Mods, Maxis And Forward Motion: Cities Skylines Interview

In an attempt to learn everything there is to know about our Game of the Month, Cities: Skylines [official site], I spoke to Colossal Order’s CEO Mariina Hallikainen until we both ran out of words. We talked about the game’s extraordinary success and what it means for the future of the 13-person company, the importance of mods, the fate of Cities in Motion, and the influence of dear departed Maxis. Along the way, there are discussions about simulations as educational tools, Colossal Order’s next project, and the importance of a good working environment and the avoidance of crunch.

Most important of all? The origin story of Chirper.

Mariina Hallikainen, CEO of Colossal Order

RPS: Hello! As you already know, Cites: Skylines is our first ever game of the month over on RPS.

Hallikainen: Well, Paradox sent us cake and champagne, but that is even better. We are so happy!

RPS: We aren’t going to send you cake though. The prize is that you have to speak to me for an hour.

Hallikainen: That’s fine! We already have three kinds of cake. And the champagne. There are only thirteen of us so this is a lot of cake.

RPS: Did you expect to be receiving all of these cakes? When we last spoke, at the Paradox Convention before release, you had some reservations about the launch – mostly based around the possibility of disappointing expectations. It seems to have gone quite well.

Hallikainen: Yeah, it’s been huge. When we started to get the sales numbers – 250,000 copies in the first twelve hours. That was when the realisation set in. I thought we’d definitely do 300,000 copies lifetime. That was my goal with the game, that’d do more than Cities in Motions. But I didn’t think we’d be talking about this massive hit. It’s been overwhelming seeing so many people enjoying the game.

It’s great but it is overwhelming. When we made the game we had a small budget, a small team. We knew what was wrong with the game (laughs). We’re very critical of our own work. Tunnels are missing – we need to add those.

And, yes, it’s been amazing to see so many people enjoying the game but we didn’t see this coming. Not at all.

RPS: Do you think that the success makes you reconsider what you can achieve with your team and budget? How much does size matter if you give people the features they want?

Hallikainen: Yeah.

RPS: With the modding, there’s probably more content now, in terms of building appearances and such, than when you launched!

Hallikainen: It’s insane. There’s tens of thousands of mods already.

I think the modding is another way to involve people in the development of the game. For us, if you think about what we achieved originally at launch, the modding tools do help to enrich that. People are helping us to make the game into something great. We are a small team but with the modders, we’re a huge team.

If you think about SimCity 4, the modding is exactly the thing that keeps it alive for so long. I have so much respect toward the modders because they are doing things that we could never imagine people would be able to do. And we tried to figure out what kind of things peple would want to do when we created the modding api. But they’ve gone so much beyond that already. They’ve pretty much reverse-engineered the game in the sense that they can touch values and tweak the game in ways that we couldn’t have imagined.

I think that’s absolutely fantastic. What we really wanted to achieve is for people to have that classic city-builder, and I think we achieved that well, and I think now we can build upon that, with the community.

We were successful in making the game we wanted to make. But maybe we are just so critical, us Finns, but we didn’t think people would find the limits of it so fast and start to build on them. I think Paradox did something marvelous with the streaming and the YouTubers. They allowed people to stream a week before release and that helps to give people an idea of what they can and can’t do with the game, so people already had ideas of what they could achieve as soon as they got the game.

So within two days we had thousands of mods. I don’t know if it’s as much a case of what we have achieved as it is a case of what we have created as a foundation for the community.

RPS: You’ve spoken about plans for expansions and DLC. Do you look at these tens of thousands of mods and think – “oh god, they’ve done everything we were planning to do.”

Hallikainen: Pretty much, yeah (laughs). I look at it and think, “well, we’re pretty much out of a job! We better enjoy the royalties. And the cake.”

RPS: Does it change your plans though? Did you already have ideas that you’d be able to do put into action that modders couldn’t achieve?

Hallikainen: We do, yes. We were prepared for this. We wanted modders to be able to make their own assets and there’s a lot of freedom with parks, intersections, things like that. It’s great to see the work people have done with that and it’s something we won’t put a lot of effort into because it’s something that the players can do themselves.

What we’re working on right now is tunnels. We’d already said that after the launch that’s the first thing we’d be working on and then adding other features that the modders might not be able to implement themselves.

The European buildings are one of those things. It’s not just cosmetic, it’s actually adding the wall-to-wall city blocks. You live in Manchester so you know how that looks – blocks that are all connected together. You can’t do that in the game at the moment but it’s something that we want to add.

