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Q&A: EA's Bernstein On Building  SimCity Societies

Q&A: EA's Bernstein On Building SimCity Societies

December 27, 2007 | By Christian Nutt, Brandon Sheffield

December 27, 2007 | By Christian Nutt, Brandon Sheffield
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The latest title in the Sims dynasty, the Tilted Mill-developed SimCity Societies, recently saw its worldwide PC release, and Gamasutra spoke to the game's producer, Electronic Arts' Rachel Bernstein, about the creative process that continues to evolve the direction of a familiar series, and considerations for future incarnations.

"When we approached this game, we wanted to do something innovative, and actually be willing to take a departure from the previous SimCities," Bernstein explains. "There were two big differences that we wanted to carve out. One was that we really wanted to work hard on making the game accessible and easy to start playing right away - and, of course, to not lose the depth, and to keep the challenge there so that you still have a deep and replayable game on your hands."

"The second thing is that -- and this is the heart of the design challenge -- we were focused on variety," she continues. "We asked ourselves the question, 'What makes Paris feel different from New York? Why does one city feel different from another?' It's not just the height of the building, or what they're made of, or their style. There's a sort of vibe or soul to a city."

Gamasutra spoke to Bernstein about SimCity Societies for Gamasutra just before the title's release, discussing the genesis of the Tilted Mill-developed title, the state of the PC market, and leaving real-world brands out of the game.

Why did you get rid of zoning?

Rachel Bernstein: The concept of zoning, if you think about it, has to do with an inherent idea of progress. You start with something flat, and you say, "There, that area is going to be commercial," and you can tell whether you're being successful or not, and if it's progressing and getting shinier and taller and more dense, or if it's decaying and looking run-down -- then, you're doing bad. That has an idea of what good and bad is. It's all on this spectrum -- this continuum from small and flat or run down to tall and shiny and sparkly and dense is good.

In SimCity Societies, we wanted to make the creative range of which direction you can go with your city a lot broader than that. We're not just interested in letting you make something that looks like Los Angeles again. You can, if you want to, and this city is a little bit like that, but I'll show you some other cities as we go that don't look at all like that, and are also successful.

Zoning implies that the game knows what's successful and what's not, and what's good and what's bad. But in this game, when you can be deciding to make very different kinds of communities or cities, and you can decide what kind of ruler you want to be, the game can't inherently know. You're choosing it, and the game is responding to it.

What kind of technology did they use? Anything borrowed from the Spore stuff? It's a similar large-to-small scaling stuff that's happening.

RB: No, they don't have any cross-talk with Spore. The Tilted Mill team had their own technology. They did Caesar IV, and they did Children of the Nile. I think that -- like in a lot of games -- it's sort of like sailing across the ocean in a boat and rebuilding the entire boat as you go. They started with a boat, and they've rebuilt it and made it cooler in a ton of ways, but all from that boat so that it could keep surging forward really fast.

You mentioned having to show a video reel to the ESRB. Did you have to show them all of the potential problems now? I know they're supposed to play through everything until death now, right?

RB: Yeah. What you do is you're very careful to disclose. It's like when you sell a house -- disclose everything. You just try to disclose anything that could conceivably be pertinent to the ESRB. They have a packet that you fill out. They have all these different categories of things that they might be interested in, and you tell them how it appears in your game, and put it into context so that they understand what they're seeing, so that they don't have to spend three weeks playing the game to get to where you are.

You have a video that goes with it, and you give them the timecodes for everything. You give them all the text in the game. They spank you if you don't disclose something, so that's how that goes.

I've heard it's gotten a lot more complicated than it used to be these days, and that also fees are three times what they were before.

RB: It certainly took a big piece out of several people's lives to put all the material together and really make sure that you covered everything. In a game like this, it's just huge. Like the guy who went out and puked behind the dive bar -- he's not doing that all the time. There's lots of things in this game that you can't make happen all the time.

It's a city-builder. A lot of what it is is that you create the opportunity for things to happen. It's like being a wildlife photographer. You go out into the wild and you hope that they come out and do a cool thing while you're pointing at it. It's really huge to go through and get everything.

It seems like it would be an opposite way to think about your game, because you have to think about all the things that people could potentially find as negative, which is not the kind of way you build your game, so it's a weird way to deconstruct it.

RB: Yeah, not at all. It is a very strange kind of deconstruction process, and I can't say that I enjoyed it. But I did enjoy that it really made me zoom in and appreciate and discover a lot of the cool stuff. The team has just been putting in so much polish. Their focus in the final months is polishing, like you would want to surface all the interesting wrinkles in the gameplay that are there, and make them as easy to understand as you possibly can, and get the interface so that it really tells everything they want to know when they want to know it.

