Environmental preservation is not something everybody believes in strongly. So Paladin Studios, a company that describes itself as building “serious games” has a new one out called EnerCities. Its goal? To teach people a little bit about global energy issues, the company has built a SimCity type of game, available on Facebook and a stand alone website. Players are tasked with the objective to reach a level five city with a population of 200 citizens. Sounds simple right? Not so much….
There are five categories of sections to choose from that essentially break down into residential, economic, green, happiness, and energy. The problem is that each section has a downside, yet all produce something you need, meaning you have to keep a balance between your entire city. For example, you need to build businesses to make money, but work makes people unhappy (how ironic is that?). If people are unhappy, your population drops, so you have to build structures to increase that. However, this takes more energy, which requires more space and can use up finite natural resources….. Beginning to see the challenge?
Notice the comment “more space.” With each level, the user is granted a minimal amount of real estate in which to place buildings. At level one it is a mere seven plots of land. Remember the five categories? After placing structures, they begin to passively impact the city, increasing or decreasing stats such as happiness, population, economy, resources, and so on.
There is actually nothing the player can do after placing their buildings — sort of like real life — except place more buildings to replace them and hope they start moving closer to their goal of winning the game. The player has 100 quickly-passing years to reach level five and that 200 citizen population cap, and all this trial and error greatly diminishes both time and resources.
While there is an avatar that periodically gives hints, they never stay up for long, and the player has no real objective beyond “beat the game.” Here is the million dollar question though: How does one beat the game? No, don’t say “get level five.” What is the process one has to take to get there? The player has no real direction other than a tips page, thus devolving the experience into randomly placing structures to see what works.
The concept of EnerCities is great, and once you begin to figure out what the heck works, it’s rather addicting. Perhaps not as much as the more in depth SimCity, but it does have similar merits. Nevertheless, getting to this point requires an agonizing and frustrating amount of time to figure things out.
As painful as this sounds, the process is further compounded as the game never tells you why something is or is not happening. If it does, it’s a blurb from your avatar adviser that is gone in about two seconds with no way to be recapped. This means that the player could be losing time, money, and natural resources and not know how to fix it, and actually find themselves playing through a scenario where it could end up being impossible to win (meaning that if your city isn’t at a certain point by year 50, it becomes impossible to succeed, thus wasting the time it takes to play the other 50 years).
Despite the complaints, the game is stated to be in “public beta” so a lot of this is still subject to change.
But perhaps the difficulty is why the developer, Paladin Studios, calls itself a maker of “serious games.” Figuring out how to balance the various needs of humanity with environmental preservation is a huge and unsolved problem. There are no advisers to tell us what to do, or what not to do. The game’s challenging dynamics, its low time limit and its lack of clues together drive this point home.