Some games are hard to put down. Often this is because a game is great fun, but entertainment isn’t always the force that drives us to keep playing. Sometimes we continue gaming because of a lack of clearly defined beginnings and endings; we don’t know when or where to stop so we just keep on going. Oddly enough, games that break play into nearly infinite tiny rounds deliver the same psychological effect as games that have no levels nor turns.
Will Wright and Sid Meier are experts at creating addictive gameplay through this method. Both Pirates! and Sims lack any clear level progression, while Civilization cuts up play time into such minute turns that each feel too short to be considered optimal stopping points. “Just one more turn!” is a cry familiar to anyone who has fallen victim to Meier’s brilliant design.
It is almost as if Natsume studied these classics and decided they would perform an experiment: “What if we designed a bad game that is addictive? Can we compel the player to continue playing something they don’t enjoy simply through design?”
Metropolismania is a Sim City clone. Like its source of inspiration, there is always something else that needs to be done in your city. More houses mean more tax money, but then those people moving in need schools, jobs, and places to eat. All of these places need electricity and other utilities like fire stations and police headquarters. Of course, residents don’t want to have to live near industry or power plants, which create new kinks to work out. There are levels in Metropolismania, but each one lasts hours. It is at these level breaks that I was most often able to convince myself to stop playing.
Natsume did, in fact, add a new twist to Sim City gameplay. You physically control the mayor of the city you are building. This control is given to you because you must travel the streets introducing yourself to your city’s inhabitants. But most residents aren’t content to just know your name and face, they demand friendship. In order to progress smoothly, you must regularly speak with and respond to the complaints of your town’s citizenry. These encounters range from gossiping about work to building an adults only night club. Solving landowner’s problems prevents them from moving out now, but if you want to add them to your “address book,” you need them to adore you. Success in the later levels greatly depends on how many people you can call and ask to move into your new city, so ignoring your populace now can set you up for unavoidable failure later.
Metropolismania’s social aspect is original and had potential but was poorly implemented. What could have been an immersive take on a city simulation is instead boring and repetitive. This is because you will have too many people in your city and they will keep saying the same things. It is difficult to remember who is who in your city. Not only do character models get reused within the same level, but dialog bits and AI personalities repeat. I would have liked to know the good people of Assylvania, but the residents are so uninteresting that it is difficult for me to care about them.
Being an outgoing mayor and having dominion over an ever expanding metropolis are counter to each other. Metropolismania’s two main gameplay concepts cannot work because one negates the other. If I am to get cozy with my people, I cannot be in charge of a hundred of them, and if I am going to be in charge of building the next Manhattan, I can’t be expected to speak to every citizen on a daily basis. If Natsume had scaled down the scope of the cities, they would have also at least partially dealt with the issue of limited character models and dialog trees.
It’s really a shame Metropolismania didn’t turn out well. Despite my overall boredom, I still enjoyed the high concept of playing a ground level diplomat. This design team has demonstrated that they know how to make a game that is addictive and that they can come up with original takes on old standards. Metropolismania 2 seems exceedingly unlikely, but I can hope. Too often good games get sequels that are the same exact game with a new location and plot. It is actually a game like Metropolismania, which succeeded in concept but failed in execution, that would benefit the most from a sequel or remake. Though I’d guess the regurgitated sequel makes a lot more business sense.
The results of Natsume’s experiment are in: Yes, I will play a game that isn’t very much fun if it is designed in a way that makes it difficult to put down. But now that I’ve stopped playing I have the sense to keep the game in its case and far away from the PS2. I suggest you do the same.