It seems odd to talk about a game that was actually released recently, because this blog isn’t supposed to be a collection of reviews. I’m not a game journalist; I’m a designer, and each entry is simply a short rambling of my thoughts on how a particular game works or doesn’t work for me. I also try – often poorly – to pinpoint any designs in the game that I feel are particularly strong or weak. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk a bit about Cities: Skylines.
Wait, wait, I’m actually not done with disclaimers. Before we actually dive into Skylines, I want to talk a bit about my relationship with SimCity, because I think it’s important. I’m not what you would call an “avid” SimCity player. Back in the day, when SimCity was a fresh new piece of intellectual property, I found the game and simulation to be hard and unforgiving. I would immediately spend all my money trying to build a city only to find out I was bankrupt and had to sit and wait for a few months to go by to get enough in the budget to build another power plant or police station or school. I was frustrated that the game let me believe I could run free with my city-building imagination only to smack me down with gameplay incentives to take it slow.
Last year, when the newest SimCity emerged from the now shuttered Maxis Emeryville studio, I found it a delightful toy. I was pleased with the ability to play with friends, all working to make our region better through our individual cities. I liked the way that you could specialize your city and become the tech hub of the region or the trash-collecting-capital. It looked gorgeous and the data overlays were splendid.
The main problem I encountered was that I couldn’t actually play the game for the first week or so after release, which was a huge bummer. I ended up creating various cities on a number of different servers, and the effort it took to remember who I was playing with where ended up making me give up the game earlier than I would have had the launch been smoother. The size of the smaller SimCity grids actually fit my playstyle, because I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by choices and consequences immediately. I liked building out slowly and quietly or immediately blowing everything on a city on expensive parks, with the backup that I could always back out and start anew in the region, leaving my past experiments there in case I ever wanted to go back. I had never played SimCity to take care of a giant metropolis. Could Skylines, a game that seems to be a direct response to the weaknesses of the recent SimCity give me what I wanted?
Let’s begin with the obvious. Skylines is SimCity. You can call it a city builder, but it’s a genre that SimCity pioneered and the fingerprints of SimCity design are all over this game. The goal is to build a city, which is done by building roads, zoning residential, commercial, and industrial blocks around those roads, and then placing services like hospitals, fire stations, police stations, waste collection, etc. There’s power and water management, public transportation management, recreational/park placement, and unique reward buildings. At its core, Skylines is an iteration on SimCity.
The best bit of Skylines design that I ran into was the new player experience. The game is larger than it lets on, but instead of falling into the trap of classic SimCity design, which dumps almost everything on the player immediately, Skylines intentionally holds back. When the game starts, only a smallish square block of land is available for building and the only things that really can be built on it are roads, RCI zones, power, and water. That’s it!
It takes a page from mobile games and instead of attempting to create a first-time tutorial that guides you through all the things you can do in the game, simply blocks you from doing most of it. This happens in every single new game; it’s not a first-city restriction. The clever part of this design is that it then unlocks new features as the city expands, naturally following the player’s lead. Having a hard time understanding zoning? Your city will expand slower and you won’t be hit with new milestones and new buildings as quickly. Is this your fifth save and you’re an expert at zoning and road placement? You’ll probably hit those first few milestones quickly enough that you don’t even notice the five minutes you weren’t able to place schools.
This does several things, all of which felt good to me. It introduces elements of the game over time, slowly making the game more complex. It also makes each of these population milestones feel rewarding, as a variety of buildings get unlocked. Lastly, the game also allows the player to purchase more large square plots of land over time, meaning that the limits of where you can build grows as your population and budget does. It all feeds into a fantastic sense of pacing and growth as a player that mirrors the growth you see on-screen in your fictional city.
There are a few other unique additions to the SimCity core as well, some of which work better than others. There’s a districts tool, which allows freeform drawing of “districts” on the land, allowing each district to then have a name, industrial specialization, and set of policies. There are policies that, like in Tropico, affect the population in a holistic stats-based way. There’s highway on/off-ramp management, along with the ability to elevate any given road. There’s Cities-in-Motion style public transportation route-making. It’s a good collection of additional features to flesh out the game. Singularly, none of them feels all that meaningful, but taken together, they provide good additional flavor.
I don’t quite like the art style and UI art as much as SimCity, which I thought looked fantastic. The art in Skylines looks very pragmatic. Everything is in its place but there doesn’t seem to be that extra flair, that extra touch of pop and whimsy that Maxis is so good at. The data overlays as well are functional but don’t wow me. It’s a bit like Skylines is like a website from a decade ago – everything is there and everything works quite well, but there are certain little visual extras that I’m so used to seeing now that it’s noticeable when they’re missing.
Skylines is a great city builder simulation game thing. It’s got mods and cheats if you just want to go crazy. It’s certainly got that just-a-bit-more feel – I meant to write this up yesterday after taking a few screenshots and ended up playing for 2 hours instead. For me, I don’t know that it gives me much that SimCity didn’t give me, but I was never going to be the kind of person that spent dozens of hours on SimCity to begin with.
In the end, as a player of games, I’m glad Skylines got made. It’s SimCity designed and produced by a different studio, by a different set of developers, and it’s solid and engaging and stretches the SimCity template in interesting directions.