SimCity Social is EA’s long-awaited follow-up to The Sims Social, and the first Facebook-based take on one of the longest-running franchises in gaming. The original SimCity and its numerous other incarnations over the years have played a key role in shaping what the citybuilding genre is today — both on and off Facebook — so it’s honestly surprising that EA hasn’t taken advantage of social players’ hunger to lord it over a virtual community sooner.
Despite the SimCity brand’s longstanding reputation for innovation and popularizing the citybuilding genre, it’s a shame more imagination wasn’t put into SimCity Social’s basic gameplay. For all the new and interesting features — which will be explored in a moment — it’s hard to overlook the fact that the game’s base mechanics are identical to the many, many other citybuilding social games out there. Players put down buildings, all of which cost money and some of which require several “clicks” (and thus expenditure of energy) to finish. Some buildings are friend-gated, requiring the player to send a request to friends (and said friends to accept) before they can be used — alternatively, these requirements can be bypassed with hard currency, which is awarded in small quantities on each level up. Positioning certain buildings next to others provides bonuses to their income, which must be collected manually at regular intervals. Businesses require materials to operate and produce income — said goods are produced by factory structures.
So far so CityVille, then — right down to SimCity Social incorporating all of the annoyances this genre has developed over the years. The energy system seems incongruous with the gameplay, the “quest” system makes the game feel far too linear rather than providing a freeform “sandbox” experience, building placement matters relatively little in the grand scheme of things and the player never has to deal with the consequences of their decisions because they can simply pick buildings up and move them at will without penalty. There’s none of the mainline SimCity series’ strategy with regard to balancing resident demands or managing crime, pollution and land value figures, either — while this keeps the game simple to understand for newcomers to the franchise, it will likely alienate those who were hoping beyond hope for something more akin to the complexity and depth of the full-scale PC titles. Not only that, but those who do not wish to spam their friends with stories of achievements and level ups will find themselves continually frustrated by the fact that the game seems to forget the player’s preferences as to whether or not they want to share every thing they do.
Despite all this, the lessons EA has learned from The Sims Social allow SimCity Social to set itself apart from this rather conventional, predictable and somewhat frustrating base. When visiting a friend’s city, for example, rather than simply clicking on things and receiving rewards for no discernible reason, players have the option to perform either “good” or “evil” actions on their friend’s buildings to earn a special currency known as Fame. When the player who has been “helped” or “abused” next logs in, they will see an icon representing their friend’s visit and can follow it around the city to see exactly what actions have been taken. These actions, while not having a permanent impact on the structures themselves, affect the two players’ relationship value and help determine what Fame reward buildings they will be able to construct — each requires an expenditure of Fame points and the collection of a number of special items which can only be acquired through either good or evil actions. Over time, this allows the player to build their city into a bastion of goodness or a fortress of evil, with buildings changing their appearance appropriately to reflect the player’s personality. Players also gain the ability to send relationship-related gifts to one another — for example, rival cities may send a flock of seagulls to do a rather messy flyover, while towns on more friendly terms may send something more peaceful such as a hot air balloon display.
There are a few other nice touches, too — for example, over time, Sims drawn from the player’s Facebook friends list (not necessarily those who are playing the game) move into the city and take up residence in the houses that the player has constructed. Occasionally, these Sims will make positive or negative comments on what the player has been doing recently, adding a little flavor and personality to the city — not to mention providing a convenient means of viral promotion, since the player is provided with the opportunity to thank their virtual friends for their comments by sending them a gift. In the long term, there is a light exploratory element as the player expands their city — various “Wonders” around the game map become accessible over time, providing the player with significant bonuses when they manage to capture them. And the “one-time offer” special buildings that appear for vastly-reduced hard currency prices upon leveling up are a great means of monetization.
Ultimately, though, SimCity Social isn’t going to do much to change the minds of core players who are already skeptical about social games — or those who are tired of citybuilders, for that matter. The game is solid, competent and infused with a good sense of humor, but outside of the “relationship” mechanic — which we’ve already seen in The Sims Social — there’s honestly not enough to distinguish this game from an increasingly-vast sea of “me too” titles.
The SimCity name alone is likely to draw a vast audience in the short term as those curious to see what a Facebook-based take on this well-established franchise looks like. This will likely stabilize over time, however, to a core audience of those who already play and enjoy this type of game rather than retaining those new users — those from the “core gamer” demographic hoping for something with more depth than CityVille will doubtless leave disappointed, for example. It would have been nice to see a bit more thought put into doing something less conventional with the basic mechanics; as it stands, despite the few interesting things the game does do, SimCity Social feels like something of a missed opportunity to innovate in a tired, stale genre.
SimCity Social is available in open beta on Facebook now. The game is not yet ranked on our traffic tracking service AppData, but Facebook reports the game currently has 2,000 monthly users. Check back shortly to follow the game’s progress by MAU, DAU and user retention figures.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with SimCity Social, but it iterates rather than innovates.