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Exclusive: MWEB GameZone interviews SimCity Creative Director Ocean Quigley

by Han Cilliers (Lola)  Posted Friday, March 01, 2013 10:52:00 AM


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I had the tremendous honour to interview Ocean Quigley, the Creative Director for SimCity. Quigley is a veteran in the video game industry; his knowledge, passion and experience is invaluable and demands respect from developers and gamers alike. Even if you are not a fan of the genre he specialises in, Life Simulation, you cannot help but be impressed with the creative processes and genius of his work.Join me for a walk through the mind of the creator of exceptional worlds.

You have been involved in the Sims universe for more than a decade. What is it about the franchise that keeps you pouring your life into it?

These sorts of games, games where you create a little world and see them come to life, and you control them, games that have this kind of aspect of creativity around them are the sorts of games that interest me the most. And, really Maxxis is the only company making games of this depth and sophistication.

Current technology enabled you to incorporate features into SimCity that you must’ve dreamed about for years. Can you tell us about some of those features?

Yes, certainly. Most prominent is the fact that it’s fully 3D. The previous SimCity’s were basically like paintings of cities, or maybe like maps of cities that you could sort of look at from a distance and you could zoom into like you were looking at a map, but you never had the chance of entering the city. You never had the sense of being in a place. So it is that transition from a map to a place where you could go to that I’ve been dreaming of for years.

The other major thing is that in previous Sim City’s, like Sim City 4 was the last one where I was the Art & Creative Director on. We were so limited in the computation we could do because computers were a lot less powerful and so we couldn’t do things like make every person a real person in the simulation, for example that they would have a name and an agenda and a place where they came from and something they are trying to get to. But now computers are so much more powerful that we can populate the city with the people that live in and we can have all the behaviour of the city emerge out of their reaction, instead of it being an extract, a statistical file simulation.

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Enabling players to connect to games emotionally has been a strong theme in the industry, especially since last year. Was this an even stronger focus in SimCity than before, and if so, how did you strengthen that connection in the game?

You see that it hasn’t been, exactly it’s a game that’s mostly about buildings and around some infrastructure and the people were attractive enough that you didn’t feel that in previous Sim games. With the new SimCity I wanted to make the people in the city part of the focus of the game.

You know I mean the real city is not just the buildings and physical infrastructure it is also the people that live there. I wanted to make you feel responsible for those people. So in order for that to be do-able we had to make the people fragile. So you have a population that is vulnerable and you can be a good mayor and help them live education, wealthy & happy lives fulfilled in their needs or you can be a bad or mean mayor and let their houses burn down, or let them get killed by criminals and have them breathe polluted air and drink contaminated water and so forth.

And if you do those terrible things to them they suffer and so I wanted to make one of the emotions you feel from the game be the guilt and responsibility for the people who live there. So they tell you how they are doing, you click on somebody and that little person walking down the street will tell you that they are completely impoverished and that they are looking for a job and they need to find a job real soon, or they are going to be homeless. So it is in part up to you to build an environment where they can succeed, or if you are sadistic build an environment where you can see them fail.

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Who is the gamer customer that you have targeted with SimCity? Who is your focus group?

There is really two the way I think of it, and this is true for other Maxxis games as well. There are two categories of players: There are people who are pretty serious gamers and they are playing it as a game challenge, they are trying to do things like having a high population or making a lot of money, or they are trying to accomplish some of the difficult and significant goals in the game and they are comparing themselves to each other – so those are the types you would think of as hard-core gamers.

Then there is another broader type of category who is building models for the pleasure of it. More creative people and not so much gamers. They are building a world to satisfy their emotions or their creative aesthetic edges. I am more in the latter category. I don’t play the game in order to beat it, I play it to build something beautiful and to sort of feel what it would be like to live in such a place. That comes from my original motivations for. But the other people in the team, there are a lot that are much more serious gamers.

What are the aspects of SimCity that you personally like the most?

There’s a bunch of things that I’m very proud of and that I like a lot. One of them is the visual aesthetic style of the game and that whole part of the game is my responsibility. The thing that I like most about it is how all artwork is doing the job. When you look at the game it looks like a city, but it’s doing the job of telling you what is going on in the simulation.

So for example, when you see a puff of smoke come from a smoke stack that is not a decoration – it is the artwork that is telling you that stuff is polluting. When you see the lights on in a house it’s not just for decoration, the lights are on because someone is in the house right now and of course it’s got power in it. And when you see cars in front of a building that means somebody is home. The art of the game is entirely motivated by expressing to you as the player what the simulation is doing. There is nothing in there that is arbitrary, all the art is doing the job, and the job is to communicate the depth of the simulation to you.


