Monday, December 6, 2010

Living in Cityville

OK, I admit it: I got suckered into playing Cityville, lured into the snare by a friend's Facebook invite. I suppose Jenny would label the past three days a "lost weekend." True, I helped string Christmas lights, organized our family's holiday newsletter, responded to student queries about a looming assignment, and left the house to see a movie. I lived my life. But most of my attention was drawn to Cityville.

Ostensibly I took the Cityville plunge to research how Zynga is leveraging social networking techniques to produce an experience that keeps users clicking. After all, this is the company behind Farmville, Mob Wars, and similar time-sucks. Zynga knows what it's doing. At the same time, miniature cities have always appealed to me (cue obligatory Logan's Run reference). While I couldn't care less about managing a cartoon farm, I'd love to run my own tiny town. I had to give Cityville a try.

If you've ever lost a night to SimCity you have a pretty good idea of how Cityville works. Borrowing liberally from Sid Meier's blockbuster urban simulation game, Zynga allows players to produce their own villages by laying out streets, erecting houses, starting businesses, and launching civic projects. There are no taxes in Cityville (no plumbing either, thankfully). Frustrated citizens won't riot in the streets if you fail to build a post office. And I've yet to see a building toppled by a natural disaster. But this game still produces a SimCity-like high, starting with the pleasure of the God's eye view.

Acting as an urban deity, you design your city, watch its tiny inhabitants wander about (sometimes they wave up at you), and survey the growth of your creation from tiny burg to bulging metropolis. Better yet, you can be a merciful god by helping others. Indeed, sociability is fundamental to the Cityville experience. Want to plunk down a few houses and start a business or two? All you need is a computer and a halfway decent internet connection. Wanna complete quests and expand your borders? You're going to need "neighbors."

Neighbors, you see, can help you secure vital resources like energy, supplies, and currency. Energy allows a player to perform an action (build a house, pick a crop, collect some rent, or reap profits from a business). Supplies, typically from harvested crops, allow businesses to keep serving customers and thereafter produce profits. Currency follows when businesses make money or when residents pay rent. [It's not incidental that Cityville has been called a mashup of SimCity and Monopoly.]

Energy is the prime mover of this game; it's necessary to do just about anything. The good news: it accumulates by itself, one unit every five minutes. That's the sweet spot, an increment that is endurable - at first. The bad news is that the pace of replenishment feels absolutely glacial after a while. That's where neighbors become essential. They can share their energy with you, generally at no cost to themselves. And that's just the beginning of their utility.

Neighbors can also share supplies, collect rent, and increase growth by allowing you to plant franchise businesses in their cities. That's right: Cityville is an omnitopian expanse in which every locale becomes a doorway to a shared perception of community. With neighbors, you can staff buildings without being forced to pay employees' salaries. Salaries? You betcha. Unless you've got neighbors willing to help, you must use in-game currency to pay wages. Once that money runs out, you're forced to buy bucks with real money. Neighbors equal growth.

Returning to my city, I smile. One neighbor (a pal in Texas) has revived a crop that I'd neglected to water. Another neighbor (in Florida) has visited my houses and collected rent. Adding to the sense of community, I observe a tiny picture of a neighbor hovering over my city. The icon hops from place to place, a dancing deity come to sprinkle gifts from heaven. Perhaps the Cityville universe is polytheistic. So while I planned to limit my stay for a couple minutes, I'm now happy to return the favor. I'll need my neighbors to staff a hospital later. Just five minutes more. Click, click, click.

Minutes turn into hours, especially when waiting for that ultimate kick, the gambling high: a rainbow-reward of clinking coins. Ahhhh, the sound of money popping from a slot machine. Then there is the burst of colorful icons forming "collections" that I can trade for still more energy, more supplies, more currency. Best of all, I get an extra boost when I scoop my prizes quickly. More coins, more clinking, more energy, more experience points, more life. Oh, and I can't forget the cheers of happy residents that greet every wise decision I make. I love that sound. My Cityville advisor tells me that I might even be elected mayor!

That's the fun of Cityville: its clever concoction of giddy anticipation, the hope that imminent reward waits beyond the next click. Learning from Las Vegas, Zynga creators have crafted a game that requires little strategy and virtually no effort. You can keep it running in the background, like the buzz of a receiver turned low. Dip in and out whenever you choose (plant strawberries and you don't even have to worry about withering crops). If you feel like swooping into your friends' towns, you get a quick charge of easy altruism. You did some good, and you can expect some good in return. Return, or not. It's your choice. Only, you want to return. That's the point.

Keep playing, the game teaches, and you will build that library, which will allow that population increase, which will allow that tall building, which will justify that territory expansion, which will yield that bigger crop, which will enable that big harvest, which will earn that next level, which will reap that burst of coins, which will… It never ends (at least not yet).

Just remember, the longer you play, the more neighbors you need. The more neighbors you have, the longer you must play - if only to keep watering your friends' crops. The cycle is virtuous when you're having fun with friends. Yet there's something vicious at work too. At its worst, Cityville becomes something less like a game and more like a virus, an addiction. I'm reminded of E.B. White's evaluation of the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair: "There is a strong, sweet poison which infects the blood."

My daughter is immune to this poison but my wife graciously founded a city to help me complete a police station [There is no crime in Cityville - yet]. She announced that her urban planning career would be short lived, but she was back in town today, clicking for friends and family. Jenny kindly sent tourists by the busload to my thriving Level 19 town a few hours ago. I'm glad she did, because I'm just about to reach the next level! Just 118 experience points until I become a Level 20. So close.

Sure, I could wait for my own energy supplies to replenish themselves, but it's so much easier when neighbors chip in. Now I'm so close to opening the school for which my citizens have been clamoring. I'm so close to turning the sad icon (a sign of their impatience) into a happy face. I'm so close to leveling up! My citizens will be happy. I will be happy.

Then I can quit. Really.

(Screencaps are for purposes of academic comment and criticism. No ownership is implied.)

1 comment:

Andrea said...

Love it! This sort of explains why I have whiled away many hours on Frontierville, growing my crops and raising my cows...because it is a positive place when I am surrounded in a sea of negativity in my reality right now. I can do no permanent wrong here....and my helpful actions are immediate and reciprocated! Ah, if only real life could make me smile as much as my small army of brown cows that add +5% to my income and crop harvest!