It's perhaps testament to the longevity of the SimCity series that an otherwise insignificant morsel of news regarding such a minor gameplay addition would grab the attention of gamers worldwide. But the roads, you see, they're curvy.
Running on the new GlassBox engine, Maxis' recently-announced SimCity appears to be no mere remake of SimCity 4, no minor revisit with new assets and a new marketing campaign. This is a reboot, a complete redesign of the concept of city building that has been heartily embraced by millions of gamers the world over since Will Wright kicked it all off in 1989.
For all the complexity of a modern city, the design process appears relatively simple. Demonstrating the yet-to-be-finalised user interface, Maxis' Jason Haber began by drawing the aforementioned curvy road, "like tracing a line in the sand". From there, the area is zoned as residential by drawing a stick along the outside of the road, following an elliptical pattern, which then automatically applies the zone flawlessly to the map.
One of the most memorable gaming moments anyone can have, estimates Haber, is witnessing the initial occupation of a residential building in the original SimCity. It is genesis, the formation of a society, and more importantly, recognition that the player's actions are at least on the right track.
While the sentiment remains the same with this modern take, the animations are vastly different, built as they are with the benefit of newer technology. Here, houses are placed with a suitably earthen sound as dust rises when the building is formed. Construction trucks weave their way through traffic to arrive at the building site, and following a brief whirlwind of activity, a house emerges complete with a For Sale sign affixed, and, presumably, slightly damp paint.
Should all zoning criteria be satisfied, moving trucks will then appear, as new citizens unload boxes and take up occupancy. But this is a double-edged sword, as the benefits of gaining population can easily be offset by the ongoing requirement to service their every whim, a concept immediately obvious when the two-lane road outside the residential area is backed up with multiple moving trucks, residential vehicles and building vehicles.
A four-lane road could have alleviated this issue, comments Haber, but as it's a temporary concern there's no real need to spend the money at this stage.
All is not well in our burgeoning city however, as a notification flashes across the top of the visible play area – a riot at the city hall is threatening to damage expansion plans. Sims have gathered to protest poor electricity allocation, as the foolhardy attempt to service an entire city with one wind turbine comes home to roost. The dissatisfaction can hardly be missed, as symbols denoting angry faces appear above houses in areas further afield from our meagre attempt to pacify the green movement.
Haber's solution is immediate, if perhaps a touch Victorian – a new coal power plant is slammed down with industrial vigour, and high-tension power lines are connected to swiftly sate the desires of a power-hungry populace.
The detail involved in individual building animations is suitably deep: a coal bunker located below the plant offers an immediate window into the capacity, and remaining energy stored. Coal is moved up a conveyor belt and fed into the facility, while overall-wearing supervisors peer over railings to observe the proceedings.
To confirm that the power crisis has been averted, Haber switches to the Power Agent overlay, which consists of a grid of solid lines that pass down every road in the city and join together at intersections. The lines are colour coded and gradually change from green, to yellow, to red to indicate which areas are either running low, or running out of power.
It may appear that our immediate issue is resolved. Indeed, the protesters have dispersed, and most of the city seems to be operating smoothly. However, as the sun goes down and the darkness of night creeps over the city the demand for electricity once again exceeds supply, and many residential areas are experiencing a rise in graffiti from disenfranchised citizens with nothing better to do.
It's the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the gradual expansion of existing industrial buildings, as Haber places two extra coal stacks either side of the plant, increasing the output, generating more jobs, solving the power crisis entirely, and increasing pollution all in one fell swoop. This sledgehammer approach may have alleviated the supply concerns, but what this will mean in ecological terms further in the future is not explained.
It's full speed ahead for this new city, as the increased power allows commercial facilities to churn out more products. Haber zooms in on a factory producing boxes of goods, and remarks that each box is in fact a resource counted by the game. It's all part of the "everything you see, we sim" approach, much like the occupants of each vehicle on the varied road network are real citizens that are counted by the game. Jaws are gradually picked up from the floor, but not before a new threat is identified.
A panel van, complete with antagonistic flame decals is driving erratically down a major thoroughfare, with no police in sight. As Haber tracks it, the van weaves to a stop outside a large apartment building as a man alights. Literally, in this case, as the man is on fire. With maniacal laughter, this errant nutcase storms the building and sets fire to it, as streams of residents vacate, many of whom are on fire themselves.
Clearly, it's not a good time to discover that this city has no fire department.
Haber swiftly selects the building from a list, and places it a short distance from the fire, and quickly adds an additional garage, a large sign, and a bell. A data layer again shows the coverage of the appliances, and as this is satisfactory, within seconds the fire engine is dispatched to the inferno and brings it under control. Slightly after the fact, an ambulance arrives to tend to the injured, hinting that the supply of medical aid in the city may not be up to scratch.
Our arsonist has long fled the surreal scene, presumably to be picked up by the police department at some point. It's a hilarious enough interlude as it is, and certainly more interesting than merely dealing with a random fire outbreak, but to add another twist to the event Haber explains that the arsonist could have actually been sent by another player in a nearby city.
It's all part of the interconnected, interwoven experience Maxis plans to offer with SimCity by utilising the opportunity to connect over the internet with other gamers. A persistent world with nearby players who can offer their own support - or in the case above, destruction - to the participant's game.
Singleplayer is an option too, and those with an appetite for massive builds can even manage their own satellite towns that would otherwise be occupied by online gamers, explains Haber.
Additional multiplayer details are scant at this time, so those wanting to know more about Maxis' plans for world domination will need to wait until E3 in early June.
It may have only been a short gameplay demo offered by Electronic Arts this week, but already the roots of what will become a time sink for many are obvious.