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Last week, just in time for the announcement (and release) of a new expansion for Cities: Skylines, I posted a video analysis on YouTube discussing what I perceive as weaknesses in the modular design philosophy behind Skylines' myriad expansion packs. The full video is available on YouTube (and embedded below), but I've also transcribed the text in blog form for those who may prefer reading over watching/listening.

The video is up on YouTube.

I want to start out by saying that I love Cities: Skylines. Skylines is -- without a doubt in my mind -- the single best city-builder since SimCity 4, which released in 2003 (over 15 years ago, as of the time of this recording). When I watched the first trailer for the game, in which the player apparently custom-builds freeway ramps and interchanges from scratch (at about 40 seconds into the trailer), I was sold on this game! After years of having to use boring, pre-fabricated stock on-ramps and interchanges, the little civil engineer withing me practically jizzed in his pants at the idea of being able to build my own highway ramps and interchanges! And there was no looking back.

Cities: Skylines gloriously succeeds where games like SimCity (2013) and Cities XL miserably failed. It picks up the mantle of the great SimCity games of yester-decade, and brings it into the 21st century with deep simulation based on agents, a sleek and modern UI, extensive customizability and moddability, and an attractive 3-D graphics engine. It's made all the more impressive by the fact that the game's developer, Colossal Order, is a small, independent studio that had something like nine people working for it when the game initially launched. And a company with all the manpower and resources of Electronic Arts only managed to produce a flop like SimCity 2013.

I was sold on this game the moment I saw a freeway ramp being custom-created by the player in the trailer.

I could go on for hours about all the things that I like about Cities: Skylines. I could probably also talk for hours about the things that I'd like to see added or changed about Cities: Skylines. But sadly, right now I'm going to have to be critical of the game.

It is very important to recognize that we can love something, and still be critical of it, and capable of recognizing its faults. Recognizing, and then correcting those faults, is how the things we love get better. So, in the spirit of taking a critical look at something that I love in the hopes that it can be further improved, I want to pose the question:
is the modular nature of the expansions actually hurting Cities: Skylines as a game?

Modular expansions are limited in scope

Colossal Order has been popping out expansions at the rapid pace of two per year since the game's release in 2015. And that's not even including other content packs like Match Day, Concerts, various themed building packs, and the various radio stations. That's a lot of content! I guess it is one way of keeping your game relevant, as it has caused me to consistently revisit the game a couple times per year. Maybe Colossal Order also has some business reasons why they've chosen this particular model of content scheduling. I don't know, I'm not a business analyst. I'm just an amateur games critic with a very amateurish blog and Youtube channel.

Expansion titleOriginal release
After Dark coverAfter Dark24 September 2015
Snowfall coverSnowfall18 February 2016
Match DayMatch Day*9 June 2016
Natural Disasters coverNatural Disasters29 November 2016
Mass Transit coverMass Transit18 May 2017
ConcertsConcerts*17 August 2017
Green CitiesGreen Cities19 October 2017
ParklifeParklife24 May 2018
IndustriesIndustries23 October 2018
* denotes a mini content pack, rather than full expansion.

But this particular release model does pose some problems for the game and its players. The limited development time means that the content that is provided in these expansions is also limited, and they rarely ever feel as robust or comprehensive as they could be -- or at least, as I would like for them to be. Maybe I'm just asking for too much, but I feel like I'm getting diminishing returns from each new expansion that comes out. There's already a lot of content in the game, and so each successive expansion feels like a relatively small drop of metaphorical water into an already-large metaphorical bucket.

In addition to the feeling of diminishing returns, I've also found each expansion to have some glaring weakness or omission that bothered me, and which never gets resolved by later updates or expansions.

After Dark's pointless day/night budget sliders

After Dark added the day and night cycle. But that cycle did not follow the same rhythm as the actual calendar days or months in the game, which created a weird disconnect between a "day" in the game's simulation and economy, and the "days", "weeks", "months", and "years" of the little calendar in the bottom left corner.

SimCity 4 had beaches. Why not Skylines?

Further, the day/night cycle has never really felt as meaningful as it should. It affects your leisure and tourism districts, but schools stay open all night, city lights don't seem to demand additional power, and people continue to commute to and from work during the night, which all makes the day/night budget sliders feel a bit pointless.

After Dark also added a lot of ploppable coastal buildings like piers and beach volleyball courts, but failed to include any kind of public beach (either as a zonable, a specialty district, or a coastal ploppable). SimCity 4 had beaches, why not Skylines?

