City builders have been a game type that has intrigued me for decades. I’ve been playing Hay Day for a long time now, and if anybody wonders. Yes, Hay Day is just a city builder in farm disguise. So when SimCity BuildIt was recently released, I was intrigued. How does the classic hold up on mobile devices. I did enjoy the 2014 PC release of SimCity, despite the launch hiccups.
The big surprise about SimCity BuildIt is just how much it literally copies from Hay Day, perhaps the most successful builder on iOS. Storage expansion, land expansions, boat orders, trading with others are virtually identical. It’s not wheat and fish that is being traded, but chairs and nails, but really the ultimate difference here is window dressing. It’s probably not a bad guess that developers of SimCity BuildIt wanted to capture what works in Hay Day and transplant it into the SimCity model of straight up city building.
But it fails.
And why it fails is very instructive not about city builders, but the trickeries of the excessively popular (with game developers one might add) monetization model. If the model succeeds, it’s big bucks as is evident by the multi-game success of Supercell, who not only produced Hay Day out of the core of a Farmville clone. But also produced Clash of Clans, a kind of variation on the tower defense model.
The freemium model is typically implemented like this (with some notable exceptions). Players are time and/or resource limited. Real money helps unlock the time and resource barriers to allow progressing in the game or simply continue playing. In builder games this is quite an intriguing place to add monetization, because placing is such an important aspect of making the experience good. As a player you want to build expand, evolve. Some waiting is OK, but not excessive amounts, resource blockage can serve as motivator, but if constant, simply serves to drain the fun from the experience.
Here is where a crucial difference between Hay Day and SimCity BuildIt kicks in. Hay Day is fun despite being freemium. SimCity BuildIt is not fun precisely because it is freemium. And the reason for that difference lies precisely with the way the game design, it’s pacing of time and resources is managed vis-a-vis the monetization lever.
In Hay Day, if you want to, there is always stuff to do. Wheat and eggs grow fast, visitor, truck, boat, and road-side shop offer a range of opportunities to turn products around. It takes a substantial effort to exhaust the options. The levers that encourage spending are there but somewhat subtle. Barn space early is very tight, and the flow is just easier and more pleasant with more. But the game is not impossible with the barn space. In fact the barn space limits early on just encourage more trading. Yet spending some real cash on materials to expand the barn doesn’t take away from the main gaming activity, which is building up and collecting resources to grow the farm, expand land, and gain experience. It does feel like a convenience boost, relevant enough to encourage spending, but tangential enough to not feel required or in the path of the fun to be had.
Both Hay Day and SimCity BuildIt have in-game money as a resource. However the ease of growing cash is very different between the two. In SimCity BuildIt it is fairly hard to get cash, while in Hay Day it is sensibly easy. In both cases on can spend real money to get game money, but in SimCity BuildIt it feels much more critical to do it. Sims go unhappy and cash is the only and only fix to build that new sewage drain that will address the problem. Hence money becomes a frequent roadblock to critical aspects of gameplay. And real-money spending feels like a strong suggestion if not a requirement to not sit at unhappy sims. Yet there is very little one can do to keep producing cash. Iron and wood produces quickly, but there are too few outlets to turn them into cash, and the cash flow is too slow to feel comfortable. Hay Day has visitors, truck orders, shop and eventually boat and town as outlets. SimCity has shop, city orders, and eventually boat as options. City orders are fairly rare and don’t offer the needed demand that say the truck system in Hay Day offers. Hence SimCity BuildIt creates a distinct, un-fun feel of waiting. Waiting for that boat, waiting for that order, and then getting little cash compensation for what is needed.
Despite SimCity BuildIt really being very close to Hay Day it fails in the critical thing for a freemium game. How monetization relates to the fun in the game. How critical does monetization feel, and how much does it interfere with what is fun. Hay Day may well have done the most critical thing correct for the freemium game and that is pacing. The pacing is not over-determined by monetization levers. There is plenty of fun activity to be had despite monetization being present. In SimCity BuildIt the monetization levers determine pacing too much, draining the fun and making the game a sub-par experience.
All I can hope is that game designers learn more and more how not to kill game fun with monetization strategies. SimCity BuildIt provides a good case study, that cloning game mechanisms is not enough. It’s how the mechanisms related to player activity.