It’s really important to us that we are working together WITH the community, so we’re developing things that they can’t. I am completely surprised by the skill of the modders though – they’re making things that we couldn’t have predicted. Somebody is working on multiplayer! How crazy is that? So much devotion.

We try to put effort into things that people will, hopefully, still find interesting. I don’t think the community takes away from what we can do – we have lots of room for improvement and we can take ideas from mods. We can implement things in different ways, improving and polishing, and making more solid implementation. That’s one of the great things.

And Paradox are really committed to us making a lot of free content. That’s really important because adding tunnels, for example, isn’t something we want to charge people for. It should be in the game. It’s something we wanted to be in before launch.

RPS: Is there anything else that’s already in development that you would have liked to include from day one?

Hallikainen: I think that’s pretty much it. We do have something new coming that people don’t seem to have predicted – something that people haven’t thought about. I can’t wait to see how people react to that.

It’s something that works on some of the features that are already in the game and makes them deeper, brings more feature-wise. Not so much in terms of graphical content – people can do that already. We want to put our effort into the simulation and the complexity of it, to add things that modders can’t.

On page two, the future of Cities in Motion, Colossal Order’s next project and the importance of avoiding crunch.

50 Comments

  1. Eight Rooks says:

    I don’t own Skylines, but just to say – great interview, Adam. Good questions (I mean, I don’t play many city builders, so maybe I’m missing something, but they seemed pertinent enough to me) and she comes across really well. Nice balance between “Modders are doing all this work…” and “but it’s still our game too, we can still do more with it”. Totally charming self-mockery at the end there, as well. :)

    • rexx.sabotage says:

      i don’t know, four pages deep and Adam didn’t even once ask her if she was a pathological liar.

      RPS is going soft.

      • n0m0n says:

        Adam is not John (and that is a good thing – if all the writers were the same person the in-house discussions like the one about the game of the month from the other day would be really boring).

        I agree with the praise. A very well written piece and an interview that really gives you the impression of what kind of person Mariina is and what to expect from her studio. Bravo!

  2. BlackeyeVuk says:

    That’s some proper interview , enjoyed reading every bit of it. Thank you Adam and thank you Colossal for this marvelous game.

    OH and this Hallikainen lady, she was really natural with answers.

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    Tkrens says:

    Great interview. A bit short though.

    • Thurgret says:

      I can’t tell if you actually think it’s short or if you only read the first page of it.

  4. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    If one of the dlc doesn’t add bicycle paths then.. then.. I’ll throw a shoe at them. Fine game, otherwise.

    • James says:

      I bet you a bag of jelly beans that if they rule out bicycle lanes there will be a mod for it within a fortnight of said announcement.

  5. LogicalDash says:

    My beef with Chirper is mostly to do with all the extraneous “flavor” tweets that don’t actually tell you anything useful about your city. Yeah, the writing isn’t very convincing, but I’m mostly looking at it as a way to find out what I’ve missed about my city.

    • arisian says:

      #theres-a-mod-for-that. check the Steam workshop. In addition to mods that get rid of it entirely, there are mods that make it only give “meaningful” feedback and suppress the “flavor-only” stuff. Plus the mod to replace all the text with posts from your sub-redit of choice.

  6. Rikard Peterson says:

    Nice interview… one thing though:

    You forgot to att title text to the images. I’m not referring to the RPS-style joke-kind. They’re nice to have, but not really essential. Some of the images here do need captions. Who are these people in the photos, and why are they in the article? (I assume that the first photo is of the interview subject, but then there are other people too…?)

  7. Siimon says:

    Pg. 2: Six questions, 1300 words, two images… Four total pages are too many.

    C’mon, I know you want those sweet sweet advertising monies, but pagination is not the right solution. At least give the option of a ‘View All’.

    “Splitting articles and photo galleries into multiple pages is evil. It should stop.

    Pagination is one of the worst design and usability sins on the Web, the kind of obvious no-no that should have gone out with blinky text, dancing cat animations, and autoplaying music. It shows constant, quiet contempt for people who should be any news site’s highest priority—folks who want to read articles all the way to the end.”
    > link to slate.com

    Thanks for your consideration, RPS overlords <3

    • Lacero says:

      It’s especially annoying when you want to grab a few articles to read on a commute, only to find yourself staring at a next page button when you’ve no internet.

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      While I agree with you that a single page is better (I even think that for truly Hulk-sized articles – look up Film Crit Hulk’s articles to see what I mean), we can give RPS the benefit of the doubt and not assume the page split is done to artificially raise page views. Some people have expressed that they like this design, so it’s possible they’re doing this because they think it’s a good idea.

