Last week, I headed over to Maxis headquarters in Emeryville to spend a big chunk of time playing SimCity. I decided that rather than attempt to list all of the features of a game this dense, I'd just keep a journal of my day. So that's what I did.
Who's ready for some hot city-planning action?
Many of the screenshots in this article are actually from the city I made while I was there (née "Kotakuville"), but as I couldn't get all of the images I took, a few are stock screengrabs that EA sent over. Those'll be designated, though the differences are pretty clear. The version of the game I played was near to complete but still had some bugs, and the final version is available for purchase on March 5.
Here we go. Hope I don't talk about food/Adam Sessler/Fire Emblem too much.
8:54 AM I am still in my apartment, and this preview session starts soon. I'm IMing with Jason Schreier about Fire Emblem: Awakening, which we've both been playing. I've been having a hard time not comparing everything to Fire Emblem lately. The Dead Island severed torso thing is happening, which is proving to be a distraction. Also, I have to pay rent on my way to the train station.
8:57 AM I make a joke to Jason about how I'm including our IM conversation in my journal. He says, "hahaha. excellent. meta."
10:30-ish AM I arrive at Maxis. I'm running a bit late, but thankfully they still haven't gotten started. I head into a boardroom where they've lined up a bunch of computers for us to play. The usual press folks are here.
10:39 AM Maxis general manager Lucy Bradshaw and SimCity creative director Ocean Quigley come out to introduce the game. They seem genuinely happy to have us here, and proud of what Maxis has put together. I'm sitting at the end of a long table full of reporters, which feels exciting. I'm like the chairman, check it out:
Well-known video game pundit Adam Sessler is sitting to my right. In the interest of Objectify a Male Tech Writer Day, I'll add that I met him for the first time that day, and he seems like a lovely man. He was wearing a snappy hat.
10:41 AM They show us a splashy intro video of the game. The audio is clipping, and it is kind of intense.
FIRE EMBLEM TEST: Is this intro video cooler than Fire Emblem: Awakening? No.
10:43 AM The press materials here say I get to take 10 screenshots. I'm such a screenshot shotgunner, I'm a little bit worried I'll get too excited.
10:44 AM Lead producer Kip Katsarelis gets up to give us tips about how to play. If we want, we'll have 5-6 hours to play SimCity today, which he mentions is a "rushed" experience. I'm not sure I'll be able to play for that many hours at once, but we'll see.
10:45 AM The music that's playing for Katsarelis' demo is quite nice. Chris Tilton did this music for this game. Very soothing.
10:46 AM The PR guy steps in and turns the demo music down. Boo, PR guy!
10:47 AM Just watching Katsarelis use the road-making tool in his demo makes it clear that I'm not going to learn much about this game even if I take all 6 hours. There's a looot here. So many variations, just on the road tool! Arced roads, straight roads, and all these different road types. And my god, so many menus. This is a Stephen Totilo dream-game.
FIRE EMBLEM TEST: Is this demo more interesting than Fire Emblem: Awakening? No, but this is actually pretty cool. I'm looking forward to playing this game.
10:51 AM I had forgotten that they call things you drop on the map "Ploppables." Ew.
10:51 AM Time to start playing. I open up a tutorial called "Getting Started."
10:53 AM Adam Sessler's phone vibrates. He has gotten a text message.
10:55 AM The tutorial involves helping the town connect with the outside world. I tried to connect a road to the highway running down the side of my empty pasture, but I failed, somehow. My road just got... stuck... and there doesn't appear to be a way to get out of the basic road tool or use the bulldozer (?), this being a tutorial. Slight panic sets in. Why does this always happen to me at these events?
10:58 AM I have made peace with the fact that somehow, I failed the tutorial. I built a road out to the highway, and it built "wrong." So, I wound up stuck with a crazy misplaced ramp jutting out, with no way to bulldoze anything. This does not bode well. For me, I mean, not for the game. I wound up out in the menus and was embarrassed about asking a PR person for help, so I thought I'd just dive into a full game. So. Full game! Who needs tutorials anyway?
11:00 AM Wow, I started a new city and two minutes later, it looks like this:
11:01 AM Just kidding. That's a press screenshot. In reality, I have located the bulldozer. Feelin pretty good about that.
