The Talk Of The Town: Jerome Gastaldi Interview


A while back, I got together with Jerome Gastaldi – Monte Cristo CEO and lead on Cities XL – to talk about Cities XL. By “a while back” I mean, January. RPS has been busy with not doing anything. Since the demo has just been released, I thought it time to go back to the recording of Mr Gastaldi’s splendid Gallic accent and forthrightness – I’ve avoided about half the swearing – to talk about Cities XL, the construction genre, and the future of the PC. It’s worth noting that the interview is six months old – I’ve concentrated on discussion of concepts to avoid any details being out of date. And here we go!

RPS: As a brief over-view… Cities XL. Explain the high-level concept.

Jerome Gastaldi:
It’s a multi-angle project. You’ve got the solo game. You’ve got playable content which plug-in and enriches the space. You’ve got the subscription offer – the planet model – which is open to you to have persistence on a planet, specialising city by city and trading with each other and creating big projects together. And fourthly, this web-based interface. We give the players the possibility to show on the web what they’re doing in the game and also allow them to continue to play the game. All the trading elements are playable on the web. That’s the concept.

RPS: But the core is…

Jerome Gastaldi: The corner-stone is a solid city building game. We’re going for the Sim City 4 spot. For the first time in our history we have the money to effectively do that. The second challenge is to give easy access to the genre. It’s still a steep learning curve. When we released City Life in 2006, we did a small game – 76 Metacritic, while Sim City was 84. It’s the difference in ambition. But we did a survey of 70,000 registered players and we discovered that 83% told us that the game was too difficult [To get into].

RPS: That’s a different audience than the traditional games one. How else are they different?

Jerome Gastaldi: You look at the figures of Sim City 4, you see they sold a third of their numbers in the first twelve months. That means they sold over sixty-five percent after the first twelve months. It’s not a gamers game. It’s not a game people jump on. It’s a game a lot of people will buy, in their own time, because of the subject… and we have a bit of the same feeling with Cities Life. We’re selling just as much – not at the same price-point, but just as much. What’s clear is that the learning curve is too steep because there’s a lot of stuff you’ve got to understand immediately. The unique challenge is to ease the entrance to the game to those guys. There’s a couple of ways we can do that. We’re changing the builder interface, looking at RPG interfaces where you can get anything which is vital at one click. We’re going to keep the dashboard obviously – as players want that – but any statistic they can have access to which is wrong with them with one click.

RPS: So, you talk about these “gems” adding extra content of the world. Tell us about this Ski-course thing you’re demoing.

Jerome Gastaldi:
Your goal is to make this company make money. It’s linked to your city, to a certain extent. It takes electricity and recycling, for example. The company is like any other city in the city… just that you’re running it. You provide activities. You build the ski-slopes, and decide what colour it is – so making this one a green slope, then people who take it won’t be happy. And you’ll need more hospitals nearby. That classic sort of gameplay where you’re giving people what they desire.

RPS: In other words, it’s a game which you can plug other games into. What about the web side of it? How will people be able to interact in the web interface?

Jerome Gastaldi:
We’re integrating it with full social network functionality, not because it’s trendy – because we’re not a trendy company – just because it truly has a purpose in the game. Think of the trading as something we want to create socially. It’s not really skill based. It’s something which should make people interact. The classic gameplay mechanic behind the trading is pretty simple. Every day the server will will deduct a level of inventory. The cities are producing tokens. What you’re going to trade are tokens. Tokens of money, tokens electricity, tokens of engineers, tokens of labour forces. If you developed your gem-holiday resort, you’d have a token of that. You don’t have to exchange resources against money – you can exchange resources against resources. You can also can just give away for free. The tokens exist for 24 hours – if you don’t use them, you lose them. Why trade with others? We want to get rid of the restraint of the builder of the balancing act – which is where the fun is single player – but if a guy wants to recycle stuff for the rest of the world, so be it. Transport or trading gem – the airport, the port – which gives you the ability to trade further, but also trade them for a little longer time. Like, 2-3 days. So if you have one, you can effectively trade for profit.

RPS: What other reason do you have to trade other than specialisation?

