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.

Interview: Salim Ismail and Singularity University


Sunset from the International Space Station

Salim Ismail has been Executive Director at Singularity University for the last two years. A renowned Angel investor and entrepreneur with a rich and varied CV. He helped bring Bupa, a private healthcare service, to Ireland and spent almost a year living near Cork. In the United States in addition to being an executive at Yahoo he started and ran a number of businesses. One them is Confabb, a resource for conferences and tradeshows worldwide. He recently sold another one his companies Angstro to Google.

The idea of Singularity is described in Ray Kurzweil‘s book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Technology is accelerating at such an increasingly ever-rapid rate that at some point in the near future we will be living in a world of pure information. We will be technologically enabled to transcend our own bodily limitations, illness etc., and also have the capability to solve the planet-wide challenges that currently face us.

Singularity University is based in Silicon Valley and the learning regime is based on methodologies developed at the International Space University. These information imparting systems are vital to Singularity University as in two session totalling ten weeks students encounter ten separate study fields.

Not only do applicants need to have either a Masters degree or be working towards one they also need to be able to demonstrate a track record of leadership in the public or private sector. They also need to be able to show a marked interest in confronting and resolving the large scale challenges that we all face. Climate change, pandemics etc. Last year, there were 1600 applicants for 80 slots.

Salim says that the major issues that the world faces today have one root cause.

“The biggest problems in the world today, whether its financial crises, pandemics or climate change are all rooted in accelerating factors and our leadership around the world does not understand this phenomena.

“The fundamental paradigm of accelerating phenomena is something that human beings don’t understand. All of our thinking is linear. Yet the world operates in certain ways with exponential phenomena and power laws.

“What’s unique about where we are today is that the world is being impacted by many external accelerating phenomena powered by informational properties and we don’t understand it. Our leaders don’t understand it, the general public doesn’t understand it, most scientists don’t understand it.”

So how do you find what the problems are?

‘In the summer program we have two courses. We have the Summer program that’s ten weeks long for the top graduate students in the world, for the new next generation of leaders. We have a seven day course for existing government leaders, business execs, investors etc., that we do on roughly a quarterly basis.

“In the Summer program, its a ten week program. In week one we bring in the World Bank and some of the top foundations in the world and we have them talk about, fairly extensively for the whole week, [the issues we face.] What are the characteristics of clean water, home energy, pandemics, public health? So that the students have a good deep insight on what’s been tried, what’s failed, where the problem is most acute etc.

“They spend half the summer getting a state of the art view across all of these technologies. What’s in the labs today that’s getting commercialized tomorrow? What technologies like nano-technology show the most promise? Where are these technologies converging to increase other breakthroughs? Who are the top thinkers in the field? Who are the labs and companies doing the most interesting work?

“In the second half of the summer they form teams and they do what we call a ‘ten to the ninth’ project. Their challenge is to come up with a project or service that will impact a billion people within ten years… So the idea is that if you are going to do that you really have to think about something that will scale over time. You’re not going to impact a billion people in three weeks so how would you do that over time. So what technologies, what acceleration within these technologies would you have to ride?

That requires forecasting. Isn’t that a tricky business?

“There’s a whole discipline called Future Studies that has good solid techniques for forecasting. If you look at the rise of 3D printing. You can graph it on a very nice 2×2 matrix as an acceleration of a particular technology with the social adoption of that technology. So 3D printing of houses is a very nice accelerating area.

“Nano materials and nano medicine is an accelerating area. Stem cells is an accelerating area, [but has] much less social adoption. You can plot on a graph which ones will have the most social adoption and which ones won’t and how do you deal with it.

“Another example you can think of is what’s a likely future versus a preferred future versus a most unwelcome future. And how do you mitigate those. So we teach the students techniques in future studies so they have some practice in thinking about this. For example if you think about your Blackberry or iphone, we know exactly how much power those devices will have in ten years. What we don’t have is the imagination as to what we would do with them.

“We’re expanding the experience of what it is to be human very, very rapidly without realising it.”

So what should we be looking at in the near future?

“So we have to look at what domains are information enabled and see what has promise. 3D printing is one, solar energy is another. The rise of Arduinos and robotics is certainly another huge area. The key is how can you create systems of innovation in the hands of everyman? When you can put that into the hands of a farmer in China then magical things are going to happen.”

