Synekism is an indie city-building game with some ambitious goals to redefine the city-building genre.
Synekism is a city simulation video game focused on dynamically generated content. The project was started is currently maintained by three university students in Canada.
The game style is that of an open sandbox. The player can designate residential, commercial and industrial zones and watch them grow. One can also zone government lots to raise desirability.
The key features of the game are grid less environments and dynamically generated buildings. The lack of a grid means total freedom when placing lots and roads allowing more realistic looking cities. Procedurally generated buildings allows for more visual variability. Instead of pre-created models a building is generated depending of location-based desirability and city-wide demand.
Synekism is a concept in urban studies coined by Edward Soja. It refers to the dynamic formation of the polis state - the union of several small urban settlements under the rule of a "capital" city (or so-called city-state or urban system). Soja's definition of synekism, mentioned in Writing the city spatially, is "the stimulus of urban agglomeration."
I got a chance to discuss the project with Damian, the Synekism team leader to get a better sense of what Synekism is about, and where it's going.
Who are you guys? How many of you are there? What do you guys do?
Nobody really, just three friends from olden times, all full-time under-grad students at various universities in Ontario.
Whose branchild is Synekism? What motivated you to create it?
So I (Damian) triggered this project almost two years ago and it was for a combination of having some fun, learning something, and stirring up some heat in this somewhat forgotten genre, industry wise. I thought that even if we don't end up big we could at least encourage some more development, more competition.
How long have you been working on it?
Development officially started on May 18, 2010.
What makes Synekism distinct from city-building games that have come before it?
We're *trying* to remove as many restrictions from the user as we possibly can. We started on a gridless and dynamic foundation to begin with which is why the game lacks detail at the moment. We'll eventually go further and remove the map size restriction as well and basically try live up to the sandbox nature of our genre. Synekism is also being designed with dynamic content in mind. For example, once the buildings actually look like buildings they will not be static pre-made models that simply plopped here and there, rather, from a set of puzzle pieces each building will be generated according the type, density, class, neighborhood, time period, and the shape/location of the lot, and probably many other factors. Naturally, lots can already be many different sizes and shapes.
Of course, we are building on the shoulders of the giants that came before us and so we'll also include the successful features that made previous city-sims great.
The notion of removing as many restrictions from the player as possible intriguing, so the question is: if Synekism is intended to be more than just a sandbox toy, how does a "game" dynamic fit within a game-world devoid of restrictions?
I think that's the beauty of city sims (and simulators in general): that you don't need to worry about gameplay per-say as long as you are accurate in your simulation. I like to compare city simulation to painting, the only difference being that the paint is alive and can thrive or die off depending on which paints, brushes and canvases you choose to use and in what proportions. Makers of paints, brushes and canvases don't specify precisely what you may and may not do with them.
However, there will still be restrictions. For example, just like good quality paints are expensive so will the various tools in our game cost the player dearly. Equally, keeping one's city alive will require a delicate balance between taxes and public spending. Total freedom is obviously not desirable.
So is the idea eventually then that the buildings are generated procedurally?
Yes, but also with support for static buildings like landmarks or player-made buildings.
So with dynamic content in mind, what are the ways you envision users creating and contributing content?
So the procedural generation part (and this is still up in the air at the moment) will use puzzle pieces to generate the buildings. These pieces will simply be wall and window types and they will be used to create each floor of a building by repeating (and possibly scaling) the 3D model of the piece as many times as necessary. More complex but similar logic will be used for lobbys and rooftops. The point being that, as with real life, buildings should look like they were built specifically for the lot they are on and not simply "plopped" there. Players will be able to create custom puzzle pieces as well as restrict the building shapes their puzzle set will work for.
With that in mind, there will still be the option to create full static buildings by selecting that puzzle set and shaping the building manually. Such creations will simply be ploppable (maybe with limitations on the number of duplicates per city).
