Cities: Skylines – Hope For Heartbroken SimCity Fans?

Last year’s SimCity disappointed me. Beautifully presented, it was nevertheless cramped, buggy, and content to throw thousands of simoleons at me no matter how good or bad I was at my job. It broke my heart a tiny bit. When I heard that Colossal Order were working on Cities: Skylines, I wondered if they might just pick up the pieces. Already experts on making games about transport and infrastructure, their pedigree suggested that Cities: Skylines might just be the civil engineer-cum-defibrillator that I needed to fix everything.

Sitting down to watch Colossal Order CEO Mariina Hallikainen play with a very early build of the game, I found everything remarkably recognisable, perhaps even too familiar. Cities: Skylines looks an awful lot like the the last SimCity and that’s not simply because it demands a floating, eye-of-God perspective and buttons for laying down roads or stretching out industrial estates. Its interface is laid out in a very similar way. Many of the overlays work in a very similar way. I’m immediately reminded of how the Warlock games, also published by Paradox, looked very much like a fantasy mod for Civilization V.

Things begin in the same way, too. The playing area looks small. It’s two kilometres square and a single, atrophied junction connects it to a huge highway that runs straight and true across one edge of the map.

If it sounds like there’s plagiarism going on here, I’ll pole-vault my way to a conclusion. As Hallikainen starts to navigate her way around several increasingly large cities, it’s obvious that there are many more cogs turning inside Cities: Skylines and, unlike the rather opaque SimCity, this is a game that’s much happier to show me what’s happening and why.

For a start, city growth is gated. Hallikainen explains that the development team didn’t want to present players with a tutorial that developed a city they’d then never see again. Instead, they wanted players to progress naturally through city development, gradually being introduced to new concepts one after another. Reaching certain straightforward milestones unlocks larger playing areas, new utilities and also higher density zoning. It’s more like a gradual take off, rather than a rude nudge out of the nest.

Then there are the citizens, those persistent, individual citizens that were the stuff of SimCity legend. Each one is tracked as they go about their daily business and Hallikainen shows me a pharmacy, a small corner shop that would usually employ nine people. A dialogue box displays a staff breakdown, dividing roles by the education level required. Right now, it needs more employees. Specifically, it needs more well-qualified employees, but the small town it’s made its home in doesn’t have the colleges and universities that could provide them.

We follow a woman called Anna as she walks from her home to a job in a factory. We can see not just where she’s headed (currently where she works; potentially anywhere else), but also how happy she is and even how educated. Curious, I think, that she’s decided to walk to work, though I appreciate our shared preference for leg-propelled travel. Anna, I learn, will eventually die and probably occupy one of the city’s cemeteries. More citizens will be born, live, and die, their routines and needs changing with their age. Hallikainen says that the largest maps can support up to a million of these tiny little lives.

For every familiarity, every element or feature that reminds me of SimCity, there’s a surprise behind it. Hallikainen shows me wind turbines, coal plants and waste incinerators, but then I notice how the game isn’t just tracking how much pollution they produce, but also how much noise pollution they produce. That incinerator may be burning your old VHS tapes and farting toxic gas into the sky, but it’s doing so very, very quietly.

Even zoning demonstrates a little more depth. Industrial, residential and commercial zones can be drawn out with brushes of different sizes, neatly divided down to the tiniest elements. If you’d like a small corner shop at the end of a residential street, you can have it.

Of course, there’s also the roads, the railways and the bus routes that Hallikainen sets up with a few quick clicks (when it comes to modelling transport and infrastructure, Colossal Order’s niche but well-respected Cities in Motion series has shown diligence and attention to detail). Roads curve, bridges rise up and ridiculous spaghetti junctions that could only have boiled out of the crazed mind of a criminal pasta chef become a terrifying reality. But I think I like the districts the most.

With the same ease that she daubed industrial zones onto the map, Hallikainen divides up one burgeoning town into different districts, each of which can have particular laws, rules or restrictions governing it. A tiny voice in the back of my mind tells me that this is the route to gerrymandering, that most amusingly-named of crimes, but this is both a practical act and also one of personalisation. Districts can be given tax relief, traffic limits, even a ban on high-rise buildings. I notice, among the many options, one to ban the recognition of same-sex partnerships. I interrupt to ask about it

“We wondered, should we have that?” Hallikainen says. “Because we thought it should be the standard that same sex relationships are included. It’ll be interesting to see if the option to ban them makes it into the final version. One journalist we showed the game to suggested it should be the other way around, that there should be an option in a district to allow same sex relationships.”

