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The RPS Verdict - Cities: Skylines

We Built This City

A floating speech bubble appears over Videogame City, signalling that the citizens are demanding something. Clicking on it reveals the source of problem: "Not enough good city builders." It seems all that have been built so far are poorly connected to the (road) network, too small to cater to the growing population, and otherwise stocked too poorly with what people want.

Best construct Cities: Skylines [official site]. It has huge cities, mod support and works offline, but is it doing more than simply filling a hole created by its peers? John, Alec, Adam, Pip and Graham gathered to discuss why it's the RPS' Game of the Month for April.

Adam:

Alec: We built this city on the grave of Maxis.

Graham: It fertilised the soil well, which is why Cities: Skylines is our first Game of the Month. I have lost whole weekends to it but I am prone to falling for city management games. Just to check: you all like it too, right? Dissent is welcome.

John: I like it too.

Graham: I like u too.

Alec: I fall a few pips short of love, but am firmly entrenched within like. Which may just be the story of my life.

Pip: I like it, although I haven't been persuaded to spend much time in it

Adam: I am full of the love pips.

Which sounds weird now that I notice Pip just spoke. I meant Alec's missing pips.

John: My like was expressed primarily in a lack of dislike, which is how I've met all city builders since SimCity 2000.

Alec: For years scientists have pondered what love is. We now know that it is exactly 12.5 Pips. RPS needs hire only 11.5 more of them in order to achieve transcendence.

I tell you what though, I am convinced that like will become love thanks to the mods. I think it's difficult to overstate how much a citybuilder needed something like the Steam workshop. This may well be Skylines' greatest triumph, as it was for Skyrim.

Graham: I love it in the same way that I loved Maxis's city builders, in that the simulation seems to endlessly supply things which need tidying or fixing and so I can never stop playing it for finding something new to tinker with. It's a timesink. And I think Skylines is maybe a less sophisticated or polished timesink than SimCity 4, but makes up for that because of, as Alec says, the mods.

Pip: I like it because it feels like there's a neat solution to the idea of "city" out there and to find it you just need to work up to it and understand how everything fits together. But on the way, like Graham said, I get attached to bits of it and suddenly the idea of a messy city that works around those bits is what I want. The idea of a solution is always there but it's frequently shifting. You end up with goals you want to achieve but they shift about as you play and it's nice when that's not a problem.

Alec: I think it's much more of a fiddling/tweaking game, whereas Sim City is much more of a Pathological Pursuit Of Wealth game. And I really like that about Skylines, it's this ambient toy rather than than this stern spreadsheet

Adam: It manages to be sedate and challenging, which is quite astonishing really.

Graham: I always ended up tinkering similarly in older SimCities, but that may be because I play as often with Infinite Money cheats on as off. As Adam says, the challenge remains. For me, it's in fixing traffic problems without bulldozing districts.

Adam: I can sit tinkering and tweaking while I'm listening to a podcast or half-watching the telly, and then something in the balance tips and I'm fully engaged.

Alec: You have to really mess up to now have plenty o'cash here. But I'm sure there'll be hardcore public spending mods too.

John: I mostly care about laying water pipes. I have missed laying water pipes.

Alec: And yeah, the challenge focus has shifted to road layouts. These are Moebius loop logistical puzzles I really struggle with, but I get very excited when I finally figure out how to fix a traffic jam

Adam: Did anyone else play Cities In Motion 1 or 2? The previous, transport-focussed Colossal Order games?

Graham: I played Cities in Motion for a few hours and 20 minutes of the sequel. On that evidence, I did not suspect that they had this game in them. I found CiM fiddly and with a terrible interface and everything seemed more like a chore than drawing lovely new sliproads in Skylines.

Adam: Nor I. They were far too fiddly for my liking and I worried that Skylines would multiply that fiddliness by applying the same approach to every aspect of the city. Instead, in zooming out, they've become less finicky.

John: And electricity lines! You get to put down electricity lines!

Adam: The traffic modelling in Skylines is stripped back from the Cities In Motion sim but my main worry was the interface. I really struggled with Cities in Motion 2 and when I started playing Skylines I thought it might have some of the same problems - struggling to make John's pipes and lines snap into place - but it all works really efficiently.
That's the thing that pleases me most - I never feel like I'm fighting against the game

Alec: It's wonderful thing to say 'yeah, just get water and power near a zone and we'll do the rest for you'. I guess some people would love to draw every little line under and over every little street, but I really appreciate Skylines 'we got this, you go get on with designing' ethos

Adam: I love that I can have a residential zone with one little commercial blob in it for a cornershop.