Snowfall is the least-developed expansion

Following After Dark, I really expected the next expansion to add some kind of seasonal cycle to complement (or possibly further confound) the day/night cycle. I was hoping to see the public beaches that were absent from After Dark, as well as ski resorts and other winter-themed activities. I got half of my wish.

SimCity 4 had beaches. Why not Skylines?

The second expansion was Snowfall, which added winter-themed cities, but didn't include an actual seasonal cycle. Winter cities are stuck in perpetual winter, and your non-winter cities are stuck in perpetual summer, such that you have to start a whole new city in order to see the Snowfall content. None of the Snowfall-specific mechanics (like gas utility, boilers, snow plowing, the thermometer, or any associated policies) are even utilized in non-Snowfall maps -- yet that little thermometer (and associated policies) is still there, taunting me with its complete pointlessness!

To make matters worse, the expansion completely dropped the ball with regard to how winter-specific activities like ski resorts even work. The ski resort is just a ploppable artificial ramp that you can put on any flat terrain. It doesn't have to go on a natural incline, nor does elevation matter. Instead of building an alpine ski resort town tucked away at the foot of a mountain, you could build on completely flat land. Even though the core Skylines game does such a good job of utilizing the underlying terrain to help shape your city and give it a personality, the Snowfall expansion made the underlying terrain completely irrelevant!

Natural Disasters is surprisingly robust!

I think the next expansion might be the most underrated Skylines expansions. Believe it or not, I actually think that Natural Disasters might very well be the most complete, robust, and well-rounded expansion for the game so far, not to mention the most novel. Disasters have been a feature of almost every city-builder since the original SimCity, but Skylines is the first game (that I'm aware of) that actually tries to systemize the ideas of disaster-detection, prevention, and recovery and build a set of mechanics around those systems. It's also the only expansion that actually added any real challenge to Cities: Skylines, which is a game that has always been on the easy side.

There are no climate models or geologic models that determine the
frequency or severity of storms, earthquakes, or other disasters.

But even though I was really impressed by the depth and detail of this expansion, even it had some short-comings. For one thing, the disasters are completely random. There's no climate or weather models (or seasonal cycles) that allow you to predict the frequency or intensity of storms, or geologic models that tell you if you're particularly susceptible to earthquakes or tsunami, or anything like that. They also didn't bother to add any winter-specific disasters like blizzards or hard freezes for those of us who owned Snowfall, because apparently Snowfall is the black sheep of the Skylines expansion library, and no future expansion seems to want to acknowledge that Snowfall existed -- which is a shame, because Snowfall is the one expansion that I most want to see further expanded.

Mass Transit is the most utilitarian expansion

Next came Mass Transit, which was probably the most utilitarian of the Skylines expansions to date. It brought us some new transit options and road types to help alleviate traffic congestion, including the addition of long-overdue passenger ferries. However, this expansion neglected to revise the cargo harbor mechanic so that we could create freight barge routes or make the placement of cargo harbors any less painfully restrictive in general. Mass Transit also neglected any kind of water-based city services, like a coast guard or whatever. This combination of omissions meant that, despite the addition of passenger ferries, a true island economy is still impossible without a network of bridges for freight and emergency services.

Green Cities didn't make pollution a problem that needs to be dealt with

Then we had Green Cities, which I think competes with Snowfall for the worst expansion, but probably takes the cake due to just how overall lazy and dull it is (in my opinion). It focused on pollution-management and ecological sustainability, but it didn't bother to make pollution any more relevant or more of a challenge to begin with.

It also added a new "local produce" specialty commercial district, which frustratingly doesn't require any local agriculture, nor are there any synergistic bonuses for connecting local agriculture industry to "local produce" commerce.

Cities: Skylines: Green Cities - sewage
Pollution was already easy to manage, especially with clever use of water infrastructure and terraforming.

This expansion pretty much only served to take something that was a minor inconvenience (pollution) and give you the tools to make it a complete non-factor. Maybe it's a more useful expansion for people who get their cities up over a hundred thousand population, but I rarely ever play the same city long enough to make that happen. Maybe if you routinely make cities that large, you're getting more use out of this expansion?

Parklife is the most expressive expansion

Then we had Parklife, which is easily the most expressive of all the expansions to date. It added a totally new park area mechanic that allows you to paint an area as a park (similar to a district), then fill it with modular components and decorative props in order to attract visitors. But for some reason (maybe to support legacy save files?) Colossal Order didn't incorporate the legacy park ploppables into this mechanic. So all the existing parks, playgrounds, plazas, tennis courts, volleyball courts, riding stables, marinas, and so forth cannot be placed as modular components of a park.

