The disadvantage of not working at somewhere like IGN is that I can’t casually ask for some plane tickets in order to fly out and chat to developers face-to-face. Still, while I can’t afford to go jetting off I can at least afford to fire off an Email or two, as it was with Mariina Hallikainen, the CEO of Colossal Order, the company behind one of my favorite games of the year so far, Cities: Skylines, a truly brilliant city-builder. You can read my review by clicking RIGHT HERE!
As a note to the readers, this is hopefully going to be the first of many interviews. It’s my plan to talk to quite a few developers throughout the year, so any feedback on questions would of course be greatly appreciated, primarily in regards to the style of questions.
So, to my absolute pleasure I got to fire off some questions to Mariina, who was kind enough to put up with my nonsense. Here’s the result.
Questions answered by Mariina Hallikainen, CEO, Colossal Order
So, first of all congratulations are in order I believe as you guys just surpassed one million sales of Cities: Skylines, which is completely deserved. How do you feel about that?
It’s awesome, unexpected and fantastic. We did hope that people would find an old school city builder interesting still, but to see these sales numbers as quickly as it has happened is quite unbelievable.
If I may ask can we safely assume that with a million sales now in your metaphorical pocket Cities: Skylines is a profitable title? Did you guys have any specific sales goals?
I guess it goes without saying that Cities: Skylines is profitable and I’m sure our publisher Paradox Interactive has had specific sales goals. We at the development side just focused on making the best game we could with the resources available to us and hoped for the best for the sales.
Do you think companies like yourself are actually the future, creating more focused games that target a specific audience with a smart development budget?
It makes sense, doesn’t it? There’s increasing number of smaller developers able to reach higher quality and getting the game out there to the audience is easier than before. Smaller developers and smart budgets allow the team to be agile and react quickly to the changing market. Naturally marketing and visibility for the games play a key role in the game’s success and there are multiple choices to getting that, like working with a publisher as we do. I do believe we will see more very focused games and attending to the niche market in the future even if there will always be a couple of big players with massive titles. I believe there’s still room for both.
Going back in time a bit, I believe you guys had a small bump in the road because you’d been trying to successfully pitch Cities: Skylines for ages, and then EA announced the new SimCity game. Did you think it was sort of ‘game over’ at that point, that you couldn’t compete or that your project would never got off the ground?
We feared it would be SimCity 4 remade in all aspects, that there would simply be no room for competition for the next ten years or so. We quickly noticed that this was not the case and got our chance to start developing our own city builder.
How does it feel to have gone toe to toe with a series that has a massive budget, huge team and the backing of EA, and arguably beat them?
Well to be fair we didn’t see us truly competing with them as we were making in a way a much smaller game, in terms of content at least. It however seems that people really understood what we tried to achieve with allowing players control in the sandbox environment and creating their own content. We have huge respect for Maxis and what they have created with the SimCity series. It’s an honour to have Cities: Skylines compared to such classics.
Did you take anything to heart from SimCity’s launch? Did you read the reviews and watch the forums for things that it did right and wrong and then use that information for Cities?
We took a completely different approach, much more old school, to what Cities: Skylines would be: your sandbox singleplayer game. We were able to avoid a lot of potential issues with these choices and we feel they made sense for a city builder. We have always tried to be honest about who we are as a developer and what we can and can’t do. The players have responded very well to that even if we sometimes give them disappointing news.
If SimCity had actually had a successful launch, how would you have felt trying to go head to head with it? Or do you think Cities: Skylines may not have happened?
I don’t think any publisher would have felt comfortable funding a city builder especially from such a small team as ours. I don’t think we would have pushed to make this project to be honest. SimCity had the chance to dominate the market, but we are happy there was room for us to show what we can do.
The modding community for the game seems to have exploded and now there are literally thousands of mods to check out. How instrumental do you feel letting the community have access to the game in such a way has been to its success? And could other companies perhaps do with learning to embrace the modding community more?
I believe modding can bring a whole new aspect for a game, give it new life. Some fear that modding takes away from the developer as people can get content for free. It might be that the player are happy with the mods and don’t buy any DLC, but I don’t think that is the case. We as a developer have to find ways to bring something to the game that the modders can’t and work with them to make games great. For Cities: Skylines the benefits are clear. The amount of talent we have in our community is fantastic and I believe they have really helped us to make the game as successful as it is.
