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Cityscapes: Sim Builder
What if we gamified SimCity?
Apple Arcade ($5/month)
Cityscapes: Sim Builder is a real-time simulation game where you build a thriving city by carefully placing residential, commercial, and industrial buildings, along with roads, schools, garbage collection, and fire stations, and other amenities.
I try to avoid referencing other games in these intros but it’s pointless to ignore SimCity – there are few simulation games more popular or influential. Indeed, the studio behind Cityscapes boasts of several former Maxis developers in their team who’ve worked on SimCity and The Sims. Cityscapes has the same toylike 3D appearance as later SimCity titles, with little houses and towering skyscrapers occupying a city grid made of square tiles. But the game is really quite different in interesting and important ways.
In Cityscapes, you build by placing blueprints. Blueprints exist for different kinds of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings, and they come in specific sizes like 2x2 or 3x3 tiles. This means blueprints are very different from zoning areas for development in SimCity, which can be any dimension (e.g. 20x6 tiles) and will house many individual buildings within them. Blueprints vary in density and type, so a low density commercial building hosts up to 300 shoppers and costs 6000 coins to place, whereas medium density hosts 600 shoppers for 12,000 coins, and high density hosts 1800 shoppers for 36,000 coins.
Placing blueprints is laborious – drag the blueprint onto the map and press OK for every single building – though you’ll get fast at it. Most blueprints must be next to roads and not on cliffs; the terrain in Cityscapes isn’t truly 3D like SimCity 2000; there are no slopes, just flat plains with raised areas here and there.
Buildings appear on blueprints instantly; there’s no waiting around like in Simcity. Buildings start at a “level 1” version, well below the blueprint’s maximum capacity; a level 1 medium density residential building might only have 400 out of a maximum 800 residents, whereas its highest level form (e.g. level 7) will have 800 residents. I’m pretty sure SimCity’s buildings levelled up in a similar way, though the levels were not exposed to users directly.
It’s the process of levelling up that makes Cityscapes a dynamic system. When conditions are satisfied for a building (e.g. for a residential building, “if X jobs and Y shops and Z school places have been available for the last 60 seconds”), it levels up: cranes appear and it becomes shinier and bigger. A residential building now has more people inside it; a commercial building (like a mall) has space for more shoppers; an industrial building (like a factory) has more job openings.
And so, to avoid the building from falling into disrepair because its extra capacity is unused or becomes unsupported (e.g. even more shoppers or workers don’t arrive), you need to place more blueprints to provide those extra residents or schools, which themselves need more stuff, etc. This means never a moment you can just sit back and do nothing unless you left the game alone for a very long time and accepted a certain amount of disrepair (easily reversed with a bit of money). Since this is an inherently unstable system, it makes sense that you need to keep doing things in the game, though occasionally the game doesn’t update quickly enough and ”buildings” will demand things (e.g. water, jobs, police) that you’ve already built.
There’s little challenge in keeping the plates spinning, however. Growing your population is the main requirement for raising your “City Level” that lets you progress in the game and unlock new campaign maps. This means adding residential buildings, which need more commercial buildings nearby and industrial buildings further away (because they’re polluting). It isn’t any more complicated than that.
As your City Levels increases, you unlock blueprints for amenities and utilities like schools, fire stations, water pumps, waste incinerators, solar power stations, parks, and so on. Most buildings need to be within range of these amenities to reach their maximum level, so there is some strategy in achieving the widest coverage with the least money, but I always had more money than I knew what to do with, plus you can also pay to upgrade the “power” of existing amenities (e.g. an upgraded school can take more students, an upgraded police station covers a wider area), so… not much strategy after all.
For some reason, there are lots of variations of these amenities: dozens of parks, power stations, water facilities, etc. They look different but they are mechanically very similar – “7% better than the other building”, that sort of thing. It only makes sense when you realise that the simulation and game aspects of Cityscapes only exist in order to encourage you to build a city full of unique, cool-looking buildings – not to have fun or to think hard.
