Cities: Skylines has come to dominate the city builder genre so much over the last six years that it's easy to forget how close it came to not existing. Back when it was still just an idea, SimCity was the big dog, even though it had been years since the last one—the simplified spin-off, SimCity: Societies. Nothing had been able to knock the older SimCity 4 off its perch, and a lack of publisher confidence made it difficult for a new contender to step in and challenge it.
That changed when, in 2013, a new SimCity appeared, which came with high expectations that it was woefully unprepared to meet. EA's desire to make everything online stifled its scope and creative freedom, and it was just a huge misfire. Even with the persistent love for SimCity 4, the general dissatisfaction with the series gave Colossal Order an opening, and it's not even come close to giving up the crown since then.
The scrappy underdog that was conceived beneath the shadow of SimCity has become the new SimCity, seemingly scaring everybody else away, perhaps even more effectively than its predecessor. A few notable urban city builders appeared during the series' heyday, but there are comparatively fewer trying to compete with Skylines.
Anno and Tropico are still alive and well, but they offer something very different. They are historical, economic city builders with story-driven campaigns and a spot of RTS combat. You won't be making the sort of cities you can erect in Skylines. Plenty of others have also appeared more recently, like the wave of survival games, including Surviving Mars and Surviving the Aftermath, both released by Skylines publisher Paradox. But again, they don't scratch the very specific and mundane itch to run a modern metropolis.
There actually hasn't been a better time for management sims. If you've got a craving, you can be up to your eyeballs in buildings and dense menus whenever you want. Conveniently, Chris listed a bunch of unusual city builders worth keeping an eye on. But that makes the dearth of urban city builders all the more noticeable. You'd have an easier time finding a post-apocalyptic colony sim, which would have once been considerably more niche.
It's disappointing, but also… I'm not sure what I'd want from a new urban city builder. Skylines felt like a direct response to everything that was rubbish about the modern SimCity, and came with its own inventive additions, and it's since grown into a sprawling monster that's managed to cover just about everything it missed with DLC, and then some. I mean, there's a whole expansion dedicated to parks.
Where there are gaps, or things that maybe don't work the way you want, there's always a mod ready to fix it. Even at launch, there were already pages of them, and talented modders are absolutely one of the reasons why, on a random afternoon six years after release and a year since the last DLC, there are nearly 20,000 people playing. That would be peak numbers in another management sim.
Feature-wise, there's just not much more that could be offered, but there are concepts that are still worth exploring a bit more. Cities are deeply political and see some of the clearest divisions of class, but that rarely enters into the administrative puzzle of running one in a game. City Life created a loose socio-economic system that even made classes rivals, though ultimately it didn't take it much further than the kinds of population systems that are common in economic city builders, which mostly express class as a series of needs—with the people at the top of the pile demanding more expensive and harder to obtain goods. And it's hard to find other examples.
I'm not sure that wrestling with class issues and the grimier parts of city living—of which there are many—would be much fun, though. Interesting, sure, but also gloomy and, if it's anything like reality, Sisyphean. There are threads within these broad subjects that might still be worth tugging on, though. Managing corruption and trying not to succumb to the temptations of a fatter bank balance is already demonstrably engaging thanks to Tropico, and there's room for an approach that's less of a caricature. Crime in general could definitely do with a rethink, since it's almost always present in urban city builders, but is never really developed into anything that can't be solved by plonking down a police station. It's cute that anyone might think that would really do any good.
The biggest gap, though, is the absence of notable city builders that look beyond Western cities. Skylines was developed by Finns and thus has Northern European and Scandinavian sensibilities, and builds on SimCity, which is distinctly American. There are mods that fix the omission of the rest of the world, but usually only at a cosmetic level, as well as some light DLC that includes a few Chinese buildings. It's a tiny plaster placed over a gaping wound, and I'd much prefer to see some Chinese devs making a city builder that lets you design distinctly Chinese cities.
Workers & Resources: Soviet Republic is one of the exceptions, using its geographical and historical placement to create an Eastern European city builder that actually has some themes. You're not just building a generic city; you're building a Soviet city, and that comes with some unique considerations as well as a strong Soviet aesthetic. It's still in Early Access, but it's clearly on the right track. The extremely positive reception on Steam is proof that there's a hunger for creative city builders that aren't fixated on the US and Western Europe.
There was a time where nobody thought anything could topple SimCity, but Skylines proved that assumption wrong. I'm going to believe in the cyclical nature of history (and this industry) and hope that the same will happen again—another big urban city builder is out there somewhere, even if it just exists in some designer's noggin at the moment. It might even come from Colossal Order, and who better to top Skylines than its own developer? Neither Paradox nor Colossal Order have indicated what the future of the series will be, or when they're going to consider Skylines complete, but it's gotta happen eventually.