Since Will Wright and Maxis first unleashed SimCity back in 1988, the series has featured a realistic look at the way one factor of urban living affects another. As gamers built fantasy burgs while managing traffic, population, taxation and pollution, they discovered a compelling, highly variable and always entertaining model of gameplay.
After taking over the development of SimCity Societies, Tilted Mill has changed the formula in a few ways and introduced new levels of detail that escaped previous editions. Perhaps the most notable addition is a deeper model of energy production and pollution, which came about through collaboration with the petroleum company BP.
The energy giant wanted to work with SimCity publisher EA to create a game showing how industrial pollution, like the side effects of power generation, has a far greater effect on the environment than all consumer use combined. Instead of making a standalone game, EA brought BP on board to contribute energy details to SimCity Societies. The company also became the first to have paid ads placed within a SimCity game.
BP's assistance brought realism to the game, which helped inform a level of visual detail that suggests how going green might be a great way to live. First, though, the company helped expand how the game depicts power.
"The range of power producing buildings is broader than it has been," says lead producer Rachel Bernstein, "and from working with BP it's also more accurate. We get a fairly accurate look at the trade-offs you might face in terms of what power plant money can buy, how much power it delivers, and what effect it has on the environment."
So when gamers go to place a power plant, they first see a small panel readout that shows the cost of the building, the power output, CO2 emission levels, smog levels and whether or not the building will repel citizens. There's also a note about renewable energy sources; not ironically, the game's two renewable sources (Wind and Solar Farms) are also the two that don't cause unhappiness in Sims settling down nearby.
In the series' past, pollution was one factor of city life. "Through our course of working with BP," Bernstein explains, "we got a little more sophisticated at our look at pollution. We broke it up into smog, which is something you can see in the game, and carbon, which you can't see, but still has effects."
Therefore, power plants produce varying levels of smog. A Solar Farm creates none, while a coal-hydrogen plant generates a "slight haze" and the Super Coal Plant "chokes the city's air with a massive output of smog." In keeping with real figures, the smog-producing plants also generate the most power. Managing such a trade-off is a key element of the gameplay.
As solar energy and wind are renewable resources, they can be improved by building power collection hubs or substations to store power and even out the flow of energy. A carbon exchange can also add income to a city for "maintaining a low carbon footprint with a high power output." It's not a cheap proposition, though: 7500 Simoleans, or less than the cost of two coal plants.
Bernstein is specific about how the developers wanted to implement choice. "We didn't want to impose a direction a city should go. We wanted to put out enough power alternatives to make a very green city or a heavily polluted one or something in between."
New, updated visuals help create not only a wide range of new cities, but do a much better job of modeling the effects of energy reliance. Put a series of smog-belching plants on the ground and the city will soon be literally draped in darkness. The warming effects of massive CO2 output can lead to natural disasters which, if exaggerated, are pretty obviously related to the way the city lives. By way of massive contrast, green-leaning societies look clean and livable, and we haven't yet seen a wind turbine fall over to crush a swath of Sims.
While fun always remains the focus of the game, more realistic models of energy and the environment have consequences that are both entertaining and, if not educational, at least informative. Bernstein asks, "How much realism is fun? Realism is one thing as long as it's helping you get to fun, and when it stops helping you get there, you let it go."
Fun for some will be building their own nightmarish megalopolis where smokestacks are barely visible through clouded, smoggy skies. It's a visually attractive proposition (thanks in part to the bleak romanticism imbued through movies like "Blade Runner"), but they'll have to work harder to keep the people happy. Meanwhile, we have our own notions that a coal lobbyist might sit at home playing late into the night to create his own terrifying alternate society: one where green energy is used thoroughly and to the near-exclusion of non-renewable sources.