SMXQ: Bernard Goldbach

Bernard Goldbach is a lecturer in Media at LIT – Clonmel. (Previously the south campus of the Tipperary Institute.) He is a noted early adopter in the Irish tech and social media scene. He was one of Ireland’s first ten bloggers and also one of the very first users of Twitter in the country. He can be found on Twitter: @topgold

1. Could you tell us about your background (where you’re from, what you’ve done)?

I grew up American in Pennsylvania Dutch country, living next to the Amish but learning the value of “work comes first” from a German-Irish-Russian family. The family motivated me to become the first person in three generations to go outside of the State for a college education and that decision pushed me into qualifying as a multi-engine instructor pilot. Over a 10-year period, I racked up more than 3500 flying hours and I only got shot at once. In the mid-90s, I flew into Ireland where I parked my plane and started flying a laptop.

2. What was your route into social media?

I entered a very traditional social network involving “ring knockers” inside the Washington DC beltway in the mid-80s. This circle of insiders uses a classified and encrypted form of social networking that predates Facebook. Working with that insider social network took the wind out of me. I waded into the waters of electronic social media
on the heels of a stinging personal episode involving the compromise of extremely sensitive personal data in the early 90s. Today, as a social media lecturer, I feel empowered to teach others how to avoid the pain I have felt when sensitive information creeps into the public domain.

I started on Compuserve as an assistant forum administrator of the education forum where I monitored predators in 1993. I grew up on e-mailing lists, including the original webmaster-shoptalk in 1997. I’ve been blocked, banned and served solicitors’ letters for my activity over the years and now live in a semi-reclusive part of Twitter. (Ed. Really?)

3. Tell us a little bit (if you can) about what you’re interested in or working on right now.

Augmented Reality and specifically Layars displayed on Android devices interest me. I also feel a special kinship to Limerick OpenCoffee and the dedication shown by early advocates, James Corbett and John Kennedy. I’ve always been mesmerised by pinpoints on maps and will continue working with geodetic services in every third level module that I teach at Limerick Institute of Technology.

4. What social media services do you use regularly and why?

I try to have all the social media services come to me so I’ve set up a series of special words, phrases and user activity levels to vibrate my phone when something happens. Those e-mail and lightweight text alerts listen to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Last.fm, Typepad, YouTube, Qik, Delicious, Boards.ie, Get Glue and the O2-Ireland forum. I gave up following public timelines and work with lists of people and clouds of words instead. I try to have my alerts point me to what I should be seeing so I can share the important stuff with others.

5. If you could only keep one service or tool, what would it be, and why have you chosen it?

I live with just one service – Ovi Maps – even when without a mobile data connection. Ovi Maps are social tools. You can find things on those electronic maps and make your way around foreign destinations without the worry of extortionate data charges. I’ve used my Nokia handsets to add comments to maps, to connect with people while on the road and to spend my time wisely at well-defined free and open wifi points. Once I learned how to cache my map data, I had a significant part of the Lazy Web in my pocket.

6. Including your own area of expertise, what developments in social media do you think are particularly important?

I believe we are starting to unravel the metadata and core processes that give greater meaning to the context of our online interactions. I hope the research continues and that I can enhance my online life through better contextual awareness.

7. What can you do now that you couldn’t do before the arrival of social media?

Through portable systems like Online Meeting Rooms, I can see and meet people I have never physically encountered. I can carry on a live and totally synchronous video conversation with several other people without connected to either power or data cables while walking the Golden Vale of Tipperary.

This capability still amazes me and more so because it has enabled me to rejoin conversations I left 30 years ago with other pilots. And when I turn off the video camera, I can toggle into spaces like Facebook and the Zoomr network where I can see photos and read snippets from people I last saw in the 70s.

8. What issues, either technical or social, do you see with social media?

Location-based services infringe upon privacy and that has to be controlled. I think there needs to be an “eject” lever that people can use in every social network they join. Executing the eject sequence should vaporise all remnants of one’s existence in the chosen online space. Also, I believe newcomers should be shown examples of the snarky behaviour that exists in many online communities. Some of the rudest, loudest, and most obnoxious people also serve as key gatekeepers in social networks where their personal agendas erode the quality of online engagement for others.

9. What one piece of advice would you give to someone entering the social media world?

Real-time search, an ability to search at the speed of thought, is emerging faster than we can imagine. And when that real-time search becomes a native skill of the online community, meaningful online collaboration should improve markedly.

10. How do you see social media helping and improving things for us in the future

Learn to listen first, then to converse regularly. Like a real-world community, a social network improves with interdependent contributions.

The Virtual World of Gifted Kids [VIDEO]

Click on image to see the children interact with Gifted Kids Virtual World

At the Gaelscoil Eoghain uí Thuairisc in Carlow, Ireland where lessons are taught in Irish they are implementing the use of 3D technology for the learning support of gifted children. This is the first time that this technology has been used in Ireland to teach part of the school curriculum. The interactivity and detail of the 3D technology means that anything you can do or build in the real world can be replicated in this virtual world.

