As SimCity Franchise Stagnates, Developers Grow City Building Games on Facebook

Facebook is home to endless adaptations of the games of yesteryear. Harvest Moon, Pirates, Worms and many other non-action hits from gaming’s golden days undeniably provide inspiration for new games like Zynga’s FarmVille and Mafia Wars. But there’s a seemingly-obvious title that has missed out on the historical mining: SimCity.

Why obvious? The mechanics that make FarmVille (or Harvest Moon) such a resounding success are mirrored in SimCity. The most obvious one is growth. Farms grow and change; so do cities. The difference between a cornstalk and a skyscraper is time and size, but a game can easily re-scale either to fit the screens and attention spans of players.

There’s also the popular “harvesting” mechanic. Got a bean patch? Click on it to harvest and you’ve earned virtual coins. Click on your building, and you’re also harvesting coins. The big difference is what the players — and developers — imagine.

The use of Facebook’s communication features to grow games and increase engagement also seem applicable. FarmVille lets you send farm-themed gifts to your friends, Mafia Wars requires friends to help in team goals — why can’t the same things happen in city building?

Further, either setting up a virtual garden or a city appeals to a natural, human sense of order and beauty. On Facebook, satisfying these urges goes beyond farms to restaurants, animals, theme-parks and islands. The more one considers, the stranger it seems that SimCity has been overlooked so far by Facebook’s major game developers.

Luckily, a few small, relatively unknown developers recently began tapping the classic gaming goodness of SimCity.

There are two rapidly growing games that cleave fairly closely to the original SimCity formula: building and designing an entire city for the sake of doing it well (there’s no specified end game), while managing its buildings, zones and citizens. These two are My City Life by City Life, and My Town by Broken Bulb Studios.

You can see in the two graphs at right just how quickly these games are growing. In the top graph, My City Life, released late last month, has reached about 1.75 million players, while below it My Town, which has been around about a month longer, is closer to 2.5 million players.

These two come after a number of tries by other developers. In a review a couple weeks ago, we panned My City, which also follows the SimCity mechanic; it has stalled out with fewer than a million monthly active players. Even less successful are Enercities, Metropolis and Tiny Town (click each link for our review), each of which borrows from SimCity in varying degrees.

Why are My City Life and My Town more successful? We tried them out to get an idea. First off, it should be pointed out that SimCity fans shouldn’t expect a faithful reproduction of their game. As hinted above, these games tap into the same mechanics that make a game like FarmVille successful.

In SimCity, much of the action happened on its own; zone a section of the city to be residential, for instance, and it will begin growing on its own. But keeping players engaged on Facebook is about bringing them back repeatedly for short sessions, not letting someone sit back to watch a city grow for several hours.

So all the building is done manually; homes, shops, factories and parks are all manually placed. Just as in farming games, players must return periodically to click on their buildings, gaining their revenue.

There are other differences, although many of these come down to the Facebook platform; your city isn’t very animated, for instance, because that’s tougher to pull off. And many SimCity features, like terrain or natural disasters, aren’t present. The Facebook games are, in a nutshell, far simpler. But in our view, that’s what makes My City Life and My Town successful.

Each game has one clear aim: build a town that earns you enough money to put down buildings that you want to see, whether that’s a post office or public park, and expand further. There’s in-game currency that’s used for construction, with the usual option to buy more using real currency.

The successful Facebook games have almost all been fairly simple to date, and that’s not just because of the limitations of using Flash. The original SimCity was far simpler than SimCity 4, and built up to its complexity with each installment of the series; the relatively game-inexperienced userbase on Facebook will likely go through a similar progression, pushing the games to develop more features as they grow.

But even now, players are taking their urban planning seriously. “We get hundreds of emails about My Town each day through Facebook’s contact form,” says Robert Nelson, the CEO of Broken Bulb, which is based in Scottsdale, Arizona. “We got one off-the-wall email with 141 bullet points of features the player wants to see. It’s neat to see someone invested enough to send us that list.”

Broken Bulb has had a few surprises with My Town. The studio built the game to attract large numbers of somewhat engaged players, while it thought its other title, an RPG called Ninja Warz, would be smaller but earn more from virtual goods. “We’d heard from other companies that harvesting-style games don’t earn as much,” says Nelson. “But with My Town we’ve found an exception to the rule.”

I asked Nelson why someone else hadn’t already built a successful SimCity-style game. He says he was equally puzzled, but began to find some reasons in development. For instance, landscapes in My Town are fairly permanent.

“Not picking up an object when you harvest wreaks havoc — our game looks like FarmVille, but the mechanics are totally different,” he says. “People can’t schedule the game around their life as easily, and you run the risk of people starting to think their game is getting stale.”

The solution for Broken Bulb seems to be adding areas to expand into, so that players can go from a small to a large city, or even a region with several cities. The larger and more complex the maps get, the more the game will likely resemble SimCity instead of FarmVille.

Nelson says he considers My Town the first successful city building game on Facebook, and the biggest. The question is why, when Electronic Arts, which also makes games on Facebook, has owned the license to SimCity for years. Especially now that it owns Playfish, one of the successful social game developers on Facebook.

We mentioned SimCity for iPhone over a year ago, right after it was released, but there’s no sign yet of a social-gaming modification by EA. That’s a significant oversight for the company, which usually does a pretty good job at getting value from its licenses.

But whether EA gets involved or not, SimCity and its offshoots have a long, robust life ahead of them. In fact, there’s a whole new generation that will know and love the game: a free version of SimCity was recently released on the OLPC.