It’s great time for anyone who likes to build cities. Surviving Mars brings harsh environments to the genre, as does recent hit Frostpunk, and both have stormed the Steam charts; while Cities: Skylines continues to sell, having alone shifted enough copies to fill most capital cities. Strategy games’ city-building subgenre is flourishing, both commercially and creatively.
The shadow of SimCity still looms large over the genre, though, like one of the game’s own huge arcologies. However, with EA having moved away from the brand after 2013’s iteration, it’s left space for smaller developers to flourish.
“Things that aren't big enough for the biggest publishers, are big enough for us, and Cities [Skylines] is an example of that,” says Shams Jorjani, VP of Business Development at Paradox Interactive, publisher of the game. “Those publishers find greener pastures, and that leaves space for us to grow.”
And without the traditionally dominant brand of the genre, it’s Paradox that’s benefited the most. So we catch up with the minds the publisher’s two such titles: Cities: Skylines and Surviving Mars.
Skylines’ developer Colossal Order name checks the EA-owned brand when we speak to them: “Sim City 4, that was the game we looked at and thought ‘we want to make something like that’, but bring it into the modern day,” says CEO Mariina Hallikainen.
And being contemporary is key to Hallikainen, who sees that such simulations must reflect the world around us. “The beauty of it is, people want to create their own surrounding, how they see things running, how they want things to run, I think the evolution of simulation games happens with what's happening in the world, it's very realistic.”
Though that wasn’t how it started out though: “I thought people would want to try building something you don't see, possibly futuristic or from the past, but it seems for the asset creators in the community, they are making their own house, they are making the buildings they see everyday, they are building their own cities.
“There's a lot of different ways of doing it, but the majority really just look outside and translate that to the game, which was surprising to me, when you're in a game you want to explore worlds but not in a city builder. Two guys from Berlin, they have been working on a realistic Berlin for months now. Trying to recreate what is actually happening.”
Of course, in this often intolerant age, not everyone always agrees on ‘what is actually happening’. A simulation of the way we live can generate disagreement on how we should live.
“A game like this caters to a lot of different kinds of players, for us from the Nordic countries, we have these things we take as granted and these show in the game – we have same sex couples for instance, you can't really see that, but it's there in the simulation.”
Other possible disagreements can occur around the staples of the genre, where a car-based transport system almost always gets gridlocked in the end, with such simulations preferring public transport for its greater efficiency. Not something that will go down well with Top Gear viewers.
It’s also accepted in such games that polluting industries are a short term gain for long-term pain, while investing in education is usually the sensible option. “I hope that the Finnish government would play our game and see that!” exclaims Hallikainen. And the whole concept is built around top-down control, Hallikainen explains.
“If you think about city planning and city building games, they are kind of socialist, you collect taxes, you have services…” Which is exactly the kind of comment that could have some on the American right-wing reaching for the uninstall button.
Hallikainen is clear that they try for realism but that “our point of view is reflected in the game.” That said, it’s “not full realism because that's not fun.”
HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
Balancing realism and fun was a topic under intense discussion at Haemimont Games in recent months. It’s latest title tasks players with setting up a colony on Mars, a city of sorts but under the most extreme conditions. That means when things goes wrong, they go wrong fast, and some players have struggled to get to grips with that.
Gabriel Dobrev, CEO, tells us “In Tropico you always have a country going on, it's you're more deciding what type of country you're having. In Surviving Mars, at certain times, certain decisions are plain wrong, you don't do that.” And these are usually quickly followed by numerous fatalities.
We wonder whether Dobrev had set out to create something in the new ‘survival-builder’ sub-genre, also inhabited by the steampunk-styled Frostpunk, but that wasn’t his reason. “For us it wasn't a decision to go into a particular genre as much as the subject matter itself. You know on Mars that's it's a pretty rough place, just keeping going is a big thing.”
Whatever the motivation, it provides a more game-like experience, with a pretty definite fail state when compared to most city-crafters. “You can definitely lose the game. And it's not even easy to get it right,” Dobrev admits and that has caused its own problems.
