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The 2015 Cities: Skylines release delivered something fans of mid-’90s city-building titles sorely missed: a modern yet faithful reinvention of the genre. While Cities: Skylines was quite a modern entry into the genre that many grew up loving, it gave up on the negatives of the modern formula, while embracing community with all his heart. The result is a game that today, six years later, still has a dedicated community playing the title and offering a vibrant mod scene.
We had the opportunity to speak with Mariina Hallikainen, CEO of developer Colossal Order, about the development and continued support of Cities: Skylines. You can see our full questions and answers below.
When the team started development on Cities: Skylines, what inspirations did they look to and inspire for the initial design?
We had serious SimCity fans on the development team and wanted to get a spiritual successor to SimCity 4. Naturally the ambition was way beyond our resources at the time, so we had to prioritize the amount of content and the different features. Visual works such as the day and night cycle and the seasons were out of the question and we would have liked to have created more variation for the assets. We tried to focus on making the game feel bigger than it actually was by giving the player as much freedom as possible and supporting modding as widely as we technically could.
What about the city-builder genre that made it an even more appealing project than Colossal Order’s previous projects? Did the team incorporate lessons from Cities in Motion titles into Skylines?
It was the dream from the start! We founded Colossal Order with the intention that one day “Colossal Cities” would see the light of day. It was 2009 and there were five of us with limited funding, so we decided to start with something smaller to take on bigger challenges. The Cities in Motion games were really a springboard for us, a focus on one aspect of a city builder: public transit.
We have learned a lot by working together, working with a publisher and especially on our player base. I would say the most important learning from CIM games has been to know the community and what modding means to our games. We really see it as an integral part of the player experience that we want to deliver not just now but in the future.
As development progressed, what elements of the classic city-building formula were deemed most important by the team? Which were flexible? What elements of the classic formula did the team most want to change or improve?
Cities are a wonderful concept because everyone has an idea of how they should work and a city builder is just that – for the player to create their own vision. We focused on the most basic building blocks: roads, houses, jobs. City services to meet the needs of citizens: health, education, recreation. We wanted there to be as much freedom as possible, the ability to create something out of the real world. One of the biggest successes has been road building, which gives the player the tools to do something real or completely imaginary. However, it was still more about simulation and gameplay than visuals, not simulating any numbers but allowing the player to see every citizen and every choice they made.
Reception of the game was very positive when it was released. Did the strong community support and critical reception change the post-launch lifespan in any way?
It certainly is, immensely! Our goal at Colossal for copies sold was 300,000 copies, which is more than our previous games and enough to allow us to work on the game for a few expansions before we start something new. Now, six years later, it’s still pretty hard to figure out what really happened, but we were so happy we made it last so long. Our thanks go to the community and their countless suggestions and ideas for improvement.
Were there any fan comments that shaped the game significantly early in the post-launch phase?
The most significant and probably the most impactful comments were about the very first expansion for Cities: Skylines. Prior to launch, we had been bouncing ideas with our publisher Paradox Interactive for expansion and started working on an idea where the city would have these groups causing new demands and challenges. It was a bad idea and we struggled to make it good. However, we have received a tremendous amount of feedback from players that the game Needs a day and night cycle (do you remember that this feature was not present at the output?). However, we were already three months into a six month development cycle when our programmers decided to test how hard it would be to cycle day and night for gaming, just for fun. They came to me with the results and I immediately called Paradox, asking if we could change the whole first set, promising we could do that before the scheduled release date. Everyone was so excited to be working on After Dark and probably very relieved to let go of the subcultures that we managed to make a great first set, thanks to our community.
How did the modding community surprise you? Do the dev team have any community mods that they particularly like?
First, how did the modders get so fast ?! We barely released the game and there were so many cool mods available in the workshop. My favorite is still the Bordered Skylines mod because you can make your city shine in neon pink … priceless. Other team favorites, more significant in terms of gameplay, are Move it and the Subway Overhaul, which actually inspired us to make the Skytrain available in a free update for everyone. I also love how modders pushed us to do better; for example, as an oversight, the game was released without the ability to change the direction of a one-way road after placing one. Very quickly we noticed a mod for this, realizing we had completely missed it and fixed it very quickly. It was also great to see so many high quality assets in the workshop, often showcasing local landmarks or the architectural style of the creators. Today we have four team members at Colossal with a background in modding in Cities: Skylines. This is a testament to the ability of these people and the amount of effort they put into it in turning their hobby into a profession.
What do you think are the biggest accomplishments of the official expansion packs? What did you want to cover the most during the expansion process for Cities: Skylines? Do you think you have succeeded?
We really appreciated the chance to continue working on Cities: Skylines as the base game was actually just the start. And please don’t get me wrong, the game is standalone, but there were so many features that we still wanted to include. Missing features that modders have so kindly pointed out to us, improving modding tools, adding new features and a variety of content. We already had a really long wishlist internally that we wanted to work on after release, and the community kept adding it.
There have been great successes and others that have not lived up to our expectations. Public transport was really great as we could refer to our experience making Cities in Motion games. One of my personal favorites is Park Life; I think it’s so much fun and really shows how the attention to detail and artistry has evolved over the years. Overall, with all of the free updates to the base game, it’s really not the same as it was six years ago. So much has been improved over the years.
Do you have a good pitch for what the people who maybe bought the game in 2015 and liked it, but haven’t returned for several years, are missing out by not playing the game as it is in? 2021?
There’s no better time to light up those good old towns: Skylines and see all that’s new in your virtual town! There is so much that players can do now that weren’t available at launch. There are over 20 pieces of DLC available, from new radio stations and fan-created content creation packs to major content drops. Here are a few: campuses, green cities, public transport and industries.
Thinking back to the first six years of Cities: Skylines, what do you consider to be the biggest hits? Do you identify missed opportunities or opportunities for continued growth and improvement?
It has been absolutely fantastic, challenging, tiring and yet always so rewarding to work on Cities: Skylines. I firmly believe in continuous improvement and it is at the heart of our development process at Colossal Order. I think we all regret our failure to get proper seasons in the game, but it just wasn’t doable at the time and we decided to live with the winter maps feature in the Snowfall expansion. The game has evolved tremendously over the years with improvements and new content and features, but the absolute greatest success is our relationship with the community, our endless source of inspiration.
What future for Cities: Skylines? Do you have any plans for a follow-up game or are you looking to continue to grow on the existing base?
Cities: Skylines, along with its community, is the most important game Colossal Order has ever created. Beyond that, there isn’t much to say at the moment.