A Two5six conversation about cities, skylines, and Cities: Skylines

Header image by Jef Brown


At Two5Six every year, we gather together someone from the world of videogames with someone from outside it to find the commonalities in their practices. The lively conversations have found where Etsy meets Lumino City and what Gone Home has in common with the 9/11 memorial.

We decided: why just do this once per year? In this ongoing feature, Kill Screen founder Jamin Warren will sit down with two people to more rigorously explore the places where games meet culture. In this edition, he talks to Karoliina Korppoo, game designer for this year’s hit Cities: Skylines, and Anab Jain, TED Fellow and founder and director of the design firm Superflux.

Jamin Warren (JW): Karoliina, how did you get into game design?

Karoliina Korppoo (KK): I tried to be a graphic designer and I graduated seven or six years ago, but by the time I was graduating I was working as a QA engineer at a mobile games company. So I got into the games industry before I graduated. The graphic design studies were more on a traditional side, how to do books and drawings and all of that, but there was also a sister one to the one I was in, and the people in the second line were doing programming and UI design and all of this. What they needed was someone to make the graphics for the games they were working on, so that was me. Not many of the same people I was with were interested in that, so I found I naturally got along with the programming people. I started out as a QA engineer. I was training for half a year and then they wanted me to stay. Testing people are really hard to come by. So I stayed and was testing for two years, and that’s when the company I was working for, the whole studio was shut down. In the games industry this usually means that tons of tiny companies will pop up. The studio had 14 employees or something so we had 10 or 12 companies. So I got on with one of them to become a graphic designer. But since that company was tiny, the CEO wants to be the games designer, which is of course fine. But it turned out he didn’t have time to both be the CEO and do some design. The other people were programming and I did the graphics so I was the only one that was paid to do design when it was needed. It was a coincidence that I got into this, once I started doing it I felt like this is what I’m supposed to do because I’m interested in how stuff works and I like to make these kind of systems that work well together and I have a good idea of how things should go together so they have this meaningfulness. So after doing this kind of designer/graphic designer work for two years I was hired for Colossal Order, back then they were working on the first Cities in Motion and they had two designers before me that had both just gone away, who didn’t want to work on the project for some reason. I got these two half-finished concepts and was told to make a game, and I did.

JW: Anab, for you, how did you get started?

Anab Jain (AJ): I’m originally from India and that’s where I studied filmmaking and design. I worked on and produced documentary films for a couple of years. Showed lots of films around film festivals, but I was always interested in doing a Master’s, and so I applied at the college of art for communication design and just before I did I saw interaction design on the website. It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, but it felt like the right thing. I completely changed the application and sent in the form and that’s how I ended up doing my Master’s. That was ten years ago, and I’m now doing Superflex because I ended up feeling like I didn’t want to work with a specific technology but was more interested in multiple emerging technologies and how they shape and influence everything. So I ended up working on projects with quantum computing and biotechnology, prosthetics, drones, what have you.

JW: I wanted to talk with the two of you about cities. Anab, you’ve done some stuff in the past in terms of looking at cities in a new way. Karoliina, if you could describe how Cities: Skylines works?

KK: At Colossal Order, it was always the plan to make a city builder. So when the company was founded six years ago the idea was always that in the future, one time, we will make a city builder. We started out with the public transportation games because those are kind of one piece of the whole puzzle to get to the city builder game, so this way we can learn about cities and traffic and make a smaller game first to get the team working on all of this. How Skylines works is it’s basically a sandbox game, so the player gets a plot, and you can build any kind of city you want. And the game tries to teach the player, help them learn how the system works, because that’s what makes the game fun. When the player knows what they are doing they get this feeling of mastering the game, of learning how things are working. That’s the main thing that the game system always tries to do: stay in balance, so there wouldn’t be a situation where all has been done, the city is perfect and it doesn’t need any playing, because that would be boring for the player. We try to have these small changes. One of the things that helps is we’ve made it so the citizens age, so when the player builds one residential area for example, the people who move in, their age depends on if it’s a high-density or low-density zone. But they age and the things they want will change with the age. So when the game develops there will be more stuff to play. So we have this huge system of staying out of balance and trying to help the player learn how to use the tools in the game so they can go and create the city that they want.

JW: So there’s no point where you’re done, the city is done.

KK: No, I think the only thing would be if the whole map has been fully built, but it’s so huge that it’s highly unlikely that that would ever become a problem, and there’s plenty more, there’s as much space as they ever want, so I don’t think there’s a situation where the stuff to play would end.

JW: Anab, I was looking at your presentation on the idea of having an elastic city and I was curious how you got interested in cities and how that interacted with your previous background in design.

