Walkers in City Builders

Tilted Mill Entertainment is currently working on a new city building game, Medieval Mayor. That’s exciting news because Tilted Mill and its predecessor Impressions Games created most of the classics in this genre, except for Sim City. The most recent one, Children of the Nile, was notable for changing the “walker” mechanics, i.e. the way in which the residents of the simulated city obtain services from providers such as bakers and doctors. Older titles – Caesar, Pharaoh, Zeus – had used either simple delivery radii or a “push” system in which service providers walked around to visit residents.

Children of the Nile introduced a revolutionary “pull” system where the residents themselves sought out service providers, according to their current needs. However, Medieval Mayor will return to a push system because the pull system, although much more realistic, was not nearly as effective in terms of gameplay. Lead designer Chris Beatrice contrasts both systems in his article Of Walkers and Men:

With a push-based system (actor delivers theater to housing) you can see exactly what is happening just by looking at the people and buildings on the screen. If you see an actor, that means “theater is emanating from somewhere.” He’s carrying theater around with him. He’s conveying theater. He walks past a house that means the house just got some theater. You see the house change graphically as the actor walked by, that happened because it just got theater.

If that didn’t happen that means the house didn’t need theater (either already has it, or needs something else first). That’s a lot of great information delivered in a fun and engaging way, because on top of that the actor has a distinct and fun character. Special overlay views and filters still allow you to hide distracting information when necessary, and give more detail.

By contrast, in a “realistic” pull system (citizens come from houses and visit the theater) all you would see, all the time, are generic, identical citizens walking around. Any visual difference among them is largely cosmetic, and does not effectively communicate the important stuff like, how close is this person’s house to a theater?

You would have no idea where these citizens came from or where they were going, or what benefit they were providing to which home or segment of the population. They communicate basically nothing about the interconnections in the city or THE THINGS YOU NEED TO DO, for example, “I need another theater in this area”.

For my part, I’m quite happy with this change. Zoomed in close, Children of the Nile was a wonderful puppet house to watch: families would fetch bread for lunch, scribes would fetch papyrus for writing, children would go to school, and every once in a while people would visit a shrine for prayer. Unfortunately, it was very laborious to control the whole intricate system, i.e. to actually play the game rather than let it play itself. Every complaining resident had to be inspected and tracked, then their various needs compared, in order to determine what services were missing and where to build them. Several patches tried to make the required information more accessible, but the system always struck me as tedious and confusing – a good non-interactive simulation, but not a good gameplay mechanic.

2013-10-17: Chris Beatrice has announced that Medieval Mayor is on indefinite hold, due to “other project commitments” and “funding challenges.” Hopefully those other projects will work out and allow Tilted Mill to resume working on Medieval Mayor.

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