Magic Fuel Games talks cities, Sims, and building a brand-new game

I spoke to a senior of Magic Fuel Games, creators of Cityscapes: Sim Builder, about their process, influences, and how experience at Maxis shaped the game.

A city fully built in Cityscapes Sim Builder with skyscrapers

There’s nothing better than a studio made of industry veterans, and Magic Fuel Games proves that. The company is currently celebrating the release of Cityscapes: Sim Builder on Apple Arcade, a new city-building title with all of our favorite features. I jumped at the opportunity to speak to Kip Katsarelis, chief product officer and founder of Magic Fuel Games. He’s been in the industry for a while, working at Maxis – creators of SimCity, Spore, and The Sims – while learning the ropes from the best and developing his own skill set and flair.

Cityscapes: Sim Builder is reminiscent of The Sim’s 2’s customizable neighborhoods in my eyes, allowing us to create a sandbox city of our dreams filled with skyscrapers, housing, and sightseeing destinations. For now, it’s an Apple Arcade Original, and will likely stay as such. I asked about the possibility of it coming to other platforms, but due to the success of Arcade, that isn’t a likely scenario.

As a long-time Sims fan and a player of many builder games, I’m intrigued to know more about Cityscapes. So I inquired how Magic Fuel Games made sure that Cityscapes would be different from other games in the same genre – such as EA’s SimCity Build It – and what sets it apart.

Kip tells me that there are some great city builders on mobile like SimCity Build It, but what sets them apart is that Cityscapes isn’t a free-to-play game like its competitors. This means that anyone with an Apple Arcade subscription can jump into city planning right now. There are no restrictions on how long you can play at a time here, as resources don’t run out and there aren’t any gimmicks that make you go away for a couple of hours and come back – you can veg out and play for as long as you like. I love this approach and wish more mobile games would allow longer playtimes.

A view of Cityscapes Sim Builder's in-game options

Wanting to dig deeper, I asked what Kip thinks is the best thing about Cityscapes or his own favorite features in the game. “There’s much to like in this game, so this is tough”, he says. All the random events that appear in the city are his favorites, especially things like “flying saucers, turtle sanctuaries, food truck pop-ups, and even a tree planting ceremony”. Why don’t more games have turtle sanctuaries? They sound delightful. To explore each of these particular scenarios, players need to reach specific conditions in order to trigger them. They’re almost secret, I’m told, as they’re not documented. Consider the challenge accepted.

Sustainability is also a big part of Cityscapes – the Magic Fuel Games team wanted to bring modern sensibilities into the game, says Kip. It’s a key pillar of the game and every decision we as city planners make affects the health and happiness of citizens. “You can make decisions on clean or dirty power options, improve walkability in your city, and decide to preserve forest and wildlife”. This means that players can create dense metropolises dotted with green spaces for city dwellers to enjoy. There is a sustainability score that builders must pay attention to, so don’t forget to get those green thumbs out.

We’ve all been victim to disasters in various builder games – the Gathering Storm expansion for Civilisation 6 comes to mind here, as do the freak and frequent fires in any Sims game. This spurred me to ask if this is a feature we can look forward to managing in Cityscapes. Spoiler alert from Kip here – “the game starts off in the aftermath of a Hurricane. However, that’s about the closest we get to disasters in the current game. It’s something the team experimented with in pre-production with a meteor strike, but didn’t make it into the final release”.

A city in Cityscapes Sim Builder with a football stadium

This leads to asking about the future of Cityscapes. Are there any expansions or big content updates planned for the future? The answer is yes. The game is almost a live-service app, so almost anything is possible in a future update. “We do have more content coming in the form of our City Pass feature, which includes Tulips of Amsterdam, and in June there will be a Beach Day set”.

