We Accidentally Evolved a Ghetto

Startup Cities Developer’s Log #2

Today we accidentally built a ghetto. Here’s how.

One of our goals with the Startup Cities Video Game is to allow interesting emergent events and game play to occur. We don’t want the game to feel scripted. The city and its many features, good and bad, should emerge as players make decisions so that each time you play the experience unfolds differently.

The key, we’ve found, has been to link players and buildings together in such a way that decisions ripple outward into the city.

Today we tested several new features that ended up making for some great fun.

Overland Map

Although Startup Cities is not a board game, we did want to capture some of the spirit of board games like Monopoly. So we built an overland map which serves a dual purpose: allowing players a birds-eye-view of their investments as well as helping them navigate a large city map.

Players can trigger a color overlay that shows what each player owns.

The overland map uses an orthographic camera to create a Monopoly-style rendering of the city. This is a small neighborhood we use for testing — real game maps will be much larger.

Jobs — Delivery

Early on in our testing, we realized that you could easily wipe yourself out financially if you made stupid decisions or were extremely unlucky.

Players could go broke or into debt, leaving them unable to buy any businesses or properties on the entire map. The only way they could get back into the game is if a player were to give away something — not too likely on a server of 32 or 64 random internet people!

So today we tested the first phase of a ‘jobs’ system. In this job, you make deliveries from a restaurant to residences in the city. The job is quite simple right now. You arrive at the restaurant, activate the job, then head to a beacon at the destination where a reward awaits.

Signs of delivery job availability outside the local burger joint.
What’s interesting about the delivery job is that its only available if a restaurant has been opened by another player. And deliveries only go to houses that are occupied.

This means that you’ll find yourself delivering to the same densely-populated area if that’s where everyone lives. If the city has been fully abandoned or no one has opened a restaurant, there are no delivery jobs available. In other words, restaurants depend on customers. Rewards for deliveries are split between the job-holder and the player-owner of the restaurant.

Tenants System

Our biggest new element has been an elaborate system for tenants. If you own a house, tenants will apply to live there each month. But the number of applicants and their quality depends heavily on the safety of the neighborhood, the condition of the property, and other factors.

In the game, tenants have clusters of traits. Some are good, some are bad, some are no big deal. Some bad traits enable other bad traits. Some good ones can save you tremendous amounts of time and money. When tenants appear, you can only see some of their traits. The player-entrepreneur must act based on this limited knowledge.

Players must chose their tenants with little knowledge until they grow as characters and can see more about their applicants.

Tenant traits matter. A lot. “Irregular employment” or “bad credit” means they’re more likely to stiff you on a month’s rent. “Elderly” means they’re less likely to move out. Beware traits that signal criminality, because tenants might commit a crime on your property, massively damaging how tenants view the safety of the neighborhood (and dragging down prices of everything nearby!). Cockroach and bedbug infestations follow “Slob” tenants. “Drunks” just might leave you with broken windows or holes punched in the wall.

A well-maintained house in a safe neighborhood attracts better tenants than an unsafe or shoddy house. As properties decay and crime rises or falls, the availability and type of tenant changes. Neglected properties and crime in particular hurt the neighborhood.

In fact, good tenants will leave an unsafe neighborhood.

And that’s how we accidentally evolved a ghetto.

Evolving an Urban Tragedy

After an optimistic beginning, my co-tester and I had established solid footholds in a decent low-income neighborhood. Everything was great. He headed off downtown, having amassed enough cash to hunt bigger deals and taller buildings. I stayed behind.

First a crime wave struck. Focused on other matters, my co-tester auctioned off his holdings in my neighborhood to avoid the hassle. I (stupidly) bought them. Then someone triggered our (extremely-low-probability) fire event and burned down one of the rentals.

These problems attracted some bad eggs to the neighborhood. Before long, most people had left and only criminals remained.

In about an in-game year, I had gone from budding mogul to hopeless slumlord. Deep in debt, I couldn’t do anything as I watched my houses fall apart. The few tenants I had were career-criminals that I couldn’t even afford to evict.

My co-tester was doing great after his move downtown. He was in a real estate land of milk and honey, with several apartment buildings and offices on his ledger. After complaining for several in-game month about how I was trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and violence he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse:

“Put everything you own up for sale. Everything. I will buy it and then purchase all the abandoned stuff nearby so that I can own the whole neighborhood. But I’ll only do it if you sell me everything. I have to be able to evict everyone.”

So I put my houses on the market for a low price and high-tailed it out of there. He came in, took everything over and evicted everyone. Time for a fresh start. Or so we hoped.

The problem was that there had been so much crime for so many months that the safety perception of the neighborhood had sunk lower than we had ever tested. It was taking forever to recover.

My co-tester was holding the properties and turning away deadbeats while he waited for safety to rise and for good tenants to show up. Each month he was hemorrhaging money, paying for all these empty buildings.

And then disaster struck.

One of his prime properties downtown caught fire. His income started to evaporate and I watched as his net worth dropped by an order of magnitude.

I had since returned to life delivering cheeseburgers to get out of debt. When I headed back to the neighborhood that had given me such trouble, I saw it had defeated even the big budget of my co-tester. It was mostly empty, nearly in ruins, and still full of crime. And we were both bankrupt.

What do you think we should add next?

We’d love to know what you think of this article and what you’d like to see in the Startup Cities video game.

Comment here or find me on Twitter.

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