Mariina Hallikainen, CEO of small Finnish game developer Colossal Order, is having a good day. When I call her, it's only been a few hours since she learned that Colossal Order's SimCity-like game, Cities: Skylines, has sold more than half a million copies in its first week. The first 250,000 of those were sold in the first 24 hours, making it the fastest-selling game its publisher Paradox Interactive has ever released.
The irony here doesn't escape Hallikainen. Only a week before Skylines was released, game publisher Electronic Arts announced that it was shutting down SimCity developer Maxis' studio in Emeryville, which it acquired in 1997.
"I feel so bad about Maxis closing down," Hallikainen said. "The older SimCitys were really the inspiration for us to even consider making a city builder."
At the same time, Hallikainen admits SimCity's mistakes were Colossal Order's opportunity. "If SimCity was a huge success, which is what we expected, I don't know if Skylines would have ever happened," she said, explaining that it would have been a harder pitch to sell to Paradox if the new SimCity dominated the market.
Cities: Skylines is a huge critical success as well, earning overwhelmingly positive reviews and an instantaneously devoted community. Skylines was designed to allow players to create their own content for the game. A week later, they've already created thousands of buildings and maps. One player recreated Grand Theft Auto V's fictional city Los Santos within Skylines and another player named Bryan Shannon is making exceptionally high-quality assets, which makes sense as he used to do this professionally for Maxis.
Maxis was founded by Will Wright, who created SimCity, the precursor to all city-management games. Other developers tried to recreate its success but fell short. Even Maxis, which tried to reboot the franchise in 2013, botched it with broken online features and design choices that contradicted the series' ethos.
Whereas the old SimCity games embraced the complexity and minutia of urban planning, allowing players to intricately configure large city layout and infrastructure, SimCity 2013 streamlined, restricted city size, and essentially forced people to play online together.
Colossal Order wanted to make a full-fledged city-builder since it was founded in 2009, but the small team, five to start and 13 today, didn't have the means. Instead, it made Cities in Motion, a mass transit management game that earned enough money to justify a sequel, Cities in Motion 2.
Besides helping it grow in size and experience, Hallikainen said Cities in Motion taught Colossal Order how to build a convincing mass transit network. It requires the simulation to track individual citizens, give them reasons to go somewhere, then asks the player to help them get there efficiently. Colossal Order took this idea directly into Skylines, in which you can follow citizen from the time they move into the city or are born, watch them grow old, get a job, and eventually die.
Skylines not surprisingly is great at simulating traffic, but it also allows players to build much bigger cities that the last SimCity, and tinker with every little detail: zoning, budget, garbage, water, energy, police, and more. You can sit there and pull your hair out over every city block if you want, which a lot of people apparently do.
Colossal Order saw that Maxis had left an opening in the market and went for it.
"I think they lost sight of what people look for when they play this kind of simulation game," Hallikainen said. "I've always seen them as single-player, your own sandbox, you get to do whatever you want, and you don't have to worry about what other people are doing. That's why I play them. I don't like multiplayer games because I suck at them."
Hallikainen suggested that Maxis must have been under tremendous pressure. "SimCity 4  has been such an influential game, and it's been so many years, over 10 years, it must have been very difficulty to top that. I mean I'm scared! What's going to be our next game when we got this kind of reception for Cities: Skylines, what's going to happen next time?"
Hallikainen said that Colossal Order definitely wants to make a new game at some point, and with its recent success, it can pursue whatever dream projects it has lying around. For now, it's focused on supporting Skylines, improving it based on player feedback and adding more features it wanted but couldn't get in before launch, such as tunnels and European-style wall-to-wall buildings. That is, if players don't add those features themselves first.
"It seems that people have been modding pretty much everything we planned on adding ourselves, so we have to step back and see what we can do for the players that hasn't been done already. I think there are 7,000 mods. It's completely insane."