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How Do You Put the Sim in SimCity?
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How Do You Put the Sim in SimCity?

June 22, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

I wanted to talk to you about the aesthetic choices conveying some sort of perspective. I remember seeing in the demo, the coal plant, for example. First of all, it's nice looking, but it's also old looking. What are you trying to communicate with that, if anything, meaning-wise? Is there a value judgment there?

OQ: Yeah, there is a little bit of a value judgment. So, with the coal-power plant, it's trying to represent 1950s, 1940s-era technology, right? The base coal power plant takes coal in, cheap coal, burns it, and then generates electricity and lots and lots and lots of pollution, and the process of mining that coal is also pretty filthy. So, the whole thing is kind of a dirty and kind of a primitive machine, a coal-fired power plant.

If you look around we're not really making new coal-fired power plants in the world anymore. Maybe the Chinese are, but by and large in the West we're not. And so I decided that I'd echo the technological level of sophistication of different infrastructure elements you put down in their aesthetics.

So the coal-power plant looks like it's from the 1950s, 1960s, and oil-fired power plant is a slightly more modern image aesthetic and maybe it looks like it's from the '60s or the '70s. The gas-fired power plant, more modern still, looks like it could be from the '80s or the '90s.

Nuclear power plants, well, everyone knows what they look like, right? So we went with the classic big cooling tower ones, and then as you get into more fanciful power sources.

We're probably not going to do fusion. At least, we haven't done it yet, but the more modern power plants are aesthetically more polished and gleaming and modern. And so we're trying to represent the technological level of a given piece of infrastructure in the individual aesthetics of that piece of infrastructure.

And so, similarly, if you have a poorly educated city that's got all these low-tech industrial buildings in it. All those low-tech industrial buildings, they look first half of the 20th century. They look like they're Lowell, Massachusetts in 1890 or 1900. They look like they're old mills and stuff like that.

And then as you increase the education level of your population to, say, middle education level then the industrial building, the industrial construction of your city starts to look more contemporary. Or maybe not quite contemporary, maybe more like 1970s or 1980s. And then as you got a very high-tech population, a very well education population, the industrial buildings that are populating the landscape wind up looking more like Silicon Valley office parks. Even somewhat more futuristic stuff. It'll look like --

Like the projected Apple building that's going to be built? That kinda stuff?

OQ: No, because that one doesn't look industrial enough. That one looks too much like an office park. The ones I'm thinking of are more like big biotech pharmaceutical factories where you see big silver vats of stuff. And you see piping and tubes. You're not exactly sure what's going on there but it doesn't look like it's a steam-powered mill from 1930, whatever it is. So, broadly speaking, that aesthetic of the toys, the poppables you put down, and of the industrial buildings are deliberately contracted to convey to you the technology level that's in them.

And we're not really tracking time in the same way. Like, in SimCity 2000, for example, you always got the fusion-powered plant in 2050, for example. But for us it's more -- you could invest in education, for example, and have a highly educated city and be able to run highly sophisticated power plants and get high-tech industry going in there.

So, you could let your education standards slack and the only new factories that would come into your city would be lower-tech, and then if you get rid of your schools altogether, then your city reverts to something that looks much more like mill-style factories. So it's not a linear march of time that we're binding to the aesthetics. It's just that we're tracking the education level and the technological sophistication of your city, which can go up and down.

There's a certain degree of overt politics which go into the making of a SimCity game, and it predates this game. People have talked about Will Wright's politics as inferred from what the best way to run a SimCity city is. The clearest and most obvious political message that came out of EA's Game Changers event at GDC was about anthropogenic global warming. Do you make these political choices? How do you feel about that kind of issue?

OQ: So, I think that the intent is to make a simulation with enough internal integrity to it that the player can explore those sorts of choices and see what happens. As far as I'm concerned, the goal is to make something that's robust enough that you can push it in all these different directions and get plausible outcomes from it. So, my agenda with this game is absolutely not to make something that's got kind of a pious, holier-than-thou lesson to it. My goal is to try to represent reality with enough fidelity that you can do all sorts of things and there's really no proper way to do it.

You can make a sprawling city, a broad shoulders-style industrial city, like Carl Sandburg's description of Chicago. If it's all factories and industry, and it is making lots of money, and growing and is polluting like crazy and people have a pretty low life expectancy and so forth, and that's perfectly fine. That's exactly as it should be.

Or you can make a city that's just a fully extractive industrial city that's just pulling coal right out of the ground and then burning it, and then sending some coal to all the other people and sending electricity to your neighbors, and so forth. And that's perfectly fine as well.

So that the core agenda that I've got with this is to make a simulation that is a landscape that the player can explore, metaphorical landscape -- you push on it and see what it happens. It's absolutely not to make an ideologically channeled experience where you have to get all pious and make the right environmental choices to win because that would be, frankly, absurd, as a gameplay experience. That becomes an exercise in propaganda, as opposed to giving you a simulation to explore.

Like I mentioned earlier, we can't help but make some choices for the cause-and-effect stuff towards. Like, we have to bind crime to something. People cause crime. Why, you know? We have to do in some cause-and-effect way. So we say, well, "We could make the plausible argument that crime is caused by a combination of unemployment and poor education, for example." Maybe that's not the case. People have argued that crime is cultural -- that crime is caused by snowballing effects of other criminals around them.

There are lots of other arguments that you could make about what causes crime, and so our decision that crime is caused by a combination of unemployment and poor education is ultimately a political assertion, right? But we're making it because the player can do something about it and because it's at least parse-able. It at least makes sense.

But beyond that we are not attempting to encode our ideology into the game and force people to believe what we want them to believe in order to succeed at it. It's a landscape for them to explore. It's a little model world for them to push on and see how it responds. We're not preaching to anybody.

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