I'm going to talk about the aesthetic choices that we've made for the new SimCity. I'll describe the sources of inspiration, how we've gone about delivering on them, and the motivations behind them.
I’ve personally always thought of SimCity as a model city that you create and bring to life. It's like an elaborate model train layout, but alive and dynamic. And I'm fascinated with the fastidious, miniaturized detail of model train cities.
One thing to note about model cities is how the buildings are stylized. If you look at real buildings, a lot of them are boring. Even the buildings that are interesting have lots of boring parts. For example, in an industrial area you see huge expanses of warehouse roof and big stretches of blank wall. Boring.
When somebody recreates those buildings for a model city, they squeeze out all of the dullness. They focus on the areas that are interesting to look at, the elements that convey the essence of what that building is about. They compress the scale of the buildings too - typically the larger a building is, the more it's compressed, further intensifying the essence of the building.
This really works! The buildings that you see in a model railroad layout are not only interesting to look at, in many ways they look more like the real thing than the real thing does. A model factory looks more like a factory than a real factory does, because the modeler abstracted out the irrelevant bits, and amplified what makes it unique.
The modeler is making a realistic caricature of the building. Realistic, because it needs to look plausible - people shouldn't notice anything fake about it - but a caricature because what's important about the building has been highlighted and what's irrelevant has been suppressed.
So this is a huge inspiration for us, because of course, we have the same problems. We need to make sure that buildings clearly, unambiguously show their category. A residential building (low wealth, middle density) for example, needs to read as exactly that, with no mistaking it for any other type of building.
Just like model railroaders, we're compressing buildings so that they fit nicely together. The real-life scale differences between a skyscraper, and a shotgun shack are so huge that you couldn't easily see them both in the same scene. Like model railroad dioramas, we're managing scale to make buildings that are vastly different sizes work well with each other.
The other thing to mention about model railroad buildings is how much detail is put into them. The buildings (and the environment) have all of this marvelous detail to look at. You can look into the windows of buildings, you can see the carefully modeled bricks that make up a facade, you can see all of the details that make it look like it's real. And that's our goal too. To put so much detail into the buildings and into the city around them that it feels like a real place.
Because these model buildings are small, it’s difficult to photograph them in a way that keeps the entire scene in focus. Typically, photography of model cities gives away their scale with what are called depth-of-field effects. The foreground might be in focus, for example, but the background will be blurry.
People have been emulating that visual style (of miniature model photography) with real cities, to make real cities look like fantastically, absurdly detailed miniatures. With old fashioned photography, you’d do this by tilting the back-plane of your camera with respect to the lens, so the effect has been named “Tilt-Shift” photography.
There are some cool things about these videos that it’s worth mentioning. First, notice how it makes the city seem miniaturized, like you can reach into it and manipulate it. It takes something that is normally large and intimidating, and turns it into something you feel like you could control and play with. I love that. It changes the way that you feel about the city.
Next, with sped-up time (and we’re playing with time in SimCity too, in similar ways) you’re much more conscious of the flows of the city. You can see patterns of movement and activity that aren’t normally visible. It feels like the city has a metabolism, and you’re watching its heart beat. The city starts to feel like a creature. In SimCity, you’re creating those flows, and the roads that they flow down, so this is something that I wanted to apply.
Here’s a screenshot from the game:
When you’re looking at views like this with the view pulled down towards the ground, we’re really turning up the tilt-shift effects. That gives the game that “model-world” effect, but also deepens the sense of space. We want the city to feel like a miniature place, with a landscape going off into the distance, populated by detailed, animated buildings, vehicles and effects.
There’s much more to talk about, but that’s it for now! Hope you enjoyed this look into the visual style of SimCity!