a review of The Sims Social
a videogame developed by Playfish
and published by Electronic Arts
text by tim rogers
My bed came unmade before my eyes.
I clicked the bed. My Sim hiked from the front yard, through the living room, into the hallway, through the office, and into the bedroom. He twirled his hands. A sound effect (roughly of blankets against cardboard) played. With a puff of smoke, the bed was made. Ten dollars materialized from somewhere within my bed, and popped out onto the ground. My bed is against the wall — because only certifiably strange people put their bed in a place where itâ€™s not touching any walls — so sometimes, when the money pops out of my bed, it pops in the direction of the wall, and it passes through the wall, and lands in the side yard of the house. When I click on the money, no matter which room of the house itâ€™s in, itâ€™s mine.
I have to be careful when I click at the money. If I click a spot on the floor (or the grass) near the money, I might accidentally be telling my Sim to walk to that place. Then I have to quickly click on the money. My Sim will claim the money even as his back is turned and he walks away from it. My Sim will not stop walking away from the money, even as it makes a plink sound and flies from the ground into the menu display at the top of the screen.
Picking up items feels almost like a game (though not a particularly fascinating one): slide the mouse over the collectible object, wait (a split second!) for the object to acquire a white outline, and then click. With a â€œclackâ€ or a â€œplinkâ€ or a â€œpopâ€ or a â€œplopâ€ (depending on the item), it bounces, flies toward your menu, and is yours.
Things fly out of anything you can click on: cut some weeds outside your house and money will pour out of them and onto the ground. Your Sim might be in the middle of cutting the next batch of weeds — you can issue your Sim five instructions at a time — and you can issue the command to pick up the collectibles while your Sim continues to work. So the mouse pointer becomes some abstract avatar, some hand of god. Missing a click means possibly accidentally highlighting another weed, and bringing up its action menu — or, in your house, when trying to pick up some money you earned playing the guitar (as in a real music career, it pops out of your guitar every time you finish playing it), you might accidentally click on the guitar again, open its action menu: Your choices being â€œPlay for funâ€ or â€œComposeâ€. Soon, accidentally clicking on something else becomes the â€œriskâ€ for picking up any one of the scores of collectible items and trinkets popping out of everything you virtually touch. The â€œrewardâ€ is — well, the reward is negligible, when you consider:
If you donâ€™t pick up an item, it sits there for many seconds. Then, when enough seconds have passed, it flies up and into your possession anyway.
Of course, there are logistical reasons for all of this. We could put on our producer hats and really think about this situation, or we could maneuver immediately to our next point:
If, while collectible objects are littered on the floor in your Sim House, you click on a friendâ€™s house on the menu at the bottom of the screen, should you check your money and experience point balance after getting to your friendâ€™s house, you will find that you now safely and cleanly possess what you might have left on the floor. Like the boomerang in Zelda, you canâ€™t run away from it.
The above description brings up almost everything I want to discuss about The Sims Social. Here is a recap of the bullet points:
- Your bed can come unmade when you are not touching it.
Your character must physically traverse the distance between wherever he is and the bed.
The game awards your character in-game money for making his bed.
The money is represented by a collectible object which exits the target of an action and pops onto the floor.
It might pop through a wall and onto the ground outside.
Your Sim cannot walk through walls, though you can pick up items through walls.
You can pick up the money manually by highlighting it and clicking.
If you donâ€™t pick up the object manually, it will automatically enter your menu after a moment.
If you try to leave your house with a collectible object on the floor, youâ€™ll find the game has given you the object anyway.
So you donâ€™t presume I am trying to sound clever (Iâ€™d like to think I can manage that accidentally), I will clarify here that I by no means find The Sims Socialâ€™s little hiccups to be exclusive or unique. They are something it has in common with many other social games. I am examining The Sims Social because it is here, and because it is just about the best summary of all these wiggly common flaws of social games.
I hope that, by elaborating on these points with my sharpest pair of wit-scissors and a dense spreadsheet I populated over the course of two feverish weeks, I can prove to you all that videogames are dead — or, at least, that they are the devil. If FOX News got a hold of the spreadsheet I have meticulously crafted — which, believe you me, is a thing I will not let happen — the lawmakers would have all the ammunition they need, and youâ€™d all be looking for new hobbies tomorrow.
Letâ€™s try to see beyond the portent of the previous paragraph — weâ€™ll save the doomsaying for the end (itâ€™s cleverest that way) — and, instead, right here, agree from the outset that, at the very least, that The Sims Social is
First we will address the point of the bed coming unmade even when you havenâ€™t touched it.
The Sims Social shows the player a world held together by twine. Your television, microwave, computer, bed, sink, shower, toilet — anything in your house can spontaneously enter a useless state at any given second.
Sinks and toilets and showers suddenly become dirty. When this happens, you must clean them before you can use them. Try once to use a dirty toilet, and your Sim says via plain English in a text bubble — uncharacteristic of Sims, who usually speak aloud, and in nonsense words — â€œI canâ€™t use this! Itâ€™s dirty!â€ Try to use it again, and heâ€™ll say, â€œI canâ€™t use this until I clean it.â€
With a microwave or computer, itâ€™s â€œI canâ€™t use this! Itâ€™s broken.â€ â€œI canâ€™t use this until I fix it.â€
Broken computers and microwaves will sparkle with little yellow sparks. If you have the sound off (after a while, you will turn the sound off), you might mistake the sparks for gleams: you might mistake the game for telling you that the computer is now brand new.
To repair an object, you click on it and choose â€œrepairâ€. Your Sim twists a wrench in its direction. In the case of a computer, your Sim will knock the wrench against the leg of the table the computer is on. Then itâ€™s fixed.
Your reward for fixing a broken thing or cleaning a dirty thing is ten â€œSimoleonsâ€ — thatâ€™s the in-game currency unit which can be used to buy most items in the shop.
How odd is this? No, donâ€™t answer — let me tell you: itâ€™s not that odd. Games with economies (â€œRPG Elementsâ€ is what they tend to call an â€œeconomyâ€ now, in a game) simply must assign a â€œfinancialâ€ value to every in-game action. Every action must cost something, and every cost must yield a reward. Games used to be about risks leading to reward or failure. With Zyngaâ€™s games and The Sims Social, games are now about cost leading to reward.
The Sims Social has more types of currency than you have fingers on one hand. Some of them arenâ€™t apparent as currencies. Three of them are.
Simoleons are the basic one. These are the money you use to buy items in the shop or add new rooms to your house.
Then you have Social Points, which are â€œmoneyâ€ earned from performing â€œsocial actionsâ€ (chatting / dancing / watching TV with neighbors). You can purchase specific â€œsocialâ€ items in the shop — the hot tub, for example — which canâ€™t be purchased with any other currency.
Then there are SimCash, which you can buy — 35 for five dollars (thatâ€™s seven a dollar). SimCash, like Simoleons and Social Points, are also used to buy items in the shop. SimCash allows you to buy things in the shop that you canâ€™t buy with Social Points or Simoleons. Aha.
Itâ€™s quite important to note that the player may purchase SimCash, Social Points, or Simoleons with his or her in-game money. (Keep this in mind: it will be important later.)
Items you buy in the shop include: furniture, decorations, and new rooms for your house.
Buying an item in the shop and then placing it in your house gives you â€œHouse Valueâ€. This increases a number in the lower-left of the game window. The number represents the in-game â€œvalueâ€ of your home by the thousands of points. If your home is worth 26,000 House Value Points, youâ€™ll see a â€œ26Kâ€ in the corner. Your friends will see that same â€œ26Kâ€ by your name and avatar in the menu at the bottom of the screen. Long story short, â€œHouse Valueâ€ is the â€œoutputâ€ currency: this being a game without conflict, the â€œoutputâ€ is the thing with which you buy your friendsâ€™ real-world (frivolous, silly, small-scale) admiration. (In a combat-based role-playing game, weâ€™d say that the â€œoutputâ€ â€œcurrencyâ€ is the average damage per attack a character does.)
The next currency is a videogame staple: experience points. You earn experience points from every action, as well. Earn experience points to level up. Level up to gain access to more items in the shop. Youâ€™ll need to be level six to buy a particular thing, and level seventeen to buy another. In short, experience points are the â€œcurrencyâ€ with which you â€œbuyâ€ the right to buy other things with your other currency.
Then there are â€œlifetime pointsâ€, which are a weirder type of currency, because they donâ€™t seem to have been thought through as well. â€œLifetime pointsâ€ will let you buy new â€œtraitsâ€ for your Sim. Buy the â€œninjaâ€ trait, and your Sim will throw his hands behind his back and dash everywhere instead of walking.
Above all these is a meta-currency: quest items. These come in the form of â€œLoveâ€ and â€œGoodwillâ€ and â€œFuryâ€. They are obtained with randomized frequency from performing set tasks. When you buy a bench to put outside your house, for example, you canâ€™t put it together without spending a couple of â€œLoveâ€s. To get these items, you play the game — or you use the mightier meta-currency: you post to your friendsâ€™ Facebook walls. (Weâ€™ll get to that later.)
The other currencies are brain-benders. The first of them is â€œenergyâ€. This is a concept borrowed lovingly from Zyngaâ€™s recent money-suckers Cityville and Frontierville. Every action you can perform in The Sims Social requires one energy point. So: to fix your computer costs one energy point. If youâ€™re out of energy when the computer breaks, youâ€™ll want to turn the sound off, because the hissing sound of a broken computer is unbearable: the game wants you to fix that computer. It wants you to spend that energy point.
If you run out of energy, you can buy more. These are the quickest of micro-transactions in The Sims Social: spend a little bit of Real Money and you can have a full energy meter with which to blow right through that guitar side-quest so you can earn enough.
If you donâ€™t want to buy energy with your credit, you can always use the crucial, final currency: time. Every five minutes, the game gives your Sim a free energy point.
The game wants you to want in-game Stuff. In order to get that, it communicates to you that you need money and experience. This is a simple concept: the game wants you to spend energy on actions which yield money and experience which buy Stuff. Time buys energy; the game wants you to exhaust your store of energy, face the decision of buying more or waiting, choose to wait, get back to whatever work you were doing in The Real World, and come back to The Sims Social in an hour.
Now you have twelve energy points — out of a maximum of fifteen. What twelve things will you do? Sometimes you do a thing and thereâ€™s an energy point icon littered among the experience points and money you are awarded. So thereâ€™s another neat trick: the game is showing you that, sometimes, you get energy for free. This adds an element of gambling to the proceedings. However, the game is no Vegas blackjack dealer: itâ€™s more like the psychotherapist with the biggest ad in the â€œHelpâ€ section of The Yellow Pages.
To wit: beneath these currencies are two sub-currencies: mood, and needs. Large, candy-like buttons at the bottom of the screen display your Simâ€™s status with regard to basic needs. For the sake of The Sims Social, where everyone is given â€œshelterâ€ by some divine right, the basic needs are: food, toilet, hygiene, fun, and socialization.