11:03 AM I have decided that whatever town I make will be called "Kotakuville," and the roads will form a giant K. Guess what else starts with K? My name. Oh, yeah. I am Ozymandias.
11:05 AM I've begun zoning different areas for industrial, commercial and residential. Everything is tied to the roads this time—you can't just go zone random land that isn't on a road. That makes transportation much more of an artery of the city, and makes it simpler to place your zones in places where you can easily supply them. I believe there are different sounds for each of the three main SimCity zones—for example, for industrial, it makes a metallic sound. I think this is very neat.
11:05 AM Kotakuville will rely on oil power. Let's see how this goes.
11:06 AM It just started raining! In the game, I mean.
11:07 AM My city is broke. Not brokEN, as in, "Damn, your city is BROKE." But like, we have no money. I'm going to try passing a bond measure, because I don't want to raise taxes, because I need to be liked.
11:08 AM My city needed water, so I bulldozed some houses and dropped a water plant where they used to be. Sorry, folks.
11:09 AM Having some fairly extreme graphical slowdown on my computer with the road-building tool. No idea what kind of PC this is, but it seems pretty beefy. Huh. This isn't the final version of the game or anything, so there are liable to still be bugs and the like. This must be one of them.
11:11 AM Placed my city hall up at the top of the "K." Away from the plebes.
11:11 AM Now that I have a city hall, I've been invited to formally name my city. Hello, Kotakuville!
11:16 AM I try to find someone to ask how to take a screenshot. Also, I got a bear claw. It's pretty good! There was almost no coffee left. I can take a screenshot with the "C" key. Because of course, using F12 would be way too… steamy.
11:18 AM Wrapping up the bear claw.
FIRE EMBLEM TEST: Was this bear claw more nourishing than Fire Emblem: Awakening? Not emotionally, but perhaps nutritionally.
11:21 AM Uh oh, my city has an abandoned building with no power. I'm… not sure what to do about it. Likely the first of many bad signs.
11:21 AM There's a taqueria in my commercial district called "Burning Sensations." I wonder if the people there read Burning Questions? Anyway that is a terrible name for a Taqueria. Sheesh, residents of Kotakuville.
11:23 AM Our preview session appears to be having server issues, which is making it difficult for some people to play. Hmm. My game is still okay.
11:25 AM My factories all have funny names. "Hair Glue Factory." "Kensherr Magnetrons." "Donut Dough Industries." Kotakuville is a center of industry!
11:30 AM They're showing us another video. While they're doing that, they're also shutting down all of our games to cycle the server, which will theoretically fix the server issues some people are having. Again, huh. This does not bode well for a game where whenever they turn off the servers, every person in the world has to stop playing.
11:33 AM This demo is about all of the different ways you can build an identity for your city. How you can add "personality" and culture to you city. I wonder if you have too much culture, if you can get SimHipsters? I feel like probably not.
11:37 AM We are still not playing the game, because the servers are still down. The launch of this game may well be pretty interesting! And by "interesting" I mean "possibly a disaster." Note that I write this entry at 11:37. THIRTY SEVEN. Coincidence? I THINK NOT
11:40 AM Looks like they've got the servers up now. Yup, servers are back up.
11:41 AM Splines have been reticulated on Kotakuville. Back to it.
11:42 AM PR seems audibly relieved that we didn't lose Kotakuville. Well. I'm glad, too!
11:45 AM Spent a while messing around with roads. Accidentally bulldozed a bunch of businesses. Sorry, guys. I'm struck by how comparatively small my city is, compared with past SimCity games. I haven't filled my area, but I can see the boundaries. I guess this is as big as a city gets?
11:47 AM I've decided to build up a commercial district to the west of the K. The grid-building is a little different, since the game is more fluid than its predecessors. They give you visible guidelines to build your roads, which is a cool approach. Every time you start to lay road, these dotted lines appear to show you where you could put them to keep them symmetrical. It's flexible and seems to work pretty well.
11:51 AM Oh dear, my city hasn't had sewage this entire time. More like Stinkville 1.0, amiright?
11:51 AM When I try to drop a sewage outflow pipe, it tells me I "must plop on a snap point!" Ew, again! Because sewage!
11:53 AM I still have a 68% approval rating, despite the fact that no one in my city has had working plumbing since they moved here. This must be what Obama feels like!