That’s probably why so many other aspects of the game are so simplified compared to SimCity. Sometimes this is for the good: did anyone enjoy laying power lines and water pipes to every block? Cityscapes does away with both. You do need power stations and water towers but they invisibly connect to every building in their radius (in an interesting touch, water towers are more effective when they’re in areas with more groundwater, though again, it doesn’t really matter because you can just keep building and upgrading as many towers as you need). But there are no trains, as far as I can tell – just buses.
This is a weird omission given how much Cityscapes leans into the idea of “sustainability”. Your city has a sustainability score, based on how many nice buildings like windmills and parks you have, and as you progress in the game, you need to hit a sustainability target to increase your City Level. Of course, it is all far too easy. A windmill and a gas plant cost the same 4000 coins; gas makes five times as much power, but it’s trivial to scrounge up the extra coins to afford the “nice” choice by completing ever-present Timed Projects (more later).
That’s a game design problem. But it’s embarrassing, verging on the offensive, how Cityscapes perpetuates the false idea that renewable power costs more than fossil fuels when wind power is comfortably cheaper than gas. I assume the developers were honest in their intentions to highlight the importance of sustainability but they did it in such a piss poor way, they’d have been better off not trying at all. There is a type of park called “Cement Patch” that is literally a plaza made of cement. Apparently it increases the sustainability of nearby commercial and industrial buildings, and effectively fulfils their knowledge and technology needs. Really?
The game’s tutorial and first level also weave in a sustainability “story”. I started by rebuilding an area destroyed by a storm, then I “redeveloped” a city near an endangered woodland. The city had initially been developed by an evil company who lost the contract because they chopped down some woodlands; now I have the contract along with an empty road grid, and the evil company has promised to sabotage my work. I kept expecting this to impact the gameplay, but it only amounted to a few tiny copses of trees I couldn’t build on or remove, but I could surround by roads or factories or skyscrapers.
Look – if you’re going to do “sustainability” in your game, you really need to justify why the player is building a city surrounding rare woodlands rather than, you know, literally anywhere else. In fact, this would make for an interesting game given how important it is to avoid displacing existing populations and how, rather than demolishing old buildings (even those made by an evil company) we should try to reuse them and conserve their embodied energy.
But Cityscapes isn’t interested in any of that.
Cityscape’s lack of challenge largely extends from how easy it is to make money. Timed Projects like “Build 10 roads” awards you thousands of coins for placing literally 10 road tiles providing you do it in five minutes; others include “Build 7 buildings”, or brutally, “Remove a Residential building”. Residents’ icons will periodically pop up and, if tapped, display a bad joke related to something you’ve built recently; at least they give you money for listening to them. And you get a ton of money every time you increase your City Level.
Most of your money comes from taxes, however. These are based on your Approval Rating, which measures how well you’re satisfying all your buildings’ requirements. I’m not sure what it would take to have a low approval rating as mine never seemed to budge from the maximum, but I suppose if you had chronically low power or not enough schools, that might do it. In any case, every 30 seconds you collect taxes, and the higher your approval, the more money you make.
It’s been a while since I played SimCity, so it took me a little while to realise that running costs don’t exist in Cityscapes. Once you’ve built a police station or a park, it incurs zero costs for the rest of time. Not only does this mean there’s little stopping you from building as many amenities as you like, but you can never run out of money. The line only goes up!
To be fair, increasing the fidelity of a simulation doesn’t also automatically increase the fun. You have to draw the line somewhere – SimCity let you set tax rates and borrow money, but it didn’t let you set different tax bands for income ranges. So it’s not a given that Cityscape’s simplified taxation system is less fun – but it is less fun because it means there are next to no interesting decisions to make. The worst case scenario for even the most inexperienced player is turning on fast-forward mode and waiting for cash to trickle in.
This would be OK if the game were so visually inventive or beautiful that all you wanted to do was paint the city of your dreams. There is indeed a lot of variety in the building types, though it’s nothing you haven’t seen from other city-building games, and it’s pretty unsatisfying how the residential and commercial areas can look so alike.
It doesn’t help that the game’s overall presentation is so rough. A lot of text is hard to read, icons and buttons are inconsistently sized, you can’t zoom out very far at all, and tapping on buildings doesn’t show you how many people are living or working there. Very annoyingly, the game cannot resume from sleep at all, which makes it hard to pick up and play compared to other mobile or tablet games.
