I love city builder games, but I always get very frustrated playing them. I think the problem is that most game designers and programmers of city builder games don't actually obsess about cities and don't spend hours reading about and thinking about cities. Now, Will Wright, the designer of the first SimCity, did spend a lot of time reading about the philosophy of cities, and the original SimCity was a great simulation for a game that had to be able to run on a 4.77Mhz computer. It was built around themes of how residents needed a balance of residential, commercial, and industrial zones and of how land values and transportation access was important. Later city builder games do include much more complex city models, but I find they lack any over-arching theme or philosophy about the nature of cities. How is it New Urbanism, one of the biggest movements in urban planning over the last few decades, not have any of its tenets reflected in any of the most recent city builders? The designers of the latest city builder games simply focus too much on the game aspects of city builders and not enough on the urban planning. They seem to design game mechanics and simulation parameters based on what seems "fun" instead of reflecting upon a philosophy or theme of what constitutes a city.
Part of the joy of cities is that they are full of stories. Every neighbourhood has a story about how it evolved and grew and all the little things that people do there. Where do people shop? How do they get to work? What do they do for fun? Every city has a different story. But most city builder games have their simulation parameters set in such a way that they can only tell one story. For example, SimCity 4, which I consider to still be the pinnacle of the SimCity series, has its simulation set-up in such a way that you almost inevitably end up with a city that looks like northern California. The simulated residents are highly biased in favour of driving, and you have little ability to influence that. The city simulation is resistant to the levels of densification typical of non-American cities. The simulation doesn't allow farms in built-up areas, but I encountered plenty of urban farms when I lived in Switzerland. Even a basic assumption of the game like the fact that you need to supply water and sewage infrastructure to have even a basic level of housing development isn't actually true. Dubai was able to build many towering skyscrapers that weren't hooked up to a sewage system. All of these sorts of assumptions and fixed parameters in the city simulation constrains what sort of cities can be produced in the game and restricts the types of stories that players can tell. Even worse, SimCity 5 completely abandoned all pretense of accurately simulating a city and embraced purely game-based mechanics for modelling cities.
There's a lot of buzz about Cities: Skylines, which was made by a Finnish developer that previously made some awful transportation simulation games. Their transportation simulator never worked well for trains and buses, and it still doesn't, but they did get it to work well enough for cars that they were able to make a financially successful city simulator. Similar to how the developers built many transportation games that focused on modelling minute details of bus scheduling and bus stops while completely missing the big picture understanding of how mass transit actually works, Cities: Skylines has a detailed city model underneath that provides a simulacrum of a city when viewed at scale, but has no meaningful philosophy in its design and doesn't make much sense when you poke into it. One of the major aspects of the simulation models the player's ability to move dead bodies through the city! I'm currently living in Toronto, and I can't help but think that Jane Jacobs would cry if she know how many YouTube videos there were of people building multi-block, multi-story so-called "optimal" intersections in Cities: Skylines. The sheer prevalence of these videos is a sign that the underlying simulation model and theme of the game is broken. Note to armchair city builders: if you're building a continuous flow intersection in your city, you've already failed.
Of course, it's easy to complain about things. It turns out that I don't really know how to make a better system. Although I think I figured out how to make reasonable transportation models many years ago, I've never figured out how the underlying economic models of city simulators should work. In fact, I'm not entirely sure how the economic models of existing city simulators are designed. As such, it's hard to know what their underlying assumptions are, how they might be wrong, and how they might be fixed. The economic models of games are obviously biased in favour of growth. If a player lays out tracts and tracts of residential zones in the middle of nowhere, people will suddenly build houses in those zones for no apparent reason. Admittedly, in many places in the world, this is a reasonable assumption. In the areas near large, booming, metropolitan centres, if the government were to spend millions to build out sewage, power, and highway infrastructure to an area and then zone it for a subdivision, developers would quickly build tracts and tracts of suburban housing there. And for gameplay purposes, it's important for the city simulation to be biased towards growth because players love the feel of an expanding city where bigger and better things are constantly being built (though playing a dying city where the infrastructure must be slowly rolled back as people move out and where its role has to be reinvented might make an interesting scenario). But is this biasing towards growth done in a heavy-handed way that restricts the ways that a city can evolve or in a subtle way that still lets players design a city the way that they want?