Alec: And you can name that shop. Corners R Us. World of Corners. Adam's Corners Emporium.

Graham: The thing I've noticed is that the simulation is simpler in lots of ways when compared to the last SimCity. Does anyone care that it's not accurately modelling moment to moment poo locations? Or that water pumps can all be jammed down a single location, etc.?

Adam: No. I thought I would but I'd rather the game worked. And that's not a jab at SimCity at all! What I mean is that the compromises in the simulation exist to make it work.

John: Fun > Sim.

Alec: I don't. This is the thing, whatever the truth of all those cloud processing claims about SimCity, its eyes were on the wrong prize. I think Skylines proves you can achieve the appearance of moment-to-moment simulation without having to actually do it, and thus it's an easier game to make.

Alec: But even then it still tracks every person's home, which SC didn't. I don't think that it's a marvel so much as it just went into things with a profoundly more practical mindset.

Adam: One thing that it cheats with is people going to work. If they can't find their way to their job - and they do TRY to get there - they just sort of accept that and eventually return home.

Somebody has already modded that so that they HAVE to go to work. They won't give up. Or if they do, I think they lose their jobs. There are consequences, basically, on an individual level, for bad road networks.

Alec: 'Ian Skyline's 480 Hour Commute'

Adam: In theory, that sounds great. Practically, it's something that Colossal Order had working themselves and removed because it wasn't enjoyable. That word 'fiddly' again. The simulation HAS to be compromised because it's never going to resemble reality. It just has to be a credible representation of the numbers and physical movements.

John: However, unfortunately we can't give the game Game Of The Month, because of the miserable, motherhating faux Twitter bird shitface arsebucket.

On page two: Chirpy, the tutorial, Pillars of Eternity, and Skylines' faults.

Adam: Oh John!

Alec: Mods! First mod of all mods!

Graham: Chirpy's dead, J.

John: I judge a game by what the developers do, not what saintly customers do to fix them after!

Graham: Or if you like, you can get it to pull in posts from any subreddit you please..

Adam: I interviewed Mariina, the CEO of Colossal Order - that'll be up on the site this week. She is responsible for the bird-thing.

It was her only creative contribution. She said she'll stay out of creative meetings in future.

Alec: I'd love to see the emails between Mariina's employees. 'She wants... what?'

It's kind of odd that people will demand absolutely reality for water pipes or whatever, but they're all 'yeah, it's ok for 40 skyscrapers to be built within 60 seconds.'

Adam: The game's job is to convince you that the compromises it makes are acceptable. Ideally, they become invisible and a lot of the ones that we don't notice are easily ignored because Maxis trained us to ignore them over the last couple of decades.

Graham: I think people accept that because time in Cities: Skylines is weird in general, though. Citizens only live for two years. It takes them about six days to drive to work, and they spend more time at work than they ever do at their homes. Like, 10 days at work for every 6 days at home.

Alec: This sounds familiar.

Adam: Whereas, if I understand correctly, in Scandinavia people tend to work for about six full days a year.

John: Only when the sun comes up.

Alec: Apart from Chripy McPissOff, is there any good reason that Skylines shouldn't be our game of the month? We've got the Pillars of Eternity [official site] (a traditional, crowdfunded fantasy role-playing game by Obsidian that was also released in March) problem but I think because it requires 98 million hours we'll have to make than an April contender

Pip: One thing I noticed was that it lacked a bit on the tutorial/intro front.

Alec: Yep, the tutorial is scatty and not well-presented, but on the other hand you end up learning a lot on the job anyway.

Adam: I've seen that expressed elsewhere - I thought the slow drip of new things worked as a first playthrough tutorial for me but I am a nerd who plays with these kind of games a lot so I'm not the best test case.

John: I didn't struggle to figure stuff out, so that's a pretty good sign it's okay.

Adam: The power goes here, the poo goes there.

Graham: It's definitely making assumptions about its audience and whether they've played SimCity. It maybe comes back to that sense that it's specifically pandering to disgruntled players of the previous SimCity game.

