SimCity and Cities: Skylines are two of the most recent and most popular entries in the city-building simulation videogame genre. By my estimation, both games fall short of what could be done in this generation of videogames. However, I think that a hybridization of these two games would result in something that had far more replayability. Because, the truth is, I want to like both of these games, but they don’t hold my attention nearly long enough.
First, let’s take a look at what SimCity does well. By far the best thing that it does is make all buildings that are city-run, like police stations, fire departments, or solar power plants, expandable. So, you could add a garage to a fire department to give it more usable trucks, or a wing of classrooms to a high school to allow it to handle more students.
This fixes the problem that C:S has where it feels like you’re putting down a lot of service buildings on a per capita basis. Does a city of 7,000 residents really need 3 small fire stations? Nope.
SimCity also does a decent job with city specialization, mainly in the late game. You’re pretty much forced to choose between a low-tech manufacturing city and a high-tech, green city. There are other specializations, but the oil and ore ones are too tied to the industry choices outlined above to really be considered their own distinct archetypes. I’ve found that just like in C:S, SC’s tourism specialization is pretty much nonfunctional. You never get enough tourists to justify the costs you incur.
SC scales buildings correctly. A high-density factory takes up an entire city block, whereas in C:S, the factories, lumber mills, and farms take up the same space as a large home, which just plain looks weird.
Cities: Skylines, on the other hand, has the much better road and mass transit system. It’s a pleasure to put roads exactly where you want them, and with a couple of commonly-used mods, you can micromanage the lanes to get those roads to work correctly.
You heard me right. Both games struggle to accurately simulate people’s lives. They’ll often work at different places each day and sometimes return to a different house at night. This is a result of the underlying game code being written for speed, but it also leads to a lot of weird traffic problems that have nonintuitive solutions that probably wouldn’t work in real life, while real-life solutions sometimes make the in-game problems worse.
C:S also allows the player to purchase more land to expand the city, something which is impossible in SC. This means that you can more accurately design metropolises, but also that you don’t have to worry about maximizing space efficiency.
This design choice has created a vibrant community of players who strive to design beautiful cities. This can take many forms, but the most compelling, in my opinion, are those where a player creates two or three mostly self-contained cities far apart from one another and connected by highways. They also eschew the grid on which most players design their cities, instead opting for curved road and geometric designs.
It occurred to me that this represents a new way of playing the game, which focuses more on the region than on the city.
What if these games were abstracted up a level higher than they are now? After all, cities plan the major roads and provide utility services, but they don’t plan where the roads in a subdivision are laid down. That’s left to the developer. It would be cool if you could zone a plot of land, like a city does, and then entertain designs from different developers. For instance, one developer might want to build a community of zero-lot-line homes, while another would want to build million-dollar-plus homes sitting on two-acre lots.
Choices like this will allow the player to meaningfully affect not just the look, but also the feel of the city, without having to micromanage each road and house. Of course, I think after accepting the bid, you should be able to make changes to the procedurally-generated plans, as long as they still meet the initially-approved criteria but doing this would be optional and left to the micromanagers. These designs would also be master-planned, leaving open sites for schools and parks to be built.
By doing this, we free up the player to focus on bigger problems, and we can actually increase the difficulty of other parts of the game. Waste management facilities could require EPA approval, while you also cannot change the location of the interstate highways and state highways which are managed by the federal and state governments. We could even build upon the idea of expandable city-service buildings from SimCity, by having the player purchase a lot of land for future expansions of the basic service building they place.
Instead of gating new and better kinds of buildings behind population, they could be gated by their cost and community approval, just like in real life.
Now, instead of merely trying to build the next New York City, the player could have fun designing something like Albuquerque, New Mexico, or rural East Texas, or even a ski resort town in Colorado. All of these regions have a different look and feel, and none of them are served very well by modern games.
And by abstracting from the neighborhood road and the home, to the neighborhood as a whole and the major road, we would free players up to pay more attention to the region, which gives us the option to add scenarios to the city building genre.
For instance, players could be tasked with building a bedroom community with a high standard of living or revitalizing a rural area by rebuilding the transportation network to stimulate economic growth. The possibilities are endless and transcend the current state of the genre, which has no clearly-defined goal for the player, but essentially requires them to build a metropolis since so many buildings are locked behind population gates.
The city-building genre isn’t exactly booming. Maybe by making different cities feel different and have different design needs, the games will stay fresh longer and the genre will reboot. I don’t know, but I have to be honest. I would play the heck out of the game I just described to you.
Anyways, thanks for reading.