Any computer gamer old enough to remember floppy disks probably paid at least a fleeting visit to SimCity, the legendary franchise that let players build -- and destroy -- the metropolises of their imaginations. After passing through half a dozen incarnations in the two decades since its debut, the game is back, and its creator, Maxis Studios, says that this time, it's putting more than bricks and mortar into the mix.
Slated for release in 2013, the new SimCity invites players to grapple with tough choices about energy generation, environmental costs and the responsibilities shouldered by inhabitants of a planet with finite resources -- choices faced by real policymakers on the very real planet Earth.
To the game's original repertoire of fire stations and governor's mansions, power lines and city budgets, Maxis is adding a cocktail of new challenges, including limited resources and the spillover effects of pollution.
All of this, its architects say, is in pursuit of a more "real" virtual experience.
"The most important thing is the integrity of the simulation underneath [the game], the stuff that represents the systems that make up a real city," wrote creative director Ocean Quigley in a recent online forum where game developers took questions from critics and fans. "I don't want to enforce sustainable design principles in the game -- I want them to emerge as natural consequences of your interaction with the simulation."
Those "natural consequences" can take a number of forms. Cities built to run on cheap, abundant fossil fuels can expand quickly, but overdependence may imperil those that don't eventually diversify their energy supply, wrote Dan Moskowitz, senior software engineer at Maxis.
"If you've built up an entire city on the economic basis of extracting a certain resource, when that resource runs out your economy will collapse," he noted.
Pollution is also a key consideration that can harm the health and affluence of a player's virtual population if allowed to increase unchecked.
"If you don't deal with your sewage, with traffic congestion, with walkability and transit, with ground and air pollution -- your city will reflect that!" Quigley said.
Power to the players
Despite its added levels of complexity, the newest version of SimCity still contains that bedrock tension -- the intrinsic pressure on a city to expand, tempered by financial constraints and finite resources -- that formed the core of the original.
What the new game adds to the experience, aside from beautifully rendered, three-dimensional graphics, is a vastly diversified tool kit -- one that more closely approximates the options of modern urban planners.
The original 1989 version of SimCity offered only a basic set of controls: Cities were laid out on rigid grids. Power supply was directly related to population size, and automobiles were residents' only mode of transport.
With the exponential increases achieved by computing power in the past two decades, the gates to SimCity are now wide open to all kinds of sustainable design concepts, and fans are already clamoring for greater control at all levels.
"I know the game doesn't quite reflect reality, but how much focus will there be on the new sustainability trends with mixed-used zoning, complete streets, public-transit/pedestrian friendly development, waste management/recycling, etc?" wrote one fan.
"Mixed use zoning is an absolute must!" chimed in another.
Many critics have complained in the past that rigid zoning standards in previous versions forced them into a "California" model of urban development -- sprawling suburbs revolving around a central commercial district -- which in turn forces residents to make long, traffic-clogged commutes.