I'm not much for Facebook games; I've played FarmVille a bit, but it's never quite gotten its hooks into me. Part of the reason for is that most of my friends didn't play either, and so I've never felt the social pressure that contributes to the game's addictiveness. You know: "Dang, David's barn is so sweet. I wish I had a sweet barn like that."
But when EA announced The Sims Social at E3, I found myself intrigued. By combining the addictive, well-designed virtual dollhouses of The Sims with the constant connectivity of Facebook, EA seemed to be talking about a casual social game that I might actually want to play.
I was particularly intrigued by the game's much-touted inter-sim relationships. In The Sims Social, your sim can befriend, date, and even marry the sims of your Facebook friends. And, conversely,your sim can antagonize and become archenemies with other sims as well.
I'm picturing my sim getting into a committed relationship with the sim of a girl I actually know, then cheating on her; soon we'd become enemies. And, of course, it'd all take place in a custom house that I designed and built. The whole thing sounds much more fun than anything I've ever done in FarmVille.
And so it was with great curiosity that I attended a preview event for The Sims Social — which is currently in Beta on Facebook — yesterday in San Francisco. I played the game through an artificial Facebook account, which was already set up with friends waiting. All we had to do was log in and get Sim-ing.
First I designed my sim, a blonde creative type in a black T-shirt named KLARSHARK. I loaded up his house and began to go about my requisite sim duties — getting some furniture, eating out of the fridge, taking a shower. Then I went over to my neighbour "Bella Goth"'s house — Bella had dark hair and a red dress, and didn't look entirely unlike Kristen Stewart — and flirted with her a bit. I also went over to my other neighbour, Kylie Nelson, and fought with him a bit.
More specifically, I implied that his mother is a Llama.
Things were going quite well, but for one fairly large problem — The Sims Social lifts its interface from FarmVille almost wholesale. It's Flash-based and cluttered, slow to respond, and generally a pain to use. And moreover, it's a far cry from the comparatively slick interface of the PC Sims games.
It is clear that Zynga's games have provided the financial model for progression and micro-transactions in The Sims Social. The game's currency is broken into Simoleons and Simcash, which is a direct lift from any of Zynga's titles. You can trade Simcash for the more common Simoleons, and of course, one assumes that the easiest way to get more Simcash will be to pony up, you know, Actual, Non-Sim Cash.
And then came the biggest drag of all, the thing that put me off of Zynga games for good — constant pop-up notifications and "Share This!" windows. Just like in FarmVille, the notifications in The Sims Social were a constant interruption and hugely distracted me from the game itself.
It's looking like The Sims Social is a great core idea (Make a sim! Send it to play with your friends' sims!) hampered by a strict adherence to Zynga's formula and design. It's understandable that Playfish and EA would use Zynga's games as a template; after all, FarmVille and CityVille are hugely successful.
But is Zynga's way truly the only way to build a successful Facebook game? Micro-transactions and sharing options may be the beating heart of any social game, but I'm not sure that they need to be so omnipresent and distracting. The notifications in particular strike me as unnecessary here — this is The Sims we're talking about after all! People already know and love the game. Surely there is a way to notify one's friends about in-game activities that intrudes less on the game itself.
When I spoke with Playfish VP of Product Management CJ Prober, he was excited about how easy it would be to update and tweak the game after launch. I can only hope that means that somewhere down the road, EA and Playfish might scale back the irritating FarmVille stuff and focus on their great core idea: Playing The Sims with your friends.