I still remember the day my dad took me to a local computer expo, a bit further up town. The expo took place in a big gym and I was very impressed by the technology available at the time (I’m talking about the late nineties here). You must know, at home we owned a “simple” computer with a green-only colored monitor that swallowed these humongous 8-inch floppy drives. An ancient machine from another era, but still a luxury device back in the day. Come to think of it, I believe the Ninja Turtle themed puzzle game I frequently played was my very first gaming experience. If you put this in perspective, you can understand the impression the color monitors and 10MB hard drives left behind.
It was not long after we got to upgrade to Windows 95. And along with the upgrade, my game collection expanded. To name a few of my favorites; Death Rally, Duke Nukem, Doom, Tunnelman, SimCity and Jazz Jackrabbit. All games I played hours on end. Until I got myself a SNES.
Baby get higher.
A few years after, simulator games like Rollercoaster Tycoon and The Sims succeeded in becoming very popular on PC. The games were easy to pick up, highly addictive and didn’t require a power house of a PC to be able to play them. On primary school I had a friend who managed to drag me into these and so it wouldn’t take long for me to return to PC gaming. He’d later introduce me to Max Payne.
There’s something about these simulator/management games that keeps me interested in the genre, although I’m not quite sure what’s causing it. Last year’s hugely popular Fallout Shelter had a similar effect on me. But that one did not succeed in getting me addicted.
Back to 2016. Another computer expo. Well, it was a videogames expo to be honest. Gamescom 2016, Cologne, Germany. We were invited by Kasedo Games to check out Project Highrise, a game I had not heard of prior to the occasion. Along with an extensive preview, we also got to ask the developers (who came to Germany all the way from Chicago) some question about their game.
Project Highrise is a skyscraper build and management game where YOU are the architect and manager of a modern Skyscraper. The goal of the game can vary a bit depending on which game mode you choose. There’s a sandbox mode in which you get to play around freely with the game’s mechanics. There’s a Scenario mode, where you have to achieve a certain goal (like revitalizing the building). Or you can choose a regular mode in which you have to fulfill a series of contracts (for example; achieve a daily rent of $10.000 or roof 50 inhabitants). Whatever mode you may choose to play, the developers give you the tools to let your creative minds go and design a unique looking, 100+ story building. Will you house offices or will you build a residential building? Or mix both which is even more challenging? The choice is yours but remember; the higher you get, the more difficult the game will become.
Success and Failure.
In order to build you need to make money. In order to make money, your tenants need to be happy. All tenants have their own needs that’ll cost you money (a lawyer needs copy services, while another might need a waste disposal service, buildings need to be clean etc.). Essentially, your tenants’ happiness level can be very expensive. The needier they are, the more money they will have to pay in rent. And so the management of your building starts.
The game’s mechanics also feature “influential tenants”. Basically, these are high value tenants that have a good reputation in the city, like a well-respected lawyer or architect. These tenants provide you with Influence points that the player can use in turn to leverage into doing things that will permanently enhance you building’s functioning. You can do things like, get the city to let you build a metro station in the basement of your building or lobby the construction union to get you more construction workers (which will considerably speed things up).
There’s a lot you can do with influence that will boost your stats or improve your game experience. It’s a must to attract and keep the influential tenants happy. To our surprise, not a single tenant required an internet connection. When we asked the developers about this they were surprised we noticed, and informed us the game is actually set in a modern version of the sixties. The art style of the game is heavily influenced by this era and thus, is very Pop Art based (which is an absolute plus). Entirely in 2D.
Apart from the contracts or scenarios you can complete, there’s no real way of “beating” the game. Even in contracts or scenario mode you are allowed to continue on playing after completing your goal. In sandbox mode you can go all out, there’s nothing to beat except for your own ability to manage everything. You challenge yourself to see how good you are to keep the wheel spinning.
The opposite side of success is failure. Something that can easily happen in Project Highrise. If you’re tenants are unhappy, they will let the city know about it. You’ll lose prestige points and attracting new tenants will be considerably harder. If you have spent all your money and you fail to attract new tenants, the game will become incredibly hard to turn around.
One of the joys of the game is to explore how all the different, independent game mechanics work and interlock. You’ll have to take your time and analyze how each mechanic affects the other, learn out how they cohere and become really good at it. Don’t fret, these elements gradually get introduced over time, so you’ll have the time to get accustomed to one another, before complexity kicks back in. This almost gives the game a puzzle sort of feel. You can pause time whenever you like, so the tempo is yours to decide.
During the Gamescom presentation (I was given a review copy by the publisher after the convention) I got to ask the developers how they were able to develop a game of such magnitude. If the player is being challenged by making sure all mechanics interlock, then how do the developers make sure it’s “game proof”? The answer was straightforward, but really surprising. Instead of enabling all mechanics at once, they started small and built from there. Adding needs and challenges as they went on, making sure all could work together in harmony. For them it was a constant challenge to balance and tune the game. Changing one value, like the cost of electricity, can have knock-on effects that are hard if not impossible to envision. They worked with a couple of spreadsheets, each with multiple sheets and ridiculous formulas with dependencies that are hard to explain. They applied the numbers in game and play for a couple of hours. Sometimes they discovered the new values improved the game. Sometimes they assumed what would be turned out to be awful. That’s game development people.
Project Highrise is one of the many games I saw during Gamescom, but one of the few I really wanted to check out as soon as I was home. The game does not feature an elaborate story or photo-realistic graphics. No, instead it features complex game mechanics that make sure the game is challenging , the difficulty level is partially in the player’s hand, which also makes the game very accessible. The only thing that’s bugging me at the time of writing this review, is that the game is currently on sale for 18 Euros and features incredibly dull music. A bit on the high side for a game like this if you ask me. But I guess it all comes down to how much time you’ll be able to waste building the next Burj Khalifa. Trust me, there’s plenty to be had.