SimCity: Still playing God after 23 years on the market

Christopher Dring
SimCity: Still playing God after 23 years on the market

Maxis is returning to the franchise that made it famous with the upcoming SimCity, the first full game in the series for ten years. The label’s general manager Lucy Bradshaw tells MCV why SimCity is still an industry heavyweight 23 years after it first appeared.

Maxis as a video games brand has been around for 25 years now. From your perspective, what does the Maxis brand mean today?

Maxis is best known for SimCity and The Sims along with a bevy of early SimBrand games. But the sentiment for our brand goes beyond knowing us as simulation creators. Maxis has given gamers playful systems that break down the boundaries of game genres and capture their creativity in such a unique way.

I will never forget my first experience with SimCity. I was both playing a game in which I needed to understand the system to advance successfully but, in the process, I was creating something unique. My own little living city. It came to life as I played, demanded things of me, and made me begin to think of its backstory, how I wanted it to evolve. This unique gameplay that invites you to tinker combined with our desire to engage players in their own creativity and stories is our Maxis hallmark.

The creativity tools that our games centre around are part of what makes a Maxis experience, well Maxis. I

also think that [franchise creator] Will Wright has left a legacy of quirkiness that is engrained in our culture and finds its way into our games. We love to play with life in ways that are unexpected and surprise our players, we love to let players explore the possibility space, share their creations and we value fun failure as much as successful advancement.

Based on your internal metrics, how popular is SimCity still today?

SimCity has huge public awareness worldwide. In a recent study of video game brand awareness, SimCity had over 80 per cent awareness in both the United States and Europe. In just the past year over 12 million people have played a version of SimCity on one system or another and that is just what we can actually track. SimCity 4, a game that is over 10 years old, continues to sell quite well as a classic title. That is quite a healthy shelf life in the video game industry. And even today, modders in communities like Simtropolis continue to add mods to SimCity 4 – we helped them along with some tools over the years – which other players download and play with.

Why do you feel the brand has managed to last so long?

SimCity captures our imaginations in a very toy-like way. I think humans love to tinker, to experiment. This game lets you tinker with a system that comes to life under your fingertips. Another reason for its longevity is that SimCity is about something we recognise and it allows us to play with concepts in a way that we simply can’t in real life. I can’t re-draw the road system in San Francisco tonight, but I can play SimCity and have fun in this way.

It’s fun to see how the system works in ways that make you think differently about the cities you actually live in.

And, yet another reason, the game does not focus on its own agenda. Instead it invites you to set the pace, if you want to beat the sim, go for it. If you want to create a sleepy little suburb, go for it. If you want to create intricate, hyper efficient transit systems, go for it. If you want to recreate your home town, go for it. I think that the game has appeal for such a wide variety of motivations that it manages to find its way into a very broad audience and has lasting power.

The Sims is clearly the big money-making franchise for Maxis, but what does SimCity as a franchise mean to you and the company?

The Sims does do very well because it’s a game about people, something rather universally appealing.

SimCity, however, is the grandaddy of our brand of simulation toys. It’s the original. It created a genre, it inspired people to become architects, city planners, and yes, game designers, engineers and artists.

It is a game that attracts very talented people to want to come work for Maxis. We learned so much as a studio from SimCity – for example, the original building editing tool, called SCURK [SimCity Urban Renewal Kit] spawned a community of players who, when the internet was just in its fledgling stages, started sharing their building creations for other gamers to use.

We at Maxis began to see the power of creating tools that enable players to create their own content and share it. We gave them community sites that helped them share their stories and creations, first in SimCity and then later in The Sims. When we created Spore we deliberately built these capabilities directly into the game.

Why is now a good time to reboot the SimCity series?

We have so much to work with. Players have systems that are much more powerful than ten years ago, so we can really play with graphics and 3D.

We’ve also been able to take the simulation and make it much more personal through our Glassbox engine, which is agent-based. This means that every little Sim in the city, every car, they really have a purpose in the sim. They are heading somewhere for a reason, be it to shop, to eat, to work, to go visit the casino in the neighbouring city and benefit its tourism. We can bring cities to life in an entirely new way in this SimCity.

Additionally, the fact that players are connected is another huge opportunity we can take advantage of with our Multi-City play feature and our Citylog challenges. I’m hopeful that players who are familiar with SimCity will want to share it with friends and that we engage an entirely new generation of gamers.

Why has it taken so long to produce a proper, full-scale new SimCity title? What’s been holding you back?

We wanted the next SimCity game to innovate the franchise and also we wanted it to be developed by the original studio behind the franchise, Maxis. Innovation takes time to germinate and bringing the game back to the Maxis studio meant waiting for them to wrap up other projects. Good things come to those who wait.

You’ve already mentioned it, but one of the most talked about elements of the new SimCity is the game engine. What makes this such a big step forward?

It really is a new way for us to drive our simulations. In the past SimCity was very much a statistical simulation. Now, with Glassbox, everything is an agent or a unit.

We can track Sims, water, power units, garbage units move them about the city, transfer resources like money from one unit to another and more. This allows us to make your choices have more direct impact on specific areas. It allows us to take a Sim, who has hit hard times and have him decide to move on out of your city or possibly turn to a life of crime.

Glassbox also allows us to visualise the simulation state in ways that we have not been able to do before. You’ll see data visualizations embedded right in the city view. You can isolate a particular system, like power and watch the power units surge from the power plant and be disseminated throughout the city.

I hope players find this a much more engaging way to play.

What has been the reception to your Facebook game SimCity Social? Has this game influenced the full-scale SimCity, or are their audiences very different?

SimCity Social has a very dedicated and avid audience but it is a very different platform and different audience needs. Both games share the essence of the brand, choices lead to consequences and creativity. But, the PC client game affords us the ability to make a much deeper and responsive simulation as well as more robust creativity tools.

Has the sheer popularity of Facebook simulation games such as FarmVille influenced you in your renewed push behind the SimCity IP?

We are happy that a whole new audience is discovering the simulation genre through social games – but the Maxis team involved in making this new SimCity for PC and Mac has a number of veteran SimCity creators along with a whole new set of Maxoids who were influenced by playing SimCity or just find this kind of game fulfilling to work on.

Honestly, we simply really, really wanted to make a new version for our core fans. The team has so much passion for the game they’re making, there was no need for external impetus, it is a labour of love.

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Tags: ea , interview , simcity , maxis , lucy bradshaw

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