      At least it’s static pages, and not the horrible things that load up more text when you scroll towards the bottom.

      • James says:

        It may also be performance related, since they started doing this I’ve noticed my loading times decrease noticeably. If I’m feeling cynical, this is a happy side effect of RPS needing more revenue. If its a good day and I’m in a benefit of doubt giving mood, its the other way around.

        • SuicideKing says:

          Yeah, this was my impression too. And honestly I don’t care if RPS is making a bit more money from hits (though from what I remember, it’s not that straight-forward a process), it’s one of the best PC gaming sites out there today.

      • April March says:

        I have the impression that ads aren’t reloaded when you move to a new page? Unlike when you post a comment, now that I mention it.

    • airmikee says:

      “I know you want those sweet sweet advertising monies,”

      You see ads? I see the ‘More from the web Sponsored links by Taboola” but I don’t see any ads, and I have absolutely no ad blockers of any kind installed in my browser.

      • Akbar says:

        I hate to break it to you, but do you know what those “sponsored links” are?

        • Rikard Peterson says:

          Besides those, and the whole background of the site (no, that’s not RPS’ most recommended game, that’s an ad), I get three regular ads: One below the “more from the web”, one below the “news and things” in the right column, and one below “respond to our gibber”.

          (I’m not complaining. Just noting that they’re there.)

  8. typographie says:

    Aw. I feel kind of bad about hating Chirper now.

    If you think about it it really wasn’t that bad an idea, at least on her end. A way for the player to get feedback from citizens about problems is a very, very good idea in theory. My issue is more about how it was implemented into the game: the UI, and the excessive number of dumb jokes and useless information.

    • matnym says:

      If the ‘chirps’ were color coded like in SimCity 3000 it’d be a lot more useful. Right now it’s just white noise.

      The concept is great. It just needs a bit more work.

    • badmothergamer says:

      That’s why I use SuperChirper instead of one of the mods that fully disables it. With SuperChirper, you can turn on a filter to get rid of all the “I lost my wallet” type chirps. You can also ditch the hastags (it also adds a “clear all” button). The only feature I wish they would add would be getting rid of the “our mayor cares about education” type tweets whenever you build a school or service. Basically, all I want is a notification if something is wrong.

      • typographie says:

        Right now I’ve got Chirper audio turned all the way down and I have it set to no longer auto-open when a new Chirp appears, because I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of it completely. That mod sounds like a great alternative.

      • April March says:

        If someone makes a mod so that the only chirps seen are complaints, I hope they call it Realistic Internet.

    • SuicideKing says:

      I never hated it, but didn’t see much use after the initial charm wore off. I just keep it muted, really.

      But yeah, she seems so sad about it! I feel bad. Kind of makes you realise how passionately angry we become for some small thing, sometimes done in bonafide.

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    Grizzly says:

    As a small aside, I love the pages. They have this neat psychological effect that reduces the OMG WALL OF TEXT thing as well as giving me a nice easy way to start where I left off.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      Although they don’t seem to work nice wht comments, considering that I just got dumped back to page one. Anyway, party on!

    • SuicideKing says:

      Yup, also seems to have reduced loading times.

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    Skabooga says:

    Fantastic interview! Also, I might run away to join Finland if everyone is like Hallikainen: competent, humble, straight-forward, and personable. Also, I’m not sure of all definitions of ‘gamer’, but if you’ve ever waited for a game and bought it on day one, I’m not sure anyone could really argue against you being a gamer. But then again, I don’t like being called a gamer, if only because the word sounds vaguely rude. Just, from an auditory point of view, an ugly word.

  11. Arren says:

    A fun and insightful read. Well done.

  12. Distec says:

    I wonder how much of the Chirper backlash has to do with a distaste for Twitter and hashtags in general. I’d love to pull my feedback from a few newspaper headlines, even if that’s considered old hat these days.

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    teije says:

    Good interview and happy that the game is doing so well for them. I’ve enjoyed my tinkering around with it so far, even though my cities are ugly as shit. Looking forward to their planned enhancements – esp. the tunnels.

    FWIW, Chirpy doesn’t bug me at all, once I turned off the sound. Before it was way annoying.

  14. liquidsoap89 says:

    In regards to the Chirper issue, I think the concept behind it is cool. A modern way to provide information to the player, without taking control away from you to do so. The issue that I have with it comes from the text itself, particularly the cheesy jokes and abundance of #hashtags. If they made it in to a more “presentable” notification piece then I think a lot of people would be okay with it.

  15. Jimbo says:

    “We are a small team but with the modders, we’re a huge team.”

