Sim City Social : Social Game Perfection, Cynical Game Design

Yesterday I sat down to try Sim City Social.    I, honestly, wanted to see how EA had translated one of my favorite old school games to the Facebook platform.   I was not playing as a “joke” or just because I wanted rant about it, I honestly was hoping to eek a bit of enjoyment out of my otherwise  (with the exception of my family) pretty dreadful current life situation.

However, when I started playing the game (I’m not linking to it, go find it yourself), the horror of the past year came into focus.  I’ve worked on several social games in that time, and designed a couple games too, but I’ve taken a step-back for the past few months to work on other things.  This was the first time I’ve looked at a game like this in long time, and I think I could finally see it for what it was: a big ball of cynicism.

Right on the title screen it said something like “Build A City : With Your Friends.”  My first thought was: “I don’t want to build anything with my friends.  I do not want to subject them to this. Why can’t I just do it alone?”    I was initially taken into a tutorial where I built some roads and then some houses.  These would have been rather mundane things to do, and should have been easy for me to figure out on my own, but in reality, I “needed” the tutorial.  The interface was so crowded and cluttered with multiple menus and listings that I had no idea how to start the game.

After I finished my “building” (which was just clicking where they told me to click), some coins and other icons appeared over the buildings, and I ran my mouse over them to pick them up.    Whoohoo!  The tinkling of my prizes gave me a burst of excitement for exactly a microsecond, and then I remembered that I did nothing to get the reward except click where they told me.   It was at this point when I took a serious look at the interface.

There at the top I saw all the familiar trappings of a social game: multiple currencies (Simoleans and Diamonds), a level indicator, a list of my “neighbors”  (random people from my Facebook friends) at the bottom  of the screen, most of whom I do not want to contact in any way to bother them with this game, an energy bar the game will beg me to replenish, a population indicator,  a “fame” indicator, and a “build” interface.    As soon as I finished my first house, I was asked to invite neighbors, then I was given free reign to start building all on my own.  Yea! However, I had no desire what-so-ever to continue.

As asocial game, there is nothing wrong with Sim City Social.  In fact, it  might be the “perfect” social game.   The subject matter for Sim City Social has a proven, universal appeal.  The interface is honed down to a science, with the proper button and displays aligned to pin-point information architecture accuracy.    The rewards come at regular intervals, and are splendidly displayed.   The graphics are cute, and delightful, and appealing.   The game has the same  focus tested, Skinner-boxed, market-proven nuanced sheen that has been proven to make for successful social games in the past couple years, only here, turned up a couple notches for maximum effect.

It also  made me want to throw my computer across the room.

Why? Because it’s cynical.  It’s Cynical about the source material, and cynical about who is going to play the game.

Sim City Social (and most other games of it’s ilk)  takes the stand that anyone who plays wants to play a game for free and does not want to pay anything for it.    They have added all these social gaming trappings to capture social gamers in their natural habitat, and get them to open their wallets.   I can see the motivation behind  it too.   If the public likes free-to-play games theses days, give them what they want, and find a way to entice them to spend money.  That’s a fine way to try to make a living from people who expect everything for free.   I understand the mechanisms and motivations for this type of game, and why it exists.  This is especially true for games  based on a subject that have not been traditionally a basis for video games (say, a game about  farming,) because the subject is not all that interesting to being with, but can be made interesting (in theory) if you can bug all your friends while playing it.

However, Sim City was ALWAYS interesting.  Sim City was, and is,  a damned fine, fun, ground-breaking game.     I find it incredibly cynical to think that Sim City the original game, could not be successful on Facebook as Sim City itself, without all the regular social features piled on top.   I mean you could make it social in many ways, but why add all the tired, regular stuff (i.e. duel currencies, fame, levels, energy, pick-ups, quests that require neighbors, etc.) that makes it appear like every other game, and turns me off right away?  Why couldn’t “Social” be inter-city competitions  that have your neighbor’s cities affect your city in real-world ways (i.e. your high school sports teams play each other, or one city dumps  sewage in the fresh water of another).    I don’t know, maybe that kind of thing is there in Sim City Social, but it’s clouded by all these traditional social “features” that I will never wade through to see what is underneath.

Maybe it’s just me who is cynical.

Maybe I’m tired of the same old thing.

Maybe I’m ready to see what comes next.


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