VIRTUAL CITY BY THE SEA: SimCity Societies encourages its virtual architects to design cities that maximize any one of a number of different values, including authority, creativity, knowledge, productivity, prosperity and spirituality. Image: Courtesy of Electronic Arts
Since its debut nearly two decades ago, Electronic Arts's (EA) SimCity has allowed its players to become the masters of their own mini-domains. But there was always a nagging feeling that the game judged their moves based on some preset moral compass. No more: in the new version of the game SimCity Societies, set to hit stores on November 15, zoning and infrastructure planning requirements designed to keep city planners on the right track have been replaced with a much broader definition of success.
SimCity Societies encourages its virtual architects to design cities that maximize any one of a number of different values, including authority, creativity, knowledge, productivity, prosperity and spirituality. Players determine whether their cities turn out to be capitalist meccas or artistic hippie societies based on criteria such as the power source, types of buildings and the proximity of those buildings to one another.
SimCity has always allowed its players to decide whether to power their metropolises by coal, nuclear, solar or wind energy. But the new version takes a different tack. "We wanted the next SimCity to reflect how societies evolve," says Rod Humble, studio head at EA's Sims label, based in Redwood City, Calif.
The goal is to produce a high level of "societal energy," by developing a city with one or more of the game's six values. Societal energy is a fairly intangible force, but players know they have it when their cities grow and their citizens are happy and productive. "If you put the city together right, it has the right energy," says Rachel Bernstein, producer of SimCity Societies. Players place buildings within their cities in order to maximize the values most important to them, whether they are productivity and prosperity or creativity and spirituality.
A courthouse, for example, creates a city's societal energy by increasing the output of simoleons—the game's currency—in the surrounding workplaces. In that same city, a building containing a focus test lab makes corporate buildings throughout the city produce a higher simoleon output per worker. So, the focus test lab not only increases the city's revenue, it also makes corporate buildings produce greater societal energy, a feature that helps raise the city's prosperity value, Bernstein says.
In the updated game, decisions about energy sources are more important than ever and better reflect the decisions that today's real-world city planners face. Players choose their energy sources based primarily on cost, power output and pollution. Whereas solar or wind farms have few negative environmental side effects, they require more space and produce less energy than environmentally unfriendly coal plants.
To make these decisions as realistic as possible, EA took the unusual step of designing the game with the help of London-based energy giant BP (formerly British Petroleum). "BP came to us more than a year ago wanting to make a game about alternative energy," Bernstein says. "It made sense to show them where we were [with SimCity] and see what they were looking to accomplish."
BP saw its role as helping EA—and by extension SimCity players—understand the role of electricity in climate change. "Globally, twice as many emissions come from generating electricity than from all forms of transportation—planes, trains, cars and others," says Carol Battershell, vice president for strategy and policy at the company's subsidiary, BP Alternative Energy.