There was a time when if you wanted a city builder, you looked to SimCity. That time has changed since Cities Skylines hit the scene in 2015. Despite development handled by Colossal Order, a studio with a reputation for creating solid city sims with titles like Cities in Motion, no one imagined it would hit at the perfect time to make such an impact before it launched.

Much of that was because SimCity released in 2014 with a lot of hype. People where excited, and it was poised to be the second coming of the city sim for a new generation. Sadly none of that came to pass. The game was not a bad, but it did not live up to the lofty expectations of a fan base eager to jump back into a legendary franchise. It lacked the charm of previous games such as SimCity 2000, and ultimately never clicked with many players. Then Cities Skylines came around, hitting all the right beats, quickly becoming a must-play for all fans of the genre. Now years after launch, the team at Colossal Order are not slowing down. Just recently hitting Xbox One, Cities: Skylines – Xbox One Edition is poised to hit a new section of players that would normally never play this genre of game. I managed to catch up with Mariina Hallikainen, CEO of Colossal Order to discuss Cities Skylines and what is next for the up-and-coming developer and how the fans are helping shape the future of Cities Skylines.

The New King of City Building – A Talk with Colossal Order

CGMagazine: Can you tell me a bit what you do at the studio and how long you’ve been at the studio?

Mariina Hallikainen: So basically, I’m one of the founders of Colossal Order. We set up the studio back in 2009, and I’ve been handling the business side of it ever since. So as the CEO, I have multiple things that I need to do. And starting small, there was anything from like community management to marketing as well as the business side. But now that the company has grown slightly, I have been able to delegate some of those tasks to other people.

CGM: Can you explain a bit how you got involved with Cites: Skyline?

Hallikainen: That was basically our dream to make that game ever since we started the studio. We were huge fans of those classic city builders, and back in 2009 we were just five people starting the studio. So we understood that there would be no way for us to actually make a full-blown city builder and make it great.

So we decided to focus on only one aspect of a city builder, which was the Mass Transit. That was the topic of Cities in Motion. And for us, it was really kind of a dream project to be able to work on a full-blown city builder. Eventually, we gathered a bigger team, more experience in the industry, and then just took on the challenge eventually.

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CGM: Your game has been described as basically the spiritual successor to SimCity. How do you take to that kind of commendation?

Hallikainen: Well, the story is actually quite funny because – as I said, we loved those, classic city builders. SimCity 2000, SimCity 4 were the ones that we have grown up playing. There was a long time after SimCity 4 that there was no news of that franchise.

So when they actually announced the new SimCity, we were pretty sure that, “okay, we are never going to be able to make our own city builder because they will basically dominate the market again for upcoming 10 years or so”.

So for us, it was a little bit of a developer news, though we were very excited to see what they do with the franchise. But as it turns out, there was still room for another city builder out there, so we decided to take on the challenge.

And it’s been bittersweet altogether. We are huge fans of Maxis and the games they have made.

CGM: Now moving forward, I’ve seen Cities: Skylines has numerous updates, and the fan reaction has been staggering, to say the least. What is your view of the fan reaction to Cities: Skylines up to this point, and how do you view the fans are taking each individual update as they come?

Hallikainen: It’s been absolutely fantastic for us to see such a huge community being built around the game. I think modding is the huge part of the game, and it’s great that we have so many active modders and so many people excited about the game and who basically follow the news.

And I think it’s one of those things that we want to have a good relationship with our community. We want to listen to their suggestions, their feedback, because they are who we are making this game for. So try to keep an open communication, just basically create content which will be interesting for them.

So it’s always extremely pleasing to see when they are excited about the new features that we’re working on. It gives us so much inspiration and strength.

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CGM: What are the future plans for Cities: Skylines? Do you have a 10-year vision for the game, or do you see this as an ever-growing project as time goes on?

Hallikainen: I do hope that we have a chance to work on this for the long haul, basically. It’s been a great ride so far and we have so many things we want to improve, bring new content to the game. And it’s definitely something that we hope to work on years forward.

CGM: Now, for each individual update, how do you go about figuring out what to put in them? Do you listen to the fans or do you have internal idea of what you want the game to evolve into?  

Hallikainen: Well, the best thing when we noticed that the fans want the same thing than we do, that’s the easiest – put it bluntly. It’s really something that if we think about what we have done for the game after the release, we actually did have a plan to work on something completely different before After Dark. And we got such an overwhelming amount of requests to add the day-and-night cycle to the game that we decided to skip our original idea for the first expansion and work on After Dark.

Basically – because we were kind of thinking that it might not be possible under the schedule we were in. And then a couple of our programmers just decided on one Friday afternoon prototype the thing. And then they showed it to me, like, “This is what we could do.” It was looking fantastic so I called Paradox, our publisher and was like, “Would it be okay if we like switch this completely?” And it worked out great. I think that expansion is – it was so well received. It was really fun to work on.

So, we have our internal vision, of course, as the developers of the game where we want this game to go in the future and what kind of content we want to create to it. But then you have this almost unified vision with the fans. Like, if you think about the natural disasters, people were asking for disasters to the game, so it’s so much fun to kind of work on those features.