Cityscapes does offer a few ways to unlock more interesting buildings. “Merging buildings” is one of them: you can “merge” two or more buildings to increase the star rating (I don’t know what that is) or rarity (ditto) of one of them; higher rarity buildings are more powerful and can reach higher levels. When you merge buildings, all but one of them literally vanishes, “consumed” as fuel. This is such a bizarre and vaguely disturbing system that I can only conclude it originates from an entirely different game genre (role-playing games, I’m guessing) where it is also confusing but at least players are used to it.
I mentioned earlier that the only reason there are so many types of amenities in Cityscapes is because the game wants to spend a lot of time unlocking them so you have a cooler-looking city than other players. That also explains why merging only works on buildings that have reached their maximum level, requiring a lot of play time.
You might wonder: why was the game designed in this way at all? SimCity doesn’t have City Levels that unlock buildings, it was just about how much money and population you had, and there were simple cheats to get unlimited money.
The answer is that it’s pretty clear Cityscapes was originally as a free-to-play game monetised by selling an in-game currency called Votes. You can spend Votes to instantly level up buildings and to buy special blueprints (e.g. very high density housing) and landmarks with special powers like St. Paul’s Cathedral (-20% pollution) and St Peter’s Square (-20% water usage). The special powers seem kind of pointless given how easy the game is, but clearly the appeal is the visual impact of seeing Big Ben in your city rather than anything else.
I earned Votes by unlocking different buildings at different levels; there are so many different buildings that I collected well over a hundred of these rewards from my first couple of hours. Indeed, there was no way for me to spend real money to buy Votes (lol) because Cityscapes isn’t a free-to-play game after all: it’s exclusively available through Apple Arcade. Apple Arcade costs $5/month and offers over 200 games, all of which have zero in-app purchases. Very family friendly! So what I think happened is that Cityscapes was originally designed as your run of the mill free-to-play game, then fairly late in its development, it was sold to Apple Arcade and so the Vote mechanic had to be hastily redone.
Anyway, Cityscapes is a big deal for Apple Arcade: it’s featured and has been among the top three most popular games since it was released. Apple are believed to pay developers an upfront fee plus royalties based on how much time people spend in the game. It’s grimly fascinating to see how Cityscapes has been retrofitted from a classically exploitative free-to-play model encouraging users to pay up in order to progress, to a slightly less exploitative time-based model encouraging users to spend as much time playing as possible. Hence how the game gives you Daily Rewards for returning, or offers “City Pass seasons” with new things to unlock if you just play a little more.
I was not immune. After the initial confusion of the weird user interface and bizarre merging system, I quickly got into the rhythm of extending my city grid with roads, building a mix of residential and commercial, adding utilities and amenities at the centre of each block, expanding my industrial area on the other side of the map, and upgrading utilities across the city as needed, always responding to the endless stream of requests from residents. It was easy but satisfying.
Two hours flew by. The game ceased to offer any challenge or interest or even meaningful progression, just mindless expansion. You can unlock other campaigns every 3-4 hours, with different landscapes like a beach, and different constraints and rules (e.g. “roads cost more”, “long range police”, “expensive waste disposal”, “cheap dirty power”, “expensive education”, etc.) but I was under no illusion they would be any more fun.
I knew it was pointless to continue; I played for four more hours.
I’ve described many differences between SimCity and Cityscapes, but the biggest is that Cityscapes imposes its own goals on you and withholds new gameplay based on that progress. If SimCity has a goal, it’s only about making enough money and having enough population to afford an arcology; other than that, you’re free to do whatever you want. Cityscapes never stops bugging you to level up, to chase rewards, to complete Timed Projects, to fill out your City Pass, to unlock endless rare buildings.
Maybe I’m overrating SimCity and it wasn’t as fun as I remember it to be; to be honest, all my cities ended up looking the same. But SimCity and SimCity 2000 are over thirty years old, an entire human generation ago. We should expect better now, especially from Maxis veterans.
There are better city-builders out there, like Cities: Skylines, with far more detailed simulations. But this is the city-builder game being pushed by Apple Arcade, the in-house game service of the most powerful technology company in the world. They can do a lot better than this empty shell of a game.
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