“It's the best launch we’ve ever had. So that's a good thing,” he tells us. “And it's almost the worst-rated game on Steam we ever had,” he adds surprisingly. “Which is not to suggest that people don't like the game, because they do, but they find a lot of little things that are not the way they expect them.”
“We thought: who wants to play tutorial? So let's make this in-game system that will give you hints all the time. Which tries to figure out what you're trying to do,” he explains. As it turned out players found the combination of difficulty and the lack of an overview of the game’s systems overwhelming – thus the negative feedback. The company is redesigning the system at present, with a series of five shorter tutorials that cover key concepts in the game as you progress.
Hallikainen has had similar issues, in Cities: Skylines: “We didn't do the best job of the tutorial, we haven't changed the system, but we've been making it clearer, adding stuff, it's something that's under development and improvement all the time. And with new features coming in we have to make sure people can get into those smoothly.”
Skylines is of course more-forgiving than Mars, but the tutorial process and the game as a whole is becoming a victim of its own success, with large amounts of DLC available. “The more content we have the more difficult it gets to balance the game. It's certainly something we need to put effort into,” says Hallikainen.
“We will eventually be in situation where we just can't possibly add more to the game, it's not yet, we have Parklife going up now,” which adds more options for parks, zoos and nature reserves, “but we're not going to be able to do this forever, it's still ongoing development, the game is now 3 years old, we hope to go on a couple of more.”
All that extra content allows Cities: Skylines to offer an increasingly varied and realistic rendering of the modern city. And creating something believable and coherent is where Dobrev feels the whole strategy genre is headed.
“Before they were kind of gamey, they would get away with these weird things. For example a game like Civilization would be very hard to launch now because it's abstract with its rules. Maybe you start playing as the Americans – but you have Abraham Lincoln in 2000 B.C. – and that's something that’s hard to pull off now.”
He explains that the games themes and metaphors must be much more closely aligned to the subject matter. With worlds that fit neatly with the mechanics of the game, as they do in Surviving Mars and Frostpunk – even if they are to varying degrees fantastical settings.
“Essentially you're getting much more coherence of games around the themes that they are exploring and much more true to their core metaphors.”
Surviving Mars is unusual in that it launched simultaneously on console platforms as well as on PC. And it’s not alone in this respect, with Frostpunk also coming to console in the future, and ports of Cities: Skylines also available.
“You know back ten years ago I was trying to sell the idea for a city builder for a console,” Dobrev recalls. “And everyone was like 'there are no city builders for console'.”
That’s now changing, for numerous reasons. The higher resolution and larger screen sizes of modern TVs help. As does the relatively higher power and PC architecture of modern consoles. As Dobrev explains, their game targets PCs with a lower specification than the typical current-gen console anyway.
And Haemimont considered everything from the ground up for Surviving Mars. From “simple stuff like the size of the fonts in the UI” to quality of life improvements for controller users, be they on console or PC, such as making sure it’s easy to select all the elements onscreen and in the UI.
Console gamers are more varied than before too. “I think something is happening with the console audience. It’s not just players who want this action type of gameplay, this is just a very versatile platform that you can play a variety of games. It's nice to sit on your couch and relax and play the game.”
And with backward-compatibility looking likely to become more common, titles with a relatively niche appeal can sell digitally well beyond their original target platforms lifespan.
Console is also a space that Cities: Skylines has long taken advantage of, although the small PC team doesn’t have the capacity to take on the other versions, which are handled by publisher Paradox. “The passion is focusing on the PC experience, but I do see the value in the ports for console. I was really please when I tried the Xbox version,” says Hallikainen.
Still the number of titles is limited: “There is a very small selection of such games on consoles. So I say that's a good market,” Dobrev tells us. “We're very very happy with how the game is doing on consoles.”
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
So there’s a suburb’s worth of keen developers making the city-builder their own. As well as the game’s mentioned here there’s close relations such as Frontier Development’s Jurassic World: Evolution, Prison Architect and even Northgard, player love to build things and there are increasingly varied and wonderful worlds in which to build them. The future is bright, the future is building.