As SimCity Franchise Stagnates, Developers Grow City Building Games on Facebook

Facebook is home to endless adaptations of the games of yesteryear. Harvest Moon, Pirates, Worms and many other non-action hits from gaming’s golden days undeniably provide inspiration for new games like Zynga’s FarmVille and Mafia Wars. But there’s a seemingly-obvious title that has missed out on the historical mining: SimCity.

Why obvious? The mechanics that make FarmVille (or Harvest Moon) such a resounding success are mirrored in SimCity. The most obvious one is growth. Farms grow and change; so do cities. The difference between a cornstalk and a skyscraper is time and size, but a game can easily re-scale either to fit the screens and attention spans of players.

There’s also the popular “harvesting” mechanic. Got a bean patch? Click on it to harvest and you’ve earned virtual coins. Click on your building, and you’re also harvesting coins. The big difference is what the players — and developers — imagine.

The use of Facebook’s communication features to grow games and increase engagement also seem applicable. FarmVille lets you send farm-themed gifts to your friends, Mafia Wars requires friends to help in team goals — why can’t the same things happen in city building?

Further, either setting up a virtual garden or a city appeals to a natural, human sense of order and beauty. On Facebook, satisfying these urges goes beyond farms to restaurants, animals, theme-parks and islands. The more one considers, the stranger it seems that SimCity has been overlooked so far by Facebook’s major game developers.

Luckily, a few small, relatively unknown developers recently began tapping the classic gaming goodness of SimCity.

There are two rapidly growing games that cleave fairly closely to the original SimCity formula: building and designing an entire city for the sake of doing it well (there’s no specified end game), while managing its buildings, zones and citizens. These two are My City Life by City Life, and My Town by Broken Bulb Studios.

You can see in the two graphs at right just how quickly these games are growing. In the top graph, My City Life, released late last month, has reached about 1.75 million players, while below it My Town, which has been around about a month longer, is closer to 2.5 million players.

These two come after a number of tries by other developers. In a review a couple weeks ago, we panned My City, which also follows the SimCity mechanic; it has stalled out with fewer than a million monthly active players. Even less successful are Enercities, Metropolis and Tiny Town (click each link for our review), each of which borrows from SimCity in varying degrees.

Why are My City Life and My Town more successful? We tried them out to get an idea. First off, it should be pointed out that SimCity fans shouldn’t expect a faithful reproduction of their game. As hinted above, these games tap into the same mechanics that make a game like FarmVille successful.

In SimCity, much of the action happened on its own; zone a section of the city to be residential, for instance, and it will begin growing on its own. But keeping players engaged on Facebook is about bringing them back repeatedly for short sessions, not letting someone sit back to watch a city grow for several hours.

So all the building is done manually; homes, shops, factories and parks are all manually placed. Just as in farming games, players must return periodically to click on their buildings, gaining their revenue.

There are other differences, although many of these come down to the Facebook platform; your city isn’t very animated, for instance, because that’s tougher to pull off. And many SimCity features, like terrain or natural disasters, aren’t present. The Facebook games are, in a nutshell, far simpler. But in our view, that’s what makes My City Life and My Town successful.