Jerome Gastaldi:
The second reason is for building the big works – buildings which you can’t just build. Let’s say we have the rights for – say – Old Trafford. We’re not going to sell it for a building, but players will have blueprints. They can either give them away, or sell them for tokens or – if you really have a guy you don’t like who wants it – say “give us twenty quid on paypal”. That’ll happen, and we don’t have a problem with that. We manage the rarity of the blueprints [just giving them to people]. When you start this big project, you can’t build it on your own. There’s too much resources. For each stage, you’ve got a number of resources you need to acquire for a number of days. Maybe Old Trafford would take 10 days. Effectively, you’ll offer contract proposals for other players, using a search engine to find places which are compatible with what’s looking for – and in the vicinity of your transport capacity. And then you issue the contract request, just dragging and dropping what you want to exchange. We want a guy to fail to make the contracted resources, and then receiving an angry e-mail from someone else. We want that kind of thing we want to happen.

RPS: So what happens if they default on a deal? That will lead to problems for the person who doesn’t get their supplies.

Jerome Gastaldi:
We think we have enough tools in terms of the comments they can leave to effectively do that, rather than a flag. We don’t want to punish people because… some people will do it on person. Say I’m competing with you. You’re number 2 and I’m number 3 in the resources. I get someone else to not send you the guys you needed to keep a project going, just so I can go one up… it’s the game. If it points out every time, it’s just like a schoolmaster. I think it’ll be like natural selection.

RPS: You can also walk around in other people’s cities. How does that work with the add-on stuff?

Jerome Gastaldi:Even if you haven’t bought the gem-ski, you’ve got its assets. So you’re able to come and visit where I’m running the gem-ski, you can see content you haven’t bought yet, and you can ask people “is it worth it”. You can go and look at it, and see if you think it’s something you like. For the big projects, you can go and see how it is – we really want players to see stuff they don’t have. See if you like it.

RPS: Also, you give blueprints to solo players, which can be given away. That’s a way to bring them into the main game, I guess.

Jerome Gastaldi:
The only constraint we put on the solo players… we give them an avatar. We give them a webgame. We don’t have their data, because we don’t store their data, or any of the things which cost us money, because they don’t pay… but we still really want them to be part of the community. We want to see what other people are doing. By giving them the blueprints to trade, we’re giving them a purpose to talking to people in the communities.

RPS: So building a community is essential to what you plan?

Jerome Gastaldi: The day we’re successful will be the day we’re in the fabric of those guys. Those 15 webpages to check every day. They may not play for a few weeks, but the spouse is going away for the weekend and… they figure they’ll give it a crack. They’re not willing to spend three hours a day playing. We don’t want to push them into an experience where their progression is limited to the time they have to put in. That’s not this type of game. These people have more money than they have time.

RPS: The webgame talk makes me think of my time playing Travian. One thing I did like was it managed to just casually slide into my life…

Jerome Gastaldi: We looked at Travian. We looked at a lot of things. We learned a lot. But what we’re talking about millions of guys who are buying builders and tycoons. What we’ve learned is if anyone can have a strong, negative impact on their city, they’re going to pull out. That’s for sure. So we need the level of interaction to be a different level to Travian.

RPS: So, the business model is basically a solo game, a 10-quid-for-three-months persistent game plus the ability to buy “gems” which give you added game. The question of how to moneterize is one thing which can be enormously tricky. Something like Hellgate got a lot of pain for how it approached it. What’s your thinking?

Jerome Gastaldi: The business model must reflect what people are willing to buy. Do we a damn about microtransactions? No, we don’t. But we know that the guys will pay real money for playable content. They don’t expect the full scope game to come for free. Don’t take a piss out of them – give a good ratio of money for playable content, and they’re ready to pay for it. We want to give goodwill content – buildings which we’ll produce and give for free. We did it with City Life, and it did so well for us, as people love to get free stuff. The subscription element is a different thing. We ended up with three months as we’re providing a real service with real costs. Now, the question became, how long are these people going to play? They’re never going to play as long as a premium MMO – which is arguably the cheapest entertaining experience per minute. But we wanted to be as inoffensive as possible. What’s the price of a packet of cigarettes? What’s the price of a shitty game you’ll play for two hours on your phone? That’s where we’re coming from. If we sell for that price, something that offers several hours of experience, people won’t mind. I don’t think we’re taking the piss.

RPS: It strikes me the key difference is – and one place where Hellgate fell – was that people felt they were removing content which was typically viewed to be part of the experience. Conversely, in this, everything you pay for is extra on top of what a traditional City game would be.

Jerome Gastaldi:
If we were leaving out content from a soloable game, we could have a back lash. But we’re not going to do that.

RPS: With you taking this direction… well, I look at EA with the Sim City brand. You do this. Meanwhile they do the not-very-Sim-City-actually Sim City Societies. Do you think they’ve dropped the ball? Why?