When a need is satisfied, its button is green. As the need is neglected, the buttonâ€™s color heats up to orange, then red, then eventually red and flashing.
To fulfill these needs, the player need only click on the candy-like button. The Sim will do an action which fulfills that need. Click on â€œtoiletâ€ when the toilet button is any color between green and red, and your Sim will trot off to the toilet. Click on â€œfoodâ€ and your Sim will rush to the microwave. Click on â€œfunâ€ and heâ€™ll pick up his guitar or sit down at the computer to play games.
(Intermission: Your Sim does not apparently have a job, in the traditional sense. Also, itâ€™s jarring to find the â€œneedsâ€ list lacks laundry and masturbation. End intermission.)
â€œSocialâ€ is the tricky part. Click on it when in your own home and your Sim will say, via a word bubble: â€œIâ€™m lonely! No one is here. I should visit someone . . .â€ So you visit someone. You either visit a neighbor who represents a real-world friend, or you visit your in-game virtual friend, Bella — who will, by the way, never have sex with you.
Satisfying a need — whether itâ€™s an urgent one or not — results in the popping-out of a â€œmoodâ€ icon. Pick it up to increase your â€œmoodâ€ bar. Increase your mood bar to the maximum to become â€œinspiredâ€ — a condition in which you gain marginally more money for actions which produce money. Sometimes a â€œquestâ€ requires you to be inspired to complete it.
â€œQuestsâ€ are collections of tasks which, when all checked off, award you with a large packet of experience points which would have (possibly) taken more time to earn by trimming weeds. Experience, remember, lets you level up, which unlocks new things to buy. (Youâ€™ll need to be level 32 if you want an HDTV.)
Many strings jitter far above the stage here in The Sims Social. The player must be awarded in some small way for each action, or heâ€™ll stop playing: this is a staple rule of game design. For the gameâ€™s sake, the player must also be spending his virtual self. For all the talk of RPGs as being games where â€œnumbers go upâ€, it is the present danger of numbers going down (battle damage, money on hand after a big purchase, item inventory after a tough fight) that inspires the excitement that inspires the player to keep playing the game long enough to see, ultimately, some numbers going up.
So in order for the player to get a reward for writing a simulated blog post on his simulated computer, the player must be spending energy. In order for the player to be able to spend energy by choice in exchange for buying some coins by writing a simulated blog post on his simulated computer, the game must also require energy to be spent as a rule to repair, say, a broken microwave. In order for the player to not leave all gadgets in his Sim house broken and sparking all the time, the game requires the player to satisfy needs which require that those objects be in working order. On another hand: the world of The Sims Social is fragile and wobbling so that the player always has a reason to spend his energy points. â€œYou donâ€™t know what you got till itâ€™s gone,â€ someone once said (maybe it was a musician): The Dark Psychologists at EA likely understand that it isnâ€™t until you run out of energy points doing dumb things that you start thinking of what youâ€™d do if you had a couple more.
And: if you try to use too many energy points in a row on the same always-available action (using the toilet, for example), your Sim refuses and exclaims, in a word balloon: â€œIâ€™m bored of this!â€
So we come back to the bed that unmakes itself: the bed must not, actually, be made for you to sleep in it. This mimics real life. It also mimics real life that going to bed — like going to the bathroom — doesnâ€™t require any energy. This is our first clue in this tangled and sticky mystery (the question being â€œwho killed videogames?â€). Making the bed is not required to use it; however, it transforms it into something more graphically appealing. The player might earn fourteen Simoleons writing a Sim blog post. He earns ten for making his bed — something which he does not have to do, though is encouraged to do by the graphical presentation (a cute cartoon bed, unmade) and all his prior conditioning to keep â€œspendingâ€ these energy points, to keep â€œinvestingâ€ them in future possibilities across a range of abstract currencies. So you tell your Sim to practice chords on his guitar to earn some money (the music business is lucrative!), and he does it: he picks up the guitar, an animation plays, money pops out, he puts the guitar down, he picks it back up, an animation plays, money pops out, he puts the guitar down, he puts it back up — and youâ€™re like: why am I watching this? Now your Simâ€™s â€œsleepâ€ need turns red. â€œIâ€™m sleepy!â€ he says. You click on â€œsleepâ€. He dashes to his bed. He twirls around: now heâ€™s wearing only his boxers (my Simâ€™s â€œpajamaâ€ outfit is: just boxers). He pops into bed. He sleeps for three seconds. He pops out. He twirls around. Heâ€™s wearing his T-shirt and jeans again. A mood icon falls onto the floor. His sleep need is orange. You click the bed again. Again he twirls around. Again heâ€™s in just his boxers. Again he lies down. Again he sleeps three seconds, pops out of bed, twirls around, is wearing a T-shirt and jeans again. Again a mood icon falls onto the floor! His sleep need is yellow. You click it again. Again he twirls around, and — if youâ€™re lucky, this is where you have a small aneurysm.
Eventually, you have a thought — itâ€™s a very small one, though it comes back, and eventually it comes back again and again until you canâ€™t ignore it. Letâ€™s say, to finish a â€œWriting Skillâ€ quest, you are repeatedly clicking on your computer, choosing â€œWriteâ€ from the action menu, and then choosing â€œMovie reviewâ€ from the skill action list. You have to write fourteen movie reviews in a row in order to advance to the next skill level. So you queue up five â€œWrite movie reviewâ€ actions — five is, after all, the maximum number of actions — and then you tab over to see what your new email is about. When you tab back two minutes later, you find that your Sim computer is broken and your player is standing in front of it. What has happened is: the game decided, while you were choosing the â€œWriteâ€ action, to â€œbreakâ€ the target of your action, nullifying your action. Each time your Sim attempted to â€œWriteâ€, he declared in a word-bubble (which you didnâ€™t see because youâ€™d tabbed over somewhere else on your real computer), â€œThis is broken!â€ So now you fix the computer and plug in the five actions again, thinking that, for sure, it wonâ€™t break in the middle of those actions, this time. However, two hours later, youâ€™re plugging in five â€œWriteâ€ actions — you have seven energy points remaining — and you decide to watch all of them in order, then to watch those last two energy points as well. Maybe the game gives you an extra energy point for whatever action you do to use your final energy point (it does that (a lot (for a good reason))). Well, you use that, too. Nothing ends up broken.
The point is that the game makes you cautious. And then, maybe once — like I did — youâ€™ll wonder why your Sim canâ€™t just, after trying an action a second or third time in a sequence of five actions on a broken computer object, fix the computer object himself. â€œWhy canâ€™t he just fix it, and keep going?â€ There are two reasons for this, and theyâ€™re both essentially the same reason: the game wants spending action points in your home to always be voluntary. Second of all, the game wants you to keep watching — if not all of the time or most of the time, then just a little bit more than some of the time. This, my friends, is the Dark Secret of The Sims Socialâ€™s game design.
The second glaring clue in this mystery is a half of a heart-breaker, and a perfect end to the first chapter of this piece: energy points replenish over time — the player earns one for free every five minutes. However, when the tab is closed, when the player is not playing The Sims Social, his appliances do not break, and his avatarâ€™s needs will not progress toward unsatisfied. His world is a snapshot of the way you left it: until you come back. Schrodingerâ€™s Cancer Grandma, as it were, is not going to die unless youâ€™re holding her hand.
Imagine a world where you only play Facebook games at home — never in the office.
It might be hard to imagine. A quick tinker of your Farmville farm or Ravenwood Fair carnival is something best done between real-world desk-job tasks: you tab over to Facebook, you â€œmake a small donationâ€ of time to the game of your choice, and you tab back over to your spreadsheet.
Either of the games mentioned in the above paragraph could be an escape: nowhere in our modern lives are we farmers, nor are we managers of grotesque carnivals in haunted forests.
Imagine tabbing over to The Sims Social: thereâ€™s someone who might look something like you. He or she is at home, playing games on a computer. Part of your brain thinks, â€œIâ€™m not at home.â€ Simultaneously (as Freud would have it) another part of your brain is thinking, â€œ(I wish I were at home.)â€ Again, simultaneously, a third part of your brain is thinking, â€œ(((I wish I could work at home.)))â€ And also, darkly, â€œ((((I wish I could play games on my computer at work.))))â€
Now, imagine playing The Sims Social at home, in your spare time. If you start playing the game at all, this is when They want you to play it. What are you supposed to think, in that dark part of your mind? â€œâ€˜I wish I had a hot tubâ€™?â€ Possibly.
Probably, however, the wish youâ€™re darkly wanting to fulfill is to â€œSee what my friends are up toâ€.
In a past life — a pre-The Sims Social life — this is the sort of wish youâ€™d fulfill by, at the very least, poking someone on Facebook (at the very most, by messaging them). The Sims Social, unlike The Sims Online — which many complaining posters on the official The Sims Social forums apparently liked enough to wish The Sims Social was more like it — is not in any way a chat room. It is not a communication device. It could have been — it could have been like Animal Crossing, allowing players to leave letters for one another — or, if not letters, some other clear and present sign of player-avatar-on-player-avatar contact.
Any notion of including features like this was most likely jettisoned early in the production of The Sims Social. Since the game is playable on Facebook, and Facebook is a social networking platform, it follows logically that the people playing The Sims Social have a larger-than-microscopic interest in â€œkeeping in touchâ€ with their friends.
The Sims Social faced multiple opportunities to enhance its usersâ€™ inclination to keep in touch with old friends, new friends, and medium-old friends. One of the opportunities was to let players interact on deep and compelling levels within the game. Another opportunity is to be good enough to warrant mentioning by real-life friends in casual real-world conversation. The third and final opportunity is to encourage players to post inane updates on their friendsâ€™ and their own Facebook walls with diarrhea frequency. The latter option, of course, is what all social games do, and the makers of those games are rolling in cash, so the team knew what direction to head.
Backing up a half a step, here it would be important to point out that you donâ€™t really interact with your friends in The Sims Social. What you see when you go to a friendâ€™s house is a simulation of their Sim-existence. Itâ€™s easy enough to understand why the game doesnâ€™t support true multiplayer — itâ€™d be hard to implement, and maybe the players wouldnâ€™t even appreciate it — though itâ€™s a little jarring. Say youâ€™re on Skype with a friend. You tell her, â€œI just went into your Sim-house.â€ She says, â€œOh yeah? What am I doing in there?â€ You tell her sheâ€™s playing the guitar in the backyard while you wash your hands in the kitchen sink. She says that sheâ€™s in your Sim-house, sitting on your sofa while you play computer games in the den. (Weâ€™ll bring this example up again. Keep it in mind, however, while you read the following paragraph.)
