Like I said in my last article about this game, the assumption seems to be that the team at Colossal Order is working on a sequel. They haven’t announced the game yet but they’re putting out less content these days, so it makes sense that the team is either making a sequel or they’re all playing Doom: Eternal.
Assuming they are working on a sequel, it means that the game is still in the early stages of development. So now is a good time to offer some suggestions and constructive criticism to the developers.
Dear devs: You folks made an amazing game. According to Wikipedia, you had just 9 people on the team when you made Cities: Skylines. Making a full-scale city simulation with a team that small is a tall order. But making the BEST city simulation and beating the behemoth of EA Maxis isn’t just a tall order, it’s a…
oh. Right. I get it now.
What I’m getting at here is that I got really into this amazing game you made. It killed my productivity over the past couple of months and I basically stopped talking to people. This was hard on my family and kinda unfair to my Patrons. But look: I’m willing to forgive you for all of that. All you have to do is implement all of my ideas from this video, and we’ll call it even. Cool? Cool.
So first, I should make it clear that I’m not going to pad this list out with obvious stuff that would fall under the broad category of “more content”. This includes stuff like bigger maps, higher populations, more building styles, more vehicle types, and so on. I’m sure the developers want all this stuff too. This stuff is limited by budget and system specs, not by creativity. Like, if Skylines 2 has the same map size limitations as the first game, it won’t be because it never occurred to anyone at Colossal Order to make bigger maps. Instead it probably means there were performance concerns with their targeted platforms.
No, my suggestions are going to mostly focus on gameplay adjustments and balance issues. Broadly speaking, I’m looking for things that:
- Allow the player to make interesting decisions as they design their city and…
- …make for a better simulation that more accurately reflects the sort of challenges city-planners face. And finally…
- Make the city look more realistic or interesting in terms of behavior and layout.
Not every feature needs to check all of these boxes, but these are, broadly speaking, good things to strive for.
So, the number one thing I’d like to see added to the game is…
1. Get Rid of Deathcare
Okay, I know it sounds weird that the first feature I want is the removal of a feature, but hear me out.
Currently, the game requires you to deal with dead bodies. Every once in a while a citizen will die, and they’ll need to be taken to either a graveyard or a crematorium. There are several problems with this system. One is the so-called “death-wave” that passes over your city every few hours. For whatever reason, everyone who moves into your city is about the same age. They’re always uneducated young adults with the same projected lifespan. So what happens is the player will zone a huge block of new residential, a bunch of people will all move in at the same time, and then a few in-game years later they all drop dead at the same time. This abrupt mass death overwhelms your deathcare services, resulting in people abandoning their homes because they’re tired of waiting for the city to come and haul granny’s carcass away.
This problem is so perplexing and frustrating for players that the developers even uploaded a tutorial explaining how it works and how to avoid it. And the solution boils down to “have people move in more slowly”.
This is a ridiculous system. It makes for a nonsensical simulation. It makes your city look ridiculous by forcing you to cover the city in deathcare facilities to the point where crematoriums are more common than Starbucks. And worst of all, it doesn’t make for interesting gameplay for the player.
In the real world, city planners aren’t generally involved in corpse disposal. This sort of business generally falls to religious institutions and commercial enterprises. The game doesn’t really have any religion in its simulation. That’s fine, since religion is a touchy subject. If you include a place of worship for some religions and exclude others then people will take offense and that’s no fun. So it’s probably best to leave the spiritual buildings to modders. But if we’re not going to have religious or ceremonial buildings, then it feels really weird to simulate deathcare. It would be like having tons of schools in a gameworld that contains no children.
I never found myself playing Sim City or Cities XL and thought to myself, “This would be so much more immersive if I had to create a hole for dead bodies.” Even if this system made sense, it adds nothing to the game.
So rather than simulating deathcare, how about we simulate something that city planners DO need to worry about? How about we simulate…
Parking is a serious, ongoing problem in every major city. The need for parking impacts the layout of cities, the flow of traffic, the formulation of laws, and the behavior of citizens. Parking is a far-reaching system that’s inextricably bound to traffic management. It struck me as really odd that Cities: Skylines had such a detailed traffic simulation, but then the developers simulated body disposal and NOT parking.
Modders have done what they could to remedy this. If you’re on the PC, you can download mods that will add parking areas to the game and citizens will even use them. The problem is that modders couldn’t really add a whole new system to the game, so parking zones were added under the “parks and recreation” category. The result is that citizens will view your giant expanse of ugly parking lots as entertainment and neighborhood beautification. Tourists will fly to your city and spend the day relaxing with the family at the tiny parking lot beside your power plant.
Here’s what I propose for the sequel:
Commercial spaces will demand access to parking. Each commercial building will check for available parking within a small radius. If there’s not enough parking, then the place will be unable to function properly, similar to how places can malfunction if suffering from a lack of goods, workers, or customers. Instead of flooding the menu with parking lots of every possible size, just give the player the freedom to zone an area as parking and have the game fill it in for them. This will allow the player to fill in those little gaps and corners with parking, just like we see in the real world.
The downside of parking would be that it takes up a bunch of space but not bring in much revenue for the city. Per square meter, buildings will be more profitable than lots. The trick is that commercial buildings will demand less parking if they have good access to public transport. So now the player has a choice. They can invest in good public transport and enjoy densely packed buildings like in Tokyo, or they can ignore public transport and instead surrender large chunks of their city to parking like in the United States. The look of the city will emerge based on how focused they are on public transport.
The next thing I’d like to see is a fix for:
3. Farming Traffic
No joke. This is what traffic looks like around farmland in Cities: Skylines.
Please Colossal Order. Please stop this madness.
