I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of the GlassBox Engine, the toolset that is powering EA and Maxis' upcoming SimCity
revival. Even as someone with (at best) minimal game design experience such as myself, the scripting language is so intuitive that when I saw it at GDC
, I spent the rest of my day designing simulation games in my head.
As it turns out, that's exactly what Maxis is hoping for. Developers at the Emeryville-based studio routinely prototype game ideas using the engine, helping to future-proof Glassbox so that the studio can rapidly develop smaller titles and, perhaps, return to its SimAnt
roots of shipping smaller spin-offs in addition to its core SimCity
I cornered Maxis general manager Bret Berry and SimCity
senior producer Kip Katsarelis at GDC to learn more about where Maxis might be heading with this new technology.
What impressed me about GlassBox from your GDC presentation is how it seems to be built for rapid prototyping. We heard about examples of people on the team developing winery simulations, for example.
Kip Katsarelis: Yes, that's exactly one of the core principles of GlassBox, because we know we've got to try things and toss it if it doesn't work, and expand on what's working quickly. The entire simulation's data-driven, so everyone could impact the game. But everybody, when they come into the project, has to make their own simulation.
So, we've got our own test environment. You can make your own game, basically, within GlassBox. So, we've had everything – somebody made honeybees, a honey kind of factory. We've got a vineyard, we've got haunted houses, ice skaters...it's just across the board. You're able to create lots of things within GlassBox and quickly iterate, so everything hot-loads so you can see it right away.
Is part of that experimentation process mining for new ideas? Are you guys set up to where people can splinter off and sort of work on smaller projects if a prototype proves fun enough?
Brett Berry: We definitely want to do that at some point. Obviously right now everyone's laser-focused on SimCity
, on the PC product that we're building, because there's lots to do.
Right now I've got the team really focused on that but, yes, there's a lot of great ideas within the studio. A lot of people are passionate about doing other kinds of things. We'll definitely keep our eyes open for those things in the future, but right now we're focused on this great product.
The reason I ask is that it doesn't seem like we're in an environment where you can have another long development cycle like Spore. You need to get things out.
KK: That's true. You iterate and move quickly. Yeah.
Is there a possibility that because of all this innovation and creativity that's happening, Maxis might start producing smaller, more immediate titles using this engine?
BB: Like the old days. SimTower
Right. Obviously you've got nothing to announce or anything, but are you creating an environment where it's possible that you will be able to start rolling out more product because of GlassBox?
BB: Absolutely, I think. GlassBox is usable on other platforms as well, so it doesn't have to be just a PC title. So that's the great thing about it. It is extensible and flexible to do other kinds of products. We're definitely looking at that.
I would imagine a lot of happy accidents come out of an engine like that, like gameplay ideas might spawn out of an accidental line of code. Are you guys seeing that?
KK: Yeah, or just the emergent behavior, I think the first emergent magical moment happened early on in the project where we had – we started setting times at where people would shop and kind of entertain themselves after work. We created this bar and it was open kind of late. Everyone went to work, you know, and they came out of work and they went right to the bar and they lined up at the bar.
Because the bar's bin was limited? There was no more room?
KK: The bin was full. Then all of a sudden 6 a.m. rolls around and they rush out of the bar and they go to work. That was cool.
As a brand, what is SimCity these days? I have my own perception, but most of it nostalgic. What is the SimCity brand to Maxis?
BB: The beauty about SimCity
is that it definitely defined a category, right? It's this ultimate sandbox, with a wonderful ability to create. It gives players self-expression in terms of building a city and being this God-mayor essentially over your world and being able to do things with it. You have the push and pull and decision-making that players have to make.
So there's a lot of – I don't want to use the word "cerebral," but there's a lot of fun stuff for people who like to think about the impact that they're having on this miniature world that they've creating. So it's just fascinating to watch and just engage with. All of those kinds of things are why we're so excited about what GlassBox brings, because it's going to allow us to do that to the 10th degree.
KK: I think SimCity
is just one of those games that's full of moments. People relate to it. You can say, "I had a night like that once." And so I think we're going to be able to capture those moments as well.