11:54 AM I paused it to do some zoning, and the rain paused in midair. Neat.
11:55 AM Raised taxes to 10%. Hope this doesn't cause an occupy movement.
11:55 AM The power just blew! In the Maxis buildings, I mean. Not in the game. All of our computers just went down. Hmm, no end of technical problems here, I guess. Then again, string together this many PCs, and you're bound to have some power issues.
12:01 PM It has been suggested that my Macbook is sucking too much power and causing the crash. This seems unlikely, but I may have to plug in somewhere else. I felt this was worth noting. Now I feel like everyone is looking at me.
12:06 PM Took a minute to tweet about this whole Deep Silver severed torso thing, which is happening today, but which most of you will probably have forgotten about by the time the embargo for this preview lifts. But hey, let's remember for a minute. The torso thing! It's probably been replaced in the collective consciousness by some new offense, but man, that was pretty fucking grim!
12:07 PM Kotakuville is still chugging along after the power outage. I lost some of my recent zoning, but that's it. Actually, I may not have even lost that. At least now we know that if you lose power while playing, you own't really lose progress.
12:07 PM Everyone else here has bigger monitors than I do. Maybe their HUGE MONITORS are what's sucking power. Not my laptop. Jeez.
12:07 PM Oh, turns out I didn't lose any progress. Nice.
This must be what Obama feels like!
12:08 PM City Hall has given me an incentive to hit a population goal and incorporate into a small city. It looks like "incentives" are little mini-goals that help you branch out and try to hit new waypoints.
12:09 PM Music update: The music changes when you pause it, and goes through a filter. But as far as I can tell, it doesn't do that cool layering thing with the camera-zoom that it was doing in the last demo.
12:11 PM Power went down again. They made me unplug my laptop.
12:13 PM Still waiting on reboot.
12:15 PM Tara Long from Revision3 is the only one who got a computer that isn't on this circuit, so she's been playing uninterrupted. Taraaaaaaa! *shakes fist*
12:30 PM Power problems resolved. Okay, hopefully the game won't crash anymore.
12:30 PM Now that I've seen it a bunch of times, I can confirm that the SimCity menu is... pretty clean-looking.
12:33 PM Sewage has been taken care of. Whew. Okay, here's what Kotakuville looks like now.
12:38 PM A little while with no updates. I expanded the roads to the southeast, and did a tutorial about the budget panel. A good sign that I just sort of got into it for a while. I can tell it's going to take a few revisions to get this thing right. I bet Kotakuville 4.0 will be pretty good.
12:40 PM Raised taxes again. Sorry everyone. I've taken out two bonds, which was probably a bad call, in retrospect.
12:44 PM I've been notified that "Air pollution just drifted in from outside the city." Hmm. I'm not sure what to do about it, so I move on.
12:49 PM I'm doing pretty well. Getting some tips from another developer, dropped a hospital, and now have $72,000 simoleons in the bank. Not bad.
12:51 PM Fire! We have a fire. Yikes. Though also: Hooray! This is sort of a SimCity milestone. Now to do what all mayors do when there's a fire: quickly build a fire department.
12:52 PM Ocean Quigley just came by to show me the camera-filters. There are a few different color-filters you can use to look at your city. You can watch 'em in the video Chris put together to the side there. They're neat. Quigley says it can be jarring to go back to the other way of doing things. I put on "soft" and then "vintage" and find I do like how it makes my city look. Really, even on my kind of janky monitor, this is a lovely-looking game.
12:55 PM I've somehow wound up wandering into the neighboring area of Norwich Hills, which looks like a second whole city area. (I'll explain this more later.)
1:22 PM Lengthy pause from updates. I did a lot of things recently. I ate some Chipotle! Will you believe me if I tell you that as far as I know, that was the first Chipotle I've ever had in my life? Because it was. Hmm. It wasn't half bad. I see why people go there when it's the only option. I don't know if it's as good as "Burning Sensation," but then, what is?
Longer Update: My PR helper Charlie showed me a lot about the way the game scales, and some of how the multiplayer works. It's pretty cool. Basically, the game exists on three levels: Cities, Regions, and the worldwide economy. A region can hold a number of cities, and any player online can control any city. Regions have anywhere from three to 16 city-spaces, which are pre-designed. (Later, Katsarelis confirms to me that you can't terraform like in past SimCity games—the city-spaces are all pre-made.) Each region also has a "Great Works Site," which can have something mega, like an Arcology or an international airport or a space center. Each one of those has an impact on every city in the region, bringing in money, or tourists, or other sorts of benefits.
