Building a Better Business With Playdom’s Market Street on Facebook

Since formative hits like Playfish’s two year-old Restaurant City, virtual space business games have been popular on Facebook. To diversify and get more users interested, we’ve seen developers focus on specific themes — with Mall World and Retail Therapy being good examples of fashion-focused titles. Now Playdom has a new Facebook game out, that’s focused on running a small, Main Street business: Market Street.

Having already grown to nearly 300,000 monthly active users in just a week’s time, this business game is already doing well for itself. It’s understandable growth considering the popularity of virtual space-oriented games and the point of playing going beyond mere aesthetics — and Playdom’s marketing muscle, no doubt.Overall the game is quality, and includes a few interesting tweaks on the sim concept. But it also has a few rough spots, probably due to its newness.

Like the restaurant sims of last year (Restaurant City, Café World, etc.), Market Street is all about pleasing customers and making sales. Players start off with a small box of virtual space and begin stocking shelves. Essentially, this is broken up into three basic parts: Order, stock, display.

As with games like Mall World, players must first visit the delivery guys and start ordering products for their store. However, this is where the first major difference comes into play. Unlike its predecessors, products are not limited to women’s clothing. In fact, it’s not just limited to clothing. Players can order clothes, electronics, and even hardware, thus appealing to both genders.

Once you’ve decided between radial saws or a “Lady La La” CD or whatever, it’s time to stock. Depending on the level and cost of the ordered item, it will take a set amount of time to arrive. Once it does show up, it’s placed in the stock room and must be displayed.

In order to do this, players must purchase shelves, cases, tables and so on, with a limit based on level, in place. However, depending on the size of what it is they wish to buy, certain displays are required. Note that the game will not let the user order something they can’t sell.

Regarding stock and display, this is where the game becomes rather unintuitive. Whenever a player purchases items to sell or displays them, the quantity of objects is not actually apparent. Instead, stock is measured in time (e.g. a fully stocked table of CDs sells in about 10 minutes). It’s a bit odd, but items on display visibly decrease as they are purchased, and can be restocked with the same item before becoming completely empty. When the full amount of stock isn’t placed on an empty display, only a portion is removed from the stock room, and a green bar representing how much of the item is left in the stock room appears. It’s not really a complaint, but it’s certainly an awkward choice.

Oddities aside, there are plenty of other aspects of Market Street to concern oneself with anyway. Like many of the more popular virtual space games, customers have a happiness rating. The higher that rating, the more customers the user will get. This is affected by multiple aspects, one of which is décor. However, there are a number of specific needs that the patrons require as well.

The first, and most basic, is checkout wait times. As a store gets bigger, players will need to purchase more cash registers to deal with all the customers. This is also where one of the first social elements comes into play, as each of these can be manned by a Facebook friend (and they do not even have to play). As it stands, however, they appear to only be able to be hired as a cashier and their uniform can only be altered by color.

There are other ways to keep customers happy. Aside from stocking your store with a different goods, each customer has a variety of thought bubbles that appear over their head. There are three in particular that one has to watch out for. The first is a trash can. It’s a simple enough fix, as whenever a shelf runs out of stock it gets dirty, but a simple click will clean it. The next is a question mark, meaning the customer needs help. You don’t actually answer their question, but click on them to “help” them before they get annoyed. As for the last interactive customer, it’s the one with a bandit mask. Watch out for these guys as they will steal goods and try to sneak out of the store, tasking the player with catching them before they’re free.

On the social end of things, beyond the hiring of friends, it all appears to be your basic implementations. Neighbor leaderboards, gifting, visiting each others’ stores – it’s all present. Of course, it doesn’t exactly push the barrier on new social mechanics, and if there are others, Playdom doesn’t make them very known to the user.

There are a few other things that the game doesn’t make clearly known either. It does attempt to guide the player moderately with a sort of quest system, but there are few specifics. One particularly frustrating moment was attempting to hire a friend, as there is no actual button. In order to do so, apparently one must click on an empty register. However, users start with a generic non-player character which must first be fired. This led to another headache as doing so literally broke the register to where it just said “collect” as if it were full. Obviously this led to many upset customers who couldn‘t check out, not to mention an annoyed player, and required a restart to fix.

Registers, in fact, are another unclear element. After a while they get “full” and the noted “collect” button appears. It does not look like they actually get full in the sense that they stop collecting money, but it’s yet another assumption the player has to figure out.

All in all, Market Street is an excellent business and virtual space title. It’s not fully polished in many parts — an issue that can be attributed to its recent release — but aside from the nasty bug example, such issues will likely go unnoticed by the average user. Additionally, the aesthetic gratification of the game is rather high, and the goal of making a business is so much more effective than other virtual space apps that simply say “make it pretty.” All the same, virtual spaces are a saturated genre for the Facebook space presently, and while business games are a stronger way to make them, it begs the question: What’s next?