SimCity Interview with Maxis’ Kip Katsarelis

6 May 2013  by   Paul Younger
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simcity interview

I think everyone will agree that SimCity’s launch was less than perfect and since the game was released all kinds of issues and bugs have surfaced. We caught up with Maxis Senior Producer Kip Katsarelis to find out what went wrong with the 2.0 update and what’s currently in the works for the city builder.

It’s been a busy few weeks for Maxis with the release of the 2.0 patch but that wasn’t a huge success. So what went wrong with that?

I think with patch 2.0 we made an improvement to quite a few systems, one thing to keep in mind in general, we are already on the next update, we’re continuing to improve the game, we’re looking at engaging our community on the forums and honing on what the top issues are from the community and really try and address those as best as possible.

A lot of times, what we are finding is there’s a new way to think about SimCity and how it works, and especially with the fans that have been with the franchise for a long time. They have a way in their mind that SimCity works and it sometimes goes against the grain of how this SimCity works.

One thing we are finding out is it’s just misinformation a lot of the time. What are perceived bugs are really just, well that’s the way the system is designed, and what we are trying to do is better communicate the design intentions through developer blogs, release gameplay videos and answer questions on the forums. Inform the community a little bit better.

On update 2.0 in particular, what we found was we have to be more clear about what each fix does  because I don’t think there’s going to be a silver bullet, for traffic for example. Traffic is something we are going to constantly keep improving, it’s going to get better and better with each update.

The whole simulation is agent based, it’s not statistical so when we make changes we might improve the way the buses work and behave but it’s very different to how the police cars and fire engines behave, so we’re trying to systematically go through each system and improve them with each update.

Do you think maybe at a design level you haven’t allowed enough micromanagement by the players so effectively they can have more control instead of AI controlling everything?

That’s something we dealt with through the entirety of this project. This is a game about macro level city planning, and really multiple city planning. This game was designed with the region in mind. Players wouldn’t focus on a single city, it was multiple cities, three cities, four cities. So those elements really competed with one another.

What we found was, especially early on, we added a lot of micro-level control which became overwhelming. Now that SimCity is out there live, where there are places we could add more levers for players, we’re going to start adding those.

We had an intersection control debug system internally where you could the stop lights. It was a fun thing to tinker around with, but when you started talking about every intersection it became overwhelming.

We have explored micro-level controlling and we are definitely open to it in the future.

Would that include features like one way streets and bus routes?

Yes bus routes is another one. I don’t want to give away too much what we are working on but we’ve looked at things like individual bus lines potentially where you have control of the red line, the green line and things like that.

simcity bus

Controlling bus routes would be nice.

What do you think SimCity players are having the most fun with, zoning areas, managing traffic, resource extraction etc?

Probably all of those things. Players are really interested in the education system so we see university cities and all those cities around education are our highest number of cities. I think people are also intersted in making cleaner cities, but I think overall they are interested in all the systems, just figuring it all out because it’s a very detailed simulation.   What I like is the forums, sharing the knowledge, how one player made a coal city and another player made it totally different.  That was really our design intention, we really wanted to give a robust set of tools and systems to players and there was no one right way to build a city.

We are finding that players are starting to get into the details of the strategy behind building cities.

I want to go back to traffic quickly and talk about emergency vehicles. One of the things that really grips me is the fact that emergency vehicles stop at traffic lights when in the real world that wouldn’t be the case. So how would you approach implementing a system where they acted more realisticly?

That’s one thing on our list. One of the limitations of going with an agent-based simulation is we wanted to make sure that a fire engine for example obeys traffic and wasn’t running through cars and things like that. We wanted to have that integrity to everything.

With the limited space on the roads, for example, they can’t go through traffic right now because there are cars in the way and putting in special rules for the traffic lights to obey and recognise this is actually a big undertaking but it’s something we’re looking at.  It was just out of scope for launch.

I want to ask about resource costs because we have been monitoring these since launch.  After launch the sell prices fluctuated but for the past few weeks the prices have remained stagnent. Why is this?

We had some issues in the first week with performance so we had to turn off the fluctuating markets. Last week we turned on the fluctuating markets on the test server and players really loved it.  We found an exploit when it was updating and we retuned it. The retuning seemed really good. The problem was that it was only updating every time you loaded your city So players could actually lock in a price and if they never logged out of that city they could kind of take advantage of it so we pulled it back down as of 2nd May.