So, like I was noticing, the cities themselves are pretty small—you can't build some huge Dredd-esque Megacity One. That makes the game more complex. I can tell that once I've built a few cities, it'll get a lot easier to plan out how I'm going to do what I'm doing. The basic idea is to have one city be residential/commercial, one city commercial with some industrial, and one city industrial. People will live in the residential city and commute to the industrial or commercial cities to work. Of course, your other cities will influence one another, so you'll start getting pollution runoff from one city, or have your residents go to the industrial city to work. And your friends can take over (or build) your neighboring cities, too. I get it, and I like it. It's very different from past SimCity games, of course.
Kotakuville, meanwhile, is very much in the awkward, possibly terminal adolescence of the "First SimCity City." Heading over to Maxis employees' regions to look at established cities, I'm now aware of just how smart you can be with your layout, and how you can maximize the limited geography to get the most out of a city. Here is a press screenshot that gives you a sense of what I'm talking about:
1:28 PM I've been writing all of this with the SimCity music going in my ears, and I have to say, this is some great music to write to. Good show, Tilton. The tick-tock, pizzicato strings have got me in a rhythm. Might have try working to this music in general.
1:29 PM Okay where was I? Right, multiplayer. So the way multiplayer works is, you can invite friends to come and set up shop in cities anywhere in your region. (Or in the blank areas where a city could be. See here:
Once they come in and run one of your cities, there's no going back—if they mess up your city, it's messed up for good. The idea will be, then, that you'll be playing on a server next to people, which will be a different sort of experience than the one I've been having so far.
1:33 PM Kip is going to walk us through multiplayer. This is most of the stuff I just talked about. He says that after 4-6 hours, players are going to want to step out and make another city. He's going into how you can share services from city to city around your region, gift money and resources to one another, send firefighters and police, etc.
1:43 PM I pipe up to ask Kip about a 16-City map. He obliges and loads one up for us. It's much, much bigger than what we were working with, but very cool. Quite big! Loading the map is taking quite a while, since the game still isn't quite finished.
1:53 PM Back to Kotakuville. I keep going for the undo button once I accidentally lay a road incorrectly . In this game, there is no undo. There is only Bulldozer.
1:57 PM Kotakuville looks quite nice at night. I... didn't get any screenshots of it. Sorry. You'll have to take my word for it. Oh ok, here's a press screenshot:
1:58 PM This soundtrack is very much a fan of the lydian mode. Points off for over-reliance on Lydian, Tilton! There are other ways to conjure "airy and thoughtful!"
1:59 PM JK that's not really fair, I mean I really like lydian too.
FIRE EMBLEM TEST: Is this the lydian mode better than Fire Emblem: Awakening? Tough call. There is some lydian IN Fire Emblem: Awakening, so they're kind of related, even. Jury is out on this one.
2:01 PM My people are protesting. Too many deaths per day in my city! What a drag. I should probably upgrade my clinics.
2:02 PM I zoomed in on a sick sim walking down the street, puking everywhere. It's not as horrifying as it sounds. He's going to the hospital, which is pretty far away.
2:03 PM I've gotten a few achievements. "Bad News, Creeps" for having my police catch a criminal, and "Sand through my fingers," for spending expenses over $5,000 per month. I also got "Awfulest Mayor Ever!", which is an achievement for having an approval rating below 10%. Whoops. When did I get that award? (He asked, like every awful mayor ever.)
2:05 PM I upgraded my clinic with an add-on for an ambulance.
2:08 PM Well, Kotakuville is starting to look pretty nice.
2:10 PM Again my city burns. And there's nothing I can do. Boo. To illustrate what's going on, albeit in a much grander, more successful city, here is another official press screenshot:
2:12 PM Some of my factories are closing because there "aren't enough places to ship freight." I gotta say, I get the sense playing this game that there is an entirely new feel to the way all the systems interlock. It's cool, though overwhelming at the moment.
