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Urbanization, Sim City 4, and design hopes for its sequel
by Ryan Sumo on 02/27/13 08:27:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Sim City 5 (renamed simply as SimCity) is set to come out next week, and like every other armchair urban planner I’m excited to see what Maxis has come up with after a decade away from this storied franchise.  Other games have filled in admirably while it was away (CitiesXL and Cities in Motion to name a couple) so I’m excited to see what they have to offer, despite the annoying always online requirement.

To refresh my memory and to really help me appreciate the changes, I decided to download Sim City 4’s Deluxe Edition via Steam last weekend and create a new city according to a couple of parameters,  Specifically I wanted a city that:

  1. Offers mixed use development
  2. Emphasizes pedestrian and mass transit traffic over cars.


Walkability is the new buzzword in urban planning circles these days, and I have to admit I’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid on this.  Living in a city (Metro Manila) with terrible walkability and awful mass transit, I’m using Sim City to build the city of my dreams as a form of catharsis.

Mixed Use Development

Mixed use development is a philosophy in urban planning has been on the rise in the past few decades.  Prior to the twentieth century most cities featured mixed use areas because of walkability and lack of space.  Rapid industrialization changed that because it introduced numerous factories that produced affordable goods but also contributed a lot of pollution to their surroundings. 

Workers at these factories couldn’t afford decent housing, so they lived in ramshackle buildings that were a health hazard in more ways than one. They made cities terrible places to live.  The Garden City Movement, which introduced the idea of zoning residential areas away from industrial areas, materialized during this time.  This was the accepted course of Urban Planning in the early 20th century, and Sim City inherited the zoning laws that were codified in the United States in the 1920s.

Since then the tide has turned against strict zoning, and mixed use development and increased walkability is once again in vogue, with proponents citing the benefits of increased health and reduced pollution (more walking, less car use), amongst other
things.



Simcity 4 doesn’t allow for mixed use development in this sense, but it does allow you to mix zoning a little bit, at least while your citizens are still poor.  This starts to fall apart once your citizen start getting wealthy though, and become much snootier about living next to a factory.  The alternative is to build the traditional zoning grids but to have different zones adjacent to each other, simulating mixed use development.

many pedestrians
 
Here’s an example of how that works out, with Sims in a residential area walking over to the office buildings just opposite them to work.  I’d initially thought that these Sims were also shopping, but it turns out that Sim City 4 didn’t model shopping or leisure movement, or any other sort of movement for that matter.  For example when I clicked on my hospital, it was treating about 2500 sims, but when I checked the route tracking tool only a hundred people were finding their way to the hospital everyday.  Presumably these were doctors and nurses traveling to the hospital to treat the 2000 ghostly Sims residing there.

Even taking that into consideration, I consider my hacked mixed use development a success, especially since it encouraged far more pedestrian than vehicle traffic, as we’ll see in the next section. 

The War on Cars

The rise of the automobile came hand in hand with zoning rules.  As cars rapidly expanded the distances we could travel, so too did the distance between work and home.  Cities became the place where people worked, and then emptied out as people traveled home to the suburbs.  As car ownership became cheaper and cheaper larger roads and eventually highways began to be built to better serve the commuters driving to and from cities.  That model is now starting to collapse as the sheer number of people with cars trumps many cities’ capacity to carry (road) and store (parking) these vehicles.  


Sim City 4 didn’t have mass transit as its top priority, something that Maxis tried to rectify with its “Rush Hour” expansion.  That expansion introduced one of my favorite Sim City tools : Route Query. It still fascinates me to know exactly how my sims are getting to and form work, which I used to good effect when planning my fake mixed-use development, as seen above.  

Unfortunately despite this addition the public transport options in Rush Hour are both woefully inadequate and sometimes just a pain to use.  There’s no bus routing tools of any kind, and the player simply plops down a bus stop and hopes that the transit authority sorts it out. 

