Cities: Skylines (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Cities: Skylines (2015)

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

Andrew's ProsperityBack in our introduction we came up with the basic idea that video games are the approximation of a certain kind of experience.  Those experiences have so far been outlandish but inviting, as is the case of an octopus acting out his midlife crisis while wearing a suit, to the harrowing and questionably necessary, such as being the one to guide a needle as it enters and exits the skin of a young girl.  Now we're faced with Cities: Skylines and I have to wonder - just what is approximated here?

We somewhat touched on this in the introduction as well, saying that the "avatar" in question could be a bird for all it matters, but the control over the development of your starting plot of land in Cities: Skylines is more important.  But if it weren't for the advent of achievements, gamerscores and whatnot, it would seem that progress in Cities: Skylines is by the properties you are able to build as the game continues.  At no point in your city building experience are you going to get a "Thank you for playing!" message over production credits while your city and its citizens get a happily ever after.  The city exists as you build it and whatever purpose you grant to it is all the meaning it will ever possess.

I've logged in well over 30 hours at this point and while I can't say I've been having "fun" while playing it I'm far more absorbed than when I played Octodad or Myst.  So if I'm just playing for satisfaction, not for any real end goal in mind, then I have to bring the question back around - just what experience is approximated?  My knee-jerk reaction is to say Cities: Skylines and its ilk are little more than digital train sets for people who couldn't afford the full setup when they were smaller.  But that description doesn't do service to the wealth of options available in how you direct your city, be it playing around with pollution to see what kind of unusual plant colors you can get or attempting to redirect the flow of water and cause small-scale flooding.  Yet, even with all these options, you can't play god, your powers are limited to directing the city and providing resources without have a direct say in how many "people" move in and out of the city.

Whatever Cities: Skylines is, it's my favorite of what it is, but what is it?

Seths spaceWe might say "City Manager" to define the avatar, as well as to describe the overall experience offered. I think that's a historical term used for city simulation games. But I don't think that quite hits the nail, either. What I really think is going on that they've let a layman control a city. Regardless of their background, merit, or lack thereof, the person that sits down to play Cities: Skylines is given control of all the planning, zoning, development and a smattering of rules and liberties that can be enabled. It's like being King or Queen for a day- except it's indefinite. I think I like this answer best, because at no point does the player have to consult the public or other elected officials. Politics are not being simulated, just urban development. As you noted, the citizens of your city are not under your control, they can move in or leave at their leisure, start businesses or shut them down. All that stuff is out of your hands. This also prevents anyone from assigning the term "Dictator" to the role of the player in this experience, which I was briefly tempted to do. However, I would accept "Sovereign Urban Engineer".Pollution is for the bestCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayEven saying "Urban Engineer" in this context is making things just a shade too complex, because we aren't making decisions about whether the roads are made of concrete or asphalt (for starters) - just where they go and what shape they're in.  But I suppose it's that balance of complexity which makes these games so appealing, because it's not like model building where we set up trains and tiny homes in the hopes ants or mice will move in or punishing simulations à la Microsoft Flight Simulator where we can use those simulators as a viable means of training pilots.  I'm sure our next crop of urban engineers will have spent some time tooling around in Cities: Skylines or one of its family, but it's unlikely they'll be used as tools.

Which I suppose brings us to why we're talking about Cities: Skylines over all the other options anyway.  I'm a longtime SimCity veteran, toying around with a color Mac version in grade school before my dad purchased the SNES version instead of Mario Paint at my insistence.  They grew on PC and other console iterations as SimCity 2000, 3000, and 4 all ramped up the complexity both in terms of graphics and planning options before the debacle that was SimCity 2013.  Without getting too caught up in all those variations, there's something about the carefully controlled sprawl of Cities: Skylines which makes me feel like I'm creating an organism with its own offspring instead of patches of increasingly nice looking squares over a blank space.

But even then, I don't have an end goal in Cities: Skylines.  I think I just set one "end game" criterion for myself as having enough people to qualify for an airport.  From this point I only have one more milestone before I have to start intentionally screwing with my city to unlock everything.  That's an interesting task in and of itself, because I'll have to play in ways which are otherwise harmful to my virtual flock without having any reward other than a potentially spiffy building at the end.  It's not counter to the basic design of Cities: Skylines exactly, but it reminds me that I'm playing a game by having the extra options gated like that.  Your thoughts and experiences as a designer on these aspects would be much appreciated.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenAbout those achievements... yes. We need to come back to those. But first! You've chosen the words "carefully controlled sprawl" to describe your impression of the execution and delivery of Cities: Skylines, contrasted with its genre-siblings. I think the "careful" part is about the pace of unlocking choices, and the "controlled" part might refer to how problems are introduced and how the game helps you address them. I say "address" here because a growing city is never devoid of problems to be solved. And this is where I might consider the word engineer appropriate. As a software engineer, I don't think of the skill set as the ability to code in particular language or talk about the machine. Lots of people can do those things that are not career engineers. Value as an engineer is in the making of informed decisions and then implementing them, correcting for improper assumptions during that process.

