The SimCity brand has been through a lot. The last good SimCity was SimCity 4, released back in the start of 2003, but even that wasn’t a true step up from SimCity 3000 until the Rush Hour expansion. Future expansions were theorised but never eventuated, leaving the game’s enthusiastic modding community to push the game engine to it’s theoretical limits and polish SimCity 4 into a kind of modern society simulator come digital train set. Since then, EA have kept original developer Maxis distracted with Spore while conspiring with Tilted Mill Entertainment to ruin the franchise with SimCity Societies and forcing their Japanese affiliates to badly port remixes of SimCity 3000 to DS and iOS. Apparently they also got the work experience kids to make a unique SimCity for Wii but no one actually played it because, you know, it was a third party game on the Wii. EA’s latest betrayal of Will Wright’s legacy is assigning Playfish to develop SimCity Social for Facebook.
SimCity had been rumoured to head to Facebook since May last year, around about the time CityVille stormed past FarmVille as the most popular game on the ubiquitous social network. It was officially announced last month at E3 with a cheeky trailer and entered open beta last week. The trailer really positions SimCity Social as a progressive, inventive game, set to demolish CityVille. Last week’s press release was almost as exciting; this was my favourite quote:
“This isn’t your typical drag and drop city-building game. Players don’t just build a city – they choose the kind of city they want and watch its soul come to life as it grows and reacts to their decisions. With SimCitySocial, we’ve taken the best in social gaming design and married it with unprecedented depth to create an all-new deeply social experience.”
– Jami Laes, Vice President of Playfish.
Jami Laes is a filthy liar. SimCity Social is exactly like CityVille. Every single bit is the same. You place buildings individually, clicking on them to acquire money and resources, with the chance for a special item drop. You place parks and other city ‘decorations’ to increase the bonuses these buildings give you. You send trains away every day or so to get extra resources and need land permits to expand your city borders. You even have to staff your civic buildings with other players you’ve befriended. It is disgusting and disgraceful for Playfish, Maxis, and EA to deliver this game three whole weeks after they slammed CityVille in their announcement trailer. This is a company that knows no shame and a company that looks especially pathetic when you consider that almost the entire board for Zynga is comprised of former EA staff.
It gets even worse, too. SimCity Social has, by far, the most invasive and insidious spamming of itself to your Facebook friend lists yet seen. The game gathers your friend list and periodically has one of them move into a house in your city and encourages you to send them a gift to help with their city, which the game leads you to believe they play. They’re don’t play this shit though and the ‘gift’ is a Facebook notification that they should join the SimCity Social open beta, too. Every award and achievement you amass, and you’ll knock them over every minute or so, demands to be shared on your Facebook wall or requires invites to half your friends list. This is how a pyramid scheme works. Playfish and EA seem to have it in their heads that if a game is on Facebook it’s gotta be shit. Maybe someone at Playfish suggested they create a fresh and innovative Facebook game like Firaxis did with CivWorld and then John Riccitiello walked into the room, “what the fuck are you saying? This is Facebook, make it atrocious.” Making a game terrible doesn’t take less effort, either. SimCity Social looks and sounds fantastic and these stupid gameplay mechanics, the ones that keep progress just out of sight or requiring money to buy, take careful balance to design and test. If the rumours are correct, this game was in development for well over a year.
I mentioned CivWorld before because it’s an example of moving a brand into the social space without just reskinning FarmTown. SimCity‘s situation is even more depressing because the foundations of a social, networked SimCity game have existed since 1996’s SimCity 2000: Gold Edition. Imagine a SimCity 2000/3000 type game where you could see just beyond your city borders and, in real time, you could see a city operated by another mayor. You could contact them, make friends, negotiate linking your transport systems, share resources, and perhaps even specialise your cities to each other’s needs. Maybe your neighbours won’t be friendly and you try and outcompete them, spurred on by a leader board that ranks all the cities from your friends list and greater region on a number of different criteria. The game could be monetised by offering aesthetic changes for a fee or offering you the chance to start second and third cities closer to your friends. You know, the way multitudes of other free to play games remain healthy and profitable without resorting to pay-to-win or skinner box mechanics. The game would even serve as a functional and effective advert for 2013’s real SimCity game – exposing the long forgotten and tarnished SimCity brand to millions of potential new players.
I will never understand EA. They are a company that appear to be committed to destroying the value of their intellectual property and chasing away all their talented staff while making life miserable for their customers. While they’re making money now, these business practices simply aren’t sustainable in the mid- to long-term and if they don’t turn around soon they’ll be in the shitter. It’s sad, too, because EA own some of the greatest and most beloved gaming franchises, games that still have enormous untapped potential. They have some of the industry’s most intelligent and creative people from all over the globe. They have the finances and power to implement incredible and groundbreaking gaming services. But what the don’t have is the respect of gamers anywhere; the disgracefully derivative nature of games like SimCity Social won’t win them any more kudos.