How mods helped Cities: Skylines grow

January 20, 2016 by Adam Barnes

Colossal Order's success comes from the simplest of places.

“We were slightly caught off guard with the massive success of the game,” says Mariina Hallikainen, CEO of Colossal Order. Cities: Skylines was one of the biggest games of the year, an a out-of-nowhere success for simulation fans around the world. City simulation is one of those genres that harbours a sort of fanatic adoration, so when Colossal Order released the game early last year genre fans were quick to flock to it. It soon reached a million sales, and was the sixth best-selling game on Steam in 2015.

On the surface it might be hard to understand quite where this success came from. Some were still embittered by the varied failures of 2013’s SimCity; some were pleased to see a city building game with huge plots of land to play with. Many others were excited about the prospect of modding being so integral to the game.

Bryan Shannon was one modder who found himself swept up by the game’s success. He had worked at Maxis on the last SimCity, but as the studio was closed and he was out of work, he found himself considering the prospects of modding for Cities: Skylines. “Before the game actually came out I was never actually sold on the game’s modding capabilities,” says Shannon. “But after I got the game I thought ‘okay, I’ll give it a shot’. I think I was one of the first modders to create a piece of content for it.” Shannon went on to set up a Patreon page for creating mods for the game, earning himself a small wage from dedicated Cities: Skylines players.

This would only be the beginning, and before long there were thousands upon thousands of mods for the game. Some -- like Shannon’s -- added in new building models; others tweaked, altered or improved the gameplay. Some even radically overhauled the experience -- such as a flight simulator that allowed you to whizz about your own city.

Shannon believes the game was so successful because Colossal Order thought about the desires of someone who likes the genre and “bottled it up and just made exactly that”. With SimCity 2013 failing to reignite the passion of these devout simulation fans, it was a smart decision to target that core gameplay experience. “It was something that I felt the genre needed,” adds Shannon: “a game that people could latch onto. Really the last major, major game that people have latched onto was SimCity 4.”

Yet while the initial success was likely down to hype, that’s a harder reason to apply to the game’s long-term appeal. “It’s kind of -- in some senses -- starting to stand the test of time,” says Shannon. “Because now we’re out of that honeymoon phase overall, and we’re kind of getting into seeing what the game can do for longevity.”

That longevity has been borne from the mods that have continued to expand the game, resulting in a huge community of players that have stuck around for almost a year playing the game regularly. “I was afraid in a bigger community there might be more negativity,” admits Hallikainen, and with the internet that’s certainly a valid concern to have. “But I must say that I am very impressed by how polite and helpful our community members are to us and to each other.”

While this openness towards modding has helped sustain that playerbase, it’s been hard work for the team at Colossal Order. Hallikainen explains that continued development and updates have revealed some new, unforeseen problems to solve. “As an example, the modding community who have been using additional map tiles ran into an issue that meant they could only build a certain amount of buildings in their maps. The building limit was optimized for the original map size so we didn't see it being an issue before the modders pointed it out.”

A city grid. A city grid.

Colossal Order is keen to make sure that issues like this are resolved as and when they’re discovered. Hallikainen admits it’s important to not “focus solely on one group” when it comes to development concerns, but the team understand that if they are promising modding support then they also need to be willing to help solve some of the problems they might come across as a result. If Cities: Skylines is going to maintain the current level of interest, then Colossal Order needs to keep its community content.

So how does Colossal Order plan to do that? “I believe in this type of a game it doesn't make sense to jump on to a sequel too soon,” says Hallikainen, “not at least before we have implemented all of those ideas from our wishlist and the technology has been developed further.” The plan, then, is to release a number of expansion packs, DLC and free updates; Hallikainen hopes that doing so will keep players coming back to the game.

But Bryan Shannon doesn’t necessarily think that will be enough. “Let’s say that they want to release a new expansion pack very similar to [the recently released] After Dark,” he says. “Is that really going to lure players back? I’m not entirely sure. I think that you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot major success again, [because] it’s not a sequel. I think they’d be better off if they tried to do something different.”

Hallikainen notes that there’s a long list of features that couldn’t be added into the game for release, so the team will never run out of ideas to include as either paid or free content. “It would have been fabulous to work on the game for much longer,” says Hallikainen, “but the reality is that we can't have it all at once, unfortunately. We are definitely using that wishlist as a base for new content. As an example, bicycles were in the original concept but cut early on. I'm happy we got to implement them in After Dark expansion.”

Closing in on Cities' streets. Closing in on Cities' streets.

To Shannon, though, there are further ways the game can be expanded in terms of gameplay. “I think it’s lacking a little bit of depth overall,” he says of the game. “But let us not forget that they never really anticipated this much success, and then also they just wanted to make something that everyone would want to play.”

It’s unlikely that Colossal Order will do much to overhaul those underlying systems, though, at least not until the inevitable sequel. That’s likely where the modding community will step in, holding the game afloat perhaps even long after the developer has moved on to other things.

Thankfully, Skylines’s modding community is one of the more accessible ones, says Shannon. “If you went out of your way to try to find the information you could probably end up finding yourself in a group of people who are all interested in the same thing as you are.” He adds that people are “not shy about offering assistance” and that “a simple friend request on Steam will be enough to get you started”.

Ordinarily by now - almost a year after its release - a game like Cities: Skylines would have been cast aside for the latest flavour of the month, but this title is still going strong. You just have to look at the numerous gameplay videos that are being uploaded even now to see just how many dedicated players rely on the many different mods, from enhancements to the UI to new types of roads and improved traffic control.

The effect these mods and modders are having on the game’s vigour is obvious, and while Colossal Order’s input isn’t about to wane any time soon it’s clear that -- without the efforts of these dedicated modders -- Cities: Skylines might not be such a recognisable name.