SimCity is still a familiar, and profitable, IP. For years, it has entertained all types of players, from hardcore sim (i.e. simulator) nuts to casual, younger players. Regardless, it's known for presenting quite a challenge to those of us who seek it. In recent years, we have seen the city sim make its way to Facebook and claim a large percentage of the player base. How did this happen? There is SimCity Social, but we'd all agree that it is not up the challenge level of the original. Instead, it is a much more casual take, providing a city sim-lite experience for Facebook players.
Could a social game ever provide the depth that we're used to from games like SimCity? How would that developer make money simply giving it away for free? There are a lot of questions--as usual--when we look at social gaming. Despite what many would call a slowing in the market, social gaming and its cousin mobile gaming continue to make money. Money is probably the first reason a social sim like SimCity Social was made in the first place.
Remember, it is only recently that social gaming has been hit with dropping numbers. Up until now the genre and Facebook have been doing gangbusters. It would have been more surprising if EA had not made a social version of every game it could. There was money to be made, and they wanted some. It's a perfectly reasonable explanation for creating a less challenging, social version of a game that has been an earmark of quality for years.
Many social gamers would have never given SimCity in its original form a chance. If anything, SimCity Social might have created more excitement for future releases. Social gaming can often act as a gateway to other forms of gaming. All of us probably have a relative or friend who never expressed any interest in gaming before social gaming came along. The casual city sims might be what the aging genre needs to stay alive in the future. Making a social version of what is normally a core game has probably always been a good idea.
How can a traditionally core game like SimCity stay in the social space while also ramping up the level of challenge or immersion? The fact is that making a AAA game like SimCity costs a lot of money. Even making a casual version of many games costs a lot of money. With the original version, money is made by selling a box or download and expansions on top of that. Any fan of The Sims or related games knows full well how the developer loves to release expansion packs or addons after the initial box is released.
If we are talking about a social game, it is standard to release the game for free and sell items inside a cash shop to make money. It would be very risky to release a game of such high quality for free online, embedded in Facebook. Even if the developers hamstrung the game and almost forced players to purchase virtual goods, there would still be a large portion of the audience who tried and enjoyed the game for nothing. The social crowd is called casual for a reason; many players would simply play the game a little at a time, never thinking to spend any money.
It could be possible to reach for the middle ground, the core. Core games are wonderfully in the middle between casual and challenging. They provide a rich gaming experience on a casual schedule. The next city simulator could offer more challenging play but could release "expansions" or city content packs that could be paid for a little at a time. They would not be as small as, say, a literal expansion to a cityscape, but could be digestible enough for casual players and large enough to charge more than a few dollars for. The key is to get the rhythm of the cash shop just right. Release too much content for too little of a price and players will burn through it in no time, but release expansions or goodies that cost too much and the whole thing will not compute inside players' heads.
I do not envy the city simulator developer. While the genre is still quite strong, social players expect a certain access at a lower price. Still, SimCity itself will probably continue to do well as a series thanks to its quality and to nostalgic, impulse purchases, but if a city sim wants to make it on Facebook it would need to be something different. Here's hoping that it's more challenging and deeper than what we have seen in the past.
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Beau covers MMORPGs for Massively, enjoys blogging on his personal site and loves social and casual gaming. He has been exploring games since '99 and has no plans to stop. For Games.com News, he explores the world of hardcore Facebook and social games. You can join him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.