Social interactions in The Sims Social are one-click wonders which often require you to get on your virtual hands and knees and fire a missive at your Facebook friend list. To build a bookshelf — for some god-forsaken reason — requires twenty â€œMuseâ€ items. When the game first launched, â€œMuseâ€ items dropped sporadically (maybe once in eight attempts) when you performed an artistic action. The math has since curved up (I find myself with thirty-five of them in my Sim-inventory as I type this) slightly (maybe once per four artistic actions), though it still stands that the quest to obtain twenty of these things requires a lot of real time and virtual energy to accomplish. One Muse per four actions means an average of eighty actions — eighty energy points. That’s five and a third whole bars of energy points. You earn twelve free energy points an hour. Youâ€™re looking at roughly six hours and forty minutes of vigilant playing — â€œvigilantâ€ because, once your energy meter is full up to fifteen units, it stops filling — to have all of these Muse items.
You need the bookshelf if you want to complete the quest to have a bookshelf — which will earn you roughly the same amount of money and experience as the quest to buy and place a potted plant, or the quest to brew eight cups of instant coffee. To complete the bookshelf quest, you also need to go to neighbor Simsâ€™ houses and ask them for fiction and non-fiction books (one energy point per book). Collecting twenty â€œMuseâ€ items to build the bookshelf is a Herculean task compared to anything else youâ€™ve yet done in the game.
So we have a bottleneck. â€œMuse: perform artistic actions for a chance to collect,â€ the quest description tells us when we mouse-over the â€œMuseâ€ icon. â€œOr ask friends.â€ Thereâ€™s an â€œask friendsâ€ button.
Hereâ€™s how clever this game is (and all these games are): it opens up a menu. Itâ€™s a list of all your Facebook friends. You can click one bubble to send a message to all of your friends. Or you can be mindful of othersâ€™ tolerance for wall-spamming, and scroll through the list, looking for people who you know are playing The Sims Social, and thus probably wonâ€™t mind if you ask them. To your right is the standard Facebook games information frame — itâ€™s there whenever youâ€™re playing a game. There you can see what games your friends are playing right now. Using your mouse wheel, you can scroll down that list without leaving The Sims Socialâ€™s popup. Find people who are playing The Sims Social right now, or were playing it in the last hour. Now click the checkbox by their name. Keep doing this until youâ€™ve clicked enough checkboxes to ensure that youâ€™ll have enough items at some near-future point in time. Send off the request and sit back. Youâ€™ve just done the most work The Sims Social will ever ask you to do. Possibly, by the sixtieth time you have to do this, youâ€™ll be psychologically eaten-away enough to just click on â€œskipâ€ and buy your way to the yay.
So, what just happened, in the above paragraph? You made your friends aware of the game — or, more precisely, that you are playing the game. In my example I outlined the behavior of a conscientious player (myself), who will only spam people he knows are playing the game. Not everyone works the same way. Some people will send requests to anyone and everyone they know.
Other quests will require the player to post to his own Facebook wall, to â€œshareâ€ the â€œrewardâ€. Any person clicking on a link on another personâ€™s Facebook wall link will be sucked into The Sims Social app, whether they have an account or not. If theyâ€™re already a player, they get a reward. If theyâ€™re not already a player, theyâ€™ll be told that, to claim their reward, they just need to start playing the game.
The Research Shows that, if you divide the dollar value amount of all micro-sales related to social games since 2008 by the number of people who have ever played a social game, youâ€™ll obtain a rough figure of $1.70 spent per user. Of course, no one actually spends $1.70 — the games donâ€™t even offer a value of $1.70. The truth is that the vast majority of users spend absolutely nothing — doing no more than tinker with the game. The One Dollar And Seventy-Cent user is a math ghost, composed of some White Whale users who spend whopping sums in excess of $10,000, swimming in an ocean of zero-dollar spenders.
Numbers, of course, do not lie, odd as their stories might be. Apparently, if you hunt down an average value of the amount of money spent by all people who Actually Spend Money on these games, you obtain a reasonable, unsneezeatable figure of $60 per paying user. Thatâ€™s more like it.
The producers, of course, are hoping for The Next White Whale. They are not banking on the sixty-dollar user. They are willing to suffer an ocean of looky-loos for a shot at a White Whale. The game only needs to be Just Good Enough.
The Sims Social has lively, cute cartoon graphics and lots of popping little sound effects — except the one where the Sim opens the refrigerator and loudly, wetly crunches something edible (that oneâ€™s horrifying, disgusting, awful). Itâ€™s Just Cute Enough to hook the type of person who is going to plunk down dollars, if you can just get them in there for two seconds. So thatâ€™s what theyâ€™re doing: here on Facebook, itâ€™s not just â€œpeople are playing this game hereâ€, itâ€™s â€œpeople you know are playing this game hereâ€. We take that particular facet of Facebookâ€™s power for granted, sometimes. Facebook isnâ€™t (just) selling your marketing information to The Whole World: theyâ€™re helping people sell products within circles of friends.
Being a person who is, yes, a guitarist and vocalist in a noise-rock band (I will not apologize for how many times I bring this up), I have of course many hipper-than-thou friends on Facebook, people who will deliberately list, in their â€œFavorite Bandsâ€ section of their profile, â€œheck, You, Facebook, Youâ€™re, Not, Getting, My, Marketing, Dataâ€.
Fact: if youâ€™re not willing to play along, Facebook probably doesnâ€™t want your data. Thatâ€™s the whole point of the data they collect: that itâ€™s genuine, and that itâ€™s coming from impressionable people.
Fact: You probably donâ€™t like television commercials, either. Iâ€™ve seen my dad miss literally every touchdown of a football game because of his deathly fear of commercials. Heâ€™ll hear that music start to play, heâ€™ll detect a change in the announcerâ€™s tone of voice, and he will scramble for the remote, switch over to HBO — sweet HBO, in all its no-commercialsness — fall asleep, wake up Just Too Late, flip over to the football game, find a touchdown has just been scored, and that someone is calling a timeout, and weâ€™ll be back–and he fires up the FTL drives, taking us somewhere — anywhere.
TV commercials donâ€™t work. Facebook is trying to make something new. The Sims Social — and other games — are part of that. Here: in The Sims Social, you can give Dunkin Donuts coffee and pastries to your friends.
You cannot, however, give them to yourself.
Here is the idea: while playing The Sims Social, you get a Facebook notification. â€œ[Your friendâ€™s name] has just sent you a request in The Sims Social.â€ You click, and there it is. They want a Muse.
â€œPlease send me a Muse,â€ the notification says. Under this, two buttons: â€œAcceptâ€ and â€œIgnoreâ€. Click â€œAcceptâ€ and . . . thatâ€™s it. your friend now has the item he or she was asking for.
If you need something in The Sims Social, you have to ask a friend for it.
If someone asks you for something, you already have it.
However, you do not have it for your purposes: only for theirs.
All you have to do to give someone something you donâ€™t have is click a single button.
When someone sends you something you need, you get a notification. The notification includes a reward — usually a +1 energy item, to be used when you want to use it.
So it is that you literally always click â€œacceptâ€, because you get rewards for doing so.
So it is that whenever you send a request to friends who are playing the game, you feel confident that they will accept.
I am halfway quaking with the urge to use some hugely complicated mathematics terminology here. I will refrain, and let the above example sit where it is. Read it over a couple times. Relax your eyes while beholding it (imagine youâ€™re looking at a Magic Eye Puzzle). Do it just right, and your real-world doorbell will ring. Thatâ€™d be the postman — heâ€™s come to bring you a Harvard degree in economics.
So we come back once again to The Bed That Unmade Itself. Imagine for a moment that this game is trying to teach us something. How messed-up would that be? Itâ€™s trying to teach us to make our real beds in the real world, by assigning a literal value to making a bed in a game world.
I feel like: if youâ€™re old enough to decide to start playing The Sims Social, youâ€™re old enough to not change your mind about making your bed.
I mean — I make my own bed. I feel like a jerk if I come home from work and my bed is unmade since the morning. The old idiom goes, â€œYouâ€™ve made your bed — now lie in it.â€ I have grown up knowing that I shouldnâ€™t be lying in a bed if I havenâ€™t made it first.
That said, you donâ€™t have to make a bed to lie in it. In fact, lying in it requires that you unmake it a little bit. (This is a crucial point of interest for the background of this essay.)
This is where we could start talking about obsessive-compulsive disorder, and how itâ€™s possible that itâ€™s more prevalent because of videogames than it was before videogames. Here in The Sims Social, itâ€™s always sunny, and grass is always full of money. What is this teaching the player? â€œAlways mow your lawnâ€? Grass being full of money is a carryover from the pathology of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, a game I am certain everyone designing games now played passionately in the 1990s (I sure did). In my own adventurous â€œcareerâ€ designing social games, I have spoken at length of cutting grass in Zelda: cutting the grass is a thing it is not necessary to do, though we do it anyway, for the joy of its bumpy, sticky friction, and soon the rewards are piling up, and soon, in the backs of our brains, we cannot consider a momentâ€™s triumph in the game worthwhile unless we are carrying 999 rupees at all times. The Sims Social opens with your backyard overrun by weeds; it costs one energy point to execute the â€œremoveâ€ action. Some weeds require three â€œremoveâ€ actions. Each â€œremoveâ€ action yields money. A hundred-odd â€œremoveâ€ actions later, and your yard is sparkling. And so is your wallet: clearing weeds alone netted my Sim around 4,000 Simoleons. Thatâ€™s roughly enough money to buy new wallpaper and flooring for my house, in addition to two bamboo trees.
I am the only The Sims Social player I have encountered whose yard is 100% free of weeds. What does this make me? According to lectures I have given small boardroom audiences about the nature of social games, it makes me a person who has never had an STD (among other things) — and it also makes me Not The Target Audience. Here I yank my hand away from the fire: that was close! We almost said that the Target Audience for social games is people who have had, do have, or will have an STD. Letâ€™s be nice: players who, say, weed their yards are fastidious, careful people, who require that even their digital playgrounds be clean up to a certain point.
A weed-free yard also makes me an avid Zelda player.
If you throw a brick in a room full of game designers, youâ€™ll hit one who would tell you that the Zelda game design template is â€œnot sustainableâ€. (What you should do next is grab another brick, close your eyes, and try to remember the exact position of your body when you threw that last brick.) This hypothetical game designer will tell you that Zelda is an â€œantisocialâ€ game, and that such games are â€œdifficult to monetizeâ€. Theyâ€™ll explain how multiplayer games engage players â€œmore deeplyâ€. Some will say — and I quote — â€œThe players who play together, pay together.â€ First of all — thatâ€™s not even proper comma usage. Second of all — what?
Are videogames, however, obligated to prepare us for a smoother civilization? Here we have a game that depicts realityâ€™s cartoon shadow. Should it be populated with good people doing good things, or with jerks doing jerky things? Should The Sims Social shoulder a social responsibility to teach us to stop being assholes to one another? Itâ€™s teaching us — via incentivization — to mow our yards, weed our gardens, and compliment our neighborsâ€™ appearance. It gives us money rewards for doing all of these things.
