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From city-builder roles to caring for citizens in SimCity

Adam Rosenberg

Regions are the beating heart of Maxis Games' upcoming SimCity revival. The always-online game places a lot of emphasis on community, but it's less about the global fellowship and more about the ties that bind neighboring cities together.

Players face a choice when they're first starting out: break ground in a small region with only two or three city-sized plots of land to develop ,or jump into a more expansive location, one that supports as many as 16 cities. The cost/benefit for each choice is simple enough to break down; it's the difference between carving out your own, private space in the world versus leaving the door open for other players to join.

All of SimCity's regions are created in-house at Maxis – there's no plan to let players mold their own regions – and each plot of claimable land comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. A helpful status bar pop-up points out which resources are and aren't available when an unclaimed plot is highlighted, so you know what you're getting before you settle on a civilization site.

Maxis has been working to test against a whole galaxy of possibilities in the run-up to SimCity's March 5, 2013, release. It's to the point that sizable portions of the working day at the studio are now devoted purely to play, with staffers being assigned to a range of discrete city-builder roles.

"It's hard to go into every nook and cranny of the game because there's just so much. The breadth of the game is really large," lead designer Stone Librande told Joystiq. "We have different designers who are assigned to different tasks. Like, 'You're making university town, you're making casino town, you're making ore and coal mining town.'"

Gallery: SimCIty (02/19/2013) | 4 Photos

"There are so many different ways of mixing and matching. You might build a casino town that ignores all the crime, or you could [try] building a casino town and put out the crime. Those are two different cities that have completely different characteristics."

"It's an iterative [testing process], so you play it, you give feedback, we evaluate the different feedback from the different designers, do a tuning pass, and then we have to run through the whole loop again," Librande added. "We don't want the game to ever feel like it's a grind where you're just sitting there, running at full speed waiting for something. So we're trying to make sure that the pacing feels right, that you're always ready to unlock the next thing, and the next thing after that."

The recent beta tests for SimCity were meant primarily to serve as network stress tests, but Librande saw an unusual trend emerge in people's playing habits. The beta let participants loose in a restricted content version of the full game that quits back to the main menu after one hour has elapsed. The presence of a ticking clock led to some unexpected behavior.

"We found out about this other sub-class of players who got into this actions-per-click mode," Librande revealed. "Like a StarCraft player or something. They only have one hour and they want to experience as much of the game as possible, so they were going as fast as possible."

"How fast can I generate money? How fast can I get my population up? It's a style of SimCity that you normally wouldn't associate with this game; here's players playing it as an adrenaline[-fueled] time challenge. It still held up and it still worked pretty well."

Whether or not this development leads to new approaches or modes in post-release updates remains to be seen. Librande wouldn't comment on post-release content plans, though the new GlassBox Engine sports a modular design that allows the team to stream in new content easily.

"One of the pre-order bonuses is Maxis Man and Dr. Vu, which is a comic book hero and villain. Maxis Man ... can talk to any other system, but those systems never knew there would be a Maxis Man when they were written. Everything is really independent and they just have inputs and outputs," Librande explained.

"For instance, the health system can generate an injury. Maxis Man can look for an injury, and go fly to the rescue, pick up an injured person, and heal them. When we first started on the health system, it was just [going to be] an ambulance that would come and pick up that injured person."

"GlassBox just says 'Here's an injured person,' and just presents that to the world. You can just add in components with new input and outputs, and they tie in seamlessly. You don't have to go in and reverse engineer every component to [make them] understand the new one; it just has to talk and listen in the language that's already been built into the foundation underneath it all."

Librande also stresses the fact that GlassBox is a simulation engine, not a graphics engine. SimCity can scale to the point where it runs on a current-gen MacBook Air, but strip everything down to just GlassBox and you're left with a nimble system that has the potential to run on any number of other platforms.

"We could put any type of graphics on top of the GlassBox simulation. So that would allow us, for instance, to tailor a graphics engine for a certain platform and still keep GlassBox as-is," Librande said. Processing power would be a factor of course, since GlassBox is still juggling thousands of variables at any given moment, but it's designed specifically to handle the load.

"The main factor is the number of agents. An agent represents a unit of electricity, a car, a person... all of those are agents," Librande explained. "If you're going to have tens of thousands of agents, that's going to take more processing power than a ten agents. It's a pretty smooth spectrum as you start to add more agents, and that would determine the type of platform."

SimCity's peoplefocused play exposes the shortfalls of past games
For the time being, the focus at Maxis is tuning SimCity so it can offer a fair level of challenge for longtime fans and newcomers alike. The biggest obstacle that the team faces is getting people on board with a SimCity that walks and talks an awful lot like past efforts, but rearranged with a new set of priorities.

"People matter in this game," Librande said. "In previous SimCity games, you think about the buildings. You didn't even really think about the roads that much. You could put a green residential zone in the middle of nowhere and it could flourish, even though there's no road connected to it at all. You would actually see people driving around the block again and again, going nowhere but being completely happy."

In the new SimCity, players must pay attention to what citizens of their cities are thinking and saying. "Players who aren't used to that idea of having to physically connect things together and make flows between things... I think that's probably the biggest change to overcome."

Librande finds that once players experience the new SimCity, it is difficult to return to SimCity 4's familiar territory and get the same satisfaction.

"There's almost a hollowness that's been revealed in that game. So we're starting to get feedback from some SimCity 4 players [who say we] ruined their favorite game by showing them this new version of SimCity."

Adam Rosenberg is a writer and dudebro academic based out of Brooklyn, NY. He's a full-time freelancer who has contributed to a wide range of outlets, including G4, Rolling Stone, MTV, and Digital Trends. You can follow his and his dog's exploits on Twitter at @Geminibros.

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