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.
"We wanted there to be a range of power sources and an understanding of the impact of each, including local pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and the willingness of people to live next to energy-producing facilities," she adds. "SimCity is a strategy game, and these have been shown to be a good for helping people understand complex issues."
The collaboration with EA follows BP's promise two years ago to double its investment in alternative and renewable energies, creating a new low-carbon power business with the growth potential to deliver the company $6 billion in annual revenue within the next decade. Building on its BP Solar business—which BP expects to hit revenues of $1 billion in 2008—BP Alternative Energy manages an investment program in solar, wind, hydrogen and combined cycle gas turbine power generation, which the company predicts could amount to $8 billion over the next 10 years.
Although the BP Alternative Energy logo appears on several buildings available to players, Bernstein dismissed the idea that BP's visibility in the game amounts to product placement. "As we moved toward SimCity Societies, we were thinking we wanted to have a broader, more nuanced look in our energy resources," she says, "and BP helped us flesh it out. We saw BP as expert consultants."
The logo "should be seen as a small part of the SimCity game," BP's Battershell says. "If you get a million people an hour of education on power plants, I would feel this is wildly successful." She notes that BP is huddling with EA and other video game makers with an eye toward future collaborations.
Both companies say that they hope the costs and consequences of energy decisions made in the game will translate to the real world. "One thing that we can do with video games that other mediums can't," Humble says, "is provide an interactive simulation where you can figure things out and find solutions."