The Open Beta for SimCity Social is now underway, giving Facebook users a chance to test drive the ultimate competitor to Zynga's Ville dominance. Is there enough real game in this translation to draw the legions across?
"This is the game that pioneered the genre," said Lucy Bradshaw, head of Maxis, still the home of all things Sims within the empire of EA.
The genre is the town simulation, and SimCity is widely seen as many people's first game to cause them to be surprised by the sun at their window, when it landed back in 1989. The 'just five more minutes' factor has also made it a perfect model for free-to-play designers to try and replicate — the carrot on a stick that might get someone to pay to get that little bit further in the game.
But many current town simulations on Facebook don't have much real game going on. What is Maxis doing to ensure SimCity balances real playability with the commercial side of Facebook gaming?
"The real SimCity simulator underlies this game. It has choice, and cause and effect," Bradshaw said. "Population ebbs and flows based on how well you're satisfying needs. There will be crimes and fires, and you need to address that. It gives you the opportunity to build the city of your dreams, but do it in a way that is sustainable."
"It's critical to our long-term goals to keep the authenticity of SimCity."
If this is all true, then there must be a way for players to aim for a kind of 'perfect play', just as they can in the real SimCity.
"We have all the classic elements of residence, commercial and industrial zones," Bradshaw said. "You will find people specialising and optimising. We've aimed for the absolute ease and comfortable sensibility for Facebook gamers, but you will find people mix-maxing. There are also quest lines to follow, to keep things moving forward."
Naturally, the game features plenty of social factor. As you become neighbours with friends, you can visit their towns and choose whether to be a friend or foe. Choosing to follow either path will unlock angelic or devilish new features that you can build in your own town.
There is an energy system and a game currency, both of which can be purchased with real money. After a short session in the Open Beta, it does seem like you can pursue the quest lines and manage your town at a slow and steady pace, to still enjoy the game without too much pressure to spend. Just lots and lots of enticing offers to test your willpower.
If you feel like you're not happy with your town layout, it's simple to pick things up and move them around. No need to bulldoze your world and start from scratch. If you own it, you can move it or drop it into inventory, out of the way to be used again when you're ready.
Will that be enough to draw Facebook gamers away from other farms, towns and castles they've already created? Or keep them coming back? It does seem like there is more 'game' here than in many other places on Facebook. Whether that is enough game to trump other options, or whether a game is what anyone really wants, remains to be seen.
You can take SimCity Social for a test drive yourself in the Open Beta.