Please Help I Can’t Stop Playing Cities: Skylines

By Shamus Posted Tuesday May 5, 2020

Filed under: Column 124 comments

I LOVE Cities Skylines. I know it seems like I spend more time complaining about games than I spend enjoying them – and that’s probably true in a lot of cases – but Cities Skylines is one of those games that gets more interesting every time I come back to it. 

For the last few weeks I’ve been on a huge Skylines bender. I’m sure you’re familiar with this sort of thing. You start skipping sleep. You stop talking to people. You end up with a game on one monitor and its wiki open on the other. Factorio and Dwarf Fortress players will definitely know what I’m talking about. 

It got really bad this time. I’d download a dozen mods and buildings to add to the game, play for a few hours, then slam down some junk food while reading the Skylines subReddit, then watch some YouTube videos about the game, then download more mods and start the whole thing over again. 

Link (YouTube)

If you’d like to watch the video without sound, we’ve added proper closed captioning. This is much better than the YouTube auto-generated CC, which doesn’t always parse proper nouns and lacks punctuation.

I’m mostly recovered at this point. I think. My rehab counselor said I’m making good progress and I’m allowed supervised access to a computer now. My family is adjusting to having me interact with them again. So I’ve decided to pretend like I was actually working this whole time by making a video about the city-building genre and why I love Skylines so much.

In my work, I’m usually whining about how much better things were in the Good Old Days of gaming, but not this time. This is it. Cities Skylines is the zenith of the city-building genre. City simulation has never been this good. In fact, thanks to DLC and mods, this game is better now than it was when it came out in 2015. And it was already a great game back then.

This isn’t a simple clone of the classic city-building games with a new graphical paint job, this is a deeper and more interesting simulation. I tried going back to old Sim City classics after playing Skylines, and the older games felt shallow and repetitive in comparison. 

I want to tell you why I think this game is so good, but before I do that we need to go on…

A Meandering Digression About Non-Games

If we're talking about titles with ambiguous levels of game-y-ness, then Fallout 76 should be on here.
If we're talking about titles with ambiguous levels of game-y-ness, then Fallout 76 should be on here.

You know the dumb, annoying argument people have over whether or not something is a game? That debate is really old and worn out at this point, but back in the good old days it wasn’t so polarizing. 

Today, calling something a game or not is practically a political statement. Depending on which way you go, people will accuse you of pushing an agenda or of being a gatekeeping asshole.  Everyone is either territorial or sanctimonious about it these days, but back before the rise of the Twitter hate machine, this debate was just a curiosity. Asking if random title X was really a game was like asking if the Doom Marine had a mustache. It was fine if you disagreed, because there was no real answer and it didn’t matter anyway. 

In the spirit of those happier days, I want to talk about whether or not a city simulator is a real game.

Will Wright – designer of the original Sim City way back in 1989 – actually called his creation a “software toy”. He felt like Sim City didn’t really fit with all the other things we were calling games. He actually had trouble finding a publisher because the Sim City wasn’t anything like the successful titles of the day. 

There was no win state except for whatever goals you might have chosen for yourself. There was no definitive lose state in the form of a Game Over screen. While there were challenges to overcome, the system wasn’t deliberately adversarial. Sim City wasn’t like Mario Brothers where your goal was to beat a final boss. It wasn’t like Asteroids where your goal was to survive for as long as possible. It was just a system based on rules, and you were free to do whatever you wanted within that system. Its closest analogue in the real world would be something like constructing a model train, and most people wouldn’t call that a game.

SimCity was about experimentation and creative expression. Legos aren’t a game. An ant farm isn’t a game. A model train set isn’t a game. They’re fun, but they’re not games. 

So SimCity isn’t a game, right?


Well, Actually…

I revisited SimCity 2000 for this article. I still find the graphics to be charming as hell, but the interface is painful to use.
I revisited SimCity 2000 for this article. I still find the graphics to be charming as hell, but the interface is painful to use.

I don’t think it’s fair to say the game is completely devoid of win / loss conditions. If you’re deeply in debt and no longer have the money to sustain your crumbling city, then that kinda feels like it’s game over, even if the game doesn’t say so explicitly. At the same time, the game shows you how much money you have and how many people live inside your city. That feels an awful lot like your “score” in a traditional game. The game never says so, but almost every new player assumes that their goal should be to push both of those numbers as high as possible. That sounds a lot like an implicit goal.

Moreover, the systems of a simulated city don’t really allow for freeform building like a pile of Legos. You can’t just build anything you want. You need to plan out zoning, minimize pollution and waste, balance your budget, and most importantly you need to keep traffic flowing. That’s a lot to keep track of, and it will take you a lot of hours before you know how to construct things optimally. That sounds a lot like a strategy game, with a splash of puzzle-solving. Optimizing strategy and solving puzzles definitely sound like game-like activities to me. 

And finally, the old Sim City games had the option to allow for random natural disasters. If they’re enabled, then the game becomes deliberately, explicitly adversarial. Your goal isn’t to just play with a toy train set, your goal is to design a city that can withstand the setbacks the game creates for you.

So is Will Wright wrong? Is Sim City a game or not? 

The good news is: Yes. Or no. Actually, it literally doesn’t matter.

The thing is, you can float seamlessly between these two extremes. As a new player, I treated it 100% like a game. Everything was about making the numbers go up. More money. Taller buildings. More people. More prestige buildings. More roads with more lanes. This leads to a very brutalist style of gameplay. You lay down a grid of your best available roads and build as dense as you can, making this ugly Borg Cube for people to live in. 

And that works. That’s a totally valid way to play. But over time, I got a little tired of building Megacity One over and over again. I was winning according to the game mechanics, but I started thinking about making the city more beautiful. Not just beautiful as rated by the AI to maximize the citizen happiness number, but actually more beautiful. Well, maybe it’s not fair to call America’s carpet of suburban sprawl and strip malls beautiful per se, but there is a strange satisfaction that comes from creating my own version of it.

And from this point I started looking for techniques for making the city look more real. It was less about filling in the map and making numbers go up, and instead it was more about literal worldbuilding where I designed communities and connections based on purpose and tried to grow a city organically based on the terrain and available resources. 

Like most people, if I like a game then I start off being initially obsessed with it, but over time my interest will fade. I might come back to it a few years later, or I might not, but nothing will ever top that big push at the beginning when I’m getting familiar with the game and its systems. With Cities Skylines, this was kinda backwards. I liked it at first, but every 18 months or so I come back to the game and discover I like it even more, or in a new way. 

This time around, I leaned hard into the creative side of the game. I installed the infinite money cheat and a ton of community-made buildings from the Steam Workshop. The game was less game-y than ever before. It started off as a strategy game, and gradually became a very large and complicated train set. 

The point is that I played Skylines both as a game and as a creative building tool. There wasn’t a clear line between these two experiences, but instead a gradual shift away from mechanical challenge and towards creative building.

The point is that the “Is this a game?” debate is incredibly abstract and it’s not worth getting in angry arguments over it because the lines get incredibly blurry once you take player behavior into account.

So Anyway…

This diagram is out of date now. Most city planners use the more modern model of RCIW: Residential, Commercial, Industrial, and Wal-Mart parking lots.
This diagram is out of date now. Most city planners use the more modern model of RCIW: Residential, Commercial, Industrial, and Wal-Mart parking lots.

Since the start of the genre in the late 80s, these games have been built on top of roughly the same RCI model. RCI stands for Residential, Commercial, Industrial. People live in residential areas and make trips to obtain goods from commercial areas. The commercial buildings get the goods from industrial buildings, which is also where people work. It’s the circle of consumerism. This model does a pretty good job at presenting the different forces at work in a modern city. The RCI model was right there at the start in 1989, and it’s still part of our city-builder games here in 2020. The gameplay has gotten more nuanced over the years, but the same basic design has persisted.

The challenge that the player needs to overcome is that industrial areas are ugly and sometimes create pollution, so people don’t want to live near that. So your first instinct is to zone these three different kinds of buildings in isolated enclaves and connect them with roads. The problem is that those roads will become choke points that will bring your city to a halt as the road system funnels everyone down a single highway or over a single bridge. Add in the need for city services like police, fire, garbage collection, and education, and you have lots of complex decisions for the player to ponder. They need to balance these systems, while also balancing their budget and adapting their design to work with the given terrain. 

Developer Colossal Order took this idea and leaned really hard into the traffic management puzzles. Computers finally have enough memory and processing power to simulate individual cars and pedestrians on a citywide scale, and we wound up with a game where puzzles would emerge from the underlying systems. It felt like the genre was finally complete. Like, THIS was the kind of simulation that the games had been suggesting all along, but it wasn’t until the last few years that we had the memory and processing power to make it work.

And before you jump down to the comments to shout at me that SimCity 2013 simulated individuals as well. Yes, it did, but the simulation was brain-dead and nonsensical. A sim would leave their house in the morning and drive around until they found a building with an available job to do. Then they’d leave the job at the end of the day and drive around until they found the first house with an available bed. Also, electricity would invisibly wander the streets, looking for places that need another bucket of energy. It used a lot of processing power to simulate something that made no sense and was of no benefit to the player in terms of gameplay. 