Those ploppables do count towards the entertainment value of the park, so they aren't completely useless. Also, there was a mod available on day 1 that allowed players to place park ploppables as modular park components that didn't have to be connected to roads. Of course, using such a mod will disable achievements and other in-game rewards...

Oh, also, Parklife didn't modify the camera so that you can actually zoom in close enough to get a good look at all your pretty decorations. In fact, it's hard to even tell what some of these decorations are, or if they're facing the right direction!

Industries is just Parklife, but for farms

No new industries (aquaculture, perhaps?) are added.

Now here we are with Industries, the final expansion (as of the time writing this). Industries basically just takes the mechanics introduced in Parklife and ports them over to create "industrial parks", as well as adding some supply chain and logistical concepts.

Industries also repeats the same mistake of Parklife by not incorporating any legacy industries into this mechanic. None of your zoned industries contribute materials towards your industrial areas, processing buildings, or special factories, even though they do consume the underlying resource (in the case of ore and oil).

They also didn't bother to introduce any new industry types. At least Parklife was good enough to add the nature preserve and amusement parks, which were wholly new to the series. Industries just gives us ploppable duplicates of the zonable agriculture, forestry, mining, and drilling industries that we already have. The most obvious new industry that I could think of would be some kind of fishing or aquaculture industry. The lack of such industry is notable because I've seen maps that seem to highlight "fertile soil" over water, yet there's no water-based agriculture ploppables of any kind...

They also didn't incorporate the leisure or tourism specialties to level up like the other industries or parks. I live in fabulous Las Vegas, whose principle industries are leisure and tourism, so the fact that neither is considered an "industry" to this game seems odd to me.

But there's more that Industries dropped the ball on! The new industry supply chains means that shitloads of freight trucks are always being spawned, which clog up the roads and create a lot of congestion. On the one hand, this is a nice new challenge to have to manage (and I already complained about the game being too easy, so I'm not going to complain about Colossal Order adding a new element of challenge). On the other hand, however, this new challenge feels kind of unfair because Colossal Order didn't bother to implement some basic logistical infrastructure to help us alleviate this problem.

Obvious logistic infrastructure such as pipelines or log driving are completely ignored in favor of more trucks.

Put simply: there are no new non-truck options for dealing with freight. This was another prime opportunity to revamp the way that cargo harbors work (since Mass Transit didn't bother), but Industries couldn't be bothered with that either. So we can't ship freight by barge. Cargo trains can help (and there's a new cargo airport with a built-in train connection). But there are no new routing options for getting raw materials to processing facilities, even though some common sense ones do exist in real life. The most obvious would be a pipeline for oil. Or how about being able to float logs down a river (a practice that is still in use today!)? Or what about being able to build a hand cart / mine cart path for moving ore from the mine to the sifter? Or a series of livestock paths or stock routes to move livestock from a pasture to a butchery or meat-packing plant?

Why aren't any of these concepts in the game?

Will Campus be more of the same?

And now, a new expansion pack was announced while I was producing and editing this video and drafting this blog post. Cities Skylines: Campus is already available on Steam, and it looks to basically take the Parklife and Industries area mechanics, and extend them to university campuses, complete with varsity sports. Will this expansion's features replace the existing legacy university buildings and mechanics? Will they be converted into something more akin to "community colleges"? Will those legacy buildings work in conjunction with the new Campus areas and infrastructure? Will the new stadiums replace or extend the functionality of the "Match Day" stadiums?

We'll have to wait and see. Stay tuned for a full review in the coming weeks!

Modular design and disjoint mechanics

While none of these expansions are outright "bad" (except maybe for Snowfall and Green Cities), every single one of them has obvious shortcomings in their design and execution. I definitely do not think Colossal Order lacks the talent or the creative vision! The base game, by itself, is a testament to their talent and creative vision. Maybe this is because Colossal Order is a relatively small team, so they are limited in how much people-power they have available to make extensive changes that redesign the core gameplay experience? Or maybe they aren't giving themselves enough time to let these ideas fully bake before they ship them out to the public?

In any case, the rapid pace of release, the limited scope, and the modular nature of each of these expansions is having a tangible effect on the game. A game that used to feel very uniform and cohesive is now beginning to feel mechanically disjoint and bloated. New features and ideas keep getting piled on top of one another, with little concern for how they interact with the existing mechanics, or how they might interact with future mechanics.

Cities: Skylines: Parklife - legacy park
Legacy parks and industry do not work inside of new park and industry areas.

