The god game is back, but this isn't a sequel: meet the strategy sim a quarter of the century in the making.
There are reboots of games, and then there's SimCity. EA's new take on the town planning strategy game - the fifth in the series - isn't a sequel, or even a 'reimagining'.
It's the SimCity that should have been all along, the one that really lets you create a whole city and run it, from the top level right down to the individuals who live there. Though SimCity first tasked you as mayor of a virtual metropolis way back in 1989, it's only now that technology can really imagine, run, react and show you it all.
"We’re not just taking SimCity 4 and adding more cruft on top of it, we’re fundamentally rebuilding the game from first principles," Ocean Quigley, the creative director for SimCity at Maxis Studios in California, tells Red Bull UK.
If anything, this is the first true SimCity, says Quigley. "A lot of the ideals that motivate this new SimCity can be traced back to the things that I wanted to do with earlier versions. These were impossibilities at the time due to the limitations of the available technology, but they’re doable now. For me, this feels like the realization of potential that’s been there all along."
To call what you're left in charge of in the new SimCity a living, breathing, city, doesn't do it justice. It's a living, breathing city of thousands. All your citizens go about their day jobs, and what you decide to do directly affects them all. If you don't sort the traffic, people start turning up late for work, output drops, and so do your coffers. Raise taxes too high, and people will start to move away.
"One of my goals for is to make your city feel more like a place, and less like a map. I want to make it feel like a city you can enter," says Quigley.
He's not wrong. You can swoop in and see it all play out if you like - look carefully and you can even catch a burglar breaking into another sim's house. You might just be too busy making new roads and trying to convert everyone from belching coal power to notice.
"SimCity’s gone from being quite abstract and symbolic to being concrete and specific. The first version was just a top down map, later we made it more realistic by moving to an isometric view. Now we’re fully 3D, and everything in the city is being directly simulated."
Quigley worked on 2003's SimCity 4, but a decade ago, PCs just weren't up to the task of drilling down into the life of an entire city in this much detail. It wasn't until years later, after finishing work on Spore - an insane game that can only be described as SimCity meets Charles Darwin - that he felt they were, and it still took some convincing.
"When we finished Spore, [lead architect] Andrew Willmott and I realized that we finally had an opportunity to explore some of the ideas we’d been talking about ever since we’d worked together on SimCity 4," he says.
"We convinced Lucy Bradshaw, senior vice president of Maxis, that this was a good idea, and she covered for us while we prototyped it. It worked. Computers had finally gotten fast enough where we could actually simulate every element in the city directly. That was the key."
The quantum leap we've taken in tech since SimCity first ruined social lives doesn't just mean your computer can juggle lots of behind the scenes rules, equations and - it also means we expect far better visuals than ever before. The new SimCity is a work of art, one you can make on the fly, and stuffed full of little details. Every building's different, you can see the fumes from individual car exhaust pipes, even the lights flickering inside a stadium.
Given a blank canvas of an entire city, Quigley - an artist himself who has had his work on show at national art museums across the world - didn't forget what comes first however.
"It’s important that the game is beautiful, and it’s nice to have eye-candy for eye-candy’s sake, but it’s crucial that it show you exactly what the simulation is doing. The fundamental challenge with the art in a game like SimCity is to figure out what job it needs to do," he explains.
"You think that you’re looking at buildings and cars and Sims, but what you’re really looking at is the user-interface to an extremely complex, layered simulation. The art is there to tell you what’s going on, and to make the simulation understandable."
A simulation wouldn't be a simulation without a bit of chaos chucked in for good measure though. SimCity's famous for its disasters: if you don't play your cards right, your whole city might burn down to the ground by accident, and even if you do, an alien mothership might just rock up and annihilate everyone anyway. One thing you won't see in SimCity 2013 are any of today's real world issues taken on.
Did Quigley and the team ever consider adding terrorist attacks into the mix? "The disasters that seem appropriate for SimCity are more comical and extravagant – terrorism just seems squalid," says Quigley.
What has influenced the new SimCity is another Maxis hit: The Sims, the interactive soap opera that became one of the most successful video game series of all time. Quigley and Willmott both worked on The Sims 2, and "learned a lot of lessons from it."
Beyond the ability to see what individual Sims are up to in the new SimCity, Quigley says the Sim's "object-based simulation method" was "inspirational for SimCity" and how it manages to recreate every single aspect of town life.
Then there's the multiplayer. Just as you can swap houses in the Sims, and have your friends' characters pay yours a visit, the new SimCity lets you influence other players' cities in the same region. You can send them help when they need it, or bring back the industrial revolution and watch your friends' Sims get sick from the smog - it's the sort of always-connected multiplayer fans have fallen in love with recently.
"Once cities are connected to each other, the next step is to have different people run them,” says Quigley. “I think that your city winds up being more meaningful to you when it’s doing things for other cities that are actually being run by other people, and when those people care about what happens to them."
With just one month to go before launch, Quigley won’t talk about what Maxis is planning next: all he wants to do is see how people play the game - or world - his team’s created.
"At the moment, my horizon doesn’t extend much past shipping the new SimCity and seeing what people do with it. This is the realization of stuff that I’ve been thinking about since the late 90s, and I’m fairly preoccupied with seeing it finally become real." From what we’ve seen so far, “real” is the right word.
SimCity for PC goes on sale on March 5.