In Cities Skylines, farms count as industrial areas, and industrial areas generate huge amounts of traffic. So instead of farms being dirt roads with the occasional tractor, they generate downtown Los Angeles levels of traffic. This means that your farms need incredibly robust systems for traffic mitigation.
I guess the developers realized that their traffic simulation was really good, and so they tried to make everything tie into it. But this? This is crazy-pants ridiculous nonsense. It looks absurd, it makes no sense, and it means farming areas can’t really look like farming areas.
What’s worse, is that they did an overhaul to how farms work back in 2018 with the Industries DLC, and they did nothing to fix this. If anything, it might even be a little worse.
As a rough estimate, I’d say the game is creating about a hundred times more traffic than it should. It also creates an implausibly huge demand for jobs. Like, this game isn’t set in the medieval ages. Here in the modern world a single small-business farm can easily cover hundreds of acres, but Skylines acts like a small four-acre hobby farm is a factory that needs dozens of people.
What I suggest is that instead of generating massive amounts of traffic and jobs, farming should instead put an enormous drain on the city’s water system. I realize that the traffic simulation in this game is really good, but that’s no reason to create orders of magnitude more traffic than makes sense. It’s okay. Let farms be farms.
The next thing I’d like to see change is…
4. A Fix for Water and Electricity Delivery
In the game, you have to put water mains under your city for the citizens to tap into. So what happens is players just blanket the city with water pipes. The player doesn’t even need to take topography into account. Running pipes across an empty plain costs the same as running pipes up a mountain and under a lake. Water will even flow uphill. I’m not suggesting we should have the game simulate all the financial and engineering concerns of moving water through a city. I’m saying that since there aren’t any decisions to make and no room for optimizations, then there’s nothing to make this mechanic interesting for the player. You just draw evenly spaced lines all over your map. That’s not gameplay, that’s busywork.
This is very tedious, it makes no sense, and it looks absurd. In the real world, we put our water mains under our streets to carry water and utility poles overhead to carry electricity. We can make the game more realistic and less tedious by simply having the streets carry water and power, since that’s how things work in the real world.
The exception would be highways, which don’t have that sort of infrastructure. Players would need to run pipes and powerlines between cities, but they wouldn’t need to personally connect every single neighborhood to the grid. This will be more fun for the player, and it will let them focus on the interesting decisions the game has for them.
And while we’re talking about infrastructure, let’s talk about the problem of…
5. Effortless Self-Sufficiency
So you start a new city. You drop in a water pump. Then you add a sewage outflow pipe that dumps raw sewage into the river or ocean.
As an aside, can we get rid of this:
This game is set in the civilized world and dumping raw sewage into bodies of water isn’t a thing anymore. It would be really great if I didn’t need to commit a literal ecological crime every time I start a new city. Just give the player access to sewage treatment from the start. It’s not like sewage treatment is some mystical future technology that only big cities can afford.
Anyway, where was I?
Oh right. You start a city and add water inflow and outflow. Then you add a power plant. Soon after that you add a landfill. The player spends a lot of time at the start of the game building infrastructure. So what we have here is a tiny village that’s entirely self-sufficient. They have their own water system and power plant. That’s not how city growth works. Worse, this kind of clogs the start of the game for new players, since they have to read all these tutorials and build all of this infrastructure before they can even unpause the game for the first time.
Here is what I propose: At the start of the game, there are already power lines and water mains on the map that connect to neighboring cities. Just like the player connects to the existing road network, they can plug their city into these external utilities. The player will then automatically buy power and water from other cities, and pay to export their trash. As the game goes on, the player can eventually save up enough to build their own infrastructure. It’s cheaper to make your own power than to buy it from neighbors, so the player has an incentive to pursue independence. Self-sufficiency would be something you need to work towards over time, rather than having it handed to your tiny town at the start of the game.
And the final suggestion I have for Cities Skylines 2 is this:
6. Get Rid of “Cities”
I don’t mean take cities out of the game. I mean take the word “cities” out of the title. Just call it Skylines 2. I realize this seems sort of petty and has more to do with marketing than game design, but this title reminds me of the Descent Freespace problem.
For you young people who missed it: Way back in the mid 90s, there was this shooter called Descent. I was really into it at the time. A few years later, publisher Interplay wanted to launch a new franchise called Freespace, but they were worried about using a name with no brand recognition. So they slapped the word Descent on the box, calling it Descent Colon Freespace Dash The Great War. This was annoying and awkward, since that’s a ridiculously overblown title and the games had absolutely nothing to do with each other. Ironically, Freespace went on to be the bigger name and Descent was largely forgotten for the next decade. And sure enough, when Freespace 2 came out they dropped the Descent moniker because it wasn’t going to do anything but confuse people.
I feel like publisher Paradox has done something similar in the case of Cities: Skylines. I imagine they wanted to sort of connect this game to the developer’s previous project, which was the Cities in Motion series. So we got Cities Colon Skylines. But look: You don’t need to fight for recognition when you’re the top dog. Drop the word “city”, which is used by SimCity, Cities XL, Cities in Motion, and a bunch of other stuff. Those are all inferior games, so why associate with them? You’re the king of the genre and you’ve got the word Skylines all to yourself. That’s all yours. Embrace it.
So those are my suggestions for the sequel. But really, whatever you do, I’m sure it’ll be a success. Just don’t make it always online and we’ll be fine.
Why Batman Can't Kill
His problem isn't that he's dumb, the problem is that he bends the world he inhabits.
Punishing The Internet for Sharing
Why make millions on your video game when you could be making HUNDREDS on frivolous copyright claims?
Trusting the System
How do you know the rules of the game are what the game claims? More importantly, how do the DEVELOPERS know?
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
Batman: Arkham City
A look back at one of my favorite games. The gameplay was stellar, but the underlying story was clumsy and oddly constructed.