However, the game also doesnâ€™t care. I often get asked — by boring people, usually — to talk about â€œmoral choicesâ€ in games, and I always give roughly the same answer: â€œmoral choicesâ€ in games often come down to being a jerk or not being a jerk. In Fable II, the game might present you with a destitute man asking for a shilling. You have two dialogue choices: â€œHere you go, mateâ€ or â€œEat blade, heckerâ€. You can either give the guy one of your in-game currency units — which, just so weâ€™re on the same page, are things which come cascading out of every goblin you knick with your axe-corner — or you can slay the poor bastard. I remember when this was funny — it was funny in Grand Theft Auto, not funny in Grand Theft Auto II, funny again in Grand Theft Auto III, then never funny again. Not for me, anyway. Why would I want to be a jerk toward imaginary people in an imaginary world? â€œItâ€™s fun to play the bad guy,â€ some people say. Well, Iâ€™ve seldom met games that really make me feel like Iâ€™m â€œplaying the bad guyâ€. Itâ€™s more like Iâ€™m playing a psychopath. Grand Theft Auto doesn’t have a hug button. It doesn’t have an “asshole” button, either, though people are able to wrap their head around the multi-button control inputs for that just fine.
â€œBeing nice doesnâ€™t make for a fun game,â€ someone tried to tell me, once.
Cliff Bleszinski once said that he makes games about meathead marines shooting alien freakjerksâ€™ bodysteaks repeatedly whilst screaming because no oneâ€™s figured out how to make talking it out a compelling game mechanic, yet. â€œReach out and touch someone with your gun,â€ is what he calls the modern vogue.
By refusing to subvert archetypal images of evil, games like Gears of War technically do make being the good guy fun. Youâ€™re â€œbeing niceâ€ in Gears of War insomuch as youâ€™re killing these twisted, evil creatures.
So, to amend the previous rule: â€œBeing nice doesnâ€™t make for a fun game unless youâ€™re being nice with a gun.â€
Being nice with a gun is an often thrilling friction.
The thrill and friction of The Sims Social is mental. Itâ€™s finding your exact Ikea entertainment center and putting it in your Sim-living-room.
Yet there is always the option to be a jerk. You can go to a friendâ€™s house and â€œrearrangeâ€ his â€œkeyboardâ€ on his computer. What does this mean? I think it means youâ€™re taking the keys out and putting them in different places. So, this is only being a pain, really, if your friend is the type of person to look at the keyboard when he types. Or you can walk up to his television and â€œretune channelsâ€. Iâ€™m not sure what this means. Does this mean that you turn the TV on, change whatever channel itâ€™s on, and then turn it off, so that when your friend rushes into the house after receiving an urgent text to â€œCheck ESPN Rite Now Doodâ€ he flips the TV on and goes â€œNooooo someone changed the channel from ESPN to something elseâ€ and then he misses the instant replay of the spectacular Tiger Woods eagle putt which he can see on YouTube in five minutes, anyway?
We talked above about how even when youâ€™re playing with friends, youâ€™re not really playing with them. You canâ€™t go into your friendâ€™s house and â€œhang outâ€ with them in real time. This isnâ€™t such a problem, really: what would you be doing that would feel rewarding in the slightest, anyway? Just clicking on â€œDance togetherâ€ in front of the stereo and then . . . what? Maybe youâ€™re on Skype with your friend, and youâ€™re like, â€œLook. Weâ€™re . . . dancing together.â€ It would be a shallow experience.
Instead, what happens is this: you â€œDance Togetherâ€ with your friend. You collect your due reward — three Social Points (instead of two — this makes it The Recommended Thing to do at your friendsâ€™ houses (more Recommended Things, later)). Then a little music note pops onto the floor. Click it, and a message prompt appears: â€œShare with [Friendâ€™s name]?â€ Say â€œyesâ€, and itâ€™ll post on your friendâ€™s wall: â€œMy Sim just danced with your Sim.â€
Dancing with a Sim is, in fact, an action that the game chooses to highlight. Itâ€™s not the only action. â€œStealing foodâ€ from another Simâ€™s fridge, for example, is a Highlighted Action.
When other friends perform Highlighted Actions in your house, you are surprised with the ability to view your friendâ€™s poltergeist. A little bubble appears in your house, saying that â€œ[Such-and-such] is visiting.â€ You click that bubble, and now you see what that person is doing. Maybe theyâ€™re watering your plants, or maybe theyâ€™re fixing your toilet. Maybe theyâ€™re â€œStealing foodâ€ from your refrigerator, or maybe theyâ€™re â€œretuning the channelsâ€ on your TV (what does that mean???). Whatever theyâ€™re doing, they apparate from target to target, exercising their influence. Hereâ€™s where I want you to pay attention: whatever they do, money pops out of whatever theyâ€™re doing it to.
Ask a computer programmer to explain this and he would scoff and say that the game is rewarding you with in-game currency for playing the game deftly enough to have real-world friends agreeing to be your neighbor and interact with your character: â€œItâ€™s the policy that we place a reward on social interactionâ€. Ask a marketing person and they will tell you that the game is reinforcing bonds you already feel with your Facebook friends, and doing so in a manner which inspires you to subconsciously wish that more of your Facebook friends were playing this game, which helps get more players â€œin the gameâ€ and â€œengagedâ€. Ask a business person and they will tell you some average of the above two answers.
Ask me, and Iâ€™ll tell it to you straight: in The Sims Social, you get in-game money when your friend steals food from your refrigerator.
The real world doesnâ€™t work that way. However, I ask again, are games obligated to educate us about the mechanics of the real world? They are probably not.
(While we’re at it, let me also summarize this entire review: The Sims Social is a game about sitting around in your house. It’s a game where you can make your character play games, and then watch him smile, unable to join his fun. Is this art? heck you. Is this a game? Not quite. Is it terrorism? Maybe. Is it interesting? Sure. Is it evil? Let’s go ahead and say, “Why not?”)
The Sims Social is a conversation piece. It is not a social network in and of itself. Itâ€™s supposed to be a cute, weird little thing. One thing Iâ€™ve noticed as a game designer is that nothing on earth is more fun than prototyping a stupid concept you thought up and jotted in a notebook as you were drifting off to sleep. (Or, I should say, nothing is more fun than being great friends with a genius programmer who can realize all of your stupid ideas.) Once you have the idea set down in a game and you introduce actionable targets (hostile enemies, physics volumes, boxes, whatever), the idea figuratively comes to life. A big enough game design concepts leads to a game just about literally designing itself. Itâ€™s likely that when Will Wright and company first put together prototypes which led to The Sims, they ran with the happy accidents more than their lukewarm successes. Iâ€™m treading thin ice here, because Iâ€™ve invoked the name of The Most Respectable Man In The Games Industry, and I know full well that The Sims Social is not his fault. Iâ€™d like it to stand as a quote of praise that I believe the original Sims issued forth from happy accidents beheld with elation.
Years of ceaseless iteration later, we have The Sims Social. Itâ€™s a husk. Youâ€™re meant to — even if the marketers donâ€™t vocalize this — talk about the game, and how silly it is. Youâ€™re meant to water-cooler-converse about its happy accidents. Here is one I jotted down on a friend’s Facebook wall:
My Sim’s “social” need was red so I went to your house. All of his other needs were green. However as soon as i got to your house his “hygiene” went red. He teleported into the bathroom. Then, while in the bathroom, his “sleep” need went red. He teleported into your kitchen and drank coffee while you played keyboard in the living room. Then he finished the coffee and his “bladder” and “social” needs were red. I clicked on “bladder” and he said “I’m lonely”. I clicked on “social” and he said he had to go to the bathroom. I clicked on “bladder”; he didn’t move. Five awkward seconds passed. My Sim then had a thought bubble over his head: my Sim was in the kitchen thinking about your Sim, while your Sim watched TV in the living room.
I was in this same friendâ€™s house a week later. She and I share â€œBFFâ€ status — that means weâ€™ve clicked social actions on one another enough times for us to be, digitally speaking, â€œBest Friends Foreverâ€. (Note: sometimes you have to spell the â€œForeverâ€ with a â€œ4â€.) I walked into her house and clicked on her Sim. I chose to â€œchatâ€. My Sim was jonesing for some socialization: his socialization button was a bright yellow. He walked up and said something to her Sim. We will never know what — the sound was off, and even if it was on, lord knows what these sim-people are saying. Whatever he said, her knees clattered together. A pop-up informed me that my Sim and her Sim are now â€œEx-friendsâ€. It didnâ€™t try to make me feel bad about this, of course, just like Facebook doesnâ€™t tell you youâ€™re a piece of dirt for only having six friends. It wants to keep you â€œengagedâ€. I can imagine the game design meeting where they discussed the algebra of this scenario: â€œSometimes, Sims just start to hate other Sims for no reason.â€ Well, what if I like the real-life person this cartoon represents? It doesnâ€™t matter. â€œLetâ€™s make it more fun when Sims hate each other. Letâ€™s tell the player itâ€™s more fun.â€ So the pop-up informs the player that youâ€™re now â€œex-friendsâ€, and that â€œa big part of the fun of The Sims Social is trying out the unique actions that come with new relationships and friendshipsâ€. Oh. So now Iâ€™m able to command my cartoon person to be passive-aggressive toward a cartoon person representative of my real-life friend.
Itâ€™s like, just the other day, a friend was telling me that she had no interest in the original The Sims until her friend showed her she could build walls around a Sim and watch them pee their pants and then die. I suppose I understand that; however, I also understand that we canâ€™t kill our friendsâ€™ Sims in The Sims Social because every Sim represents a possibly-paying customer. Thatâ€™s fair enough. Now let me tell you: if I had a crisp dollar bill for every time Iâ€™ve personally heard someone say, at a game design meeting, â€œResearch indicates that most players of Grand Theft Auto games ignore the missions and just cause random chaos[, playing freely[, just having â€˜funâ€™[,using the game as a tool of self-expression]]],â€ I kid you not: I would have enough single dollar bills to frustrate an Apple Store employee as I buy a new Macbook Pro (I need a new Macbook Pro so bad). (I bet you thought I was going to low-ball the number of dollar bills, didnâ€™t you! Fooled you!) Or, try this: mention Grand Theft Auto in a room full of people who know what videogames are, and someone will lean in close to you, give a little index-finger motion, and lower their voice like theyâ€™re about to tell you a big secret: â€œYou want to know whatâ€™s awesome about those Grand Theft Auto games? Just ignore the missions, man. Ignore the missions and just have fun.â€ In Grand Theft Auto, â€œhaving funâ€ means killing innocent people and blowing things up, because: the programmers concentrated pretty hard on that part. So my friendâ€™s friend said you can â€œhave funâ€ in The Sims by walling Sims in and watching them pee themselves and die. This is one mental millimeter from then saying, â€œYou know what else you can do?â€ And then, when you say, â€œWhat?â€ heâ€™d say, â€œYou can kill the neighborâ€™s dog.â€ And youâ€™d say, â€œIn The Sims?â€ and heâ€™d say, â€œNo, in real life.â€
Well, in The Sims Social, you canâ€™t kill, because your friends are Potential Dollar-Signs. You canâ€™t die, because that would give you a good reason to give up. Here is the perplexing part, where, one probably-dreary day, the game designers conspired to conceive of someone getting bored of the game because they couldnâ€™t accidentally become Sim-enemies with a real-life friend. And then, when you steal food from your friendâ€™s refrigerator, they see you appear as a sudden ghost at their refrigerator door. A word bubble informs them: â€œStealing foodâ€. They get twenty dollars from that Big Computer Virus In The Sky — it pops out of your Simâ€™s body just as you vanish back into the GhostRealm. If you stole the food while your friend was offline, the game will wait until they are online to deliver the message and play the animation. Then maybe theyâ€™ll post on your wall:
What do we learn from this? Where is the love? Where is the money, at least? Iâ€™ll try not to soliloquize over this boring point. This game is funny and awkward in a coloring-book sort of way.