In Cities Skylines, every person you see has a name and a home and a job. The game tracks their income and education levels, which dictates where they can live and what they can do. They’re born, they grow up, they get an education, they choose a job, and they eventually die. And along the way they participate in a massive city-wide traffic simulation.  

And that traffic system seems to be the real star of the show, here. Sure, you still have to contend with zoning and budgetary problems, but the most interesting problems are the ones that real-world traffic engineers have to contend with. 

This game has introduced me to the weird subculture of traffic nerds. You can visit the City Skylines sub-Reddit or the Steam forums and find people discussing the finer points of roundabouts, diverging diamonds, cloverleafs, windmills, and traffic lights. 

The game is even a bit educational. I lived in Boston around the turn of the century and I got to experience roundabouts for the first time in my life. At the time I found them really irritating. I thought that trying to read exit signs while also driving in a circle and continuously merging with the traffic around me was absolutely harrowingI doesn’t help that I needed glasses, but the degradation of my eyesight was so gradual that I hadn’t noticed. I was having trouble until reading signs at a distance, which made everything that much more chaotic and stressful.. It’s easy if you’re familiar with the area, but if I’m new to a town then my first trip through the big roundabout is going to be a little scary. At the time I thought they just hadn’t gotten around to modernizing the Boston road system. It wasn’t until I played Skylines 15 years later that I realized just how magical roundabouts are. Sure, that first trip through is nerve wracking, but if it saves me from five minutes at a traffic light every morning, then sign me up. 

The game doesn’t deliberately teach you this. It’s just an emergent result of a really well-done traffic simulation. You see a clogged intersection, you make it a roundabout, and you watch as the traffic magically clears. A roundabout isn’t always the answer. Sometimes you need a different solution, and sometimes you’ll have to invent your own.

So that’s why I love this game. Cities: Skylines is a fantastic simulation with just enough detail and scope to have real-world applicability, but also simplistic and playful enough that the player doesn’t get bogged down in the details. At the same time, it also works as a creative building tool with endless modability. It can be either of these things or both at the same time. And on top of all that, the sheer scale of this simulation is staggering. There’s nothing remotely like it out there, although I guess we have the dunces at EA to thank for that.

One last note here is that everyone seems to be assuming that Developer Colossal Order is working on the sequel. Since 2015 we’d been getting DLC every 6 months or so, but as of last year that has slowed quite a bit. The reasonable assumption is that the team is putting their efforts into Skylines 2 now. I hope that’s true. Five years of DLC has left the game feeling a little cluttered and there are some mechanics that could use a refresh. At the same time, I hope the sequel doesn’t come too soon because I don’t know if this site can survive another relapse.



[1] I doesn’t help that I needed glasses, but the degradation of my eyesight was so gradual that I hadn’t noticed. I was having trouble until reading signs at a distance, which made everything that much more chaotic and stressful.

From The Archives:

124 thoughts on “Please Help I Can’t Stop Playing Cities: Skylines

  1. LazerFX says:

    Re: Roundabouts. Here in the UK, we’ve had roundabouts for a long time. I wish, here in Cheshire, the idiots in the road planning area would listen to you, and stop PUTTING TRAFFIC LIGHTS ON ROUNDABOUTS! It’s the worst of both worlds – hard to figure out what’s happening, and bad for traffic! *grumble*

    Now I really want to play this game. *sigh*.

    1. Adam says:

      Did you hear about the people who liked roundabouts so much more than traffic lights, they put roundabouts on roundabouts? And then make them all flat, so from the perspective of a driver it is just a bunch of cars going every possible direction (it’s even possible to go around the inside the “wrong” way). They’re called Magic Roundabouts.

      1. Hector says:

        I’ve seen pictures of this, and I can’t imagine actually driving through one without a map, in-person traffic control, and signaling. I also can’t even begin to comprehend what possible benefit there might possibly be from them.

        I love traffic circles although I question whether they are usually better for multiple lanes.

        1. Richard says:

          They’re actually terrific* and wonderful**.

          I’ve driven through the original Magic Roundabout.

          It’s five mini-roundabouts around a central circus which goes the other direction – think cogs.

          The theory is that by offering multiple routes to each destination, traffic can flow more easily – it’s very much the “original Sim City” approach to traffic management, by just adding more road.
          I am reasonably sure that it doesn’t work.

          I haven’t found it confusing, my guess is that the multiple routes mean that you rarely make a mistake that prevent you from reaching your exit in a single move.
          You may not select the ‘optimal’ route, but you won’t have to go around again – unlike picking the wrong lane on a roundabout, or the wrong exit lane on a US-style highway junction.

          * Causes terror
          ** Promotes wonder, as in “I wonder why Frank did that?”

          1. Hector says:

            Yeah, but is there actually any real benefit as opposed to just having one large circle?

          2. Christopher Dwight Wolf says:

            It was not a roundabout and this is over a decade ago, when I was becoming a restaurant manager for Applebee’s in NJ. I had to go to our franchise’s corporate offices in Allendale NJ as part of my training. This was before ubiquitous live Google Maps or similar apps. I got lost on the same street because the street would just change going down it. You might need to take a right exit into a cloverleaf to go left, with not real warning unless you knew the area. Most confusing traffic experience for me in life, more confusing than England or Spain.

          3. Zak McKracken says:

            I’ve been through that roundabout too, although as passenger in a taxi. The driver explained to me that local kids get it during their driving lessons, maybe after a few confusing attempts.

            In terms of traffic flow, I suppose it has advantages if you have more than 4 roads coming towards it, and if traffic is queuing in one of the exit lanes, onto the roundabout, for example because lots of people go from street A to street C. In a regular roundabout, anyone wanting to exit at B would have to join the queue. In a magic roundabout, you just need to cross the queue (and I find most Britons are nice about letting crossing cars through), and then go the other way towards B. It also means that if you want to go from A to E, you don’t need to drive past B, C and D.
            … but I’m not so sure if a single three- or four-lane roundabout in the same place would not have a bigger capacity, also because there’ll always be a few confused drivers on any given day, causing issues.

    2. Mousazz says:

      While on the topic of roundabouts, I just want to mention:
      Since Shamus shared with us the standard experience of a lot of people that the first few times going through the roundabout are terrifying and irritating, I wonder how he and other people would adapt to a turbo roundabout. In one of those, you no longer get to change lanes after entering the roundabout, therefore cutting down on the stress of having to make decisions in such a dangerous environment. Our local city council installed one of these where I live, and I love it.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        I don’t get the purpose of this type of intersection. The vehicles on the roads on the left and right of the picture can only make a right-turn, but the vehicles on the roads on the top and bottom of the image can exit at any direction (assuming that you include the extra lanes and lane-changes needed just before the roundabout). This seems like it would add complexity and anxiety, because the vehicles are more restricted, and need to know ahead of time (or quickly decide) what lanes to be in; In a normal roundabout, all roads are equal, and you just make the turn in a smooth motion.

        OK, turns out I was mis-reading the picture; There’s painted lines, but left-right roads aren’t blocked by concrete – only lane-changes are blocked within the roundabout. The zig-zags in the centre circle prevent U-turns. That, plus the need to know exactly what lane to be in beforehand both still seem like bad trade-offs to me, but Wikipedia says these are some percentages safer and faster.

        1. Mousazz says:

          Sorry, I changed the picture mid-way through my post without the accompanying “EDIT:” to clarify it. I assume you’ve seen the updated image.

          I agree that the turbo roundabout blocks U-turns for 2 out of 4 directions, which can be considered a negative. The roads leading up to the roundabout must have abilities to make a U-turn not far from said roundabout (the ones in the district where I live have dedicated U-turn connections).

          However, having to know which lane you need to be in before you enter the roundabout can be solved with just clear signage. And, intuitively, it’s no more different than your typical intersection – the right lane goes right or forwards, the left lane goes forwards or left. It’s just a bit of a hassle the first time, if you’re coming in from the 2nd (left) lane, to realize that you need to cross the roundabout’s outer lane to get into the inner one – but that’s typical roundabout behavior.

          In the typical three-lane roundabout, the third lane is usually used to go around the roundabout to take the 3rd (left) or 4th (U-turn) exit – however, you can’t exit directly from the third lane, requiring you to change lines inside the roundabout, which is both nerve-wracking for some, and rather dangerous. Similarly, in some two-lane roundabouts I’ve seen, the second lane takes the function of the third, in that the first lane becomes the only one from which a driver is allowed to exit from, once again requiring lane changing. The turbo roundabout prevents that – sure, there’s a trade-off, but it’s strictly positive, in my opinion.

          1. Echo Tango says:

            Good points. I actually realized, that my original comment was only based on single-lane roundabouts, but I didn’t think about the complications introduced by multi-lane roundabouts, because of insomnia this week. ^^;

        2. Cynic says:

          They’re good trade offs. At a traffic light you also need to know which lane you’re going to be in-and it’s actually worse-MUCH worse, if you are in the wrong one, because traffic STOPS, which makes merging impossible. Then if you insist on changing lanes from a stop to make your turn at the lights, you need someone to let you in, the car in front of the one letting you in needs to give you the space to do so, and everyone behind you is furious. You can cut the amount of traffic in a lane getting through in half by doing this.