These days we have an interesting situation where games often continue being developed, changed and added to past launch. Is Cities: Skylines going to be the same? Do you have any DLC plans, or free updates in the works?
It’s a benefit for small developers for sure. Updating games is easy and you can reach all the players. We are working on both free updates and paid DLC. We’ll start with adding tunnels and European styled buildings to the game for free. We are also looking to constantly improving the game as well as the modding tools. Paid DLC will be coming a bit later on, but surely we are motivated to keep working on Cities: Skylines on all fronts.
How long do you really keep going for before you decide you’re happy enough with the product and move onto a new project?
We are willing to keep working on a game as long as someone is still willing to pay for us to do so. It’s a harsh reality as we do this as a business after all. When a game reaches a certain point where it’s not technically reasonable to continue without major changes we must evaluate if a sequel is in order or should we move on to something new. We want to work on Cities: Skylines for years to come so we will most likely start a new project sometime in the future.
On that topic, any hints of what your team’s next project might be, or have you not even considered it yet?
We have some very secret ideas about what we want to work on next. It will be a simulation game, it’s really our thing, but something different from what we have worked on before.
Looking at the wealth of community mods out there do you ever stop and think, “God, those bastards have totally gone and done everything we could have added to the game”? And do those mods change whatever plans you did have?
Yes, we have been checking the mods thinking that “Man these guys are good!”. It hasn’t yet changed any of our plans for the post-release content but it very well might in the future.
With the game being such a success and with Cities in Motion also still going pretty strong do you feel like the obvious next step is to bring on more staff, or do you think keeping it small is the smarter move?
We will be hiring new people as we plan to take on a new project simultaneously with the continued development of Cities: Skylines but we will still keep the team size small. We’re planning to go no higher than 18 employees in total for now.
How much educational value do you think games like Cities: Skylines can have? I was inexperienced with the genre, and when I sat down with your game I was amazed at how little I had ever thought about how a city actually works. I mean, I still can’t put down a decent network of roads.
Roads can be tricky, especially if you don’t drive a car extensively or have other interest in how traffic works (or doesn’t work). I believe a city builder can make you think about the most basic systems we have around us even if the game has these built in a simplistic way. I think the value is in how the game inspires people to start looking around them and finding out more about real life systems. Maybe to even find better solutions for the traffic in the game!
We do have to touch on something negative: Chirper. That feature didn’t exactly go down well, and there are a lot of reviews that mention it on Steam. In the first few days there was a mod put out to disable it entirely. In a strange way, does the dislike of such a relatively small feature make it harder to handle than something larger?
It’s been extremely difficult for me to handle as Chirper was my idea. I still believe there are people who like poor little Chirpy. I know at least two players that like it.
Everything you’ve ever done has been with Paradox. Is that relationship going to continue?
It’s true that Paradox has published all of our games. I see our partnership being very beneficial to both of us and I know they feel the same way. I believe we’ll make great games together in the future.
Maxis obviously shut down, surprising a lot of people. Firstly, I imagine you weren’t exactly thrilled by the news, despite a lot of gamers kind of assuming that developers are always happy to see the competition sink. But in another way, as harsh as it does sound, did you see the closing of Maxis as something of an opportunity, both in terms of the success of Cities: Skylines right now and in terms of maybe being able to do a sequel which would arguably automatically assume the role of top dog?
Everyone at Colossal felt very sad when we heard about Maxis closing down. To be honest I was relieved when SimCity’s release didn’t go so well, knowing we would have the chance to make our own city builder, but closing down a studio there’s nothing to be happy about. We have nothing but respect for the developers at Maxis and we hope them the best for the future. I think Cities: Skylines is strong enough game to stand on it’s own feet in terms of a possible sequel, even if Maxis was still around. All in all very unfortunate situation for the city building genre to lose a great studio like that.
Any advice for idiots like me who seemingly have no idea how to build a city that doesn’t experience traffic jams so long that several generations of kids could be born within them and a whole society built?
Use one-way streets and avoid too many intersections. Or check how a real life traffic planner drushkey does it: http://imgur.com/a/z1rM1
Thank you very much for creating one of my favorite games of the year, and more importantly thank you very much for your time.