Then there’s the dam. I like the dam, too, because it feels powerful. It’s the strong and silent type. Hallikainen explains that the development team have the benefit of one member who is working on a PhD on fluid simulation, a notoriously difficult thing to do in software. Water backs up behind the dam and gushes through the centre. When she puts down her sewer outflow pipes, Hallikainen makes sure that they’re far downstream of any facility that actually takes in or processes drinking water.

It’s the way things functions that impresses me most. It feels like there’s a system behind everything, a logic and a reason and a consistency. While Cities: Skylines looks good, particularly when you’re lording over a thirty-six square kilometre cityscape with multiple suburbs, it’s the idea of all the cogs, springs and ratchets ticking away behind that façade that catches my imagine, that makes me want to tweak and tinker. It also inspired me to ask a few questions after the presentation ended.

RPS: You showed me a lady called Anna walking from her home to her job. She did that on foot. How common is it for citizens to do things on foot. How vital are cars?

Hallikainen: It depends on the person. People moving in to the city come with cars, but tourists might arrive on ships or aeroplanes, they don’t always have their own cars. They’ll use public transportation or walk around and they’ll definitely appreciate it if you’ve set up things like buses or an underground. You can also reduce traffic generally by setting up public transport. The game’s pathfinding calculates an optimal route which can include walking, driving with a car and public transportation.

RPS: But people don’t automatically use cars?

Hallikainen: No. And having a million cars would be pretty crazy. The traffic would go completely ballistic and nobody would be able to play the game and we are trying to make it so that it’s playable, that is the aim!

RPS: So we followed Anna around. You believe you’ll be okay tracking a million people like that, from homes to jobs to other places, around the city? You can quite happily have a million different people moving about?

Hallikainen: Well, they aren’t all walking about at the same time. Some will be at their work. Some will be in their houses. There will be a million people possible, though to be honest that’s both tourists and citizens, not all of them are residents. Yes, you can have a million people in your city, you just can’t see them all on screen simultaneously.

RPS: But they still exist.

Hallikainen: Oh yes, it’s just about rendering and the technical limitations. That’s also the hard limit. There will not be a million and one.

RPS: In a city-building game, where do you think the challenge lies for the player? In the history of SimCity, the chief challenge was usually the budget. There’s safety or people’s happiness, but the chief challenge always seems financial. Do you think players should find it hardest to balance budget, or hardest to make people happy, or hardest to run a green, tidy city? What do you think is the challenge?

Hallikainen: I think one of the challenges is definitely traffic, if you think about how cities and citizens work. For example, if you look at these hospitals [She brings up another data overlay that shows the effective reach of ambulances], on this map, there’s a lot of hospital coverage and most people are well taken care of. If you think about a more complex city, how will ambulances navigate it? If you think about industrial areas, how will goods be moved about, even in and out of the city?

You really have to set up your highway sections carefully, with well-designed intersections, and utilise all the different public transport options effectively to reduce traffic. You don’t want people dying in their homes, waiting for an ambulance which is stuck in traffic.

RPS: It’s interesting that you mention traffic because, obviously, your background is in making games about transport infrastructure.

Hallikainen: Traffic itself is a part of a city, in my opinion, and part of building a city is setting up its networks. Obviously, balancing the budget is part of that challenge too. You deal with taxation and you budget transport services.

For me, just because I like having money, I concentrate on always having a positive cashflow. I think the happiness of citizens, for some players, might well be more important than the money. Certain industries are more valued and bring in more money, but people will be more unhappy, or you can go green at the expense of this and not have so big a budget. I think you set your own challenges.

RPS: There are natural resources on most of the maps. Are they renewable to any degree? Do they run out?

Hallikainen: Forests and fertile land are renewable. Oil and ore will not quite run out, but they’ll decline. They’ll go down to a tiny amount and you may have to consider moving on to something else in the long term.

RPS: You’ve had discussion about whether to have rulings or laws on same sex relationships in the game.