Would you say SimCity is a reasonably accurate virtual presentation of real life? If so, what are the building blocks of the game to make that presentation real to the player?

I would be careful to make too many claims as to the realism of SimCity. What we attempted to do was to sortof simplified version of the different systems that make a city. A real city for example is made out of all these systems; things like the sewage, water and electrical systems and each one of those have multiple components. If you take electricity, for example, there is the consumer of the electricity, there is infrastructure taking the electricity to the consumer, there is a power plant that generates the electricity, there are workers in the plant who work there.

With fuel it would require a fossil power plant and then there is the land infrastructure if you are doing something more like solar wind. So each one of these systems are simplified and in the game. We do represent all of them, and we do represent all their interactions.

So it is more like a simplified working model of a city including even the economics of it where people have to have jobs and they have to commute to work. A factory needs workers and workers of different skill levels and the workers themselves are of different wealth classes and so forth. So it is a pretty fabulously sophisticated and complex model city, but it is an abstraction of a real city of course.

One last part I want to mention about the city is that we are doing all of the traffic in the city - the cars and busses as actual agents moving through the simulation. That stuff is actually reasonably accurate in terms of its behaviour. It is the same technique that you see used in more academic special purpose traffic modelling simulations. So we are using the same technologies and we wind up with the same type of behaviour in the traffic simulation as you would see in real life. For example you see spontaneous traffic jams form. All that is about as realistic as you would get for actual traffic simulations.


Tell us about how the Massive Multi-City scale adds another dimension to the game?

My initial motivation there was if you think about real cites, real cities are not in bubbles, they are not isolated from each other. Almost all cities are in relationship with other cities. People might live in one city, but they need to work in another city. So there are these sort of network relationships that do a bunch things, they connect cities to each other and they enable cities to specialize and differentiate as a consequence. So a city that is a big industrial centre is going to look different than a city which is a university town which in turn will be different from a casino city and so forth. One of the things I wanted to do was to enable different outcomes in your cities so that they would not all wind up being homogenous at the end of the play session, but instead they would end up spreading out into all different kinds of possibilities.

The technology I used to do that were two things: One was to take all of the functions out of the cities (the power, the water and all those systems that I mentioned earlier) and allowed them to be distributed across a region so that all the things that take place in one city could also be exploded across an entire region and different cities could interact with each other providing different components of those services.

The second part was that I wanted to enable specific design specialisation so that if you happen to be in a city which is over big oil deposits you can use those oil reserves to finance your city. You can use those oil reserves to power your power plant. So I’m attempting to model in a simplified way the economics because behaviour of the city is in large part determined by the economic underpinnings.

So we came up with this concept of the region. In previous SimCity’s, like Sim City 4, I came up with a region idea but it came up really late in the project and I didn’t really have time to fully develop it. In the new SimCity we started with the idea of a region where your cities would not ever be in a vacuum, they would always be in a context of a larger region.

At Maxxis, we were running the simulation on our servers that let the cities talk and interact with each other. With things like that, the obvious thing to do was to enable different people to take on the role of mayor in those different cities and interact with each other so that they could build things in collaboration. So you have essentially in the larger region up to 16 cities which you are welcome to play all solo by yourself, but you could also invite your friends to play and up to 16 people can be in a single region.


Do you think SimCity can be used not only as entertainment, but also as a vehicle for player contemplation of subjects like morality, ethics and social responsibility?

The game itself is a sandbox; it isn’t making moral judgements. We don’t have a bias for one thing or another. You’re more than welcome to make a city where everyone is homeless and miserable, or a city where criminals go free, or a city where you are extracting wealth from your population to build an opulent mansion with it. The game takes a relatively neutral perspective on those things; it is just providing systems with which to explore the ideas.

But, since we are humans and we are humans playing the game we cannot help but read moral and ethical values into. It is just like a real city, the morals come from the people within it and their response to it. Your ethics, ideals and your morals are reflected in the sort of city that you build. The only way it can have meaning is if you are able to build a city that is hellish, or you can build a city that is utopian: if you see a response from the citizen that live in it, it reflects that. We at Maxxis have to give you a system that you can do all these things in, in order for it to mean anything.

You’ve got a heroes and villains aspect in it as well, and people can explore going to one extreme or the other.

In fact, the heroes and villains aspect is a bit more interesting and complex than you might have expected. The evil Dr Vu has got really positive benefits for your city as well. He promotes education and as a result you might have a booming high-tech industrial sector. The price you are paying for that booming industrial sector is that part of your city is becoming criminal cultists around Dr Vu and are going out and lobbying and giving back money to him. You as the player are making the trade-off between putting up with the negative / criminal consequences of Dr Vu’s complex rule in order to get the benefits.