Now, in the game-world, the player might be really uninformed at making decisions that lead to their desired results. But they player also has the luxury of defining their own success. The game won't end, and you'll never have your decision-making powers taken away. As to the term engineer, itself, I can forfeit that to semantics, but the thing I'm referring to is the ability to learn about city design through the act of designing a city.

The game is focused, as you point out, on the high-level stuff. Materials and street-level execution are beyond our concern, handled gracefully and immediately following each mouse gesture we make to paint out our ideas. So that's awesome. Whoever appointed us to this position was smart enough to keep us focused on development itself. And thank goodness. Part of the thrill of this genre is a job well done, finding that implementation that really works and makes the people show up and be satisfied living in the corner of the world that you have put together. I think this is directly analogous to moments of job satisfaction I've had as an engineer elsewhere in life. Certainly, a player doesn't require that background to feel good about seeing their city fill up and function well, but that's where my thoughts come from.2015-08-31_00003CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayI seem to have hoisted my petard there, because by focusing on the words "carefully controlled sprawl" I realized that as my city growth expanded beyond the first square I had to consider the space available and what industry I could use it for.  This was also before I realized certain development squares do not have access to all the means of transportation, so I was surprised when I had purchased a plot of land with the intent of building my seaport at the water's edge but kept getting a message that the seaport could not match up with the transportation lanes.  This would have been avoided had I paid attention to the prompts available onscreen but I just charged ahead with my purchases damning the consequences in the process.  Now, I didn't have much concern about this in the long-term, but in the short-term I wanted to see those ships come in, consarnit!

So, semantics aside, you've got a point about the engineering aspect to Cities: Skylines.  There's enough going on that the player isn't just setting some roads down and making a virtual ant colony.  The UI and warning prompts are nicely layered as well, making sure that if there is a specific problem in a section of buildings you are at most two or three clicks away from solving the issue.  Sometimes it's just a matter of not taking into mind existing or new construction and the way those buildings get integrated into your electric grid, or watching your sewage and water pumping lines to cover the necessary space for the occupants (be they residential / commercial / etc.) But what I love about all this is that it can be hilariously inefficient, just never "wrong" exactly.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenTwo or three clicks away. For my money, that is the success formula for this game's immersion. I found that if I wanted to make good decisions, the game's way of keeping me happy with my progress was to warn me early and often of a breach of intended use, whether it was a building lacking power, insufficient water supply, or lack of access to those dang transit lines. The game is forgiving of most kinds of casual blunders that would very likely be considered catastrophic in the real world. Cities: Skylines introduces mechanics like new types of zoning at intervals that reliably cause a player to run into the problems of existing options before new ones open. And no matter how solid your goals are, or how much experience you get with this particular simulation... there is enough wiggle room and randomization in the growth pattern that you can't predict everything. The basic challenge of balancing growth remains.

One very interesting thing I discovered in the later stages of a game was that certain policies for taxes were good for growing the population, and other policies were good for growing the city's wealth. I found also that need these two different kinds of growth at different times, but that they each led back to the other, in a pretty nice rhythm that made me feel very zen when I put that knowledge to work. For the curious, I lowered taxes to attract additional citizens, and I raised them (spending the money on top-tier public services and high-profile cultural installations like an Opera, etc) to increase the city's income and happiness. In my particular city, this was a reliable pattern, almost to a fault. I did similar things by adjusting policies related to commercial property, which always seemed the hardest to fill.

