Maxis senior producer Kip Katsarelis talks SimCity


Image via Wikipedia.

With complex simulations delivered by the GlassBox engine SimCIty 2013 goes deeper than ever before but Maxis senior producer Kip Katsarelis demonstrates that the core experience – and passion it inspires – remains the same.

It’s hard to believe that 11 years have passed since SimCity 4 was released. Fans have been waiting for SimCity 2013 (or SimCity 5, or just SimCity because it’s a reboot rather than a new version) for the past year but Katsarelis and co. have been working hard on its development for the last three and a half years.

“We were working on other games like Spore but SimCity is in our DNA; there was always ‘the next SimCity idea’ floating around the office but this particular one took hold,” he explains.

Flipping SImCity on its head

“We looked at 4; at the process, how we built and designed the game, and we really flipped this SimCity on its head.”

The flip that Katsarelis talks about was brought about by the GlassBox simulation engine. SimCity behaves a lot differently to any of its predecessors. In fact, it’s got a lot in common with the AI in The Sims. As Katsarelis says, it’s a different beast: “This SimCity is object-based and designed from the bottom up.”

It’s granular in that each Sim living in your SimCity has a unique name and goes about finding a place to live and a job. Fire engines travel around looking for fires and police car go on patrol. Each object is an agent and has its own logic to it.

Although it’s a city planning game Katsarelis says they wanted to “rip away the glass” and check out the city at street level. If you zoom in each car is different, each house has its own interior, you can go to crimes in progress and see them unfold.

Once we got the simulation engine we wanted to see if we could reproduce SimCity 4; the basics you know and love. With that built relatively quickly we went on to add a lot of new elements.”

Going Deep and Getting Green

One element is how deep SimCity has gone with socio-economic cause and effect. The player, as mayor, will have to deal with the higher crime rates of a profitable city full of casinos or if they choose to use clean tech they’re in for the long play. Homelessness has been introduced to the game for the first time so city planning will involve a responsible housing strategy.

Speaking about the development process Katsarelis says: “I guess our team became experts in different areas. We were doing research, reading books, talking to people, understanding city planning and becoming aware of many new social and economic issues.”

“We introduced homelessness because we wanted to bring in and play up social issues. As the player you have an emotional attachment and know that you’re decisions affect the lives of thousands of Sims. They needed an education, a low crime rate, we went deep.”

Social and economic balance in a city environment was a major theme, says Katsarelis, eager for me to know that there were different political and moral views amongst the development team so there was no plan to bias players one way or the other.

“It was important for us to understand both sides. We put those decisions and levers in the player’s hands so they feel the impact when they make those decisions.”

This is interesting because Katsarelis explains the goal isn’t to get every player starting of with some Utopian city full of clean tech and minimal environmental impact. I put it to him that the best way I’ve found to play is to start out cheap and dirty with coal-fueled power plants, only switching to cleaner renewable technologies when my city is in the position financially, something that mirrors the real world to some extent, I add.

He laughs and says that this is the point about SimCity: “As mayor the player learns a little something about themselves. They can get sucked into being an oil baron or try to model clean and green from the real world, or maybe create a picture of perfect Utopia.”

Inspiring Future City Planners

Katsarelis says he loves the fact that high profile professionals including Manzell Blakeley, city planner at the New York City Department of Transportation, and Brent Ryan, assistant professor of urban design and public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have cited SimSity as an inspiration for their careers.

“That’s always been part of the design philosophy. One of the core values is that we are modelling the real world. It is a game but it’s about urban planning and encompasses wider economic issues,” he explains.

“SimCity inspired me to get into games. It has touched so many people and so many have their own story to tell about how the game influenced them. There are very few games that bring that.”

It has been much publicised that this version of SimCity has built in gameplay that encourages awareness of green technologies and sustainable design. Even if you’re not in the mood for a lesson on the environmental impact of non-renewable energy sources the notion of sustainability is subtly woven into the game, leading to passive learning.

Learning From SimCity

This educational link is nothing new, says Katsarelis: “Every iteration of SimCity has had a teacher’s handbook; it can be used as an educational tool. We’re also working with the Games For Change Festival in New York and the Future City competition. If you go to http://www.simcityedu.org/ there are resources for bringing it into the classroom.

SimCity has sucked me in since then early nineties but won’t children find it a little sedate after blasting their way through Gears of War or Call of Duty?

“We targeted a wide audience. The core is 25 plus but there’s been a whole new audience with younger teens, who never experienced it the first time round, now playing it and loving it.

“One kid from the Future City programme sends me all of his projects of future cities. I think it’s kind of refreshing, a change of pace from first person shooters. It shows that you can have that balance of fun and learning,” he adds.

Breaking Stuff

So what’s the most fun part of SimCity for Katsarelis? “It has to be disasters,” he says, laughing. “Destroying stuff is fun. It’s one thing to build it up but another to unleash Truckasaurus! It’s a bit like building sandcastles as a kid and then getting the joy of kicking them over.”

Destroying building, wreaking havoc and ruining Sims’ lives have always been part of the magic of SimCity, as has breaking anything that can be broken and testing the game to its limits. Katsarelis says that no matter how much testing is done in development the players will break that barrier in no time.

“As soon as it was released players were playing for much longer than we expected, building bigger cities, entire regions of cities. One player found a bug that allowed him to build a bridge network to the sky. There were buses several hundred feet up in the air!”

Another unexpected turn of events at launch was the crippling server problems. Katsarelis says that player feedback is important to them and that they read their forums and have a live team working to improve and update the game.

For now there are no plans to release any tablet or smartphone version while they focus on the Mac release due out on June 11th. In the meantime look out for the tiny llamas.

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