Hallikainen: Yes. We do have same sex couples, that’s for sure. It makes sense morally for us, but also just simulation-wise. It’s realistic. And if two adults of the same sex want to have a kid, they’ll adopt. But politically, the question of whether to be able to ban it was on everybody’s mind.

RPS: And it’s relevant right now, in Finland, because you guys just recently passed a law on same sex marriage.

Hallikainen: Yes. And even as a company we’ve been publicly supporting same sex marriage. The option to make policies was just to kind of emphasise it, so that people realise that’s part of the game. Otherwise you might play the game and not necessarily notice that there are same sex couples in there!

RPS: How much of an influence is SimCity? Visually, you’re very similar, though it looks like you have a lot more going on below the surface. You’re showing a lot more stats.

Hallikainen: That’s been one of the more difficult things for us and we’ve thought a lot about going one way or another at each point; on the interface, on the iconography. We obviously don’t want to make a copy of SimCity, but it has greatly influenced the entire city-building genre and some elements are done so well that it’s impossible not to also be influenced by it to some degree. And that’s partly how you make games, right? If someone does something right, you copy the hell out of it! You don’t necessarily need to re-invent everything, you don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.

Visually, its definitely been one of the biggest influences. We want the game to have its own look, but it still has that same tiny playhouse-with-some-realism feel. That’s what we were aiming for, to have some realism in the look, but also remembering that it’s a game, that it doesn’t have to be all grey, that it doesn’t have to be all boring. We [Colossal Order] certainly enjoy colour, living somewhere where it’s often all grey.

RPS: So is there a best city, an ideal city, or a personal favourite that you have?

Hallikainen: I love Melbourne. I love the idea of Melbourne. I went there when, I think, I was fourteen and I just fell in love with the place. It was so extraordinary and I always said that I need to go back there some day, to see it again as an adult. I think it was partly the contrast, the weather and the fact it was so far away from Finland made it very exotic, but it was also familiar because of its Western culture. I really liked Sydney as well, actually.

I also lived in Indonesia when I was very small and that was so very different, culturally, with little villages in the mountains. It’s really cool.

I just love to travel and I’ve never liked beach holidays. I want to go and explore a city. I find them much more interesting and I have a list of cities I have to go and visit. That’s a reason to keep working hard, right?

RPS: It is. Mariina Hallikainen, thank you for your time.

53 Comments

  1. DarkLiberator says:

    This might scratch the itch that SimCity failed to do so for me. Hopefully they pull it off.

  2. RedViv says:

    *drools profusely*

  3. Tom De Roeck says:

    Sounds like a city sim in good hands.

  4. Ex Lion Tamer says:

    Yeah, I aim to be all over this. Cities In Motion had some pretty appealing elements, but the overall city-builder approach is more my speed (and a certain other Cities series from a different developer didn’t get quite where I wanted to go).

  5. Flavour Beans says:

    Brawwwr social justice warriors brawwwr brawwwr.

    But really, this game is starting to look pretty faboo. Hopefully the scale they’re promising, large-city-with-suburbs, really does pan out; the policy-by-region feature seems to support that quite nicely.

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      “Brawwwr social justice warriors brawwwr brawwwr.”

      wat?

      • airmikee says:

        Excuse him, he woke up and smoked a fat bowl of crack.

        • Flavour Beans says:

          My morning routine has nothing to do with my comment! Don’t judge me, maaaan.

      • Premium User Badge

        RaveTurned says:

        Presumably in relation to the parts about same sex relationships.

      • Distec says:

        I guess it has to do with the subject of same-sex marriage which was discussed in the article. He or she also appears to be trying to preempt some argument or “controversy” when there is none.

        Any way, I think it’s pretty interesting that the game may include policy decisions on such matters that others might deem too sensitive to handle. I can potentially see people on both sides of the argument for/against it getting offended that this is even a question. But when you look to the real world, it’s the debate is a very real thing. I like city builders, but I’ve found some of the more “realistic” variants to be a little disingenuous when they don’t tread anywhere near heated social issues that governments potentially legislate on.

        But should this game turn out alright, you can be sure gays are gonna get hitched in my town.

        • airmikee says:

          “He or she also appears to be trying to preempt some argument or “controversy” when there is none.”

          Oh, so no controversy over a city building game that’s about to release with digital gay marriage included in the game?

