Simcity insider: Simcity’s art of building

Via Simcity Insider

Hi everyone! I’m Mike Khoury and I’m an Art Director on SimCity. I joined life at Maxis way back on the SimCity 4: Rush Hour expansion and began work on the new SimCity pretty early on with Creative Director Ocean Quigley, and helped build out the style and look for the game. I prototyped the first Sim and made the first production building with our toolset back when we were first starting out.

We’ve come a long way since then. I currently art direct the player-placed ploppable buildings in our game. Basically, buildings that service your city, like fire stations, schools, and bus stations. These buildings span from simple buildings, to complex industrial facilities, and even famous landmarks. Our modular buildings span function across residential, commercial, or industrial types of architecture. And the modules themselves provide both gameplay benefits as well changes to the actual building. For instance, you can attach extra classrooms to a school to house more students or you can place a fire alarm on top of a Fire Station to increase firefighter response times.

One of the best parts of working on this game, as a science geek, is all the research and knowledge you accumulate by having to make all these varied systems and objects. On the “ploppables team” as we call it, we are always working closely with engineers, designers, and scripters to design and make buildings that are modular and have function to how they are assembled. The challenge with these buildings is to make them still look believable and realistic and fit within our game scale, even though they are put together in parts and can be assembled in different ways. As a designer of modular buildings, the challenge is to make a language of parts that are interesting and work well together, rather than a single final product.

My schooling and background is in industrial design, so I have a passion and a knack for designing such objects and systems. I also was the Lead Artist responsible for the creature, building and vehicle editors in Spore. The challenges Spore presented for making the editable parts are similar to the challenges these modular buildings are currently giving us.

Now that you understand what we’re creating, let’s talk about the process we use to make one of the modular buildings and the family of buildings it belongs to. Let’s look at coal. Several buildings span that category in our game, Coal Mines (which extract the raw resource and can also refine it), Coal Power Plants (which use the coal to power cities), and Coal Storage and Shipping Lots (which store the coal and allow for building an empire of trade). As I mentioned earlier, basic research is the foundation of creating one of our buildings because we want to try to stay faithful to the simulation and to the core of SimCity style, which is grounded in contemporary reality.

The design team usually boils down the basic functionality they need out of the buildings in a design document, including how game agents like Sims and vehicles interact with it. We start by researching those basic functioning buildings online and in books. In the case of coal, I even had a chance to visit a remote ghost gold mining town in California, which was awesome. We then meet about that idea as a group and look at our visual research, and talk about how this would work and feel like in the game.

Once we have gathered a bunch of research and feel confident as a team that we have the basic idea nailed down, a concept artist will go off and sketch the building out in small, loose sketches. Although the sketches are loose, they need to follow a convention of scale to work in the game.

All our modular buildings adhere strictly to a unit based system of measurement, so everything needs to be built to specific increments of size to be able to “snap” to other parts properly. The combinatory nature of these types of interactions for even three or four modules interacting with each other can get quite complex quickly when you take into account things like alignment, usage of space, look/feel/scale of objects, and trying to not make everything look like it’s made of similar homogenous boxy shapes.

Once the concept artist comes back with sketches, we decide to go with a direction and move into white-box (i.e., basic untextured) modeling phase. In this stage we are roughly modeling the forms and masses in 3D software, adhering to our system of units for size, and assign what we call snapping properties to the different modules depending on how we want them to attract or snap to each other. Once we have assigned the specific snap properties to the module, we try it out in game as a white-box and evaluate scale, form, and basic snap behavior and usability. Design and scripting can now work with this basic white-box for a while, assigning different behaviors and attributes to it to make the building work and do its job.

It becomes apparent quickly if a module is too big or small or doesn’t allow for enough flexibility to accommodate gameplay. We then adjust this white-box accordingly to feedback and put it through the review process. Once we have a good white-box and it passes the tests, we start the detailed color concept phase. Our concept artists use the original loose sketch, the accumulated visual research, and the white-box geometry as a blank canvas to paint in the lighting, textures, and detail in a 2D rendering that make the building look finished. When we have an approved color concept, we take the white-box model and begin to fully detail and texture the model, using proprietary in-house tools to match the 2D color concept as closely as possible in our game engine.

This then becomes our first take at a building. Other art teams like VFX, lot designers, lighting artists, and animators then take turns at this final model to give it polish and life. Of course in reality this doesn’t happen sequentially, and often one artist is working in a preliminary stage and updating their work when the building is finalized later. The white-box model becomes a great branching point where a lot of different hands can get to a model, and still allow for art to continue to polish and make it look final over time.

Well I hope this was a good read for you and provided some insight into how we craft our content in-house.