PLAN 84: Article
Sneaking A Peek At The New Sim City

A Visit from the Lead Designer of the Revised Urban Planning Game

In March of this year a new version of the enormously popular city-building simulation, SimCity, was introduced with a considerable amount of fanfare in the digital gaming world – an event of particular interest to SA+P for a number of reasons. For starters, of course, SimCity is a simulation of urban design and management processes, a core concern of almost everything we do here. It is also a hugely successful example of digital game design, the focus of an important research program in the school. And finally – a source of much pride to us – the lead designer of the new game is SA+P alum Stone Librande (SM’92, Architecture; SM’92 Media Arts & Science), Creative Director at EA/Maxis, a division of Electronic Arts that publishes many blockbuster digital game franchises. On Valentine’s Day, Librande came to MIT to give our students a sneak preview of the new game and to talk with them about the process of game design in general. Below, a brief look at that visit.

First released in 1989, SimCity is an award-winning simulation that invites players to create their own cities, introducing them to the trade-offs among a seemingly endless array of variables in the design and management of an urban environment. The game was updated in 1994, 1999 and 2003, growing ever more complex, and even though the more recent version is a decade old it still attracts an actively involved community of players.

The new version of the game, released in March, introduces a whole new level of complexity – including, importantly, the option for several players to play at once, allowing their cities to specialize in a particular area such as education, gambling or big business while their neighboring cities cover other bases, creating opportunities for intercity cooperation.

Each player begins the game with 50,000 Simoleons – a deliberately artificial currency without any real exchange rate, to preclude the confusing variable of what things cost in the real world – then proceeds to lay down roads; create industrial, business and residential zones; build power plants, schools, police and fire stations – (they can actually hear the trucks at work) – and manage the flow of power, water, traffic and sewage through their city.

To keep the enterprise going, players can adjust tax rates, pick up bonds, make deals with neighboring cities to share or trade resources and so on, but if the city’s residents get unhappy with the way things are going, For Sale signs will pop up on their lawns, wafting in the breeze.

To keep players from getting too discouraged by such citizen complaints, the designers included positive citizen feedback as well as complaints. But if people get so unhappy they start abandoning their houses and whole neighborhoods start to slide, players retain the right to destroy their entire empire, in a fit of omnipotence, with an asteroid.

The SimCity franchise has been credited with inspiring an entire generation of urban theorists – The New Yorker has called it ‘arguably the single most influential work of urban design theory ever created’ – and MIT planning professor Brent Ryan attests to that claim, on a personal basis at least, asserting that fooling around with earlier versions of SimCity played a significant role in getting him interested in the profession.

As director of SA+P’s Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade, both seated in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Eric Klopfer conducts ongoing research into the development and use of such games and simulations for understanding complex systems. (He recently received a $2M grant from NSF to develop simulations that help students understand topics ranging from the origins of life to molecular biology, ecology and evolution.)

When Klopfer first introduced his MIT course in Computer Games and Simulations for Education and Exploration – offered jointly by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Comparative Media Studies Program – SimCity was one of the first games he used, challenging his students to design a curriculum around it, and found it to be so useful that he’s eager to incorporate the new version in next year’s iteration of the class.

The use of digital games like SimCity for educational purposes is increasingly common and promising, he says. Research shows that digital games align well with good learning principles – they keep people at the edge of their expertise, encouraging them to set goals, take on new roles, test hypotheses and incorporate feedback, and they randomize experience so players have to transfer knowledge from one situation to another.

On the morning of his visit, game designer Librande met with urban planning students for an introduction to the new game and a roundtable discussion on the role of games in planning and policy education. The planners applauded the addition of mixed-use development to the game, but noted that at the moment it’s only possible horizontally, whereas in reality vertical mixed-use is becoming increasingly common. They also encouraged designer awareness of what assumptions are ‘baked in the cake’, so to speak, perhaps unintentionally, based on the designer’s mindset. And they encouraged, in future refinements, the inclusion of crowdsourcing resources by which educators could search and share their classroom experiences with the game.

As it happens, Electronic Arts is now collaborating with GlassLab to develop SimCityEDU , an online educational resource for classroom teachers with an interest in using digital platforms as a learning tool to drive student interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. Educators will be able to create and share SimCity-based lesson plans that help students to think critically about the challenges facing modern cities.

After a lunch with SA+P faculty, Librande gave a presentation to a joint session of Kloper’s class and a class in game design taught by Philip Tan, creative director of the MIT Game Lab.

In that presentation, Librande said that for this version the designers spent a lot of time giving players the feeling they’re controlling the lives of people, whereas previously the focus was on buildings. In the previous versions, for instance, if an oil field were discovered under a residential neighborhood, a player would have no qualms about bulldozing all the houses to set up a drilling site. But in this version, the player is forced to consider the effects of that choice on the city’s population.

He went on to emphasize that SimCity is now a game about flows, making it much more interesting than the previous zone-based versions because the puzzle is in constant motion. The designers began their work with spreadsheets, then moved on to flow diagrams on a whiteboard and eventually to Adobe Illustrator to create a master plan for the game, continually working on the diagram to get it sufficiently simplified. If you can’t make a decent drawing of it, he said, the game is too complex. (It’s also important, he said, to make the diagram look cool so the development team will actually read it.)

Librande said this was the biggest, most challenging project he’d ever worked on, and because the game is so mind-bendingly complex, they created a tutorial to get new players started – gradually introducing more complexity according to their individual play patterns – and the game offers prompts, suggestions, warnings and options as play progresses. But in the end, Librande said, as a designer, all games are the same at root level: whether they’re about warfare or princesses or simulated cities, there are certain true principles.

After the afternoon presentation, Librande visited Tan’s game design class, where students were working in teams to model new games such as a snowball fight or pitting MIT police against MIT hackers. A large part of his task in teaching game design, says Tan, is to remind people how to do it. Kids in lower grades, who play games all the time, know how to create games instinctively. But as we age, we forget and start to think it’s more complicated than maybe it is.

On the day before Librande’s visit, at the behest of Fast Company magazine, Aaron Naparstek, a visiting scholar at the Media Lab’s City Design and Development Group, assembled a team of SA+P students to play in the world's first ‘SimCity Multiplayer Tournament of Champions’, pitting six teams or ‘regions’ against each other in real time. MIT’s city, MITroit, made a pretty good showing, although a small issue did arise when the team discovered they had placed their industrial zone upwind of a residential zone. They mitigated the problem with the intercession of parks and trees, then blew the whole thing up with an asteroid. (That last part didn’t really happen but it should have because it would have made an entertaining end to this story.)