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The New SimCity Will Turn You Into An Urban Planning Nut

The newest version of the classic city building game is introducing complex models about things like energy, health care, and transportation. But you can also still destroy your city with an asteroid.

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SimCity, a city-building simulation series that was first released in 1989, has always been a virtual sandbox for aspiring urban planners, with a seemingly endless array of options—you could lay down roads; zone houses, industrial complexes, and commercial real estate; put up nuclear power plants; adjust taxation; and more. In the end, you could destroy your whole empire with a UFO or a well-placed asteroid strike. The newest version of SimCity, set to be released in February 2013, retains most of the game’s previous elements (including its addictive quality) while bringing a whole new level of complexity to the tilt-shift inspired world. You might not even notice how Maxis is subtly teaching you about the pros and cons of renewable energy, preserving natural resources, and cooperating with neighboring cities.

I recently visited Maxis—the division of Electronic Arts behind SimCity—to learn more (and play a demo of the game, of course). Here’s what I found out.

The new version of the game is multiplayer, as we have mentioned before. This is important for a few reasons: It means that players can share resources with friends’ cities, and that they can damage those very same cities with bad city planning. For example, an industrial-minded city could sell coal to a gambling-heavy city that lacks industry. But if the gambling city fails to install sewage plants, the water—dirtied from so much coal pollution—will travel, making residents of the industrial city sick. The big advantage to the multiplayer feature, though, is that cities can now specialize. No need to have a well-balanced city when you can have one that focuses only on education, gambling, big business, or dirty power production.

Speaking of sewage, things will start to get gross pretty fast if you don’t set up a proper plant. If you opt to build a cheaper sewage outflow pipe, sewage won’t pollute the waterways—but it will collect in a single spot, eventually smearing the whole area around it in brown.

Mass transit systems can talk to each other. That means it makes perfect sense for your city to set up a system where Sims can ride the bus to a train. There are seasons, but no snow. SimCity has more of a Mediterranean climate. And despite the ability to build coal-fired power plants, there is no climate change. That’s not to say that building coal-fired plants has no impact. Coal mining destroys the surrounding landscape and sickens residents.

The game focuses heavily on energy decisions: If you don’t want a dirty, cheap coal plant, you can build other power sources, like solar, wind, oil, and nuclear. Everything has its pluses and minuses. Solar power plants, for example, are clean enough that upper-class Sims won’t complain when they’re nearby. But they take up a lot of space. Nuclear provides more bang for your buck, but rich Sims won’t be happy if nuclear plants are nearby (plus there’s the risk of meltdown). One solution to the NIMBY problem: keep your Sims uneducated. "If you have a poorly educated city, you can get away with more. But the city will also be less prosperous," explains Ocean Quigley, creative director of the new SimCity.

You could elect to not care about polluting the land, setting up a massive health care system to deal with sick Sims instead. After an internal debate about whether health care should be considered a big business in the game, Maxis eventually decided to use a socialized medicine model. Players can set up basic clinics or full-fledged hospitals, and while they can’t make money off their own sick Sims (Maxis decided that would incentivize people too much to make their Sims ill), they can charge Sims that come from other cities looking for health care.

There are lower-class, middle-class, and upper-class Sims—but no social mobility. Sims are forced to stay in their place. This is, however, a melting pot of a Sim society. Quigley surveyed the U.S. census for the 1,000 most popular first names for females and males, as well as the 1,000 most popular last names, and used them all to make random Sim names. This version of the game allows players to zoom in on individual Sims, seeing their names, where they live, work, and more. So if you have a common first and last name, chances are you’ll find a Sim version of yourself if you play the game long enough.

This probably sounds mind-numbingly complicated, and I haven’t even described the half of it. But it’s easy to pick up on. I played a brief demo of the game after having not touched a copy of SimCity in about a decade, and quickly found myself creating residential, industrial, and business zones; laying down infrastructure; building schools, fire stations, and police stations; and trying to quickly get power flowing through my growing city. There is so much information available to players about the guts of the city—including the fire and crime layers I mentioned earlier—that it can be a little overwhelming at first. But even new SimCity players will get addicted fast.

Unfortunately for the residents of my burgeoning empire, an asteroid came and clobbered their homes within minutes. You can’t plan for everything.

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