The Sims Social is a jiggling, juicy mess of weird things. Thinking of a kitchen knife, my Sim walks right past the host of a house without a hello, through the kitchen, into the bathroom, spins, and steps into the shower. Thinking about a clown, my Sim undresses and gets in her bed. Two seconds later heâ€™s awake. Thinking about a muscular bicep, my Sim says something to her Sim. Her Sim cowers in fear. Money flies out of her. Now my Sim, thinking about a brassiere, says something to her Sim. Her Sim, thinking about a pair of red lips, giggles, and money flies out of her and onto the floor again. My Sim leaves the room with the grace of a stormtrooper. Her Sim sits down to watch television. My Sim immediately enters the bathroom and sits on the toilet. A mosaic obscures his genitals as he pees sitting down (all Sims, regardless of gender, pee sitting down (this puts less strain on the animators)). Doors in The Sims Social close by themselves (Sims donâ€™t ever close them manually (this puts less strain on the animators)), and bathrooms are seldom big enough lengthwise for a Sim to not be on the toilet before the door can automatically close behind him. So here I am, my Sim in the house of a neighbor the game ranks as â€œacquaintanceâ€, peeing sitting down on a toilet with a direct line of sight to an open door through which her Sim — still sitting on the sofa — has a direct line of sight.
This is . . . well, if you ask them if itâ€™s supposed to be funny, the developers will say â€œyesâ€. Yes, it is. You are to use the game as a tool of self-expression, and laughing is a natural response to expressing oneâ€™s self.
So we come around to Animal Crossing, which is cute as a pail full of kittens. It is a collection of precious metaphors. It was fun just to stare at. If itâ€™d been as fun to play as Super Mario Bros., I swear to you The Sims Social and many Zynga games would not exist precisely as they exist today. Itâ€™s highly possible that this was never meant to happen. Bandai-Namco once made a sort of one-player Animal Crossing â€œfor adultsâ€ — it was called Portable Island: Resort in the Palm of Your Hand. It was for the PSP, and it was essentially a postcard from a robot. It was a game financed by spiritual bankruptcy — an anti-social game in the truest sense, in which the player enjoys an Animal Crossing experience without the worries of any goals, or other people to talk to. Itâ€™s cold escapism for people who live in crowded metropolises. Iâ€™m pretty sure that Agent Smith in â€œThe Matrixâ€ proved that people canâ€™t truly â€œescapeâ€ into an environment without conflict. Portable Island is free of conflict even when it comes to the feeling of your characterâ€™s feet against the sand: it is frictionless and weightless, and it led me, in my review, to wonder how one would make a video game that was simply all about moving a character. I called it â€œHypothetical Game About Runningâ€. Bennett Foddy called it QWOP. I remember the day QWOP appeared on the internet. In my office, it was me who found it — naturally. And then I told someone else about it. Two hours later, someone else was telling me about it. Three hours later, everyone was playing it. That was social gaming. We will get back to QWOP later; for now, Animal Crossing.
The Sims was never Animal Crossing; it was always something else, a microcosm of minute human behavior the way Sim Earth was a microcosm of life on earth. Will Wrightâ€™s previous games were documentaries — bombastic ones, like theyâ€™d show at a childrenâ€™s museum IMAX theater. The Sims was a sitcom. It sold gorilla-loads.
The Sims Social is the fourteenth season of that sitcom, after all of the creative directors and beloved secondary characters have left.
Now weâ€™re back on the idea of a social network game that is a social network in and of itself. Thereâ€™s Second Life: Donâ€™t think about Second Life. (Thatâ€™s one of the Ten Commandments of Modern Game Design, if I had to write such a list off the top of my head.) Thereâ€™s PlayStation Home — thatâ€™s wasted potential. These are all trying to be too massive, like World of Warcraft. Hey, you know what? I think more people get married thanks to World of Warcraft than because of OKCupid.com. Someone should run the numbers on that. (Someone should also make a game for OKCupid.com. (Confession: I have a thirty-page game design treatment. OKCupid: call me.)) Then thereâ€™s Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing is to Second Life as Diablo II is to World of Warcraft. I must say I prefer it that way — itâ€™s more intimate. Then we have Korean social network experiences like Cyworld, which, since way back in 1999, has been an Animal-Crossing-like game, a self-contained social network, and a micro-transaction-fueled money-printing machine at the same time.
The Sims Social has an opportunity to be any of these things. Ultimately, itâ€™s none of them. Itâ€™s not even a one-player experience: your provided neighbor will Never Have Sex With You, Ever. The Sims Social is ultimately Just A Thing. Itâ€™s a wiggling worm on a rusty hook: there, at the bottom of the screen, you see your friendsâ€™ avatars, and their house value numbers. We are expected to keep up with the Joneses, and some of the Joneses are on steroids, uppers, and cocaine at the same time: you start out with a 26K house value, and on day two, some people already had 158K while I was stuck with somewhere around 32K.
Here I am, cutting my grass and making my bed for spare change to buy a bedside table to increase my house value by six hundred points, and some people on my friendsâ€™ list — EA employees among them — are worth six figures. They are not â€œcheatingâ€ — they are just Being Customers. If the internet has taught me anything, itâ€™s been to feel at least a tiny bit bad about enjoying something for free — and also to pay for something that isn’t real.
I am not mentally wired to pay for these games. I donâ€™t assume Iâ€™m unique in this regard. Most of the people reading this far into this text-thing would never pay for a virtual good in a social game of the existing game design norm. We find these games frivolous and silly. Maybe weâ€™d pay for weapons, maps, or character adornments in action games, though thatâ€™s different: thatâ€™s on the occasion of a game that we play as a game and enjoy social features as a benefit. Team Fortress 2 is a â€œsocialâ€ game. Monster Hunter is a â€œsocialâ€ game. We play these games with our friends; we invest great time and energy into showing our friends the cool thing we got. Team Fortress 2 uses micro-transactions; Monster Hunter doesnâ€™t.
Gabe Newell recently said that â€œpremature monetization is the root of all evilâ€, that developers should try to make a good game before worrying about how to get people to spend extra money on the game. I personally agree with Gabe. Gabe goes on, in the above interview, to discuss how he does not particularly follow e-sports, so here is where I begin to claim that I agree with Gabe about monetization more than Gabe even agrees with himself. Gabe is a smart man, and in charge of Valve, a smart company full of not-evil people. I, however, am a semi-intelligent man who is unfortunately both fashionable enough to survive a job interview and enough of a math savant to, once my skills are discovered, not be taken off the Numbers Desk unless I forcibly remove myself from my paycheck. Gabe, I have stood in front of the root of all evil for long enough to accept a purchase order; I donâ€™t feel good about it, and I shouldnâ€™t feel good about it; Iâ€™ve also played The Sims Social, and done up the numbers on it, as it were, and I donâ€™t feel good about it, either.
By the end of this essay, we will have uncloaked the Math Ghost, and we will have stared into the eyes of Actual Evil. The faint of heart are advised to turn back now.
Every Friday, The Sims Social emails its users a temptation of sorts. Just click here, the boisterous email says, to claim your reward of 500 Simoleons.
After so long with this game, I wonder — as Iâ€™ve wondered a hundred times or more — if â€œ500 Simoleonsâ€ isnâ€™t the building block with which they LEGOâ€™d together this gameâ€™s entire economy. I imagine myself in the role of the Master Calculator: â€œWe can start with this: â€˜500â€™ is a big enough number to excite people. A five-hundred-dollar dinner at the right time can save a marriage. Give the player — any player — 500 of something, and theyâ€™ll want to come back. This is the bedrock. This is the foundation: you start with 500, and you make it worth enough and worthless enough to sustain the entire model. Go.â€
500 Simoleons is enough to purchase a cot and an aluminum end-table.
In my research of this game I have encountered so many Basic Building Blocks that it boggles my mind to consider the balancing process of this game. It must have been like solving twenty-seven Rubikâ€™s Cubes duct-taped to one another. Which is to say it certainly wasnâ€™t impossible, because, look: here it is. If you can solve one Rubikâ€™s Cube, you can solve twenty-seven. (On the other hand (by which I mean, on the same hand), if you canâ€™t solve one Rubikâ€™s Cube, you canâ€™t solve twenty-seven.)
Among the more rigorously tuned values in The Sims Social are those of the primary currencies. The game offers casual glancers a hint, in that SimCash — the currency purchased with real-world dollars — is directly convertible into the other currencies.
SimCash is sold in several packages of scaling value. The smallest package offers 35 SimCash for five dollars — seven for a dollar. Note that seven is a prime number: 100/7 is a fraction which boggles casual observation (â€œHmm, that looks like it has a remainderâ€). The largest package offers 900 SimCash for $100 — thatâ€™s nine for a dollar. When you open the game for the first time, it takes the game less than five minutes to coax you to encounter that number (and gulp). If youâ€™re like me (and have some of the same experiences as me, even), this will remind you of the time that girl you liked invited you over to her house after work and then asked you point-blank, from the other side of the kitchen table, if you could imagine a life without hand soap. Not twenty seconds later, there were the Amway brochures and the claims that itâ€™s â€œnot a pyramid schemeâ€. A minute later, sheâ€™s offering to sell you a ladle full of hand soap out of her purse for a dollar — or you can have the whole purse-full, purse and all, for just five dollars. Here I could traipse a little further into dark territory and liken social games to religion — preying on the minds of the weak.
Instead, letâ€™s just say that we have obtained an â€œaverageâ€ value of eight SimCash to the US dollar. â€œAverageâ€ is in quotation marks because itâ€™s not actually an average, because youâ€™re only getting seven to the dollar if youâ€™re spending five dollars, and youâ€™re only getting nine to the dollar if youâ€™re spending a hundred dollars.
The minimum conversion rate of SimCash to Simoleons is 50 Simoleons to one SimCash. The maximum is 78.57; this gives us an average of 64.28, for a ballpark average of 514 Simoleons to the US dollar.
We wonâ€™t bother talking about Social Points yet.
