Brand New Subway

Brand New Subway is an entry into the "Power Broker" Game Design Competition. It's an interactive transportation planning game that lets players alter the NYC subway system to their heart's content.

Players can choose to start from scratch or one of several NYC subway maps (including present-day, maps dating back to the early 1900s, or maps from the future). They can build new stations and lines to expand the system to new areas, or tear it down and redesign the whole thing. The game intends to evoke an imaginative spirit, to empower people to envision transportation according to their needs and desires, and to arouse the fun of tinkering with maps.

How the game works

The game is built upon a real, live map of New York City. When players build each station, the game uses a variety of data sources (census data, jobs data, existing transportation demand data, etc.) to estimate the station's ridership. Those numbers are used to calculate a system-wide daily ridership. The game also calculates an estimated single-ride MetroCard fare, based on the construction and maintenance costs of the stations and tracks.

Taken together, the ridership and fare are combined into a letter grade, scaled based on the present-day subway's actual daily ridership and MetroCard fare (which scores as a B).

Players might choose to re-design the system from scratch and see if they can produce a system that's more affordable and that reaches more people. Or, they might investigate the impact of a particular project, like building a subway extension to their house or down Second Avenue. Or, they might just engage in the fun of map-making and design "fantasy" maps that radically change the subway from what it is today.

Themes from The Power Broker

The competition "...challenges game designers to adapt The Power Broker into a playable, interactive form that preserves the flavor and themes of the written work, while leveraging the unique opportunities the game medium provides." With that in mind, I envisioned Brand New Subway as relating to the themes of the book in three different ways:

  1. Imagination. The book's primary narrative depicts Moses' gradual transformation from a civic-minded idealist to a power-hungry autocrat. Although Moses' idealism begins in the realm of civil service reform, his success as a parks commissioner derives largely from his dedication to a particular vision of how things ought to be done.

    Moses sees a muddy stretch of land along the New York Central rail line in Manhattan, and imagines a beautiful park next to a tree-lined highway. He imagines a beach on Long Island built with an Italianate water tower and beautiful bathhouses built from Ohio sandstone and Barbizon brick. He looks at the unfinished foundations of the Triborough Bridge and sees a brand new highway network, crossing New York City and giving motorists rapid access to Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey, and the outer boroughs without traversing Manhattan.

    In the face of unrelenting opposition and bureaucracy, Moses didn't shy away from imagining and re-imagining the landscape of New York City to fit his vision of the city of the future. While Moses gave little regard to mass transit in his imaginative visions of the future, Brand New Subway invites you to take on that same imaginative scope.
  2. Autonomy. Perhaps the most famous urban planning game of all time, SimCity (and its sequels), derives its immersive, innately fun qualities from the fantasy of building without restraint. In SimCity, decisions aren't subject to political oversight. The player acts as designer, engineer, and omnipotent governor all in one. If one wants to demolish a neighborhood to build a highway or park, there is no one to say no (except an easily-ignored group of advisors). Later versions of the game even add player-triggered "natural disasters", allowing players to indulge themselves in building a creation and watching it burn.

    Moses, though perhaps with nobler intentions, lusted for power under the same auspices. He developed skillful political techniques (massively underestimating project costs to put politicians in a bind after the foundations had been laid, for example) to get opposition out of his way.

    Brand New Subway performs that fantasy in much the same way SimCity does. Want to build a subway connecting your house to your job and nothing else? No one is there to stop you.
  3. Bottom-up vs. top-down design. Moses was infamous for his top-down approach to urban planning. He held "the public" as a concept in high regard while simultaneously showing contempt for the individuals who made up that public, in the form of arrogance, spitefulness, and an utter lack of concern for the millions displaced for his expressways and parks. Later on in his career, as the span of his projects increased, Moses would make monumentally important decisions about the fate of a neighborhood without once setting foot there. He was known for building 13 bridges and hundreds of miles of parkways despite never driving a car.

    Although Brand New Subway might appeal to someone who enjoyed SimCity but who has never set foot in New York City, it's targeted primarily at those who actually ride the subway and who might feel invested in what they design. In that regard, it inverts Moses' paradigm by encouraging players to improve on transportation in their own neighborhoods and in ways to which they have a personal connection.