Building with height maps in Cities: Skylines

This week, I really wanted to write about something different, a game I’ve never played, maybe something new. It’s always tough to come up with new ideas, especially a couple times a week. But there is only one thing on my mind, and that’s Cities: Skylines. All I want is to build my city, solve traffic problems, manage utilities, and watch it grow.

My mission has changed from simply trying to build the biggest city and keep it afloat, to replicating and simulating my hometown, Morgantown, West Virginia. The in-game map editor gives you the tools to do such a thing. You start out with a massive flat green surface, like a giant square golf course. At first I thought I might have to shape the terrain and manually carve out the Monongahela River and Cheat Lake myself. But Cities: Skylines uses height map technology where you can take a satellite image and the game will render the terrain for you. Brilliant!

I found the site terrain.party which has a map of the world and an itty-bitty blue square that covers an 18km by 18km surface (which is a one-to-one scale in the game).

Morgantown area highlighted in terrain.party

Morgantown area highlighted in terrain.party

You can then drag that square over to any part of the world and save the highlighted area as a .png image. It gives you multiple height maps from different sources, but I chose to go with the USGS version.

Height map result of Morgantown area

Height map result of Morgantown area

This is what terrain.party gives you. A simple black and white map that shows elevation. You can see in the bottom-right corner how it gets lighter, which is the higher elevation towards Preston County. And there’s the exact curvature of the Monongahela River, along with Cheat Lake in the top-right corner. This is too cool.

Once you import your map, the map editor immediately changes your golf course into the terrain from your real life area. The transition is a little rough, however. It’s far from a workable city at this point. I used the hell out of the soften tool to smooth out some rocky-looking mountains into the rolling hills of West Virginia. I also lowered the elevation of the bodies of water, otherwise a lot of what is supposed to be dry land would get flooded. The water tool is pretty sensitive (Yes, I made sure that the river flows north.) Then it’s up to you to add trees (you have a budget of 250,000), wildlife, train and plane routes, and highways leading into the playable area.

This game was set up for the community to take it and run with it. The subreddit /r/CitiesSkylines has already surpassed /r/SimCity in subscribers. There’s even a /r/CitiesSkylinesModding subreddit where you can post a request for a mod or release a mod for the game you’ve made yourself. I made a post myself requesting a PRT mod as a public transit option. That’s when I discovered I’m not the only one hoping to make a realistic model of Morgantown.

“Also living in Morgantown. I was thinking about putting together a heightmap myself just so I could make my own Westrun. My guess is the engine won’t support building a road that poorly done. But first I’ll need to create a pothole mod. Luckily there’s already the ‘allow heavy trucks in your downtown’ option built in to really simulate the horrible traffic planning.” – /u/enkafen

That’s where the true enjoyment of this game comes from. I have a passion for this city and I want to build it, but I can make it better. I want lay down the roads and see what the traffic does. Then with a wave of the mouse, I can fix the problems that I live through every day. I can claim omnipotent domain and bulldoze through property to make much needed new roads. This took a dark turn into my own deep conscience. Anyways, later this week I’ll be doing a video blog of Morgantown in Cities: Skylines. I hope to see you there!

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