SimCity Social combines city-building, more customization, deeper player relationships

Even though the SimCity series has been around for 23 years and established the city-building genre in the video game industry, it’s been noticeably absent from the social network. Instead, the genre has been dominated by Zynga’s CityVille, which launched over a year ago to incredible success. Now, EA is getting ready to release SimCity Social on Facebook.

SimCity Social is a collaboration between EA’s Maxis and Playfish Beijing studios. The game casts players as mayor of a new city that they have to build up from a small town to a thriving metropolis. As with other city-building titles on Facebook, players need to spend a combination of currency (“Simoleons”), materials and energy to erect different structures across the city. Likewise, new blocks of territory on the world’s map can be unlocked with currency and milestone achievements. EA is betting that SimCity Social’s city customization, humor and deeper social mechanics will make the game stand out from other city-building titles on the social network.

During a hands-off demo at our offices, we were shown these differences. As opposed to other city-building games, SimCity Social players often don’t need to place buildings on the map. Instead, they mark an area on the world map as either a residential, commercial or industrial zone — an iconic mechanic from the original SimCity games — and the inhabitants will then move in to build their own type of structure.

Another difference is that — as producer Pete Lake explains — “cities can grow both up and out.” Players can continue to expand their city’s limits by purchasing new territory, but these places can only cover a small amount of territory, but the population will grow steadily so long as players keep erecting buildings that will attract more people to move into an area. This works by placing residential zones near structures like stadiums, museums or parks will cause more people to move into these areas, and the populations will continue to grow as players upgrade the attractions. This mechanic doesn’t just affect the housing in the game, as Lake tells us there are many bonuses that different properties can provide, like how businesses near residential areas will generate extra Simoleons.

As a residential building gains more inhabitants, it automatically upgrades to a taller structure. For example, Lake showed us a house turning into an apartment complex and then again transforming into the beginning of a high rise as a stadium near the home was upgraded multiple times. Building transformations are dynamic: Lake tells us the game assembles buildings from different pieces so a city doesn’t look like it’s made from completely identical structures.

As is the case with other citybuilder games, players can visit their friends’ metropolises and interact with them on a limited level. Instead of the usual tending plants or collecting rent, though, players are presented with good or evil acts to commit, similar to how social interactions work in The Sims Social. An example we saw of this in action was with a building that was on fire. Lake was given the choice to help the fire burn more effectively or put it out and help clean up the remains. Players can’t destroy each other’s cities, but disasters like this can cause a building to stop producing goods or currency until the wreckage is cleaned up. Depending on the actions that are chosen, players will have their relationships with other players represented with halos (meaning the neighbors get along and help each other out) or devil horns (implying the players commit evil deeds on each other’s cities).

Gifts also are a major part of the game’s social features. These, too, can be either positive or negative; for example, a flotilla of hot air balloons and a flock of seagulls flying across the skyline. The balloons seemed to raise a city’s happiness and increased unit productivity, while the birds proceeded to poop over a section of buildings and left a general mess to be cleaned up.

Interacting with friends generates Fame, which can be exchanged for unique structures that allow players set the general tone of their cities. In our demo, we saw structures like a foreboding obelisk, evil corporate towers and a “Fortress of Ultimate Woe” in a city  designed with a sinister look; meanwhile, a much more positive city contained things like rainbow parks and the iconic Launch Arco from Sim City 2000.

EA’s last “Sim” game in the social space was The Sims Social, which proved a massive hit when it peaked in September 2011 with 11.1 million daily active users, though traffic has now dropped to 2.9 million. With its 14 games across PC, Mac, consoles and iOS devices, the SimCity brand is well-known to many mainstream gamers, but it’s tough to say if brand recognition will be enough to carry SimCity Social to success on Facebook.

The major challenge for SimCity Social is waning interest in citybuilding games on Facebook, as evidenced by the gradual decline of Zynga’s CityVille. In March 2011, CityVille was the top game on Facebook with over 21 million DAU, but it currently holds the No. 5 spot now that its numbers have dropped to 4.9 million DAU. Our traffic-tracking service AppData shows the next-ranked citybuilding game on Facebook doesn’t even have 500,000 DAU. While SimCity Social’s mechanics allow players to create much more customized cities than other titles might, it’s possible many Facebook users won’t be familiar with the SimCity series and won’t be interested in playing another such game.

SimCity Social is currently being tested internally at Electronic Arts, but Lake tells us the game will launch on Facebook “very soon.”