Fans of city building, town planning and bus-stop placement have been somewhat spoiled lately. We’ve had SimCity and Cities in Motion 2 for about a year now, as well as the recent announcements by Monte Cristo and Paradox Interactive of the latest in their respective franchises, Cities XXL and Cities: Skylines. The genre lends itself well to high-powered desktop PCs and dedicated gaming laptops, but what if you want a quick fix of road placement and pedestrian stalking while you’re away from your plutonium-powered microchip monument? Well, there are now two more options. The first is EA’s latest mobile effort, the freemium SimCity BuildIt, and the second is the iOS/Android/browser-based, Unity-powered LEGO My City.
EA’s history of zoning Sim City games in strange places is a long one. The franchise’s Wikipedia page lists about 30+ ports, including fan-made homebrew conversions to unlikely machines like the old ZX Spectrum, as well as licensed ports to platforms I’ve never even heard of. But in everyday terms, most of the modern Sim Cities have appeared on consoles, handhelds and mobile platforms. This latest entry is perhaps most easily thought of as another step along the road paved by their fantastic, expensive, and short-lived Facebook version, SimCity Social (June 2012 – June 2013, R.I.P.). Building on the new brand identity and graphical look established with last year’s SimCity (or Sim City 5 if you prefer), with a smidgeon of Sims 4-style city advisors thrown in, BuildIt is a lightweight confection that eschews all the complex number juggling and most of the social considerations of the parent game for a more tap-friendly exercise, tragically elongated by timers and weighed down by microtransactions.
Now, I personally have no problem with cash shops in games, as long as they’re done well and the prices are reasonable. But there’s a huge difference between cash shops in MMORPGs, single-player games (Ubi’s Dead Space 3 and Ass Creed fashion shows spring to mind), and web/mobile games. The difference hinges on the type of gameplay you’re getting, which is largely defined by the platform you’re on. On a PC, games can be endlessly complicated compared to a strictly Flash or HTML5 experience, so you can offer substantial things to players. But mobile and browser games are better suited to short, easy-going experiences that don’t really lend themselves to horse armour, neck tattoos, dragon mounts or tasteful bedroom suites that are, ideally, entirely optional. So mobile developers have had to think of other ways to ask for your money, and sometimes (unfortunately), the answer they’ve found is to monetise the game mechanics themselves.
In BuildIt’s case, what we have is a system of building construction and improvement that relies on materials, most of which are made yourself in placeable factories and hardware stores. Each item takes a few seconds or a few minutes to create before it can be put to use in the game, and the more advanced materials are themselves made with the less advanced materials. The whole thing looks and feels pleasingly SimCity-lite, and it’s initially very easy to flop out a small, decent-looking city (roads are free, and everything can be endlessly moved about). But then EA’s rampant monetisation starts trampling on the mechanics. There are two currencies in the game, Simoleons (of course) and cash. The Simoleons are earned entirely in-game, and the cash is something you can optionally replenish yourself using your real-world funds. (Although it does slowly accumulate again, the rate at which you earn it is so slow as to be almost completely unhelpful). Of course, the Simoleons are less useful than the cash, and the business deals you can do with other (AI) mayors are, in the early game at least, tragically one-sided, asking you to trade away precious building materials for small amounts of Simoleons. So to speed things up, you can use your cash money to buy materials, by-pass construction timers, and generally remove some of the tedium of staring at a tiny screen waiting for clocks to count down. The cash-for-speed problem also manifests itself early on in the limit on the number of buildings you can place per power plant. With the second cheapest option, the coal plant, it’s 12. The cheapest option, the wind turbine, costs a good 6,000 Simoleons, and by the time I needed it, I found myself staring at a pool of about 1,500 Simoleons. This was after playing for about six hours on my tablet, more or less solidly, whilst I was working and doing other things.
As anyone who’s tried EA’s similar Dungeon Keeper Mobile abomination will know, the process of actually playing and enjoying the game is entirely secondary to an artificial pacing and structure built around near-constant microtransactions. In short, SimCity BuildIt’s 226mb installation is very much the strutting bimbo of city builders – lovely to look at, lovely to hold, but will impoverish you in seconds. Avoid like the digital clap.