Interview with Jason Haber: SimCity (Maxis)

All you old-schoolers out there, who have spent embarrassingly long hours huddled behind DOS and early Windows-based machines, will identify with Maxis' city-building sand-box classic SimCity. The franchise is slated to get a new-fangled, fully-3D reimagining of the original formula with the GlassBox engine-powered reboot. The powerful new simulation engine ushers many firsts for the franchise such as a fully 3D rendition of the game world and a multiplayer component. After having sampled a short demo at the EA Showcase event in Australia, these new additions such as the comprehensive Data Layer system and online multi-city interplay between players have stoked a great deal of curiosity about the game mechanics.


Therefore, leaving the much complained about persistent online DRM issues aside, I dove straight in the pursuit of what makes the new game tick, and how it leverages current-gen tech to deliver the same formula with what appears to be a greater level of complexity and depth. Here's what Game Producer Jason Haber has to say about the upcoming game.

The new SimCity reminds me a lot of SimCity Societies and the original. In terms of gameplay and influence, where do you place it?
I think we're influenced by all the SimCity games, if I can say that. But, we're definitely influenced by SimCity and SimCity 2000. The idea was to keep it less number heavy, or otherwise less complicated, for those who wanted to play SimCity but were really intimidated by SimCity 4.

Why name it after the original, is there a specific reason for that?
Yeah, one of the reasons why we called it SimCity, and not SimCity 5, is because it's not a sequel to SimCity 4. It really is a reimagining of the game and what it can be. A lot of that can be attributed to the GlassBox simulation engine. So this time we have a bottom-up simulation, as we like to call it, over the older top-down simulation. We really wanted people to think of this as a new SimCity or a new experience to SimCity.

How do you differentiate the game from the original?
The simulation engine is really the biggest difference from the original. Now every piece is simulated and we sort of put each piece together and make a big city simulation. Whereas in the original SimCity, it  has been more of creating that bigger simulation [at the macro level] and then visualising it at the bottom level.

Why does SimCity require a persistent online connection?
Because SimCity is online connected, it's a multi city experience, as opposed to a single city. So the actions that take place within a single city will actually affect other cities, or even the region around you and the bigger world as a whole. You can play this on your own as well. You don't have to play with other players if you don't want to. Nevertheles, you are connected and you play in a larger region all the time.

How does the multiplayer component work? Will it be restricted to exchanging resources? What will be the level of player involvement?
The way multi-city gameplay works is that the Sims can actually travel between cities and regions. They might travel to neighbouring cities for jobs or shopping, or even to go live somewhere else. The player will share resources such as power and water, or share services such as fire coverage, health coverage or police coverage. Not only can cities share things with each other, but they can also work on bigger regional projects that we call Great Works. What Great Works are is that they take a tonne of money and resources. They are these huge projects that take up their own plot in the region and they benefit all the cities that are connected to them. For example, an international airport that will bring a lot of tourists in to the region and will serve as a means to import and export lots of freight. It will therefore benefit a lot of your cities that are connected to it.

So basically, there will be a lot of co-operative play where different players can pitch in resources to create something larger.
Right, but keep in mind that they don't have to be different players, but they are different cities. And that's why we like to call it multi-city instead of multiplayer. The idea is that even when I am playing on my own, I still play multiple cities at once. But you are right; you can also have different people playing each of those cities. It's up to the player what they want to do.

The GlassBox engine looks quite impressive. Is this is one off, or will it be used for all future Maxis games?
The GlassBox engine was built with the intention of being the new simulation engine for Maxis. Certainly, SimCity is the first game we're building on the GlassBox engine, but we're hoping to do more games on the engine in the future. However, right now our priority is SimCity, and it's a lot of work [laughs].

How long was the engine in development?
I can't give you specifics, but I can tell you that our Creative Director, Ocean Quigley, initially had the idea for the GlassBox engine right after SimCity 4. However, the technology didn't exist back then to create it. Computers weren't powerful and they weren't connected, so that was put on the backburner. After SimCity 4, they had the time to explore and try out building the GlassBox engine and it looked like it was the right time for it, so we decided to create SimCity on top of this engine.

