Faster. Higher. Stronger. Not only was it the motto of all Olympians from earlier this summer, it’s also the creed by which players will create their empire in Smooth Operators: Call Center Chaos.
This indie Xbox strategy game from Andreas Heydeck Games challenges players to mold a lean, mean, support center machine. While it’s possible to achieve greatness after a handful of hours, at some point players may be questioning whether they’re ruling the game or the game is ruling them.
Smooth Operators builds upon a tried-and-true formula of micromanagement and patience. In this particular case, it’s building up a call center by creating a self-supporting ecosystem. In order to make money, it’s necessary to build operation rooms and hire call-takers, telemarketers, and fill other similar roles to help meet daily quotas for clients. In order to keep those employees happy and up-and-running, players need to create service rooms and hire janitors to clean their workstations, as well as hire IT staff to fix their absurdly fragile computers.
Creating a thriving business is not all about hiring grunt workers. In order to reach for the skies – quite literally – the solution is to bring in a variety of management staff to open up new opportunities over time. Of course it’s necessary to feed everyone and allow them a chance to use the restroom, so those types of buildings are important as well. It’s quite possible that the most crucial piece of the puzzle is developing an efficient transportation system within the building. Creating a logjam keeps employees from returning to their desk and earning money, and it can also upset them to the point they eventually quit. There’s a solid tutorial that introduces players to the roles and functions of each of these pieces. It doesn’t take too long to learn how these parts all work together, but it can take a bit of struggling and patience to learn how to balance everything out.
As with similar games like Nimblebit’s Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes, there’s almost always a business deficiency the player will need to overcome. Perhaps there’s not enough of a certain kind of call-maker on a particular contract, or the elevator system gets too crowded causing employees to miss their daily quotas. Maybe the player’s waiting on their Account Manager to land them a higher volume contract to start using some of the idle employees. The concept here is the same as seen in a lot of RPGs: the dangling carrot. The idea that once the player overcomes some obstacle, it’s going to be smooth sailing keeps them reaching for that goal. While that can allow the player to reach a new, higher plateau, it also produces an even newer, shinier carrot. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with this system. I absolutely love the two titles from Nimblebit and have been playing Sim games for years. I even continued playing Smooth Operators long after most players would’ve gotten their money’s worth and walked away. It’s the best one of these small studio micromanagement games I’ve played, and the addictive quality is second to none.
I feel like Smooth Operators can be played in one of two ways, at least early on. Players can manage every bit of their business by keeping the clock slow and watching trends and inefficiences in their employees’ movement patterns and schedules. Or, in a very Rube Goldberg-esque manner players can set everything up, ramp up the clock, and watch how everything unfolds at hyper-speed. It’s really up to the player to determine how involved they want to get in the action. While I’m sure the former method provides successful results, I veered towards the latter, more hands-off method. I was able to achieve the desired results, though it may have taken longer. It’s nice that the game doesn’t require an extreme amount of vigilance, though some may point to that making the game too easy.
With no clearly definable end goal though, playing Smooth Operators will eventually lead to player fatigue. There are a number of reward-based objectives that also earn players extra money. These may offer an extra incentive for completionists to continue long after the objective money has ceased to be useful, but they only go so far. Although I have some gripes with the efficiency of the pathfinding logic for some of the characters – I’m looking at you, janitors – the biggest problem is certainly the endgame. The game just doesn’t scale well once players have put a healthy amount of time into it. There will inevitably come a point where all daily contracts are being fulfilled and no one’s quitting because everything has been made as efficient as possible through the purchase of better transportation methods and upgrading employees and buildings. The map has the potential for 40 floors of rooms with multiple columns, but players will likely never need more than a tenth of that to build an unstoppable juggernaut. I’m not sure what the point is for all that space since it’s not likely to ever get used. Up until players reach that point of continued success though, I think the game is a blast.
It’s difficult to say with any degree of conviction that every gamer should try Smooth Operators. I think it’s built for individuals who love a high degree of micromanagement or for casual gamers who get their kicks via similar games on Facebook or iOS devices. While it doesn’t quite reach the polished heights of a big budget SimTower, a game credited with inspiring this one, I think it matches or surpasses the best of the casual empire-building games currently available on the market. Its charming, cartoonish visual and audio presentation only lend to the appeal with some of the music feeling very Sim City-esque. It’s certainly a unique experience for the Xbox platform, and I think it’s a great choice to represent the indie development community as part of the Indie Games Uprising event. For 80 MSP ($1), I think most gamers would be hard-pressed to find a more addictive experience that they can play for a few minutes or for a few hours at a time.
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