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The most unique city builder of 2024 is a cure for triple-A boredom

Frostpunk 2 and Cities Skylines own the genre, but the dev behind 2024’s most unique city builder talks to PCGamesN about challenging norms.

Gaming culture, and many of the popular genres that dominate Steam, have become familiar and codified. You hear the term ‘strategy game,’ ‘RPG,’ or ‘FPS’ and you know immediately what to expect. City builders, likewise, come with expectations. Cities Skylines 2 is a distillation of the form – Frostpunk 2 seeks to challenge assumptions with a denser narrative and darker tone, but remains mechanically true to traditions. Speaking exclusively to PCGamesN, the creator of 2024’s most unique city building game thinks more can be done to shake up the triple-A.

Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles is a relaxed, minimalistic (at least in terms of the interface) variation on the typical builder experience. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that is covered almost entirely by water, you play the protector of one of our final remaining civilizations, and must transform the Earth’s cliffs, mountaintops, and last slips of dry land into a burgeoning new society. Recruit commanders to your city. Dispatch ships and zeppelins to extract resources and maintain trade routes. Forge relations with neighboring communities.

It’s a city building game with a novel twist, whereby construction is controlled by a small number of simple button presses, and spreads quickly and organically. In contrast to the cerebral, higher-pressure experience of Cities Skylines 2, in Bulwark, it takes just a few inputs and a couple of minutes to turn an ancient rock face into a beautiful, Doric metropolis.

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Released in March – on the very same day as Paradox and C Prompt Games’ Millennia – Bulwark is the work of solo developer Tomas Sala. Speaking to PCGamesN ahead of Bulwark’s appearance at Wired Direct, he explains the realities of modern, single-person game development, and the reception to his latest work.

“I’m quite pleased with it,” Sala says. “The players have been enjoying it and the Steam review rating is like 83%, which for an experimental game is pretty decent. You always look at the numbers. I usually use user reviews because that’s more important to me – you don’t know the sales until you’re a year down the line. But user reviews for me are personally important because there are lots of issues you can see coming. You can see what people like or don’t like, or what they get stuck on.

“I always suspected that the minimalist interface and controls would be the main issue. But one problem was explaining how the game works, and also people just wanting more – people who felt like they didn’t fully understand how to unlock all the content. But that was simple. You can just add a button to the main menu and a few prompts in the tutorial.”

Bulwark Falconeer Chronicles Steam city building game: A zeppelin from Steam city building Bulwark

Sala plans to support Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles for at least the rest of 2024 and potentially beyond. A new update adds an additional form of currency that can be used as tribute to opposition factions, as well as more diplomatic choices so that you can avoid all-out war. After that, a larger update, called Naval Command, will expand on the military options by adding a harbor and battleships. A new faction is also on the way, and Sala says that if the game continues to receive positive feedback and player numbers, more material may follow.

The success of Bulwark perhaps suggests an appetite among players for a change from the mainstream. But we’ve been here before. The indie gold rush between 2012 and 2016 made it seem as if triple-A gaming might change forever. On the contrary, the entire culture has since become more risk-averse, as live-service and ‘forever’ games dominate most platforms, and spread their influence to the double-A and even independent tiers of videogame making.

Nevertheless, change, potentially, could be in the air. It doesn’t feel that controversial to say that a lot of us are tired of the battle royales, the competitive shooters, and the 200-hour open-world sandboxes. But originality – like in anything; like in movies, TV, literature, and music – still feels in videogames like a rare luxury.

Bulwark Falconeer Chronicles Steam city building game: A harbor from Steam city building Bulwark

“It’s not a critique on the player because I think we do that enough,” Sala says. “This is about how we make money. If you’re making a shooter, you might change it slightly, increment a little – but not enough that it would stop people from switching over – and then you monetize the fuck out of it. But if you want to create friction, you’re going to make less money.

“You can’t just come into Bulwak from Company of Heroes or Cities Skylines. The entire design philosophy is different. Now, go back 20 years, and every game had its own control system. But now we have a market trend of making safer and safer products that only differentiate slightly.

“The industry has gotten more conservative. In strategy games we expect buttons at the bottom, resources at the top – it’s all very rigid. And I think the risk of these games where people can just slip in is you lose the capacity to innovate. There’s no future for me trying to compete with Paradox. I don’t have 60 people doing UI or tutorials. I always say my tutorials are going to suck. Do you know why? Because it’s boring making tutorials. It’s fun making a great game.”

Bulwark Falconeer Chronicles Steam city building game: A town from Steam city building Bulwark

Dozens of games pour onto Steam every week. Subjective, esoteric passion projects like Children of the Sun, Felvidek, or Home Safety Hotline, to name just a few from 2024, struggle to find even a modest audience, let alone enough players to become certified hits. Bulwark is doing well, and Sala has plans for a third game in the Falconeer series, but if we really want a different gaming world, it’s going to take tectonic changes in almost every regard.

“Why did I have a good launch?,” Sala asks. “Because it beat the sales expectation and it got on the front page of Steam. That means it’ll be on the front page on sales – it’s bracketed now as a successful game. If you don’t hit that you’re fucked, because sales are the only thing Steam looks at. We have so many genres and different creators making games for different reasons. But we also risk becoming an industry of big companies making very safe games where everyone can easily just slip in. I always make the joke that I can hear ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ in the background. That’s the sound I hear when I think about videogames.

“But I think some of the revolt we have among gamers is that they realize that’s a fallacy. They’re getting angry, because instead of being given a diverse diet of cool shit, we’ve given them comfort gaming. The first time you had ‘Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner,’ or the first time you cried during a Final Fantasy game, we’re still trying to relive those moments again and again. And that’s what games are monetizing. But your brain is adjusted to what you already got and now it’s less receptive to the high.”

Bulwark Falconeer Chronicles Steam city building game: A coastal quay from Steam city building Bulwark

After completing work on Bulwark, Sala also has ideas for a space exploration game. The third Falconeer chapter will meanwhile serve as a prequel to the series so far, whereby players take the role of a tugboat captain. “You’re pulling all these big warships and trade ships into harbor, and the jobs you take sort of decide the fate of the world,” Sala says. “It’ll be about character. I want to make scenes where you’re talking to the galley cook, or in the tavern, talking with the bartender. I haven’t done that kind of game.”

Exactly what videogames might look like by the time Sala’s series concludes is difficult to imagine. But there remains an embering desire for more varied, original games. If the broader culture can fuel and tinder that want into something brighter and hotter, perhaps we will see even more successes like Bulwark.

Take a look at the best upcoming PC games to see what else 2024 will bring, or perhaps the best strategy games available right now.