          On this roundabout? If you really don’t know where you’re going, stick to the middle lane. This one is less convenient as it has limited u-turns, because it only allows 1-pass around the wheel, but in Australia, multi lane roundabouts are really common. External lanes for turnoffs. Internal ones for proceeding around. However, if you consider an actual traffic light-it allows no u-turns-so I’m not sure what you think your point is-you can pull a u-turn through some lights, in some places, in some vehicles, but it’s just as awkward, and as it requires crossing over the oncoming lane, it needs to wait for the inside lane signal, which is always on a slow timer.

          That’s how roundabouts work where I come from, except they don’t have the same partial lanes which limit you to one rotation, so should you wish, you could literally keep circling forever.

          The big difference is that you continue moving.

          The confusing and scary thing about multilane roundabouts is that you’re making decisions while moving, and that sometimes people are making decisions as to where to turn off rather than following one fixed signal. They are intimidating at first. But they are far easier to use and the evidence is entirely one sided in their favour over traffic lights. The ideal thing to do is, read the signs in the hundred metres leading up to the intersection, which tell you what lane goes where, get in that lane, stay in that lane, and when the sign says where you’re going, that’s where you pull off.

          But I trust you-most drivers were equally scared the first time they drove down multilane city streets, especially if they live in a city with a lot of one way streets, where making a mistake and being in a wrong lane and missing a turn can mean circling 4 city blocks in traffic. It is something one gets used to. And if you don’t know exactly what turn you’re going to need to take-that’s a problem that already exists with traffic lights.

          1. Echo Tango says:

            The U-turns were in comparison to roundabouts[1] that don’t have the restrictions on movement. (But as noted above, I was sleeping poorly this week, and only thinking about simple, single-lane roundabouts.)

            [1] I guess the simple, but apparently inefficient, symmetric clover-leaf style overpasses on highways also allow U-turns of sorts. You keep taking the correct entrance or exit ramps and lanes, and you can end up going back where you came from. (Or go around in a looping clover-leaf forever, technically.) But I wasn’t thinking of those at the time.

      2. Kathryn says:

        What are you supposed to do if you’re driving a Reliant Robin? The roundabout approach with those was traditionally to drive straight from your entrance to your exit. I suppose if you had the sack of concrete in your passenger seat, it would help. Otherwise, better fit the roll cage and five-point harness…

        1. Echo Tango says:

          I mean, three-wheeled cars (with the single wheel on the turning-end of the car) don’t have good stability in general. That’s not really a fault of the roundabout.

        2. Decius says:

          What are you doing driving a Robin without a roll cage and harness?

      3. Zak McKracken says:

        Not allowing U-turns seems like an unnecessary limitation to me. I do like the ability to go around in a roundabout if I e.g. missed my exit, which can still happen in this one.

        What I _do_ like, but have seen better implementations of: A roundabout with (exits – 1) lanes, where a new lane starts on the inner side at every inlet, one leaves at every exit, and the incoming road has the same number of lanes, with clear signs above them (and some markers on the lanes themselves — those are a great idea!). So if you’re in the correct lane coming in, you’ll be guided to the correct lane which spirals out of the roundabout on its own, so you just need to stay in lane to get to the correct exit. However, you might still end up in the wrong lane by whatever course of action, or the signs might not be completely clear to you (because you wanted to go to Kilburn but the sign just says “A5/Cricklewood/C. London” …), so being able and permitted to change lanes is still important and helpful. Assuming that signs will always have all information required by all drivers to understand what they need to know is a very tall order. You really should not bet on that. And while English road authorities are not particularly bad at this, they’re definitely not perfect, either.

    3. Sabrdance (Matthew H) says:

      In a past career I studied to be a traffic engineer and city planner. Roundabouts have a status of veneration that I don’t quite understand, which is why I didn’t ultimately become a traffic engineer. However, their implementation ends up being very important. I’ve seen several of the roundabouts (called rotaries, locally) in Boston and Worcester, and they are just badly designed. The lines are painted wrong, the curve is too steep, and the signs are bad. There’s one on the way from Boston to Reading that if you were to follow the lines as painted would literally have you alternate which shoulder of the road you drive on.

      On the flip side, a well integrated roundabout can not only keep traffic moving but also create a nice civic space (Courthouse circle in Elizabethtown, KY is my favorite example), or allow for easy driving along a particular high traffic road (the Dumbbell in Miami).

      Now, diverging diamonds I still think are a recipe for wrecks -though I can read the data that shows they are much safer.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        The trick[1] with a diverging diamond, is that there’s lanes of (usually) free-flowing traffic, and lanes of (usually) stopped traffic. The lights and lanes control everyone, like a small / basic cross intersection, but all the ramps are there to make the turns easier for highway speeds. The vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians all just need to watch the signs as they would in any “ordinary” place, without having to know[2] precisely how the interchange works. :)

        [1] From what this video explains. I’m not a traffic engineer. ^^;
        [2] This is key to a good interchange / crossing. I don’t think it’s feasible to rely on people knowing larger traffic patterns.

        1. Ander says:

          I was amazed the first time I went through a diverging diamond. “Just keep going,” my more knowledgeable passenger assured me, and he was right. Thing of beauty, the diverging diamond interchange.

      2. Agammamon says:

        Couple years ago they put one in in a city near where I live on the main street leading to the US-Mexico border. Its at a point where you have to decide ‘left, right’, or Mexico’ and its smoothed traffic to that point immensely.

        But it also takes up a lot more area than the intersection that was there before.

        There’s lot’s of places where a roundabout would be great in terms of keeping traffic flowing but would require eminent domain to grab land from surrounding owners in order to implement.

        So we get in-between measures until the costs of delays builds up enough to be worth the costs of a mitigation. For example, there’s another intersection near where I live where the Sherrif has to post a traffic cop during the late afternoon rush hour because its a 4 way stop – on a stop sign, not traffic light – because the level of traffic down that road has been increasing over the last couple of years. We’ll have to wait until the traffic delays are costly enough to justify putting in a light.

        1. Decius says:

          It doesn’t take long for police overtime to justify putting in a traffic light!

  2. ivan says:

    My personal favourite intersection is the Mobius Strip. Simple, elegant, catastrophic, it has everything you could want in a traffic clearing mechanism.

    1. Retsam says:

      I’m partial to the rotary supercollider myself.

  3. ElementalAlchemist says:

    although I guess we have the dunces at EA to thank for that

    Isn’t this another case of misdirected EA bogeymaning? I mean sure, EA is responsible for the closure of Maxis, but the failure of SimCity (along with Spore) – which was what ultimately lead to that – was down to internal Maxis decisions (much like most of Bioware’s problems originate from within Bioware, not so much EA).

    1. Lanthanide says:

      Since publishers are the ones stumping up the money for the game to be made, it’s up to the publishers to ensure the developers aren’t stepping off the deep end and developing a product people don’t want.

      In this case, an always-online city game with dumbarse simulation and TINY city plots.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if the always-online and multiplayer aspects were mandated by EA. I’d happily read a behind-the-scenes look at why SimCity 2013 came out as badly as it did.

      1. ElementalAlchemist says:

        That’s the point – all the failings of SimCity, the always online and such, supposedly originated internally at Maxis, not via EA mandate. EA obviously didn’t mind; they were hardly going to go out of their way to tone down intrusive DRM that their developers were happy to implement.

        I think the real failing of Maxis is that is was, by that point, simply no longer “Maxis”. Much like all independent studios that get bought out by big publishers and increase in size, the names behind the label either no longer contribute as substantially due to the scale and number of projects, or they have left altogether. I hate to keep bringing up Bioware, but it is a perfect example of that. These days it’s a different company that just wears the corpse suit of the original Bioware.

        1. The Puzzler says:

          I always imagined that when EA took over they forced worse working conditions on the employees, and a lot of the most talented ones found new jobs elsewhere. This could explain the weirdnesses of SC2013.

          1. Sartharina says:

            Everything I’ve heard about EA indicates it is well above industry average for employee QoL and working conditions.

        2. baud says:

          > all the failings of SimCity, the always online and such, supposedly originated internally at Maxis

          But still the tone at the top matters a lot in a situation like this: if you know the parent company is going to push for always-online DRM, maybe try to get clever and innovative with it. And if Maxis hadn’t belonged to EA and the same idea had been proposed, maybe an offline fallback would have been added, since there wasn’t any big evil overlord pushing DRM at every opportunity.

        3. Hector says:

          Well, EA-maxis *claimed* that they totally came up with a business model which, by a wild coincidence, had, nothing to do with the good SimCity games but was exactly EA’s microtransaction/ always-online/ repeat-gameplay fest. I also don’t believe their statement for a moment.

          It’s rather difficult for me to believe that all the franchises EA buys husymt happen to develop obnoxiously similar characteristics.

