About AdvertCity

AdvertCity is VoxelStorm's dystopian cyberpunk advertising tycoon game. That is, a business strategy game where you play as an advertising tycoon. You make money by selling advertising to people. Specifically, selling advertising to megacorporations. Megacorporations in a dark dystopian future cyberpunk city.

So, what was the motivation?

Partly, we wanted to make a game in a genre nobody had made a game in before. Obviously you have a long history of tycoon games - various transportation tycoon games, the famous rollercoaster tycoon series, and lately a lot of kitsch little indie tycoon titles which are barely more than a bit of cute pixel art and a very simple menu-driven economic simulation behind them, about all sorts of topics from brewing to cooking to game making - but never about selling advertising.

And this is interesting in itself, advertising is seen as evil. From the consumer's point of view, their retinas being burnt out by the neon billboards, it really is evil. A form of mind control, with the aim of taking your money away from you. But while you get a lot of games about being evil - being the bad guy, in some overly literal terms, as a pirate, or a vampire, or a thief, or a dungeon master - it's always a sanitised, socially acceptable kind of evil. Myth or storybook evil. Something players can't really connect with their daily lives. You very rarely get games about being genuinely evil in a modern or postmodern social setting; a notable example is the classic Floor 13, but in recent memory, few other examples spring to mind.

Well, AdvertCity is a game about being the bad guy, the genuine bad guy, getting your hands dirty in a way that really no tycoon games encourage you to do - with no redeeming factors or moral justification whatsoever. There's no cliche'd over-the-top cartoon evilness, your motivations are realistic and complex - and you aren't freed from guilt - but to succeed in the game, you must make money, and you must do it at the expense of others' wellbeing. And what could be more cyberpunk than such a totally dissolute, dystopian vision?

How did the game come about?

We came up with the initial concept for the Cyberpunk Game Jam. Here's how the thought process went:

  • Q: What do most cyberpunk works have in common?
  • A: They're set in, or about, a massive dark futuristic city.

Well that's cool, we wanted to make a game based around a procedural city simulation for some time. And we'd been reading research papers on procedural city generation already - there's more detail on that in the article on procedural city generation in AdvertCity. We always liked god games and strategy games, so the idea of some sort of strategy game played from a god point of view in a procedurally generated cyberpunk city seemed an obvious thing. But what would you actually do in the city?

  • Q: And what does the stereotypical cyberpunk city look like?
  • A: It's dark. Full of cold anonymous and expressionless high-rise buildings. And those are completely plastered with insane and over the top neon advertising.

Well, there's an idea. If you're going to have a game where you're playing a godlike role over a cyberpunk city, why don't you be the guy that gives it its colour? It's you, the player, who puts the advertising where it is, giving the city its character. Without your input it's just a cold noir expanse of faceless concrete glass and steel, but you get to light it up and give it a soul. In this way, at least aesthetically speaking, you can be the good guy. Playing with the city as your sandbox, you can paint it all these colours - and bring it alive.
But as the city's skyline brightens with your work, what's under the surface gets darker. Citizens are effectively in indentured servitude, as megacorporations own everything. If they work for a megacorp, they live in its building. If they're sacked, they're literally made homeless. To grow your advertising empire, you must buy and sell people - buy and sell lives.
We wanted to weave in these threads of moral ambiguity from the start, but in the space of a seven day game jam, there's only so much that's possible. By the conclusion of the jam we had ended up with a promising prototype for something that we really didn't want to stop working on.

So we kickstarted it. We asked for just the least amount of money we needed to make it work. The Kickstarter gave us the litmus test we needed, to decide that it was really a good idea that other people can get behind, and not just a shared delusion or an idea nobody else thought had any merit. So when we were 373% overfunded - having doubled our goal just on the second day - that was the green light of public approval we'd been waiting for. Thus AdvertCity in its present guise was born.

Approximately a year later, after a long private beta test, the first public release hit Steam. When we started out, we had never envisaged incorporating a sphere of influence system, nor the dynamic evolution of the city, and being able to buy buildings and hire employees - the game had grown considerably beyond its original concept.

Soundtrack

From the beginning we knew we wanted something different for the soundtrack; if we were creating a genre-defying game, it ought to have a genre-defying score. We always place a heavy emphasis on high quality original music for our games, but previously most of the musicians we'd worked with had been chiptune artists and artists in styles more familiar to "traditional indie games".

During the cyberpunk game jam, our paths crossed with Waveland and DorianSRed for the first time, and they created for us a unique demo soundtrack that fitted perfectly with what we had in mind. The finished album was nothing short of a tour de force. Variously described as postrock, jazz noir, and glitch, the soundtrack bends together genres that are very rarely encountered in video game music, and produces a deep emotional effect upon the player.

We wanted to incorporate the soundtrack closely with the gameplay, but not in a traditional reactive the-beat-speeds-up-when-there-are-enemies trite kind of way; we wanted to enable it to stand alone as a piece of music, while adapting to the player's experience subtly. The act of toggling between meatspace and cyberspace was a regular action - a switch of perspectives - that the player undertakes, which presents the city to them effectively through a different perceptual lens.

So we linked the music to this. The soundtrack is in two halves - sides - meatspace and cyberspace, with each track having a perfectly beatmatched counterpart on the other side. When the player hits the tab key to switch between meatspace and cyberspace, the music smoothly crossfades from the track that's playing to its companion track at the same point; the transition is seamless and smooth, and applies the same shift of perceptual lens to the auditory realm that applies to the visual. The cyberspace soundscape feels more spiky, electric and jolting, while the meatspace realm sounds ominous, heavy, ticking like massive unstoppable clockwork, arrhythmic and noir.

Technologies

We developed a custom sound engine just to enable this crossfading; in fact under the surface, it's closer to the sort of sound engine running professional DJ software; multiple "decks" decode ogg vorbis streams side by side, with independent volume sliders for each, and playback speed controls. Crossfading is done like a DJ would do it from one record to another.

Likewise the graphics engine is built from scratch, as is every part of the game engine. We developed the GUI library specifically because there wasn't anything out there quite retro-cyber and wireframey enough.

Another post on this blog deals in quite a lot of detail with what's involved in procedurally generating a city, and we're planning a post about our special method of building executables so all our binary resources are compiled in as one file - and why we do it that way. If you want to know more about the development tools we use, that's covered in a blog post about our next release sphereFACE.