To get a better insight into the way these economic models might work, I dabbled a bit in reading academic papers on urban planning models, but I never could figure them out. I tried out a trick I figured out in high school and tried to find the oldest paper I could find on the subject, and I actually found one that was somewhat comprehensible: Kenneth Train's "a Validation Test of a Disaggregate Mode Choice Model." My takeaway from the paper is that real-world urban planning models are based on polling of a population and building statistical/fitting models of how this population weighs decisions on choices they make on where to live or get around. For people building a computer game simulation, then a micro-economic agent simulation should capture this. Basically, you have a statistical distribution of how for every 100 people, 30 of those people prefer a house with a yard, 20 people choose their home based on the quality of the schools, 35 need to live within 10 minutes of work, and 15 like having a lot of cultural amenities. Then during the game, you randomly generate people based on the statistical distribution, throw them into the city, and have them make individual choices based on their preferences. Then, you just have to choose an appropriate statistical model of people to get the biases you want for your game. In hindsight, this is pretty obvious. If you model a bunch of individual, different people, then in aggregate, you will get an accurate city model. This still left a big problem though. This agent simulation will accurately model the residents in a city, with all of its assumptions explicitly encoded. This approach doesn't really work in modelling a city's growth. Why do people move to a city? How do you bootstrap an initial population for a city that has no buildings, no residents, and no infrastructure? If a game just regularly generates random people based on a statistical distribution and throws them into the city, then the whole simulation is inherently biased towards growth again. It seems like too blunt an approach to the problem. Surely, there must be a more nuanced way of modelling growth that has a better philosophy behind it other than the theme of unlimited growth? Is there a way of modelling growth that provides more adjustment knobs that can be used to encode different assumptions about growth?
I thought about this growth problem for a few years, but I could never make any headway with it. Regularly generating new random people to move to a city in order to get some growth might work for competitive games of SimCity. If there are different cities with different amenities, then depending on how your city compares to others, newly generated people might choose to move to other cities instead of your one. This sort of model might work well for multiplayer competitive SimCity. But I couldn't figure out how a growth model would work for a single-player city building game. I decided that the only way to find a reasonable approach to this problem would be to actually build a small game where I could dig into the details of the problem. Hopefully, after being enmeshed in the details, I would be able to see something that I couldn't see from far away. I came up with a design for a small city simulator that would focus on the economic model (since I felt I already understood how to design the transportation model), and then it was just a matter of finding the time to build it.
Finally, last week on Thursday, I received a last minute e-mail saying a spot opened up at the TOJam game jam that was running during the weekend, so I decided that it was time to dive in. I had worked out a design for a simplified city builder earlier. The city builder would present the side view of a single street. Since the focus was on the economic model and streetscaping and not on transportation issues, there was no need for a full 2d city. Having a side view also meant that the game could have a simplified interface as well that might even work ok on cellphones. In the game, players would place individual buildings and not zones. I think most city builder players like to customize the looks of their cities, but placing individual buildings doesn't work well at a large scale. But on the small scale of a side-view game, I was hoping that placing individual buildings would be feasible. During the first day, I was able to finish coding up a basic UI that would let players plop buildings on the ground and query them. There was a floating artist at TOJam, Rob Lopatto, who drew some amazing pixel art for me of a house and two types of stores, which really looked amazing.
On the second day, I coded up a basic traffic model. Since I was just trying to make something as simple as possible in a limited time, I only modelled people walking between buildings at a fixed speed. Similar to SimCity 1-4, I modelled the aggregate effect of people walking around instead of actually modelling the specific, individual movements of those people on the road. I think the lessons of SimCity 5 and Cities: Skylines is that modelling the movement of individual cars can be slow and leads to strange anomolies, especially when there is extreme traffic. In real-life, during extreme traffic, people shift their schedules to travel during non-peak times or they change routes or they move. It is rare for a traffic situation to become so dire that people end up in multi-day traffic jams and never reach their destinations. The problem with modelling the aggregate effect of traffic is that the simulation simply outputs some traffic numbers for chunks of road. There's nothing to see, and players like seeing little people and cars moving around. So I had to code up a separate traffic visualization layer that would show people moving around proportional to the amount of traffic there is. I wasn't sure if I would end up showing the right traffic is I generated people doing whole trips (my queuing theory is really bad), so instead I used the SimCity 4 trick of randomly generating people to walk around for short sections of road and then have them disappear again. I could then just periodically generate new people on sections of road that weren't showing enough traffic over time in their visualization. Surprisingly, even though my simulation was small enough that I could simulate the whole world, 60 times a second, I still ended up using my geometric series approach in both the traffic visualization and parts of the simulation. It worked really well!
