Jeff Ward
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F2P Mechanics of SimCity BuildIt

Feb 14, 2016 #GameDev#Reviews#F2P

SimCity BuildIt is a late-2014 free to play mobile game that seems to be doing well for EA. I recently started playing it and was initially (like many reviewers) appalled at the complete divergence from past SimCity titles. Still, the freemium mechanics are fascinating from the perspective of a app designer, so I decided to try and describe them.

A Sad Divergence For The Brand

If you're not familiar with SimCity games, they focus on free-form city building strategy. You're tasked with zoning and growing a city, with a lot of the strategy around planning layout and services, and balancing growth against taxes and a budget.

That was then. SimCity BuildIt is nothing like its ancestors - the brand and basic "city building motif" is the extent of the similarity. As a F2P mobile game, the core "building and planning strategy" mechanic has been replaced with an all too common, IAP-friendly "produce and upgrade" mechanic, which of course has time delays and other artificial limitations that can be bypassed with in-app purchases.

While this certainly irks SimCity fans, myself included (and many recommend Cities: Skylines as a spiritual successor to the old games), BuiltIt does seem to be a revenue driver for EA, and I actually played it and enjoyed it more than I expected. Ethics and brand violation aside, let's examine this formula that appears to be a winning one in a market that's so cut-throat.

Produce & Upgrade

The core mechanic of SimCity BuiltIt is best described as a "produce and upgrade grinder." Early on your city requires only water services, and you produce just a couple simple commodities. The commodities are used to upgrade your residential areas, which earns both money and experience points. The exp increases your "level", which starts unlocking more types of commodities, buildings, and services. You are also given a small amount of "SimCash" to start (the IAP currency type which is used for buying specialty buildings, more money, and removing time delays from commodity production.) This lets you taste the fun of skipping delays.

Progress Begets Difficulty

This all provides a gentle and easy introduction to the game. It's initially easy to meet all services demands, and produce the commodities required to upgrade your buildings. It's a bit slow at first, so you only visit the game maybe daily, using the daily tax revenue and time-delayed commodities to build and upgrade the city.

But soon the game starts requiring more and more services - fire coverage, police coverage, roads, education, health, etc. This isn't about city planning (buildings can be moved without penalty), this is about increasing difficulty and the motivation to purchase your way out of trouble. The interesting thing is, the main revenue stream in the game -- upgrading residential areas -- is tied to exp points, which is tied to levelling up. And levelling up is tied to increased difficulty by introducing more services to plan and balance. In other words, there's no way to build a big stockpile of resources outside of an IAP. Progress is always met with more difficulty.

Early on, it's relatively easy to keep up with the services. You learn the game as you go, and doing well is pretty easy. But slowly, very slowly, the new requirements become more difficult to maintain. It becomes increasing more difficult without IAPs, but almost slow enough so-as not to notice, letting you become more invested in the game along the way.

Difficulty Balanced with Tight Controls

The commodity creation system is tightly controlled -- you can only have so many factories creating goods. Goods take a varying amount of time to create (1 minute, 3 minutes, 20 minutes, and so on), resulting in a system where it's interseting to come back to the game at various intervals. Creating higher level goods consumes multiple lower level goods. But just as it seems the commodity system is becoming too boring / slow, the game introduces a trading schema. This makes it possible to trade for commodities you need to continue progress easier than producing them yourself. This is fun twist, and translates to even more reasons to visit the game more often. But the trading market is also tightly controlled -- items you need only occasionally appear, and are quickly bought up, so you have to be quick. Stock refreshes every 30 seconds, making it fun and easy to check multiple times in a session hunting for your needed commodities.

Random Events

There are a number of random pop-up events that appear to occur only after certain intervals. These, again, serve to encourage the player to visit often at various intervals. They also serve to add a bit of story and heart to the game, with citizens applauding or complaining about your performance. I was also at one point offered a discount on the IAP (I forget, maybe 20% off), and occasionally these pop-ups offer incentivized video ads.

Tons of Extras

There are a number of other aspects that are done very well and keep it entertaining -- visiting other cities, limited time holiday buildings, and a seemingly endless stream of content that unlocks as you level up. And that's not even touching on the beautiful 3D graphics, scaffolded complexity, and strong brand recognition.


At one point I was actually tempted to purchase the IAPs. I decided I was enjoying the game and wouldn't mind plinking down a couple bucks to further my enjoyment. But I was shocked to find that I'd need $10 just to advance a little further in the game. The top tier was $100! This seems crazy for a computer game, where I'd expect to pay about $40 for a fully unlocked game. They're clearly going after whales, or players who simply don't realize how quickly that $10 will be gone.


SimCity BuildIt does a great job of giving players reasons to come back. The IAP system allows free players to become heavily time-invested, while the overall difficulty keeps them against the ropes, slowly increasing the pressure to buy IAPs over time.

Unfortunately, I don't think a small team or indie developer would have a chance at creating this kind of F2P money making machine, first investing and then converting players with an astonishing depth of content: polished 3D, commodity system, upgrade system, leveling system, trading system, expansions system, social system, holiday content, etc, etc.

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