AJ: I come from a family of urban planners so I think it’s by proximity that I overheard a lot of conversations about planning and urban planning. I come from India and making films about India and Mumbai and its tremendous commuting. So a lot of my film work was situated in high-density urban areas of India. For me, cities have been these organic entities that shape and re-shape and form around people. They are a combination of formal and informal infrastructure and how they are elastic in the sense that where people move and how human flow moves across the city. So I suppose the context of “elastic city” in the presentation is that in India every single person is selling a service and are giving some information—they are providing more than the service of just selling something—so they are becoming human data nodes. So if you imagine these human data nodes as mobile data nodes moving across the city, spreading information, that creates a massive network across the city. How do you design digital service for that kind of city, rather than this top-down view of infrastructure that’s very set? I was making this prediction between a top-down planning view of a city and how cities are in reality. I think most recently we’ve been doing a project on drones. We’ve done a lot of research into what happens when a machine with a certain amount of autonomy and agency and a unique vantage point moves across the city. That has led us to research and to thinking a lot about the new geographies and digital infrastructures that will need to be in place as we move forward into 22nd-century cities, really starting to think about how the airspace above our heads will start getting divided, what are the levels of geo-fencing, of no-fly zones, of counter-measures, invisible counter-measures, hacking, jamming, all of that coming into play in this new city, thanks to some new emergent technologies.

the idea that cities have memories 

I’m really fascinated by the work Karoliina’s doing. I’m not a gamer, I don’t play games, I wish I was. I’m certainly very interested here. But the idea about how in your game citizens age, that’s very crucial. In the smart cities context, in all these visions that are presented to us, we never talk about how smart cities age. If you put something into the road like a lamp post, are they supposed to be able to grow and adapt? Who is going to update them? There is no course of aging in any of these utopian technological visions.

JW: How did aging residents come about in Cities: Skylines, Karoliina?

KK: For us, it was kind of a difficult decision, because usually if there’s something in games that has not been done, there is a reason it doesn’t work. With a small team we couldn’t go into any huge, new features. We did a lot of research on trying out how the aging will work, and even though there were slight problems, it seems like the age of the citizens do seem realer, so large amounts of people can die at the same time. We wanted something that makes the city evolve and creates new, meaningful gameplay for the player. Once an area has been built, the player will have to revisit it and work on it some more. It makes better use of the map space we have and it’s something where, if the player is interested, they will want to come back and look at the old areas of the city and do some more playing. Once the player has created something they literally could just look at it, if it’s working as it should, but looking at things is not playing. So it’s about making the game as interactive as it is. Because some sandbox games don’t actually have that much contact to play, and we wanted to have plenty of things for the player to do.

AJ: We think a lot about aging and the idea that cities have memories is equally fascinating. And the more they become apparently seemingly smart and digital, how will we engage with these memories? When you say people want to go back in the past and look at it, I find that quite fascinating.

JW: I’m based in New York. Anab, you’re from India but living in the UK. Karoliina, you’re based in Finland. How does cultural context affect our expectations for what cities are supposed to be?

AJ: It’s just the capacity to sort of have a broader worldview. This idea of a smart city or a digital city will not work in a situation where physical infrastructure is still rudimentary and quite broken. You create the sort of satellite, smart-city zones, which become advertisements for organization. I genuinely believe that cities can’t develop from scratch by one organization. It takes more than that.

JW: Karoliina, do you feel like the game is a reflection at some level of your experience with cities? You’re designing also for a global audience with different expectations for what cities are going to be. So how do you design a game that people from different contexts will feel comfortable with, or design in a way that reflects personal expression?

KK: Because having a city that could be anywhere in the world is impossible to make, so we chose early on that we would make this imaginary USA city. So it kind of looks like the suburbs in the states and has that style. Our previous cities are European looking and we had these block houses. This time we went for a different look, like in the States. This also affected how the city works. Traffic is a huge thing in Skylines, and the public transportation is there and it is usable and it’s important for the player to use it. But it doesn’t have a huge hold like it does in many European cities and many of the larger cities otherwise. Because we thought that we wouldn’t be making as many public transportation options as we did in the Cities in Motions because they were games about transportation, so it’s natural that they have so many different kinds. For Skylines, we chose to only have the underground and buses. In Europe, public transportation is so important, and I know that in the States it’s not the same thing. We tried to find the common ground so that the European players can have their extensive public transportation networks but for the people that don’t feel like transportation is key, they can have a city that has less of those options.

JW: Do you feel like the character of American cities becomes a little more understandable in some way?

KK: I think so, and I actually was just to New York for the first time ever like last month, and I can see much of that in the cities that the players are building. Like Manhattan: all of this one-way-out will work in the game also because the traffic is quite stylistic. If someone knows how to do city planning or traffic planning, they will be better at playing the game. And this kind of makes sense because we only wanted to have the curving out as an option. In Skylines, it’s all about giving the players options. The ones who want to make American-style cities or American-style cities are the only ones they understand, they can make those. And for the players that want a more European-style, they also have the option too.

Maybe all urban planners should be made to play these city games 

JW: I have a friend who’s a font designer and he has trouble watching foreign films because of the fonts in them—it bothers him. For each of you, do you feel like working in this subject has changed anything? Do you feel like you see your surroundings in a different way?

AJ: What I’m observing most are the signals and signs of the invisible network within the city, the things that we don’t see and how do we make them invisible? And what do we not see? Or if this is a random kiosk that’s been put here because a council decided that there needed to be a kiosk where people could find out about local information, that’s actually redundant. Maybe all urban planners should be made to play these city games. I wonder if there is something there to show how much of a collaborative project it is and how cities are made. In places where law and order has lots of loopholes, things become more constrained and rigid.

