SimCity Social: The Kotaku Review

SimCity Social: The Kotaku Review
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Facebook has been very good to the city-building genre. Every day millions of people wake up, log in and click away the day placing buildings, upgrading facilities and incessantly bugging their friends for help in titles like Zynga’s CityVille or Game Insight’s My Country. Now the legendary franchise that inspired these games has come to Facebook — SimCity Social is here to show them all how it’s done.

How it’s done seems to involve sticking as closely to the formula established by those other games as possible.

SimCity Social brings the original city-building video game to Facebook, though fans will be hard-pressed to find any trace of the depth and complexity of the popular PC series here. Players place businesses, factories, houses and various attractions — their expansionist ambitions kept in check by an energy meter that slowly refills over time. Tasks appear on the right side of the screen, requiring the player to build certain structures, collect special items or perform specific actions in exchange for an experience point and monetary reward. They’ll gain levels, unlocking new buildings and decorations as well as new challenges. They’ll do this forever.

WHY: If you’re going to play a city-builder on Facebook, this is the most engaging of the lot.

SimCity Social

Developer: Playfish
Platforms: Facebook
Released: June 25

Type of game: A bright and shiny goal-based social city-building simulation
What I played: Played on-and-off since launch, making friends and foes, building up my city, and reaching level 14. Was gifted 500 diamonds (roughly $US60 worth) to advance projects, burned through that in three days.

Two Things I Loved

  • Strategically placing decorations and enhancements around houses to up their population.
  • Being able to make enemies of my friends and friends of my enemies. The enemy of my enemy is, most likely, also my enemy.

Two Things I Hated

  • It feels like every other big-name Facebook game.
  • The Facebook free-to-play friends-needed wall hits far too early in the game.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • “Just tell yourself it’s not a Facebook game, it’s SimCity!” — Mike Fahey, Kotaku
  • “Enjoy the bird droppings.” — Mike Fahey, Kotaku

This is the same basic formula established not only in games like CityVille, but in just about every game on Facebook that’s enjoyed a large degree of commercial success. It’s a formula that works.

It works so well that innovation suffers. Upon first launching SimCity Social the similarities between this game and Zynga’s popular offering are staggering. It looks like CityVille. It plays, initially, like CityVille. It even uses some of the same icons — experience points are stars, energy is lightning bolts, supplies are crates. To someone that’s played with games in the SimCity series since 1989, it’s depressing to see a game with that name trying so hard to be something else.

Facebook game development is a unique business, where ‘borrowing’ concepts, gameplay and design elements from other titles is common practice; I get that. I used to play a game called Pet Society, developed by Playfish, the concept of which was taken by Zynga and used to create PetVille, ultimately a more successful game. So when Playfish takes a stab at CityVille I’m not going to cry foul; it’s just how things work on Facebook. I just wish the SimCity brand hadn’t gotten involved.

There are fresh ideas here, though nothing quite as deep as the systems established in the big boy SimCity titles. For starters, the game allows friends to establish sister cities or rival cities, which enables some entertaining cross-border acts of charity or benign sabotage. By visiting other players’ creations and either wreaking havoc or joy the player can decrease or increase their relationship level, unlocking new buildings and gathering special items used to enhance existing structures. It also unlocks cutesy gifts you can bestow upon your friends and rivals — a flock of birds covering their city in droppings, for instance. These interactions are quite endearing, at least until the fourth or fifth time you see them. Then the friendship / rivalry system devolves into simply another means to gather resources.

What doesn’t grow stale, however, is the innovative combo system for building your town’s population. Unlike other city-building social sims, SimCity only has one housing unit, capable of housing a base number of residents. Increasing that number is done by placing attractions and decorations in your town. Each of these has a radius that increases the population number of homes in the area, which then morph into larger dwellings. Upgrading attractions increases the number even further.

It’s a sort of strategic combo system, entertaining enough to distract players from the fact that they’re caught in an endless cycle of earning enough residents to expand their city, buying new land, and starting the whole process over again. It’s also something to keep players occupied when they start having to wait for friends to respond to help requests, something they’ll come across within 10-15 minutes of starting the game.

SimCity Social is a cute and capable social city-builder. It’s also a shameless attempt to capitalise on the success of Zynga’s wildly popular CityVille, slapping a powerful name on a game that could never live up to its legacy. If you’re in the market for a light and frilly city simulator, this is a good choice. If you want something deeper, your time will soon come.


  • So I should play a “cute and capable” game? I’ll be honest and say that I thought Kotaku had higher standards than this. Between this and the London 2012 review yesterday, I don’t think I’ll be taking these Kotaku reviews at face value anymore.

