Sim City Ocean Quigley Interview

1 Mar 2013  by   Paul Younger
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Ahead of next week’s launch, earlier today we caught up with Maxis’ Creative Director Ocean Quigley to find out more about the game, its development, the future, the DRM debate, what to expect next week and how he manages to groom such a manly moustache.

This week Will Wright has been discussing his thoughts on Sim City, are you happy with his responses or has there been anything he’s brought up and you’ve thought “good point” that would be a neat to add at some point?

In Will’s case, he got so sick of Sim City, I couldn’t get him to pay any attention to Sim City through the whole arc of the game. At one point he said he never wanted to see Sim City again. The fact that we reinvented it enough and he pays attention to it at all is basically a win as far as I’m concerned.

There was nothing in particular he was after that we didn’t give him. We did such a fundamental reworking of the simulation and the way the simulation is presented to the player that he was mostly just enjoying re-experiencing Sim City after having burnt out on it.

You’ve talked to us before about the city size and performance trade-off and people have asked why there is not an option if you have a more powerful PC to have larger cities. Is it something you may look at in the future or is it set in stone?

That is just a performance decision. Given that was the performance constraint we decided to work under, we built a larger region environment and a bunch of the multiply to work with 2km cities. At some point in the future, especially with mainstream computers become more capable, we could certainly make the city sizes larger,

We need to keep in mind that Sim City is a mainstream game, it’s not a game that is only going to run on high-end gaming PCs, it has to run in your Dad’s PC as well.

We’ll eventually get around to expanding the city size but I can’t make any promises as to when.

Sim City

There has been concern about the inability to destroy your city and start over so how are you going to address this problem of abandoned cities in the future? Are the zones going to be blotted with abandoned areas? How are you going to address that?

Well if it really bothers you, you could destroy the whole region and start over but if you don’t want to do that you could send the city that is affecting the area a big gift of cash from the adjacent cities and use that to clean up.

Cities are no longer in isolation they are performing specific roles in a larger region. So you might have a giant oil reserve and then pull that oil out and send it to an adjacent city to be sold and then start all over again which would make it meaningless.

In the sandbox mode you can cheat as much money as you want and go ahead and demolish things and rebuild, but in the non-sandbox mode, there’s leaderboards and challenges, things about the competitive nature of the game and beating the simulation.

What if the player doesn’t actually come back online? How is that handled?

We gave this a bunch of thought, we’re not ever going to kick you, we figured that would be the worst option. So if I invite you to play in my region and then stop playing, I can formally ask you not to abandon your city, but if you don’t do that, that city is basically yours forever, it is locked as yours.

So that’s basically part of the game, there is no mechanism where I can take over your city without your permission and there’s no mechanism where EA or Maxis are going to kick you out of the game because the negative consequences of that would be much, much worse.

There are a lot of people who may not have played the previous Sim City games. Do you think that being online only could make people feel intimidated about starting a new city?

I can imagine that people will join regions with more experienced friends who have already started and then being given a big wad of starting capital to start. But just like any online component, you can practice it on your own, start a region that doesn’t have anyone else invited and you can just build your city there and mess up as many times as you wanted, then delete the region and start again until you are comfortable.

I’m not too worried about people feeling intimidated, we’ve done our best make the UI intuitive and make the feedback that tell you that your little Sims need very clear and transparent.

During the testing period with the development team in-house, were there any strange scenarios that you just weren’t expecting?

There were lots of things, for example we had the art for cars being replaced by airplanes and cruise ships so you had these giant vehicles driving around your streets.

There was also a bug called the house volcano where buildings would develop on top of each other and you’d end up with these stacks of houses. It looked like it was borderline on being physically possible but bizarre.

But in terms of the simulation, we didn’t start complicated, we started with a simple and clean simulation loop and slowly, incrementally added additional layers to that.

We had some bad tuning, we had super criminals that would run amok and do tons and tons of damage, or fire that in flash would destroy chunks of city. It was more like the tuning was bad so let’s try fixing that.

We didn’t build the simulation as one giant thing; we piled brick by brick making sure that all the layers beneath worked.

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In the multiplayer when someone does something in their city, how quickly is that information going to be relayed back to the other players?

It depends on what transaction you are talking about, but in the order of seconds to minutes. If we’re building simultaneously, you’ll see my city updated every couple of minutes. If I send you a bunch of money for example, it could take seconds or a minute or two.

You might be playing your city at cheetah speed, and my city may be paused and so the time is always a little ambiguous as a result of that.

What sort of mechanics have you built into the game to encourage players who may have left to come back and so they don’t forget their city is actually there?

Let’s say we have a city and our city is performing a function in the region. Let’s say it’s making power with a coal power plant and its generating excess power, powering a couple of cities around the region. So if you go offline, that city will continue to provide power to the cities around it. Those cities are paying for the power. But as those cities around the region develop and get larger with more requirements for power, that single coal power plant in your city would become inadequate for the job powering the surrounding cities. So at that point the people around can email you and ask you to come back and play that city or they could just build their own power plants.

This isn’t a Facebook game, you know. We’re not trying to nag you to bring more friends, we’re not trying to monitor you’re circle of friends. So if you don’t want to play the game, we’re not going to bug you. It’s up to the people around you to ask you back.

So if there was a player in a region I just don’t like and I teamed up with other players and we decided that we all didn’t like this guy, could you effectively shut somebody out?

Well sort of. Firstly you probably shouldn’t have invited him in the first place. You start a region and invite your friends to come, or you are in-turn invited by other people. You’re welcome to make your regions public, but if you’re concerned about people you play with then I suggest you keep it private instead.

If there’s a city that is being run by a jerk, a city rife with criminals, and the criminals are going to adjacent cities, then in some cases depending on the road and rail infrastructure in the region, cut the connection to that city. It’s a little bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face. You really do benefit with having connections to other cities.

