Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it's difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we'll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it's really worth your time (and money).
This might not be the perfect time to spotlight SimCity BuildIt, which some fans of the long-running urban management series see as a bastardization of what made the classic entries so great. That's because earlier in March, publisher Electronic Arts announced that it had closed the core Maxis studio in Emeryville, California.
Maxis, of course, created SimCity and The Sims, and thrived for nearly three decades. The Sim series will continue on, and other EA studios may use the Maxis branding. But will it mean the same thing?
Of course, I had no sense of the impending news when I dug into BuildIt a week prior to the announcement and started composing my virtual city. I spent the first few days oddly enthralled by its systems, which require constant attention to make anything but achingly slow progress. You'll manufacture materials, build tools, upgrade buildings, and keep citizens happy—and repeat ad nauseam.
After those first few days, I spent a few more much less interested, but still going through the motions. And I'll probably spend another week popping in here and there, but my initial interest has already faded. Because what strikes me most about SimCity BuildIt is that your hours spent overseeing production chains and city layouts is ultimately rewarded with more obstacles, rather than opportunities.
SimCity BuildIt is SimCity in look and name, but it's a lot simpler and more grinding in nature than the classic games that defined the franchise. No surprise there: It's a free-to-play game designed to make you check back every few minutes or hours—depending on your level of devotion and/or current tasks—to get anything done.
Your main task is producing raw materials via factories. You'll need metal, wood, plastic, seeds, and more to feed into upgrading your buildings. Often, you'll just take those materials and pump them through other locations—the hardware store, or gardening supplies store—to create more advanced items and tools. Over time, the upgrades require more of the advanced items to complete, which means a lot more time waiting for processes to finish.
It's all done to serve two main objectives: Keep your citizens happy, and continue amassing funds. These two things are strongly intertwined, as happy citizens pay higher taxes (if only this were true in real life), which means more automatic coin earned each day. You'll need that money not only to enhance your structures and increase the city population, but also to pay for services—police, medical, fire, etc.—that they gradually demand over time.
Keep citizens happy and they'll attract more neighbors—and collectively pay more for the luxury of residing in your city. And as the population grows, so too does the size and scale of your metropolis. It's still SimCity, albeit condensed down to a very compact cycle of producing and upgrading. Everything takes time, however, and everything has a cost, and the creativity present in earlier games doesn't emerge.
SimCity BuildIt's most obvious annoyances are not new or especially original: They're freemium classics, really. When your city is small and the initial items take little time to construct, the early hours are breezy. But as you grow attached to your digital home, the game stretches out its demands. Instead of waiting a couple minutes for a factory to spit out a material, you're waiting hours. The hours add up as you turn those into tools. And they add up further as later building upgrades require, say, a couple dozen items to complete.
I don't mind the waiting game so much; it's a free game, and I'm rarely counting on a game of this sort to amuse me for more than a few minutes at a time. Where I'm rubbed the wrong way is how the game systematically upsets your citizens to frustrate you and stymie your progress. As your city expands and you upgrade buildings, your experience increases and the player level dings up from time to time.
Great, right? Nothing like being recognized for your hard work as a digital mayor to an upstart city. But there's little positive about leveling up in SimCity BuildIt. Instead, the game often takes that opportunity to decide that your citizens suddenly want something they never needed before: waste removal, for example, or hospitals.
They're reasonable requests, obviously—I don't want my citizens living amidst their own filth, or watching their houses burn down. However, those buildings are often very expensive, and without them, your people suddenly become disaffected. I've had my satisfaction rating drop as much as 20-percent after leveling up just because I couldn't afford some totally new service. And as mentioned before, unhappy citizens don't pay as much in taxes, which means saving up for the next purchase takes even longer. It's an intentionally vicious cycle.
SimCash, the game's premium currency, is available to grease the wheels. You can use it to speed up timers, open up additional production slots in stores, or trade it for Simoleons, the earned currency. Sure, you're granted a very small amount of SimCash for completing certain mayoral tasks (like hitting population benchmarks), but it's easily spent with a tap. Otherwise, SimCash is for sale in bundles ranging from $5 to $100 a pop.
I dropped $10 on SimCash to see what a solid chunk of virtual dollars could do for my city, and the verdict is: not much at all. The conversion rate to Simoleons is utterly terrible; I'd have to spend about $40 in real money just to have enough coin to give my city a single education building. Instead, it's useful for opening up extra production slots, which makes the game work a little harder for you when you can't check it constantly throughout the day. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother spending cash: It doesn't make the game any more interesting.
It's funny: I enjoyed those first few days with SimCity: BuildIt. The game looks great, and as my city swiftly expanded, I felt a mild sense of purpose—even though attaining it required me to pop in constantly throughout the day.
But as the cycle continued, the game burned off that initial goodwill pretty quickly. BuildIt has one routine, stretched out in many similar ways, and the wait and/or expense to accomplish anything seems to grow by the day. This SimCity doesn't feel like an intricate simulation. It doesn't reward creativity to any great extent, and it doesn't require much thought or consideration: Only the ability to follow prompts. Which just makes it one of the more attractive grinds available amidst a sea of them.