The other thing they really focused on is performance, and trying to make it play on as broad a hardware platform as possible. Unbeknownst to me and off my radar -- because it's not my focus -- is that they're also putting in a ton of cool incidental animations and improvements to the way things look, just to make it a richer environment.

I do have to say that as I was looking through all the ESRB stuff, it was like, "Oh man, I didn't know that in the skateboard park that guy does that trick, or the penguins jump off that rock and they swim around in the zoo!" Finding all that stuff... I usually focus on a gameplay perspective, so I don't really spend my time zooming in and looking at it. That part was kind of fun.

I was talking to Harvey Smith a little while ago, and he was saying that the game doesn't get as good as fast at any point during the development as it does in the last three months. It's just the polishing, and...

RB: It's just like building a house. It doesn't really look like a place you really want to live until they've put up the drywall and they're painting it. But all that hard work had to go into the foundation to make sure that the walls were going to look really smooth and everything when they do that. It's pretty cool.

Is that part of their brief? How integral and how much do you put on the polish aspect and the cool details aspect? I would think that...

RB: You mean how much of that push comes from EA?

Yeah. Or how much of it is from the design, or how much of it comes out of their motivation to make the game really cool. Is it self-motivated?

RB: Oh, it comes from their passion. I don't think that EA would have ever said no to something. They just go above and beyond all the time. There's like three guys that just talk about what societal energies go with which buildings. There's three guys that sit in an office together, and they talk about it all the time. Their whiteboards are covered with it, they commute to work together, and two of them are housemates. They talk about it all the time.

They're a very passionate, driven team, and that's why we're working with them. They're not the kind of people where you have to say, "We want you to do this, and we want you to do that." They're the kind of people where you have a very high-level conversation like, "Here's what we want to achieve with the game. Let's get on the same page about the vision. Let's go back and forth to figure out what that vision is and where we're going." Then they go with it. We try to give them feedback, because sometimes developers have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees, and it's just good to have a little distance and give feedback. But in terms of putting in the vast amount of detail that's in there, that's just purely driven by them.

SimCity obviously has a long history as a property -- about a 20-year history, I think. How do you go about finding the right developer like this? It seems like you're saying that you hit on the very right developer for this project.

RB: Well, Rod Humble -- who's the creative head of The Sims team -- he'd already been talking with Chris Beatrice, who is the president of Tilted Mill, for a while. The games industry isn't that big, and people end up knowing people and talking to people. These guys have done the other big series. They've done Caesar games -- a lot of them came up from Impressions and did the Caesar games before Caesar IV. So they know what they're doing with city builders, but beyond that, when you talk to them and get to know them, you see that they are true artists, and are true engineers and true designers.

You know they're just very passionate, so when you're talking with them, you know that they're going to put everything that can possibly go into it, and they're going to put that love and care. When you have a franchise that's been out since 1989, you want that. You want to make sure of that. So how Rod first met Chris, I don't know, but how he knew after talking with Chris for a while that his team would be perfect.

The decision to go external on development, was that a tough call?

RB: I wasn't there for a lot of the initial work on it. I know that there's a lot of passion about SimCity in the walls at EA around here in California. A lot of people really wanted to work on it. But I also think that the opportunity to get it going right then, to pull together a team of the right mix of seasoned people who have done it before and new people and get it going...it didn't seem like it was going to happen as soon, if we did it, and I think that because Rod and Chris' conversations had been so successful that we felt that we could move forward with this now, and feel like we're entrusting our baby to the right hands.

Do you feel that the PC market changed significantly, in the time between the last one and the current one? Did that form any decisions that were made?

RB: I'm not a marketing expert, but I would say that gaming is becoming less of a niche activity. More and more people are playing games. It's one part of their life. They don't necessarily identify themselves as, "I am a gamer," but I think people who might have played SimCity in the past and not really wanted anyone to know it... people are more out there about games.

The fact that we have all this green energy stuff, which I don't think we've talked about here...just topical things in the world infiltrate into games, and games infiltrate to pop culture. I think one thing that the Sims label has been really cool about is that it's brought a lot of people into gaming who didn't necessarily identify themselves as gamers. So many people have played The Sims 2 who didn't really play games before, and I think are playing other games now.

The opportunity to do something with SimCity where you could have more people that are playing your game, and more of your friends can have a conversation with you about the game that you are playing... they might have watched the movie or the TV show that you just watched, but now to say, "Hey, here's a game that you may play on a different, deeper, more hardcore level, but that more of your friends who aren't really gamers can also play and enjoy," ...I think that that is a direction that the gaming industry is going, and I hope to see more of that, because I want to see games get out there.

