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Does Size Matter?

by in |

I've been thinking a lot about size in city-builder games. All city-builder games, right back to the very beginning, have disguised the real sizes of many key buildings in cities. For example, from 1989's SimCity right up to 2015's Cities: Skylines, a coal power plant has always been about the size of a police station. Cities: Skylines purports to have an actual scale - one cell in C:S is nominally eight by eight meters - meaning that their coal power plant takes up about half an acre, or 0.2 hectares. By comparison, here's are two real (adjoining) coal power plants; the railroad spur you see coming in from the left is approximately the dividing line. Neither is particularly large nor particularly small; the upper one produces 1040 MW of electricity and the lower one 1370 MW. That red rectangle in the woods, smaller than a parking lot, is the footprint of a Cities: Skylines coal power plant. A screenshot from Google Earth showing two large, sprawling coal power plants. There is a small red rectangle indicating the size of a Cities: Skylines power plant.

Admittedly, the Skylines plant produces only 40 MW, but comparing power generation per unit area, the Skylines plant uses space 50 times more efficiently than a typical real-world coal power plant. Perhaps the most egregious part of this is that Cities: Skylines does actually scale wind turbines fairly accurately, both in area and power production, which makes wind turbines seem like a much less efficient use of land than coal power plants when in fact they use far less land area per megawatt.

It isn't just power plants, of course. I compared a number of different real-world buildings against Cities: Skylines buildings. Here's a selected list of buildings - mostly around Baltimore, a fairly typical mid-sized US city - compared to their Cities: Skylines counterparts.

  • Brandon Shores Generating Station: 114,000% the size of a C:S coal power plant
  • Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant: 36,400% the size of a C:S water treatment plant
  • Wheelabrator Incinerator: 9,000% the size of a C:S incinerator
  • Green Mount Cemetery: 5,300% the size of a C:S cemetery
  • Ravenswood Generating Station (an extremely dense urban power and cogeneration plant in Queens): 4,700% the size of a C:S oil power plant (though it does produce 2,100% the power, and also performs the job of a boiler station)
  • BWI Airport: 3,000% the size of the new Sunset Harbor DLC Metropolitan Airport, 5,300% the size of the After Dark DLC International Airport, and 15,300% the size of the base game airport
  • Jessup Correctional Institution: 2,200% the size of the Cities: Skylines prison (to hold 280% the prisoners)
  • Johns Hopkins Hospital: 2,100% the size of the Cities: Skylines US-style hospital (with about 200% the beds)
  • Frederick Douglass High School (building only, not campus): 990% the size of the Cities: Skylines US-style high school (for 89% as many students)

There are plenty of buildings that are more reasonably sized; the Cities: Skylines multiplatform train station is in the right ballpark, and the public library building is about the same size as the central branch of the [Enoch Pratt library](Enoch Pratt Free Library) (but much bigger than neighborhood branches). And, though there aren't many international airports quite as small as the largest Cities: Skylines airport, Chicago's Midway is only 6 times larger than the Metropolitan Airport and Orange County's tiny John Wayne Airport is a mere 3.8 times the size.

Obviously, there are good reasons for this. Modeling buildings ranging from a 1x1 residential building at 64 square meters up to BWI's 13,728,000 square meters is probably not something any city-builder game can realistically do. If Cities: Skylines included a full-scale model of BWI - a small- to medium-sized airport - you'd have to buy four of the nine tiles you're allowed in the base game just to fit it in! Even Midway would take up three quarters of a tile, and John Wayne is half a tile in area (but would sprawl across two tiles, because it's much longer than it is wide). And if you wanted to model (Denver International Airport)[], terrifying demon horse and all, you'd need to turn on the 81 tiles mod - if your graphics card can handle it - and use up about 36 of them. (There's a good reason why major airports - and major power plants, and large prisons - usually aren't built in the middle of dense urban areas - DIA is twice the size of Manhattan!) Sizing the maps up to the real size of a metro area isn't an option either; between its simulation engine and its graphics, Cities: Skylines already taxes even fairly new PCs, and making the maps large enough to account for realistic scale would probably end in a lot of molten silicon.

But scale does matter. For a lot of people, city-builder games are a key element shaping our sense of what a city's infrastructure looks like. One of the things we're looking for in Charm Cities is ways to accurately depict the size and scope of the complex infrastructure that keeps us alive. In fact, if we had a vision board, front and center would be this quote from Terry Pratchett's Night Watch:

Every day maybe a hundred cows died for Ankh-Morpork. So did a flock of sheep and a herd of pigs, and the gods alone knew how many ducks, chickens, and geese. Flour? He’d heard it was eighty tons, and about the same amount of potatoes, and maybe twenty tons of herring...

Every day, forty thousand eggs were laid for the city. Every day, hundreds, thousands of carts and boats and barges converged on the city with fish and honey and oysters and olives and eels and lobsters. And then think of the horses dragging this stuff, and the windmills… and the wool coming in, too, every day, the cloth, the tobacco, the spices, the ore, the timber, the cheese, the coal, the fat, the tallow, the hay, EVERY DAMN DAY

It wasn’t a city, it was a process, a weight on the world that distorted the land for hundreds of miles around. People who’d never see it in their whole life nevertheless spent that life working for it. Thousands and thousands of green acres were part of it, forests were part of it. It drew in and consumed…

…and gave back the dung from its pens, and the soot from its chimneys, and steel, and saucepans, and all the tools by which food was made. And also clothes, and fashions, and ideas, and interesting vices, songs, and knowledge, and something which, if looked at in the right light, was called civilization. That was what civilization meant. It meant the city.

We can't gain a true sense for the weight of a city if we're obscuring its true scale.

There are some possible solutions to the scale problem. For example, in SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000, airports weren't actually ploppable buildings at all, they were zones that grew airport buildings based on demand. Cities: Skylines itself began taking steps to address its scale problems with the Parklife and Campus DLCs. In the base game, parks and universities mostly all sat on ridiculously tiny plots, about a hectare (2 acres) at most, but the new DLCs allow you to draw out an area for the park or campus and then fill it with many individual ploppable buildings which work in concert. That still doesn't mean modeling a full-size airport is in the cards, of course, but that sort of logic might be a good starting point. Another option would be the ability to purchase land off the main map itself; if you could build an international airport connected to your city by road and transit, but which only needed to be simulated in the background because it was on a separate view, that would reduce the need for expensive rendering of complex structures and vehicles.

About Martin Sherman-Marks:

Martin Sherman-Marks (he/him), the founder of the Charm Cities project, is also a developer, writer, project manager, Concrete Professional™, and ADHD disaster child. He lives in West Baltimore and has very strong feelings about the fate of the Red Line. He's @flying_ghoti on Twitter.

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