    Aww, that’s sweet.

    In terms of Expansions / DLC, I’d love to see some historical make-overs.

  16. Rufust Firefly says:

    This was a great interview and I’m really glad that Skylines has worked out so well for them. Looking forward to its future and what they’ve got in store!

    Also, I dunno why people hate Chirpy–the only thing is it needs a bit more content to be less repetitive, and that’s hard when they have such a small team. Plus, it can be funny at times. As I was driving a city into the ground, one of my cims chirped “#This #city #sucks. Period.” Just because there were no services and all the water and sewers had been turned off! :)

  17. spacedyemeerkat says:

    What a lovely interview. Mariina Hallikainen seems rather refreshing as a CEO.

  18. mattlambertson says:

    She’s actually better at being EA than EA is. “Bwahahaha we must make as much money as possible so we can buy more cake and champagne!!!!” >>> basically what every EA exec is thinking as they make game-ruining decisions every day. The only difference is that she is actually good at her job.

    • Cederic says:

      Yeah, as a CEO she’s fantastic. Knows what her company is good at (creativity, not marketing), successfully delivers, pursues multiple markets (education, mass market simming, support for flare path level simmers), looks after her staff and does all of that while embracing and supporting her customers.

      All underlined by a clear focus on “We need to be financially successful” but also all helping to achieve it.

      Plus she employs people with pink hair. This is never a bad thing.

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        keithzg says:

        Yup, after reading this interview I’m like “great CEO, or greatest CEO?”

  19. Ejia says:

    Hmm. Colossal Order needs to step up their cake eating game.

  20. SuicideKing says:

    Hallikainen seems like a really nice and fun person. Heck I kind of want to work at Colossal Order now.

  21. Blad the impaler says:

    Look, Mariina it’s not that we don’t like Chirper. We just don’t like how intrusive it is.

    Were that god damned bird not sitting in click range – and interrupting us when we try to build intersections, we wouldn’t have a problem with it. I think that if you stick it in the UI somewhere that’s not prime real estate and let people check it as they please, they’ll love the bird. Until then, we’re modding it the frig out.

    Seriously, it has it’s place – just not centre stage.

  22. dglenny says:

    Fantastic interview with what seems to be a fantastic company. I was leaving purchasing C:S until the next Steam sale, but goddammit now I feel obligated to buy it at full price.

  23. RegisteredUser says:

    It would be nice if the game’s maps had an “absolute grid” you can toggle and snap to, not just the rough “roads kindasorta snap to other things” logic. Space optimization and layouting should be simple and efficient.

    Bus lanes do not properly show their area of effect.
    Some of the if-then-else of transportation in general is a bit opaque (when do you take the metro vs bus vs car if all three connect to the target area from the same starting point and station and how can you influence this behavior?).

    Basically I hope the devs realize there are a lot of OCD people playing this game (which is also a good part of why there are so many mods) and making things as helped, transparent and efficient for optimzing as possible should be the first and foremost goal. Mechanisms should be clear, understandable, and, most importantly, the path to optimization and solutions should be understandable and clear, too.

    Basically it would be great if it felt a touch more real city-plannery and feel less centered around awkward work with a computer generated map.

  24. RegisteredUser says:

    As for the interview itself and Colossal Order, I can’t help but view this as a kind of a victory of the “old ways” of gamemaking. Small, creative, passionate teams, not churning out semi-annual sequels in turn with another studio of the same old tired thing, but a genuine attempt at figuring out what would be great and then striving for it.
    Game content, community integration(as in modding, not social blah) and ongoing support at the forefront, not DRM restrictions and user confinement.

    Although I am keenly aware no game will get made without the eventual goal of profit, it still feels a lot more like “making games because we really WANT to” instead of “because we have to / really want the money for it” here, and I for one am very, very happy about this.
    And they should, too. And they should be respected for it, and good on them for every extra copy they sell.

    I sincerely wish that the whole “Shareholder value gamemaking” abomination will end up ebbing back a lot more still in the future, with the counterpush of love, creativity and indie gaming. Fingers crossed.

  25. ffordesoon says:

    Wow, it’s almost as if listening to your player base and opening your game up to modders and just generally not grinding your soul into powder so Mammon can snort it off the back of a stuffed baby seal contributes to your success and general happiness!

    Meh. It’ll never catch on. :)

    Seriously, I’m so happy for Colossal Order. Not just because their game is a runaway success, but because they have a class act like Mariina Hallikainen in their corner. In this snakepit of an industry, she seems that rarest of jewels: someone who actually deserves the title of Chief Executive Officer.