Maxis' new GlassBox engine is looking exceptionally elegant. It simulates resources, cars, buildings, and people as individual agents with their own agendas, and displays it in realtime. Back in April I visited Maxis for a hands-off demo of the software, and watching city mechanics emerge from all those little interactions was fascinating. See what I mean in the new E3 trailer and screenshot gallery inside.
I've embedded the new trailer below -- continue through the gallery for the latest screens with details and quotes from the developers.
This shot is a good example of the tilt-shift effect which appears when viewing cities at shallow angles. The loss of focus in the foreground and background helps give it that miniature model look, and Maxis is playing that up. Creative Director Ocean Quigley discussed the decision when I visited the studio in April:
"A huge inspiration for us has been the aesthetic of tilt-shift," said Quigley. "It's like a little miniature world you can reach in and manipulate. You sort of have a sense that you can bat those cars around with your hand for example, or flick the buildings over with your finger."
This is another good display of the tilt-shift blurring, and a warning: angry Sims will hold colorful signs at you. This is especially true if you let them expand their minds with higher education. There's a dichotomy to everything in SimCity: industry creates pollution, casinos attract crime, and ignorance is bliss. Of course, it didn't appear quite that cut and dry during the demonstration. Poisoned water supplies rarely make anyone very happy.
Finally, curvy roads: no longer will every city look like Manhattan. Check out those adorable houses, too -- I like their simple charm, which also has to do with the necessity for SimCity to scale without losing performance. Keeping frame rates smooth as suburbs grow is an issue Quigley talked much about.
"We wanted to make sure there was enough detail in those buildings so that when you get down to them and look in, you get this illusion of an interior, you get the details of the bricks, the sculpted façade—stuff that's worth looking at,” he said. “But we've also had to do this at scale. It's not enough to have a really high-polygon model of the power plant and call it a day."
One of Maxis' techniques is called "interior mapping." Quigley didn't explain precisely how it works, but the gist is that building and vehicle interiors, which you can see through windows, aren't actually modeled with polygons -- the engine creates the illusion of volume while allegedly using fewer system resources.
One of the coolest things I got to watch GlassBox do is deal with emergencies. A fire breaks out, and rather than burning until it's put out by the statistical coverage provided by a fire station, a truck must actually leave the station, drive to the scene, and spray it down.
I also witnessed one of SimCity's special characters -- an arsonist who runs around setting fires for the hell of it.
"City Specializations" will allow cities to be tuned to specific industries, as in this industrial town. You'll need to be wary of the side-effects -- pollution is obviously a problem here, and that could affect your friends' neighboring cities in multiplayer. This is the city I'd build if I were playing with Al Gore.
Another interesting note: the smog exiting the factory towers actually represents pollution entering the atmosphere.
“There are no visuals in the game that aren't bound to meaning,” said Quigley. “There's nothing in there that's there just for the sake of filling up space and making activity. Wherever there's activity, whenever you see a smoke puff, or a gear turn, or doors open or close, it's because the simulator is making that happen.”
This is more like it -- a quaint college town. And look at all those little people. According to Lead Designer Stone Librande, the GlassBox engine can simulate tens of thousands of agents at a time. They live based on flowchart logic: Do I have money? I'll go shopping. Am I broke? I'll find a job. Are there no jobs? I'll go to the park. And so on.
Like buildings, Quigley says that rendering all these little citizens required some vaguely-stated optimization cleverness: “For the Sims, we've come up with this rendering technique, where they look fully 3D—they're lit, they're animated, they're full-on models—but a technique where we can render them in the thousands.”
The final new screenshot is this lovely smelting plant, which brings me to SimCity's industry system. It's much more involved than in previous games -- firstly, you can harvest resources like coal and wood, which is new, but more significantly: you'll be able to create and export complete products. Lead Designer Stone Librande explained the game's vertical integration system to me in detail.
“Every city that you start up will have some type of resource built into it, maybe that's oil, ore, trees, fish—who knows what? You can harvest those resources out.” said Librande as he pointed to the top of a daunting chart. “In this case lumber's going out, and we could sell it right away for maybe $90 on the global market, or maybe we could trade it with our neighbor.”
“I can also take those goods—those raw resources—and start running them through a supply chain. Every step of the supply chain increases the value of the commodity I'm manufacturing. I could sell these engines and get $2000 on the global market, but if I take those engines and combine them with tires, some metal, and some oil, I can make some cars, ship them out to the dock, the boat picks them up and I get $15,000 per car. So I can add value along the way, and it's kind of tempting for a player who wants to make a lot of money, but every step along the way I'm increasing the complexity, and one thing that's guaranteed about complex systems is when they fail, they fail catastrophically. With so many points of failure, one traffic jam or one fire just blows the rest of the chain and everything stalls, and my whole city could grind to a halt.”