I live in suburban Phoenix, Arizona. Around here, there is a single streetcar line that goes into the city, and a few buses, but I’ve never used them. Instead, I drive. The highways are better maintained than any other place I’ve visited, and there are a lot of them. In between the highways is a grid of 6 lane, tree-lined thoroughfares. It feels like living in the game Burnout: Paradise. I chose to live in this driver’s utopia because I was frustrated by the transportation options of my previous home, the San Francisco Bay Area.
San Francisco and it’s suburbs have a lot of trains. There are lots of highways too, but the city proper is very difficult to navigate by car. In 1989, SF (San Francisco) had a major earthquake and part of an ugly double-decker highway system collapsed. The city decided to destroy this highway and focus on mass transit.
Unfortunately, the city’s primary train system, called the BART, is over capacity and doesn’t serve the entire Bay Area. For an sub-region called the Peninsula, a diesel train called CalTrain must be used, and SF has its own streetcar network. That’s not all – there are at least a dozen different mass transit systems in the area.
Traveling this meta-system is a huge mess, although the situation is arguably better than in Los Angeles, where daily traffic jams have strangled the city for decades. Los Angeles used to have a great streetcar system, but it was deliberately cannibalized in the 1940s by GM to sell buses. Then in the 50s, the Federal Government planned an extensive highway network, but due to local opposition, only half of it got built.
Transportation was not a problem for me when I was a teenager because at that time I lived in a city with a great mass transit system. Chicago’s famous ‘L’ train was an easy, cheap system for the Cool Kids to go anywhere they wanted to in the city. I’ve met some of my best friends on that train. The L train actually made a lot of people angry when it was built, with huge noisy trains passing just feet away from the tall buildings. But now it is a part of the city, and Chicago wouldn’t be the same without it.
Four cities: Phoenix, with it’s amazing highway system; LA, with it’s traffic nightmare. Chicago, with its ancient but reliable El trains; SF, with its multiple incompatible transit systems and half-deconstructed highways.
So, cars or trains? That is the question. But before we can answer that, we first need to ask, is transportation actually good? A few months ago, no one would have thought to ask that question, but of course things are changing at a rapid pace. So first we have to ask, why go places at all?
“We know that every car on the road has someone in it who is going somewhere that is important to them. Increasing the number of cars on the road means more people are getting to do things that are important to them.” - Randal O’Toole, Cato Institute
In urban planning, there is a concept called “Induced Demand” which suggests that adding highways to a city won’t reduce overall congestion because people will consume all that extra transportation capacity by driving further, making more trips, and living further away.
From an economist’s perspective, people do what they perceive to be their self interest after weighing the costs and benefits. You might want a nice big house in the suburbs, but you won’t live there if you have to spend 4 hours every workday on a crowded train. But when the city opens a brand new highway, your decision changes.
For me, there was an obvious solution: just put the workplace in the suburbs, or in a different city entirely. Then people can live where they work, and won’t be clogging highways or subways with their daily commutes.
But in the post-Covid era, commuting to work seems doubly pointless. Why live an hour away from a place, and commute back and forth daily, if you have the kind of job that can be done remotely? It’s probable that the daily commute, for office workers, will become a thing of the past. Cubicles? Good riddance.
But we still want to travel. It’s important for people’s psychological health to leave their homes to exercise, socialize, and encounter nature. And there are still plenty of jobs that cannot or should not be done remotely. Lockdowns are already ending in many cities, and people are going places again. Therefore, we return the question: for any mass of people, where should they live? Where should they work, socialize and play? And finally, how do they get from A to B?
Why do we play games?
Humankind has a long and storied history with games, stretching all the way back to ancient history. There are lots of theories as to why. The concept of adopting a system of rules and challenges to overcome by choice seems to be central to many of them. Work is hard, but when it’s work we choose instead of work foisted upon us, we happily engage with the process. We like solving problems, especially when we have the opportunity to make a deliberate choice to solve those problems. Every game fundamentally presents a series of problems—even if some of them are presented to us by other players—and gives us a toolkit of choices and decisions we can make to resolve them. It’s all work. Carefully disguised work, but fun work nonetheless.
