SimCity 3000 Preview

James Glave surveys the landscape in this latest entry in Maxis' best-selling city planning series

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SimCity is the Coca-Cola of computer gaming. First released in 1989, and ported to platforms as diverse as the Commodore 64 and the PlayStation, SimCity and its 1994 follow-up, SimCity 2000, have sold some five million copies across the globe. You can play the game in Swedish or Korean, for example - if "play" is even what you do, as you while away hours tweaking obscure variables in a detailed simulation of a working city.

This is a gaming classic and a global media brand, and the reason is simple: The idea of building and running a city, from the sewer pipes on up, clicks with control freaks and power trippers across generations, sexes, and cultures. Everyone likes to play God. And Maxis, the title's developer and publisher, hopes millions more will open the book of Genesis all over again this fall, with SimCity 3000.

SimCity 3000 promises to up the scale in terms of both micro-control and graphics. The most intriguing new concept is the "microsimulator," which allows mayors to make very specific, localized changes within buildings. And you'll be able to watch the results up close and personal - you can zoom down to street level and observe your polygonal population of sims wandering around, looking for lunch, and getting into car accidents.

The game also employs a realistic zoning and land-use model. You will be able to place specific businesses at specific locations, then adjust the relevant microsimulators to your liking. Stick a McDonald's right downtown, then slash the price on Big Macs, and you may end up with a traffic problem. Further, a McDonald's usually only serves a several-mile radius, while a car dealership can serve a whole city.

The game's economic models follow those of a real city - you'll find affluent neighborhoods and economically depressed areas. "A BMW dealer in a poor section of town will likely go up for sale and get replaced," says Producer Chris Weiss. Zoom in on that neighborhood and you might catch your sims writing graffiti or getting mugged. And if things start to go the way of LA, you can watch the U-Hauls leaving town.

The brand names that appear in the game are not sold sponsorships. "In focus groups, people found it interesting to see real stores such as Blockbuster Video and Bank of America," says Executive Producer Steffen Bartschat. Consequently, all the props are "real," and the town is sprinkled with 7-11s and Versateller ATMs.

Maxis promises unprecedented levels of detail - right down to windowsills on buildings and air conditioning units on rooftops. Every building and object is rendered at several levels of detail, and the company has come up with an unusual solution to the processing-power challenges of drawing it all: multiple pass, or iterative, rendering. As you move, the detail drops out. The longer you stay in one place, the higher the resolution of the scene. It's a risky tradeoff: Once you drop down out of the clouds, there are three levels of resolution, and if your city is densely built-up, it could take several minutes for a high-res scene to finish drawing, from foreground to back. It's reminiscent of waiting for images to download while browsing the Web.

Maxis artists have been busy making sure the wait is worthwhile: Expect between 300 and 1,000 buildings, and 50 to 60 different vehicles, from Humvees to cabin cruiser boats, each with a dozen photo-realistic "skins" available to vary paint and texture. Every sim is an individual: Men, women, and children, wearing up to 450 different outfits, will interact with props - mailing letters, catching cabs, looking for lunch. The game offers 3-D navigation (using Microsoft's DirectX and Direct3D APIs), and photo-realistic detail in 64K colors. "These aren't sprites," says senior computer artist Ocean Quigley. "This is real-time 3-D geometry."

It all might seem a bit much for SimNewbies, but Maxis assures that players need only go as deep as they want to. Also, a resident "Advisor" will help out those experiencing option paralysis. "If you play the game at novice level, he might say 'I'm recommending you put a police station here; what do you think?'" says Bartschat. And unlike the "office assistants" in Microsoft software products, these advisors aren't obnoxiously cute characters - and they can be sent away for good.

SimCity 3000 dumps the networked play elements that were attempted on the previous version. "It's not a competitive game," says Bartschat. Also nuked was all but 10 percent of the code - only the simulation algorithms were saved - as one would expect with a shift from sprites to polygons.

Maxis appears to have finally realized that it has a powerhouse in SimCity and, smartly, it expects to keep extending the franchise, Lego-style, with expansion packs. The packs might be made available for free on the Web and include new cities, characters, and props. Imagine the fun that could be had with a SimCity 3000 earthquake add-on pack. "We want to build a relationship between our customers and SimCity," says Weiss. And come Christmas 1998, the company hopes to do as id did with Quake and offer user-friendly versions of its 3-D drawing tools and textures. Such editors would give players near-total creative control.

Twelve programmers and as many artists have labored over SimCity 3000 for nine months - the largest project Maxis has undertaken. And there's a good reason - the company reported a US$1.7 million loss last fiscal year, down from a $6.2 profit the previous year. "They went too long without good product in the marketplace," explains Bob Peterson, an analyst with Renaissance Capital. The company lost two high-profile designers shortly after SimCity 2000 shipped, and the titles released since then have been weak. But, says Peterson, "The Sim brand is strong, and SimCity 3000 going to be a very big title for them."

That's not to say SimCity 3000 isn't risky on some levels. There is a good deal of pent-up demand, and consumer expectations are high. Players may run out of patience with the iterative rendering. Further, it remains to be seen whether or not the game can deliver on the promised mind-boggling level of microsimulator control. If Maxis can truly raise the bar, the game is destined to become another classic. If not, SimCity might prove an enormous, troubling civics lesson in brand management.

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