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EA on redesigning SimCity for F2P - 'we had to break some rules and make some tough choices'

Plus: learning from Dungeon Keeper and playing solo

EA on redesigning SimCity for F2P - 'we had to break some rules and make some tough choices'
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| SimCity Buildit

Earlier this month, EA unveiled SimCity BuildIt - a new version of the venerable city management sim, designed specifically for mobile.

And that was about it. We got one picture, and confirmation that it will be free to play. So to find out more, we threw some questions at Jason Willig: VP and group general manager for EA Mobile.

We wanted to find out what SimCity BuildIt will be like, and how the developer will navigate the murky waters of F2P, social, and the looming shadow of Dungeon Keeper.

Pocket Gamer: What does SimCity BuildIt offer over other city building games on the App Store?

Jason Willig: There’s a ton that sets SimCity BuildIt apart, but two things really stand out, at least to me. First, it is drop-dead gorgeous, and rendered in real-time 3D with all the visual bells & whistles that offers.

And it's the deepest and richest city simulation on mobile, but it’s also incredibly approachable. There’s an array of push and pull choices that balance open-ended and directed gameplay, letting players build, customise, and manage a unique, living city and experience SimCity in a whole new way.

SimCity BuildIt is not a watered down version of the PC game, rather a native mobile design that leans into those iconic elements but reimagines them for new platforms, new modalities of play, and for a new generation of mobile players.

Will the game feature natural disasters like previous SimCity games?

Yes, but some of the Disasters will not be “natural”! We’ll just have a few to start, but more are on the way once we go live. Disasters are for more advanced players and completing them will unlock cool, unique, and powerful content.

How do you balance SimCity being a free to play game, and also being fair to those who don't pay?

It’s a great question, and something that’s been top of our mind throughout development.

We know that even $1 presents a significant entry barrier when most of the best mobile games are free and as game-makers we simply want to reach the biggest audience possible.

We didn’t invent free-to-play, rather we chose it because that’s what the vast majority of mobile gamers expect, and want.

Our approach was guided by a couple core beliefs: first is that the game has to be fun for everyone even those who never give us a penny. At the same time, we have to respect the investment (whether in time or dollars) that our most committed players make by rewarding their efforts with an even better, more fulfilling experience because that’s what they deserve.

I don’t think it’s a question of “fair,” but rather good game design that delivers meaningful value to all players along their individual journey just like the best games do – mobile or otherwise.

What sort of social options are there in SimCity BuildIt?

One thing we heard consistently throughout development is that our players like an “alone together” social experience. They want to feel part of a bigger community, but they also (mostly) want to play solo for this type of game, which is something we have to respect even as we know there’s a ton of cool stuff we can and want to do on the social side, creatively.

So out of the gate, we’re focused more on the single player experience. Once we get feedback from players we’ll add more social gameplay if it makes sense.

On day one, though, players will be able to connect with friends on Facebook and GameCenter, etc. They’ll also be able to visit their friends’ cities to buy and sell goods on a “global market” which they can use in various ways to develop their cities.

SimCity BuildIt Will this game appeal to those who have been playing SimCity games since the original, or is it for a new generation of players?

I hope it’s “yes” and “yes.” We have talked to a lot of SimCity players over the past year, to make sure their voices were heard. We’ve given them the game to play & taken their feedback very seriously. The majority of those folks really like what we are doing, and understand SimCity BuildIt isn’t a replacement for the PC version of the game, it’s something new and very different.

We’ve talked to a lot of mobile gamers too. Not just fans of city builders, but across the spectrum. They tell us resoundingly that this is a game they want to play.

In making this game we knew that to be successful we had to break some rules and open up the experience for that new generation while remaining faithful to the things that make SimCity SimCity. This was really hard and we had to make some tough choices.

Mobile gamers love city building but they want it “pick-up-and-play” with a minimal learning curve. They want the opportunity to try games for free. They will play more frequently but in much shorter, snack size sessions of 5-10 minutes compared to our PC players who typically spend 2 hours or more in a single game session.

We think (and hope) we struck a good balance.

SimCity BuildIt has many of the iconic elements SimCity fans will immediately recognize. There’s an immersive simulation that drives the game. There are Zones, Roads, and Traffic; Services; City Specialisations; and Data Layers. There are Disasters and Landmarks. At the same time, these familiar elements have been designed from the ground up for a uniquely mobile experience and simplified.

To these, we’ve added something new: crafting. Just like a real city, players manufacture and exchange goods which drives progression.

Andrew Wilson described the last EA mobile game Dungeon Keeper as "a shame" and "misjudged". What steps are you taking to avoid the mistakes made in that game?

I think Andrew was spot on. We’re a new team, but we’ve taken those lessons to heart.

First, we’ve spent a lot of time talking to players, sharing our vision while getting to the core of what they love about SimCity and understanding what they’re looking for – and expect – in a new, uniquely mobile expression.

As I mentioned, SimCity BuildIt isn’t a port of the PC game by any stretch. It’s a new experience on a new platform that we hope will open this legendary franchise to new players around the world. From day one we put our players first and figure if we get that right, the rest will take care of itself.