Design and the City Sim

Today I want to talk about city simulators and their relationship to city planning in real life. I’m a big fan of city sims, but often I find that there’s eventually nothing to do. There’s no larger sense of purpose – there’s the created city (or building or whatever), and that’s… it. There’s no stakes, no drama. It’s a comment that extends more broadly to other sandbox games – one comment on No Man’s Sky was that it represented a sense of eternal wandering, but also eternal emptiness, because none of it really meant anything. It’s a view expressed here, for example. Let’s talk more about that dynamic. 

If we sketch out a very crude dynamic for video games, we might say that the player in video games is fundamentally reactive. A game gives you a corridor and you react to that corridor by walking down it. A game throws enemies at you and you shoot them or stab them or whatever. In city sim games, that dynamic is typically reversed. You are the actor, and your main job is to stabilise the systems you’re building. If you’re in Project Highrise, which I fucking love, you need to organise your tenants in a sustainable way. Shops go down the bottom to attract people off the street into your building, and residential goes high up to avoid the smells and sound but also for the view. You also need to make sure you’ve got enough power and enough utilities for all your tenants. So it’s about creating a system and then making that system sustainable. There’s nothing wrong with that dynamic, but it can feel a bit empty. There aren’t necessarily particular goals that you’re trying to achieve – and where there are goals, they’re things that you set yourself. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s less reactive. There’s not that same dynamic of being given a problem and reacting to it – solving it, beating it, whatever.

So with that said, I’d like to propose a variation on the building sim that retains most of the cool city design and building work, but realigns it towards that reactive video game structure. I think this structure allows a little more challenge and satisfaction, as well as reflecting some interesting facets of the actual urban design process. At the moment, there’s a little bit of disconnect between city sims and real urban design. Urban design is something that’s carried out by hundreds and thousands of people – architects, interior design, staff on the client side, lighting experts, electricians, painters, plumbers, builders, marketing staff, engineers, lawyers, and so on. The problem (as such) with city sims is that they put most of that responsibility onto you. Subsequently there have to be cuts, things that simplify and get erased. In many city building games, you determine that a house is going to be placed, but have no input into what that house actually looks like. The game just picks a house out of its pool and shoves it in. From one perspective, that’s fine – it’s not what you’re focusing on. But there’s a lot of potential to move further into that design space.

In order to get closer to a game that follows a real design job, we need to narrow our focus. I suggest a game that puts you in the place of a retail designer. Instead of building a whole city, clients come to you with a pre-established space, and it’s your job to optimise the retail experience within that space. So instead of just building wherever, you’re given constraints, given a space, and have to make things function within that, so there’s a sense of actually beating the challenge that’s put before you. It allows you to move around the city, in the sense that you’re not tied to one particular place, but also lets the city grow alongside you. Cities are made up of thousands of people, and it’s always felt a little lonely in management sims doing everything by yourself. If you set up an algorithm that simulates other design companies, and growth and change in other tenancies, there’s a real sense of being one person among many. You could probably make it multiplayer if you wanted, although I think a more interesting notion is taking the design solutions provided by players into a database and allowing AI in other games to use them.

The other advantage is that it’s a game style that hasn’t hugely been tried out. We’re very familiar with SimCity and its descendants: the Anno games, Cities: Skylines, arguably the Civ games if you like. This is just a little bit of a tweak to the genre that opens up a whole new level of intimacy with the built environment. You might compare it to Cities in Motion, in the sense that CiM also presents you with a pre-constructed environment that you just have to deal with. This method also allows you to create solutions. In Project Highrise, if your problem is that you don’t have enough water closets, you build a water closet. It’s not really a very interesting solution. But the creative elements of design encourage players to come up with their own solutions for spatial problems. To some degree there’s going to be a level of samey-samey, in the sense that you still have to have product on display, and you still have to have cashiers or checkouts of some sort – but there’s definitely potential. Even just think about customer flow: there are very clear laws that govern the way customers move in a store. That’s something you can employ to help structure your store for particular effects, while at the same time teaching players a little bit about the retail environment and how it’s all put together in the real world. You mirror the real-life design process more closely and create a cohesive set of gameplay challenges, ushering the player through a full gameplay experience.

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