Little Cities interview - James Howard chats accessibility and cost atmospheres

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A city in Little Cities

Little Cities is a great cosy town-building game that thrives in how unique it all feels. Rather than cranking up the heat as you learn the mechanics, it takes the foot off the gas and lets you play at your own pace.

To learn a little bit more about it and how it came about, we managed to chat with James Howard on making the game with his partner Kelly and the unique challenges that come with this.

Hi there, could you introduce yourself, what you do on the team, and your pronouns for the piece?

"I’m James Howard (he/him), co-founder of Purple Yonder. In terms of Little Cities, I’m the game’s sole programmer, responsible for translating our city creation ideas into VR, while co-founder Kelly Howard focuses on studio management and leading on the game’s UI/UX."

Pitch us - why should someone play Little Cities?

"I’d say Little Cities is for you if you’re seeking cosy creative escapism in VR. We’re really proud to have created an accessible, relaxing take on the city builder genre that’s fundamentally VR-first - so if you’re curious about the genre, but your vibe is more ‘playing with LEGO on the beach’ than meticulous metrics, then you’ll have a lovely time!"

With the Little Citizens Update, what is your goal for the player?

"Essentially, it’s about breathing a greater sense of ‘life’ into players’ creations and making them feel more invested in their cities. There’s always been a sense of ‘buzz’ as cities expand, with traffic, hot air balloons (and the occasional yeti!), but this is the very first time players have been able to see their population in action, bringing what we call the itty bitty bustle! The key ‘measurement’ of success in Little Cities is population happiness, so by seeing their little citizens actively responding and reacting to the worlds they create, exploring it in real time, players will feel more immersed and rewarded for their time."
hands in Little Cities
click to enlarge

What kind of atmosphere do you want the game to give?

"A relaxing, comfortable atmosphere that feels a fun, fertile space for creativity is always what we’ve aimed for. There’s a lot of different aspects that feed into this – from the gentle soundtrack to the unfussy UI to the fundamental diorama quality of the colourful island environments, buildings, and attractions. The team have really worked hard on creating a place that’s joyful - where players feel they can express themselves and explore with minimal pressure."

Where do you want to go with the game from here?

"Our team certainly have plenty of ideas of how Little Cities can grow – and that’s aided by plenty of inspiration from the imaginative suggestions from our player community. A big part of what we’d love to do in the future is grant players greater creative control over the cities they craft – more freedom, more content, more options to express themselves. I can’t share too much right now, but we’re working hard around those concepts and look forward to sharing more info on Little Cities’ future soon."

In the newest update, residents can live their lives in the homes you create. Are there any plans to further expand interaction with citizens?

We’re a small team but the challenge of integrating Little Citizens into the game has been really rewarding, and there’s always scope for further experimentation. We’ll see!

With such a cosy tone, how do you find the balance between fun and atmosphere?

"I think the bonus of the cosy feel is that it effectively sets a tone that encourages creative experimentation and expression – so I think in a lot of ways, it’s that very cosiness that builds a sense of lower stakes and therefore puts that balance in the players’ hands. Each of our updates have brought more content and mechanical layers for players to use, but we’ve been careful to ensure that added complexity and depth doesn’t imbalance things towards a more stressful atmosphere. Fundamentally, we’re more of a ‘city creator’ than a ‘city builder’ in the traditional sense, and I think the cosy tone roots us there and sets us apart."

Coming up to the one-year anniversary, what have you learned over the last year?

"Where to begin! Being in VR, there’s always a degree of learning as the medium itself is moving and evolving so quickly. We experienced that directly with getting to grips with Hand Tracking implementation on Quest, for example – the journey from experiencing the new tech for the first time and figuring out how to make it feel just right for Little Cities was an exciting challenge. More broadly, there’s constant learning about VR-first design – seeing what feels good in a headset, what’s accessible and trying to make an experience that is elevated by being in VR. We’ve certainly learnt that our player community love being given the tools to express themselves; that if we add layers of depth, they’ll leverage them in creative ways, rather than being pushed towards a particular construction style."

Being your first published game as a team, how has the production cycle been and what would you say for someone getting into the field?

"Being a husband-and-wife team has been a little bit of a cheat code in terms of knowing our strengths and passions within the game dev process and delegating work accordingly! We’ve worked closely with our publisher, nDreams, so have a good degree of production support which has been a big help in plotting milestones and focusing in on our update content. I’d always advise being open to collaboration and choosing folks to work with who inspire you – while the vision for Little Cities has been led by Kelly and myself, we’ve worked with some fantastic contractors who have really elevated our work."

What would you say is your primary inspiration behind Little Cities?

"The obvious one would be classic city builders like Sim City. While Little Cities certainly has a cosier, colourful take on proceedings, it’s that fundamental feeling of seeing a blank plot transform into a thriving, living city that inspires us."

What player behaviours have surprised you the most?

"I think any pre-conceptions about any ‘standard’ way of creating a city and progressing through the islands have gone out the window! From the neatest themed grids to chaotic connections, I’m never not surprised by how different players organically approach city growth. Not a behaviour as such, but we were certainly surprised by just how many people enquired about being able to do sinister things to the little citizens! This is a wholesome game, everyone."

What is your favourite thing that the game's little citizens can do?

"Personally, it’d either be the citizens being able to be rescued by helicopter or seeing them play soccer in the stadium – the latter is positively hypnotic."

What would you say are the themes of the game?

"At its core – cosy creativity. The classic city building DNA of the game is always present, but the core theme is about empowering players to create cities that their citizens love to live in."

Are there any plans to launch the game on PSVR2?

"We’re always excited by the idea of bringing Little Cities to as many players as possible, wherever they choose to play. We don’t have any specific updates on potential new platform releases right now, but we’ll be sure to let folks know as soon as we have something new to share."

What would the team like to work on next?

"It’s been almost a whole year of supporting Little Cities, with plenty more to come, so it’s hard to look too far beyond the city creation space right now. We’re brimming with new ideas though, so watch this space!"

Little Cities has made some important strides over the last year to become a fuller and more well-rounded game. Taking inspiration from city builders but taking advantage of the unique atmosphere of VR, it does something a little different. With the Citizens update out now, we're looking forward to seeing what comes next.

For more articles like this, take a look at our Features and Little Cities page.