The city-builder genre of game has been sparse and disappointing over the past decade. EA and Maxis' storied SimCity franchise has been sitting on the shelves since 2003. SimCity 4 is the most recent game in the series proper, and it is so old that it still runs on a sprite-based, isometric, 2-D engine. Offshoot games like SimCity Societies tried to keep the series relevant and expose it to new audiences, but none of the games since SimCity 4 have really captured the spirit and essence that the old games brought to fans.
But finally, after a 9-year hiatus, SimCity is finally coming back with a proper, full-fledged sequel. Below is the announcement trailer for SimCity 5 with a little behind-the-scenes featurette tacked on to the end. Enjoy!
In the intervening years, we've seen some other city-building games come and go. Existing franchises like the Caesar series continued to release games, and newcomers like Children of the Nile, City Life, and CitiesXL tried to innovate and supplant SimCity as the defacto standard for the genre.
None of these games really hit the spot though, and CitiesXL probably established itself as the best game in the genre. But CitiesXL never really found a large fanbase, and its original developer, Monte Cristo, went out of business due to a lack of sales for the game. The title was picked up by Focus Home Entertainment, and two sequels have been released: CitiesXL 2011 and CitiesXL 2012. Neither of these games has sold particularly well, either.
It might be that the city-building genre just doesn't have a wide enough audience these days. Or it might be that the games in the genre just haven't had the same addictive quality that older games possessed. Hopefully, SimCity 5 will succeed where these other games have failed.
So what can we expect to be in SimCity 5?
The trailer gives several hints regarding how SimCity 5 will play when it is released in 2013.
First and foremost is the idea of there being a multiplayer component. The trailer seems to present two separate cities that are divided by a river. On one, hand, there is an industrial city, whose owner apparently has a red footprint when placing buildings, whereas the other side is a more cultural and high tech city whose owner has a blue footprint when placing buildings. In SimCity 4, cities were placed in regions and could trade resources with each other, but they were in separate maps and could not directly interact. In 5, it looks like multiple cities can be built on a single map, and that they can directly interact with one another. In the demo, pollution from the industrial city shuts down the power generator for the high tech city, causing both cities to have to join forces to build a nuclear power plant in the center island.
Allowing multiple cities controlled by different players to exist on a singular map seems ambitious, but is not without precedent. The Sims 3 loaded the entire town as a single "lot" and allowed players to seamlessly visit any location in the town.
My biggest concern is with the long-term appeal of the multiplayer component. I don't want to have to be reliant on having another player with me when I want to play my city. It also might be inconvenient if the game uses a drop-in, drop-out mechanic that would allow just anybody to take over unused cities in a particular region. I also wouldn't want to be stuck in a situation in which I need to cooperate with another city in order to continue using my city, but the other city's owner doesn't log into the game for weeks or months.
But as long as the game has a fully-featured single-player, offline mode, I will likely be happy; especially if I can have direct control over all the cities in a region.
3-D look and feel
We still haven't seen any actual gameplay, so we don't know for sure that the game will utilize a fully-3-D graphics engine. But I have no doubt that it will. City Life and CitiesXL proved that a 3-D engine works, and that roads and buildings do not need to be constrained to a square grid in order for a game to work. I fully expect SimCity 5 to follow suit, and from what we see in the trailer, that will be the case.
Hopefully, the transition to 3-D will not affect all the useful charts and graphs that previous SimCity titles had. CitiesXL just didn't do a very good job of presenting some information, and I'm not sure if that was the result of the game being in 3-D or if it was just not as well designed as Maxis' efforts.
UPDATE March 9, 2012 (11:22 AM PST):
Just found an interesting set of videos from the GDC in which a representative from Maxis demonstrates the capabilities of the GlassBox engine that is powering SimCity 5. The videos below contains actual gameplay footage from SimCity 5:
Part I - Map generation and basic agents and paths
These videos should probably not be taken as representative of what the final game will look like. They aren't really gameplay of SimCity 5, but rather, they are demonstrations of the game engine. Regardless, they do give us a hint of what the game will look like and how it might play. These videos do show that the game will definitely be in full 3-D, and that the graphics will likely be slightly more cartooney than some SimCity fans might expect. But that's OK. The SimCity games, despite being incredibly deep and realistic, never took themselves too seriously, and there was always room for caricature and humor!
