Project Highrise: Pathfinding

I’m playing Project Highrise at the moment – it’s a game where you build up a building from the ground floor. It’s not so much about architecture or external details as it is about the human ecosystem on the inside. If you’ve got flats, they’ll need rubbish bins, which will need a storage space under the building. The flats will also need electricity and running water, so you need to set those up, and of course you have to run them up all your floors, as well as needing large transformers and so on underground to keep everything running. Uh, I don’t know if you actually store transformers underground. Let’s move on.

So as a game it’s interesting because it teaches you things about how real life systems work without necessarily bogging you down with textbooks and readings and all that bullshit. You’re just thrown into the midst of it, and either you learn from your mistakes, or you drive yourself into bankruptancy. There’s always something new to learn, because you’re always moving to a new stage in the game – new stage, new problems. You’re constantly realising that there’s a bunch of stuff you should’ve set up earlier that would’ve made your whole life so much easier – which is how learning is fucking supposed to work. It’s kind of annoying that you have to start a new game to re-implement all this new information from day one, especially given the hours you’ll pour into one building, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Anyway, that’s all well and good, but it’s not actually what I want to talk about today. Today I just want to talk about one little element: pathfinding. In your building, you can have one of four types of tenants: offices, apartments, shops, and restaurants. Well, plus utilities or whatever – anyway, it’s those last two we’re interested in. Shops and restaurants. Depending on how you set your building up, you can pull punters off the street with the promise of coffee and high-rise dining. You can also force your office workers to walk through the shops to get to work in the morning – the foot traffic makes the shop owners happy, and inevitably drives up their daily sales. It makes sense – if you’re walking past a place every morning, eventually it’s going to occur to you that the fuckers inside sell food for a living, and that, if you really wanted, you could use that food to fuel your body. Visibility matters. Those asshole liquor stores upstairs aren’t going to get any foot traffic, and that’s going to drive down their sales. If you’re unlucky, it’ll eventually contribute to their moving out.

What this means for you as a designer is that you need to try and force foot traffic through the shops and cafes. You have to create pathways that’re going to be productive for retailers. Towards this end, there are a few very simple strategies. You can see all the tenants enter from the left hand side in the morning – so put the stairs on the far right, and make them go through all the shops on the ground floor in order to get to the stairs. If you’re clever, you’ll put the first-floor stairs all the way on the far left, so they have to do two lengths of the building to get to their offices. It’s sneaky stuff.

Mind you, people will only do so many flights of stairs before they pack up and get mad at you – so you have to introduce the elevator. For some stupid reason, elevators have to start on the ground floor and go straight up from there. This sort of upsets the stairs plan, because people will just hop straight into the lift and circumvent all the shops on the second/third/fourth floors. You can unlock special private ‘start from anywhere’ elevators, but it’s a mid-to-late game perk, and they’re expensive. This is where your second option comes into play: compartmentalising.


This might be a little difficult to understand if you’ve not played the game, but let me try and break it down. This is one of my terrible crude maps laying out one of my building designs. People come from the left, and go in either one of two directions. Either they go past the elevator and the shops and along to the stairs, like we talked about before, or they go up the elevator and come to a second set of shops/stairs before going on further to their offices higher up (which I haven’t depicted for the sake of space). The top half is a repeat of the bottom half, only with an escalator that cuts off the first ‘layer’ of the building. You can almost treat the top floor of the elevator as being like the bottom floor of the building again – it’s the same pattern repeated. Notice especially that there’s no link between the top floor of the lower part, and the bottom floor of the higher. They’re entirely separated. The same goes for the elevator and the lower offices – you can’t get across from one to the other. You have to take the stairs.

Basically this is just a large-scale attempt at forcing particular pathways. It wouldn’t work in a real building, because people don’t have time for that shit, but I’d suggest that real buildings just do the same thing more sneakily. It’s also super interesting as an idea because it forces you to start thinking about how to design pathways. You think about what works, what’s practical – and then you might even take it out into the real world. You might start noticing how the flow of space functions in malls or city streets, or office buildings or parks or shops. The game forces you to start constructing theories and ideas around pathfinding, or flow, or whatever you want to call it – and those are theories that just happen to be super important and relevant to city planning and urban design. Teaching through gameplay. Neat, huh.

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