"MMOCBG?" Huh? ZAM Takes a Peek at Cities XL

"MMOCBG?" Huh? ZAM Takes a Peek at Cities XL Beta - When you cross a city-sim with a tycoon game and build an MMO around it, you end up with a “Massively Multiplayer Online City Building Game.” ZAM jumps in

In an exclusive interview last month, ZAM spoke with Michael Weber, Community Manager of the upcoming MMO, Cities XL. Michael described the game as an MMOCBG, or "Massively Multiplayer Online City Building Game." Simply put, it's a bit like the SimCity series with an MMO platform.

Only it isn't that simple (if you haven't read our interview yet, the game concept itself probably leaves your head tilted to the side a little, still confused about the "city-building MMO" part). It's actually a pretty intriguing idea though, and our interview left us with enough faith in the game to take a quick peek at Cities XL before its official launch later this summer.

Developed by Monte Cristo (a European PC/console games publisher), Cities XL is almost exactly what you're trying to imagine if you're still having a hard time wrapping your brain around the idea of a SimCity-styled MMO. Don't bother straining your imagination too hard; until you really dig in and start dealing with the finer aspects of the game, that description suits it well enough.

Cities XL also draws inspiration from the "tycoon" genre of games you may have played over the years. In fact, the game is somewhat of a mix between the two genres: the core gameplay mechanic is similar to city-building you've seen in all the SimCity games, while the goals and MMO elements more resemble the "tycoon" genre. You're given the chance to stake your claim in a persistent world, building your own city from the ground up and micro-managing your way to fame and fortune.

Other players simultaneously inhabit one of several entire planets you can choose from, building their own cities and using whatever natural resources they find available. You have the choice of working together to build a mutual city and pool your resources, or you can trade them with another player and go at it solo, if you prefer.

Probably the most innovative feature of Cities XL is the "Gameplay Extension Modules" (or GEMs, as the developers call them). They're essentially mini-games that can be played within your city creations to take on different roles, like running a successful car dealership or amusement park. This is where the "tycoon" aspect becomes much more prevalent, and you make the transition from macro- to micro-managing, taking on smaller and more "down-to-earth" jobs, all within your own created cities.

Unlike many MMOs that are developed and pushed-to-release without considering the quality of development much more than just an afterthought, you can instantly tell that Monte Cristo has put some serious work into this game. A 2.5GB client download will expand to an almost-6GB full installation; a pretty hefty size when you consider the genre. But when I launched the game for the first time and started peeking around, it became obvious that the graphics are probably the main reason for its large memory size.

The visuals in Cities XL are pretty amazing (but lean a little toward the "cartoon"-style), offering great scenic vistas to admire your work, whether it's a booming city skyline or a peaceful, beach-front resort.

The first thing you'll need to do is create your character by using the game's extensive avatar editor, which allows some pretty hefty customization. Even compared to non-MMO character editors, Cities XL offers an insane number of ways to tweak the physical look of your in-game personality. You can fine-tune everything from facial muscles to foot size, with a respectable selection of hairstyles and clothing to choose from as well.

At first, I didn't understand why an avatar would be of any significance in a game like this, since the whole theme of Cities XL is buildings, cities and economics. But after messing around for a bit, I realized that you're able to enter other people's cities and walk around. Instead of just interacting with people via the chat box, you can use your character to talk to people "in person." You can use emotes and just socialize in general, or take a stroll around the city from multiple perspectives, including the same viewpoint your "virtual citizens" would have.

After your character is created, you'll be met with a tutorial menu offering lessons that teach you how to play the game, starting with camera movement. I wish I could report that things commenced flawlessly, but unfortunately the user-interaction with camera and viewing angles leaves much to be desired. Many of the control methods aren't the most intuitive ways in which you're probably used to navigating in your average MMO. The zoom-tracking is a little sketchy and your ability to rotate the camera is dependent on either clicking on-screen buttons, or holding the middle mouse button to "free-look." The problem is that when you've accumulated a high memory load or you're in a big city with a lot of geometry and textures, the free-look mode becomes increasingly difficult to accurately control.

However, since the game is still in beta, we can hope this is one of those things on Monte Cristo's "to-do" list. I have a few more small gripes about the camera movement and character navigation while you're in a city, but again, this is the reason beta phases exist. Plus, I can't confirm whether or not someone using an uber high-end PC would experience the same problems to the degree I did, although I'm pretty sure most of the bugs aren't spec-related.

