September 10, 2016 8:00 PM | Lena LeRay
Last weekend at PAX, one of the booths tucked into the back of the Indie Megabooth area was attended by people wearing hard hats and safety vests. When I walked up, I overheard someone ask if their game was like Tiny Tower. Behind one of the hard-hatted men was a monitor proclaiming the same thing he was about to say: "No, it's more like SimTower." They were discussing Project Highrise, SomaSim's new management game.
Although Project Highrise is SomaSim's second game, their first being 1849, it was already on their minds when the studio was founded. "In fact, that was the game we wanted to make first. But once we started thinking about what that would involve, we pretty quickly realized that the scope didn't match what we could afford at the time," says Matt Viglione, one of SomaSim's founders. "The idea for 1849 was also floating around at the same time, so we looked at that and figured that's the game we could more easily get done in the timeline we had. So then we just hoped that 1849 would be enough of a success to allow the studio to continue along. And it was."
Project Highrise wasn't envisioned as a modern take on SimTower, though Viglione considers comparisons to be inevitable. "The reason that the original SimTower succeeded is because the subject of its simulation was inherently fascinating," he says. "So we went back to that -- what makes skyscrapers and large urban buildings good targets for a simulation game? For us, it's the ecosystem that underpins a modern skyscraper. It's a designed environment that needs constant attention to function properly. It's a chaotic system: small changes can cascade into large and unforeseen impacts, but also the use of the building by inhabitants causes constant flux and change."
In their effort to focus the game more on managing economies and relationships, the developers did a lot of research to learn more about skyscrapers. "We [talked] with several building developers here in Chicago about how skyscrapers come to be. We wanted to understand the entire process -- from how city laws and rules impact their design and construction to how they actually get built to how the management/tenant relationship works once people have moved in," says Viglione.
"We also did a lot of research on architecture as well," he adds. "We're lucky in Chicago -- our skyline is essentially a gallery that shows the history of skyscrapers from their start in the late 19th century to the giant 93-story Wanda Vista building going up right now. We took advantage of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's fantastic tours, talked to architects and read a lot about buildings both in Chicago and in New York."
Part of game development is cutting out things that make the game unfun, and Project Highrise's development was no exception. "We left out a lot of the minutiae of running a skyscraper," Viglione says. "One of the things we heard from building managers is that there are always a bunch of little things that go wrong. A window on 42 leaks when it rains hard. The carpeting in the hallway on 27 is coming apart. The water in the bathrooms on 81 is never hot. We didn't want to throw all of this at players, but we went for a more abstract maintenance mechanic such that things do get worn out and need attention, but it's not random and constant. We felt like that would be too much focus on management and would detract from building and expanding."
One thing SomaSim learned during their research is that the majority of the time spent building a skyscraper is installing infrastructure to support the building. "The actual part of putting up steel I-beams or pouring reinforced concrete floors actually goes pretty quickly," says Viglione. "But there's an entire process that precedes that where crews dig huge pylons, allow for invisible systems that keep them from falling over and [a] myriad other things like drainage and backfill that give a site the stability it needs to support a 90 story tower. Even before that, there's a whole team of engineers, geologists and often these days archaeologists that have to come in, assess the site and then decide what if any changes to the design need to happen prior to construction. We decided to skip all of that and pretend that it's been done. It's fascinating, but it could be pretty tedious to simulate and play."
Tower management sims are few and far between, though, and with SimTower as the outstanding example of the genre, there were some things SomaSim wanted to add for Project Highrise. "First was the possibility of failure," says Viglione. "In early simulation games, like SimTower or the first few SimCity games, it was sort of hard to fail. Once you made it beyond the first 20 or 30 minutes of gameplay, failure was pretty much not possible unless you really, really tried hard. We wanted to create a game where a few bad decisions or overly zealous moves could, at any point, spell doom for your skyscraper."
"We also wanted to have entirely new game systems come online as the game progresses," he says, "to make sure that there are challenges throughout the progression of the game. Managing an eighty-story skyscraper is quite a different thing from running a five-floor office block."
The third difference they focused on was pacing. "Modern simulation games also have a pacing that is quite different from those from 15 or 20 years ago," Viglione says. "They tend to be a bit more slowly paced and punctuated with moments of urgency and opportunity -- moments of choice for players that will determine the future of their game. The hard part is getting those in the right places." This and other balancing tasks were made challenging by the fact that the game had to be played from the beginning to test them, though the developers modeled things as well as they could using other tools.
For the developers at SomaSim, learning about the systems they want to model for their games is as fun as playing simulation games. "Living in a big city like we do, you're constantly exposed to highly complicated systems and most of the time we take them for granted," says Viglione. "You never think about how the lobbies stay clean or the elevators work until the lobby floods or you get stuck in the elevator. We really enjoyed digging into to how skyscrapers really work and then translating that into the game. Taking the systems one by one, creating enough abstraction to make them fun and then layering them together so that they interact in novel ways was lots of fun. It's especially fun when the game surprises you. So after you've created a bunch of interlocking systems, you start to see behaviors emerge that you didn't exactly intend. Those surprises sometimes lead to novel, unanticipated game design."
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