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Ancient China comes to life in Thriving City: Song by White Star Studio

White Star Studio, a small and ambitious game development studio based in Shenzen, China, has captured the essence of ancient China in their game Thriving City. This city-building sim takes players back to the Song Dynasty, where they must navigate the challenges of settling a town, cultivating the land and expanding the city. One of the most eye-catching features of Thriving City is its distinctive visual style. “The inspiration comes from traditional Chinese paintings.” 

When the team first decided to make a sim management style game, they quickly settled on a city building sim. “We all agreed that it had to be a bustling city”, says Game Producer Reinhard Wu. “Something reminiscent of the hustle and bustle you can see in the legendary Chinese handscroll painting, Along the River During the Qingming Festival. That gave us the idea!” With the genre and setting firmly in place the ideas started flowing. “We were so excited to base our content around ancient China. It felt more meaningful to us, we’d be making a game that has a positive impact.”

Gameplay over historical accuracy

The Zhao Song Dynasty was established in 960 A.D. by Emperor Taizu of Song. It lasted for roughly 300 years that were well documented through literature and paintings. “We have a great understanding of what everyday life was like, back then”, says Wu. “Sim gameplay lends itself for many elements of a busy Song dynasty marketplace. A rich marketplace culture, urbanization, industrialization and civilian society in the era. Combining these elements with sim mechanics meant we could come up with some exciting, innovative gameplay.”

But it took some tweaking to get the right balance. The team of White Star Studios closely monitored the results of early playtest sessions. It showed that players preferred a less hardcore approach. Reinhard Wu explains: “The second test showed many players wanting to experience a city sim with more playable content, something they prioritized over historical accuracy. We needed to pivot and focus more on playability, not solely on bringing the Song dynasty to life.” 

Significant changes

This realization led the team to adjust their designs and focus more on providing a fun and engaging experience. “We made significant changes to the game, incorporating player interests such as Chinese elements, recruitment of workers, prayers to deities and ancestors, and other cultural elements. We also revamped the game resources and time systems and transformed the lengthy campaign into a segmented storyline.” Wu emphasizes the importance of creating a game that strikes a balance between realism and player enjoyment. “After all, playability does take priority when you’re making a game! It was essential we provided a fun experience.” 

Reflecting on the development process, Wu highlights the importance of providing guidance to players. “Guidance is seriously important. The more complex a mechanic is, the more guidance players will need. You can’t leave it entirely up to players, and have them stumble their way through. That’d leave them stumped right at the start and nobody wants to push through and keep playing.”

Historical content

White Star Studio is a small team, founded by 4 people. Wu explains the roles of each team member: “Wu Zhihao and Xia Xiazi do gameplay design, Lan Sun art direction and Shuai Kun is the programmer.” After two and a half years of development Thriving City: Song is out now on Steam Early Access. “We would be super pleased if we see the game leaving Early Access within a year”, says Wu. “We have a roadmap planned with all the historical plot content.” 

Eric Bartelson
Eric Bartelson
Editor-in-Chief of PreMortem.Games. Veteran game journalist for over 20 years. Started out in 1999 for game magazines (yes the ones made of paper) such as PC Zone Benelux, PlayNation and GameQuest, before co-founding Dutch industry paper Control Magazine.
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