The concept of Data Layers is interesting. They throw a lot of insight into the game world. Is there a synergy between these layers?
Well yeah, to some extent you use Data Layers to solve all your problems and figure out what's going on in your city. It's all driven by the data that's under the surface of GlassBox. Depending on what you're doing, you may have to refer to multiple Data Layers to figure out what's going on. For example, I can look into the Happiness layer to check my city's happiness levels and find that half of it is unhappy. I can then refer to the Data Layers to find the problem. This takes me to the Crime Data Layer and it shows me that there's a lot of crime in the area and that's why those people are unhappy. So, there is this relationship between these layers (happiness and crime) and you have to refer to them to solve problems and to figure out what to do with your city.

SimCity seems to be a microcosm in itself, with great attention to detail. Did you enlist the help of actual city planners while making this game?
[laughs] Well, our designers are sort of city planning geeks. They all have piles of books on the subject on their desks. Whenever they go out and design a system, they do their research into how the real world equivalent will work. And it's not all about, "we're going to make it just like that in the game". They want to be inspired by that, but the goal foremost is to make the game fun to play. However, that data does come into the system. One of my favourite examples is how the transportation designer was trying to figure out how far a Sim would walk to get on to the bus stop. He looked at the city planning data and found that people will walk 400m to get to bus stops, so that's how it has been implemented in the game too.

A lot of time has passed since the original game. How have you leveraged the current-gen system resources for the game?
GlassBox needed people with more powerful machines in order to run, not just for the simulation engine itself but also the graphics engine that we have overlaid on top to give it the aesthetics of a model-like world. This is the first SimCity that's fully 3D, which allows players to fully navigate and move around in the world. Additionally, now that we are connected online, it allows us to create a multi-city experience of the new SimCity.


Simcity earthquake disaster


Will the game have an adaptive level of difficulty?
Well, you can't pick your level of difficulty in the game, but the region or the city within the region that you choose will decide if it will be more or less difficult. So the terrain that you're playing on can be more challenging, or the resources available within a city can be more difficult. For example, a city that doesn't have much water available within a large area will create a significant challenge on how you play the game and treat your Sims.

Is there a particular reason why the game doesn't have a console version?
It's just that we're trying to get this done for the PC and Mac right now. Our goal is to finish the game that we're building now. Who knows what the future will hold. Building a new game on a new engine is a lot of work. SimCity has always been a PC game, so that's where we wanted it to come first.

Is there a possibility of a console version in the future?
Well, right now we're only working on the PC and Mac version.


Gamers these days are generally wary of DLCs as they fear that leads to content being held back.
Well, it's a complete game. Everything we're making we are putting in the game. If you buy the pre-order or the Deluxe Edition, you'll get some additional content, but there's nothing cut out of the game. You still get the full core game experience whether you buy the PC or Mac version.

The game looks quite visual with what seems to be a reduced emphasis on numbers, charts and graphs. Is this a deliberate design move?
Yes. We definitely wanted to make the game more accessible to a wider audience, and part of that is visualising the game through the Data Layers. However, for the players who want to get the details they used to get with the charts and graphs, they can dig into the Data Layers and find a lot of that detail. We certainly have that type of players in our studio—you know, SimCity 4 geeks who love data, and they are pretty happy with what we have here. However, there indeed was this idea to make it more accessible and easier to understand.

My most favourite part of the game was the rather sadistic disasters. Can we expect anything new in that department?
Whave revealed four disasters so far—earthquakes, tornadoes, meteor strikes and the UFO. We definitely have more up our sleeve, but we can't reveal anything more right now.

Will there be zombies?
We can't reveal anything right now, sorry [laughs]

In this age of cover shooters and simplistic console games, do you think this niche has become even smaller than it already was?
You know, I actually think it's refreshing to have a big AAA game coming out that is a lot different than the other games releasing now. I actually believe it's the perfect time for SimCity. I mean, anything that's niche is niche, isn't it? However, we're hitting a really good balance [between niche and mainstream] here. This is something that many people will want to try out and hopefully will buy and enjoy playing it as well.

Published Date: Dec 19, 2012 07:16 pm | Updated Date: Dec 19, 2012 07:16 pm