KK:  I know a lot about cross models. You wouldn’t think how many different crosses there are. But also how they plan different transportation roads—what works and what doesn’t. The city I live in has this really weird system of all of the bus lines and buses are the only public transportation, all of the lines go to one central point, and then basically if you are in the East and you want to get just down to the South, you have to go first to the west, to the central point, then take the bus and go to the Southern part. So there’s no kind of lines that go South, it’s all East to West transportation, and I can’t understand why they’re doing this. So I have opinions of things I wouldn’t have thought a few years back to be interested in.

JW: Was there an unexpected player behavior that you saw? What was the biggest surprise for you as a designer in terms of how people were playing the game?

KK: We did a lot of testing during the development, so we did have problems like with people understanding how the initial image of the different service building works. Usually in games where you’re placing the building, it has the circle around it that tells how far it will go up or how far the effect will travel. Skylines has a different system, that I think is more elegant and smart. It depends on what the service building is placed next to. So if it’s large with a high space limit, the service vehicles will get you further away from the building. So if you have a huge hospital and place it next to a tiny road, it’s going to be problematic, because all of the vehicles are not going to get out when they want to. But if you place the same building next to a large road with good connections, then the operation advantage will be much larger. Finding the right way to explain this to the player was really tricky because most of the players we tested with had played games before, and that’s why they were looking for the same circle and lines before anything else. So we did a lot of work on that one. It’s been surprising how much people want to play the evil mayor. They always find it funny to make the city poor and do these nasty things. It’s their city; they can do whatever they want.

JW: Where you live right now, do you think about what that’s going to look like 10-25 years from now?

AJ: From our studio, you’ve got a great view, where you can see the skyline. Ten years from now, London will feature about 15-20 additional high rises that have been given permission to be built. Of course you marvel at what that will do to the city, but I think right now more of the nitty gritty problems of living in a city are not spatial. London has a huge housing crisis. The wealth is getting more and more unevenly distributed—you have people in multiple homes and houses. Young people absolutely can’t afford to buy or rent places. I’m interested in seeing the direction London is moving in. It very much seems to be pushing young, talented, less wealthy people out of the city. I would really like to think of an alternative that is truly welcoming and does not become an island for the extremely rich.

JW: Karoliina, is that something that can happen in Skylines? I feel like that’s very much a part of a conversation happening, certainly in American cities.

KK: We don’t have an actual system for it, and it would be something that would be interesting for the game to have. The closest thing we have is the citizens’ age; they can also have children. Once the children become adults they will need a house of their own to live in. So the demand for residential zones will go up naturally because the people living in them will have children who will eventually need places to live. So it’s not the same thing because much of our systems model how wealthy people are, but it’s all about where they live. It’s kind of this fatalistic view, where “where you live” decides how much money you have. We also have a system if people have better services, they will also be willing to pay more taxes, which is also not what happens in real life. We have had to make some compromises just to keep the game going and have it reward the player. I think something we might be looking into adding is something for the wealth, but it’s really deep in the game logic at this point. The wealth and how people choose where they live is not realistic.

It’s their city; they can do whatever they want. 

JW: I guess at some level you have to make some hard decisions, it’s not a pure simulation. Were there other challenges like that?

KK: When the project started we talked with the publisher of the game about what to do if we need to make a decision about something, (and we decided,) “These are the things we will do first and will have most value.” So one of them was that it’s a game and not realism, and so many of the things have already been done. So if there was a system in real cities, that doesn’t mean we will have it in the game. But if it creates meaningful gameplay then we can put it in. There were many things that might have worked really well, like the new SimCity, where you build out and it automatically has the water and electricity and that’s kind of how electricity works, we don’t really have the poles going around. This is something that could’ve been done in the game, but it’s not fun, and it takes away from the playing of the game. So we chose to have water pipes so the player has to place these, because it’s fun for them.

JW: Do you each have a favorite city or place that you’ve seen?

AJ: That’s a tricky one. I think there’s this constant kind of longing for a place or a city. Home is still in India, I may have issues with it but it’s a city I grew up with and it’s home. London obviously, because I live here, I love it and hate it at the same time. My favorite moment is taking a cab through the city at 5 a.m. and watching the rituals change from nightlife to morning without a moment of quiet.

KK: I’m originally from Helsinki, the capital of Finland, and that’s the only city in Finland that feels like a city. It’s the largest one. I live in the scale of the whole world—I think Helsinki has two million inhabitants if you count the surrounding areas, so it’s small. It has this nostalgic value to me because that’s where I was living when I was a child. I think my favorite city has become Berlin. I’ve been there so often that I know how the public transportation works, so it’s easy for me to get around. It has these different areas, back when Germany was divided, you can still see the old Eastside and Westside. Most of the wealthy people are still living in the old West and the Eastside is bohemian artists and young people. It’s such an interesting city. All of the areas have their own kind of style and feel to them, and within just a couple stops you can get to a completely different place.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.