Pip: I'm not sure I've ever really played a city builder - certainly not for any length of time - so I noticed the lack of a tutorial in that it wasn't a coherent thing at times. It gave a lot of information but it didn't always chain it together. I was never lost, but there were things like at one point no-one was coming to live in my city and I didn't know why

Adam: It's odd to think of it as a retro thing. In some ways it is but it's also a game very much of its time. The Workshop integration, the obvious appeal of streaming construction and sharing strategies and creations.

Graham: I've been using lots of Reddit to get help on strategies for this stuff.

We ragged on Chirpy, but in general it doesn't do as good a job as SimCity at communicating what your city's problems are. It's not always clear what your city needs when some industry is short of supplies, nor what type of zoning your people need next. Again, mods are helping.

Pip: It turned out that I think I needed to connect the road to both the points off the freeway so it formed a loop and people could get out, but given the roads appeared to be allowing traffic in both directions on the bits where I was allowed to fiddle and play I'd missed that step

Graham: It tells you there's a problem but not necessarily what the problem is or how to fix it.

Pip: Id've liked the option for a curated tutorial that helps with the things veterans don't even need to think about, just in case I've missed bits - the game's not shy about offering info so it would seem logical.

Adam: Yep - it relies on an understanding of its own logic a little bit too often. And that initial thing, with the freeway connections, is an early stumbling block. Most of the time, the logic is, at least in a basic sense, the logic of a city. Things work as you'd expect them to. But the freeway loop is a bit of false logic. It's the point where the city is marked off as a thing outside the wider world. That's logical in a game sense but not in a real-world city sense.

Graham: It took me a while to even work out you could buy parcels of land outside of your initial starting area. Does it ever tell you that? Had I just turned off the tips by then?

Pip: It did tell me you can expand, but I hadn't explored what exactly that entailed yet

John: Yes, there's a tip about that.

Graham: Then who is the real fool here. (Me.)

Adam: No, Graham. It's Chirpy. It's always Chirpy.

Everyone! Form an orderly queue and answer this simple question. What is the appeal, for you, of citybuilders? Do you want to build an efficient machine? Do you enjoy playing with something that you recognise? Do you want to create a weird or attractive city?

On page three: why the genre appeals to us, why Skylines is beautiful, and whether we'll still be playing it by Christmas.

John: They don't appeal to me at all. It's all busywork, fiddly faffing around with graphs and worrying about balancing stuff and I hate it all. But I quite like playing Cities Skylines for some reason.

Adam: It must be Chirpy.

Alec: It's a trainset for me. Those concentric loops of expansion, starting with something that works, building it out into something more intricate and impressive, then finishing it off with decoration. I don't want all the money, I don't hugely care about efficiency, I just want this thing to flower.

Graham: I want to build an efficient machine, but in trying to do so I find I become personally attached to my city. Neighbourhoods take on personality. I never want to destroy what I've built previously, but want to work within it. While I think a lot of the appeal of C:S for me is just stuff SimCity did first, it does support this better than Maxis's games, with the ability to give policies and names to districts of your city.

I guess I want to build the ants an efficient home but then I start naming the ants and the ants become my friends and then they're my only friends and then I'm imagining little ant storylines for them.

Alec: Hah, yes. Or writing little station names on your trainset, essentially. It's no longer a piece of plastic it's Little Underpantington-on-the-wold

Alec: The districts thing is a masterstroke, in a 'hang on, how has someone not done this already?' way

Graham: Image:

Alec: Just what I'd expect from a guy who drew a willy in the SteamVR painting demo

Graham: It's where I pump my dirty water and build my incinerators.

Alec: I call that part of my town Graham's Bedroom.

Adam: Do you think its success is mostly attributable to filling a hole in the PC landscape? Is it enough to be the right game at the right time?

Alec: the question of whether Skylines would be a triumph if SimCity hadn't gone a bit wrong is a pertinent one

Adam: It wouldn't have been made.

Alec: But because that did happen, this is filling a need and I'm comfortable that it's doing very well - especially because it went full bore for mods, which is a godsend for this genre and none of them have ever been quite so open and accessible on that front

Graham: I think it's a game born of market demand, which makes it an odd thing to celebrate. There's something inevitable about it and maybe even pandering. But... it's £23/$30. It's got mod support. The cities are really big! These are all of the things that I wanted. I like being pandered to?

And Alec is right. Even if SimCity had been good and satisfying, mod support would have made this a real contender in the long run.

Alec: And it isn't just a SimCity classic clone, it's much more of a tinkerer's toolbox than a capitalist's rat run, as I say.

