I like my friends. Some of them are really nice. Yet within just a few minutes of playing SimCity Social, the Facebook-powered Farmville clone has tricked me into spamming them. Social game developers tend to get excited about the term viral.
Here’s the thing: viral infections tend to be disasters. Say "it's gone viral" fifty years ago and you'd be met with a "god help us all" rather than the sound of a popping champagne cork. Viral used to be a negative word, and with SimCity Social's help it's quickly becoming one again.
SimCity Social isn’t really a SimCity game. Not a proper SimCity game. It’s a series of button prompts imploring you to lay down factories, homes and businesses. You plop them down, and in response, you’re assaulted with quests and pop-ups. These buildings can be upgraded at the cost of artificially scarce materials and cash. Upgraded buildings have an increased effect on the surrounding homes, which in turn increases your population, and then your real-life friends start moving in.
And this is how SimCity Social tricked me. There's an old work colleague living in a Spanish two-storey villa. Next to him is a pal I've been meaning to get in touch with for a while, he must be in the open beta too, right? And hey, there's my game developer friend chilling out in an affluent townhouse - this thing's getting popular already! Is that the head of PR for a major PC games publisher? Christ, it's only SimCity you guys. What's going on here?
Without a second thought, I sent them all gifts. Welcome to the neighbourhood, have some Dunkin’ Donut energy doughnuts. I don't know what's more surprising: that the game is so flagrantly branded, or that there's such thing as an energy donut. And then I started to wonder. Are those guys actually playing? Or did I just spam them with invitations to, and implicit endorsements, of a creepy and crappy social game? Had I become that most annoying of Facebook friends - just one notch above the kind of tool who blindly forwards a chain email to avoid the ghost of a dead baby turning up at the foot of their bed?
As it turns out, my friends were absolutely not playing. SimCity Social had fooled me into thinking they were playing by pulling their names and faces out of my Facebook contacts list and slipping them into my game. I could click on them and send them a gift: usually an ad for Dunkin' Donuts.
FFS social game developers.
It's no great marketing secret that placing your buddy's grinning mug next to a crate of cat food will help sell cat food. Friends buy what their friends buy, and they like what their friends like. Facebook knows this. They're expected to settle a class action suit for using its members' faces in what it called ‘sponsored stories’ - that is to say, they were posting your face next to their advertisers' products and showing the result to all of your friends. "Here's Tim posing next to a John Lewis pewter tableware set. It would seem that he likes John Lewis pewter tableware sets. He'd probably like you more if you liked, or perhaps owned a John Lewis pewter tableware set. Just saying."
SimCity Social's friend-harvesting is absolutely no different - in fact, I think it’s way more insidious. SimCity Social tricks you into believing that other players are playing the game when they are not - and then it invites you to spam them with messages. This is insiduous.
I don’t care if SimCity Social is fun or not (it’s not). I don’t care if it’s a success (it probably will be). All I know is that I just pissed off a bunch of my close friends so that EA and Facebook could push their Dunkin’ Donut agenda. It's repellent. EA has made me look like an idiot. This isn't what social games are about. Not even nearly. It's odd too, given that EA has produced a decent social game in FIFA Superstars. SimCity Social is a heinous backwards step.
Besides, Krispy Kreme wouldn’t pull a stunt like this.