Important Note: These are nuances of the sim I never figured out in any SimCity game, ever. As an experiment, I went and played a copy of SimCity 2000 (which I recently acquired on Good Old Games). It turns out that SimCity has almost all the same options as Cities: Skylines. Only, in the 2000 era, every group of choices was a big window full of check boxes and edit boxes where you can tweak policy and alter budget. It's all there, but there is very little direct feedback by which to evaluate the consequences of those changes. This brings me to the next most valuable feature in Cities: Skylines... realtime financial information. This part is pure fantasy. I don't think any city on earth has an accurate at-a-glance real time financial summary updated every second. Let me tell you, though, decision-making power is greatly enhanced when you have that kind of information. Not only can tell if income is dropping immediately, but you can test different combinations of policies to see what really meets your goals. That's power.2 or 3 clicks awayCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayWell, the New York stock exchange has at-a-glance financial information, but makes for a horrible parallel to Cities: Skylines.  If the NYSE plummets something has gone disastrously wrong and we need to brace for impact.  In Cities: Skylines it could just mean you're getting a population boom or that you need to scale back funding a bit.  This also makes the general political philosophy of Cities: Skylines an interesting contrast to our "real" stock market exchange.  We can artificially manipulate stocks and news items can cause individual stock values to rise or plummet while affecting other markets.  In Cities: Skylines, your numbers, be they wealth or population, can only grow depending on how happy the populace is.

It's not overtly political, but it basically forces you to create something akin to a socialist society if you want to max out happiness and keep things running at peak efficiency.  Right now I've got my city's many amenities and services running at 150% funding while keeping just about every financial and population growth option in check.  If I start losing lower-income people due to unavailable housing or lack of industrial support then it ends up affecting my housing market and commercial goes down, so I have to keep my lower economic brackets happy to ensure consistent growth for all.  My city is one of different economic cells intermingling with one another to create a web of growth for all, and citizen happiness reigns supreme.

At the same time, maybe the reason I ended up with that kind of political slant in looking at my cities is because I somehow infused the game with my politics.  But if the game is open to providing a positive reflection of my politics, is it the same for a die-hard capitalist?  Or how about the player who feels all brackets should be taxed for the glory of the motherland to create a communist utopia?  Is it possible to get a utopia in either of those frameworks?  These are the questions which make talking with other players about their cities fun, because I get a glimpse inside their look at life while also gathering bits about how to improve my city.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenYou know, it's weird. I'm not really sure how taxes stack up in the real world. And I don't tend think about politics when I'm playing, per se. But I suspect that I'm more of a capitalist in-game than I might profess to be in real life. Part of the reason for that is that, in-game, growth is an end and a means. The game is about dealing with growth. The interface makes it fun and trivial to allow growth, but then you have to support it! And nobody can tell you "We're good. This is big enough. You can stop growing this city now." And even if they did, at soon as options open, they would be so tempting!

We paid for the game, so we want to experience the content. Now when I suspect that I'm a capitalist in the game world, I say that because I like to optimize the cash flow and grow as fast as I can. That's part of the fantasy for me. I can earn money faster in the game world than I can in life.  But that mindset set me up for a fascinatingly glorious  fiasco when I started in on earning achievements. I already mentioned I spent a good deal of time with rather high tax rates, but one of the achievements was to set all the tax rates down below 5%. So I did that. Bear in mind that I have a huge city with airports by this time, pretty much every unlockable special unique building, and I was busy expanding a new industrial zone (or several) across the river as an experiment in really large zoning. And at this time, I felt pretty good. I had a huge bank account of millions and millions. And I dropped the taxes down to 4%, and then the game goes "Wait, but you have to do it for like... 20 weeks."

Maybe longer. It was long time in terms of in-game earning potential. I lost all my money in the first couple weeks. All my city services suffered. All the stuff that was depending on the cashflow shut down, and everyone left. Everyone! I had a giant empty city, tons of utility bills that no one was paying for. In less than ten weeks, I was about 24 million in the red.

And despite this disaster, I was like "That was so cool. I wonder how I can rebuild this." And it turns out the saving grace is that the bulldozer is free. So long as you can tear stuff down, and adjust policies, you can do anything. This is another thing that differs from SimCity, I think. Pretty sure the bulldozer always cost a dollar to click a square. Which makes me really respect Cities: Skylines in a way I didn't expect, which is that the game can keep going and being interesting after a major city-wide failure. I kept playing until the population started to return, and I started making money again. Haven't gotten out of debt, but I kinda love this game will still let me play and make interesting choices after all that craziness.2015-07-29_00002CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayIt seems the city really does become just a reflection of your personal politics then.  I was able to do the double-dog dare achievement no problem because I let my city grow slowly with a massive economic nest egg to fall back on.  Normington (my city) just required a bit of adjustment to one of my 150% functioning transportation tax limits to make sure the budget didn't plummet that much.  But for some of the other buildings / achievements I have to flat-out crater my city by making sure happiness doesn't rise above 15% for a year.  Sure, it'll be relatively simple to come back from something like that, but since my city is relatively large is that something I really want to do?