Moving on; after you complete the tutorials and learn how to interact with the UI and actually start building things, you can enter the game's "online" mode, where you'll be met with a list of planets to choose from. From what I gathered, these different planets are the Cities XL equivalent of various servers. Pick one, and you'll come to a cool-looking "world view" where you can spin the planet around like a globe and examine a bunch of meta-data (continent-area resources, player cities and infrastructure networks, for example).

Before I go any further, let me explain how this relates to one of the really unique aspects about Cities XL. Unlike most of the building sim games you might have played in the past, Cities XL offers an extremely broad range of viewing altitudes to work with. We're talking as far up as satellite-style views here, similar to what you'd see in programs like Google Maps. And at the opposite end of that spectrum (as mentioned earlier), you can go as far down as a street-level view, allowing you to look around from the perspective of someone standing on the sidewalk. You can even see roughly-modeled representations of things like cars driving by, or people walking down the street on their way to grab a burger.

It's a really ambitious feature that will probably end up being one of the several most-appealing aspects that will draw players to Cities XL, as opposed to all the other modern building-sim games out there, MMO-based or not. There's not much to complain about with the graphics, either. It might be a few hairs shy of photo-realism, but considering the optimization used to dynamically scroll from satellite-to-street views within a few seconds—without loading splashes or ugly distortion—it's pretty dang impressive.

Once you've chosen the planet you'd like to build your city on, you'll have to choose where to put it. In another effort to add realism to the game, you can't just plop down "YourNameHereVille" anywhere you see land. You have to consider natural resources like oil and agriculture, or "virtual" resources like beachfront property. It all depends on what direction you want to take with your city, and what kind of population you want to attract. There's also a resources trading system built into the game so that you can swap your surplus for a resource you're running low on.

The actual city-building mechanic offers a more freeform approach than the traditional "grid layout" standard. I was amazed by some of the zoning and road patterns the game allowed me to build (despite the fact that many of them would be about as efficient as London's historical idea of "urban planning"). But it's nice to have more options and the ability to create zones exactly the way you imagine them in your head, instead of being limited to the tired and overused 90 degree snap-grids.

Another exciting feature of Cities XL is the ability to collaborate with other players and build a city as joint venture; pooling your resources, to create a massive city that might not have been possible on your own. I wasn't able to reach that level of depth in the short time I had available to preview the game, but I did have the chance to walk around in some of these mega-cities, and the potential definitely looks promising.

Every MMO has to offer new incentives for people to keep coming back for more, and Cities XL is no exception. One of the most sought-after rewards in the game are "blueprints" that unlock the ability to build "mega-structures" (a Space Needle-esque tower, for example) that provide bonuses to various city stats, like tourism. You can win them in competitions or—according to Monte Cristo—you might occasionally receive one for free in regularly lotteries. There are also the GEMs mentioned earlier; great for when you decide you need a break from the building and would rather take a more hands-on approach to a specific business or market within your city.

If you're a SimCity fan who also happens to love MMOs, Cities XL just might end up being your dream game. It has the potential to stand on its own even as a single-player game for fans who have been eagerly awaiting a fresh and unique sim-builder. From an MMO standpoint, the way in which Cities XL is received by the community-at-large will probably be the deal-maker/breaker, though. Even in my brief glance into this game for a beta preview, I could tell that most of the elements to provide an epic, virtual-world simulation are in place and ready. We just have to wait and see if players embrace it.


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# Jun 27 2009 at 6:34 PM Rating: Decent
These "resources" you can acquire by building on your plot of land has been glossed over several times but never expanded upon. I am curious what you do with these resources and why you would need to trade them for others.
# Jun 30 2009 at 5:42 AM Rating: Excellent
93 posts
Hi Sorlac. The resources are used pretty much like you'd assume they'd be used in any MMO; as "materials" that allow you to craft. In Cities XLs' case, you use resources (both natural and man-made) in the development of your city. Some resources--especially the natural resources--will be available to you automatically, depending where you decide to start building on the planet. But you'll never find a place to build that supplies ALL the resources in one spot. That's why you have to buy and trade resources; to fit your current demand. It's kind of like the "real world" in that way, if you think of the import/export of natural and man-made resources.
# Jun 30 2009 at 7:03 PM Rating: Decent
Thanks for the reply.

Some resources--especially the natural resources--will be available to you automatically

So basically when you build on Plot A (a "Plot" being a world area reserved for your entire city), that plot has Resource A that you get automatically just for building there. If "some" are available automatically, do you have to "mine" for others by building specific structures? Do the resources, both automatic and otherwise, generate over time infinitely or can they run out?
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