Now, letâ€™s go shopping:
You can buy certain items for SimCash which you cannot buy for Simoleons. The math is banana-curved so gracefully that you might not immediately notice youâ€™re being rooked. The hook is that outright luxurious-looking items retail for only a dozen SimCash — from five SimCash (roughly sixty-two cents) to never more than 49 (roughly six dollars and twelve cents). Meanwhile, the prices for goods priced in Simoleons — all of them of fairly drab colors and ordinary shape — often exceed the thousands.
They say that the best marketing gimmick ever dreamed up was the idea of â€œninety-nine centsâ€: not quite a dollar. The Sims Social, being a game and simultaneously a store which is selling things, luckily doesnâ€™t have to worry about physical size and distribution of goods. Its economy is virtual (and nonetheless a little scary). When customers look at numbers, they donâ€™t always think about conversions. Not everyone divides the volume of a bottle by the price to determine the price by the ounce. Likewise, in The Sims Social, you see a Boring Thing for 1,000 of something, and a much larger, much more exciting thing for 12 of something. All the hypothetical â€œyouâ€ sees at first is the numbers: 12 is certainly less than 1,000. It doesnâ€™t hurt that the thing that costs 12 has a nifty candy-striped green-and-dark-green background and a sparkly aura, while the thing that costs 1,000 of something (else) is beige on a white background.
For the player who genuinely lacks a sense of aesthetics, however, we have the item descriptions to brain them over the head.
Shop items in The Sims Social donâ€™t all have an objective value as far as the mechanics of the game are concerned (important: the game mechanics are negligible), so itâ€™s harder to distinguish why one class of object is worth real-world currency and one class of equally superfluous thing is worth in-game money. After all, the vast majority of the objects this game asks players to purchase for real-world monetary currency (or in-game currency, which we could call real-world time-based currency) are merely intended to please the eye (others, such as easels or musical instruments can help increase the player characterâ€™s skill levels, serving the negligible â€œmechanicsâ€ of the game). How much time, or money, or hybrid time-money, is the pleasure of your eye worth? (In Tokyo I noted that the dingiest apartmentâ€™s rent may multiply if it offers a view of Mount Fuji even only on the clearest of days.)
The object descriptions will occasionally explain an object as being ugly or in bad taste (â€œRock bottom price — rock-bottom comfortâ€), which is doubly interesting: these false-world architects have generated cosmetic flourishes that the game forbids them (or the users) to have any artistic confidence in. The world of this game is aesthetically flawed as a matter of economic responsibility.
35 real-world monetary-currency units for a sofa that is tasteful and pleasing (conservative yet modern in shape, colored primary red); 49 real-world monetary-currency units for a sofa that is ridiculous (outlandish, bright red, shaped like a pair of lips). This is About The Size Of It.
Itâ€™s a sad fact of game design that some things in a game end up worth less than other things.
How is The Sims Social, then, worse than Final Fantasy XIII, for example? RPGs, for example, canâ€™t help it: your starting weapon is weak because the game wants you to feel good about buying the next one. Of course, youâ€™re not spending real-world money — itâ€™s all in the context of a game (or, at least, you werenâ€™t spending real-world money until Namcoâ€™s Tales of Vesperia offered the option to buy a level-up for 100 Microsoft Points (heck you, Namco)). â€œThe game wants you to feel goodâ€ because it wants you to keep playing. It wants you to like the game, and it wants you to recommend it to your friends, so that maybe theyâ€™ll buy it, too. So it makes you feel good, by presenting a progression of numbers going up. In Dragon Quest, for example, youâ€™ll likely need to buy the sword that costs 270 gold in order to survive in the tunnel that deposits you close to the town that sells the sword that costs 450 gold.
The Sims Social gives you access to a host of radically differently priced goods at its outset, and then describes to you in its snippy, sardonic flavor text that some of them are repulsive and worthless:
â€œCast from a block of tan plastic. Even the doors look real.â€
â€œSometimes, you just need a flat place to sleep at night.â€
â€œFlat packed with almost enough screws to assemble it.â€
â€œVaguely weather-resistant. Pleasure-resistant aluminum legs.â€
â€œMirror mirror on the wall, whoâ€™s the cheapest of them all?â€
When a game decides with intention sharpened near to malice that something it offers the player as a choice be â€œworseâ€ than something else, and when it explicitly describes said choice as â€œwrongâ€ or chides the player for presuming to choose it, thatâ€™s where it begins to become actual evil.
(Hey! Hold up a second — I said â€œbegins to becomeâ€. Weâ€™ll get to the â€œfinishes becomingâ€ part later.)
This chime of evil resonates clearly, backward, through the previous points of this review: every mechanical aspect of this game is tuned finely to irritate you toward impatience. You click on a friend so you can tell him your â€œnew jokeâ€ (an action as simple as clicking â€œtell new jokeâ€) to fulfill the requirement of a â€œquestâ€ to â€œpractice your jokesâ€ on your friends, and there he is, molasses-paced, grueling toward completion of another arbitrary goal. Every â€œnextâ€ time you open the â€œquestâ€ menu, that â€œSkipâ€ button tempts you a little more than the last time. For just five in-game money-units, you can skip the tedious idiocy of walking back and forth between front doors and friends and clicking on yet another menu selection, hoping to obtain the random required MacGuffin. (During the â€œNew Jokeâ€ quest, you are required to tell your â€œnew jokeâ€ to five other Sims, and somehow obtain ten â€œlaughsâ€ from it. You score a â€œlaughâ€ one in every three times you tell the joke — and thatâ€™s probability with replacement (meaning that your chances reset to zero each time you â€œtellâ€ the â€œjokeâ€). Further, you may only obtain one â€œlaughâ€ from each Sim. You will tell the joke roughly one-point-seven-five times to an average of five Sims, spending energy points, feeling differently frustrated every time the action fails to bear fruit.
Here is a game mathematically designed to make you uncomfortable in each of its core mechanics. Here we stand, inches from a hagiography of Dynasty Warriors — a game whose sole selling point is that it rubs your shoulders, makes you feel comfortable, and coaxes you to never leave, to never learn, and to never grow. Some days, (as a level designer or game designer of action games,) I find a lot wrong with Dynasty Warriors; in the light of The Sims Social, I donâ€™t.
What we stand ever so close to — and yet ever so far away from — is a proof that the proverbial computer anti-virus software companies are, in fact, responsible for engineering all the proverbial viruses.
Now, I wouldnâ€™t have too much of a problem with this, if the anti-virus software companyâ€™s goals were at least interesting. They (hypothetically) create the viruses so they can protect against them better. If they can create them, someone else very well could, too. Itâ€™s better that some people intending to help you protect against viruses engineers the viruses. Isnâ€™t it? In some ways, maybe itâ€™s not.
This is barely even the core problem, here. The core problem is that The Sims Social doesnâ€™t care. Its â€œstoryâ€ and â€œquestâ€ structure is merely a catalog of busywork, its ins and outs balanced with such cutthroat rigidity that a close analysis paints a picture of the game designer as a heartless politician, stamping papers without looking at them.
Another limp quest: you â€œstart rumorsâ€ with five different Sims to earn your arbitrary reward of money and experience. For years games have tried to use storytelling and moral decision-making as mechanics. We have Mass Effect, where being a jerk and selecting the jerkâ€™s choice during a dialogue makes you a â€œrenegadeâ€, and we have Bioshock, where every fifteen minutes you face the difficult to decision to either murder or not murder a little girl. (On the one hand, if you murder the girl, you get an Important Item. On the other hand, if you donâ€™t murder the little girl, you can literally just point and shoot your way through the rest of the game just fine without the Important Item.) Social dynamics are a low-hanging — and rotten — fruit before the eyes of game designers. The Sims Social doesnâ€™t even reach out a hand: it lashes out with its teeth. It doesnâ€™t even try. You â€œspreadâ€ a â€œrumorâ€ by clicking a menu box. Then the game tells you you did a good job and gives you the same reward it gave you for cooking microwave popcorn six times in a row (a task which required the same level of difficulty: highlight something, click, choose a menu option, and click again). Another quest involves clicking a computer and, five times, choosing the â€œWrite libellous emailsâ€ action — a process as involved as brewing a cup of black coffee. And so the flag of â€œprogressâ€ in â€œnarrativeâ€ in games is carried in lampoonery; The Sims Social is a still-standing termite-eaten tree trunk representing many othersâ€™ good intentions. And so this type of game design will survive, like long-forgotten scripts spiraling off into the depths of cyberspace, cramming your abandoned Hotmail inbox with â€œRe: Dear Friendâ€ typo-ridden emails which crash halfway through into acres of broken code . . . over and over again, into infinity.
You tab over to the game again. The game has shifted into â€œidleâ€ mode. â€œCome back!â€ the window implores. â€œYour Sim needs you!â€ The reason they put the game on pause when you tab away is complicated: remember how stuff is always breaking or getting dirty, and every broken or dirty thing requires one energy point to fix? If you let the game run idly forever, so many things would be broken and so many weeds would grow in your yard in the course of two hours that youâ€™d need six hoursâ€™ worth of free energy to fix it all. (Note: my math here is precise and not intended as hyperbole.)
You click â€œokayâ€ to return to the game.
Your Sim-house is a wasteland of practicality, the only consideration being applied during furniture placement being that you donâ€™t put something in a position where youâ€™d accidentally click something else. Your toilet and computer are making awful sounds and you lack the energy to fix them so you have to mute the sound. In Zelda, the game produces a penetrating, evil beep when your health is critically low. In Zelda, you can pick up hearts to increase your health, either by slashing grass or killing enemies. Or you can buy a potion — which you could have purchased beforehand with in-game currency (earned from slashing grass or killing enemies). In The Sims Social, you canâ€™t stop these nagging sounds without â€œenergyâ€, which you canâ€™t generate out of nowhere without spamming your friendsâ€™ Facebook walls or paying big money. So it goes, that in the age of the ancient arcade games — Altered Beast, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, et cetera — youâ€™d pay the game until it left you alone. Games are back to asking you to pay them so they will leave you alone, however they are simultaneously also tricking you into continuing to let them bother you. This isnâ€™t marketing: itâ€™s black magic.
This is where we get to the main point of this whole thing, which will be a simple proof that what youâ€™re really getting for money in these social games is the privilege of not having to play them.
It is in your best interest not to play The Sims Social.
That is both my opinion and a scientific fact.
Here, allow me to pause for a long-enough moment: I am not throwing the phrase â€œscientific factâ€ out there in vain. I am using it after many hours of calculated research involving a spreadsheet.