          “I can potentially see people on both sides of the argument for/against it getting offended that this is even a question”

          Wait a minute, you just said…

      • acheron says:

        There was apparently a dangerous straw man that the poster decided needed attacking.

        • All is Well says:

          To be fair though, the precise comment that Flavour Beans seems to be pre-empting did show up lower down, courtesy of Voqar.

          • Flavour Beans says:

            Yeeeup. You’ve got it right.

            Personally, I was a bit confused by the inclusion of it in the game when it was first mentioned, but I like the reason that was given for it: If they didn’t make some reference to it, many would never notice it, and some would just assume it was some sort of glitch. I do wonder, though, if it has any actual impact in the game beyond sometimes-you-get-some-same-sex-couples.

      • dsch says:

        Can with have the hilarious edit-hammer for this, please?

  6. Lanfranc says:

    I have decided never to get excited about unreleased games again ever. That said, I do like where they’re going with this.

    • jonahcutter says:

      Indulge in your cynicism by all means, but don’t surrender to it!

    • JaminBob says:

      Yes me too. But its hard with this one.

      Can’t see my ageing xps handling a million sims mind!

  7. Oridan says:

    Sounds great! Hopefully they’ll nail the gameplay.

    I also hope the will be a good variety in building looks. It would be quite disappointing to find that my cities would all be made up of the same grey buildings.

    This screenshot leaves me hopeful though, so I guess I shouldn’t worry:

    link to rockpapershotgun.com

    • Tssha says:

      I like the marshy spot around that squat apartment building. There should be more terrain variety in city building games, even if we will probably wind up building over it.

  8. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    love the way the game’s shaping up.

    nice article too Paul, thanks!

  9. Rizlar says:

    Great interview, sounds pretty promising! Made me want to play more Banished.

  10. Zyx says:

    Am I the only one who doesn’t like how it looks visually?

    I mean… I don’t want up-close and touchy-feely personal with block-toy buildings, free camera be damned. SC4’s high-resolution buildings were just brilliant to look at. And the clouds that appear when you zoom far away… The God-mode music..

    Now I just look at Simcity 2013 and Cities:Skylines and think, “do the trees HAVE to be that green?”

    • SpoiledToast says:

      I agree, I can’t quite put my finger on what I dislike though. The graphics just look off somehow.

    • LogicalDash says:

      I think it’s to do with the depth of field. Stuff closer to the camera is blurrier, which would be fine except the cars surely aren’t THAT close, that the camera can’t focus on them? Makes them look like toys.

      • airmikee says:

        There’s a similar effect in photography called ‘Tilt-Shift’.

        link to smashingmagazine.com

        Makes real life look like miniature toys, and I’m amazed that a game was able to pull it off so well.

      • Rizlar says:

        That may well be what they are noticing.

        Personally I’m more affected by the lack of character in architecture and the way everything is spaced apart with no real detail or life existing in the gaps. That sort of stuff seems more a symptom of this type of game though, a certain level of detail/simulation being inefficient use of resources and the character being kept deliberately generic.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      If there’s one thing I feel SC2013 did well it was the art style. This looks a bit too clinical in comparison, it reminds me of the myriad of Something Simulators where all the art feels soulless and drab. The graphics engine seems perhaps a little basic as well.

      In spite of that, if they can actually simulate a million people (and I’ll wait for release to see how that works out, no way I’m getting burned twice), I’ll be intrigued.

  11. tumbleworld says:

    I’m highly optimistic about this game. The devs seem like decent, sane people, and almost every time I find myself thinking “But what about…” it turns out they’ve got it covered. It’d be lovely if we finally got an updated city builder worth installing.

  12. longlivelee says:

    Great article. I can’t wait for this! I have wanted another city builder since SC left a bad taste in my mouth.

  13. Voqar says:

    Looks good but I won’t believe it until I see it (that it can compete with classic SimCity games).

    I’m also pretty sick of the same sex marriage gimmick in games – leave RL nonsense in RL where it belongs and where we get more than enough exposure. I’m fine with it in RL but really don’t need it or other social issues in my video games and I don’t see this having anything to do with the subject matter of the game or the scale of the game.

    • Joriath says:

      Wow. Not sure how to respond to that. Although you could possibly have a reasonable point with it not fitting the relatively macro focus of the game, I would assume that the ‘gimmick’ – as you put it – would have a similar bearing as the choice of whether or not to build an oil industry; some of your citizens may like and it some won’t. The player then receives mini messages showing popular opinions on matters.

