Wonders And Controversies: Hands On With Cities: Skylines’ Meticulous Mapping

It’s always the way, isn’t it? You sit waiting absolutely ages for a bus and then all of a sudden, three come at once. It’s a little like that with city building game right now, as a select few look to tap the market that was so disappointed in EA’s reboot of the SimCity franchise. Having previously made the two Cities in Motion games, Colossal Order know a thing or two about busses. Also cities.

It would be a little disingenuous to say that Cities: Skylines has come on by leaps and bounds since I last saw it at Gamescom, but having said that, it was already looking well featured and had a clear roadmap in place, looking to scratch that itch of those wanting to build cities on a grand scale. Most noticeable for me was the revamped user interface. The familiar circles and blues of the menus which maybe trod a little too closely to SimCity’s visual style have been replaced by a simple but stylishly dark bar along the bottom of the screen. All of the information you need is housed with this bar, with colourful icons for the city services that you need to look after.


It was, however, good to see some more of the game’s systems in action, as Mariina Hallikainen, CEO of Colossal Order, showed me round the game once more. The city planning side of the game is just as powerful as ever, coming off the back of those Cities in Motion games, with curved roads looking particularly easy to place and manage. A rigid grid might be the simplest and most efficient, but there’s nothing quite like creating a crazy layout of concentric circles or emulating the higgledy-piggledy morass of roads which you see in many European cities.

For the truly obsessive, you can go into such minute detail as to place individual trees and footpaths to create your own parks in awkwardly shaped places. It’s an interesting problem that stems from fitting rectangular buildings and objects into often irregular spaces, but which is largely solved by giving you this kind of freedom to create totally customised spaces. Rather than being purely cosmetic, those hand crafted parks will then have the same positive benefits to the surrounding area as a pre-created one. Well, except for the poor family whose house you just demolished.


On the other end of the scale, the end game centres around you building wonders: landmark buildings that can give your some big perks and city-wide benefits. In order to unlock these, you need to build monuments, reach population targets and so on. A medical centre wonder might be high on your list of targets, should you not be doing a good job on healthcare as the mayor…

The goal of building wonders ties into the game’s overall pacing and difficulty, as Mariina said, “We’re aiming for the player to take around 10-12 hours to build a wonder in the first go, so we’re trying to pace it so that all the tools are there pretty early on, but then you get the monuments and finally after 10 hours you get to place a wonder and feel good about yourself.”

Of course, one important selling point for Skylines is the overall scale of the game, but it doesn’t let you loose on a huge landscape right from the off. You start with a single tile that is 2km2, but is just the first tile of up to nine that you can populate on a grid of twenty five, as your metropolis begins to sprawl across the landscape.

Speaking about the large scale example city, Mariina said, “In this city we have 116,000 people living, but you can go up to 1 million. I requires more high density residential areas and filling almost all the available area, but it is possible.

“It’s always a question that people ask. It’s always like, ‘How many people can you have in the city?’ and you can have a million if you want. Though, to be honest, we’re totally going to add an achievement for those who actually make it that far, because it’s really, really going to take some hours build your city completely full and keep it working, because you have to be successful to actually keep the citizens there!”


It’s a huge sandbox for you to play in, but keeping it manageable and letting you guide a flourishing economy is the preserve of the districts system. Zoning your roads for residential, industrial and commercial buildings is as simple as painting them onto the ground via one tool or another, but it’s by creating districts that you get to control what happens where. You might, for example, want to encourage large scale factories to spring up in one area as opposed to another, so you dive into the district specific management and fiddle with the settings to lower taxes for certain buildings, limit pollution in others and so on.

The rules even extend to letting you ban high-rise buildings, if you want these buildings to be the preserve of a prosperous downtown area, or dabble with controversial subjects in the real world by banning same sex marriage and smoking. These are currently in a separate category alongside an alligator ban, though sadly, this doesn’t quite herald the inclusion of hilarious and bizarre disasters for the game’s initial release.

You could, if you were really desperate to do so, emulate a disaster of your own. Kind of. The game tracks tons and tons of statistics, from air pollution to noise pollution and water flow in the rivers, which makes the placement of your sewer outlets rather important. You can also place a hydroelectric dam in the river, allowing you to not just provide power for your city, but also let you claw back some of the riverbed for building on.


As I proposed removing the dam for a manually created disaster, Mariina said, “It is possible to kind of [do that], if you think about a river and you’ve put a dam there, and then decided to place some residential houses, maybe an elementary school, a couple of playgrounds and then take the dam out… But in this game, they will just move away if the flood happens. We aren’t killing them off, they’ll just be extremely unhappy in the wet conditions and move elsewhere.

“We really wanted to actually have disasters in the game, but the scope is, again, totally hitting us in the face, so we can’t have everything in the game. Luckily the Paradox model is really solid and it doesn’t end at release, and we’ll hopefully get the chance to expand and still keep working on the game. The reality is we just have to think of it in different instalments. We can’t spend five years working on one game, thinking in terms of cashflow, it wouldn’t work.

“We’re thinking about this already. Based on the community feedback, there’s a lot of things they want to see, but we’ve just got to say, ‘Sorry, this is not going to happen for the launch, but we’ll definitely look at it afterwards.’ Disasters is one of those, more transport options, maybe. On policies, there’s more we want to do with them.”

With just a small team working on the game – Mariina explained there are 13 Finns at Colossal Order itself, with some outsourced artists helping to make all the game objects – there’s only so much that they can realistically tackle for a timely initial release. It’s good to hear that there are plans to continue development afterwards, but there is also to be extensive support for mods via Steam Workshop, allowing the community to add and create almost whatever they want for the game, with a natural focus on creating new buildings.


“I’m really excited to see what people are coming up with when they are using the modding tools,” Mariina said, “and hopefully we get those working as fluidly as possible. Of course, the modder’s responsibility is to actually make the 3D models, but we just want to make it super simple for them to get them in the game.

“In Steam Workshop, you can basically share everything. Different kinds of assets, what you have done with the decoration tool, different maps, even save games, if you’ve put a city in a horrifying state and you just kind of put it there and it’s like, ‘try and fix this!'”

Of course, this kind of thing could lead to a little bit of sly cheating on the player’s side, as you can drop new buildings into the game by either replacing existing ones or adding one with your own stats, allowing you to house extreme numbers of people in tiny, tiny buildings.

Then again, as with any sandbox game, just messing around can be half the fun. “Why would we restrict that too much?” asked Mariina. “If people want to do that, I guess… I bet that one of the first mods that we’ll have is unlimited money. Then you can just build whatever you want.”



  1. To me this sounds more promising than Cities XXL, however as with most city builders, they rarely have a perfect release so I think this might be one for the Steam sales.

  2. Love games like transport manager and train fever but never been able to get to grips with city management games. Sounds like it will take up a lot of time to get the most out of it.

    • yep same here, this does look much more appealing and interesting to me than SimCity that’s for sure!

Comments are now closed for this post.