Playdom and ESPN are getting into the football movement with a new title called ESPNU College Town on Facebook. Of course, football is only half of the battle, as the new social title also features college basketball. But with the college football season well underway, the timing looks focused on football.
ESPNU is not the type of game one might think. Rather than being a football-centric app such as Ultimate Fan, Playdom is doing what it seems to know best, creating another themed city builder to join both Social City and City of Wonder. Although ESPNU is certainly of a different flavor than the previous two, it’s also essentially more of the same.
Players start out in ESPNU with a two-fold goal. First, to build a successful college campus, and second, to create a top set of college sports teams. Right off the bat, players get to choose their school affiliation, by selecting any actual college to associate with their virtual school. This choice doesn’t appear to do much functionally, but it does give the user access to that school’s colors as well as a few virtual goods associated with it (e.g. their mascot). There is also a nice section that grants access to the top college team leaderboards, letting players see how their affiliated team is doing in reality.
Once their team is selected, users can get down to the core of the game. To veterans of any of Playdom’s past city-builders, the game is rather familiar from here. Though the names and visuals have changed, players still build structures to complete contracts (here they are venues such as a football stadium), housing to increase population, and decorative elements to increase happiness. Additionally, there are entertainment structures that will periodically earn small sums of money.
As one would expect, contracts are mostly sporting events and the longer they take, the more money is earned. There’s also the basic resource management element of what structures to buy, as when the students aren’t happy, population (enrollment) cannot grow. Thus far, the only noticeable difference is the idea of upgrading certain buildings.
Tying upgrades to happiness is a new concept for Playdom city-builders as, typically, gating systems are controlled by level. Here, better payout opportunities from events require a structure to be upgraded to a certain point.
This upgrade system also applies to many of the decorative, or academic, structures as well. This element, in particular, is a nice change, as each upgrade not only changes the visuals, but increases the amount of happiness it creates. This makes it less necessary for the player to constantly redesign their campus in order to accommodate newer, better buildings and reduces the number of overall structures to select from.
Of all the aspects of ESPNU, the social elements are the most different. “Different” doesn’t necessarily mean better. As the game does revolve around college and college sports, the primary social mechanic is to challenge other players in either football or basketball. While this sounds well and good, it’s actually quite disappointing.
The games consist of issuing a challenge to a player of similar level and selecting players from the user’s roster to pit against the opponent. Each player has stats such as strength, endurance, speed, leadership, and so on. In order to win, the stats need to be higher, but a sort of slot machine will select which stats to use, meaning that if the user has a player with high strength and that stat doesn’t come up in the slots, it does no good.
At first, users can only put one of their players in for a game, but as they level up, games using more players will also become available, and once more than one team member can be chosen, a little bit more strategy (though the term is used loosely) emerges.
In order to improve the team, users must also buy (“recruit”) new players as they level up. The higher the level of the user, the better the players available. That said, this mechanic seems quite shallow: level up, then buy new players. If luck favors the user, they’ll win and earn some extra experience. This would be all well and good for Playdom in the past, but in comparison to City of Wonder where players could choose their rewards by selecting specific types of engagement (trade, cultural, or war) as well as augment the results by building certain structures, ESPNU’s social mechanics feel very boring.
Regarding friends, this feature is underused. Granted, they can be challenged the same as any other player, but it has no different effects. Otherwise, all one can do is visit their campus and click the standard “help out” button for some extra coin.
In the end, ESPNU College Town is a pretty good application, but it’s basically a spin on Playdom’s past two city-builders. In fact, it feels like a downgrade from the most recent, City of Wonder. The only truly different, and significant, mechanics are the social challenges against other users, but even then those feel not only basic, but shallow and arbitrary. There’s just no depth to it. Yes, the depth might appear in time, but the first impressions, for a Playdom title, are surprisingly weak.
Despite our gripes, ESPNU College Town is currently growing with around 500,000 monthly active users.