This video is labeled as part I, but it looks like there was stuff before it.
It looks like the Glassbox engine is capable of simulating a lot of depth. The speaker talked about using agents to carry electricity and water, as well as vehicles actually having to drive to a development zone to deliver resources. While I doubt that the final game will be that complex, it's nice to know that the developers have the capability to make this game as deep and complex as they want it to be, and that they've taken special consideration to allow such depth.
One criticism though: what's with all the cars making turns from the wrong lane? Cars in the left lane turn right, and cars from the right lane turn left. Really weird looking. Not a big deal, but hopefully they can fix that before the actual game releases.
Part II - the economic loop
Again, this video showcases an impressive amount of detail. Car headlights were actually emitting light that illuminated the houses as the cars pulled into the driveway. Sims commute to work using a day and night cycle, and workplaces respect their operating hours (although it seems like they all open at 6 AM). Once they are being worked, the factories are supposedly actually producing goods in real-time that then have to be transported to stores and customers. My understanding of the previous games was that such activities were not directly simulated, but rather assumed to be happening, and that animation scripts triggered particular vehicles to be spawned on the roads based on what kinds of buildings were nearby, but these vehicles didn't actually move any people or goods. Again, I'm not sure how much of this simulation will be happening in real-time in the final game, but it definitely allows for a tremendous amount of depth.
Part III - the water table and the environment
(Thanks to user Chichian for linking this vid - March 11 2012 3:00 PM PST)
There is a lot of heavy-duty simulation going on in this game. Water is an actual finite resource that is pulled out of the ground (along with any pollution that has entered the water table) and then has to be routed to the various buildings (along with any aforementioned pollution). That's a lot more detail than I've ever seen in a city-simulation game.
On top of the water simulation, we get an extra glimpse at how the economic simulation works: apparently, individual sims within the city will have moods, or at least health states. Sims in bad moods or poor health can apparently leave work early, and possibly not go to work the next day, having a rippling effect on the economy of the city as a whole. A single sim probably won't make a difference, but if your whole city's health starts to decline, it could potentially cripple your economy if the presenter of this video is to be taken at face value.
All of this looks incredibly deep, almost as if every household in the city is a little game of The Sims that's happening on a day-to-day basis across your entire city. I really hope that this Glassbox engine is powerful and stable enough to deliver all of these deep simulation mechanics in the final retail product!
Part IV - FIRE!!!
Not sure if this new fire spreading mechanic will work any differently than in previous games. In previous games, public services (such as police, fire, hospitals, and schools) all had a range of effect as well as a maximum capacity. I wonder if the range will be discarded in this game, and instead, a service's efficiency will be determined solely by capacity and it's end-user's proximity (rather than the service's range). Functionally, this shouldn't be too different though.
Are gas stations actually going to be in this game as a building that the player has to construct? Interesting...
UPDATE March 20, 2012 (1:50 PM PST):
I recently found another video that summarizes the content that was presented in the previous videos. It has a few minor tidbits of additional information.
It still doesn't look like we have an information about how the game's interface will look or how the game itself will play, but this video is still just a tech demo and isn't intended to address those interests. The menus on the side appear to be debugging tools, so I don't think they have anything to do with the actual in-game interface that is planned for the retail version.
The exciting thing, though, is that it looks like all the depth and detail that has been presented is expected to be part of the final retail product. Although this video is given as a demonstration of the Glassbox engine, it is also being presented as a demonstration of the SimCity 5 game. This implies that the engine isn't just a series of pipe dreams from the studio, but rather a real, working engine that can effectively run the game!
I do have one concern with a feature that may be lacking in the game. Starting at about 1:20, the video starts talking about agent paths with respect to traffic and pedestrians. They comment that "agents trigger simulation rules when they arrive at their destination, but no rules run during transit." I'm wondering if this means that the game won't be simulating things like traffic accidents and congestion. I'm assuming that problems associated with traffic congestion will at least indirectly manifest itself in terms of goods and resources not be delivered in a timely manner, but hopefully the game will still be able to recognize that traffic is bad and make that affect the satisfaction levels of the population and the support for the mayor.