Conversely, the Maxis man hero is a much more sort of middle ground figure when you look into him in more detail. You actually have to pay him off in order to do heroic deeds for your city. He is no altruist. He is someone if you pay him enough money he will go and put out those fires or he will go and get those criminals. He is a much more mercenary figure.

I think one of the things you are always trying to do is you are trying to give a player interesting and nuanced choices to make and interesting follow-ons and consequences to those choices. So I very much did not want to just make some pure evil person that you put down and he turns your city evil or some good that you put down – it just seems idiotic.


It’s really interesting to see and I hope there are players that try out the complete evil and complete utopia to see how it plays out.

I have no doubt! We are already seeing that on the Dev team as there are already people who play as true wealth maximizers for example and have no thought or care as to the effect of wealth-maximization on the populations. For example, they power their cities with coal, they extract coal from the middle of the city. They don’t care about water pollution or air pollution or the people dying in the mines. They don’t care about any of that stuff; they are just trying to make money as quickly as they can.

One of the things that are interesting is the effects of education. You can choose an educated population or not, and if you choose an educated, then they get a bunch of benefits. They start living safer, cleaner lives and have high tech jobs. They become must less likely to injure themselves or get sick and they start fire less frequently. So there are a lot of benefits in educating the population. But for you as the mayor a poorly educated population are a lot more compliant and willing to put up with a lot more.

Do they revolt or protest if they are educated?

Yes, they will come and protest at City Hall and be much more vocal about their protests. The more educated the less they will put up with, until eventually if you have an educated population and you are a terrible mayor they will just pack up and leave. That is the ultimate and you end up with big chunks of unpopulated city which you would not necessarily have had if you had a poorly educated population. Education is a double-edge sword, you have to decide if you’d rather have an educated population or not, and there are pros and cons to both.

Any plans for additions to SimCity in the future?

Right now we are just getting the basic game out and that is the most important thing. We are going to be maintaining it and patching it almost continually. As we start to get feedback from the game and we start seeing what people do and how they play we will continually tune and update the game. The previous SimCity’s we offered in a monolithic fashion, they were offered as one complete thing that made it very difficult to change the behaviour, add or subtract to it or tune for that matter. The new SimCity are much more build out of little pieces that are assembled to build the city which puts us in a position to add new pieces, add new behaviour that deepen and make richer the overall simulation. So as we get a little bit further along I’m sure we will be adding stuff, we have not announced anything yet though, so it is more a general principle than a specific promise right now.


Do you have any insider tips and tricks for future City Builders in SimCity?

Yes! A bunch! In part it depends on what kind of city you want to build. I’m very good at building the kind of city that I want to build which are not necessarily the kind you or anyone else like to build.

I would suggest to start off by laying out the city with cheap dirt roads and only start upgrading your road once the money start to come in. You want to make sure you keep your sewage system far away from your fresh water supply. Don’t put sewage pumps next to fresh water pumps. Trees are beautiful so I like to plant lots and lots of trees all over the place and they also have the nice side-effect of cleaning up air pollution.

You want to make sure that you put all your dirty and filthy industries, your power plants down-wind from your population. If you have a nice residential neighbourhood and you put the power plant up-wind from it the people are going to be breathing the exhaust from coal plant and it will go on and make them really sick and kill them.

There are a lot of really practical tips. One of the big realisations especially for those who have played SimCity before is that you don’t need to do everything in one city. You can have your residential area in one city and then you can have the dirty industry in another city and people will commute back and forth. You can start to think about specializing cities to separate out the sorts of behaviours you want from that city.

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Is there anyone that you would like to give a shoutout to?

Yes! I’d like to in particular mention our user interface designer, Christian Stratton. He is the guy that did most of the design work on the UI and also on the data visualization layers. He is a long time UI designer for Maxxis in that he did the UI design for Sim City 4 and for Sim City 3000 as well.

SimCity, was a project that I wanted to do for a long, long time. The time just wasn’t right to do it, but when I finished up working on “Spore” with Andrew Willmot, (who was the lead Graphics Engineer for Sim City 4), he and I basically snuck off into a corner and started working on this new SimCity in secret for 6-8 months or so, really without anyone’s permission. We dealt the first rough cut version of the game, just the two of us, and then were able to convince people that this was a good idea and that we should build a new SimCity based on these ideas.

Closing thoughts

SimCity is a deeply layered, complex life simulation, and a rare gem in the video games industry. You can play it as a creative outlet, as a curiosity to explore evil and or good behaviour or as a hard-core mega, multi city builder.

Your world, your choices.

SimCity releases on March 5 for PC, let the building begin! Many thanks to Mr Quigley, we are looking forward to get lost in his creation.

Contact: Quigley Twitter / EA SA Twitter / SimCity Twitter | Website


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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd


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