City of Gangsters preview/interview

Coming in 2021 from Kasedo, the indie publisher in the Kalypso Media Group, is the mafia management sim City of Gangsters. We recently had a chance to check out an early build and catch up with the developers at SomaSim, and are happy to share what we’ve learned so far.

What we know

Much like Paradox’ upcoming Empire of Sin, prohibition in the US of the 1920s is a strong driving force for City of Gangsters. The game essentially starts when alcohol becomes outlawed, and you build up your empire of crime based on the people’s need for these (and other) products through black market trades and sales.

Doing so means making connections with people, offering favors and cashing in past deeds as you go along. Bringing together a need and a product through a network of production and logistics is hard enough as it is, but you also want to keep a low enough profile so as to not attract unwanted attention. Who can you trust? Who can be bought? How can you keep competitors from waltzing into your territory?

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City of Gangsters, from the developers of Project Highrise, looks to be shaping up like a very complex simulation of how to build a criminal empire, and it’s clear that one does not do that overnight either. You only have until prohibition ends though, so you’re going to be pushed into situations where you’ll need to take calculated risks if you’re to expand your influence and tighten your hold on the city. In the game, a lot of this is done through a mix of economics and your ability to build up and maintain your social circles, and combat isn’t an explicit part of the experience.

What we saw

Under normal circumstances, we would have joined SomaSim developers Robert Zubek and Matthew Viglione at Gamescom. 2020 being what it is, we were fortunate enough to have Kasedo set up a streaming session between ourselves and SomaSim, with the developers safely at home in Chicago.

During the session we were shown live gameplay from an early build of the game, with live narration by the developers and opportunities to ask questions along the way. As far as alternatives to trade show meetings go, it felt like the next best thing.

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What the developers had to say

While we focused mainly on the gameplay in City of Gangsters during our live demo, we also had the chance to ask the developers a few questions afterwards. Here’s what we learned:

What sparked your interest in doing a gangster sim?

When we look at making a game, we’re really looking at two related things – the setting and the systems that come from that setting. We had been talking about a crime tycoon game for a while, but what sealed it for us was watching the Prohibition documentary by Ken Burns. It really showed how when alcohol became illegal, a whole bunch of new systems suddenly sprang into life to serve the continuing demand for the stuff. It was really that singularity moment – the start of Prohibition – that we were very attracted to. It’s one of those times in history where there was a clean slate of sorts, a start to building something entirely from scratch. It’s kind of hard to resist that from a design standpoint.

What are some of the aspects that set City of Gangsters apart from those other recent and upcoming gangster games?

We’re going for an approach that is more about running an organized crime outfit like a business. It’s mostly about resource and people management – finding the right resources to make things that others will buy, doing that in an optimal and profitable way, and finding the right people to do that. The catch is that most of the things you’re making, buying and selling are illegal. To find the things you need or to sell the stuff you make, you need to make social connections and build trust. So in parallel and in conjunction with your manufacturing and distribution economy, you’re also building a social economy of trusted suppliers and customers. And just like you make more money expanding and deepening your physical facilities, you’ll gain access to more opportunities by carefully growing and cultivating your relationships. To get things done in City of Gangsters, you’ve really got to know a guy or gal.

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While Project Highrise took place inside a 2D tower, you’re now playing a huge 3D city – what are the biggest (technical) challenges about that switch?

The main challenge was creating the city itself. For the city’s visual design, we had several larger goals – to have a very large city with thousands of buildings, to have those buildings be faithful to what an American city in the 1920s would have looked like and to get as much visual variety as possible. It’s the first and last that were the biggest challenge – how to get that many models (thousands of them, tens of thousands with decorations) to display at the same time and then how to make sure that city isn’t repetitive and boring. So that involved going pretty deeply down the rabbit hole of custom shaders in order to support a system that created each building from a randomized bag of components. And to do this while maintaining as high a frame rate as possible. In the end we got there and created a pretty neat solution that gives us a huge amount of flexibility and keeps frame rate high even at our min spec. But it took some doing and at the start I don’t think we were fully aware of how much effort it would take to realize those initial design goals.

What we thought

Even in a 30 minute hands-off demo, the scope and ambition for City of Gangsters was clear and impressive – almost daunting, even, with so many aspects to keep track of. Luckily, in-game tutorials and little notices help you keep track of what’s going on and where you need to divert your attention, helping you keep on track.

You can also streamline the experience by automating things like deliveries and production, or dropping off and/or picking up money. Even though you’re constantly under police scrutiny (visible through heatmaps) and need to keep other wannabe kingpins at bay, confrontation is mostly economic and social in nature, making for a nice bit of contrast with games like Empire of Sin and Company of Crime.

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That lack of physical combat doesn’t mean you’re invulnerable and can just keep going no matter what though. Run out of money, and your crew will leave you – and being more exposed can also lead to you getting killed. The team’s still actively working on how to treat the game’s endgame scenario (when prohibition ends), looking at games like Stellaris for inspiration. Replay value then comes from playing the game with a different gameplay emphasis, but also from the fact that you can select from a number of different cities to start in.

City of Gangsters is certainly an ambitious project, and if SomaSim can make all of the game’s elements “click” together while making it a fun and addictive experience in the process this is certainly one to look out for if you enjoy tycoon-type games – especially ones with a slightly different approach to the genre.

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