Interview: Monte Cristo’s ultimate simulation title, Cities XL

On paper, Monte Cristo’s upcoming PC title Cities XL sounds like like a wet dream for fans of simluation titles. Building on the foundations of and experience with their earlier titles like City Life, it’s a title that promises to have it all.

“We really tried to do something new and different by integrating social networks and online gaming with the whole tycoon gameplay that we have,” Monte Cristo’s Alexandre Zambeaux tells me in a phone interview. “It’s really trying to do something innovative, really bringing a full scope of city building simulation that satisfies both the solo aspects of the game, and also for the whole multiplayer.”

“We’re trying to expand the genre by offering more to the players,” he adds. 

There’s a mind-blowing amount of content Monte Cristo are stuffing into Cities XL; to piece it all together, I had to chat with the folks behind the massive PC title. What follows after the jump is a long conversation with Zambeaux and Cities XL Internet Manager Philippe Da Silva. For fans of the simulation genre, it’s a must read.

Philippe, give me a little background information on what led to the development of Cities XL.

Philippe Da Silva, Internet Manager:

Monte Cristo is something like 13-years-old, and we continuously have been creating and developing management-based games. We had games like Wall Street Trader, which was kind of an economy game. Then we had more tycoon games, where you start your own company. Then we had more real-time games, but still more [focused] on the management side of things. We came recently in 2004 with a game called Medieval Lord, which is a builder game that takes place in the medieval age.

And out of the engine that we build for Medievil Lord, we created City Life, our first modern city builder game, all in 3D, with a bunch of features that you might see in the Sim City series. We got quite good feedback on the City Life game from the press and on the player’s side, too. We thought that nobody was actually answering this game genre anymore — Electronic Arts and Maxis with Sim City 4 was released in 2003, and nothing was shipping out as far as we knew.

So we decided to work on Cities XL. The main question we asked ourselves was: based on the current technology available, the new Internet paradigm that we have, what could we offer players in 2008 or 2009 as far as the city-builder genre was concerned?

So how are you answering that?

Basically we came up with the three main directions for the game. The first one was that we wanted players to see a real difference on the graphics-side of things in Cities XL, [compared to what] they’d seen in previous games of the genre. So we wanted the graphics to be realistic, to look as beautiful as they could.

The second direction was more on the simulation and the economics. We wanted the game to be rich as far as city builder features on the simulation side and the economic side. But at the same time, we know that these kind of games can be quite difficult to get in, so we wanted to to create a simulation that allows players to have a cool learning curve. And when I mean cool, it’s that they’ll learn the game as they progress. We didn’t want to show them a lot of statistics and an Excel-based file that would confuse them too much. We bring them the problems of the city management as they move on, so they can learn the game as they play.

The third direction was on the replayability. Basically, in a city builder game when you understand the economics and the simulation and how the city grows and the difficulties that arise, and you find a schema that works. You can then replicate it several times in your map, and it will just work. You actually lose a lot of the pleasure and the challenge that comes with the game.

So we wanted to bring to Cities XL a few new things so that the player will find more challenges as he or she moves on. There’s really no end game, on both the city building aspects and the management side of things.

What kind of things are you doing to keep it fresh for players?

The first one is the “GEM,” which stands for “Game Extension Modules.” They can be seen as “Tycoons” [style games] on their own, that you plug into your city. So at any point you can change your cap from the mayor of the city to an entrepreneur, managing a company in the city. The other aspect is of course the persistence, and the online mode in Cities XL.

It kind of sounds like you’re mashing experiences from other titles into one, huge game. Building this “ultimate” sim experience.

Yeah, it’s mostly that. The thing is, everybody knows how a city works, basically. You know that you have citizens that need places to live in, that they need jobs, that they need to have some security from police stations and fire stations, that they need a health care system, that they need water and electricity. Just all these kind of things are really logical. Everybody knows this, and I think that was why the Sim City franchise was so successful. And then you look at all the Tycoon games that are coming out on the PC market, and everyone loves playing a Tycoon of a certain type. And basically, if you look at the gameplay side, every Tycoon is some sort of builder that is limited to a specific area of the economy.

It seemed obvious for us that everything could plug together, so that came to the idea of the “GEMS.” And the online aspect is just something that we added more on top of all that. When you go on the shelves to buy Cities XL you will buy Cities XL and you will get just a solo game you can play without playing with others. You don’t have to. We thought that it was cool for players not to be forced to go online, so if they want to play on their own they can still play this kind of game.

But then if they want to, go to the option, they will have access to a new set of features based on the fact that they are online and playing with other players. but the gameplay mechanisms will be the same, they’re just exposed to the multiplayer aspects.

