EA Mobile’s Jason Willig Explains the Ideas Behind SimCity BuildIt [Interview]

SimCity BuildItLast month, EA Mobile announced the development of SimCity BuildIt for iOS and Android devices. The free-to-play game is being specifically designed for “gamers on the go,” and will allow users to build the city of their dreams, making real choices that impact the future of their city.

In this new installment in the popular franchise, players will construct factories, build homes and commercial buildings, engage with a new crafting system, and even focus on certain specializations to keep their citizens happy, among other features.

The game is being designed alongside hefty feedback from franchise fans and players, which is helping the team create a game that addresses player expectations, while also staying true to what makes a SimCity game a SimCity game.

We had a chance to chat with Jason Willig, vice president and group general manager for EA Mobile, about the development of SimCity BuildIt, and what changes and/or similarities players can expect in this newest title in the franchise.

Inside Mobile Apps: How much variety will there be in the different kinds of buildings that will be constructed? That is, will we see the same three or four home or commercial building templates repeated over and over again, or will our towns have a larger selection than that?

Jason Willig: There are literally hundreds of building types and variants of each. We will constantly be adding new content to ensure cities look unique.

IMA: Can you explain the game’s new crafting system for us? How will players create objects, and what will they be used for?

JW: Crafting is deep, but also very intuitive: players unlock Factories where they produce “materials” like steel beams, logs, plastic, seeds, etc. Then Commercial buildings are unlocked like the Farmers Market, Hardware Store, Building Supplies Store, Gardening Supplies Store, Donut Shop, etc. Players use the basic materials they “manufacture” in their Factories in certain combinations to create crafted items in their Commercial Buildings. Those crafted items are then used to upgrade Residential Zones, sold to friends or via the Trade Depot or used for Boat Missions to earn Golden Keys (which can be used to purchase City Specialization buildings).

IMA: It looks like SimCity BuildIt will offer a quest system. What sorts of quests can players expect to complete, and what will they receive for doing so?

JW: There is a lot of directed play in SimCity BuildIt, and several quest-like elements, but we really want this game to be about what the player wants to do, not necessarily what we want the player to do. We think that element of open-ended–ness and discovery is really important to making this feel like SimCity. Our goal is to present the user with choices (not just tasks to check off), show them why those choices matter (relative to goals) and support / guide them with teaching and quests along the way. SimCity BuildItIMA: Many mobile or social city-building games follow a similar formula. After placing a building, one is required to wait a (sometimes) lengthy amount of time for its construction to finish, making the experience feel more like a waiting game than one of actually playing. Is that formula seen here, or will buildings continue to be placed in “zones,” and then automatically evolve over time as a town’s population grows?

JW: Almost every game – even the very best ones – follow some basic formulas …shooters, RPG’s, puzzle games and city building games. Some of those formulas exist for a reason: people enjoy those design conventions and modalities of play. That said, as game makers it’s our responsibility (and pretty much the most fun thing about getting to make games for a living), to both find/embrace/make better those familiar reference points while delivering innovations that are meaningful, really unique… and fun.

People who are familiar with SimCity will find familiar elements, but reimagined. At the same time, people who love mobile city building will also find familiar elements, but presented a uniquely SimCity way. This is not a “waiting game,” but in some cases waiting on certain things is part of the game. That said, there’s always something fun/important to do or work towards. It’s a balance.

IMA: The term “free-to-play” can illicit incredibly negative reactions from fans, when games come to mobile and lose many of the elements that made their original franchise(s) great (see RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile, for example). How is the team ensuring this isn’t a “dumbed down” version of the SimCity players have loved for so many years?

JW: The decision to make SimCity BuildIt free was in response to what our players told us: that even $1 presents a significant and unnecessary barrier when most of the best mobile games are free. As game makers, it’s pretty simple; we just want to reach the biggest audience possible. Making games free enables us to do that and allows our players to experience the game before they decide to spend or not spend a penny …it’s what they expect and want.

Our #1 goal is to create an amazing experience that makes our players happy. If we do that well, for all of our players, we’ll be successful. We have spoken to literally hundreds of players over the course of development. Most of them really like what we are doing.  But we know we can’t please everyone – and we take everyone’s feedback seriously – it’s great to make games for people who care.

We’ve also been very focused on making sure SimCity BuildIt is not a “dumbed down” version of SimCity PC.  But the game is called SimCity and we have to deliver on what that means, regardless if you’re new to the franchise or a longstanding player: strategy, challenge, creativity and meaningful choices, and open-ended gameplay. We believe passionately that it is an authentic SimCity experience that has been rethought and designed not only for small touchscreens but also for existing fans and hundreds of millions of mobile gamers as well who we think are going to love it.

IMA: This all being said, SimCity BuildIt will still ultimately be a free-to-play game. What sorts of objects will players be able to purchase with real money in the game? Is any content permanently locked behind a paywall, or will users be able to unlock everything with enough time?

JW: Players can unlock everything without spending a penny.  No content is permanently locked behind a paywall.

Players can also choose to purchase SimCash (our version of “hard currency”) to improve Commercial buildings so they produce more goods simultaneously, hurry things along, or to convert to Simoleons (our version of “soft currency”) and spend how they see fit. Both types of currency can be earned in game.SimCity BuildItIMA: In other SimCity titles, players can increase taxes to increase their revenue, or build specific structures (like a Casino) to trigger excess tourist spending. Is any similar element going to be available in BuildIt?

JW: Yes and no. Players cannot directly control the tax rate. However, the rate of tax (e.g. Simoleon generation) is based on Happiness of the population – happier citizens pay more in taxes. As I mentioned, tax generation is only one way Simoleons can be earned. Things like Casinos fall into something we call “Specializations.” These are big choices players make about what type of city they want to build. There are several Specializations including Entertainment, Landmarks, Education and Transportation, each with cool, unique content.

IMA: We know that some aspects of SimCity BuildIt will require an active Internet connection. Can you go into a bit more detail about what features will stop functioning if the user’s device goes offline?

JW: SimCity BuildIt is meant to be played while connected to the Internet, however, if a player’s connection is lost they can still play and their progress will be updated [the] next time they connect to our servers (messaging in the game will make it clear to the player when this happens). When a player is not connected to the Internet, but still playing the game, they won’t be able to visit other players’ cities, buy or sell goods on the Global Market or purchase SimCash. Otherwise, the game is fully playable.

IMA: Will SimCity BuildIt be updated with seasonal events, limited edition content and other future updates?

JW: Yes!

IMA: What sorts of social elements can players expect here? Will we be able to travel to and/or interact with our friends’ towns?

JW: When we asked players, they told us they mostly want to play alone in this type of game, so we’ve really focused our creative energy elsewhere. The initial social feature set allows you to do things like visit friends’ cities, and buy/sell items with them. That said, we think there’s a lot we can do creatively on the social side so long as it supports the overall experience and our players want it. We just need to get into the market, understand more about how people are playing, and then figure it out.

IMA: What has the team learned, if anything, from attempts by other developers to create long-lasting appeal in mobile city-building games?

JW: We learn every day and approach this process with tremendous humility and respect for how hard it is to make something durable that endures. I’m not sure these are specific things we’ve learned, but this is what guides the team:

  • Game design is an iterative process, the best solutions aren’t always obvious
  • Quality & user experience above all else
  • Love all your players, even the ones who are critical of our work
  • If you make a great game, the rest will take care of itself

IMA: Why did it take so long for SimCity to enter the mobile free-to-play arena?

JW: Working on a title like SimCity is a big responsibility. We only get one chance to do it right, [so] we took our time to ensure that happens.