Hey SimCity fans. I’m the User Experience Director on SimCity and I’ll be talking about data maps over the next two weeks. I’ll get into the nitty gritty on how data was shown to you in the past and the decisions behind how we’ll show you data in the new SimCity.
I had my start as an interface designer while working on SimCity 3000, but the path to get here was wild and bumpy. Before I arrived at Maxis, I had worked some really interesting jobs. Previously, I designed kites, worked on a supercollider, toured in a van as a bass player in an indie band and eventually ended up doing architectural illustration. It was that last bit that got me through the door at Maxis where they hired my studio to design buildings for the then upcoming SimCity 3000. It was a mash-up of all those other experiences that prepared me for UI design. I found a great way to merge several disciplines into one; having designed products, crafted experiments and rendered buildings in my past positions all to prepare me for my current role as a UI designer.
The first SimCity game was one that was built on data maps. It had maps for water, power, land value and much more. The simulator processed those maps and built the city on them. So it’s no surprise that they are an indispensable part of gameplay. Data maps give the player the ability to peek under the hood and see what the simulator is doing. They evolved from something that was viewed in a separate window from the city to something that is fully integrated into the game.
Our perception of data has gone through an amazing evolution in the last few decades. When I was a kid, most people didn't talk much about it or even use it. Data was abstract -- it was geeky and didn't relate to the world we live in. You might see data as a stock ticker, a graph or as a political poll. It was a challenge to understand how that data affected the world around us.
Data collection was an extractive process. Like products on a shelf. It is far removed from where it was built. Data is similarly removed from its environment. It was then put together at a desk using paper and pencil or an amber-screened computer.
This isn’t to say that data wasn’t interesting or shown in creative ways. Large institutions put together elaborate models to show information in context. Movies showed us occasional glimpses of traffic control rooms. Data on miniature models helped controllers make sense of train, ship or airplane traffic. War movies sometimes showed campaign maps with animated arrows moving across continents. Occasionally we’d see images of officers pushing model tanks or ships around on a big table-sized map. The possibilities were certainly there, but they were out of reach for most people.
And so it was while playing SimCity 2000 that I first found myself having "fun with data". This was the first game I played that made reading data maps a part of the game play. As odd as it might have seemed, a player could play the game without the maps, but they would have more fun if they did.
What stood out was that by reading those information maps, data was suddenly relevant. Whether maxing out on city’s population, or getting crime under control or just keeping the city from burning down; data was suddenly meaningful. So even though the data in SimCity 2000 was still abstract and sometimes hard to read, it was pixel-for-pixel the same information being used by the simulator to create the cities.
I thought I’d revisit SimCity 2000 to refresh myself on how data maps worked. Here’s a great example of its power and of its failure. In the normal view, I see the fire break out. But in the fire map, I only see my fire protection (darker blue means better protection). But I can’t remember where my fire station is. So I have to hide all Residential, Commercial and Industrial (RCI) buildings so I could see my fire station.
For someone like me who didn’t own or govern a real city, or have the means to assemble an elaborate model of one, SimCity gave me a unique control over a world that would have otherwise been far out of reach.
SimCity 3000 was pretty far along in development when it became clear the game needed a new User Interface. The building art was starting to look really good. Programmers were honing in on a great simulation, but the UI was completely unchanged from the previous version of the game and it was something that needed to be addressed.
At the time Maxis didn’t have a dedicated User Interface designer and so I was asked to do the design. My background with architecture, art and science gave me an unusual advantage, but as Ocean Quigley (Creative Director for the new SimCity) likes to point out, it was my obsessiveness over the details as the prime reason I was picked for the position.
It was an exciting prospect and as the new UI designer I had a chance to re-think how data was presented in the game. I approached it with a vague notion that the game should be playable with X-ray goggles or with an architectural cutaway of the infrastructure, but what that vision would look like and what it would take to get it was unclear at the time.
In part two of the blog series, we’ll see what the evolution of the UI would look like in SimCity 3000 and where it’s evolving in the next iteration of SimCity.