Before we talk about the spreadsheet, letâ€™s talk about my feelings: it is in your best interest to not play this game because it is stupid. Itâ€™s a social game about collecting and buying stuff, and (for the most part) those types of games suck. Some will say that games neednâ€™t always be escapism — that they can be forgettism or enhanceism or yayism or what-have-you — though when you boil them down to their unmoving parts, all games are liars. Some are worse liars than others. The Sims Social is a horrible liar. At least Frontierville shows me a world out on the Oregon Trail and gives me an avatar who hunts for food and dodges snakebites. Within ten minutes of booting up The Sims Social I had found my haircut and my glasses. I had an avatar who looked like me. (Note: your Simâ€™s house comes with, by default, no sofa. There is, however, a computer.) An hour passed, and I was clicking on a computer, choosing â€œWriteâ€ and then choosing â€œBlog Postâ€. My guy sat in a folding chair typing a fictitious blog post, right there in the middle of a game I was only playing for the purpose of (eventually) writing a blog post about it. Behind his chair, an acoustic guitar. I rotated my office chair around. There: an acoustic guitar on the floor. Eventually my Simhouse resembled my real house right down to the IKEA TV stand in my living room — big enough for a 70-inch HDTV, it sits alone and lonely. Friends sometimes use it as a bench when the sofa is full (to buy a Sim-sofa that looks exactly like my real sofa, Iâ€™d need to spend 35 Simmonies, and part of my resolve going in was that I would not spend Simmoney). Why did I never buy a TV in my real house? Because I have other things to do. I am busy with trying to kindle a career that will actually last me the rest of my life. Here I am, though, writing blog posts. Thereâ€™s my Sim, hey, writing blog posts. I figured I would buy an HDTV at least for my Sim. Well, I need to get to level 32 to unlock that TV. I am probably never going to unlock that TV.
Why would you want to play this game? So you can hang out with your virtual friends? If you want to hang out with your virtual friends and enjoy it more than youâ€™d enjoy it in The Sims Social, try video-chatting with them on Skype, communicating in glances and grunts while you stare at a work-related spreadsheet. All the hanging out in The Sims Social is asynchronous. Itâ€™s not just asynchronous — itâ€™s deceptive. I can go to a friendâ€™s house in The Sims, and I can be Skyping with her in The Real World, and I can tell her that Iâ€™m in her house and that Iâ€™m using the microwave in the kitchen while she plays the keyboard in the living room. Then she says thatâ€™s impossible, because sheâ€™s in my Simâ€™s house taking a shower while I paint a still-life on the easel outside. Itâ€™s always like this. The Sims Social is a game about ghosts trying and failing to embrace other ghosts. When you sexual-intercourse your friendâ€™s Sim after agreeing to a â€œrelationship statusâ€ of â€œdatingâ€, even though you both be sitting in front of the game at the same time in your respective houses separated by an ocean or a continent, youâ€™re watching your Sim do her Sim in her Sim house while she watches her Sim do your Sim in your Sim house. I had a real-life relationship like that, once (six or seven times). heck you, videogames, for making me think about that.
Praise be to videogames, for summarizing so many centuries of awkward doom in one confused digital bundle.
Now for the difficult part: science and math have shaken hands again today. The occasion is this eight-megabyte spreadsheet full of data I have extracted from two weeks of play sessions of The Sims Social. If FOX News got a hold of this spreadsheet, theyâ€™d have all the proof they needed that videogames are the devil. I donâ€™t want that to happen. Personally, I believe in videogames — I admire their ambition, sometimes — though looking at this spreadsheet makes me a little bit throwuppity.
Our world — the real one — is home to possibly endless better things to do than play this game. For example, you could go ocean kayaking. Or you could play another game, one which is better than this one. This confusing digital puzzle, here, wants you to think of all those Better Things, and then, in the same breath, it aspires to make you forget them. . . . And one fine morning–
Well, my Ritalin just ran out! This is embarrassing. I donâ€™t even care to finish writing this now. So Iâ€™m going to lay the facts bare.
First, let me lay out this fact: when your guy goes to â€œpractice flamenco techniqueâ€ on his guitar, he just picks the guitar up and plucks the same dinky elevator music he does when you choose to â€œplay for funâ€, which is the same music he plays when you tell him to â€œcompose guitar concertoâ€.
Aside from reacquainting you with the kind of flimsy shell of entertainment we are talking about, the above has nothing to do with the below:
For the first segment of my bare-laying of the facts, we will assume the presence of a genuinely financially well-endowed psychopath kleptomaniac who simply must be better at this game than everyone else. In olden days, this person would have spent possibly thousands of dollars on Pac-Man just to earn the right to say he played the first perfect game. Decades later, this situation is still much the same — especially the part about the thousands of dollars (also, Pac-Man was actually a good game).
Ignoring the aesthetic appeal of his house, Our Hypothetical Psychopath would seek to maximize House Value points — that being the score that other players can see at a glance without visiting your house.
First, letâ€™s note that The Sims Social allows you to have 500 items. You are technically required to have a toilet, a shower, a microwave, a refrigerator, and a bed — to satisfy your needs — though you can always satisfy your needs free of charge at your friendsâ€™ houses. So you can sell all of those things and have a clean inventory of zero out of a maximum of 500 items.
Now, which 500 items are you going to buy? Of course you want the ones that have the highest House Value, regardless of cost.
The highest amount of House Value awarded for a single SimCash-buyable item is 7250. This is flat across all items priced at 49 SimCash. To buy 500 items priced at 49 SimCash will give you a House Value of 3,625,000, at a cost of 24,500 SimCash, which weâ€™ll convert to dollars using the maximum SimCash-to-dollars conversion rate of nine to the dollar. 500 of these items would cost us $2,722.23. Actually, it would cost us more than that, since we can only get 900 SimCash at a time, for $100 a package. So weâ€™d need a final package to top it off, bringing us to a grand total of 28 packages of 900 SimCash each, totaling to $2,800.
However, if we peruse the store carefully, we can find that higher-priced items priced in Social Points actually have the highest House Value, despite the ratio of House Value to currency often being sketchy. If only I had a table of every item in the game, its cost, and its House Value — oh. Hey, I forgot I made one of those.
The lowest-priced Social-Points-buyable item retails for 175 Social Points and nets 600 House Value, for a total of 3.4285 House Value per Social Point.
The highest-priced Social-Points-buyable item (a sort of bed) retails for 7,500 Social Points and nets 10,550 House Value, for a total of 1.4067 House Value per Social Point.
(Editorâ€™s note: Since the writing of this review, a more expensive, more valuable item has appeared in The Sims Socialâ€™s in-game shop. It offers even less House Value per Social Point, though would result in a significantly higher ultimate House Value per 500 items purchased. We would run the numbers on it, though weâ€™ve already had these neat illustrations drawn up, and weâ€™d hate to break Mister Rarooâ€™s heart to have to tell him to draw more.)
((Authorâ€™s note: The author is also the editor (cue jokes re: article length (cue â€œheck youâ€))))
What we see here is a downward curve on value per currency. This is, of course, by design.
The second-highest priced Social-Points-buyable item (a hot tub) retails for 3,250 Social Points and nets 9,150 House Value, for a total of 2.8154 House Value per Social Point.
The highest-priced item is an outlier by design. Despite its relatively low value per currency unit, the ultimate average of House Value per Social Point is half-decent 3.0795.
If we bought 500 of this Astonish Emperor bed (description text: â€œFit for a king? Pah!â€), it would cost us a total of 3,750,000 Social Points and award us 5,275,000 House Value (and the title of World Champion The Sims Social Player).
Before you wonder if thereâ€™s even room in the real estate allotted to the player in The Sims Social, know that you can keep items in storage, and still benefit from their House Value. Beds, technically, need to be put together to be enjoyed visually, though they donâ€™t need to be put together to enjoy their House Value. So you could have an empty plot of land crammed with disassembled beds, and a storage space full of them, as well, and be the highest-scoring player in the world.
Again, youâ€™d have to be rich, and deeply psychotic, to do this.
The highest rate for converting SimCash to Social Points is 70 SimCash to 1,400 Social Points. Youâ€™d need 2,679 packages of 1,400 Social Points to achieve this. Thatâ€™s a total of 187,500 SimCash. At the maximum rate, thatâ€™s 209 packages of 900 SimCash priced at $100 each.
So, the title of World Champion The Sims Social Player would cost us $20,900.00 (or $20,833.34, if they let us buy one SimCash at a time at a flat rate of $0.1111).
Letâ€™s keep running with this extreme example. Letâ€™s say that, instead of buying SimCash to convert to Social Points, you decided to instead earn your Social Points.
You earn two Social Points for interacting socially with a neighbor. You earn three points for more involved social activities — like dancing or watching television with a neighbor. Regardless of reward, these actions cost one energy point. The problem here is that you canâ€™t do these actions ad nauseum without your Sim getting â€œboredâ€. Weâ€™ll assume that the Sims donâ€™t get bored of one action. Each social action takes between 8.7 and 10.9 seconds to execute. Weâ€™ve meticulously calculated the average 10 seconds.
With a supply of infinite energy, and presuming an average of 2.5 Social Points per energy points (sometimes the more intimate actions yield two instead of three points) it would take the player 4,167 hours and 40 minutes, on the nose, to execute 1.5 million social actions.
Presuming the supply of energy is not infinite, and that the player must wait one hour for every twelve energy points . . . well, you might not like this number: 1.5 million social actions means 1.5 million energy points spent. Earning 1.5 million energy points without playing the game requires (either a lot of sending your friends â€œfree energy giftsâ€ and a lot of your friends sending you energy in return, or) 125,000 hours of vigilant waiting. We say â€œvigilantâ€ because the player will need to be sure to spend each energy point as it occurs to him. (Again, once the bar fills up to 15, it will not fill further.)
Usually, the game detects when youâ€™re doing a three-Social-Point action more than twice in a row, and it shuts you down by making your Sim bored. So letâ€™s be a little scarier and say that itâ€™s more likely to take you 1,875,000 social actions to win enough to buy 500 king-sized beds. So letâ€™s say itâ€™ll take 156,250 hours to accumulate the fabled 3,750,000 Social Points. Thatâ€™s 6,510.4167 days. Thatâ€™s 17.83675 years of playing this game. Thatâ€™s an average of 33.76 House Value Points earned per hour of play.
Now letâ€™s say that youâ€™d rather be a complete balls-to-walls psycho and buy your energy points. We will, for the purpose of this example, ignore that this would require you to use all of the points, which would take the aforementioned 4,167 hours and 40 minutes. You can purchase energy for SimCash at a maximum rate of 1.25 energy per SimCash, which is 11.25 energy per US dollar. At this rate, weâ€™re looking at a cost of $166,667.67 and nearly 4,200 hours of continuous game-playing to achieve The Highest Possible Score in The Sims Social.
Looking over the data, we can see that directly purchasing the currency necessary to obtain The High Score requires $20,833.33, though purchasing energy — the â€œcreditsâ€ the player needs to â€œplayâ€ the â€œgameâ€, the â€œtokensâ€ or â€œquartersâ€ he puts into this proverbial coin-eating machine — would cost him $166,667.67. Dividing the latter figure into the former (where the decimals in both cases are allowed to repeat) gives us a surprisingly natural number: Eight.