We now have two sets of parks with overlapping functionality, but completely disparate behavior, as well as two different sets of industries, also with overlapping functionality, but completely disparate behavior.

We have a day/night cycle in which schools stay in session at night because that day/night cycle is completely independent of the routines and cycles of the citizens' "days", which are (as far as I can tell) completely independent from the in-game calendar days (which act more like hours or minutes in the scope of the game's world.

We have two separate "Recycling" policies -- only one of which actually ties into the Recycling Center building because Colossal Order didn't want to replace the old policy.

We have a "Locally-sourced produce" policy that does not depend on producing produce locally.

We have ferries that can transport citizens across water, up rivers, or through canals, but we can't ship industrial materials or products along similar routes.

We have seasonal maps, but not seasonal transitions. I mean, heck, Snowfall is so modular and segregated from the rest of the game that you have to load up an entirely different subset of maps just to be able to play it. Within the set of modular Skylines expansions, Snowfall is practically its own spin-off game!

We have weather events, disasters, and water-management infrastructure such as canals, queys, and floodwalls, but heavy rains don't lead to flash floods or rising river or lake levels, and so there's no need to actually build that infrastructure unless it's part of the aesthetic that you want your city to have, even though you do have to build other disaster-prevention and mitigation infrastructure for the disasters that are included int he game.

Scientific American, vol 319 - Sponge Cities
Real cities use green spaces and other infrastructure to deal with flood waters.

As as aside... It isn't just coastal cities having to deal with rising ocean levels caused by anthropogenic climate change. Make no mistake, managing flood waters during monsoon seasons is something that many real-life cities near rivers or within marshes or lowlands have to do! There's a growing practice around the world of shifting from artificial, concrete barriers to hold back rising waters, and towards using large stretches of natural green spaces and wetlands to absorb the water -- with the added effect of beautifying the city! Real cities do this, but we don't have to worry about it in Skylines because rain never raises water levels.

These mechanics, infrastructure, and policies that feel like they should obviously be connected or related and should feed into each other ... simply aren't...

As compared to other games

This is actually the same problem (though to a lesser extent) that I already discussed in my previous video about EA's design philosophy regarding its Madden NFL games. EA and Tiburon keep throwing in new mechanics without regard for how they influence the rest of the gameplay experience. At least Colossal Order hasn't started cutting out popular mechanics the way that EA has with Madden, or the way that Skylines' publisher Paradox has done with other games like Stellaris.

I discussed similar problems in a pair of videos about EA's Madden NFL game series.

Compare this to the expansion design philosophy of one of my other favorite PC game franchises: Sid Meier's Civilization. The approach that Firaxis takes to its Civilization expansions has always been to release fewer expansions, but for those expansions to try to change the way that the game is played. They revise the way that multiple game systems work in order to facilitate the new features that they want to add. And if they remove anything, it's almost always because they're replacing it with a more robust and engaging mechanic instead.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is Civilization V's second expansion, Brave New World. That expansion stripped out what few lackluster, abstract trade route mechanics existed in the vanilla game and replaced them with a new mechanic in which trader units (caravans and cargo ships) actually travel from one city to another, generating wealth (and other resources) for both cities, while also being subject to potential plunder from enemy factions or barbarians.

That same expansion also completely re-designed the cultural victory (a staple in the series since Civ III) from the ground up. The original Culture Victory in Civ V required the player to spend accumulated culture in order to buy all the policies in five different policy trees. The process was rather passive and un-engaging. Brave New World shook this victory condition to the core by adding in a whole new system of Great Works and Archaeology, in which the Great People that you had earned over the course of the game could create works of literature, art, or music that can be displayed in your cities' libraries, museums, or opera houses, respectively. Further, towards the end of the game, you could unlock Archeologists, who could uncover artifacts from previous events in the game and display them in your history museums. Related works and artifacts could be grouped together to create a "themed" museum for even greater reward, which gave you a reason to trade these great works with the other civilizations in the game. That old passive system of accumulating policies was replaced with an active, engaging system of populating museums and libraries with themed works. One of the victory conditions of the game was fundamentally changed in an expansion.

Civ V's second expansion, Brave New World, stripped out
the existing culture victory and replaced it with a new, more engaging system.

Both those expansion mechanics, by the way, were so well-received by the Civ community and critics that both mechanics were ported almost verbatim into the vanilla release of the sequel, Civilization VI.

