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City-building ‘simulation’ games are all about waiting, but some manage to bring the fun

by Phil Hornshaw

Ever since the rise of titles such as FarmVille, the app space has been dominated by similar social “simulation” games. These task players with building cities or other structures, tending to them and reaping rewards that can be used to customize or beautify them. But while there are tons of these games in the iTunes App Store with more being added every day, the question remains: Are any of them worth a damn?

The short answer is: mostly, no. But every once in a while, a titles comes along that takes this formula and spins it just enough to make it fun – at least for a bit.

The most recent comes from Electronic Arts: The Simpsons: Tapped Out. Licensing the popular cartoon show franchise, EA tasks players with rebuilding the iconic Springfield from the ground up, replacing buildings one at a time in their own little version of the town. As time goes on, you’ll expand Springfield by purchasing new land, earning new structures, finding new residents – and waiting. The primary portion of the game is built on sending people to accomplish tasks and waiting seconds, minutes or hours for them to be completed. The hope from the developers’ standpoint is that you’ll get bored waiting and pay for “donuts,” which allow you to speed things up.

Like most of these games, The Simpsons: Tapped Out can lack engagement. Games in this genre feel like they’re geared specifically toward getting you interested in playing, then taking the fun away unless you’re willing to pay. And sure, developers are hoping to make money – that’s the point – but by and large, games like this aren’t fun enough to warrant paying for them.

However, there are a few exceptions to that rule. If you’re into the FarmVille-esque simulation genre, there are options out there that will engage you. And the first is The Simpsons: Tapped Out.

Humor goes a long way

A huge boon The Simpsons: Tapped Out has going for it is its license. The game feels like the cartoon show and includes a number of original voices and a great deal of original writing. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll immediately get a kick out of what’s on offer. You give Homer orders. You read Cletus the Slackjawed Yokel’s attempts at English. You listen to Apu and Ned Flanders accept missions specific to their personalities. It all has a terrific air of authenticity.

The underlying structure is the same as other titles in the genre, so you’re likely to find yourself waiting for all your characters to complete eight-hour-long tasks pretty much constantly. You may also be stalled further in the future with the need to collect more donuts than you have. But for the most part, The Simpsons: Tapped Out uses the source material well and is humorous along the way. If you’re looking for a simulation title like this, it’s not a bad bet by any stretch.

Breaking up the (in)action

\Other titles in the genre have found success by making their games about more than just placing buildings and waiting hours for them to appear. A recent entry from Gameloft cribs a few ideas from the Pokemon-led monster pet genre. Your primary goal in Monster Life is to gather up creatures that you can use to fight other creatures in turn-based battles.

As you play through Monster Life, you’ll need to build your “base” as a place where you can raise various creatures to serve as your fighting squad. You can purchase eggs of different animal types, but in order to raise them to fighting strength, you need to build their various habitats, use your resources to train them, and so on. Once you’ve raised your monsters to a certain level, you can start taking them into battles around a larger world map, where winning fights earns you more resources and pushes along a story.

It’s certainly not a situation that anybody with even cursory gaming experience won’t have seen before, but adding a monster training element to the formula gives players something else to strive for in Gameloft’s title. That might be enough to make the wait times worth bearing.

You could always pay for them

Most of the troubles with titles like FarmVille, The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Monster Life are derived from the fact that they’re free. These games use a payment model known as “free-to-play,” which means downloading and playing them is free, but the games include optional “micro-transactions” in which players can buy things in-game to speed progress. It’s almost like the arcade cabinets of old, which were notoriously geared to be extremely difficult to induce players to pump more quarters into them to keep the game going.

With free-to-play titles, developers throw up roadblocks that encourage players to pay for them. Generally, this comes in the form of enticing you into starting to build your farm or Springfield, and then making you wait hours to be able to continue. A solid way around this model is just to pay for the games outright.

One company, Kairosoft, has been repeatedly praised for its simulation titles, all of which are paid apps in the App Store (usually going for $3.99). Kairosoft is a developer that makes games similar to those of the FarmVille genre, but they’re paid, and therefore they’re often a bit deeper and more involved. Epic Astro Story, for example, has players building a settlement on an alien planet. It still uses some time delays, but relies more on requiring players to be better managers, keeping track of their limited money and resources in order to keep moving forward. Manage your town badly and you’re forced to wait.

And there are free titles that manage to do the job of being fun as well. Tiny Tower is one that seems to perfectly manage making you wait while remaining fun. It’s hard to divine exactly what works about the title, but it may be that it keeps you busy; as you build your tower and fill it with people, there’s usually something to do. It’s also really easy to compare your progress to others, which lends a competitive spirit of the game.

In all, it’s a matter of personal preference. If you like these simulation titles, look around some. If you like the film Jurassic Park, well, there’s Jurassic Park Builder. There are a number of space- and medieval-themed ones, too. They all have their merits – so long as you’re willing to wait... or pay.