There are no flying cars in SimCity designer Stone Librande's version of the future, set somewhere between 2060 and 2080.

Librande's future is dominated by two kinds of cities: a utopian "green" city and a dirtier, more sinister city that's run by a company called OmegaCo, which manufactures a mysterious and toxic technology that everyone loves.

Librande's vision for the future is being realized as part of Cities of Tomorrow, an upcoming expansion pack for the recently rebooted city-building simulation.

The expansion pack is inspired by everything from Blade Runner to Elysium, a newer film where the rich live in a man-made space station and everyone else lives on a destroyed Earth.

2013-10-23

Inside SimCity's Vision Of Tomorrow, Where You Can Build A Clean Tech Heaven Or A Drone-Filled Hell

A new expansion pack for the city simulation game surrounds players with futuristic technologies. But even in the future, one thing never changes: human nature.

In SimCity designer Stone Librande's version of the semi-near future—somewhere between 2060 and 2080—there are no flying cars. There are no intelligent robots trolling the streets (besides the giant resource-draining robot that attacks periodically). Librande's future is dominated by two kinds of cities: a utopian "green" city that comes up with the kinds of world-changing innovations often discussed here on Co.Exist, and a dirtier, more sinister city that's run by a company called OmegaCo, which manufactures a mysterious and toxic technology that everyone loves.

Librande's vision for the future is being realized as part of Cities of Tomorrow, an upcoming expansion pack for the recently rebooted city-building simulation.

In spite of a glitch-plagued launch earlier this year, the new SimCity is as addictive as all the past iterations of the long-running series. It's still an urban planning aficionado's dream that incorporates real-life technologies and trade-offs. There are solar power plants that take up too much space, and coal mining operations that make big bucks but sicken the Sims that live nearby.

The traditional game is rooted firmly in the present. But that's not entirely the case with Cities of Tomorrow—an expansion pack inspired, according to Librande, by everything from Blade Runner to Elysium, a newer film where the rich live in a man-made space station and everyone else lives on a destroyed Earth. I recently met up with Librande to get a tour of Cities of Tomorrow, which features a sprawling, complex set of features that would take days to fully explore.

Librande first showed me the utopian green city, which is centered around a think tank called the Academy (reminiscent of Star Trek's Starfleet Academy). In the Academy city, most promising research happening today has come to life, built into giant mixed-use, self-sustaining "mega-towers" where people can work, shop, and eat. The mega-towers are connected by sky bridges and Maglev trains, so Sims never have to set foot on the street if they don't want to.

The city is developed piecemeal, much like in real life. As "futurization" increases across the city, homes start to look less like ours today. But it happens in stages. First you start to see old houses get strange mechanical bolt-ons. Then, the old houses disappear altogether, turning into entirely new structures.

Among the technologies that can be used once they're developed at the Academy:

  • A system that converts air pollution to rain clouds, inspired by a real-life billboard in Peru that generates clean drinking water from air. (The problem: pollution then rains down onto the ground).
  • A nuclear fusion reactor, jumping off from recent news from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where researchers created a self-sustaining fusion reaction.
  • A garbage atomizer that breaks trash down to its component atoms—a technology that exists today, but is too expensive for widespread use.
  • A wave power plant, based on—you guessed it—today's wave power technology.
  • Solar and wind power amplifiers, which transmit energy more efficiently.

There are lots of advantages to building an Academy city. Land values are higher, Sims are more educated, and having the Academy nearby raises the technology level of other industries.

But the Academy is also needy. It requires a connection to "ControlNet," a wireless network built by the Academy that keeps buildings running. If high-wealth workers aren't available to the Academy in sufficient numbers, ControlNet could go out, and havoc could ensue. The Academy also bleeds money—all those new technologies aren't cheap to run.

An alternative is the OmegaCo city, a Blade Runner-esque metropolis where everyone is obsessed with buying and selling Omega, a deliberately unexplained substance that gives off a purple glow wherever it's found. "We decided to do a psychological trick," says Librande. "With other [negative technologies] in the base game, like oil drilling, the Sims complain. With this, everyone wants Omega. The Sims applaud you." Even though OmegaCo spews pollution, Sims will abandon the city in protest if you shut it down.

To find out more about the new SimCity, read the account of Co.Exist's epic urban planning battle, where we pitted six of the smartest urbanists of the country against each other in a city design contest.

While Omega is a cash cow, it requires many resources, including oil, ore, power, and water to produce. But once you really get the Omega (and cash) flowing, you can afford to send out the drones, also built by OmegaCo. These drones don't spy on people; they act as personal shoppers for Sims (these are called BuyDrones), fight fires, catch criminals, and heal injuries. Like cell phones, the BuyDrones run on a subscription service—they hook you with the free drones, and keep you coming back for more with a subscription (all resulting in more money for OmegaCo and you, by extension).

The Academy city and OmegaCo don't exist in vacuums. If an Academy city happens to be in the same region as an OmegaCo city, the Omega-loving Sims can have access to Academy technology, as long as the OmegaCo mayor purchases access to ControlNet.

The realistic urban planning aspects of SimCity are a bit obscured by Cities of Tomorrow, which is probably not the most accurate simulacrum of the future. But here's one aspect of the expansion pack that we know is accurate, and that will only become more accurate as time goes on: There is a push-pull between expensive clean technology and lucrative, dirty technology that produces the technology we are addicted to using every second of the day.

If some higher power (like a SimCity mayor) decided to shut down all the companies that make our laptops, cell phones, and televisions in the name of environmental preservation, we'd all be pretty pissed off. That's not the answer. As Librande explains: "The OmegaCo city and the Academy city can help each other out. But it's a puzzle. You want both, and it's difficult to get them into harmony."

Cities of Tomorrow goes on sale November 14th.