Give me a little bit more detail on the online “Planet Offer,” if you could.

The idea that we have right now is that the “Planet Offer” will be a  subscription-based option for players. You will have five slots to choose on not only one planet, but multiple planets if you wish. We are aiming right now to have ten-thousand cities in one planet, but it’s not a definitive number. We still have to test that; we’re not sure if it will work with the economics. We need to evaluate some points, like just making sure things like trading will work [with that many cities].

On the gameplay side you’ll be able to trade with other players, so they will let things to be done by other players. For instance, say I wanted to build a tourism- oriented city. So I dont want to have huge industry that is polluting my whole city, so if I don’t want to do that, I can ask another player that has a city more like an industrial area to take care of that for me. I just won’t have to do it on my side.

So that’s the kind of thing that you’ll be able to do — to trade those kind of things. Then we will have also some features that will allow you to build things together. Because one of the things that’s important in Cities XL on the Planet Offer is that it’s the same for everyone. While in the solo mode, you can pause or accelerate time, but not when online. Some buildings, or some major projects in your cities online will require real-time days to be built. The way that you will be able to accelerate their production is to team up with other players. Major projects, like a really big tunnel or a really big tower — like the Empire State building — they can be built quickly because you will be teaming up with others to make sure that you have all of the resources. That way you can create the building faster than if you were doing it on your own.

And there’s going to be a lot of online community aspects as well, right?

On the game itself, and as part of the Planet Offer, you will also have access to all of these online social networking aspects. You’ll be able to meet other players in your city — or in other cities — through your online avatar. And you can visit other cities, and talk, and organize events. You will have the ability to have your own dedicated page on the Cities XL Web site, and on each page you’ll get all of the information and the statistics coming from all of your cities and achievements.

And for each city you will have one dedicated page, as well, where you’ll have all of the stats for the city, how the cities rank compared to others. All of the trading mechanisms, you’ll be able to play them on the Web site, too. Because we think it’s cool for players to not have to be in the game to do this. Because right now, all the MMORPGs are really, really asking you to spend a lot of time in their virtual worlds. I’m a World of Warcraft player myself, so I used to go to every region in The Burning Crusade just to hunt for monsters, and to get things that I needed to build my potions for my next instance.

These games right now are asking a lot of time to be spent on them. We thought it was cool if some things that you have to do in the agme could be done on the Web site. So during your lunch break, if you have a job or if you’re a student and you go to the library, you could connect to the Web site and you just log in. You can do things like trading, manage big projects, or make sure everything is going fine. And if you need some help, you just contact another player that is currently online or send him a message and have him help you … you just don’t have to wait for the evening to get to the game or launch the game.

The Planet Offer sounds like a massive game component. Compared to the single-player, offline game, it’s almost as if you’re talking about two different products.

They’re completely independent. The game itself is the same, you have the same features. On the Planet Offer, instead of having to interact with the AI, you are interacting with real players. You are building your cities, you have to make sure everything is going fine. But the cities that are on solo mode won’t ever be uploaded to the servers. We don’t want players to have a way to be able to cheat in the solo mode, or be better against the other players.

So the plan is to expand with more content after launch, with things like the GEMS, right?

Alexandre Zambeaux, International Product Manager:

Definitely. The point of the online part is not only that you get to play with other players, but it really resembles an MMO in that we’re going to be pushing content out to the player [regularly]. Not just for the multiplayer, but also for the solo. You can have extra buldings that can be added every month for free of charge, obviously there’s not always going to be a need to pay for extra content like small things, like buildings for example.

We also have these different GEMS — these are going to be added, we don’t know exactly if it’s going to be every two months or every two months … it’s going to be depend on the GEMS. We plan on having these come out as long as people are interested. Right now, we have five or six different GEMS in production, but we have an infinte amount of ideas of things we can add to the game. It’s going to keep increasing, the whole aspect of the game is that since it’s a real world, you can have a bunch of different things.

For instance, you have a little soccer stadium in your city, why not have have little soccer game within the game, and have different competitions. These are the different ideas that we’re thinking about, and basically your imagination is really the limit here.

There will be some free improvements and features on the core city building aspects; you will have access to this content for free of charge. The GEMS themselves will be pay upgrades. What we think is that everything that has a real gameplay value addition, if it adds new game hours for you, it has a real value. And therefore we will be asking players to purchase those GEMs. [The price] will really depend on the size of the GEM itself. We don’t want to fool players — they are really experts on what they want and what they’ll get.

Well, it sounds huge, for sure. When are you looking to launch Cities XL?

We’re aiming for the first half of 2009. We don’t have an exact date. We want to take the time to launch it correctly.

Nick Chester