Ahh, eight. The evil manâ€™s numeral; a snake eating his own tail, after stopping to do a little joy-curl in the middle. The honest man would use six. Six is just-barely Vegas-friendly. The Sims Social — and anything aspiring to Zynga algorithms — doesnâ€™t want to be Vegas. If The Sims Social were a casino game, the cops would bust in and tear the house apart.
You can tell, when breaking down the math of a social game, what numbers were set in stone from the beginning. Theyâ€™re always the little integers. Game designers — be they good or evil — like to use little integers. You start small — some repetitious action in your game is worthy of a pure little â€œ1â€. Eventually, your game might grow up, and the most common action yields a two. So it goes, that in football, a touchdown is worth six points, the point after is worth one point, a safety is worth two points, and a field goal is worth three. A field goal is mathematically â€œhalf a touchdownâ€. It means â€œyou got halfway thereâ€. Football is a pretty brilliantly designed, fair little game! Thanks, football!
Sometimes, the coffee machine gives you a cappuccino cup full of espresso instead of a tall cafe latte, and you drink it anyway. This (and a work assignment) is how I ended up with a spreadsheet that is literally eight megabytes in size, full of all manner of calculations performed in the name of analyzing The Sims Social. At the tail end of this investigation, I approached the neglected â€œgardeningâ€ feature of the game. In The Sims Social, you are given four garden plots. You can plant different fruits or vegetables which then, a la Farmville, mature over the course of several hours. Strawberries are ready to harvest in five minutes; pineapples take two days. It takes a little money to plant the fruit or vegetable, and you make a profit when you harvest them. It takes one energy to plant the crop and one energy to harvest it. You cannot have more than four garden plots, meaning youâ€™re spending eight energy points per plant-harvest cycle. Applying the numbers visible on the â€œseedsâ€ menu against data in the rest of my spreadsheet, I was able to complete my holy grail of calculations — that the average Simoleons per energy point is 15.8, meaning that the average Simoleons per hour when the player is only using freely available energy is 189.6. Given the ready availability of art, music, and writing actions, letâ€™s round that up to 200. Now, if you wanted to buy your energy points and work for your money — well. This is a mind-bending calculation, so bear with me.
Weâ€™ve established an average rate of 11 cents per energy point. Weâ€™ll be nice, and use the maximum value of 1.25 energy per SimCash, which at the maximum value of 9 SimCash per dollar, gives us 11.25 energy per dollar. Now, weâ€™ve also established a maximum rate of 78.57 Simoleons per SimCash — at nine SimCash to the dollar, thatâ€™s a maximum of 707.14285 Simoleons to the dollar.
So, using our magically averaged (trust me on this one — the spreadsheet is so enormous itâ€™d make you throw up) value of 15.8 Simoleons per energy, if we multiply that value by 11.25 (the number of energy we could get for a dollar), we get roughly 177.75 Simoleons to the dollarâ€™s worth of energy.
If we divide these two values with their repeating decimal places intact, we stare face to face with the numeral â€œ4â€.
â€œ4â€! The Chinese number of death! Hospitals (and most buildings) in China donâ€™t have a fourth floor, you know. Well, they do — they just label it with a â€œ5â€.
This is a simpler example than the one that brought us to â€œ8â€. Itâ€™s purer, because it involves a hypothetical player who is not, precisely, a psychopath.
A summary of the findings of this example is this: if the player pays money to recharge his energy meter in The Sims Social, so that he can continue to use those energy points to perform in-game actions, he will earn 177.75 in-game currency units for each dollar he spends. However, if he pays money to buy the currency directly, he will earn 707.14285 in-game currency unit he spends. In short, the game offers the player a 400% (sometimes 800% (an average 600%)) incentive to not play it (by which we mean, â€œto not participate in its core mechanicsâ€).
Is this evil, or carelessness? You can decide for yourself, though as far as Iâ€™m concerned, on a long enough timeline, there is no difference.
Thanks! Iâ€™ll be here all week! If you have a million dollars and you would like me to make a social game that is not fundamentally horrible, my game development studio is figuratively bursting with good ideas. I know they are good ideas, because several evil men have already scoffed at them.
These are men who were actually surprised by Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride — two fun little games with well-cooked mechanics, who take the “do stuff, get stuff”-ism of a Zynga title and paint it over something that’s actually fun.
These are the same men who took an iPhone action game of my design in their hands, played it for five minutes, said itâ€™s â€œpretty coolâ€, and then asked, deadpan, â€œWhatâ€™s the monetization strategy on this?â€
To which I answered, â€œThe â€˜monetization strategy is that people will see someone playing it, ask what it is, play it for themselves, spend a dollar on it, and then show it to their friends, who will also spend a dollar on it.â€
â€œHow is that going to sustain a business?â€
â€œWe have twelve other games that are just as good.â€
â€œWhat do you do after those are all out?â€
â€œBy then, Iâ€™ll have thought of and made twelve more.â€
â€œYou should put micro-transactions in here. Five cents a smart bomb. Shake the iPhone to kill all the enemies.â€
â€œHmm. How about this: every time you score more than 100 kills in a game, you get a smart bomb to use in your next game. They stack up. Thereâ€™s no limit. You can store up five hundred smart bombs, if you want. You can beat the whole game by just shaking the phone, eventually. We can make it so you donâ€™t get on the leaderboards if you use a single smart bomb.â€
â€œI donâ€™t see how that monetizes.â€
â€œWell, sure — we can also charge five cents each. Twenty-five for a dollar. Or let the player earn them.â€
â€œTwenty-five for a dollar sounds good — actually, maybe thatâ€™s a little too many.â€
â€œHow many would you say is just enough?â€
The man screws up his mouth. â€œMaybe four for a dollar is good.â€
â€œFour for a dollar.â€
â€œYeah.â€ He looks up from the phone. He hands it back to me. Heâ€™s died. He got three kills. â€œAlso, ditch the thing about letting players win smart bombs through the game. That devalues the smart bombs.â€
This is a conversation which actually happened.
Social games — and most other games, really — donâ€™t invade or take over the playersâ€™ lives — only a few seconds of every hour of them. These games occupy the playersâ€™ thoughts rather than their time. These games are robots which have learned to love. These games are a product of outside-the-box culture. It used to be, if you were making games, you tended to hire computer programmers. Then, as someone made a shoe commercial that barely even showed the shoes, someone thought it could be worth a shot to hire more psychiatrists. Here we are, flowers in hand, on the devilâ€™s doorstep.
The thing about these games is: if someone asks you for something, you have it. You can send it to them without even remembering if you have it or not (even if you donâ€™t have it). Whatever someone asks for, you have it. If you need it, however, you need to ask someone for it. This is essentially the plot for the lamest â€œDoctor Whoâ€ episode in existence. If we are to see a â€œGamifiedâ€ reality at some point in the future, itâ€™ll be like this, all full of hiccups and jumbles. To the people who would make this so, I say (in a friendly sort of way) that reality is already a game — itâ€™s just that it has too many rules and not everyone understands them all as well as I do. Facebook is already a game, for example — it shows people numbers (number of friends, number of posts on wall, number of comments on average posts, number of likes per post) all the time, and they jump to their own conclusions. To â€œGamifyâ€ the world is merely to simplify it (to tell them what conclusions to jump to). Simplify it, and how hollow it would become! The Sims Social is so simple a game that it is neither game nor reality; in a quiet hall among art forms such as literature and film, it and its ilk are medium-loud poltergeists. I say that neither what we have now nor what some would want is properly what we need. I say, you can make a game in the spirit of Zynga or The Sims Social without simultaneously doing evil. A game should be a bonding experience, not a facsimile of a bonding experience, not an experience about bonding. Listen very carefully to me: Angry Birds is a social game. Not this stuff. This stuff is just stuff. Angry Birds and any game with airtight rules and sound mechanics — e-sports, fighting games, shooting games, strategy games — is a social game. Itâ€™s a game first and a social experience by matter of course. For the love of god, stop deciding what things are before you make them. You are literally ruining everything in the world, and you canâ€™t see it because quite frankly none of you are as smart as I am (I am pretty smart (whatâ€™ll shock you later is how I manage to keep 94% of my intelligence hidden at all times)).
To the abovementioned small man and to others like him, to all the craftsmen of these mommyâ€™s-credit-card-number-snatching games like Tap Zoo and Tap Pet Shop and Top Girl and what-have-you, I offer this lesson from the annals of economics:
â€œMonetizeâ€ is a hecking stupid word.
The idea of a business is to make money.
â€œTo do businessâ€ means â€œto monetize somethingâ€.
A â€œproductâ€ is something a business makes.
To speak of â€œmonetizing a productâ€ borders on ridiculous.
If your product is not â€œmonetizedâ€, youâ€™re not in business.
In the modern sense: the only reason to actively talk about â€œmonetizingâ€ is when part of your plan is to trick the user into believing they donâ€™t actually need to pay.
â€œMonetizeâ€ is a word that is nearly synonymous with â€œto do evilâ€: to â€œmonetizeâ€ a game means to promise the user a â€œfull experienceâ€ for absolutely no cost, and then scheme, and devise, and calculate reasons for the user to pay anyway. Then you make them pay anyway. Albeit gently (and shrewdly (and without use of violent force)), isnâ€™t that the same as stealing from people?
Despite the cruelty of its extremest mathematics, you are still permitted to enjoy The Sims Social. Of all the Zynga-like games, it is the most deeply, repetitively playable without spending a nickel. I played this game for more than sixty hours, â€œenjoyingâ€ all of its facets, systems, and features, and did not spend a penny. You can make a Sim who looks like yourself; you can ask the girl you like to make a Sim that looks like her. You can buy modest furniture using your modest earnings — just like in real life — and you can have Sim-sex with your Sim-girlfriend, who represents a real girl who is more than Sim-lovely. You can enjoy the small things, like giving American McGeeâ€™s (hot, female) Sim (â€œAliceâ€) a back rub on his sofa (his Sim-house is his best level design since DooM). You can lol like a hyena huffing helium at your friendsâ€™ crazy houses. You can look at it once or twice, and then put it away.
To be honest, I wouldnâ€™t have been compelled to criticize this game this long and hard if it had offered me a white V-neck T-shirt in the initial clothing selection. There it is:
In closing, The Sims Socialâ€™s in-game clothing store does not allow male characters to purchase skirts or dresses despite having tabs for them, and the only white T-shirts available are crew neck, not V-neck. Therefore: heck this game.
Thanks for reading.
~This review does not touch on The Sims Social‘s “Inspiration” mechanic — the mechanic is far too interesting to summarize in this space. For an in-depth analysis of this particular mechanic, see “who killed videogames? (a ghost story)”, a sort-of story about the world of social games development, located at our brother-site insert credit dot com.~
Finally, an extra special thanks to Bill â€œMister Rarooâ€ Sannwald for the illustrations. He will return, to illustrate . . . a review of something else!