One-on-one with SimCity's 'mayor'

SimCity Lead Producer Kip Katsarelis's Electronic Arts pedigree is full of SimCity: In his 11 years at the publisher, he's worked on SimCity 4, SimCity 4: Rush Hour ("One of the few games I've worked on a played a lot afterward, along with Battlefield 2," Katsarelis says), along with the first two Sims games. His first lead producer gig was for Spore: Galactic Adventures. This new SimCity, though, is different than any previous game in the series, and not just because of its multiplayer. Katsarelis notes how the changes in city design and the use of resources have influenced the design of this SimCity--and points out some ways you can mess with your multiplayer neighbors when it's time to play the game.

Kip Katsarelis

Shacknews: Why has it been so long since Maxis has made a SimCity game? Kip Katsarelis: There's lots of reasons. Spore is one of them. The studio was busy working on other products at the time. We kicked around lots of ideas about SimCity games, and the next SimCity had to be big, bold, and different--it's been that kind of franchise. And over the years, we knew what the game needed to be, and that's when we started to build Glassbox, a simulation engine that can deliver the type of city-building game that we wanted to build. SN: How long have you been working on SimCity? KK: It's been a few years now that we've had the full team on it. SN: Does the game work without multiplayer? Some people don't have friends; some people don't like their friends... KK: This SimCity is multiplayer, and that is what this game is built for. But we understand that some people don't always play games online, and especially with SimCity, you're used to playing by yourself for long periods of time. You can set your game to private and you can play by yourself however you like. We're trying to build a game that satisfies a wide audience and different play styles as well. SN: Can you take a game that's multiplayer, play it private for a little while, and then hook up later? KK: You have to be online to play. SN: So it's one or the other? KK: I don't want to go too much into offline, but since we're asynchronous, you pull your plug out, it's not catastrophic. SN: How early did you decide that SimCity needed multiplayer? KK: Pretty early on. That was one of the, aside from building the next SimCity, it was curvy roads and multiplayer were the big features people wanted. It's the way gaming has evolved through the years. It's become more and more online, more and more multiplayer, more and more social through the years. That was a key component, and that's the big difference between this SimCity and previous ones.

Traffic copter here: Avoid Main Street through the center of town (concept art).

SN: Cities have changed since the last SimCity. There's now an emphasis on green building, making cities with fewer cars, and these huge megatowers that didn't exist 10 years ago. How does this new SimCity reflect changes in city design? KK: We've been looking at cities around the world, what's the latest and greatest, what's some of the newer technologies out there, and we're trying to bring those into SimCity. Public transportation, different forms of public transportation, is definitely key; ways to build smarter cities are definitely going to be an important piece of this SimCity. SN: Will SimCity things such as bike paths? KK: I can't talk about that today. We're set up to do that, but we're still figuring that one out. SN: Of all the changes, what's the biggest change to city design these last 10 years that’s influenced the game? KK: That's a tough one. It's really the way they're doing some of the stuff in China, overall layout of cities, how everything is getting more compact, trying to stop commuting. You've got your businesses and stores right underneath your residential, and you have everything within walking distance. I think those are some of the biggest changes we're looking at modeling. SN: How has the growth of China and what's happening there influenced this SimCity? KK: Where do you want to start? [Laughs] China is filled with great examples. Another area is that they have such heavy industry there, the coal-mining city, these heavy, dirty, heavy-industry…but they’re successful. They're making money, and people are living there. Some are happy, and some aren’t. In this SimCity, it's a "win" state, and that's just another area we're looking at. Obviously, with this SimCity being so resource-driven, businesses and cities and really evolving and becoming economic centers around these resources, we looked at China as just reference for a lot of the stuff we're doing. SN: Resources are playing a huge role in this SimCity. Is that because you think resources are interesting, that economics are interesting, or is it the role resources are now playing in the world's economy? KK: Resources have always been played a role. They do shape cities. You look at Seattle, for example, a city that was founded on the lumber industry, built on sawdust, and how it's changed into the city it is today--and one of the things we want to introduce is that those resources are finite. They not only help shape and mold the city that sprouts up around it, but they can change, and cities change, and how are players going to react when they're forced to make these changes. How are you going to deal with rebuilding Detroit, for example? Those are some of the ideas and concepts that we wanted to bring into this SimCity. It just felt like so natural, a part of city planning and development.

Nice place for a nuclear plant (concept art).

SN: Have you thought about different types of architecture, such as incorporating Chinese architecture or Eastern European architecture into the game? KK: You've seen the art style we're going for right now. It's American. The cities have to be cohesive, feel like they're part of the same world. We've got a collectors' edition modeled after a few cities in the world, and that's where we're starting with that. SN: Is there going to be any sort of Facebook connectivity/integration with SimCity? KK: We're not talking about that at this moment. SN: Could there be a social-media spinoff, like Civilization World to Civ? KK: Right now, we're just so focused on the PC game. SN: Does climate change play a role in this game? It's a subject that's nowhere near as prevalent now as when you made the last SimCity. KK: We're looking more at the scale of local pollution. Right now, we don’t have climate scales from wet to dry, so it's a little hard to tell that story right. SN: Besides polluting the region, what are some other things players can do to screw over other players? KK: [Laughs] There are lots of ways, as we're finding out. The more integrated cities become, the more you can screw with one another. Once you're sharing water, power, things like that, you can always cut those things off, cut off workers, or cut off jobs. Crime's another example of something that one city can create—that casino city created all this crime, and it will start spilling over into neighbors' cities. Pollution in many forms—-air pollution, water pollution, things like that--are a couple of obvious ones. In case you missed it, check out our in-depth preview of the game. Disclaimer: EA Maxis provided lunch and various refreshments during our visit for the preview of SimCity 5. No other accommodations were provided.