Which makes the inclusion of achievements in games something of a double-edged sword, especially if they are used to unlock buildings.  I could start a new game and crater the city straight-off to get the achievement, but it won't unlock the building even though I've put my heart and time into Normington.  The in-game markers for progress are good enough, but gating the extra stuff behind the unusual requirements seems counterproductive to doing what Cities: Skylines is there to do.  Still, going back to my city being a reflection of my politics, it's also a reflection of my gaming attitude.  I come from an old school RPG philosophy where if you want to have all the coolest stuff in the end you need to check every nook and cranny.  What the Cities: Skylines team has done is take into considering the desires of players on the opposite end of the spectrum, those who may not be as effective as me at city planning but finding a way to reward them incidentally for playing the game and proceeding at all.

Not all Cities: Skylines boards are complex interconnected webs of economies, transportation, and housing.  Some are just going to be one or two buildings barely staying up while the unwashed populace screams in bloody terror as crime skyrockets and fires come to claim their lives.  Those players get a happy "Thank you" in the form of an achievement and bonus building the same as those of us who take the enterprise "seriously".  Considering how many games require a certain degree of skill to unlock all the better options, even the various SimCity titles we discussed here, there's something reassuring about the way the Cities: Skylines team considered player skill in a whole other way.  It may not be a pity invincibility token like Super Mario World 3D, but it shows a nice kind of respect in that realization not everyone will play the game the same way.

An interesting consideration, and one I'll have to think about as we consider other games, genres, and the way players try to break them.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenI am definitely enjoying the flexibility of Cities: Skylines. As to achievements, I like that it takes effort to trigger them. The word achievement has been used for many things since they were introduced as a system-wide feature on consoles and digital delivery platforms like Steam. There's a lot of fuss that still goes around about the flimsy, inevitable ones that every player gets (I happen to agree and fuss along in those cases), so I have an appreciation for a list of achievements that require some tweaking, attention or outright boldness to obtain.

What we're gaming this week:

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayAside from Dragon Age: Inquisition my PS4 has gone largely unloved since I bought it to play Watch_Dogs (which was, itself, a big disappointment with intermittent pleasure).  So when my friends were talking up the PS4-exclusive Bloodborne I was hesitant to take the plunge.  I grabbed Dark Souls during one of the Steam Sales a while back and every time I try to get into it I just can't.  The challenge was great, the atmosphere super, but it just didn't click.  Barely 30 minutes into Bloodborne I understood why, that fantasy RPGs have stagnated in roughly the same semi-medieval mode for a long time.  Bloodborne drips atmosphere, between the howls and insane self-talk from the unseen people I'm protecting (I think, the ambiguity here is amazing) the audio experience is superb.  But those tall European gothic structures are like something I could see in Europe now, the blood-obsessed monsters and perverted religious iconography like a menstrual storm of misplaced faith, and that being a Hunter in this world carries no bias as to who can take up the fight.  With Bloodborne, I was able to put into motion my long-standing dream of fighting as Tilda Swinton waist-deep in muck covered in the remains of her enemies as she wipes off her saw blade for the next fight.  The emphasis on aggression instead of cautious defense is a nice change from the Dark Souls style, and ensures that I'm always moving toward the next target while keeping an eye out for the next.  It's an amazing experience so far, and I can't wait to see what else I unearth.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenI've been dabbling at another Good Old Games find- Beneath a Steel Sky (Revolution Software, 1994). It's a visually ambitious, fully-voiced point-and-click adventure game from the golden era of the genre, and it's my first time playing. The game opens with comic-book styled cinematics that for all their pixelated antiquity are still pretty cool looking (if you like stylized comic-book art). That opening establishes a a remote community that is visited (explosively) by the dominant, urban dystopian government troops who have come to reclaim some kid they lost from The City when he was young. I don't know yet why this protagonist is important, but never mind all that- I first have to escape the robot factory where I have crash landed a helicopter! Thank goodness I saved the computer chip from my damaged sassy robot side-kick! I'm in a robot factory so I'll rebuild him (so he can berate me through the rest of the game). The progress is slow going, as it tended to be in adventure games of the era. But there's a whole lot of dialog and humor, and just enough things to click on that I have not gotten bored yet. There's more cool anecdotes than I can't fit in this little blurb, so I may have to revisit it when the playthrough is complete. I'm taking it in short play sessions, and I'm savoring its quirky goodness. Did I mention this game is free? Yeah, go play it. Point and click until you forget what a dystopian nightmare you're in.

P.S. Don't worry too much about the hamburgers. They're passing legislation to limit the permissible amount of human waste they can contain. Public Safety is our number one concern.

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Posted by Andrew

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