Banished interview: player choice in an indie city builder sandbox game

Banished , the medieval-ish city building game from indie developer Luke Hodorowicz, raised some eyebrows early this summer when it seemed to come out of nowhere. Tyler was suffering from SimCity fatigue at the time, and beautiful videos of small towns quietly living off the land cured what ailed him.

I caught up with Hodorowicz to ask him a few questions about Banished and his plans for release. Banished will be a free-form city builder in a randomly generated resource sandbox. Sometimes you'll get a town with a thick forest, sometimes you'll get rich mines. Each town will build up and survive in a different way. The only story on offer is that these people have been cast out of their homes and have to start over. Everything else is up to you.

It's also notable for the things it doesn't have: it doesn't have any multiplayer or online component, it doesn't have any combat, and it doesn't have a tech tree artificially guiding your hand. “It's really free-form,” Luke said. “I didn't want to build a game with build trees where first you have to build a church and ten houses before you can unlock building an ironworks. That's a big disconnect between me and a lot of city builders. I want it to be sandbox, and people can do what they want.”

Banished is headed for release sometime before the end of the year. Keep an eye on Luke's website, Shining Rock software , and read our interview below.

PC Gamer: What city building games are you drawing inspiration from?

Luke Hodorowicz: The thing I draw from most are the Anno games. I've always like those, but there's a combination of a lot of stuff in there. I've played SimCity 4 for ten years on and off... I've always looked at city builders, whether it's Settlers or whatever, I've always liked the style and what you can build. It's somewhere in between a game that's really structured, but you also get this ability to craft your own spin on it.

A big pitfall for solo developers is constantly adding new mechanics and features. Do you think you've fallen into this problem at all?

I have a little bit. I had a schedule that I'd pretty much completed back in May or June… This is certainly the type of game that I could work on forever. I have ideas for several different types of expansions and ways to play, combat, more in-depth building that deals with more materials... But if I were to allow that feature creep to continue I would just never finish.

Last heard I heard, combat won't be in the initial release.

That is still the case, yes.

Why do you think the game is better without it or just doesn't need combat?

I originally didn't think the game needed combat. In games like Anno 1404 I always played without combat. I don't care for it, and I don't think it's done well, and I guess it just wasn't a need for me. I mean, I'm building the game I want to play. So it initially wasn't something that I was interested in.

The decision to avoid multiplayer aspects and combat pushes the focus toward an intimate relationship with the townspeople. Why is that important to you?

I like that you know the townspeople's names and you know where they live and what they're doing. You care about the town. My playtesters get really annoyed when they have someone who has lived for 70 years doing a good job at something, and they die... For me, somewhere, that intimacy ends. You get to a city of 1,000 people and all of a sudden you can't keep track of everybody... But when your town is small and you're just starting off, you have this desire to make everybody make it through the winter, for no one to get sick.

You've described your AI programming as very simple, based on simple needs and preferences. Has this led to any surprises?

Since that post on the website, I've changed the AI a bit. It was getting really complicated, so I changed it to this system of needs that's weighted based on how important they are, and for each person those weights can change. Now there are people who are just idle all the time, and there are people who go into a tavern and drink too much.

I saw you post on reddit that a blacksmith fell in his forge and died. How do you lose people in Banished?

For random deaths, there's a chance per profession for how dangerous it is. There's a small chance that you may die while doing your job. For someone like a tailor that's very rare, but someone working in a mine or quarry that's a little higher. Sometimes you go ten years without anyone dying in a mine, or you might have everyone die in a mine in the same month, and that certainly changes the way you have to react to the game. All of a sudden your workforce is down by 30 people and you have to shuffle people around. You no longer produce anything from the mine, so you have to balance what people are doing and figure out how to get your town to survive after this terrible event has happened, whether it's a fire or tornado or just random deaths.

You say that the people are your resource. Does anyone ever have to sacrifice themselves for the rest of the colony?

I guess you could get into a situation like that, yeah, but I think it's more of a case where you're not producing enough food and you have too many people, so you just have to let 20 or 50 people die off. Or you need to produce some resource, so you have to shuffle people around. Say, you need to produce food so you're no longer producing clothing or whatever your exports are, so your trade dries up, and then your people are cold in the winter. So you have to make those decisions about how you want to balance those factors. And certainly there are consequences, I've tried to make it so there's consequences in the type of society you have. You can have hunter/gatherer or farming or a combination of both, and each has its perks and downfalls. That's what I want people to play with as they play the game, figure out what they like and how they want their town to survive, because there's certainly multiple ways to do it.

There's no sacrifice to the gods, though, no. [laughs]

What exactly are you playing as in Banished? God? A mayor?

The best I've heard it described, I think it was someone on reddit, is that you play the collective consciousness of the town, you're the greater good of the town that is trying to make the town survive... The player is the good will of the town.

Can a town ever be done?

The only way you can really be done is to maximize everything. At some point you'll be out of land, so you can't build any more houses without cutting into your food production. At that point, the town is probably “done.” You can throw disasters at it and see how things play out. That's my plan, but I think that's a fun thing to do. My testers love it, to build a city and run a tornado through it.

Like building a sandcastle and stomping on it.

[laughs] Yes.

You knew this was coming, but do you have a release date?

[laughs] I wish I did. The reason I haven't given a firm date is because this is my first solo project. Given my track record so far, I really don't have a good way to set a date and then not run over it. I don't want to do that to people. But it will definitely be before the end of the year.