Gifted children who, at the most conservative estimate, make up 5% of the entire school population are taking part in a pilot programme devised by the school in conjunction with Irish software company Daynuv, and Giftedkids.ie, an association specifically set up to advocate for provisions to be made in the education system and elsewhere for the needs of gifted children.

Bríd Uí Mhaoluala, who runs the project for one hour every week in the school with the children helped to devise the pilot program. She has been working with gifted children for over ten years and she welcomes the lack of need for any real learning curve when initially engaging with the software. She says, “I’m not a computer whizz. I am the sort of person who presses the button without reading the instructions to see what this thing does. But if we can do it here any teacher can do it and that’s the most attractive thing about it, I think. It’s accessible to any teacher who wants to try it.”

She gave the children minimal instruction in how to get started and in a very short time they were way ahead of her in terms of understanding the capabilities of the software and their inventiveness in what they were able to create. The exceptional nature of gifted children, even within the educational community, can be the source of many problems as Brida explains, “Some teachers can be a little bit scared of exceptionally abled children and don’t want to admit that they don’t know how to do it but you need to pack your ego [away] and say, Right, you are going to get this more quickly than I did. You’re probably going to be better at this then I would. So run with it.”

James Corbett, co-founder of Daynuv (an Anglicisation of the Irish word ‘deanamh’ which means making,) a company that provides virtual worlds for education says, “It’s an open source platform called OpenSim which is an open source version of Second Life. What it does is give you a 3D space which, on first blush, looks like a gaming environment that you see on a console.

“It’s a 3D space, you have six degrees of movement, up and down, left and right and in and out of the space. But unlike a game it is not a pre-programmed environment it’s something you can decide exactly what you would like it to be.

“So, what the kids initially get from us is a clean slate, sixteen acres of land that they can terraform, build their own terrain. If they want to build mountains or valleys or rivers or lakes then they can build that. On top of that they can use building tools to build whatever they want. First and foremost it is a platform about building and constructing unlike a lot of console games which are about destructing. It’s…about collaborating.”

Margaret Keane is a strong supporter of the Gifted Kids Virtual World project. She runs Giftedkids.ie which describes itself as “An Online Survival Guide for Parents & Teachers of Gifted Children in Ireland.” It is specifically set up to advocate for provisions to be made in the education system and elsewhere for the needs of gifted children.

Margaret explains the original genesis of the idea, “We were looking for something that we could bring into the classroom because we were getting a lot of requests through the website saying, “We want to know what this information is, we want to know what the characteristics are. What do we need to to look out for? We have [children with] this range of special abilities and we don’t know how to support them.” So they’re looking for practical solutions.”

She met with James and it was agreed that there would be a certain kind of synergy in combining their efforts and Bríd became involved through her participation on the GiftedKids.ie forums.

Margaret says, “I was very excited by the fact that you can use this technology to support the entire curriculum. You can link to all sorts of learning objectives.”

But as important as it is to acquire knowledge and practical skills the Gifted Kids Virtual World technology also acts as a vital communications tool for the children when they are away from the school.

Margaret points out, “That’s where it really helped the social skills because a lot of these kids find it hard to find a peer group within their school or even within their classroom.”

With the inbuilt messaging capability the children can still participate in the Gifted Kids Virtual World from their homes and continue collaborating on the various projects they are working on together.

We made a short video and you can see and hear the children describe for themselves how they interact with both the application and each other. It is only six minutes long and is a testament to the power that 3D technology can have if properly applied.

The pilot programme is expanding and very soon 20 schools in total will be involved. The software is made freely available to schools but sponsors are needed to pay for server and administration costs. 3D technology has moved from the gaming console to the classroom and is facilitating the education of our gifted children. One can only imagine the possibilities if it were made available for all our children.

There is also a flythrough video of the 3D environment in Gifted Kids Virtual World available for viewing here.

Margaret and James would like to offer a special thanks to Social Entrepreneurs Ireland for their part in helping to make the Gifted Kids Virtual World project possible.

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SpunOut.ie: A Highly Effective Use of Facebook for Increasing Awareness

In just four short months from April to August, 2010, SpunOut.ie have raised the number of people on their Facebook page community from around the 400 mark to nearly 12,000 participants, as of writing. This is a remarkable achievement for a small Galway based charity whose stated aim is to educate and inform young people in the 16 – 24 age on the issues that concern them and encourage engaged citizenship through social activism.

