Forget military shooters! All we need in games are more bridges and buses.
Published on Oct 24, 2012
“So today, we’re proud to show off for the first time in SimCity – bridges!”
It’s not the sort of rallying war cry that will cause a stirring in the gaming crotch, the sort of call to arms that has the front row punching the air with delight while the back rows scramble over each other to get a closer look at these fabled… bridges.
And yet, it’s surprisingly apt for SimCity. Half-an-hour later, we thought bridges were brilliant. A sentence we never, ever expected to type in any game coverage. Ever.
If you’ve somehow remained oblivious to the series over the years, SimCity is a city simulation game with no specific end goal to complete. You just build a city. And you try to make it the biggest, best city you possibly can, by creating somewhere people want to live and where they’ll be happy.
Creating a happy place is harder than plonking down a few homes and somewhere nearby for Pot Noodle runs. You need to create desirability zones for people to live in. No-one wants to live next to a smelly, noisy factory but they don’t want to live too far away if that’s where they work. Parks are good for creating a sense of community and for families but it will also have homeless people milling about during the day. Creating tourist attractions will bring more income and prestige to your city but will also attract opportunistic criminals. It’s all about balance.
You can also choose the specialisation for your city, so you can tailor yourself towards gambling, trade, metals, education and so on. This changes the appeal of your city and determines what attracts visitors or new residents.
If you want an example of the ridiculous depth on offer, you can build a bus shelter. You then see a dotted line showing the bus routes throughout the city and how far people are prepared to walk to take the bus. You then put down as many or as few bus stops as you want, with the option to expand the bus shelter so you can buy more buses to drive around the city. You can even see the buses parking up in the shelter at night. An entire paragraph about BUSES.
With so many components in the works and so many different factors, how on earth does Maxis keep everything balanced and keep the entire thing from collapsing under its own weight? We asked Jason Faber, the producer on SimCity, and he seemed to struggle to answer. We reworded the question. How many spreadsheets does he have to look after? Jason laughs.
“Well, we have one designer that’s pretty much dedicated purely to tuning. Tuning is definitely a big part of the game,” he answered. “As for all the systems, Stone Librande who’s our lead designer, he’s really the mastermind of how systems work together. He does a lot of research into how systems work in the real world and tries to apply that into how they work in our game. Sometimes we need to tweak them to make them more fun and more gamey. But the core base under them is how do they work.”
With all these different factors to consider, SimCity’s attempt to make things easier for players to understand is through data layers. Data layers cast a blank overlay across the entire city, with only the relevant detail being flagged up for you to examine – perfect if you want to see how quickly police respond to break-ins, for example.
“That’s one of the goals of data layers, to take the old spreadsheets and charts and graphs and made it a little more readable and accessible to newer players,” explained Jason. “And to older players. Even though we have some pretty hardcore players in our studio, they love the data layers as well. It’s such an easy way to see what’s going on in your city and it’s such a cool thing to look at.”
And there are bridges! We’re shown how bridges can be dragged across the sea as an easy way to connect land and we’re also shown how roads, motorways and train tracks can be twisted and manipulated however you want. Faber showed us one motorway in particular that twisted back on itself spaghetti junction style. If your roads become congested as your city becomes more attractive to visitors, you can also drag the roads open so they encompass four lanes rather than two. Somehow, creating roads looks fun. How? How can creating roads ever be fun? SimCity has nailed the formula, somehow.
Then there’s online! It’s not an afterthought mention like it is in this article (sorry Maxis) but something that’s been considered and integrated from day one of development. We haven’t seen quite how online works yet but the idea is that there are challenges to accomplish and the obvious leaderboards incentive.
“I think once they see how it works and they experience it, they’ll understand why it’s so important and so critical to the game,” said Jason. “We know that some players just want to play on their own and that’s why we included the option to play an entire region solo. We in the studio, we like to do with our regions as well. We play some on our own, some with other people. But you know, being connected allows you to have that regional experience and play on the bigger SimCity world stage.”
And that’s SimCity. With bridges. And roads. And buses. And it’s fun. SimCity fans will drink up the detail being offered but the real victory for EA is how accessible it’s making the city-building sim without any compromise at all.