          1. Liessa says:

            This is the thing. I agree that EA isn’t always responsible for their subsidiaries’ bad decisions (witness Bioware and Anthem), but it’s quite remarkable how often these studios get bought up by EA, then ‘independently’ decide to pursue whatever the EA higher-ups are excited about at the time. Like the always-online model, for instance, or ‘live services’, or their shiny new engine that isn’t really tailored for the kind of games that studio makes. Maybe some of those studios would have gone that way anyway, but if the people above you are enthusiastic about something and make it clear that this is where they want to focus their time, money and resources, that’s inevitably going to have an effect. People have this picture of EA execs marching into their underlings’ offices and imperiously announcing “You will do it this way!”, but I think the reality is rather more subtle than that.

            1. Sleeping Dragon says:

              I don’t know if reheating this particular meatloaf is a good idea but yeah, largely this. Also, since EA have been in the business of developing and publishing games for a long time and since they own multiple studios I feel like it is kinda their job to have people analysing the failures and figuring out what will and will not work. I do realise both that this is not easy and there will always be some misses, and that the irony is I’m sort of accusing EA of not meddling enough when most people accuse them of meddling too much but whichever it is it’s clear somebody’s doing something wrong.

    2. Abnaxis says:

      I don’t understand this idea that when a subordinate fucks up–and nobody steps in to straighten them out–somehow their management gets to wash their hands of it.

      My wife is a manager with an employee who clearly isn’t happy in their job and keeps putting out half-assed, incorrect work. Saying Maxis’ screw up shouldn’t be lain at EA’s feet is like saying my wife should let her disgruntled employee turn their bad work into the customer–SHE’S not the one half-assing, it after all…

      Obviously, that’s not how it works. When my wife’s employee is not delivering, it is her job to straighten them out before they make an ass out of the company before a customer. By the same token, it’s literally EA’s job to straighten out fucked up projects before they go gold. Otherwise, why are they in charge?

      1. Sartharina says:

        Here’s the issue – the employee in question ISN’T disgruntled or putting out obviously half-assed work. Instead, they’re the contracted specialist with a reputation of success and enthusiasm, and possess greater knowledge of their field than HR and the employer- after all, that’s what they’re hired for.

        So if you hire an expert, do you trust them to do the job you hired them for, of try to micromanage them even though you don’t know everything about what they’re doing?

        1. Mikko Lukkarinen says:

          There is a middle ground between letting them do whatever and micromanagement.

        2. Abnaxis says:

          Short answer: It’s literally EA’s only job to give good ideas a thumbs up and bad ideas a thumbs down. They shouldn’t be relying on their employees to decide what gets the thumbs up/down. Otherwise, why are they in charge?

          Long answer: Going back to my analogy, whether the employee is disgruntled or out of their depth or there’s a miscommunication of project scope between the employee and the customer or whatever the reason, as my manager it’s my wife’s job to catch that kind of thing early on and straighten it out before it causes issue with the customer. If she can’t do that she should quit and find someone who can. That’s not micromanagement–she isn’t hold the employees’ hands every step of the way–but it does mean she has to know her ass from a hole in the ground, not just rely on the employees and blindly back them because “they’re the experts.”

          It’s not employees’/developers’ job to know the bigger picture. It’s not their job to know the corporate finances. It’s not their job to know market trends or to run cost/benefit analyses. It’s not their job to manage customers expectations. Their only functions are to propose work, do work when it’s approved, and report on work when it’s done.

          Everything else is up to someone higher up in the chain. If the people higher in the chain can’t do these things without relying solely the employees doing the work, they should not be in charge.

          1. Decius says:

            If EA would realize that it’s literally their business model to hire/buy people with a demonstrated history of being better than them at figuring out what ideas are good, and that they can just let them do that and extract rent from their ownership stake, they’d be richer, less hated, and still have productive and beloved studios.

            It’s BECAUSE they think that they are adding value by approving ideas that they feel the need to approve and deny and meddle with ideas, which is what is destroying EA.

            Yeah, most of middle management could be replaced with nothing, and most of what is left could be replaced with a few lines on a spreadsheet. That’s true of most large organizations.

    3. Teddy says:

      You’re not wrong, but I don’t think you’re entirely right, either. My mother-in-law worked at a company that got acquired by EA, and she talked about how drastically things changed even though her studio was still technically allowed to make its own decisions. Stuff like games they were really excited about getting shelved to work on projects that the EA execs were excited about instead – sure, it was her studio’s decision, but they would not have made that decision without EA. She talked about how her studio’s CEO was convinced he was getting a good deal with the EA acquisition, that he was still going to get to call the shots, but not five years later, it was like it was a completely different company. They still had their old name, still worked on (some of) the same IP, still even had a lot of the same staff – but the work was different, the standards were different, the expectations were different, the atmosphere was different. It was just another EA studio.

      The tone is set at the top. Even if individual studios get to make a lot of the surface-level decisions, EA is controlling the corporate culture, a lot of the hiring process, internal support, etc.

      I don’t say all this to throw shade at EA necessarily, just pointing out that, once a studio has been owned by them for more than a few years, there’s no real point in differentiating. Just like my MIL’s studio morphed into being just another arm of EA, the Maxis that made SimCity wasn’t the Maxis that made Theme Hospital, and the Bioware that currently exists isn’t the Bioware that made Knights of the Old Republic. Whether they’re better or worse, they’re EA now. Any credit or blame is shared equally.

    4. Shamus says:

      At the time, EA’s big corporate strategy was “Everything is multiplayer!” EA execs were predicting the death of offline, single-player experiences. That was the vision for the future.

      So while it’s true that nobody at EA put a gun to anyone’s head and said, “Make this always online!”, the Maxis team was following the company leadership.

      Maybe Maxis knew this design was horrible, but felt they needed this multiplayer system in place to get the project approved and funded. Maybe they simply trusted what the leadership was telling them, thinking that single-player really was going extinct and they needed to adapt. Either way, the terrible ideas came from the non-gaming dunces running the show at EA.

      And finally, blame goes to EA because they shuttered the studio instead of adapting. Corporate looked at the SimCity 2013 fiasco and said, “Nope, I can’t think of any way we could possibly make a viable city sim game. I guess the genre is dead.” And then they fired everyone.

      Two years later, a team of 13 people (!!!!) made a huge hit that set a new gold standard for the genre and is STILL selling DLC five years later.

      EA had the team and the IP rights to a fabulously recognizable and (previously) successful franchise. And they still managed to fail spectacularly because it didn’t fit with their moronic vision.

      1. Ninety-Three says:

        Corporate looked at the SimCity 2013 fiasco and said, “Nope, I can’t think of any way we could possibly make a viable city sim game. I guess the genre is dead.” And then they fired everyone.

        To be fair, I think that (emphasis added) this might have been an accurate assessment of EA-Maxis.

        You’re the one always going on about tone at the top and how that shifts a studio’s culture, it seems entirely plausible that the specific set of people and organizations EA had were not capable of making Cities Skylines.

        1. Shamus says:

          I agree, the Maxis team was probably a mess long before anyone came up with the ridiculous design for SC2013.

          EA keeps paying all this money for studios* and then having the creative staff leave. They end up with valuable IP and nobody with the talent / leadership skills to continue it. It’s like they don’t realize how much people matter in a creative industry. They act like they’re running fast food franchises where you can replace your current crop of low-skill workers with a fresh crop of teenagers whenever you want. They think they can just slap Sim City or Mass Effect on a box and people will continue to buy it. (Which is true for one or two games before the fans catch on and leave.) And then when the new team fails, EA closes the studio and shelves the IP. “Oh well. I guess people don’t want those kinds of games anymore.”

          From the outside, it’s very hard to figure out where the process is actually going wrong.

          1) The old talent hates the EA company culture and leaves?
          2) The old talent gets sick of their actually GOOD ideas being shot down in favor of monetization-focused priorities?
          3) The old talent bails when forced into endless crunch mode, because they’re respected professionals with awesome resumes and they don’t need to put up with that bullshit to make a living?
          4) The old talent, aware of EA’s horrible reputation, bails the moment the sale goes through, leaving the industry, moving to a safer studio, or pursuing passion projects via crowdfunding?

          And then when the new talent takes over:

          1) The new talent isn’t so talented. Their ideas are terrible and EA greenlights the project anyway because they can’t tell good ideas from bad?
          2) The new talent has great ideas, but they’re always shot down in favor of multiplayer, loot boxes, fragmentary DLC, or whatever the flavor of the month is?
          3) The talent has good ideas, but they’re trying to please the EA leadership by embracing the current fad strategy?
          4) The new talent is skeptical of the EA strategy, but they figure maybe the leadership knows something they don’t. So they pursue a bad design even though their gut tells them it doesn’t make a lot of sense?

          It’s hard to say. Certainly individuals make mistakes all over the place, and developers are just as fallible as the rest of us. But on a macro level, the blame has to go uphill because we keep seeing similar mistakes made again and again.

          * Ok, not so much lately, but they’re pretty much out of big-name stuff to buy.