We are doing some additional tweaks, but we hope to have the fluctuating markets up soon as that was one of our original design goals. We’ve had some really positive feedback to the retuning.

simcity import

Resources pricing currently stagnant

One of the big issues, and you read this all the time in comments from the community, are the  city sizes.  There’s not been any confirmation that city sizes will be increased but have you looked at other ways to help players by creating features such as underpasses or flyovers so that players can try to maximize the space allocated?

First I want to formally acknowledge that it’s the number one complaint from players. Bigger cities is a huge technical undertaking for us and so that was something we had to concede to early on in design but looking at ways to get players to more efficiently pack their cities is something on our radar right now.  I can’t be specific on details with regards to what that means but it’s definitely high up on our list.

So you’re not actually looking at solutions to increase the zone size, but what you are looking at are ways to make things more efficient within the space that is currently provided, is that right?

Yes.

One of the things that puzzled me when I first started playing the game were the tooltips and some of the feedback you get from the sims in the game and the buildings.  For example you can click on something and it will say ‘out of money’ but you look around at your buildings and see you have everything required.  Do you think there could some improvements made on the tooltip feedback?

You mentioned earlier on that players may be misunderstanding how the game should be played but maybe some of these ambiguous tooltips being fed back to the player could be causing some of this confusion in the first place.

This is a result of an agent-based simuilation.  I’ve just actually had a meeting about the ‘out of money issue’.  Some of it is actually just a bug but what we are finding is there are some issues where sims are losing their money when they’re coming back from work or from shopping. They are losing their happiness. We fixed some of those issues in update 2.0 and we have another fix coming in update 3 but, again, as we find the bugs we are going to fix these issues. It’s not one particular thing.

With ‘out of money’ it’s sometimes just how the simulation works so you might have sims on the outskirts of your town and that sim, for a number of reasons, didn’t make it to work on time and complete their full shift they are sent home and that’s by design that they are not getting paid. So if they are late or have to leave early they will not get paid.

As mayor of the city you have a problem with that sim getting to work so you need to put jobs closer to those sims so they are not going to have problems. Improve your public transportation, there’s a number of things you can do to try to improve that flow.

That obviously has a knock-on effect on the whole simulation. So every bug that is found has a massive impact on the simulation not working.

Right. But they’re not all bugs. There are some things where you might look at it and go this is not behaving as expected but it’s how it behaves and it’s pretty consistent. The idea there is that this is the SimCity world we created modelled off the real world and it behaves in its own way.  What we are hoping is to inform players how the simulation works, spread that knowledge that players can manipulate the sim and they do have the levers to do that.

I guess my point was that even the smallest bug can have larger ramifications within the game.

Definitely, definitely.

One thing we have experimented with in cities is the happiness levels and whether they really matter. You can create a city and basically drive it into the ground but your population can pretty much stabalise. So do you think the relationship between the RCI and population happiness needs some more work to accurately reflect the happiness of a population?

I think there was a case that somebody found where you could set your taxes way up and your city thrived and you could pretty much ride that out. We’re looking at it case by case.

One of the big differences between previous Sim cities and this SimCity is that you always have a flow of sims wanting to move in, at least the low wealth sims, so the side effect of that is you have sims moving out and you have new sims moving in.

It’s this perception that your city is doing fine but there is some ripple effect and that’s why you’ll see your city is starting to go abandoned.  It takes time for the new sims to move up, causes traffic jams so there are some side effects to having that low happiness city. Sims are moving out, buildings are going abandoned which means you’ll have homeless sims going into your parks which makes them less effective and there’s more crime.

Do you think there should be a higher penalty if you’re city is in a bad state it can become a ghost town and you HAVE to sort it out?

We want to be careful there because right now players, for the most part, are finding it hard to build higher wealth and bigger cities.  We’ve got to have that balance of difficulty, we want to be very careful with changes on things like that.

What is your take on mods with this verison of SimCity. They proved incredibly popular with SimCity 4 so are you going to support them in this SimCity?

From a development perspective, we’re not anti-mod. We’ve actually brought in some of our modding community before launch. We’ve talked to the modding community for both SimCity and the Sims, so it’s one of those things that, we need to get the core product out the door.

Valve’s Steamworks didn’t happen right away, these things take time and so we’re already watching what people are doing.

Yesterday I saw that someone has already decomposed some of our texture systems and re-textured some of the buses. We’re watching that stuff which is cool. We’re just not in a position right now to talk about modding in any real way just yet. We want to get the game solid and we’ll move forward from there.

So are we going to see mod support?

