Ben Kuchera

SimCity Social is a collection of dirty tricks pretending to be game play

SimCity Social is a collection of dirty tricks pretending to be game play

I have never played CityVille, or in fact any of the games that EA drew from to create its own take on social city-building games. I was drawn into SimCity Social by the promise of a new SimCity title, because I love SimCity and thought I could suffer through a few of the social networking “features” in order to build and enjoy a city I could share with my friends.

I soon found the problem: The entire game is one long attempt to shake you down for friends and cash. The challenge doesn’t come from trying to win the game, but in doing whatever the game asks of you to get the various items needed to play at all. Imagine a slot machine where the highest prize you could possibly win is the ability to pull the handle.


The game begins aggressively asking you to send items and notifications to your friends from the opening minutes, and it never really lets up. The game lets you know that you’ve successfully done something whenever you gain a level or do anything of note, and there is a little hidden box on each notification that is checked by default saying that you want to share this news with Facebook. I didn’t even see it at first, and only noticed when I logged out and my Facebook feed had become a flood of SimCity Social notifications.

A wise man once told me that the economy of free-to-play games has to be unsatisfying on some level, or else there is no business. The problem with games like SimCity Social is that, based on what I’ve played, there is no game. The economy is the game. You have to spend energy to do anything, from collecting money from your businesses to chopping down trees, and you have a finite amount of that energy.

You can, of course, use real money to buy gems that you can use to buy more energy, or you can wait 2 minutes per unit of energy. When you upgrade a building you have to click on the building three damn times, and each click uses one unit of energy. If you’ve been playing for a while you either need to get out your wallet, or wait six minutes to get the needed energy for three clicks. Simply playing the game costs money. Imagine a version of Diablo where “attack enemy” is a command, and you can only use 10 commands before you need to either walk away from the game or pay more money. The idea that a game designer built a game where walking away for thirty minutes was a valid strategy baffles me. The more engaged and active you become, the more often you’ll have to pay to do basic tasks. 

The tricks and traps continue. The game sends real people to “live” in the homes you build, even though those people aren’t playing the game and most likely have no interest in playing the game. The program simply grabs people from your Facebook friends list, uses their picture, and moves them into your city. Then it points out how great it is that your friends have decided to move in, and wouldn’t you love to send them some spam? The gifts you send them are, of course, sent to the actual Facebook accounts of those people. Yuck.

The game tells you exactly what you need to do to make it to the next level, so there doesn’t seem to be much experimentation around the act of running your city. The trick is always finding or paying for enough energy, gems, or friends to help you construct the needed buildings, upgrades, and staff you need for your city to grow. You can pick up and move any of your structures at will, and actually planning where to put structures seems to be of little importance. The conflict isn’t between you and the game world, or even the chaos that can spring from improperly managed cities, it’s between you and the game’s economy-mandated limitations. There was never a moment where I had to sit back and think about strategy, there was only time when I had to work out how to get the gems or energy I needed without either bugging my friends or paying money.

Around 90 minutes into my session, I reached the point where I simply couldn’t get any further without paying. I declined the invitation and began to think about what had just happened. There was no game here in the way we think of it, merely a checklist of approved interactions that are possible as long as the player keeps feeding their city both cash and new people. It’s a Skinner box with no actual treats that come out of the chute, merely more buttons to tap with your nose.

I’m told this is common with city building games on Facebook, and I was merely sucked in by the SimCity name. Fair enough. That’s not a mistake I’ll make twice.