          1. That and Microsoft went on a bender of buying up medium-name stuff.

      2. Scerro says:

        To be fair, the team that made Cities: Skylines ALSO made Cities in Motion 1&2, which gave them the experience and background. Skylines is literally just them building off those games into a fully fledged city simulator. Traffic is their expertise. Seeing as that came out in 2011 (CiM2 in 2013), they had a very solid running start and the chance to implement necessary overhauls to their traffic system come Skylines.

        Funny thing is a friend and I would play CiM2 where we’d start with gobbles of cash but an empty map, then build our own roads and the city would fill in around them. Like a pseudo city-sim, but multiplayer. We said during that time “too bad they haven’t made a City Sim.”

        Skylines doesn’t drag me in quite like Factorio, but it’s very pleasing to see another proper product come from a very talented, self respecting, visionary independent studio. They catered to their strengths and what they know, and they became the Gold Standard for their hard work.

      3. ElementalAlchemist says:

        made a huge hit

        Did they though? It may have been a huge hit for what is effectively an indie game, but I don’t think they would be making the sort of money that would excite Android Wilson. And that’s why Maxis was shuttered (not that it was him that did it, but all those CEOs have the same thirst for $$$). It wasn’t that they couldn’t make a profitable city building game, it’s that they couldn’t make a ridiculously profitable city building game.

        1. Hector says:

          It’s difficult to say. Sure, it’s probably AAA-level profits in bulk form, but it’s definitely been very profitable in relative terms. The game didn’t take much to create and still hits something like 17000 simultaneous players. The lowest it goes is around 12,000. That’s a pretty impressive run for a five-year old game. It doesn’t sell MXs but there’s ample DLC, and the strong modding community (which is the kind of selling point that EA fundamentally cannot seem to comprehend).

          The upper management at EA seems to have a very difficult time understanding the concept of Market Segmentation, which is about as basic management as you can get. EA, however, seems to only understand the latest trend, except they’re usually a year or several behind the trend, and they don’t seem to comprehend that not every trend makes sense for every product/game. I can’t imagine them trying to release a game like DOOM since it doesn’t have enough room for MXs, let alone something like Animal Crossing.

          1. ElementalAlchemist says:

            I think there’s a difference between not understanding and not caring. They are geared up for Marlin fishing. They aren’t interested in a handful of Minnows.

            1. Hector says:

              But by doing so, they’ve made their company’s skillset narrower and more volatile. Being increasingly limited to one or two markets that they only dominate due to sheer size will look good for a while, but if anything goes wrong at all, they’ve nothing to fall back on.

              This is a company for which Jedi:Fallen Order is a wild gamble, and that’s incredibly basic gameplay at this point.

          2. Sleeping Dragon says:

            Exactly. I mean, just how much AAA appeal does a city builder with a fairly detailed traffic simulations have? If EA is only interested in publishing on that scale, and it is perfectly their right to assume that as their business model and core competence*, they have no place even trying certain genres.

            *Though we could argue how much of a good job they’re doing in this field as well.

    5. John says:

      I don’t know about Sim City, but the blame for the Spore debacle seems to lie mostly with Maxis. Spore was Will Wright pulling a late-period Peter Molyneux, not some EA-imperative. I’ve listened to a number of podcasts where former Spore devs place the blame on bad project management within Maxis and describe EA as incredibly supportive.

      1. ElementalAlchemist says:

        Spore was a god damn shame. That alpha footage that Will Wright showed off (at GDC I think) a few years before the retail version came out looked so much better mechanically than what we actually got. The final product was extremely watered down in comparison.

  4. Lino says:

    Another great video!

    Just a couple of things:

    1. I think the caption for the last image is wrong.
    2. You should try to plug your blog a bit more during your videos. And I don’t mean just mention it in passing – you could put up a slide or two with a screenshot of a relevant article. I think you had a good chance to do it while talking about your worldbuilding city
    3. And speaking of the worldbuilding example, I expected you to go off on a tangent and tell us all about it! I know you spoke about it on the podcast, but I still feel cheated! Next time, I expect to see two tangents as recompense, or at the VERY LEAST a terrible car analogy!

  5. djingdjan says:

    I remember you saying the same thing about Minecraft ten years ago. It’s been that long, wowee.

  6. raifield says:

    There was no definitive lose state in the form of a Game Over screen.

    I’m pretty sure you’ll get driven out of City Hall if your approval rating is too low, ending the game, but maybe that was only in the Super Nintendo (best) version.

    1. The Puzzler says:

      I played the Amiga one and I don’t think that happened. Nintendo probably asked them to make it more gamey.

  7. Groboclown says:

    Thanks for including Microsoft Bob in the “is it a game” collage. Back when it came out I had discussions with friends where this topic came up. It had a definite end state (system crash), but the player had to define their own goals (I want to run a program).

  8. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    I found this video pleasant enough to watch, but it kind of felt like a blog post more than a Dumb Industry video. I don’t mean because of the positivity, but more because of a lack of a strong thesis (other than City Skyline’s pretty great).

    1. Echo Tango says:

      Maybe add a different label to videos like this? Gotta get the branding right for them YouTube videos! :)

  9. ElementalAlchemist says:

    You should ask the developer for some sort of kickback Shamus. I’m dangerously close to buying the damn thing and its hojillion DLCs now after watching the video, and I suspect I am not alone.

    1. Decius says:

      Steam has a two-hour refund policy.

      1. ivan says:

        kickback does not mean refund

  10. Ninety-Three says:

    Win and loss conditions are bad conditions for “is this a game?” There are lots of endless survival games where you just keep playing until you die with no possibility of victory, and those are uncontroversially games despite lacking a win condition. Then there are puzzle games where for every “push block north” action you can take, there’s a corresponding “push block south” action to undo it: with every action being reversible, you can’t get stuck in an unsolvable state and so can’t lose. But puzzle games are still games.

    I’m fond of Mark Rosewater’s definition of a game: A game is a thing with a goal (or goals), restrictions, agency, and a lack of real-world relevance. Something with no goals is a toy, like a model train set. Something with no restrictions is an activity, like hiking. Something with no agency is an event, like a movie (cough Dear Esther cough). Something with real-world relevance is just life, like packing your suitcase.

    1. The Puzzler says:

      Half-Life has about as much agency as Dear Esther. Crusader Kings 2 doesn’t have a fixed goal. Do we really need to define ‘game’ so strictly?

      1. Ninety-Three says:

        Half-Life has about as much agency as Dear Esther.

        Dear Esther has slightly more agency than a book (ooh, you can walk off the main path until you get bored and go back to walking forward). Half-Life has combat which involves substantially more agency.

        Do we really need to define ‘game’ so strictly?

        I dunno, should words mean things? Maybe anything we want can be a game. Maybe MS Paint is a game. Maybe that’s not a very useful thing to do with language.

      2. Cynic says:

        Don’t be silly.

        Half-Life has exponentially more agency than Dear Esther in a ludic sense.

        If you’re looking at the story, sure, you’re barreled through the same plot regardless of what you do so long as you succeed, but the agency is about making decisions, and you absolutely DO make decisions with agency in the GAME as opposed to the STORY of Half-Life. I have the agency to choose to avoid some enemies, try to save NPCs, to choose what weapon I’m going with, etc. That will influence the outcome of the gameplay and my experience-that’s agency. It’s limited to what the devs coded and put in and the rules-but that’s literally what makes it a game, it’s an artificially constructed system.

        That’s not a criticism of Dear Esther either, it’s just a factual criticism of your data. Just because something has limited agency or vague goals does not ruin the definition, and this is needless nitpicking.

        Also CK2 does have a pretty obvious set of goals that the game ushers you towards and literally tutorialises. The goal of CK, and other strategy games of a similar nature, is to manage your empire as best you can, expanding, making deals, and trading, to better the station of your faction. It literally describes some events as victories and successes, placing value on the outcome of decisions.

        It is a vague goal, not a win condition, and it has multiple solutions, but it’s still a goal. Goals here are important because they simplify the over-specificity of win/lose conditions, which is blatantly a poor criterion.

        It’s not a strict definition, it’s a very broad one: A game is a system defined by rules which you engage with and make decisions and engage with, in pursuit of a goal. The rules define the parameters of interaction, and are agreed to as a collective fiction to participate in the game. And personally, I don’t think it does what it was introduced here particularly to do. It is an advantage that the definition is broad-and by the way, some people would contend that puzzles like a rubix cube are not games-so I’d like to point out that you’re complaining that a different set of standards excludes something YOU consider to be a game, because they are not YOUR standards for excluding what YOU do not consider to be games.