Jerome Gastaldi:
I think EA is a corporation has no key brand which they don’t develop internally. They take care of them all. The fact that they subcontracted the SimCity DS to a Japanese developer, that they sub-contracted Societies… they’re giving up. And they’re giving up because Will Wright himself… well, there’s been interviews where he’s said that they think they’ve pushed it to the limits and don’t think there’s anywhere else to go with it. They’re working on the Sims and Spore, all of which have the possibility to be a multiformat game. Sim City hasn’t the potential to be a multiformat game. And we all know their thoughts on online. I think nobody is taking care of this field, neither on the tycoon label or the city-building label.

RPS: Before coming here, I was on the Quarter To Three forum, where there was a thread where people were sighing over the state of the managment genre – that there hasn’t been a decent one come along in ages. Why haven’t people been making them?

Jerome Gastaldi:
How many studios are independent. How many can decide what game they’re going to do next? There’s not a lot of us and it’s bloody hard work. It’s so much easier to take publishers money… but to take money, they’re going to ask you to do multiplatform. A world of warcraft clone, or a multiformat game. This is an area where very little money is being thrown at it. We think there’s a big opportunity here.

RPS: It’s interesting how the genre sort of devalued itself. Look at how the word “tycoon” was put on such a huge variety of stuff.

Jerome Gastaldi:
You had fantastic games… but then you had people churning a game in two months, in the same engine with crap graphics. And that’s why we don’t put the word Tycoon, because it’s now cheap.

RPS: It strikes me that what you’re doing is a lot like what Stardock talk about. That is, trying to provide games for a specific niche. Is that the future of the PC?

Jerome Gastaldi:
PC as a platform has been losing ground to the consoles. 5 years ago, you could buy a racing game on your PC… now you can’t. 5 years ago, FPS were selling more on PCs, now they’re not. As soon as a genre can go towards consoles, it does…which is reason one for the shrinking of the market. Reason two is WoW. WoW is swallowing hours of gametime, and that has a real impact. If you aggregate the PC market, including subscriptions and online markets, it is huge. The fact that the PC market happens both at retail and online, and has the online community reactivity which consoles are never going to have – Mr Sony or Microsoft to approve your patch in three weeks. So this is never a genre which is going to go to console. You’re never going to have the input device to give the precision. And we don’t believe those guys [who play this] who have vanished. We think there’s a big niche out there. If you look at the NPD, those builder and tycoon games are about 8-9% of the PC market. It’s not a tiny little niche. There’s still a lot of life in there and we won’t see the end for a long, long time.

RPS: Thanks for your time. I’ll be sure to write this up immediately, and not in six months, because that’ll be terribly rude.

35 Comments

  1. Lack_26 says:

    So it will be partly subscription based? I guess I’ll stick to solo-play.

  2. morte says:

    Still have hopes for this, despite the terrible demo. Won’t pre-order now though, there’s just too much competing for my cash to take a chance, will ‘watch and see’.

  3. Mike says:

    I was pretty overwhelmed by it all. One thing that also struck me was that, from the screenshots and whatnot, it appears to be even more serious than Sim City. But the avatars of the citizens (and indeed yourself) are godawful and cartoony, which kind of breaks the immersion of moving through these otherwise beautiful metropolises.

  4. Jti says:

    It wont work. Monte Cristo can’t pull this of, there’s no way. Not after the demo…

  5. Jim Rossignol says:

    I dunno. It is an awfully big concept to chew on. It might be the kind of thing that needs quite a lot of “evolution” before it hits a sweet spot of development. The same thing was true – as we were discussing earlier – of plenty of other games that attempt to go beyond a prescribed formula.

  6. reaper47 says:

    Beautiful project.

    Just because it’s the first try to conquer that niche again, a niche I love btw, doesn’t mean it will be a success (I still have to check out the demo), but the fact alone that there is a developer out there who tries to do a major project like this, independently, makes me happy.

  7. Snall says:

    The demo was actually ok, but it was missing tons of stuff and the 22k cap sucked. I think I might buy Tropico 3 instead though.

  8. lumpi says:

    Btw, has anyone found out whether there will be a subscription-free (singleplayer) version of this game? Is it an MMO exclusively?

  9. Jimbo says:

    This is…. I….. Just keep in mind that this interview is 6 months old and that, hypothetically, a lot can change in 6 months.

    On the other hand, I sometimes find the undertones in an interviewer’s questioning to be timeless.