By the end of the second day though, I had a hit a wall. I still couldn't figure out how to model city growth. I could simulate people in the city, but I couldn't figure out how to get new people to move in. I didn't want to explicitly encode a rule for having people automatically move into the city. Perhaps I could come up with some sort of hacky rule for when new residents would be induced into moving into the city. The new rule would likely still have an emergent behaviour of causing an implicit bias towards growth in the city, but if the rule still made thematic sense, then it would be more satisfying and could be tweaked and improved later on. I started leaning towards the idea of using jobs to induce people to move to the city. If there were companies looking to hire in the city, then people would move there. That mostly makes sense, and avoid explicitly biasing the city simulation towards growth.
I still had a bootstrapping problem though. The companies in a city won't hire people unless they have customers and are making money. But if there's no one living in a city, then companies will have no customers and hence have no jobs. I could make companies hire people even when they have no customers, or I could maybe implement a hack where companies might tentatively hire people to see if they can make money and then fire them if it doesn't work out. I think games like SimCity and Cities: Skylines have a hack where cities with small populations have an explicit macroeconomic boost to industrial jobs. If you zone some industrial areas, some companies will move in and create some factories to employ people even if they have no customers and no one lives in the city. This seemed like just another artificial bias towards growth, even if it was in a different form, so I wanted something different.
Instead, I went with a different cheat in that I created a type of building that was self-sufficient and could supply an initial boost of employment without depending on the existence of other people or infrastructure. I opted for subsistence farming plots. They could provide a minimal income even in a city with no other people or infrastructure, thereby attracting an population base. 100-150 years ago, the Americas were settled by offering free plots of farming land to immigrants, so it's not entirely unheard of, though I'm not sure how realistic that assumption would be now. Once the simulated city developed a sufficient population, there would be enough collective demand to make stores or small workshops profitable so they will employ people, resulting is a positive feedback loop of growth. This ends up supporting a theme that a city is dependent on investments of infrastructure to support certain types of economic activity and growth. Or maybe is says that people power a city but it requires infrastructure to improve efficiency and productivity to unlock that power. In any case, I think those are reasonable philosophies around which a city simulation can be designed. I'd be a little bit afraid of making the rules too deterministic so that it feels more like a game than a story-generating city simulator (e.g. you need electricity to have a factory over size 3, you need an outside road link to let your industrial population grow more than 3000 or stuff like that). And there's another a danger of inadvertently building an arbitrary civilization simulator instead (e.g. you need iron mines, coal mines, and an iron smelter to build the steam engine, which is then a prerequisite to industrial age buildings etc). But it does show that this philosophical approach is broad enough to capture many different city models.
On the third and final day, I polished up the UI and tweaked the city model a bit. Since there were only three different building types, and given the shortness of time, the ending city model was still very simple, but it seemed to work well enough, and it helped me work out a different way to simulate growth in a city builder game. Here's an overview of the final simulation code:
- People without a job will go to work at the building with the greatest demand for workers (demand must be at least one full worker). Farms always need one worker while stores need workers proportional to the number of visitors/customers they have
- People without a home will move to any home they can find
- People will move to a home that's closer to their work than their current home
- People will visit the closest store to their home to buy things, but if the number of visitors exceeds the store's capacity, the people will move to the next closest store (and so on)
- People without homes or jobs will leave the city
- People will cause 1 unit of traffic for each square of the street they need to walk on to get from their home to their work
- Any building that still has a demand for workers that can't be filled from the local population will hire someone from outside the city (provided that person can find housing)
- Every 100 turns, rent will be collected from each building's residents and workers. Upkeep costs for each building will also be deducted.
Here's the final game.