Subways are excruciating to build, and a couple of mistakes laying down subway tracks can bleed your budget dry.  Games like Cities XL may be more limited in other ways, but their transport options were top notch, allowing you to build a bus station of a certain capacity then routing the buses around the city according to demand.

lazy car

In any case I made do and just tried to make sure that there was a bus stop plopped on every other city block.  This is important because Sims are notoriously lazy, and will some cases will drive to work right across the street.  The richer Sims are the harder it is to get them to use public transport, so accessibility is key. 

transport chart

Thanks to a combination of my mixed-use policy and generous bus stop placement I was able to achieve my goal of limiting car usage to a pretty astounding degree.  Pedestrian traffic ruled overall with 4500 sims choosing to hoof it, 3000 sims taking their cars, and almost 2000 choosing the bus. 

I also had a very small train system running at this point, which attracted maybe 200 passengers or so. The limited car traffic meant that the majority of my roadways were actually streets, meaning marginally less maintenance costs.  Fewer cars also meant less air pollution, which helped offset the the pollution generated from my mixed use policy of scattering industrial areas throughout the city.

Sim City 5

After dealing with the limitations of the Sim City 4 engine, I’m excited to see what Sim City 5 has to offer.  Maxis has already announced that there will be no mixed-use zoning, which is a shame.  you’d think that in 10 years they could have thought of a way to integrate that into the game. 

With regards to mass transit, Maxis promises a wealth of options including bike lanes, but I have yet to read anything into how much control you can have over routing buses.  Given that massive improvements have been made to transit simulation in the decade since SimCity 4, I would be devastated to find out that SimCity 5 still has limited transit options.  I’m hopeful though, and looking forward to March 5!


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Comments


James Coote
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I just played new Sim City for about 5 hours at an event run by gamecity in Nottingham. Nothing was said or mentioned to me about NDA's, so here goes

They had a live Q&A with the art director of the game and he said they had rebuild the entire game from the ground up. There was no code used from Sim City 4 (and below)

He also said the game was designed to run on a wide range of non-top of the range PC's, so rather than skimp on the graphics, they instead limit the city size to a 2km x 2km square and encourage you to play across a whole region of cities.

This has a massive impact on the game. Gone are the sprawling mega-cities, replaced instead by the challenge of building up specialist cities in a limited area that each contribute a part to the wider economy (with the ultimate aim of building mega-projects like Archaeologies that require resources from different specialist cities)

Also, as far as I could tell, that traffic management tool that lets you see where the sims from each building are commuting to seems to be gone (sadly). You in fact can track every single sim in the game. So click on the education tool, all the sims making the school run will have a mini icon appear over their heads. However, traffic management and geography of the city seems like much less of an issue. For example you build a bus depot, then set bus stops with a radius of effect on roads to get people moving around the city. You then upgrade the bus depot building to include more buses. But the stops go wherever in the city and since they don't take up a city block/square, you don't need to consider their distribution so carefully (just that you're evenly covering the city). Equally, when you build a school, you can upgrade it with more classrooms and equip it with more school buses. Placing school bus stops around the city then means you only need build that one school to service the whole city

I've only played a few cities, so it might be that there are some far larger than the ones I played. Equally, I only messed with buses and didn't delve into trams (streetcars), trains, boats and planes. Also, a lot of the transport options need to be unlocked by building the special government department building for transport, which in turn takes up a precious upgrade slot from the city hall. Also subways were mysteriously absent from the transport options, so DLC maybe?

Overall, I think you might be disappointed, as Sim City is more gamey and less simulation with a bit of game thrown in. It's still great fun, but definitely a different experience to previous sim cities

Ryan Sumo
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Thanks for the review James. I think you're right that I'll be a little disappointed. The bus management system that you mentioned seemed closer to the one in CitiesXL though, which is an improvement.

I'm also not super keen on the small specialist cities. Philosophically they seem opposed to my "mixed-use" policy, in that it encourages zoning of massively industrial, commercial, and residential areas connected by roads or mass transit. Maybe there's a way to balance things out, but I'd much prefer a megacity where certain districts have a proliferation of tech industries, banks, etc.

Ian Welsh
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2K by 2K? That's an incredible turnoff. I don't want to run a town, and that's a town.

Ryan Sumo
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I hear you. Maybe there's just so much going on underneath the hood that 2k by 2k was a practical consideration?

E McNeill
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Stone Librande (SimCity Designer) gave a talk at PRACTICE 2012 about how the game was redesigned to be based around "agents". These are essentially autonomous, independent entities, like a person walking to work, or a bit of cargo on a truck. Simulating thousands of these does indeed put a strain on resources.


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