Innovating Genres - Bringing Life to the City
Genres - Bringing Life to the City
By Ted Brockwood
How an independent developer is looking to innovate in a classic genre
“City Building” – the term itself doesn’t always inspire excitement in the hearts of most gamers. The average gamer is likely to see the genre as one filled with crunchy details, obsessive micro-management and hours of watching a game that's seemingly run on auto-pilot. Up until recently, you'd likely find few who would argue with that perception, except fans of the genre themselves, however, but in recent years, independent French developer Monte Cristo set out to change all that. Their original outing in the genre -- "City Life," took the standard city builder, and infused it with “life.” No more were citizens simple numbers to monitor, in City Life, they were living, breathing human beings, with specific wants and needs, and your job as a mayor was to do more than just plonk down buildings. City Life was met with critical and consumer praise - spawning several sequels. Now, Monte Cristo's taken their 80+ person team (split between Paris and Kiev) and aimed it at the genre again, this time, going much bigger - with true social interactions, online gameplay and features to attract a wider audience than the traditional one of city builder player. But you have to ask, when major publishers are no longer taking care of this genre, why even bother – which is a question Jérôme Gastaldi, CEO of Monte Cristo is more than ready to answer:
"The game industry as a whole, not just a single genre, needs to be shaken up. There's such an incredible lack of innovation now. It's just 'deliver another sequel, it'll sell on name alone,'" says Gastaldi. “Therefore games are becoming incredibly stagnant, which means gamers are stuck with more of the same every time. If you look around, there is so much you can add to a game, why wouldn't you? The last real benchmark in our category is Sim City 4, a game that is now 6 years old. Do we think there is a lot of new stuff to be brought to massively expand this style of product? Yes, most definitely. "
That's where CITIES XL, Monte Cristo's upcoming game, comes into things. By mixing a city builder with an MMO and a social network, Monte Cristo's looking to turn the genre on its head, and give gamers more than just "The Return 2: The Returning."
"At its core, CITIES XL will offer all the city building features known to fans of the genre. If you want to play a solo city builder, you’ll certainly be able to in the game. But we've gone to great lengths to expand upon the genre, to bring in other gamers who might not normally find themselves playing a game like CITIES XL. Tycoon-game players are invited to create and manage companies within their cities and MMORPG players will be surprised by the level of player interaction,” said Gastaldi.
A key example of how the development team aims to take the game outside of the norm is by offering full-featured online play. While some city builders have offered online play, it's been in a limited form. With CITIES XL, Monte Cristo aims to give gamers a reason to play together online. Features such as resource sharing, content creation, economic competition and a built-in social network are all aspects of the game that Monte Cristo hopes will get gamers to play and stay together online.
The "Planet Offer," for example, is Monte Cristo's optional pay-to-play online service that will be included with the game. Within the Planet Offer, consumers will be able to jump online and build cities on virtual worlds shared by hundreds of players. These worlds will offer varied terrains and maps, and will allow players on these worlds to interact directly with one another. Need more electric power for your urban wonderland? Go visit another city and ask the owner to trade you for that excess garbage hauling capacity you have. Feel like a 3D chat? Head to the city center and talk with other mayors via custom avatars. Competitive players will be able to join in on contests set up by Monte Cristo, allowing for online bragging rights and prizes. “There is a massively cool factor in visiting cities around the virtual globe, sharing experiences with others and seeing content that you do not own yet. This is like being in a candy shop! But even more importantly, sharing a planet with others will give players more freedom to play; it will open doors to cooperation in order to build big buildings or infrastructures that need specific resources from other players and to allow the specialization of cities. We are sure that we are going to be surprised by players in the routes they will take,” said Gastaldi.
Monte Cristo believes that RPG heroic fantasy isn’t the only genre that can support MMO play successfully. “We think that there is room for alternative offers in MMOs as long as you comply with some golden design rules. We will offer something clearly different, that will not require long play sessions like MMORPGs to keep on progressing –this allows both synchronous and asynchronous game play and will certainly be less restrictive in the way it is played. “
GEMs, or "Gameplay Extension Modules" are another concept not seen in city builders before, and are aimed at enriching the simulation with time, extra gameplay and by attracting a whole new breed of player - the business tycoon wanna-be.
"With GEMs, you can create online businesses that take in virtual currency from citizens of your cities, which help build up the resources for your main cities. GEMs are a full 'tycoon' gaming product, and we expect that they will really pull in players who might not be interested in a city builder, but would love to run a business alongside their friends' cities, which allows for a cooperative experience."
One of the first GEMs that is planned to ship with the game in 2009 is the Ski Resort. With this GEM, players in snowy areas can build a fully functioning ski resort. This resort will act as a complete tycoon game in and of itself - requiring the player to design the trails, staff them with ski patrollers and offer amenities to attract visitors. The better the trails and overall resort, the more money the player will make…but it goes beyond just the "build and maintain" concept. In the Planet Offer, players who have a GEM can advertise it on other players' cities – so long as both players agree to the advertising. Once the advertising kicks in, the GEM may then attract tourists from other towns to spend their money at the GEM. However, if the ski resort is too simplistic, tourists will stay away in droves, and no amount of advertising can save a boring GEM.
Having already launched a successful Facebook page and blog for the game, Monte Cristo aims to take it further by integrating modern web and community functionalities inside the game itself
“The web is an integral part of the game. We think that players want accessibility and to keep in touch with their game even when not in front of their game PC,” said Gastaldi. As such, in Cities XL, players will be able to manage their trades online from any computer in the world through web pages on which their game data will be exported. You’ll have the possibility to subscribe to RSS feeds from other players, display your achievements, locate partners or resources through social networking functionalities, make deals online , create a city journal including your pictures, videos and much more.
With its combination of social networking, MMO play, city building and tycoon gameplay, CITIES XL has high ambitions, aiming to bring in players of other game types, while pleasing fans of the core genre. Set for a 2009 release date, CITIES XL could give the genre, and gaming as a whole, the innovative shot in the arm it’s been craving.