When he played Cities: Skylines for The Existential Gamer, Thomas Dupal found it to be the cutest little obsession, a city building game that rendered even the darkest aspects of the god game ‘kawaii’ and ultimately endearing. Lead designer Karoliina Korppoo of Finnish developer Colossal Order was only too happy to talk about the game’s influences, gentrification and why teleportation might mean the end of the city as we know it.
The Existential Gamer: Cities: Skylines is billed by many as the successor to SimCity. Did you grow up playing that game? Did it change the way you perceived the city (or cities) you lived in?
Karoliina Korppoo: I’ve played lots and lots of SimCity. Then again I was more interested in historical city builders, so Sierra’s city builders were closer to my heart. I’ve always enjoyed management games and like tweaking my cities to perform the best they can. I’ve always been interested in public transport and how roads work, and I think that was affected by playing lots of games.
TEG: What game have you spent the most time playing over the course of your lifetime? What is your all-time favorite game and why?
KK: That’s a tricky question! I’d say the game must be Transport Tycoon, The Sims 2 or World of Warcraft. I play lots of different games, but the ones that have open ended gameplay take most hours. My all-time favourite game is Planescape: Torment. I simply love how the story unfolds and how the world is pictured in the game. Interesting characters are something I love.
TEG: Urbanization and gentrification are huge cultural discussion points. Did you find yourself considering the political and social ramifications of these topics when developing the game?
KK: When looking at cities, these things are apparent. From a gameplay point they are not as interesting, as usually the player should be rewarded for developing areas, not discouraged from developing. I am interested in cities and thus these problems have been on my mind a lot.
TEG: How did you do research for Cities: Skylines? What were your biggest inspirations and/or sources of information when creating the game?
KK: We decided to approach Skylines strictly as a game. In addition to what information we already had about city planning, we did not research it further but rather looked at how other games simulated cities, what were the pros and cons of their solutions, and how we could further improve the systems. This saved us a lot of time but perhaps cost something in realism.
TEG: What do you think draws the human psyche to city building as a genre?
KK: People seem to like having an area of their own that they can tend to and work towards perfection. Self expression and creating things are very human needs, as is the playful tendency to try out different things in a safe sandbox space. City builders answer to these needs. I believe there will always be a need for city building games.
TEG: Cities: Skylines is a huge success. I imagine you have a rabid fanbase. What have been some of the most interesting, strange, and unexpected reactions to your game?
KK: We had the Great Chirper Debate just before launch that really took me by surprise! People discussing the game on forums took sides on whether they loved or hated the Chirper, a blue bird that shows the player messages from the citizens. I believe this was because Chirpy, as we call him, is the only visible named character in the whole game. Players wanted to discuss and somehow take part in the conversation about the game, and Chirper was an easy choice for a topic. Chirper is an essential part of the game, even though there are still people who don’t like it.
I’m very impressed by many of the mods out there! My favourite is the Flight Cimulator, that allows you to fly planes and just have fun.
TEG: Mortality is dealt with in a very ‘kawaii’ way in Cities: Skylines. What was the thinking behind your treatment of death within the game?
KK: We wanted the game to be light-hearted and fun, and while we needed a death mechanic to go with the aging citizens, we did not want it to be very morbid. So thus we ended up with a very light death mechanic to keep the game from going too serious.
TEG: Housing laws seem to be at the root of many social injustices, from institutionalized segregation in cities like Chicago and Paris, to zoning laws and white flight. Do you think the city building genre will ever address some of these historical issues, and in what way do you think a game can contribute to the conversation?
KK: These are very complex issues, and often too complex for games to portray well. After all, most games are meant to be a fun way to spend time and don’t touch on serious issues. I can imagine games being able to teach about these kinds of problems, but making them fun at the same time can be a challenge. Many real world challenges are just plain boring to play!
TEG: Does the Cities: Skylines team play any other games together (or separately) for fun? Which ones and why?
KK: I think everyone plays SimCity at least! We have a diverse team and people play very different games. I personally try to play a little bit of everything, but my current favourites are Banished, Children of the Nile and Godus. I always find myself coming back to god games and city simulations after trying out other genres.
TEG: What do you think of Le Corbusier’s utopic vision of “The Radiant City” (which became the blueprint for today’s low rent housing, especially in post-war America), and what do you think the effect of his ideas have been on mankind in general?
KK: Le Corbusier’s city planning style is not very visible in Europe. Cities have grown organically on top of older settlements and the roads follow natural forms and adapt to landscape. I find the ideas of geometric cities very interesting. In Skylines, many players build grid-like cities, but the tools also allow for more organic layouts.
Grid cities, like New York, seem to be the very essence of cities in people’s minds. There are so many different types of cities and my favourites are old european cities with their characteristic old towns. I do adore Le Corbusier’s visual style, I’m a fan of sleek, geometric designs.
TEG: How do you think cities will exist 100 years from now, taking into account overpopulation and evolving climatic factors?
KK: Yes. If you think of a city as a concentration of humans living together, I believe those will exist as long as the human race. Changing from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of small groups to farming, permanent settlements and larger groups has been a driving force in evolving all the large cultures and I think that will continue. In Finland it is very easy to see the advantages of having densely populated areas, as transporting food and goods is expensive and requires a good road network. In densely populated areas production volumes are large and transport distances short. Maybe when some sort of teleportation is invented, living close to other people will lose its meaning and we will go back to the small groups, but before that people have a need to pack closely together.
TEG: When do you think the world will end, and how?
KK: Hopefully a long time from now, and in a way that I can watch from a restaurant while enjoying a glass of wine! Right now regarding our planet, I’m concerned about global warming and diminishing resources, but hopefully things will get better before all is lost.