SimCity Social: balancing depth and accessibility

SimCity Social balancing depth and accessibility
Beneath SimCity Social's cartoony aesthetic, its inviting pixel population of cosmetic wonders and attractions, lies a core gaming experience familiar to the franchise. This isn't FarmVille; it's "real city-building simulation on Facebook" that EA Maxis hopes people will "appreciate and understand."

Both EA Maxis and Playfish Beijing are working on SimCity Social, which employs key aspects of popular social gaming on Facebook married to some of the core strategy of the series. But it's not just SimCity 2000 crammed onto Facebook – even if that's what it may look like.%Gallery-158873% All players get a certain amount of space to build their city upon – EA Maxis producer Pete Lake had a city well in development to show me, and it only covered one area in the center of the land he had at his disposal. Certainly there were places to expand, but as-is, the city was divided up into neat little sections. While most actions will require some form of energy expenditure on your part, your population will grow as you play.

"All of the residential housing grows over time – commercial and industrial buildings you place yourself and choose what your business is and things, but we wanted to keep that sense of growing your city over time," Lake says. "The houses, as you know from SimCity, start upgrading themselves."

But you need to bring people into your town, and attractions and aesthetics make them want to live in your metropolis. "There are things you can buy. Decorations and attractions will bring in more people to move into your town." He moved towards an empty space on the map and hovered to show me the effect adding this park would have to the city. "SimCity is alive and reacts to the things you do." An area of his fictional burg was under a cover of pollution, driving down the happiness level of his citizens and even forcing some to move away – a classic SimCity mechanic.

SimCity Social ditches the need for jobs in favore of being a more "accessible" experience. "One of the biggest challenges we have is not over-complicating things and how we present stuff in an understandable way," Lake says. "That's why houses grow, but people can still get in there and personalize the different factories and buildings they want." Lake went on to show me three characters on the sidebar, who are meant to provide players with specific quests and challenges. For example, Brad the firefighter may ask you to build more fire stations for some rewards.

SimCity Social balancing depth and accessibility
Of course, there's the social aspect, an anchor in the title and a major aspect of the gameplay. Players can visit their friends' towns and help or hinder their progress. One example presented was a fire laying waste to the businesses around a friend's massive robot factory. Do you send your own firefighters over to help put out the flame or do you toss gas on it? Do you send an army of hobos to your friend's city? Maybe you send birds to poop on their stuff?

Rewards are not only in how the relationship is defined – you could have your own Hatfield-McCoy feud (you have a funny idea of "rewards," bud) or you could simply grab the tangible rewards that drop after your actions. At its core, this is a SimCity experience, but there are some very purposeful Facebook trappings thrown in for the types of players on the platform. You can send gifts, and you can mine resources as long as you want. Or you could always just buy some diamond premium currency with your real-world money to speed things up.

But what SimCity Social has that other Facebook games don't is the power of its brand, and strong, rooted simulation mechanics – an infrastructure familiar to fans of the series, with as small a barrier to entry as possible. It's also a beautiful game, especially when you're scrolling around a well-off city with its own districts and life buzzing about. SimCity Social may not be as deep as SimCity 2000, but it really doesn't need to be. SimCity Social is its own animal, one that has obviously spent some time learning what has worked for its elders.

SimCity Social will launch on Facebook in "a few weeks."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.