic features of the game will be available on any browser-based system (say, an iPhone) and can be maintained even when you're away from your gaming computer.

How will Cities XL be expandable?

Now this is where we became most fascinated by the game, as Alexandre was telling us about their plans for expansions. Basically, there will be these GEMs, as mentioned in our first Q&A. They will be like modules that will be available to add to your cities, much like those hundreds of Tycoon games we see covering the shelves of our favorite PC game retailer. Imagine the chance to pick from any of these games and add them to your city builder. We're not talking a new skin on a terrain builder, we're talking a complete sim. For example, if you wanted to add a theme park GEM, you'd be designing the roller coaster track and setting the price on the cotton candy. You'd be able to tell what each patron was thinking, what they want out of the park, etc. On the MMO side, you would be able to go to your friend's park and ride their rides, and vice versa.

Is this how Monte Cristo will make its money? Box sales and expansions only?

Well, yes and no. This is all true, but Alexandre also tells us about the many options players will have to pay for the game. There's the box sales, and there's a very low subscription rate as well. Plus, a micro transaction system will be put into place to allow the purchase of non-game-changing items like building skins, etc.

What's the target demographic here? Hardcore or casual?

Monte Cristo isn't aiming to steal World of Warcraft's players away, and it's good that they realize that's not exactly possible these days. Instead, they're perfectly happy being something that hardcore or casual gamers can play as their second or third game.

You can look for a Cities XL beta coming very soon, with a launch window slated for later this year.
Massively was on the ground in Los Angeles last week and covering all the latest E3 MMO news coming from the convention. Check out our breaking coverage (or all the Joystiq network E3 reporting) and keep your eye on Massively's front page for the latest developments.
This article was originally published on Massively.