What I Learned From: Cities: Skylines
Sandbox games are some of the most interesting challenges from a design perspective and for players can offer a nearly endless, even inconceivable amount of entertainment. That is, of course, provided the designed simulation is deeply detailed and/or broad enough to offer several satisfying types of play within them, all of which have to be as accessible as possible. Add on the challenge of creating a functional and appealing interface and it’s easy to see why the true greats of the genre are so rare and iterative titles so common. Cities: Skylines is technically the third title in its own series but fully deserves its subtitle as it represents the modern standard for city-building games with charm and finesse.
Of course, there’s a lot of subjectivity at play but Skylines has become just about the only “building” type strategy/simulation game I need since it was released. Playing the game has given me a lot of time and space to think about the design as well as the game’s place in its genre and what it says about simulations overall. More than anything, I think the genesis of mine and a lot of folks love for Skylines is down to the clear attention the developers have paid to visuals and audio. I don’t want to necessarily blame it on the people primarily interested in building simulations being programmers but there certainly are a lot of very good simulations that get by more on mechanical charm than approachability. But that’s just what Skylines has in spades, best exemplified with its infamous Twitter clone UI element which will chime in from time to time with messages from the citizens of your city. There will be complaints about problems your city is having, celebrations for popular decisions, and simple non-sequiturs which just provide some slight affable flavor to the experience.
One of the problems that the game does have still is teaching, as you would expect. Tutorials and continuing to educate the player on how to “play well” through all the various stages of the game. Which is a particular problem for Skylines as the game changes in terms of your goals and areas of concern quite a bit as your city grows larger and larger, though that is also one of the reason the game remains so compelling as well. I’ve certainly traded a little time investment in learning strategies through YouTube for an overall deeper and more enjoyable game but importantly not until I had already invested a couple dozen hours as opposed to other strategy games which can feel like that from the start. And that’s not to say Skylines doesn’t make an effort, as there are several ways to diagnose issues and of course tooltips to point out newly accessible features or building types. I’m not sure if I have any answers on how best to accomplish that deep, longer education without a player getting bored so I’m not quite ready to call it a design failure if players need outside help to get the most out of a game.
Most of all, Cities: Skylines has given me a lot of time to think about just how difficult creating an entertaining simulation is, let alone one that can last a player for hundreds of hours. It’s clear that iteration is at the heart of it, as well as good communication of the various stress points to the player. Skylines goes further by paying special attention to the user experience and softening the approach as much as possible and that makes the communication much easier. It’s true that a great simulation can attract a crowd even without well-polished UI, art, sound, or anything related to the player experience, but I think that is really only half the work when it comes to making something that will make the biggest impact.
I’ve gone through the game’s core stages of growth several times now and it’s interesting to think of the times where I’ve quit out of each. It’s almost always either a catastrophic systems failure that leads to a lot of death and exodus, which makes for a great story, or a seemingly intractable traffic dilemma where the solution I can envision seems like more work than its worth, which doesn’t make for great stories. I don’t suppose I would always like the game to end in some sort of horrendous disaster but it is a little more interesting.
One of the problems I do have with the game is the public transportation, which is strange considering the first two titles in the series were much more about transit than city building. The main issue I have is that it feels like too much work to set up one bus route, let alone several that will serve all the different parts of your growing city. Subways are a bit better and external connections are at least very easy but when your city changes and expands so much, it can be trying to have to switch into that mode at regular intervals. I often just end up ignoring buses entirely.