        Personally, I don’t think nitpicking the difference between “games” and “toys” is helpful either-it’s childish “Stay out of my clubhouse nonsense”, I’m sorry, just because Dear Esther has a severely limited amount of agency, doesn’t make it meaningfully different in such a way to define not just a different genre but a different medium. Just because instead of choosing whether to Tau cannon or magnum a Marine, you’re choosing the pace at which you progress through a story and gradually investigate an environment, does not mean you have no agency. You have less, there are less choices you can make, and they are less meaningful, but well, if you want to pretend that agency that is patently there is not-then someone will come along and pretend that because your actions have no bearing on the outcome of the plot of Half-Life, that essentially, the shooting was just the walking, and that whatever you do, you have no real control beyond the very limited interactions given to you. That lack of agency doesn’t particularly concern me, nor anyone who isn’t trying to draw some pointless line in the same where “Thing I like” is on the good side and “Thing I dislike” is on the bad side. It’s just a really useless bit of nitpicking. I’m not saying agency is not a good criteria-decision making is important to games, I’m saying that trying to use agency to police the cultural space as you have done, will lead to people making equally bad faith readings of your theory, as has happened here-which actually hurts your ability to communicate ideas usefully, because these definitions were not created because they were necessary, they’re not scientific, academic, or even useful-they’re a political tool in an especially tired old gaming argument.

        It’s also an argument that is absolutely useless to crafting games, so it’s one that really needn’t be had-everyone is wrong, and everyone’s time was wasted. It’s like people trying to define music, or art in general, so that they can decide that something else isn’t. Thing is, that never works, and inevitably the things that you exclude, that you are afraid of including, will find an audience anyway. I don’t like harsh industrial noises, but gosh, there’s a subgenre for that! Many said when photography was invented that it wasn’t an art as it did not require the same skillset as a painter. I don’t like pretentious artist-statement driven modern art, particularly when it seems to be driven by an adolescent drive to be shocking and gross-turns out that the largest museum of art in my city loves it and exhibits almost exclusively things of that nature.

        Nothing is gained by saying “This is not art” “This is not a game” “This is not music” whatever. Just admit that you don’t like or appreciate the piece or the intent, and understand that you’re heading deep into the most foetid epistomological and philosophical weeds, and the only joy you’ll get of it is being as boring to read as my post here.

        Like, we should work for Macquarrie. We are arguing over what we should make up as a definition. (And psssst-it’s also not how language works because when you try to define things out, or define things only with reference to an incomplete set, you are engaging in pedantic prescriptive definitions, when language is far more commonly descriptive, try as we might to hold onto it as we wish it to be, rather than what it is).

        1. Ninety-Three says:

          Personally, I don’t think nitpicking the difference between “games” and “toys” is helpful either-it’s childish “Stay out of my clubhouse nonsense”

          Imagine if there were a bunch of people trying to get Civilization labeled as a roguelike. That’s not how the word “roguelike” is normally used, and it will lead to a number of people buying Civilization only to go “Hey, I was promised a roguelike, this is a bog-standard 4X game!” In this hypothetical world of “Is Civilization a roguelike?”, is insisting that Civ isn’t a roguelike childish gatekeeping, or an attempt to retain our ability to use language to describe reality, so that people can get the right information about Civ?

          I propose that this is the world we are in with Dear Esther. Take a look at the Steam Reviews some time: most of the negative ones have a clear theme of being upset that Dear Esther is “not a game”. Do you think those people would have bought Dear Esther and gotten upset about it not being a game if whoever recommended it to them had said “Dear Esther is a great Not-A-Game”?

          1. Echo Tango says:

            Do you mean the modern usage of “roguelike”, or the correct definition? Seriously, that term is as useful as the phrase “whole cloth”, because it relies on pre-existing knowledge of what it means. “First-person shooter”, “strategy”, “squad-based tactics”, and similar terms are all self-descriptive.

            1. RFS-81 says:

              Every game with a fail state can be a roguelike… unless you’re a coward.

              Jokes aside, having a word for old-school roguelikes seems useful.

              1. tmtvl says:

                Let’s call the proper roguelikes roguelikes and the modern dungeon crawlers *bands.

                1. Syal says:

                  Call the new breed Roguelikes, and call the old breed RoguelikeLikeRogues.

                2. Decius says:

                  What would we call the *bands that aren’t roguelikes?

            2. Decius says:

              “Correct definition”
              “This definition of “Roguelike” was created at the International Roguelike Development Conference 2008″

              That’s clearly not the correct definition, since it was invented at a conference that was already using the term before it adopted the definition.

          2. Geebs says:

            Dear Esther would be a good deal less unbearable if it wasn’t stuffed full of awful Will Self fanfic. Whether or not it’s a game is a minor concern in comparison.

            1. Ninety-Three says:

              Yeah, even as an ardent “Not a game” person, I was always kind of annoyed by how the game-or-not discussion buried some of the glaring issues with how Dear Esther is a terrible whatever it is. The narration is random, as in they prerecorded all of it and then instead of giving it to you in whatever sequence the author thought was best, they just throw the pages of the script into the air and let the computer play 52 Pickup. Who thought that was a good idea!?

              1. Shamus says:

                In defense* of Dear Esther: I fell for it. On my first trip through the game, I honestly thought the game was saying something clever. The script was incredibly evocative, and the individual passages made me curious to understand the whole. When it was over, I was honestly frustrated with myself for being too thick to put it all together and understand the story. I reached the end feeling a certain degree of emotion, buying into the premise that I had just made some sort of pilgrimage.

                Then on my second trip through the game I noticed that the “magic” of the game was basically having a really good vocal performer read bits of disconnected text that function more as poetry than narration.

                I still give the game credit for creating some emotion and having a fascinating atmosphere, but it’s a magic trick that can’t work twice and isn’t NEARLY as meaningful or clever as it pretends to be. If it was a longer game I’d probably be angry at it for wasting my time, but as a 40-minute micro-budget experience I sort of give it a pass. Having said that, if someone else makes a game where you wander around an isolated location and a narrator reads you random text fragments, I’m not going to be in a hurry to check it out.

                * This isn’t really a defense, this is just condemning it for a different crime.

                1. Scerro says:

                  To be fair, good voice acting and getting you emotionally involved at all is a success. It may be a trick, but it’s a good one. It’ll at least help drag some of the players to start to care about the story. Which, anymore it’s so easy to be jaded and ignore the story – especially in video games, that a well performed bit of voice acting can get players connected.

                  Of course as you well know most video game stories still manage to be meaningless, so it doesn’t help by the end.

                2. Decius says:

                  If someone else makes a *game* out of wandering around an isolated location while a narrator reads randomly from a selection of fragments, I’d check it out!

    2. Ninety-Three says:

      Something with no goals is a toy, like a model train set.

      Elaborating a bit, this helps illustrate a bit of the “Cities Skylines both is and isn’t a game” stuff Shamus was getting at. Consider a basketball and a hoop. You can use them to play basketball, which is obviously a game, but you can also just use them to shoot free throws for half an hour and that’s obviously not a game. The ball is not itself a game, it can be used to play a game, and it can also be used as a toy. The same can be said of Cities Skylines (of lots of videogames really, but Cities moreso than most).

    3. Sleeping Dragon says:

      So here’s the thing, I don’t particularly insist on calling things “games” because yeah, language is a messy, imperfect and imprecise tool. To quote Pratchett “Let me put forward another suggestion: that you are nothing more than a lucky species of ape that is trying to understand the complexities of creation via a language that evolved in order to tell one another where the ripe fruit was.”. Problems begin when we’re starting to do things like “walking sims should not be available on Steam because they’re not games” on the one hand, and on the other when we start to apply the same criteria (particuarly value judgements) to works that were created with drastically different purposes.

      I mean, if I really wanted to I could poke holes in your favoured definition the whole day. Destiny 2 does this thing where completing certain in game objectives unlocks access to real life merch (like, you can only buy a hoodie with this logo if you completed this activity in game), thus it has real life relevance therefore Destiny 2 is not a game (and that’s without getting into philosophising on whether the fact that games can do things like help you relax, change your outlook on things, educate you, distract you, have you interact with a community, cost you money etc. gives them real life relevance).

      Merriam-Webster defines “movie” as “a recording of moving images that tells a story and that people watch on a screen or television”. We can treat the definition as open and inclusionary and once we start stretching we’ll end up with something like “(almost) all video games are movies” (or become movies under certain circumstances), or we can go exclusionary and then Dear Esther is definitely not a movie (and with some work probably a good chunk of “movies” are not “movies”).

      Agency is, again, somewhat nebulous with so many games having the gameplay and story segregation, do I have agency if the story is effectively a movie that stops every 10 minutes and I have to solve math equations for an hour before watching the next 10 minutes?

      The “goals” you mention yourself in your follow up post, though I do have to point out that in this case it becomes something of a Schroedinger’s term since something can literally be a game and not be a game at the same time. I understand it’s sort of your point but it does undermine the utility of the definiton if we wanted to use it to, say, determine whether something should fall under the same laws as a “game”.

      Again, at the end of the day I actually somewhat agree with you that the term “video game” is not ideal. My point is more that it would be very hard to create an actual working, satisfactory definition.

      1. Ninety-Three says:

        Counterpoint: We can’t even come up with a perfect definition of “chair”, and that’s about as well-understood and simple as real-world objects get. Creating prefect definitions is really hard, especially in the presence of a smart-aleck motivated to keep poking holes in them. And yet, this is not some insurmountable problem for the project of putting things into categories because humanity still manages to have definitions, This is not a bad definition just because you can reach for a hole to poke in it, because that is all definitions.