It’s a possibility

I wanted to ask about DLC.  You’ve released a couple of pieces now, the Nissan Leaf and the Crest promotion. While I’m not a big Crest fan I do like the idea of getting my hands on that particular piece of DLC. What are your plans on DLC? For example, the Crest promotion, is that content  you would put on sale once the promotion ends?

We haven’t discussed that, those are Crest’s objects so they are all Crest and they are tied to the Crest promotion deal. We’ll have to look at what the future holds, I can’t really talk much about future deals. The intent with Crest and Nissan was that they were opt-in, we weren’t trying to force advertisements down peoples’ throat, as a matter of fact I love the Crest deal because they said we don’t care what you guys make we just want the SimCity fans to enjoy whatever the objects are.

I think that allowed us to create some really fun parks. We had a lot of fun making those, the gnome kind of animates and the dinasaur comes alive, they’re just really fun and I think they’re a nice addition to the game.

Yeah, I agree, I think they are a nice addition to the game but unfortunately I can’t get them which is a frustration. I think a lot of people will have found that it could be stepping a little too far over the line if a lot of really nice looking DLC just keeps getting pushed out in promotions. Not everybody can get their hands on it and they would much rather spend a couple of bucks direct with Maxis and get hold of that DLC.

Definitely noted. <laughs> We’ll be talking about more deals in the near future.

SimCity Nissan Leaf

SimCity Nissan Leaf DLC

The DLC also goes back to the topic of space limitations. The more DLC you push out, the more space it takes up in your city and people will be concerned they won’t have anywhere to put their giant ball of twine.

The design intent was build a region of cities with up to 16 cities, that’s a lot of real estate to fill up and we’re finding there are not a lot of people playing more than 2 or 3 cities so you’ve always got another city you can build and play with that DLC content. There are options there.

The communication between the player base, I think this has been one of the major issues. Lucy Bradshaw put out the statement early on with regards to the initial problems….

Lucy has posted a few updates and I’ve released a few blogs as well.

I think a lot of the community feels in the dark with what is going on in the background.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of communication regarding what you are currently working on. Is that something you want to address more? What are you plans for communicating with your community?

I agree with you 100%.  That is not our intent, as a matter of fact I feel like we have been one of the more active studios.  We have internally what we call a guru programme which consists of about 10 of the development team who are actively on Twitter, Facebook and forums. They’re on there daily talking to the community in their different channels. We’re pretty open to letting them talk and defintiely keep us in the loop on hot topics but they’ve got a pretty open dialogue with their community.

In the past  few weeks we’ve been working on some plans on how to improve that communication. One of the things we did is on our forums there is now a section called ‘What’s in Development’. What we are trying to do is let the community know the issues we are working on and what’s in development and once we actually pull together the next update we will announce when it’s due.

The next step is getting a better process around the topics and issues coming up and making sure we are aligned with the community and what those top issues are and that we are addressing the top issues. We’re actively working on the game, we just want to make sure we are working on the right stuff.

We’ve been doing developer blogs and diaries but we’re trying to get more active on the forum which is another goal for us. I expect it to get better very soon.

I think people may be getting frustrated with updates coming on Twitter but when I go to the official forums I can’t find anything on it. We don’t really know if the patch is actually live yet.  It seems that social media is taking precedence when the community is trying to get real information. I think that’s frustrating people.

One of the issues there is that we do have multiple channels and that’s just the way things are for now.  There are big communities on all these channels but I like to push people back to the forums and keep people there a little bit more for information.  It’s just a logistics issue on our end, we need to make sure the forum is updated first and is the primary source.

What are you working on right now? The pollution bug is a big issue which we expected to be sorted out in patch 2.1. How far away is that from being fixed?

The pollution issue is on my list, and again, there is no silver bullet to resolving these things so, along with the pollution issue, we have some fixes for the ground water problem.  We weren’t able to reproduce the problem internally, the clouds weren’t appearing therefore it wasn’t replenishing the ground water. That is something that’s nearly gone into development.

The two things that I discussed last night that I am actively working on are improvements to tourism. We found some major issues there recently where the stadium for example, people come in and go there first but for landmarks they don’t so we are looking  into a fix for that. There is also an abandonment issue that is being reported by players and we’ve found things we can do to improve these issues.  We’ve got more traffic improvements in the works too.

Pollution bug

When do you think you will push the next update out and any idea what that will include?

There’s a list but I don’t have it in front of me but there is a list on the forums which includes what’s in development and most of that stuff is in the upcoming update but I don’t have a concrete date on that yet.

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