So that’s what a game is. But why do we play them? Why have humans across all cultures and all of human history created and played games? Simply because they’re “fun” or good ways to pass free time seem like insufficient explanations, at least to me.
You can learn a lot about a person by watching them play a game. Are they aggressive in their playstyle? Do they like to work slowly and methodically, resolving each problem in turn as it’s presented? Or do they like to charge ahead, hoping certain problems they’ve ignored won’t come back to bite them as they sprint toward the win condition? And what of games without a win condition, like our very own NewCity? Sure, once you unlock the skyscraper we notify you that you’ve “won the game,” but you’re free to continue building your city to your heart’s content. We play games to “win,” right? Perhaps not.
Why would people keep playing after they’ve won? Because there are more challenges and obstacles to overcome. There ‘s more work to be done. When a game doesn’t force a player to quit upon winning the game, as is the case with most citybuilders, players often choose to continue playing until they’re wrung every last drop of endorphins from the core gameplay loop. Even after seeing all a game has to offer, players often raise the bar to perfection in order to continue playing—the entire speedrunning community is built on this concept. Completing a game with additional restrictions, or with the best humanly possible time. Adding more work and more problems to be solved. I submit that games, in a sense, become an extension of the player. What difficulty level they choose, how they go about interacting with the game—it all becomes a reflection of the player themselves.
But what about the game’s creators? What do the games they make have to say about them?
We’re straying into the “games as art” territory, and I don’t have a particular interest in addressing that debate here—but for the sake of convenience we’ll assume that they are1. Art is generally seen to be a reflection of the artist in some capacity. Either of their internal struggles, their thoughts and feelings, or the unique way they view the world. What do they see in a sunset that you don’t? Or in the delicate dance of vehicles weaving in and out of traffic during rush hour? There’s beauty all around us that often goes unnoticed in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Truths to be excavated from the detritus of life. Artists create art to capture experiences and emotion, bringing some of that hidden beauty and immaterial “truth” to the surface. Presenting it in a package that resonates with hundreds—if not thousands or millions—of other people.
As long as there has been human civilization, there has been art. The desire for self-expression, for gaining new insights on the world we share, and for appreciating beauty—these are fundamental aspects of the human experience. Now we live in a world where art and science have begun to mingle in the form of videogames. The complex systems underpinning the games we play are scientifically principled structures. The visual aspects of games demand an artistic touch. But could it be said that even the algorithms and systems driving the game represent a form of art? How the designer chooses to implement these systems, what they choose to emphasize or diminish, how they choose to replicate these small slivers of reality in virtual space all stem from the fundamental aspects above. Games become a reflection of the designer’s worldview—their beliefs, hopes, and dreams.
What does this have to do with NewCity?
Citybuilders are fundamentally optimistic, humanistic games. The core gameplay loops incentivize growth and construction, and decentivize destruction. They reward players who provide comfort and security through the dutiful and deliberate construction of their cities. The challenges are realistic but manageable. The goal is to manipulate the virtual world in such a way that your digital citizens can thrive. Some people might play these sorts of simulation games differently, but I submit that’s a reflection of the player and not the designer. And as mentioned before, games are all about choice—the free will of the player. What would this sort of game be if you didn’t at least have the option to wreak havoc? We’re all just a few clicks away from becoming either an angel or a demon to the folks calling our fictional cities home. Without choice, there would be no game. And the choices we make speak volumes, both as players and as game designers. Games serve as windows that peer into our very hearts and souls.
What do you see in the games you play? What does it say about the games’ developers?
Perhaps more importantly, what does it say about you?
We’ll be live on the Lone Pine Games Twitch at 9pm PST tonight.
Questions? Comments? Feedback on the game? Sound off on our Discord.
As always, we’re incredibly thankful for our great community across the web. We love seeing the hard work and attention to detail you pour into your cities, and it inspires us every day to keep building. Thank you again for your support.
If you want to play the game and haven’t contributed yet, head over to our IndieGoGo page. We’re also on Reddit and Twitter. Give us a follow if you haven’t, and we’ll keep you up to date on what’s new with New Cities!
The official position of Lone Pine Games, LLC, is that games are art. ↩