Ecotopia launches on Facebook: Raising environmental awareness one virtual tree at a time

For the past few weeks, we've been covering the development of Ecotopia, an environmentally-themed city building game on Facebook created by the folks at Talkie. Joining forces with Harrison Ford's Conservation International, Ecotopia looks to reward players for real-world "green acts," whether those be general recycling activities or changing the appliances or light bulbs in your house to eco-friendly models.

After launching in private beta at the beginning of April, Ecotopia is now available to play by the general public in an open beta that is still full of a few holes and bugs, but seems to achieve its overall purpose of increasing environmental awareness, and even helping to educate players as to ways they can be more environmentally conscious that they might not have thought of before.In its most basic form, Ecotopia is a city-building simulator that places you into an incredibly decrepit town that time and all manner of cleanliness forgot and abandoned long ago. To make the town's dreary atmosphere is your guide through the game, the ever-so-cheery (that's sarcasm) Mrs. Griswald. This woman hates the earth, calls anyone associated with environmental conservation a tree-hugging hippie and refuses to help you. Of course, by telling you things that she won't help you do, she actually plants dozens of ideas into our heads, so that's a clever little trick by the developers to create an in-game tutorial.

Gameplay itself, though, is incredibly light, seeing you simply reclaiming abandoned homes, and then putting those homes to work in "Green Acts." These acts are like jobs, that take varying amounts of Greenbacks, the virtual currency, to start, and varying amounts of time to complete. The longer a Green Act takes to finish, the more Greenbacks and experience points you'll earn, sending you to the next levels. Each of these Green Acts is themed to the idea of creating a better planet and conserving energy, so you might schedule the installation of a smart shower in one building, while you'll hang clothes out on a line to dry in another (rather than using the dryer).

Each home can be upgraded along the way by spending your profits, to make the homes entirely "green." This is done step by step, with small upgrades like LED light bulbs and new water pipes costing only a few hundred Greenbacks each, while the more major upgrades like installing geothermal heating or solar power can cost up to 4,000 Greenbacks a pop. Again, this isn't a system of upgrading the entire game - you're upgrading each individual home in your town to its most energy-conscious state, which will take you a ton of Greenbacks, and even more time to accomplish.

While you're waiting for Green Acts to complete, you can use your "Action" points, or energy, to pick up trash around town, reclaim construction debris and so on. You'll complete missions that see you competing certain Green Acts in specific types of homes, purchase new plants for the park, and so on. These are fairly basic, and help to always give you something to do when you could otherwise run out of actions very, very quickly in this starting state of the game.

As for the technical aspects of the game, there are a few issues that need to be addressed before Ecotopia can be a must-play game. For one, the timers on Green Acts can and often do randomize to negative numbers, so you'll have to refresh the game to set things back on track. Another issue is the lack of an action queue, forcing you to wait until each action in the game is complete before clicking on literally anything else, which causes your character to stop their current action (including walking) and move to that new spot.

Also, while Ecotopia does allow you to track your real-world Green Acts, by allowing you to choose from a list of tasks that you may have completed and receive in-game rewards for them (in the form of Greenbacks and XP), there's a limit to how much of a bonus you'll actually be able to earn, as you can only earn extra bonuses if you have an in-game friend that can "verify" that you actually completed them. Sure, this is a way to stop users from abusing the system, but what if you're like me, and are currently playing the game by yourself? I can't receive a bonus for using a reusable water bottle, since I don't have a friend to back me up. Since a few friends could still abuse this system, you are limited to how frequently you can claim these rewards, so I suppose there is somewhat of a balance there.

Ecotopia on Facebook
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Ecotopia launches on Facebook: Raising environmental awareness one virtual tree at a time

All told, Ecotopia seems to conserve enough of the basic city-building game elements to attract a general Facebook gaming audience, but the game's focus on real-world efforts is currently lackluster at best (perhaps future updates will change this as, remember, the game is incredibly new). Helping clean up a virtual neighborhood is great, but if you're hoping to elicit real world change, it seems that you'll still be much better off joining a local volunteer group and getting clean the old fashioned way, all in the real world.

Play Ecotopia on Facebook --->

Have you tried Ecotopia on Facebook? Do you think this kind of game could actually change gamers' perspectives on how much energy they use in their daily lives? Sound off in the comments.
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