Mass Transit is something that we feel might add– it’s really like kind of an ode to our previous games. So it’s a very endearing project for us to work on.

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CGM: How has it been like working with Paradox as a publisher for Cities: Skylines? Have they been very supportive or are they giving you no’s, and then you often have a back and forth?

Hallikainen: We’ve enjoyed it a lot. We actually have been working with them since 2010, ever since the first Cities in Motion. So we are very familiar with them. They are super easy to work with. It’s really a pleasure because we have such a similar vision on what we want to do with the game. I think they fully understand why we want to engage with the community. I think that we’re kind of on the same wavelength on how we want – and how we want to make games and what kind of games we want to make.

I think the best part with Paradox is that they let our do our thing, if you know what I mean. It’s like we are the developers of the game and we get to do that, and they are doing the things that we don’t want to do, which is basically the marketing and distributing and these kinds of things. But we at Colossal get to fully focus on just developing the game and communicating with the fans. So it’s a very good cooperation between us.

CGM: Now, with the Maxis shutting down, you guys are the only game in town when it comes to big city builders. Has that increased the pressure to make sure you deal with fans properly?

Hallikainen: We have been always very open with our community. Of course, with Cities in Motion, the community was tiny compared to the one we have with Cities: Skylines. But I feel that that’s one of the things that we want to be the kind of game developers who fans feel that it’s okay to approach. We get a lot of emails, we have the Paradox forums, I love reading Reddit – the subreddit we have. It’s so much fun, people sharing their stories with the game and asking questions. We try to answer those. Of course, we are a small team, so we basically – the Paradox forums is, of course, the official channel.

But in the sense that I think that’s a modern way of working. It’s something that is very important to us to talk to our audience. I think that it only makes the product better, or the game better. So – and especially with the extensive modding tools we have. If we wouldn’t have this conversation, it would feel very one-sided. And I think it’s definitely an important part of the whole Cities: Skylines experience to have that community there. I think it’s for both for the fans and for us as developers

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CGM: Now, rewinding a bit to when Cities: Skylines was first in development, what were the tenets of the process? How did you feel it would be received when you went forward with the game?

Hallikainen:  Well, we have been completely surprised by the, like, massive success that Cities: Skylines has received. We had our internal target for the copies sold was 300,000. And then in the first 24 hours after the game was released, it was already like – it was 250,000 copies. So we were at the office, like, “Okay, we may have to adjust our targets slightly.”

It was completely mind-blowing. I mean, we did not expect that. I started to get the kind of feeling – I knew we were making a good game. I think Cities: Skylines is definitely our best game yet.

But also we were so focused and we used our resources so well. We worked so well as a team while the development was going.

And then, I think it was around one week or two weeks before the release that we had these press events and a Paradox convention. And then the streamers got the review codes and there started to be this kind of hype and buzz around the release. And I was thinking, like, “Yeah, this might turn out all right.”

There’s a huge pressure when you – when the game is released and you kind of have no idea how it’s going to go. Always hoping for the best and fearing the worst. That’s kind of the feelings you have there before you see how it actually goes.

We almost couldn’t believe what was happening. And I have to say, honestly, it took us a while as a small team to be able to handle all the suggestions and feedback and wishes after the release, because the success was so massive at that point. But definitely, something that I think we caught up really quickly after the initial shock. So It’s been overall a really, really great experience.

And I think one of the important things is that we’re still not a big company.  Like you mentioned, we’re now pretty much the only ones working on city builders. But I think it’s one of those things that people need to remember, that there are so many good small teams out there. And nowadays, you don’t have to have a massive team to make a good-quality game. So it’s a very competitive field still.

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CGM: How big is the team now working on the game?

Hallikainen: We have 18 people at the moment.

CGM: What do you see the future for Cities: Skylines? What do you see it going – what do you see it evolving into as time goes on?

Hallikainen: Well, I’m hoping it will be the best city builder ever made – modestly. (Laughter.) Yeah, we aim high.

It’s something that we’re very much looking forward to keep the conversation with the – with our fans, with the community. Improving the modding tools is a big part. So we can keep that side of the game alive as well as finding new, interesting features and content for the game in the future as well.

CGM: Have you seen any mods being made that you then say, “We need this in the core game” or are you letting the mod community and your game live separately?

Hallikainen: This is actually – we get so inspired by the modders. The very first thing when we released the game, which was our oversight, we have lost one-way streets or one-way roads in the game. And one of the first mods that actually appeared was that you can operate the roads so that you can change the direction of the one-way road. How did you not have this in the game from the beginning? And then we were like, “This is – of course this needs to be.” We patched that really quickly after the release. Felt a little bit like – I think the modders keep us focused, and it’s a very good collaboration there.

We have, for example, for Mass Transit, there’s actually quite a few mods we have actually investigated and looked into. And we will be adding some of the ideas they have there to the base game, because not all players want to use the mods. And there are so many good things available that I think those need to be available for all the players.

So we’re definitely getting inspired by the mods as well.