This is a review of the very first version of the Sims FreePlay app which seemed to contain a lot of bugs swiftly addressed in subsequent releases. You should find the more recent review more appropriate for the current status of the game.
I’ve never been much of one for computer games on any platform; about the only one I’ve played fully through to the end was Tomb Raider on the original PlayStation. Having an iPhone and iPad has meant I’ve picked up the occasional iOS puzzle app in recent times (I missed the Angry Birds craze but found Trainyard to be an enchanting and engrossing diversion), and the parcour platform game Mirror’s Edge offered for free in last year’s 12 Days of Christmas iTunes promotion was very entertaining if rather short. But despite the occasional dabble into Electronic Arts’ SimCity, I’ve never felt the allure of games in general.
In particular, I was always rather bemused by the point of The Sims: haven’t we already got a bigger and better ‘real life’ simulator in the world around us already? But when EA brought out a free version of the game for iOS it certainly seemed worth at least a try-out. And for a long while, I liked it more than I expected: the graphics are appealing and the interface really nicely thought out and natural to use on the iPad’s touchscreen. There’s a surprising amount to do at first and events move along quite briskly, guided by the in-game goals handed to you and the need to keep your Sims fed and watered, active and interested. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but I was enjoying creating the various Sims, giving them backstories, personalities and ‘storylines’ as I went.
It’s just as well that I had my imagination, because the gameplay soon proved rather limited, and lacking in strangely obvious ways: for example, Sims can become ‘partners’ but they can’t move in together nor can they ever move house. There’s a dining table, but no way for Sims to gather at it to eat a meal (whereas they can all join in watching TV or dancing around a hifi.) There’s a chess board and a soccer pitch, but only one person can play at a time. There are ‘careers’ for the Sims which progress well at first, but then suddenly stop dead as if the programmers lost interest or left some program event outcome untrapped. There’s no way to ‘undo’ any inevitable (and usually very costly) mistakes. Eventually all that’s left is to put all the Sims to work planting crops for hours on end in order to buy the more expensive game items, making it uncomfortably like the dull wage slave existence most people have in the real world and are playing the game to escape in the first place. It becomes boring, in other words.
But hang on a minute – it is free, after all. What do you expect? Actually The Sims FreePlay makes for a very interesting case study in the field of ‘freemium’ products, items that you can get for no upfront cost but which the individual or company behind it hopes to leverage to up-sell you something further down the line. In the case of The Sims FreePlay the revenue stream is via in-app purchases of game cash and credits (that can also be earned at a slower pace by playing the game itself) intended to pay back the development costs. EA have been heavily criticised in the iTunes Store user reviews of the game for being too nakedly money-grabbing in this respect, by cranking up the in-game cost of items to the point where it becomes all-but impossible to progress through the pre-set goals without making in-app purchases at high real world prices. Personally I’m fairly relaxed about this side of things as it’s still possible to use the app regardless of the goals.
However, there’s a bigger problem with this app. A much bigger problem, as it turns out. And that’s because on my iPad, this has to be the buggiest and single most crash-prone program I have ever used on any computer platform in my entire life. It’s just as well that it’s free, because otherwise it’s so bad that they would have to refund everyone’s purchase payments in full.
At the start, the crashes are occasional and just mildly annoying, but as you add to the number of characters and items in the game the complexity causes the whole thing to become increasingly unstable, to the point where you’re lucky if it can go five minutes without it falling over. Certain necessary actions in the game (such as switching to the town map overview to change locations) cause absolutely-certain crashes. Every crash terminates whatever the Sims are meant to be doing in the game: switching out of the game causes it to crash, but leaving the game to run in the foreground also soon ends up with a crash even if you do nothing with it. That means long-term actions can’t be completed at all, which is the only significant way of completing goals and earning game cash and credits without in-app purchases – the more cynically-minded person might even start to suspect that this is intentional on EA’s part to ensure you have to pay up after all.
And then finally, the inevitable happens: the game quits without warning in such a way that it can no longer even start up anymore without crashing at launch. The only option is to reset the game entirely and lose all the characters and houses that you’ve painstakingly built up. If you’ve invested either hours building up your Sim world or – even worse – paid up actual cash though in-app purchases, then it’s all gone. Game over. Start again from scratch, if by now you could really care less. I’m sure it’s down to being incredibly ambitious with all the games’ features and options, but as an advertisement for EA’s programming prowess (and for their other products) I can’t imagine anything worse than this outcome.
The funny thing with The Sims FreePlay is that I started off thinking that a game based on a real world simulation would surely be a waste of time; then it almost won me over with its initially charming implementation; then its gameplay limitations caused the doubts to return; and ultimately the technical disaster confirmed my initial feelings in spades.
It turns out that this iOS version is in fact far too costly in terms of both time and annoyance to be worthwhile even when nominally priced as ‘free’.
[Update 1: Fairness compels me to add that there has now been an new version of the app released by EA on the iTunes Store. Ostensibly issued for Valentines Day and including new "pink and hearts" items to purchase, the 400Mb download - I've had entire operating systems that weight in less than that! - also manages to address at least a few of the issues raised in the original review above. More crucially the whole thing seems significantly more stable, and moreover the new installation managed to rejuvenate the previously permanently crashed game without wiping the existing Sims data. It still has its limitations, but its nonetheless quite a product to give away free and therefore surely has to be worth a cautious try.]
[Update 2: the Valentine's update did indeed prove to offer a major and lasting improvement in game stability and there have been almost no crashes in the past month - quite a major turnaround. The actual new in-game features were rather cosmetic but they did close up some of the odd 'loose ends' in the original game play. And now there's an Ides of March version 2.0 update that adds several new major capabilities, such as the ability for Sims to move house and to move in together or even be removed from the game entirely; there's even an option to get engaged, married and to have little baby Simlettes; there's a new 'musician' career; and even an 'abort action' button that was painfully missing in the original version. Combined, all these updates make a huge difference to the game, and it's a shame there's a new bug crept in relating to the 'playable area' of a Sim's housing plot which invalidates a previously accessible fringe on the front and left where it used to be possible to build and place objects. While the game as a whole still reaches a natural plateau where frankly it becomes a bit of a drudge, the amount of work and improvement in the software since it launched before Christmas is commendable and redeems much if perhaps not quite all of the criticisms made in in the original review. I almost feel loved, wanted and listened to by EA at this point, although I'm sure they never read any of my original musings!]