Civilization VI, itself, also has an expansion on the market that changed the core Civ VI experience by adding little ambient quests that the player could accomplish in order to accumulate points towards a "Golden Age" or "Dark Age". This mechanic provides incentives for players to expand their influence, and sometimes even to play outside of their usual comfort zone, and it makes competing for rare things (such as building wonders or settling near natural wonders) more attractive. In order to accomplish this, Firaxis had to redesign the way that the game's eras work, and they supplemented these ages with a new "loyalty" mechanic that makes the player have to be more thoughtful regarding where you settle or what cities you conquer.

Between two expansions for Civ V virtually every system in the game had been tweaked, redesigned, or completely replaced, and Civ VI's single (as of the time of this recording) expansion also changed or tweaked numerous game systems in order to supplement its new features.

Cities: Skylines expansions don't really do this...

Rather than tweaking or redesigning multiple concepts within the game, each expansion is relatively self-contained and only adds new mechanics or systems on top of what already exists. In fact, I'm struggling to think of any one core mechanic that has been significantly changed since the game's vanilla launch...

... Maybe the day/night cycle adjusted the underlying economy and citizen routines... ?

... Or maybe the free terraforming DLC lifted many of the restrictions that the underlying terrain placed on the player...?

Colossal Order never seems to be thinking about changing the way that players play the game; they're just giving us more tools to play with. After buying any given expansion, you can almost always continue to play the game exactly as you had played it before because few (if any) of those existing systems had changed at all. Sure the new tools might have ripple effects on other systems in the game, but you can always fall back on tried-and-true methods and strategies.

Admittedly, some of these concessions are probably done in order to preserve backwards compatibility with save files. After spending tens of hours building a perfect city, the last thing that most players want is for a new expansion to break their old cities that they worked so hard to construct and perfect. Paradox is notorious with this with regard to its Stellaris game. That is why some games, including the aforementioned Civilization VI allow the player to revert to pre-expansion rules if you wish to continue playing a save game from before the expansion.

That probably shouldn't be necessary for Skylines because of its sandbox-y design philosophy. And I'm not asking for old buildings and zones to stop working -- only that the new buildings and zones are unified with the old ones. The Industries expansion should not have broken existing industrial zones such that your whole city's economy collapses the moment you load up the game after installing the expansion. But those old industrial zones should have been modified to work with the new industrial areas and buildings.

Old parks should not have stopped working after installing Parklife. They should have been rolled in with the new park mechanics such that they can be modularly placed in park areas like all the new park ploppables.

Existing Cargo Harbors should not have stopped working after installing Mass Transit (or industries), but they should have added the ability to chain harbors together to create shipping routes that go up rivers or around islands, just like what you can do with ferry routes.

Cities Skylines - cargo harbor placement
One of my longest-standing frustrations with Skylines is the obnoxiously restrictive rules for placing Cargo Harbors,
even though at least two expansions have offered perfect opportunities to revise this mechanic!

And yeah, would it have killed Colossal Order to throw in a blizzard disaster or hard freeze event into Natural Disasters that would have applied to Snowfall maps?

Or made it so that Ski Resorts are built up in the mountains?

Or made a beach park area?

Or change up the economic model so that schools and government offices close down at night?

Is it too late to hope for an expansion that unifies Snowfall with the rest of the game by adding an actual seasonal cycle with season-appropriate weather and disasters, peak tourism seasons, kids being on summer vacation, and so forth?

I certainly hope that this company is financially stable enough to be able to go more than 6 months without selling an expansion or DLC, and not go under or be forced to lay off staff. They've made a great product, and I hope they continue going on to make great products. But I feel like their current quality trend is a downwards one...

Is it really too much to ask for Colossal Order to take its time with the next expansion (assuming there will be a next expansion) so that it can be more comprehensive and robust, and for it to maybe ... I don't know ...fit in better with the rest of the game?

Or do I have to wait for Cities: Skylines 2 for that?

I still recommend Cities: Skylines!

...I hope the cynicism and negativity of this rant didn't make you think that Cities: Skylines is a bad game. Despite all the criticism that I've levied against it this past hour, I still love the game. It's the single best city-builder since SimCity 4, and I've put literally hundreds of hours into it. But the time I spend with the game has tapered off in the last year or so. I spend less and less time with each new expansion, and I keep walking out of them feeling not-quite-satisfied.

But if you're on the fence about purchasing Skylines or its expansions, then I highly recommend that you give the game a try. It took 700+ hours with the game for me to start to get jaded, so that's still a really good value for the money! If you're looking for specific expansions, then I would say that Mass Transit, Natural Disasters, and Parklife are the best ones (so far). You can avoid Snowfall unless you really like building cities in snow.

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