design lead | 3D building tools | UX design | UI | visual design | games | architecture | texturing
SC3K Building Architect Tool
providing players of all ages the tools to create their own buildings for SimCity 3000
When I first started at Maxis, the alpha version of SimCity 3000 was released. The entire team was working crunch time to get to beta and then to gold.
In the rush, a promised and anticipated add-on was supposed to be released in a few weeks. The Building Architect Tool for SimCity 2000, BAT, had become one of the first major "mod" opportunities for games. Now that 3000 was "3D", Maxis was expected to deliver a tool to create whole buildings in "3D" (actually 2.5 dimensions, 4 isometric projections at 4 levels of detail)
And it had to be accessible for kids as young as 8.
And I had just come here from LEGO.
I took responsibility for developing the SC3K BAT, with only one engineer and a producer's casual oversight. Fortunately, a bare bones prototype had been created based on the idea of stacking 2 meter blocks within a 2.5D space, 4 view angles in isometric projection with the same shading as in the game. Slider widgets along 3 axes let the user paint on a plane projected across the space at those widgets' elevations. Genius, Will Wright!
But stacking blocks was a far cry from creating a good-looking building that would feel right in the the game. And the widget-paint-plane concept was a little hard to grasp. My challenge was to make this tool easy for an average kid to make a decent looking building, and also for a SimCity hobbyist to create something beautiful.
Will's 2.5D building prototype was brilliant for creating gray 3D shapes suitable to be buildings. Various ramps and wedges let the user create complex pitched rooflines at 45 degrees. What was needed were ways to give color and texture to those surfaces, to create convincing facades on its faces and other distinctive features at the 2m/block scale.
the magic of 2.5D
It was trivial to paint the faces of the blocks with colors and textures, and a paint bucket tool allowed the builder to quickly paint whole walls. But to make these into scaled buildings, we included a second layer of block texturing with an alpha channel so that "decals" of doors, windows, and various other architectural elements could be added.
The fenestrated masses passed as buildings, but were very very bland. We then came up with "props", 2D sprites that were really alpha textured blocks. With props, it was possible to add awnings, flags, gates, cupolas, and virtually anything else onto your building mass.
a good palette
One could create some good looking buildings by painting and texturing block faces, and adding decals and props - provided the textures, decals and props were of good quality.
Textures had to exaggerate the scale a little so that bricks looked like bricks and not moire patterns at that resolution.
For decals, I created matched sets of windows, doors, cornices, etc. in a variety of historic styles, all at the proper 2m scale. These worked in flexible combinations for maximizing possibilities (thanks, LEGO!).
I also created a good variety of props in various sizes, including trees and domes. More importantly, I insisted we provide the ability for users to create their own props. (This proved to open the door to some really fantastic buildings!)
buildings as social media
Much of the appeal of BAT had been the ability to exchange buildings so that experts could show off and the rest could benefit from content variety. In other words, mods and crowd-sourced content.
It was important that BAT make it easy to share, download, and import custom buildings to the game - supporting custom decals and props as well. I specified a "suitcase" file format for packaging all the necessary assets, and I defined the UX and workflows for getting and assigning buildings to the game.
SC3K BAT was released 6 weeks after the game, and was an instant hit. SimCity.com had setup the Building Exchange for sharing, and supported comments and forums for users. A community soon developed, and I was EA's leading spokesman for SimCity online.
At last count, 50,000+ buildings had been exchanged at SimCity.com.