    • What’s wrong with “cute and capable”?

      I thought it was a good review – gave an overview of the game, explained the mechanics, what he did and didn’t like, and summed up an overall impression.

      • The problem is Kotaku’s audience. I’ll take a wild and crazy guess and say that the people that read this site are steering towards the more “hardcore” of gamers. People that have consoles and purchase AAA games on a regular basis. People that have PCs that have specs that can handle high-end games. An audience that have little to no interest in social gaming. For SimCity Social to be recommended to play for this particular audience, it would need to exceed the existing standards of social gaming by a large margin. The review itself said that it followed the same suit as existing Zynga games with some minor exceptions.

        This review makes more sense now that I have read that they are now writing for New York Times. It would sit perfectly in their paper. I think Kotaku needs to have a big think about who their audience are exactly and what engages them and if they want to continue to maintain their existing reader-base.

        • I think Kotaku’s audience is both broad and pretty switched on – who is to say that readers have ” little to no interest in social gaming”?

          So provided the review explains why its been given a “yes’ – i.e. “WHY: If you’re going to play a city-builder on Facebook, this is the most engaging of the lot.”, readers can work out whether to follow the recommendation.

          Otherwise reviewers have to make an assumption to write off entire genres because “Kotaku readers wouldn’t play that sort of game”, without actually looking at the game at all.

        • What, so ‘hardcore’ gamers aren’t allowed to play a nice slow, casual game on occasion? I don’t consider myself to be ‘hardcore’ but I do consider myself a pretty big gamer. I play a lot of League of Legends, Borderlands, etc but I love playing my mellow indie games (Binding of Isaac, Cave Story, etc etc). Just because Kotaku’s userbase may be primary big gamers, I’m sure there are a lot of us who do indulge in the occasional casual/social game every once in a while.

          • attila – I admit that there is a chance that I am wrong and have completely misread who are reading this site. But I would be completely surprised if I am. I wonder how people originally found this site, I found it a few years back in a gaming section in a forum when someone kept posting references to it. It’s in the name too, “Kotaku” doesn’t sound like its trying to find a general audience. Names like “Internet Gaming Network” and “Gamespot” and “GameSpy” are obviously trying to be as transparent as possible, but a name like “Kotaku” is probably going to confuse and dissuade your average person as it obviously has Japanese connotations that are only going to appeal to a certain demographic.
            This site doesn’t post many reviews and if my assumptions about the reader-base are right, the social-gaming genre should be set as the lowest possible priority. I realise that it’s been a slow week for game releases but there is probably a bigger audience on this site for iOS/Android games than there are for social games. If I were to ignore the London 2012 review, I would be assuming that they reviewed this game purely because it has “Simcity” in the name. A lot of the readers here would be fairly familiar with the Simcity series and have probably played their previous games and were curious how this stacks up. Would you really recommend a person who has played previous Simcity games to play Simcity Social?

            Mikka – I am not denying that some people here would be playing the occasional social game. But its not like this site has a special section for AAA titles and different one for social games. They’re all lumped together. You’re telling the same people you recommend Tera and Dragons Dogma to play, to also play Simcity Social. Sure, there’s a chance that they might like it – but they’re more likely to be underwhelmed.

            My basic point is this hypothetical conversation:
            A: I like Diablo 3, Borderlands and Assassins Creed.
            B: Well you should play Simcity Social.
            A: Is it as good as the games I mentioned?
            B: Not even close.
            A: Then why would you recommend it to me?
            B: Well its good for a social game.
            A: But I don’t even like social games. Why would you recommend me a social game at all?
            B: Well you don’t have to like it. I acknowledge that it isn’t that much better than existing social games. But if you were looking for social games, this could be the one for you.
            A: I just said that I like Diablo 3, Borderlands and Assassins Creed, why would I be looking for social games? A, I liked you because I thought you were on the same wavelength as me. Guess I was wrong.

          • Facebook games aren’t just casual games, they exist only to nickel and dime you.

            If you bought angry birds for a dollar that is quite different than spending real money to by small parts of a game or to pay to be better than your friends. The entire reason they make these games so social is because they know you are more likely to pay to be better if you know your friends can see.

        • I don’t mind if they’re trying to broaden their audience – frankly the amazing thing about the gaming press is how many games go unreviewed or uncovered, facebook games deserve some coverage also

  • this is actually a good call to introduce people to simcity franchise

    do purchase simcity 2000 or simcity 3, thats the last game that involved the genius creator will wright

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