For a long time now I've been a huge advocate for any type of game other than RPGs to break into the MMO genre. We have the room for them, because well, there really are none. We've had a few MMOFPS attempts over the years. There have been a couple that didn't easily fall into any one category. The best example we have of someone being successful in the MMO genre as something other than an RPG was Planetside. It's time for something new! That's where Cities XL comes into play. Oh, I know what you're saying right this very second... "But that's just a city building sim game, it's not an MMO!!!" But oh how you're wrong! I had my doubts initially as well, but recently the great folks over at Monte Cristo had me swing by their offices to get my hands on the game and talk about it a little more in depth.
First, a little background for those of you unfamiliar with the title. Monte Cristo has actually been in the simulation genre for quite a while, since 1995, so this is definitely not new territory. Their most recent title, City Life, was a very well reviewed and quite fun city builder. When I first heard about Cities XL (called Cities Unlimited back then) I was already excited about the title without even knowing there would be any online component. When I learned it would have an MMO aspect, that just greatly increased my excitement. Since I know a lot of you are still sitting out there thinking it's not really an MMO, I'll start off with that and then move on to the other information I gleaned while in their offices.
So how is Cities XL an MMO? First of all, there will be several different options in how to play the game when it is released. When you buy the box and take it home, the "free trial" will basically be a fully functioning single-player city building game. There will be no time limit set on it, no "30 days and then you must subscribe to keep playing", you can play the single player part of the game forever if you want and never pay another dime. The second option is the online, subscription aspect of the game. For the low price of around $15 per three months (subject to change, but they're aiming at giving you three months for the same price most MMOs give you one month), you will be able to hop online and play with thousands of other city builders around the world. When first starting your online play, you will be presented with an Earth-like globe with ~10,000 city slots on it. With each player getting five "character" (read: city) slots, that means you'll be playing with somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 different people per server (planet). You are completely free to build all five of your cities on one planet, or on five different planets. While playing online, you'll have almost all the same amenities you'd have on any other MMO. There are planet wide chat channels, the ability to trade with others (which I'll get into more later) and even the ability to take your customized avatar and wander the streets of any other city on the planet.
The third option of game play will be what Monte Cristo is calling the GEMs system. Every so often (the first will actually be ready at release), they will release a GEM (Gameplay Extension Module) which is aimed at, well, further extending the game play. The GEMs will be things like Ski Resorts (available at launch), Airports, Amusement Parks, etc. Purchasing a GEM and adding it to your city adds a whole new level of game play. Basically you go from city building sim to a more Tycoon style game, think Zoo Tycoon, etc. Say for example you buy the Ski Resort GEM at launch and add it to your city (which you'll naturally need to be in a mountainous part of the world to do) you can then, with an easy click of the mouse, go from being the Mayor of your whole city, to the owner of the ski resort. You'll be able to do everything you could do in a stand-alone "Ski Resort Tycoon" type of game; construct new ski trails/paths, build/add lifts, restaurants, cabins, set all the prices, etc. And everything you do will naturally affect how well your ski resort does, and how well it does will have an effect on your city. Having a highly successful ski resort will bring in lots of tourism, which will naturally affect business in the city in a positive way, etc.
Monte Cristo will also be doing a lot of other MMO-esque things with Cities XL. You'll have an in-game friends list, and will even automatically have their Community Managers listed as friends when you start playing. The Community team at Monte Cristo will also be doing quite a few in game events and contests. One of the examples they gave me was that they could randomly announce that the city who has the largest population increase within a given time period will receive a rare mega-structure blueprint. The mega-structure blueprints will allow you to build real world famous landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty, Sears Tower, etc. The CMs will also be wandering around the planets looking for interesting cities/players to feature on the website. They've actually already run a couple real life contests, one of which had participants taking pictures of their own, real life homes, and the winner had her house modeled and included in the game. In another contest, participants sent in photos of their city's Town Hall, several of which were modeled and included. I got to see the finished product of Baltimore's City Hall, one of the entries, in-game and it's very nice.
Speaking of the website, I have to say it's probably the thing that impressed me most about the game, by far. Every player will have their own profile on the Cities XL website which will list all of their cities and their achievements, etc. Think of it as a similar setup to WoW's character profile pages or such; you'll be able to see the player's avatar, all of their cities and how they rank worldwide, which achievements they've attained, what mega-structures they've built (or own the blueprints for and haven't built), etc. Also, there will be a "newspaper" looking section of the page where the player can blog about their city and post news, etc. but the best part of the website is that you'll be able to interact with the game directly. Just about the only thing you can't do from the website is build/expand your city. All of the trading options available in game will be available through the website though, as well as status updates on your friends (and anyone else you've set it up to give you updates on, like that next city over who is trying to cut into your oil production.)