  10. Xercies says:

    You know theres a good game underneath, but its to much crap piled on it. The game can overwealm you wth fast paced problems and you can’t deal with them fast enough meaning businesses go bankrupt. Theres also things that you have no idea what to do and the tutprial hasn’t told you which means your stuck on a problem then suddenly it gets better again for no apprant reason unfortunatly you still don’t know how it was don so when it happens next time your stuffed.

  11. Sunjammer says:

    Someone needs to ask mr Gastaldi where the hell 7 sins 2 is. Ultimate game!

  12. Serondal says:

    I like the last line of the interview, made the entire thing worth reading. My question is did he actually speak this way or were all the funny mistakes in his English actually mistakes of whoever transcribed it from the recording? :P Either way it was an amusing read.

  13. lumpi says:

    Hmmm… nobody can answer whether this is exclusively an MMO/subscription based game or whether you can get a singleplayer only version separately?

  14. Kieron Gillen says:

    You could read the interview.

    KG

  15. Serondal says:

    Did anyone actually play City Life?

  16. Serondal says:

    I should have said, Did anyone actaully play City Life here? :P and liked it ?

  17. Vinraith says:

    I dabbled with City Life but it didn’t really work for me. Then again, Sim City 4 didn’t either, so I think it might be me. I used to adore city builders of this stripe, but either they’ve grown away from me or I’ve grown away from them, it’s hard to tell which.

    I still like Anno though.

  18. Jti says:

    I have to admit, that I love the project, but I’m cynical about the delivery. There is no reason I should trust in Monte Cristo… Please prove me wrong! I really want this to work.

  19. Jti says:

    With Sim City 4 my main complaint is the interface that didn’t really work. I’d still play it if I could easily look at different schools funding and influence instead of hunting each one separately and forever…

  20. Serondal says:

    I had Sim City 4 and the rush hour expansion but never really got into it. Rather , I tried hard to get into it but I could never get the hang of it at all :( I did really well with the origonal sim city back in the day though :)

    I really loved Sim Tower as well

  21. lumpi says:

    @Kieron: I thought I did, but just realized I accidentally scrolled over 3 paragraphs while looking at the beautiful screenshots. *blushes*

    I’m still confused by their model, though. Mainly because I don’t have a clue about how MMOs work nowadays nor can I imagine how a Sim City style game can work as an MMO. 10 bucks buy you 3 months of being able to trade with and visit other player’s cities? Plus micro transactions re-labeled “gems”?

    Looks interesting, though.

  22. Kieron Gillen says:

    Lumpi: Sorry for the sarcasm, man.

    It’s an interesting one. A lot will depend on what the microtransactions are – and I suspect they don’t actually mean “micro” at all. They’re talking about a cheap-game price, because they consider them basically like mini-cheap games.

    KG

  23. Serondal says:

    the gems seem more like mini-games or mini-missions that add to the game like a small expansion pack. A micro-transaction generally gives you something of very little worth (Like a weapon or item in a game sometimes they don’t even last that long) This looks like it will give you something of worth for your money more akin to maybe the small expansion Spores released with the spooky parts that really added a lot to the game and didn’t cost all that much ?

    IT also looks like they’re going to allow you to play the game in single player mode for free with limited functions online (Giving you blue prints and stuff) to attempt to draw you into playing online (And paying the fee perchances?) But not hurt you if you don’t want to play online either. I’m wondering if you’ll be able to buy the gems even if you don’t subscribe to the monthly fee and just use them off line?

    from the sounds of it though you will be limited in what you can do in single player if you don’t subscribe becasue you won’t be able to pull together the massive resources required to build some of the larger buildings.

  24. luminosity says:

    Hmm.. subscriptions seems a deeply weird choice. I can’t imagine that the bandwidth/storage costs for a game like this would be expensive, and they already have a revenue model in the ‘gems’.

    If the game were subfree I’d pay up front for a box, and be willing to pay for the odd gem that took my fancy, but a sub chases me away. It doesn’t seem the sort of game I’d want to play all the time, which is surely what you want with a sub? More the sort of game I’d come back to every few weeks to tweak my city, and check out what new things I could do.

    Oh well, scratch this then.

  25. Jimbo says:

    A lot of the gameplay answers given are no longer entirely accurate, but the payment model is (currently) still the same. No subs for single player, £4-£7 per month (depending on how many you buy) for the multiplayer ‘Planet Offer’, which is your inter-city trading, monthly content updates, competitions etc.

    The ‘GEMs’ are essentially ‘Ski Slope Tycoon’ or ‘Beach Tycoon’ which will snap on to the game and then feed back into your city – they will be sold seperately and you get a 35% discount on them if you are paying subscription.

