Playing a SimCity game is a lot like playing with Legos. You build, you marvel at your creation, and then you smash it all to bits (sometimes with a tornado). Part sandbox, part strategy, this city-building series is famous for mixing smart planning and management with a dash of dry humor. And now, after roughly a decade of absence, SimCity is back. Recently, we paid a visit to Maxis Studio to check in with the team behind this new game. The early details revealed some exciting new additions, as well as a few concerns.
That's right, multiplayer is coming to SimCity. You will join up and form regions, which lets you share resources and influence each other for good or for ill. In the examples we saw, one player shared some excess energy he had generated with his neighbors, while another player, whose city generated a lot of crime, inadvertently raised the others' crime rates. On a larger scale, all players in SimCity will influence the global market: a place where resources are bought and sold. Prices will shift based on supply and demand, and you can track who the big players are in each resource though leaderboards.
The global market is not an auction-house style of service; you will not directly buy from and sell to each other. Instead, you purchase goods from the market. The finer details of how this will work in the game are still in development, but our main concern is how people will try to break it. What will the limits of a player's influence be? How will the game change when you're not online? Does that mean you lose access to the global market, a service seemingly designed to be both a resource safety net and a way to earn some extra cash? How Maxis balances this service whether you're playing online or offline could greatly determine if this is a single-player- or multiplayer-focused game.
UPDATE 28/03/12 After this preview was published, EA confirmed that SimCity would require a persistent internet connection to play, due to the pervasiveness of the online features.
A key point the developers from Maxis stressed was accessibility. They want the return of SimCity to appeal to those who don't find poring over spreadsheets and tax reports an enjoyable way to spend the evening. That means giving these numbers a fresh coat of paint. Electrical power distribution was the example shown. By toggling an overlay, you can view a red line leading out from your (nonfunctional) power plant across the city to all your buildings. When you power up the plant, a yellow bolt of energy shoots down the line, lighting up all the buildings along the way with a jingle.
This is a simple example of the larger design philosophy of adding some extra flair to otherwise mundane parts of management. No matter how you dress it up, at its core, SimCity has always been a game of numbers. It's unlikely the team at Maxis working on this game, which includes developers as far back as SimCity 2000, could forget this. However, in their quest to make the series more user-friendly, we hope they don't forget the simple pleasures that come from diving into the details of your city and optimizing them to peak performance. Hopefully style won't come at the expense of substance.
The new SimCity borrows a page from The Sims 3 by offering lots of additional objectives for you to work toward outside of straight city management. Part of this design decision was to help put more emphasis on the sims who live in your city, thus giving your city some extra character. A simple example is a coal factory foreman who requests more coal for his factory (imagine that). On the more aggressive side, villainous sims can move into your city, such as the arsonist who will drive around setting fire to your buildings.
Along with the presentation overhaul, the underlying goal is to help this new SimCity engage a broader audience. This is all well and good, if these side quests are largely optional. If you wish to focus purely on the management aspect of the game, rather than constantly diving down to meet the individual whims of your citizens, that should be an option. The bulk of these quests should reward completion and not punish failure. And for the ones that do punish failure, it should fit naturally into the course of the game.
In addition to extra cash, the rewards for completing missions include new modules for buildings. We saw a small fire station receive a shiny new radio tower module that decreased the station's emergency response time. Cosmetic items, such as flags and signs, are also available. From a simple fire station to the game as a whole, SimCity is receiving a lot of upgrades. Some of them have us a little nervous, but the game still looks slick and colorful. We're very excited to learn what details will be revealed next, but until then, know that SimCity will be released on the PC and Mac sometime next year.