      If you’re completely against social issues in games what, other than Tetris, do you play? I’m struggling to think of any games that don’t incorporate social issues to some degree or another.

    • Lanfranc says:

      Indeed. I mean, having RL issues in a game that is literally about managing the RL issues of RL communities? That just doesn’t make sense.

      EDIT: Come to think of it, they should remove all those other RL issues they for some reason added; hospitals, crime, pollution, finances, etc. I think that would make a better game. :-|

    • Distec says:

      The game is attempting to model a realistic city/society. It should come as no surprise that such a game might, y’know, deal with real-world issues.

    • Vandelay says:

      As much as I disagree with your main point, I do wonder how much of a gimmick this might be. I don’t see mention of any other laws that you might be able to pass. It might seem odd if this is a lone option amongst tax rates and housing costs.

      I definitely endorse the idea, but I hope they take it much further.

      • Joriath says:

        I do believe there are other policies that can be passed on a district-by-district basis, but they probably didn’t receive the media attention of same-sex marriage. For example there are pet bans, smoking bans, water usage, recycling, etc.

        EDIT: This video discusses policies towards the end: link to youtube.com

        • Vandelay says:

          Excellent. Then I think it is a great inclusion and hope that there are wide range of policies you can play around with.

        • Dances to Podcasts says:

          There’s plenty more controversial policies they could add, gun laws, abortion…

      • B.rake says:

        It’d be interesting if you combined this with the Democracy games, simulating political and religious tensions within and between different neighborhoods or something.

        Apropos the opening comment, someone sent this to me earlier: link to youtube.com

  14. LogicalDash says:

    I wonder how the game will respond to attempts to build the city beyond the million-person limit. Could be that the other systems can work without the simulated individuals (can’t call them Sims here! bad!) so additional housing will still put stress on the traffic network, contribute to employment and taxes and what-not, but nobody will ever show up in those houses. Or–what actually causes the peeps to spawn? If a house gets built but you never zoom close enough to see who’s in it, do they just contribute to employment statistics &c without ever deciding if they’ve been to college?

  15. dsch says:

    1. That first zoomed-out screenshot is great. Looks like a real city and all.

    2. How is districts even remotely approaching gerrymandering?

    3. Vaguely optimistic for this, even though Maxis also promised the world (“track all the citizens!”).

  16. WHS says:

    Okay, controversial opinion: the same-sex marriage thing is kind of stupid. Where, exactly, is (a) same-sex marriage legalized at the municipal level, and (b) variously permitted or disallowed on a district-by-district basis? I think simulating same-sex couples is a pretty impressive detail, but come on, this isn’t generally part of local policymaking and rather does seem like a political statement.

    • Lacero says:

      This might sounds a bit odd, but I like the idea of having different rules in small areas like a military base or a native american reservation or the venetian gheto.

    • Lanfranc says:

      Maybe we’re building a city-state.

      • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

        That’s pretty much what you do in sim games; the federal and state governments are assumed present but never seen, like the parents of an adventerous cartoon character.

        That said, I do agree that banning gay marriage on districts is a tad weird. I understand that it might be the only mechanism the game has to simulate legislation, but… if you could change it on an entire city I might conclude I was simulating a national or state decistion, but municipal government banning gay marriage on a single district is less of a chink in the abstraction and more of the set-up for an Oglaf strip.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      You did just make me realize this could easily let you make “gay ghettos”… Um. Thankfully the game doesn’t force you down either way, I can just already picture such a thing happening.

  17. buzzmong says:

    This game does look quite promising though I wish they’d choose a different name, I thought it was related to Cities XL series until I looked it up in more detail.

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      Maybe they were afraid that if they left out the Cities part people would think it was a game about the Nissan car?

    • Martel says:

      I have the exact same problem with this one and almost didn’t read the article because of it.

  18. BarneyL says:

    Will there SimCity style disasters? Will they be more or less common in cities which allow same sex marriage?

  19. ZombieJ says:

    “cum-defibrillator”

    1920×1080 fail

  20. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    I liked Cities in Motion. I didn’t like CiM 2, because I thought it was too much of a city simulator, as opposed to just a transport simulator. So knowing Colossal Order will run with it fills my heart with joy.