Lauren Goode

Building Houses and Cities Online, With a Social Twist

I’ve never jumped on the social game bandwagon; never planted virtual crops on FarmVille, purchased a digital tractor or visited a friend’s online city.

But with the U.S. audience for casual social games estimated to hit 77.9 million people this year, up from 57.4 million in 2010, and with two well-known brands bringing new games to Facebook in the past two weeks, I decided it was finally time to dive into these highly addictive diversions.

Last week, I started playing SimCity Social, the latest game in Electronic Arts’ Sim franchise, and The Ville, Zynga’s new social game. Both games involve building digital environments that simulate real life — cities and houses — with players advancing by developing these domains and creating strong social ties within the games.

After just a week of game play, I, too had been sucked into the world of social games, to the point where I was spending actual money on virtual goods, and proposing make-out sessions with avatars on digital couches. I would likely continue to play them, and spend my own dollars on virtual goods on occasion.

Both games offer a variety of fun content and incentives to keep you playing. Personally, I found decorating a virtual home in The Ville to be more fun, and I thought Zynga really nailed the social element of the game by keeping it entertaining. But casual gamers might also really like the combination of city-building with social networking in SimCity Social.

Some hardcore fans of previous SimCity games, however, might find this Facebook version to be stripped down.

I started with SimCity Social, which is free to play. SimCity has been available for 23 years as a PC game, and more recently on Nintendo consoles, but now it has found a new home on Facebook.

After giving the app all kinds of permissions via Facebook, and getting a tutorial from a bespectacled cartoon blonde named Kristy, I was ready to build, which began with hitting the “Build” button in the bottom right-hand corner of the game page.

As Mayor of GoodeVille, I could lay down roads and build houses and businesses. I could also check my inventory to see what tools and materials I might already have. The goal was to build up my city enough to advance to the next mayor level. Getting “XP” — experience points — by completing tasks in my city would propel me to the next level.

A few of my Facebook friends were also playing SimCity Social, enabling me to exchange gifts with them, visit their cities and perform jobs for them. For example, a friend sent me a balloon, and I returned the favor by sending him an energy bolt. When a UFO crashed into his city, he hired me as a “UFOlogist.” You can only send each friend one gift per day. Generally, my friends at more advance levels would ask me to send them land permits, so they could expand their cities.

Visiting other people’s cities gives you energy, which you need to keep building your own city. Also, attracting more friends to your city gives you more resources to boost businesses, and therefore, raise property values.

For currency, SimCity Social uses “simoleans,” which are the free in-game currency, and diamonds, which you purchase for real money. Simoleans are used to purchase buildings — a hundred simoleans will get you a house — while diamonds buy premium content, like upgrades to buildings. For five dollars, I could buy 12 diamonds, to put towards building a cupcake factory in GoodeVille.

Seasoned SimCity players will notice differences between the earlier versions of the game and this one. SimCity mayors are usually responsible for running electricity throughout their cities, but in SimCity Social, players don’t have to worry about utilities. EA says this is so users can focus on city building and socializing. SimCity users in the past have also been able to build things like airports and power plants, but in my test of the Facebook version of the game those weren’t options.

And in earlier versions, city residents would pay taxes. In my experience with SimCity Social, I never paid a tax.

This SimCity also has crafty in-game promotions, like the ability to send Dunkin’ Donuts as gifts (in addition to the giant Dunkin’ Donuts ad that pops up every time you refresh the game). Once you’ve advanced to a higher level of mayorship, a billboard for Mercedes becomes a build option.

Like SimCity Social, The Ville is only accessible through Facebook. After personalizing my Ville avatar right down to hair color and skin tone, I was given a starter house. The Ville’s “ensemble” — a handful of characters created by Zynga — wandered throughout my neighborhood and appeared on the side of the page to set up initial quests for me to complete.

Most of the quests were simple, like watering the plants, hanging up wall decorations, building an addition and inviting some friends over. I bought home goods and even food from the virtual market, accessible through the menu bar at the bottom of the screen.

Like SimCity social, The Ville has different forms of currency. Coins are the free in-game currency. Then there’s Ville Cash, which you purchase with real money, and is used to buy bigger-ticket items. There are experience, or XP, stars; and there’s happiness, a measure of your personal fulfillment.

I was more inclined to spend real money in The Ville than I was in SimCity Social. If it came down to getting a free twin-sized bed or upgrading to a bigger bed, I’d pay to upgrade.

I really liked socializing in The Ville. When a visitor entered my home, I had the option to shake hands, tell a joke, gossip, cuddle on the couch, make out, and play Words With Friends with them. When this happened, my avatar and a friend’s avatar would convulse near each other in this odd but endearing form of socializing. After some interaction, I could choose to deepen my relationships. In some cases, it might even turn into romance.

The game goes to nine levels of romance, ranging from “dating” to “infatuated” to “soul mate.” At a certain level, players can participate in something called — wait for it — “whoopee,” which just shows a bed full of hearts. Unless you are making whoopee with a member of The Ville ensemble cast, your partner in crime is a real-life Facebook friend.

It does take multiple game sessions and agreement from both participants to take it this far — I’m comfortable saying I never made whoopee — but some parents might also want to keep this in mind if their teens are playing casual games on Facebook. There are currently no controls for keeping Facebook players out of certain activities in the game.

Visiting friends’ houses earned me happiness, coins and experience. But, I learned pretty quickly that playing with a friend’s guitars and jumping on his trampolines would drain my avatar’s energy, forcing me to take a nap on my (twin) bed.

Oddly, everyone in The Ville speaks Romanian. Zynga said this is because the game company wanted to use one language across all versions of the game, and Romanian didn’t sound too foreign. Regardless, if you don’t speak Romanian, it’s pretty funny to hear your avatar conversing with neighbors in that language.

Neither of these games currently have mobile apps. EA says it’s developing a SimCity mobile app, and while Zynga generally doesn’t comment on its upcoming plans for games, the game maker in the past has introduced mobile apps for some of its popular Web games.

However, these mobile apps likely won’t connect with the Web versions of the games, so you won’t be pick up where you left off when you using the mobile app.

Which means more virtual cities, and more virtual homes, on the go — just what gaming addicts need, right?

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