Adam: Yep - I think that's really important. It does have its own identity. You have to tease it out and because of the genre, there are certain things that are typical and essential.

Graham: I think it feels inclusive in a way older city simulation games didn't too, because of the ways in which its simplified some of the economic fiddling and building. It doesn't feel like you need to care about business or simulation or even strategy to play it and have fun.

For that reason, I think it's a better pick than Pillars of Eternity.

Pip: It's also beautiful.

John: The sad thing is, in making a sequel they'll feel forced to make it far more complicated and intricate, and the charm will be lost, and the cycle will continue.

And no, obviously Pillars is a FAR better game.

Alec: It is beautiful at bird's eye but maybe not quite so much if you go in close. Mods are helping with that hugely already, of course.

Adam: I think it's very handsome game. And all in Unity, by crikey.

Pip: I mean, when you mouse wheel in on what you've created it has that SimCity fake tilt-shift miniaturisation effect.

Alec: It's a bit flaky here - can be hard to focus on what you want, but you can adjust the strength of it in settings but it's a lovely effect in the main

Graham: I find it beautiful too, even when zoomed in. It doesn't have a huge amount of model or texture detail, but I like watching the teeming life down on the roads. The physicsy sway of tractor trailers, lanes merging, people running along pavements. I can watch the patterns it makes for hours and I find that beautiful despite the low polygon count.

Pip: It feels more like a tool you use to take screenshots when zoomed in and to augment the miniature aspect rather than something where they're expecting you to use that view to play the game.

Alec: I now only play it with the Mirror's Edge mod, which totally redeems the low-detail aspect.

I think as Graham implies, this is a very universal game. I know non-gamers playing it and having a lovely time. I mean even strategy-averse John doesn't hate it.

You can argue that Pillars is more expert at what it does for sure, but does a lot of good things for a lot of different types of people, and I'd argue that it's not dropping any significant balls for either long-term citybuilder devotees or newbie tinkerers

Though fires look like apocalypse in Tronland.

Adam: It's one of The Most PC Games in a good while, isn't it? The genre, the modding, the community bickering about specific aspects of the simulation.

Alec: Yeah, and it's aware of that, those concepts, the heritage is right down in its foundations. By contrast SimCity wanted to cast a lot of that aside.

John: Pillars is going to be a contender for game of the year. Skylines we'll probably forget to include in the end of year list.

Adam: Pillars will take years to play but we'll be playing Skylines for years.

Alec: Aye, I'm going to dip back into this a lot, it's this eternal, infinite toy thanks to the mods.

Graham: I'll still be playing Skylines come end of year and having fun. And in two years. That's in part because of mods and in part because these games are such a source of comfort. Until last year, I'd still go back and re-visit SimCity 4 every year.

(And SimCity 4 also had mods, it's worth noting, though not nearly as good support for them.)

Alec: Yes, it's the one-click to change everything aspect here that's so good

John: I bet you all £50 each you won't have touched Skylines for six months come Christmas.

Adam: Made by a team of 11 (or perhaps 13? I forget) and one person was pretty much working full-time on mod support. It's easy to think of it (modding) as a thing that devs just switch on or off, but time and effort went into making it work as well as it does.

Pip: I won't have touched it, but I can see us still writing news stories about cool mods for it.

Adam: I can't believe Christmas is more than six months away :(

Alec: I'm emailing everyone a reminder to play it on June 2, then we can all go for a lovely team dinner. WITHOUT JOHN.

Adam: There might not be a better game than Pillars in April. That's a distinct possibility.

Alec: We'll have a pillars discussion next month though, one way or another. I mean, it's a false comparison, not least cos most of us have barely touched it yet cos it came out late in the month.

Adam: In which case we'll have to make Skylines game of the month for May as well!

Alec: I'm just bloody delighted to have these two huge, well crafted genre comebacks sat on my hard drive, and neither one is just nostalgic navel-gazing

Graham: The only pillars I need are the ones holding up my bridges and raised motorway ramps SICKBURN.

OK so, in conclusion, we're all agreed Cities Skylines is the Game of the Month. And the best game. And that Pillars is therefore the worst and that John is wrong we'll only play Cities Skylines between now and the rest of the year, yes? GOOD.

Adam: Apparently so!

Pip: I can't see any other way to interpret the conversation

John: You're all silly.

Cities: Skylines [official site] is out now and our game of the month for April.

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