One discussion recently is that there isn't as much of a difference between hardcore and casual games as there is between hardcore and casual players, in the sense that any game can be played to a hardcore extent, no matter how casual or game-less you might think it is.

RB: I think it's funny, when I used to sit around and play Zuma, and I'd have some friend kibbitzing, and I'd realize, "Man, you're a hardcore Zuma player! It has nothing to do with how much time more you spend playing Zuma versus me, but you're way more thoughtful about it than I am! I'm having fun, and so are you, but..." I think that's definitely true. It's a casual game, but some people still play it hardcore and strategically.

How do you balance that? How do you try to keep the game's intent focused in a way that makes it rewarding for the players?

RB: Play is a really interesting topic, and I think it's sort of what lies at the heart of Will Wright's genius when he first started SimCity, and what he was doing with The Sims, and I hope and think that's what he's doing with Spore.

What I think is cool about it -- and what this game totally does -- is it says, "We're putting something out there that is very cool and very multifaceted, and there are a lot of ways to approach it, and we've thought about a bunch of them, but what we really hope to do is have the people who play it -- I don't even know if I can call them all "gamers" -- play it and discover how to enjoy it in their own way.

Did you do research into what people wanted, as far as community functions? Or did you just go with your gut, with what was possible?

RB: You know, I think it's hard to say that there's one gut, when there's so many people touching something. We have talked to players a lot about what are the kinds of things they want to change, and pretty much the answer is that we're letting people change everything except the geometry. So there's not really anything out there that someone said that they wish they could change that they care about, except for the geometry.

There's an element to this game that is very culturally bound. It's based on a shared culture and a shared understanding. But you and I can look at a shopping mall that you've plopped down, and why would that make people happy and what they might do there. Do you feel like there's something culture-bound about this game?

RB: I understand what you're saying. But I also think that if we look at this community, it's a spiritually based community, and that encompasses a few things in the game. So we've got this American farmhouse, and American farms. Maybe they look like that in Europe. I sincerely doubt that they look like that in Asia. It looks pretty darn American to me.

But if we come over here, we have more Asian-inspired things, and when you make a romantic city, it looks more European. I think there were a lot of people who looked it in formerly Communist areas or in parts of Europe, who would look at architecture for certain parts of the game and say, "Not only is that really familiar to us, we're not sure if it's too familiar from a bad time." We respond to a lot of the cultures in it, but I also think that there's a lot of European and Asian things to respond to as well.

Do you worry about stereotyping, also?

RB: Oh yeah. I think that the design team tries hard to put stuff in there which is understandable and interesting and funny without offending anybody, for sure.

There's probably a fine line between blanding it out and keeping it accessible. Do you find this difficult?

RB: I think it's interesting. I think there are some very funny people at Tilted Mill, and sometimes they put stuff in the game that I find really funny, and then I have to wonder, would someone else who has different sensibilities than I have find those things funny? But you put it in front of a lot of people.

It's not like a straight shot from one person's head to the box. That's one of the benefits of having a lot of different people look at it with a lot of different sensibilities.

I was thinking -- and this is sort of evil -- but why couldn't you have a Target in SimCity Societies as the store? Like a Target or a Loew's or a Cineplex or something?

RB: It's an interesting question. I know that a lot of people came to EA and said, "We'd really like to get into your game," and do something like that. We had a lot of chances to do it, and we said, "No," because at the time, we felt like we don't want to take people out of the fantasy that they're creating.

Would those real-world things mar them out of that? We don't want to take a chance. What I find interesting -- and we'll find out more as more people get their hands on the game as it goes retail -- is I found a lot of people say, "Hey, that could be really fun, and I'd love to see what happens to my McDonald's when my city goes to one million."

I'm sure McDonald's would be a bit weird!

RB I'm sure they'd be very pleased with that. But I think that if it turned out that there was something to explore there that made the game experience more fun, we'd explore it. But if it's just about putting ads in the game so that we could make a few dollars that way, our business is to make a great game, not to sell it that way.

The in-game ads...people always say that, "Research shows that ads add veracity to the game-playing experience!"

RB: Right. I don't know if I want veracity, though. That's true in a racing game, where you want to race past a billboard, or a sports game. That is real, and you're modeling a real-life thing. Do people want veracity in SimCity? If they do, I think we'd be happy to give it to them. But if they don't, we're not going to.

It's a metaphor.

RB: Yeah. I think it remains to be seen if it would be fun.


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