Ruairí Mckiernan, with the help of some friends, started SpunOut.ie from his bedroom in 2004 using a dial-up modem which would sometimes take half an hour just to send an email. SpunOut.ie, (the term ‘spunout’ comes from the notion that youth culture is fed up with spin; political spin, religious spin, spin from teachers, the media and advertisers.and they are ‘spun out’,) was always intended to be web-based. Taking advantage of platforms such as forums and informational pages to share information and have discussions about issues such as sexual health, mental health, drugs, alcohol and other matters of concern to young people.

Ruairí says, “The burning motivation for me was that at the height of the Celtic Tiger, seeing that the sole emphasis was on economic development, development, development. At the same time social development was going in the opposite direction. It seemed to me [to be an increase] in terms of suicide and mental health, particularly around younger people who were being developed as economic units rather than citizens. If you look around now and ask where is everyone and what are they doing and why is there no big big engagement, it’s because the investment was to bring people into the corporate world. Which is fair enough but it needs to be balanced with social development.”

He goes on to say, “The website provides a channel for people to discuss, debate and participate in a way that they don’t normally get. The internet provides the opportunity for people to discuss things that they feel a little bit more safer with. There is a degree of anonymity if there are taboo issues. And some of the major taboo issues in Ireland are around the issues of mental health and sexual health.”

These are sensitive issues and on the main site there are is a trained team of moderators in child protection and suicide preventions skills. Ruairí points out, “ Obviously there are risks in providing an open space so we mitigate against that in a way that Facebook mightn’t by resourcing with [trained] staff.”

What social networking platforms like Facebook can do is offer organisations like SpunOut.ie the means to reach a much larger audience that they might not normally have access to and tap into a new set of resources. There are roughly 630,000 people in Ireland alone that fit into SpunOut.ie’s target demographic.

Jason Coomey, the charity’s web developer, was tasked with helping build on the organisations significant development work to increase SpunOut.ie’s profile on Facebook. It became clear very quickly that this was almost a full-time job. Ruairí says, “It’s not every organization or company that would put somebody just on to Facebook. But it’s something we have made an organizational decision around for now.”

One of Jason’s first tasks was to work with the SpunOut.ie team in migrating user activity away from the profile page which allows friends to access other friends information directly to the more public although ironically more private space of a Facebook page. They found that advertising on Facebook took a different turn from using Google Adwords. The latter is focused on keywords while Facebook is focused on demographics.

To encourage people to like their page they decided to run competitions. The prizes were for such things as tickets for the Oxegen and Electric Picnic concerts. Another prize on offer was an ipad.

One of the things they quickly learned was to set up the promotion in its own tab and in the settings make that the landing page. Jason says, “When people land on the site they should be sent to the first page that you want them to see. This can be done by setting up a tabbed page and then change the setting on the page so when someone arrives they get sent to the relevant page immediately. People have a very short attention span. It’s 15 seconds, perhaps as low as five or three seconds or less and that’s it.”

But they didn’t want these competitions to be mindless affairs. Like every charity they need to come up with strategies and plans to justify why they should receive funding. Some of this information can only be gleaned from doing surveys which, traditionally at best, can only be referred to as being very dry affairs.

Jason tells what happened, “We ran an ipad competition to get people to fill a survey as part of our strategic review. Over fifteen hundred people participated in the survey. The quality of the information was amazing. It’s not as though we came away with 11k fans we didn’t know what to with. We had fifteen hundred people [participate] and we acquired an extra eleven thousand fans as well.”

The Facebook average is 0.04% (figures from 2007 so may well be dated,) return on click throughs. Naturally, Ruairí and Jason would wish to keep certain matters confidential but they do claim that the returns from their activities were significantly better than the Facebook average for the ipad competition.

There is a very small window of opportunity for an ad campaign. As little as a day or two before results fall away rapidly. But click through rates are not enough and a lot of statistical analysis takes place in determining if a rise or fall in click through rates results in more or less fans.
It is not a straightforward relationship and all the data has to be looked at very carefully.

But awareness is not enough. Ruairí, “I am passionate about the need for social change in Ireland and I see the internet as one way of achieving that. If you don’t have a passion about it, it won’t work, it won’t get off the ground.” SpunOut.ie now has an online audience of 500,000 people. “We are trying to engage them is social issues and activate them as active citizens. We want them to get interested in the big issues of the day and to do something about them.

“We’re in a really good position but we’re not in a really good financial position to secure that for the future. So not to lose the huge goodwill that we have built up we would like others to come in and row with us. We’re keen on suitable partners. We’re actively looking for support in developing, marketing and funding to realize our full potential.”

If you think you can help in any way you can find the SpunOut.ie team at their Facebook page or on their home site.

Ruairí Mckiernan is one of the speakers at BlogTalk 2010 being held this week in Galway, Ireland.