    Note that ‘new features like public transportation’ is listed as a Planet Offer feature on their new website. Read into that what you will. No I’ll do the math for you – the single player will not have public transportation.

    Personally, I don’t think they should have turned their nose up at microtransactions so readily. I think in some certain cases it may be more palatable than a not-insignificant subscription fee. As nicely demonstrated by the poster above me. They should concentrate on player numbers and then make their money by selling content to those players.

  26. jarvoll says:

    Apparently I’m still the only person in the world who thought SC4 was half as complex and intricate as it could/ought to have been.

    I love the genre, so this is definitely a wait-and-see, but reports of poor demo-age and a fixed fear of subscription models and games that try to force me to talk to other people (I’m gaming to get AWAY from people, not interact with them more) will keep me cautiously pessimistic until I see evidence to the contrary. :\

  27. Cheeetar says:

    How would I contact the team? I screwed up the registration somehow and I have no idea what my login name is.

  28. lumpi says:

    “The single player will not have public transportation.”

    Are you sure, Jimbo? That’s exactly the kind of thing I was skeptical about. I assume they would have to lock a lot of even basic features into the subscription offer to make it attractive. I would say that a ca. SimCity 4 style simulation for SP is my minimum requirement for even considering to pick the game up (obviously because I already have SC4 :D ).

    The demo is restricted from so many angles (population-cap, building-type cap, 7 day self-destruction) that I have a hard time finding something positive about it, since it is basically SC4 with the parts where it usually starts getting fun cut out.

    If the single-price version is really just a teaser for the subscription model, I will pass.

  29. cliffski says:

    I had to register 3 times to actually get an account, just to try the demo. It flatly refused to email any address at my domain name.
    Not a great start. I’m hoping the actual game far surpasses the competence of the marketing of it.

  30. DCF says:

    The single player will only have buses, no other public transportation.
    In fact, it seems the single player side is stripped from many things to ‘gently’ force people to the Online subsciption.
    Number of maps, blueprints, new buildings, ‘region-like’ play and maybe more will only be available (and only online?) to subscribers as long as the have their subscription.

    With this subscription you will be paying for features still under development – like mass transit, which probably won’t even be available yet at release. Like buying a book and paying for every subsequent page that hasn’t been written yet..

    And Monte Cristo has stated that any user generated content will have to be integrated into the game by MC, essentially forfeiting rights of the custom content developer in favour of MC while this content might only be made available to subscribers (uncertain about this, but a realistic possibility).

    And let’s not forget the GEM’s. It is not unthinkable that you are able to get public transportation for SP later on through a GEM.
    However, you will have to pay for extra content after release to have a ‘full’ game.

  31. Wackee says:

    It’s fascinating to see, how much people can read out of a two-liner (that is badly translated from the french version) on the official website.

  32. DCF says:

    Okay, a clarification:
    I have closely followed the development of this game from the time the working title was ‘Cities Unlimited’ (around 2 years ago)
    My information is not available ‘out of a two-liner’ but rather derived out of all information over those two years, much of which was lost when they switched to the new website a week ago, conveniently scrapping a forum which was being filled with some very critical messages…

    And consider there still is an ongoing beta test – protected by the NDA – but on multiple websites (like Simtropolis) there are rumours that something is a-brewing among testers.

  33. no says:

    Oh, wow. I’ve been excited for this game for awhile now, but had no idea it wasn’t just a “pay for the box and enjoy the game” title. If I’d have known it was a “pay for various chunks of content and extra rather than just pay $50 for the game and maybe a few bucks a month for some solid MMO style play”, I probably would have lost interest long ago.

    Meh.

  34. Warren says:

    Jarvoll, you are not alone in wanting a more complex Sim City 4. I get the impression that our taste is not common, and the stuff that we’d prefer may differ as well.

    There is hope for Cities XL and our tastes. Monte Cristo software has encouraged the city-simulation geek community to comment on the development of Cities XL since at least September, 2007. The main annoyance of Sim City 4, its overreliance on a grid, never affected CityLife, Cities XL’s predecessor. So I’m optimistic.

  35. ZC77 says:

    bleh…when i first found out about this game(when it was cities unlimited) i was extremely optimistic, but since then i have dwittled away from it. too much online involvement. not enough singleplayer. if MC wanted a game that people would love then they should of sat down with a copy of SC4 deluxe and started there.

    Its not like its a game that still sells millions and has since its start 7 years or so ago…no…not at all….