        Problems begin when we’re starting to do things like “walking sims should not be available on Steam because they’re not games”

        And here we get to the real issue. Team “Dear Esther is a game” will occasionally admit that their motivation is for Dear Esther to be on Steam and sell many copies. What I want is for words to mean things and this argument keeps happening because Team Dear Esther finds that inconvenient. The odd part is that classifying Dear Esther isn’t necessary at all. You know that Steam sells self-described non-games right? Whether it’s experimental arty stuff, or literal screensavers and video editing software, you can buy that on Steam. One look at Dear Esther’s negative reviews is enough to show that people clearly were given the wrong impressions about Dear Esther’s gaminess, but you don’t have to mislead anyone to grow the market for arty stuff.

        1. Sleeping Dragon says:

          Okay, so I somehow doubt you’ve ever seen someone be like “ah yes, our nefarious plan was to trick people who are buying games into buying Dear Esther and steal their money for our artsy fartsy projects!”. I mean, we’re starting to borderline on strawmanning here, “Team Dear Esther”? Really? I could entertain the notion too that there is, say, some kind of team “Real Gamer” that wants to bar all walking sims, and visual novels, and idlers, and casual games (and I do remember an uproar about “games for housewifes flooding Steam”) because all they want is games about shooting acceptable targets. This kind of thing leads nowhere.

          As a brief aside I actually went to Dear Esther’s review page on Steam and while there are still some slight echoes of the “is it a game” debate I’m not seeing people claiming they were tricked into thinking it’s somehow different. Yes, a bunch of people say it’s boring or that it only gives the impression of being profound while actually being rather vacuous but I’m not seeing someone say that they bought the game thinking it was going to be something else. I’d honestly rather not start dragging each review out and try to dissect it for whether this person says it’s boring because they expected something else but I felt that the absolute way you expressed this sentiment had to be addressed.

          The thing is I think we’re having a case of talking past each other. We’ve both seen each other here before lots of times and I think we can both give each other the benefit of doubt in assuming that we’re trying to present our arguments to the best of our abilities and in best of faiths. You’re arguing from the position of establishing strict academic terminology (even though I think I’ve demonstrated and it would seem in your chair counterexample you acknowledge that pretty much any definition is going to have a degree of arbitrariness), I’m arguing from the side of practical applicability while acknowledging that calling some of these… “things” games stretches the definition at best or is plain shorthand.

          There is one more thing, I don’t particularly want to play the minority card but I will admit that I think part of my reaction to this discourse in general stems from the fact that, again coming from the side of practical applicability rather than academic definitions, I associate the idea of people insisting on something “not being this thing” as an attempt to be exclusionary. Again, not trying to accuse you in particular of it, just pointing out that while the “DE is a game” side of the argument probably has some bad faith arguments along the lines of “let’s show those stupid gamers what real culture is” so too does the “is not a game” have some who push it on the same grounds people were trying to bar manga from comic book conventions because “it’s manga, not a comic and therefore it has no room here” or claiming that slash fanfiction wasn’t “real fanfiction because it is slash which is something different”.

          1. Ninety-Three says:

            My actual words are right there.

            their motivation is for Dear Esther to be on Steam and sell many copies.

            I have talked to multiple people who admit to exactly this. No villainous steepling of the fingers, just a goal to to motivate reasoning about categories.

            Luckily, I already went through sixty reviews and dissected them years ago on another forum. Breakdown of the negatives:

            Explicitly agree Dear Esther is a game: 6%
            Implicitly agree Dear Esther is a game (casual use of “game”): 29%
            Implicitly disagree Dear Esther is a game (major critique of lack of gameyness): 8%
            Explicitly disagree Dear Esther is a game: 38%
            No comment/joke review: 15%

            A smaller sample of the positive reviews came out to nearly half “not a game”. Your vague impressions are wrong, a majority of people seem to think it’s not a game.

            I am not arguing a strict academic definition and the article I linked is an attempt to come up with a definition that matches usage, the exact opposite of that. I am describing how the word is actually used and what expectations it creates. Coming from the side of practical applicability, many people bought Dear Esther, noticed that it was not a game, and were very unhappy about this. We should apply language in a practical way to communicate to people what Dear Esther is, because that clearly did not happen here.

  11. 0451fan0451 says:

    Does Cities do a good job of teaching players new to city building? I tried to get into the genre on a whim and bought Sim City 4 and really struggled to adjust. There is totally a chance I’m just thick but I just couldn’t quite get a handle what layouts were conducive to growth.

    1. Ian B. says:

      From what I remember, yes. I haven’t played SimCity 4 in a while, but I seem to recall it just throwing you out in the deep end and assuming that you already know how to swim. Cities: Skylines opens up sort of slowly, allowing you to get used to the basics before steadily adding complexity.

      Cities: Skylines is also cross-platform (I can say with confidence that the Linux version is solid is a rock) and, in my experience, is far more stable than SimCity 4 is, at least on modern operating systems.

      1. 0451fan0451 says:

        Well thank you. I’ll certainly be giving it a try in the near future then.

    2. Sabrdance (Matthew H) says:

      I almost answered this question wrong…

      So, I teach urban planning (as part of a curriculum in asset based community development -so, I teach economic development people what the folks next door in the planning office are doing so they can fruitfully communicate with each other) and I use Cities: Skylines as a teaching tool. My predecessor in the class used SimCity4, but it was getting hard to find a -at that time -15 year old game. So, for actual teaching of building actual cities, it’s… OK. The traffic simulation is pretty good, and my students certainly came to appreciate why roundabouts became a thing, and they understand how interstates are both a blessing and a curse, and they come to appreciate why classical city design is based on grids, and so on.

      The city service simulation is less good, and the game doesn’t model fiscal zoning very well at all because larger, more expensive homes have more people in them, when the point of fiscal zoning is to get lots of money in property tax off few people demanding services. So, in terms of “this is why cities look the way they do” it’s very helpful. In terms of “this is how city planning works,” less well.

      Now, to answer the correct question: every year I have a bunch of grad students play the game. Every year, it takes them about a month to get the hang of it, and about another month to become good enough to design and build a city.

      Learning to budget, and learning to expand services at the same time as the city expands is probably the thing they struggle with the most. Traffic management they get the hang of fairly quickly.

      1. Decius says:

        Do you find that Skylines is good enough a traffic simulator that people who use it to learn about traffic management will make better traffic managers than people who omit it?

        1. Sabrdance (Matthew H) says:

          Nothing replaces actually going out with traffic engineers and seeing how roads are designed and planned, but it is the next best thing.

  12. djw says:

    Doom Marines face was part of the UI! I don’t think the question of whether or not Doom Marine had a mustache was up for debate at all!

    The answer is no.

    1. Mikko Lukkarinen says:

      The mustache was in his heart.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        That sounds like it would cause health problems.

        1. Mikko Lukkarinen says:

          Maybe that’s why the Doom Marine couldn’t look up/down.

  13. RFS-81 says:

    Sim City 2013 sounds like a Sierra city builder on drugs. In those games, buildings spawn people that randomly walk the streets and do something for the houses they pass by, for example a temple will spawn a priest, and the neighborhoods he passes by then have access to religious services and attract more and wealthier people. It’s wonky as hell, but at least they didn’t try to simulate people going to work like that. Or electricity, but they didn’t have that in ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece anyway.

    1. Hector says:

      Wow I miss those games. I always got burned out by the middle of the campaigns, but I did love the challenges. I keep hoping for a revival since it would be inexpensive, and I think a more. Modern games could incorporate variant systems to challenge the player with building with more complexity. Ideally you could create more organic cities that also feel distinctly pre-modern, ideally with enough room for player expression.

      1. Sabrdance (Matthew H) says:

        I, too, loved those games. I think Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom really got the formula correct. It was more like Factorio -where your roads are the conveyor belts to move people, and you used gates and roadblocks to control what traveled on the roads.

        Not a remotely accurate city transportation sim, but a very fun puzzle box.

  14. krellen says:

    Shamus, I appreciate the little Easter Egg you left for those few of us that watch the video AND read the article.

    1. Hector says:

      What was the surprise? I read it and watched it, but am not sure what you mean.

      1. krellen says:

        He has different meals while reading reddit.

  15. Ninety-Three says:

    Not A Typo But Something Like It Patrol: The caption “If we’re talking about titles with ambiguous levels of game-y-ness, then Fallout 76 should be on here” is used for two different images, and I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean to use it for the residential->industrial->commercial diagram.

      1. Nimrandir says:

        Regarding the new caption: I applaud you for sticking with the hyphenated name for Wal-Mart. I thought I was the only holdout.

        1. Codesections says:

          Well, you may not be the only holdout, but you have held out longer than Walmart itself

  16. I haven’t played a city sim in a long time, but this video makes me want to try Cities: Skylines. Maybe. I think I need to do something about my colossal backlog first.

  17. MaxEd says:

    I played Skylines a little, but for some reason, never was able to get into it fully. Probably because I don’t like sandboxes any more. But I loved the original Cities In Motion game, where you had to solve missions in constraints of already-built cities by planning routes and building tracks and stops (but not roads: roads were fixed). It was a bit too easy, but I still enjoyed the game very much. It’s much more fitting type of gameplay for me, and I wish CiM 2 was less sandbox-y – I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first game :( I feel like I’m in a minority here, as everyone loves sandboxes in last 10 years, but please, give me more traffic puzzles to solve!