Is it possible for each player in a zone to specialise in one specific area, such as residential or industrial? Is that something that would have to be achieved over a long period of time?

So, if for example you wanted to specialise in residential, you would ether need to develop nearby where there were jobs and things like that. It’s not like it would take long to do so. You could zoom into a city, lay down some infrastructure and zone residential and a bunch of people would move in. All the functions of a city can be distributed throughout a region; the Sims will take advantage of adjacent jobs or housing.

Terraforming is not in this Sim City. Why was that decision made?

The Terraforming I did in Sim City 4, it felt you were performing as god and not necessarily the role of a mayor. It just seemed less realistic for this simulation game that we’re making. All the creation is at the engineering scale, a lot goes into the terrain, it’s not just a field. There’s embedded resources in there like ore deposits, there different levels of available water. It seemed silly to spend our limited development effort on it when it’s not central to the game.

Do you think Terraforming is something you may add later on for those who want it?

We’re sort of back in the Sim City classic days, we’re starting from scratch, there’s no code from any previous Sim City titles in this game. So I can imagine, just as Sim City classic didn’t have terrraforming, at some point down the road we may make a new version of Sim City that starts layering in that complexity.

It’s worth pointing out we deliberately stripped away some of the stuff that was getting too complicated in Sim City 4 which made the game difficult to approach for new layers. We decided to cut it back to the central core of what Sim City was and build it from that. Not just inherit all the complexity.

Sim City

Touching on the game being online only and the topic of DRM, was that a Maxis decision or did that come from higher up?

The initial motivation for the game was to try and represent the larger relationship cities have with each other. In the real world no city is an island or in a bubble, they are always connected other cities. Every city plays a role for the cities around it that determines the character of that city and the functioning of that city.

In Sim City 4 I came up with this whole region concept but it happened a little late for us to do anything serious with it. It wasn’t a full thought-out feature. With this Sim City, from the get-go we knew it was going to be about cities in the context of a region. Once you have this idea of multiple users performing different roles, then you give people the option to play different cities so that you create a region with your friends.

Once we decided that the region was going to matter, it was going to have simulation, have different cities in tune with each other that interact through the region, the idea was to run the simulation on servers. I could imagine us taking additional development effort to create a different version of the game that is offline, that’s doing all that stuff on the PC, but that would be a significant amount of effort.

The decision to make the game online follows from the aspiration of the game, not from a desire for DRM. It’s a consequence to having it online. It will probably be more difficult to pirate, but the motivation was do so something cool.

I want to ask about the launch next week, we noticed that during the Sim City beta there were quite a few problems with people connecting. What have you guys done and out in place to make sure this doesn’t happen?

That was the point of the Beta, to test the server structure with tens of thousands of users. So we looked at those results and built a lot of infrastructure as a consequence. By the third beta test we made sure the infrastructure we put in was actually working.

So was that the reason for the one hour sessions in the beta? A pure stress test

Actually no, we changed a bunch of the tuning, specifically the economic tuning of the game. We thought the game was going to be too hard for people so we re-tuned a bunch of the economy from feedback from those three beta tests.

The primary function however was to validate the server infrastructure and make sure it was in place.

The Beta was not just a free demo of the game to play; it’s for us to figure out what’s working, what’s not, and make changes if necessary.

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Once the game launches next week, what are you guys going to be focusing on right away?

We’ve got patches for improving things we think need to be improved. We essentially have the full engineering staff looking at what needs to happen next and that will continue for quite a while as we continue to iterate on the game. Particularly with feedback we get from players.

So that’s something you are going to hotfix as we look ahead to the next few months?

Yes certainly

About the future of the game, things like microtransactions, expansions etc. What are your plans at the moment?

We haven’t made any official announcements but there are a few things worth pointing out. This Sim City architecture is much more like the Sims. In the previous Sim Cities it was difficult to add any additional content. We built this Sim City to be “composable”, which is the best way to describe it. It puts us in a position to make more stuff for the game and to build more content. So we’ll see what people want and ask for in particular and we’ll make more content.

How that’s going to work hasn’t really been decided yet.

Now you are at the end of the development, what has been some of the most memorable moments for you?

There are a bunch, we innovated a whole bunch of clever little tricks to render a full city in real-time. Most games that have cityscapes have them pre-authored in Maya, they’re not dynamic. So we’ve had to do a lot of tricks to enable that, techniques like facading. The cities started out as very simple blocks that got richer and richer and a lot more complex.

When we added people and you could see them moving around and conducting their business around the city, it’s the moment when you realise that this is alive, it’s not just a building any more, it’s the people moving through the city that give it meaning.

The first time we managed to connect multiple cities up and impact people’s cities from a distance. Sitting on opposite sides of a little cubicle area and sending a truck with a bunch of money, and you would see it drive down a highway and a few moments later, Dan sitting next to me would say “here it comes”.

What would you say to anyone who has not played Sim City for years to encourage them to pick the game up next week?

It’s the deepest, richest most beautiful Sim City ever, the most sophisticated Sim City ever, and it’s trivially easy to get started. It’s a Sim City you can just start playing, there’s no reason to be intimidated by it.

This Sim city is more like a functional model city compared top previous Sim Cities. It’s like people actually live there, cars, jobs, a functional city.

Finally, because we all want to know here at IncGamers, how can we cultivate a beard and moustache as manly and luscious as yours?

It s culmination of sufficient testosterone and purple glue sticks. If you have little kids and know their craft classes, they have purple glue sticks which have a marvelous quality in drying transparent so use them to style and groom into a magnificent handlebar moustache.

Sim City will be released by EA and Maxis on 8 March.

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