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Video: Building SimCity's sandbox
May 31, 2013 | By GDC Vault Staff

May 31, 2013 | By GDC Vault Staff
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Programming, Design, Video

Courtesy of the GDC Vault, this free GDC 2013 video sees Maxis' Dan Moskowitz defining what a sandbox game is and sharing lessons learned from building the team's latest sandbox title, SimCity.

Moskowitz defines sandbox games as "goal-free exploration games, where fun is derived from discovering how the game mechanics work." Here, Moskowitz explores how Maxis discovered what worked in its own sandbox using the Glassbox simulation engine, with lessons including determining granularity, finding and re-using patterns that work, figuring out how to scale, and exploring mechanics "breadth first".

Session Name: Exploring SimCity: A Conscious Process of Discovery

Speaker(s): Dan Moskowitz

Company Name(s): Maxis / Electronic Arts

Track / Format: Programming

Overview: At their core, Maxis games are tools that let players delight in their own discoveries of how a system works. As developers of sandbox-style games, we have the unique challenge of simultaneously creating an underlying system and then discovering the fun hidden inside, before we can package it up and present it to players. In this session, Dan will outline a methodology for building sandbox games, giving specific examples from SimCity's simulation, player tools, and feedback mechanisms. He'll also outline advantages and drawbacks to this type of "discovery-based" methodology.

About the GDC Vault

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent GDC events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers. Those who purchased All Access passes to events like GDC, GDC Europe, and GDC China already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscriptions via a GDC Vault inquiry form.

Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company. More information on this option is available via an online demonstration, and interested parties can find out more here. In addition, current subscribers with access issues can contact GDC Vault admins.

Be sure to keep an eye on GDC Vault for even more new content, as GDC organizers will also archive videos, audio, and slides from other events like GDC China and GDC 2013. To stay abreast of all the latest updates to GDC Vault, be sure to check out the news feed on the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.

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Kadan Sharpe
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While I appreciate the respect Maxis has shown their customers in lieu of their launch, I felt as if I was restricted, as a player, more than ever with SimCity.

Michael G
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The whole quality over quantity thing didn't really happen either. It's not as though Simcity has a lot of in-depth micromanaging to provide a varying challenge to keep a city running, you just get into a routine of plonking stuff and moving values about just like the Sims.

Maxis and Focus Home need to decide whether they want a reasonably realistic city management simulator or a simplistic but grander city builder.

Tyler Shogren
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Maxis thought SimCity 4 didn't do as well as it could because the game itself was too complex. However, the root of the problem was the game didn't effectively communicate mechanics/game state to the player. The traffic adviser would pop up talking about traffic jams, you'd look at the heat map and find where the problem was, but there was no way to know why it was there or what you could have done to prevent it (other than the obvious people/road ratio). Of course you can't just show the player the traffic code, or generalized math equations for traffic, you'd have to visualize that systemic information in an obvious and intuitive enough way that doesn't break verisimilitude (and of course cars have to behave rationally). It seemed Glassbox might be a direct address of this problem of visually communicating complicated data.

The impression I got from the talk is that they made a great game engine (with maybe some caveats) and then had to slap together a facebook game on top of it to publish on time for the sake of financial analysts.

Michael G
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There was also the issue that it wasn't always clear how you were supposed to fix the problem when you managed to identify it. Roads for example would need to be replaced with avenues when they get too busy, but then you have to destroy buildings and even then you often had to bulldoze large segments before the tool would work.
I can't remember if Simcity fixes this but I know Cities XL does, it lets you convert existing roads without having to destory and rebuild.
Personally I think the zoning concept is deeply flawed too and that's been made even worse in Simcity since the zones are only aligned directly to the roads so you end up with some weird layouts if you have anything other than grid streets.