  18. Frank says:

    I wonder how many cars and people are actually simulated. Does it only simulate the ones nearby? Maybe update intervals are further apart for distant people and cars?

    I wrote a procedural city generator that places 14K buildings across 7 cities with 10K moving people in the streets, 50K moving people in buildings, 4K moving cars, and 4.8K parked cars. Everything is simulated in background threads and the frame rate is still limited by the render thread. The trick is to plan the overall route of an agent once ahead of time, and then make local decisions at each intersection. That way the path finding only needs to be run every few minutes for a given agent, and they can move on a fixed path while only making adjustments ever few seconds.

    1. Shamus says:

      The game apparently simulates all cars on the road. There’s a hard cap of 16k cars at once. If your city gets really huge, then you’ll hit the 16k cap and city service vehicles (fire, police, ambulance, garbage) won’t be able to spawn. The city featured in the video is actually running into the 16k limit. I got a mod that helps, but the city runs so slowly now (20fps) that I’ve shelved it.

      I know it doesn’t DRAW all 16k cars. I’m not sure how many cars get rendered at a time.

      Also, the game doesn’t do pathfinding on a per-car basis. Instead it has a collection of shred routes like:

      * Here’s how to get from neighborhood A to the highway.
      * Here’s how to get from the highway on-ramp to the desired exit.
      * Here’s how to get from that exit to the (say) school.

      This saves a ton of CPU, at the cost of needing to store a ton of routes. Also, this technique has an unfortunate side-effect: The cars are fanatical about sticking to the pre-computed route, which means they won’t even switch lanes. A car will end up sitting behind a line of stopped cars in lane 1 where people are waiting to exit the freeway, when they could (if they had individual routing) switch to one of the three empty lanes and go on their way. I understand why this behavior exists, but it’s REALLY frustrating and greatly harms what is otherwise a fantastic simulation.

      1. Olivier FAURE says:

        That feels like the find of problem that should really be solved with A-star-with-pivots and similar heuristics.

        (That is, where normal A-star is just using the distance “as the crow flies” between two points to eliminate bad baths, advanced A-start will use pivots and choke points with pre-computed distances to eliminate even more bad paths and find the optimal path quickly)

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          Use the pre-computed path while traffic is good, and re-compute on a local level where there’s a traffic jam?

        2. Decius says:

          That would require that changes to the road layout be done while paused, and could result in huge problems if part of the road network is disconnected from the rest. With one-way roads, it’s not even easy to figure out connectedness.

        3. Frank says:

          I would say a good way to solve it is to compute the optimal path for the first car. Then when a second car’s path converges with the path of the previous car, and it’s going to a similar destination, you can reuse the calculation from the first car’s path. This way, common path computation can be shared by many future cars. Even if two cars start and end at somewhat different locations, then can share much of the path in between. We just need to cache a map from destination node to path at some of the high traffic intersections that many cars pass through.

          The simulation can have a map from road segments to precomputed paths. Then any time the road changes, all paths that use that segment are invalidated. Similarly, if a car finds that it’s path is somehow invalid, it can clear that path and choose a new one, then later cars will also pick up the new path. This way an expensive computation is shared over time by many cars.

          This is how I’ve implemented multi-agent path finding in dynamic environments. I’ve never tried to scale to 16K agents or such a large graph, but I’m sure it can be done.

          1. Steve C says:

            Then when a second car’s path converges with the path of the previous car, and it’s going to a similar destination, you can reuse the calculation from the first car’s path.

            I can see a flaw. That would guarantee everything uses the same path. So instant traffic jam. Soon as that jam is fixed, a brand new traffic jam will appear. Most roads would be empty except for the very few used by pretty much everything. The gameplay result is a jam the player can never fix, only move.

            It probably is already doing this for a certain amount of batches of cars. I doubt that all 16k routes are being constantly calculated. It’s a long way from a solution though.

  19. Chris says:

    My favorite simcity video is Brutalist communist blocks is the endgame in my play sessions, so seeing someone take it to the absolute limit is both terrifying and exciting.

  20. Philadelphus says:

    I too had that realization about roundabouts from playing Cities: Skylines, a few years before I moved to Australia and got to see them in actual use. And yeah, they’re pretty terrifying the first few times you drive on one (I really appreciate the opportunity to stop and mentally ‘catch my breath’ that a stop light or stop sign allows), but they sure do their job of keeping traffic flowing (amazingly without people constantly crashing into each other like you’d think if you hadn’t seen one in action before!).

    In the opposite direction, living in Melbourne and taking public transport for the first time in my life also made me realize how to utilize it more effectively in-game. Prior to this I’d kinda include it because, well, it was in the game, might as well dabble in it, right? Having grown up in the country and then lived in a moderately small city, my entire life I’d either driven or been driven to place I needed to go, so I my entire mental model of getting from point A to point B revolved pretty much entirely about cars for transportation, and the way the simulation works in C:S that really stops working once you get above ~20k people. Now I’ve finally got a better idea of how to lay out good public transport lines and hubs to get people around, and it’s showing in my latest city.

    1. Mr. Wolf says:

      The true test of any Melburnian: do you understand hook turns?

      Correct Answer: No. Only madmen and taxis drive in the CBD.

      1. ivan says:

        The true test is spelling Melbournian correctly. But yeah, I did like 5 hook turns with my driving instructor, and have correctly never driven anywhere near the CBD since.

        1. Mr. Wolf says:

          Yet my word is in the dictionary, and yours isn’t. Although I’d argue that both are valid, and that “Melburnian” makes as much sense as not naming your city after Batman.

      2. Philadelphus says:

        Well, I’ve actually only driven once since being here, and I was able to avoid the CBD at the time. I was mostly worried about driving on the opposite side of the road for the first time, but that turned out to be fine: the utterly terrifying thing turned out to be driving in the same lane as a tram with it coming up behind me.

  21. Agammamon says:

    . . . if the Doom Marine had a mustache . . .

    That Devil Dog has no disgutin’ moostash hairs on his upper lip. You wanna be a gaddamned Elvis you go join the Navy!

  22. anonymous coward says:

    Thanks for doing the proper closed captioning. I’m always amazed at how independent creators take the time to do this right but huge channels with a million+ subscribers just leave it to the auto-captions (which are better than nothing but never really good enough).

  23. kdansky says:

    Keith Burgun has written about this difference in terminology about a decade ago, and used the terminology “game” (Chess, Tennis, Quake) vs “toy” (LEGO, Dwarf Fortress). I highly recommend looking into his writing on the subject. The problem was he wrote it at the peak of the “iT’s nOt A gAmE” screaming match, and was therefore mostly disregarded outside of game design circles.

    Having good terminology is important to be able to analyse something, and that also holds true for all -ahem- interactive digital experiences, no matter how well they fit into the game or toy genres.

  24. Bubble181 says:

    Man…I really like/liked city builder games, but Cities: Skyline is just everything I don’t like about the genre. It’s spreadsheet work hidden under a nice visual shell.
    For me, the one I replay most is still Grand Ages of Rome. I know it’s not the best, shoot me.
    C:S is Traffic Engineer Simulator, and just isn’t very fun to me. I’ll take an older SimCity version over it any day. A graphics and UI reskin of SC2000 or SC3000 would be perfectly fine.
    I do prefer the Sierra style, though. Caesar 2, 3, 4; Zeus and Poseidon; Pharaoh,…there’re huge differences in how they approach things (radii, walkers, pathed walkers, etc) and some definitely work better than others.

    As far as roundabouts go, I’ve never understood people who are afraid of them or don’t understand them. I grew up with them, and it’s not like I’m that young anymore. The US was just slow to adopt these things. I can manage turbo, super, multi, what-have-you. Some versions lose what makes them useful, though. Rutgers
    There’s a three-lane roundabout with traffic lights before and on the circle, and it’s just useless.

    Lastly, as far as the whole game-or-not thing goes, I’m not particularly particular – but most definitions mentioned in the comments here would mean “doing my taxes” is a game, and I strongly disagree :-P

  25. Christopher says:

    While I’m down for cathartic rants, it’s neat to have a cool positive video for once. The comparative lack of editing this time around fits really well with the chill vibe of the game, and when it’s used the jokes are pretty funny. I think it speaks for itself. Just seeing how beautiful your city has become, it makes me want to make one on my own.

  26. Hellfire says:

    Also, electricity would invisibly wander the streets, looking for places that need another bucket of energy. It used a lot of processing power

    My friend Shamus, how can you be so wrong? It’s not wasting any processing power, its calculations are too complex for your CPU, the calculations were made by the central server, that’s why the game needed the always online component.
    Tzk tzk tzk.

  27. Bubble181 says:

    Just a quick post for anyone reading this a bit later, there’s currently a promotion for Cities: Skylines with 8 expansions over at Humble bundle. Check my website link for the site. It’s a great deal.

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