2:13 PM Good example of a system that isn't overwhelming: I built a school, but then had to build school bus stops to go to my various neighborhoods. It's pretty cool, how it works—very intuitive. As you place stops, the streets light up green; you have to get all the streets where people live to light up green. Here's an example of a similar thing with a clinic:
2:15 PM Having one of those SimCity moments where I think I'm doing well, but as it turns out, my city is this close to being abandoned. I don't believe that's happening, but you never know.
2:16 PM Speaking of that, one cool thing is that you can just "Abandon" a city or region, and other people can "find" it and start playing it. Could well be we'll start to get a raft of cool, weird abandoned cities, and no one will know who made them. I like that idea. It's sort of like Jason Rohrer's awesome "Chain World" Minecraft experiment.
2:17 PM Time to make a second city. Kotakuville can cruise for a while and earn money.
2:19 PM In two minutes, I seem to have burned through my neighboring town's budget building a second city that is entirely roads and a coal power plant. This is going to generate revenue? … Okay.
2:26 PM Since we're meant to be messing around with multiplayer, I'm now connected to everyone else, and have been informed that someone has come to my city to take a look at it. That's something you can do with any public city. It's of course possible to make your city or region private.
2:39 PM I got some coffee! I realized that I hadn't had much coffee today.
FIRE EMBLEM TEST: Is this coffee better than Fire Emblem: Awakening? Right now, yes.
2:43 PM The overhead viewing angle is pretty cool:
2:45 PM Whoops, just dropped a dump into my residential area.
2:46 PM Aaaand, read over that last entry and realized how it reads, decided to keep it in, since it is sort of what I did, actually.
2:50 PM My cops are not keeping up with crime in the city, I've been told. I'm always so bad at the SimCity balancing act at first.
2:53 PM I've fixed my water system. Fun to watch water pump out to houses, and have their angry red water-taps vanish as they become hydrated. People are like crops.
2:58 PM I'm focusing on figuring out how transit works; there are so many different kinds of roads, and you can upgrade and downgrade roads depending on what you need.
3:00 PM Everyone must be escorted to the bathroom. Towel-service jokes are being made. This is s.o.p. for a game studio visit, by the way.
3:05 PM I'm pretty much stepping back from active SimCity at this point, doing the thing where you leave your city to run without you for a bit and build up some money. This is definitely one of the things I like about SimCity; it allows you to take breaks while still making progress.
FIRE EMBLEM TEST: Is taking a break from SimCity better than Fire Emblem: Awakening? No. SUB-TEST: Can you play Fire Emblem: Awakening while allowing your SimCity city to build up money over time? YES YOU CAN
(Am I going to do that now? No, because that would be rude.)
3:08 PM It's a little thing, but when the sun moves in the game, the shadows of the buildings move, too. It's very nice-looking.
3:08 PM Filter update: I have gotten very used to the "Vintage" filter I have on everything.
3:13 PM I'm a bit SimCity'd out. Kip is going to talk to us about multiplayer again, which is all well and good, but I've seen as much as I can see for now. I'm going to talk to him, then go home, I think.
So here we have it; this is where Kotakuville wound up:
The SimCity beta will start this weekend, so if you can get in, you can relive my first hour over and over. While I was at Maxis, I spoke with Katsarelis about a bunch of interesting stuff relating to the game and what I played, so I'll have that on Kotaku soon.
My overall sense of SimCity is that it is faithful to the general feel and flow of past SimCity games but dramatically different in several ways. It's a lovely-looking game that is fun to interact with; Maxis has achieved their goal on that front. I enjoyed using it, moment-to-moment. The other key difference is more sweeping, and it stems from the fact that you can't save your game, not in the traditional sense. Specifically, you can't save a copy of your game, then save in a new slot if you want to preserve the version you just saved. There's a sense of forward momentum to everything, and I can see how playing the game could start to feel like writing in the sand.
Everything is a bit ephemeral, which can be freeing, but over the long term, it might make it harder to get too invested in your cities. You can't back up a version of your work in order to preserve a moment in time, or download famous cities that your friends have re-created. It really is different from past SimCity games in that way, especially when you combine that with the new game's always-online ecosystem. This SimCity is happening in the present-tense. I'm not at all ready to say it's a bad thing, because the game I played was vibrant, interesting, and fun. But it certainly is different.
no plumbing, but hey, okay