We are also looking at in-game customizability of the transportation network tool. So for example, you could create a "brush" that paints a 4-lane avenue with streetcar rail in the center and using a specific type of street lights. You can then share this with other players, just like you can share Photoshop brushes.
How would you address performance concerns when it comes to these massive and potentially limitless complex cities?
Let's just say the box buildings will be in the game for a good while. When we do introduce higher quality buildings they will only be turned on for the closest buildings to the camera, with the rest of the city still just boxes. As we improve our performance you'll be able to see more detail at once. As with limitless city sizes the exact approach is still being debated. Content will of course be loaded on a per-need basis but in steps, so you might go to your second city on the other side of the planet in a couple of seconds but that city will slowly load up all it's buildings. One thing I will stress is that we really want to avoid any loading screens. I know we are failing that goal now but that's our aim anyway.
In terms of the simulation of entire planets we working on a way to "approximate" the running of a city that is not in the player's focus. Not too much detail on that yet.
What kind of things do you have in mind that you guys would definitely want to see in a city-building game?
Where do I begin? For one, the game should be able to accurately reproduce any real city (as in, trace in exactly the map of that city). Furthermore, one should be able to, without excessive plopping, accurately re-create the density, wealth, and zone type distribution of the real city, as well as its traffic patterns and public transit use. All this while looking picture perfect.
I am going over the top here, a bit, and I should say that there are a lot of sensible features that are currently either missing or not properly implemented. Multiplayer is one. I think Minecraft proved that sandbox games not only can be multiplayer but can excel at it, if done properly. A truly accurate and flexible transportation network, including traffic simulation and public transit, is another big one. And what we are trying to do, which is to remove the size restrictions and create huge and persistent regions. I think we can do better now-days than individual city file loading and saving. Naturally, there is a lot more to add here.
What can you tell us about the actual city simulator at this point? Is the intention to remain close to the SimCity recipe?
For the most part, yes, we are sticking to SimCity's recipe. Why change something that worked so well? There will be some differences which hopefully fix some of the minor annoyances that the SimCity simulator created (like the infamous NO JOB zots). One major difference will be the way we approach public services. Basically, if you don't touch it it will balance itself, moderately well. So for example, if you don't build any schools whatsoever, the simulator will spawn private schools which will address some of the educational needs of the area. If, however, you decide to take matters into your own hands and see if you can do better - the simulator will back off and give control over to you (in degrees of course). Beyond this we'll just have to see.
I have to say, that's a pretty awesome set of goals! So if I get what you're saying, it sounds like Synekism, the concept as it is right now, is leaning toward a more sandbox-type toy than objective-based game? Maybe a loaded question, but would you say that you're catering to hard-core city simulator fans more and casual players less?
So, in short, yes to both questions. I should, however, expand the second "yes" a bit. So, although the core city sim players are our focus, we are trying to make the game as "automatic" as possible. So, take my example above. If you just want to zone and zone and just worry about the balance between the three major types then you can very well do so. The rest of the game will be automated at some adequate level. Some examples of automated aspects of the game may include education, healthcare, police, and even fire protection services. However, player-controlled (or state-controlled) services have the potential to be a lot more efficient than the vanilla automatic implementations.
You'll see the first attempt at covering levels of complexity in our next major release (May 1st) with lot density controls.
What and when is the next milestone?
Well, this coming release in May will start looking at multiplayer in an experimental sort of way as well as introduce lot density control. The summer will mostly see fixes, stability and performance updates as we prepare our code for bigger features (but we will always have new features each release, even if minor ones!). As for the next major milestone, I think it will come towards the end of the year with an engine upgrade. After that, the predictive reliability becomes negligible.
Once again, I could go on forever on the subject. We will likely start a blog soon to expand some more on our plans as well as get feedback.
Looking forward to seeing where this project goes! Thanks for taking the time, and keep us posted!
If you have your own questions, feel free to post them below.