As a brand new title, I wondered whether the creation of Cityscapes differed from previous projects the team had worked on and whether production went smoothly. “Every project I’ve worked on has its challenges, its ups and downs during development”, Kip says. Luckily, the Magic Fuel team is made of city-builder veterans that rose to the challenge of a new IP. Cityscapes differs from a lot of their recent games, but being a city builder, it had a lot of familiarities for the team to enjoy and get into.

“We knew the complexity of these types of games and tackled the tough stuff early, like diagonal roads and the various simulation systems. The biggest challenge we faced was figuring out how to make it all work on a mobile device”. The team, he tells me, wanted a game that had all the features of a PC or console game, but was also accessible to mobile players at any time. “This meant lots of iteration on the UX and surfacing the simulation in a way that anyone could pick up and play. I think the team did a great job”. I agree, Cityscapes looks wonderful.

Speaking of accessibility, I asked how Magic Fuel approaches accessibility in a city builder game, and whether there are any changes or exceptions made for Cityscapes. Kip compliments this as a great question, and comments that it’s a huge challenge on any platform, but especially on mobile devices.“The hardest part is surfacing what’s going on in the simulation, giving players enough information to troubleshoot a problem and understand how to fix it without overwhelming them”.

A way that the game tackles this is through the use of speech bubbles from citizens. Only a certain amount appear at any one time so that players can tackle problems one at a time. Another ease-of-use feature is the road creation tool – it’s a simple tap-and-draw situation that Kip says even his young kid can use. I appreciate things like this, especially in mobile games, as fiddly controls are not what you need on a small screen.

A city fully built in Cityscapes Sim Builder with skyscrapers at night

I asked Kip how he feels the city builder genre has changed from the early PC exclusivity days, especially to fit mobile hardware. “It’s amazing how visually stunning city builders look today and the level of detail”, he says. “We felt delivering on large, beautiful cities was going to be a critical aspect for Cityscapes on mobile. We wanted to capture day/night cycles, interesting traffic flows, terrain of various heights, and even weather to give players a AAA experience. Making that all work on mobile devices takes an experienced team, who are dedicated to craft”. Judging by their roster of staff from studios like Maxis, it sounds like Magic Fuel has the dream team.

Being a member of Maxis’ team in the days of Sims and SimCity must leave an impression on someone, so I asked if any of SimCity’s elements went into Cityscapes. The short answer is no – but working on such a pinnacle game obviously teaches its creators things.

I also wondered if there were any important lessons that Kip learned while working on the classics. He tells me that making city builders is hard – which I can only imagine is very true, having not made any games myself. “One of my go-to learnings is that when it comes to life sims or city builders, everyone has the rulebook in their head. It’s our job as developers to deliver on those expectations in software”. This means that developers in Kip’s team stick to what’s expected in order to keep expectations fulfilled. He offers some advice here, too: “Do your research, talk to your players, and focus on what you know. When your game is finally out, players will always try to push the boundaries of the simulation and if the game delivers when pushing those corners, you’ll have a hit”. I will bear that in mind for if I ever make a game, and suggest you do too, dear reader.

To finish off, I had to ask about Sims. I couldn’t resist. So I asked what Kip’s favorite game or expansion pack is – either that he worked on, or to play. Mine’s Makin’ Magic for The Sims because you can’t beat that backyard roller coaster item. It turns out that the music from The Sims Urbz is on a permanent loop in Kip’s head – and you know what, I fully see why. That game had the Black Eyed Peas in it, who recorded versions of their songs in Simlish for the game. “They even performed for us at the EA campus, which was cool”. That is, indeed, incredibly cool, and I’m jealous, even if it was years ago.

I and the Pocket Tactics team thank Kip very much for taking the time to speak to us, and indulging my Sims-fanatic side, as well as giving us a good look at Cityscapes: Sim Builder and the influences that went into it.

What are you waiting for? Go and grab Cityscapes: Sim Builder on the App Store right now and build your dream metropolis. Or for something a little less mayoral, try these hidden object games, wildlife games, Lego games, or best games like Minecraft for some sporty goodness.