To me, the most fascinating thing about SimCity is in how it relates to its inspiration. How this sandbox simulation somehow captured something of real-world urban planning, the political decisions behind running a city, and what it shows by doing this. At the most basic level, part of making a city-building game is that every element included — from the buildings you place to the transport available to what the sliders measure — and every element excluded is a choice made by the creators. What things are important for a city? The answers will reflect a philosophy.
Mariina Hallikainen is the CEO of developer Colossal Order, and the producer of its major hit Cities: Skylines — a game firmly in the tradition of SimCity, a series that she clearly loves. Before the interview we’re chatting about the most recent SimCity, released in 2013, and it’s nice to hear Hallikainen be so positive about a title that, while having serious problems, also had a lot of qualities. Not least because, without SimCity’s unfortunate reception, Cities: Skylines might not exist.
The story in brief: EA and Maxis made some questionable decisions with SimCity and, in explaining them, made it all worse — which was followed by a disastrous launch plagued by connection errors. The game ended up with a terrible rep and low sales. And the furore was such that it gave Paradox the confidence to greenlight Cities: Skylines. Come release in 2015 it was still an underdog, but also an obviously high-quality competitor, and with SimCity still fresh in the memory it simply took off.
The SimCity series still casts an enormous shadow regardless, a genre-defining game, and it’s hard to see other city builders out of that context. The reason I think of philosophies and bias when I think of SimCity is because Will Wright has discussed his own, and how things like, for example, rail transport were unbalanced and ‘preferred’ as more environmental solutions in the original game. So the best transport system for a city is railtracks everywhere. I ask Hallikainen if Cities: Skylines reflects its developers in the same way. Any preference for rail?
“I definitely think there are some biases in the game, like for example if you think about just the look of the game, we were kind of thinking it’s a North American city but Americans say it looks European. So there’s that thing of having a certain idea of a place where we’re not from.”
“The main thing with traffic, when we look at the inspiration for this game, SimCity is of course one of the big influences — the older ones, the classic ones we used to play when we were kids. Our lead programmer made the traffic AI and so he was looking very much into like how it actually works. But with the different transport options, they are based in reality but there’s the fun side to be considered, we always wanted to go for fun – this is a game and not a real life simulation.”
There’s a political or sociological side to this too, though, where the simulation is a behavioural model. It has to come up with answers. When you think about something like public transport it’s not just about the AI, but about how you account for things like environmental impact. Another example would be how a society responds to lower or higher taxes, a subject where people take many positions— but a programmer has to look at the data, and decide how they think it works. You can build a massive smog hell in Cities: Skylines, it’s an option, but to me the game seems biased towards more sane solutions.
“There are certain rules in the game about what affects people,” says Hallikainen. “Their education level effects like how they pay taxes, and how living after taxation affects their happiness – so we have taken these larger trends that we assume are…”
“Yeah. And then apply those here in a way that makes the game fun. It’s one of those things that you can have a terrible city where you still... it’s functioning. It’s basically like... what do you want to focus on? Because in the game you can build the grandest city ever, or think about how to make it function, or just go on a terrible route like we’ve seen some journalists do being very horrible... One of the first articles when the game came out was that somebody basically killed everybody by making them drink poop-water. I think in sandbox games the greatest thing is that everybody gets to choose their goals, like what do they actually want to do?”
My choice in these games, the source of their appeal, is something like trying to do it better than the world I see. To implement some loony leftie policies, socially-engineer a somewhat egalitarian society, and provide good services for all my citizens. Put like that it sounds relatively modest, but compared to the UK’s current trajectory it’s the political equivalent of David Bowie riding a unicorn.
“Yeah exactly, that thing of ‘I will do this better,’” says Hallikainen. “And for the political thing it’s one of those things where we didn’t want to put so much in this one so it stayed kind of a feel-good game... there are serious issues there, you have to solve certain things, but it’s still a fun experience. We wanted people to feel good when they play and feel they can relax with this game, that was an important thing for us.”
“It’s the self-expression and the creative side, but also being in a familiar environment because most of us live in some kind of towns or cities or communities, and you have these kinds of ideas of how it should work, so it’s fun to try and test those out,” says Hallikainen. “Simulation games have always been close to my heart, because they’re... a very laid-back kind of game, so you actually can play but drink coffee at the same time."
Perhaps I’m guilty of over-thinking things: a game that continues to fascinate me is Democracy 3, and the conceptual magnitude of a political simulator. That series and SimCity and Cities: Skyline are wildly-different games in what they’re trying to be, but inevitably raise similar questions about how we live, and how we could live.
But I've also always played city builders purely for fun — for the joy of laying out my little grids, seeing the map gradually fill, and watching the dots come and go. I remember imagining the lives of my little inhabitants on SimCity SNES in amusing detail, and in that version you couldn’t even see them. It was an escape. When you think about Cities Skylines like that, and look at the world around us, no wonder it's such a hit.