projecthr.jpgSomaSim Games, developer of town building simulation game 1849, has announced that their second game will be Project Highrise. It's to be a building sim inspired by SimTower but with the sort of complex exosystem balance needs that modern gamers expect from their sim games. Read on to hear what SomaSim developer Matt Viglione has to say about Project Highrise.

Tell me a bit about SomaSim Games.
You can learn a lot about us by looking at our Steam libraries. When we're not making simulation games, chances are extremely high that we're playing one. So when started the studio in 2013, there was really no question about what kinds genre we were going to focus on. Simulation games are our passion and we couldn't imagine making another type of game. And we live and work in the amazing city of Chicago.

Can you give us some details about how Project Highrise compares to SimTower?
We're definitely inspired by SimTower; it's an all-time favorite of ours and when it originally came out, several of the team members were pretty hooked on it (and now I'm just showing my age). But at the same time, in terms of game design, it was definitely a product of its time -- somewhat limited and frustrating in all the wrong ways. Having to micro-manage elevators and people was particularly tedious and made for some table-flip moments.

For Project Highrise, we want to make a contemporary simulation game that makes a nod towards SimTower and other classics, but where the gameplay is much more complicated, as today's players would expect. So for one, an interlocking ecosystem, so that the player has to strategize about how to attract the most prestigious and profitable tenants, who will in turn require a lot of expensive support (such as a world-class law firm will want to have a four-start restaurant onsite for business lunches, a dry cleaning service, a courier service, and this and that and some other thing). Second, a more complex economic simulation, so that like a real building manager you have to take good care of your tenants and keep them happy, while keeping a close eye on rent levels, cashflow and future sustainability. Third, a political system where your prestige and connections could earn you political favors or dislike in city hall, which will then have a global impact on the simulation.

So even though appearance-wise it might look like "SimTower meets Mad Men", in terms of game simulation we're much closer to contemporary simulation-based games like SimCity 5 or Cities Skylines -- except the setting is a single building.

projecthr2.jpgWill Project Highrise have victory conditions or be more of an open-ended sandbox game?
We're currently imagining Highrise as an open-ended sandbox game, where the player's progress slowly unlocks increasingly complex and demanding mechanics (for example, political favors), and there will be opportunities for the player to get extra cash or other rewards by taking on additional contracts. But the direction in which they take their tower is entirely up to them. This is the gameplay mode we're spending all of our time on right now.

There's also a plan to have scenario missions, which do have a specific starting position, and specific goals -- for example, take a dumpy old building and rehab it into luxury rentals with some limited budget. We want to have those as well, but we need to get the sandbox simulation standing up first!

Will Project Highrise allow players to create an all-in-one residence/office/shopping/kitchen sink sort of building? If so, might that be easier or harder than creating a more specialized building?
We want to give the player freedom, so that they could either make very specialized buildings, or an all-in-one campus that caters to everyone's needs. On one hand, it will be tempting to make comprehensive buildings, because you might need a variety of different occupants to satisfy everybody. But on the other hand, the various types of occupants won't like to be near each other. For example, residents don't like to live near offices because they're loud or near restaurants because of kitchen smells, so the player will have to keep squaring that circle. Also, that's all a work in progress. We keep tweaking the design of those interactions.

In the end, it may actually be easier for the player to specialize their tower into residential or commercial. Residential and commercial tenants are going to have pretty divergent requirements, so it might be harder to keep on top of what everyone in the building expects. I think there's a reason in the "real world" that buildings tend to be one or the other. But again, this part of the game is still very much in progress, so stay tuned on that one!

What's been your biggest challenge in developing Project Highrise so far?
Simulation games like this one present a few interesting challenges that we don't see in other genres. For example, you can't really do a small "vertical slice" of the game to see how the full game will play. In other games, it's often possible to make just a little bit of the game, just one level with a couple of characters, and then iterate on that and polish the game design before you start making a lot of levels and more characters.

But not so in a simulation game. The fun comes from having multiple complex systems that interact with each other in non-obvious ways. So you have to build a lot of systems before the game starts being fun -- so building a "vertical slice" means basically building 95% of the game! A good comparison might be that it's like being a watchmaker -- you have to make a lot of different pieces, get them to line up just right, and wind everything up before the whole machine starts working.

That has probably been the biggest challenge in making simulation games, both Highrise as well as 1849 before it: as you build the game, some parts of it aren't fun because they depend on other systems that haven't been built yet, so there's always an element of a "leap of faith" that all those parts will come together in the end.

Sort of along those same lines, it's always a challenge in games like these to appropriately [convey] what's going on to the players. This game is going to have a lot of systems that are producing tons of information. The offices, the people, the infrastructure and everything else on the game board are constantly sending out torrents of information about how and what they're doing. It's has been and still is a struggle to balance. How much is enough so that the player has a firm grasp about what's going on versus too much info that is just overwhelming noise? We're still trying to answer that question and we probably will be until we launch the game.

projecthr3.pngWhat's been the best thing about developing Project Highrise so far?
Learning about the real world analog that we're trying to simulate. But I think for us that's the case for the genre in general. For 1849, we had a lot of fun researching the California Gold Rush and the Nevada silver boom. Having an excuse to read architecture blogs, take architecture tours and talk to building developers and architects about their craft is endlessly fascinating.

Specific to this game and something that's not essentially applicable to the entire genre, it's been great fun to commission original music. For 1849, we licensed existing tracks. It was our first game and we honestly didn't have the budget or time to go out and get original music. I think we've really enjoyed working with our composer to try to get a sounds that captures the feel of the game and its mid-century visual style.

Did you learn anything while making 1849 and its expansion that you believe has already or will in the future help you in developing Project Highrise?
Since 1849 was our first game as indies, we learned a lot about just the nuts and bolts of running a studio, doing your own distribution, publishing, and all that businessy stuff we had no idea about. So for Highrise, we can spend less time learning about those aspects, and spend more time concentrating on making the game itself.

Also, at least for our genre and audience, it's very important to localize. For a couple of reasons. First, simulation games are quite popular in Europe and many Europeans greatly prefer to consume media in their native language, whether that's a dubbed movie or a localized game. Second, simulation games are primarily about letting players create a new story and world each time they load a new game. I think it's a lot more powerful a story when it's in your native language.

On what platforms do you plan to release Project Highrise?
We're going to release first on desktop - PC, Mac, most likely Linux. We're keeping an eye on mobile (tablets) but we'll cross that particular bridge once the PC versions are out and stable.

Do you have an estimated release window for Project Highrise?
We're thinking about an early access version in Q4 of this year with a final release in the first half of 2016.