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E3 2012: How the next SimCity will do multiplayer and convincing cities

Plugged In

by Samuel Axon, Tecca

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SimCity is one of the most venerable franchises in gaming, in part because the creative attraction of controlling every aspect of a bustling town appeals to just about everybody. It's been a while since the last iteration of the series though, and a fresh take simply called SimCity will arrive on Windows PCs in February of 2013. We got a behind-the-scenes look at the game at the E3 video game industry convention in Los Angeles, so here's a look at its two most intriguing features: multiplayer and the "GlassBox simulation engine."

How does multiplayer SimCity work?

SimCity doesn't immediately look like a game that would lend itself well to multiplayer experiences; it's a sandbox simulation for one person to express his or her creativity and drive to organize interesting systems. How does another player enter into that equation?

This version of SimCity utilizes something called "asynchronous multiplayer." That means that players' actions in their cities can affect other players even when not all parties are playing at the same time. Here's how it works: Each city may be part of a community of cities with other players. In fact, these cities are physically located next to each other in the game world, connected by highways. You can only make policy decisions or build things in your own city, but because the sims (virtual inhabitants) can drive between cities, your decisions may affect your neighbor's city and vice versa.

It's similar to what we saw in the SimCity Social Facebook game, but it's much more dynamic, realistic, involved here. For example, if your neighbor's city has a high population but not many places to work, but you have many more jobs in yours, his or her residents may commute to work in the commercial districts in your city. Or maybe your city is short on power; you can built power lines to an adjacent town and if it has power to spare, you'll get it more cheaply than you might if you built your own power plant.

You can also work together on major projects like space shuttle launches or international airports; these are called "Great Works," and they take a lot of time and resources — more than just one player can usually provide.

GlassBox: "What you see is what we sim"

The improvements to the SimCity formula extend beyond multiplayer. The most notable we saw in the live demonstration at E3 was what the developers call "GlassBox," a simulation and graphics engine that finds realistic ways to visually represent the state of your city and the people and places within it. Buildings with neighborhoods with high crime rates are adorned with graffiti, and the street and house lights will shut off on streets that don't have any access to electricity.

This extends to how the sims of your city behave, also. As in some other simulation titles like Tropico 4, each inhabitant walking the streets is going from somewhere to somewhere with a purpose. Sims pack the streets in traffic jams at rush hour driving from their homes to their offices. When the police crack down on bank robbers (we saw just that happen!) they blockade the roads. When you build a new building, a construction truck drives to the site; sims get out and erect the building, then get back in the truck and drive away.

When a neighborhood was isolated from the power grid, its inhabitants avoided walking in the streets because there was no light. Getting the power back on caused the neighborhood to bussle with activity once again. This natural activity is combined with detailed visual overlays you can toggle on and off to gain insight into how your city is faring.

SimCity looked to us like a step forward for the series — a modernization of a classic formula that keeps all of the spirit and complexity of its predecessors intact, unlike some of the more recent SimCity reboots (SimCity Societies comes to mind). The game isn't currently coming to Mac or consoles, but it will hit Windows PCs this coming February. Since it's published by EA, it will be downloadable through that company's Origin game service.

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