Spotlight On: Cities XL

If you haven't played a good city-building game in a while, you may want to keep an eye out for Cities XL, which will try to combine the peaceful pursuit of building up a tiny virtual city with cooperative (and competitive) online elements and Web-based social networking. We've previously taken an...

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If you haven't played a good city-building game in a while, you may want to keep an eye out for Cities XL, which will try to combine the peaceful pursuit of building up a tiny virtual city with cooperative (and competitive) online elements and Web-based social networking. We've previously taken an in-depth look at the game and its unusual premise and have new details to report today.

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What's better than being a land baron? How about being a land baron...online?

To catch you up, here's a quick recap: Cities XL will basically offer an offline experience right out of the box and a continuing online experience should you want to pursue the dream of being the world's most successful architect. Like in many other city-building games, such as the SimCity series, the out-of-box, offline game in Cities XL will let you use editing tools to build up the virtual city of your dreams, using powerful tools that will include some 500 different buildings, so you can click, drag, copy-paste, and brush-paint tiny individual houses or sprawling roadway networks, then maintain your population's happiness and income while using your funds to build a bigger, better, happier city.

The online portion of the game will let you go beyond just puttering around in your own city; you'll actually be able to, for instance, putter around other players' cities on foot, as well as monitor the progress of your city online through the game's Web site, which will act as both an online scoreboard (which ranks all players' cities by their relative wealth, popular happiness, and other statistics) and a social hub. The Web site will let you create your own profile, write your own blog, post images, and maintain a friends list. You'll also be able to use the online interface to trade any excess resources that your city, or other players' cities, may have produced. All cities produce and consume resources (such as energy, power, and cash), and depending on how you've built yours, you may end up with a town that creates a daily surplus of this or that resource. This daily surplus will disappear from your city's coffers at the end of the day, each day, to avoid the dreaded practice of "farming"--in this case, repeatedly hoarding resources each day until you have an unreasonably huge stockpile. Resources will be traded in the form of "tokens"--one token will represent one unit of resources, and developer Monte Cristo currently intends to let the resource market regulate itself, rather then get too involved in the player economy. However, since you will have access to resource trading online, you won't necessarily need to create a well-rounded, self-sustaining commune. For instance, if you want, you can build an industrial wasteland that's nothing but factories and smokestacks--and just trade for whichever resources you don't generate.

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Will you create a simple but beautiful country town with rolling meadows, or a wealthy industrialized wasteland?

Resource trading will be important not only for generally keeping your town running, but also for creating "megastructures"--famous wonders of the world that will grant powerful bonuses to whoever builds them. (Cities XL will ship with about 20 of these right out of the box, and more will be added at a rate of about five or so per month). In order to build one of these impressive monuments, you'll need the blueprints, which will randomly appear in the accounts of a handful of users every so often (and can be used to start construction immediately, or traded for resources, or given away for free...otherwise the blueprints will expire in about a week after use to prevent players from accumulating them in their accounts). Megastructures will be fantastically expensive projects that go through three different phases of construction (and each phase will require a different mix of resources). Successfully building one will grant serious bonuses for your city; for instance, plopping the Arc de Triomphe in the middle of your metropolis will grant your city powerful economic bonuses as tourists from your principality and from neighboring towns take a holiday to come see your wondrous new masterpiece. And the tourists will build up the local economy, presumably by purchasing cheap T-shirts and souvenir coffee mugs.

However, megastructures won't offer clear-cut, no-strings-attached advantages; they'll actually have their own set of realistic concerns that you as the city's mayor and chief architect must address. For starters, an attractive monument will bring in many guests and their big, bulky tour buses--and the buses may congest traffic and lead to noise pollution that creates unhappiness for any of the locals who live or work nearby. More importantly, if your city becomes too wondrous and begins drawing in too many of your neighbors' citizens, your neighbors (other players who are in control of their own cities) may become jealous that you're getting all this great tourist revenue and they aren't. In fact, this will be a real concern for all online land barons when they go looking to trade resources. Yes, you need four tokens of oil for your own town and you'd be willing to trade four tokens of water...but do you really want to give that water to someone who will just end up spending it on building an Eiffel Tower that will draw in your citizens and line your neighbor's pockets?

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One day, all this will be yours. Then you can build a frozen-yogurt stand there.

Cities XL is still in development and will likely go to a beta-testing phase in the coming months. The game is scheduled to launch later this year.

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