I don’t get the allure and popularity of freemium time-based simulation games like Farmville, DragonVale, Tap Zoo, and Smurfs Village. Yet these games are the top grossing games on the App Store. So I decided to take one on to see if I can find the ‘it’ factor that makes these games so enjoyable, popular and profitable, without paying real money to short-circuit the game.
tl;dr (Too Long; Didn’t Read): You have got to be out of your mind to find these ‘games’ enjoyable or worth spending money on. They are slow, skill and challenge lacking, chore-based, time-draining, naggy, annoying proofs of stupidity. The only conclusion I can draw from this experience is that people don’t value their time, have no self-respect and are just plain stupid to be playing and spending money on these products. “Men in Black” got it right: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it”.
A while ago, I sought out and chose one to try out. Zynga and Facebook games were out, I did not want to annoy my friends. I needed one that fitted the genre, and that others talked about. I needed one that other people I knew were playing. The game I found and played was Tiny Tower by Nimblebit, Apple US’s 2011 game of the year. It has 236,217 ratings on the App store, over 1 million daily players and had made over $3 million by June of 2011. It fits the bill.
In this game, you start with some fake money and add floors to a tower building. Floors can be residential or one of five kinds of store. You need people (bitzens) in the residences to work in and stock the stores. As the stores sell goods, you make more money to restock the stores and build more floors. Of course, it takes time and effort to build floors, open stores, stock goods and sell goods - the time and chore component is well taken care of. You can use in-app purchases to get more money to build more floors or to speed up the process. There is more to it - bitzens have skills, VIP’s randomly help things along and there is always one in the elevator for you to guide.
After ages of play, as of now, I have a 68 floor tower, with 40 stores, 26 residences, a lobby and one under construction. I have 112 bitzens (recently evicted a few) with 76 in their dream jobs. And I did not spend a single cent on in-app purchases to get here.
I put my time in, a lot more than I planned for one article, and this is what I found.
I hate doing chores. Don’t we all. This game was all chore. I had to keep coming back to stock floors, move the elevator, assign jobs, stock floors, move the elevator, stock floors. And the waiting, always with the waiting, one more hour to stock a floor, one more day for a floor to be built. As the tower grew, the number of chores grew, but the time between chores grew too. You get punished for getting further in the game.
A chore cannot be a game.
But there is more that makes these not-games so painful:
The Skill Level
To me, in order for something to be a game, it must require some skill. First person shooters, which I am terrible at, require twitch skills and game controller mash skills. Word games require a reasonable vocabulary. RPG’s require problem solving skills to choose the right attack and approach to monsters.
The skill required for this game is, well, none. You tap on icons to stock stores, to choose which product to stock, to move the elevator, to add floors. No need to think, no pressure, no challenge, just tapping. You just follow what the game tells you to do.
As long as you do these chores, or pay real money, the tower will grow. I found no way to use skill to make the tower grow any faster or run better.
A game should also pose a challenge to the player. Word games challenge the player to find or create words. Shooters challenge the player to be faster. Driving sims challenge the player to be smoother. Dance games challenge the player to build rhythm.
There is no challenge in this game. As long as you do your chores, or pay money, the tower will grow. More residents will eventually move in to work in the growing number of business floors. Stock will always sell out.
As an software engineer, though, I tried to find a challenge in determining and then beating the game’s logic. Turns out, the engineers who designed the game gave it reasonably simple logic, skilled bitzens stock floors cheaper, and the more you add the longer things take, and that’s it.
I understand the concept of casual gaming, games to play while you are waiting for the bus, versus serious games, where you make the time to play. This genre is promoted as casual games. But it is not.
A casual game has no time limit or time component. You can start a casual game any time, pause it and come back to it any time later, with no change in the game state. If I start a game in Spell Tower waiting for a bus, I can get back to it anytime later and continue, the casual game waits on me.
But in these simulations, you wait on the game. You have to make time in your busy schedule when the game needs it to stock floors and progress. If you do not, in most of these, your virtual goods spoil and you lose more time and money. Fortunately, the Nimblebit team made Tiny Tower such that the game simply stops progressing, it’s not as bad as the others. But since you, the gamer, are a slave to the game’s clock, it cannot be a casual game, to be picked up when you want. It has to be picked up when the game wants. In other words, players voluntarily wait tables without tips.
Fun is defined as something that provides enjoyment, amusement and lighthearted pleasure. Racing games are fun because we enjoy driving and racing. RPG games are fun because there is a world to explore and plunder. Word games are fun because we get pleasure in challenging our vocabularies.
These sims are not fun. No-one I know gets enjoyment from doing chores or paying for things that don’t exist. No-one gets amused by doing the same task over and over again without pay. No-one finds lighthearted pleasure in having to interrupt their lives based on the demands of a dumb software application.
I found this experience to be the opposite of fun. It was a drudge, a toil, it was hard work to motivate myself to keep playing, to keep stocking floors. It was devoid of fun to have to wait for things to happen, or to have to get in there and perform the necessary tasks so that the game mindlessly continues.
I like to feel a sense of accomplishment when playing a game. One feels great when beating a boss level in an RPG, winning a race in a driving sim, finding that high-scoring word, or getting the high score based on skill and challenge.
I did not get that feeling from Tiny Tower. I expected to get that feeling as the tower grew, as more money flowed and more happened in the game. In fact, I felt the opposite. The taller the tower grew, the longer it took to do the chores, the longer it took to add floors, it became more and more of a grind. I began to hate the amount of time it took to move bitzens to higher floors, how long it took to add new stores or earn money to to do things. Maybe I expected the game to get easier or at least faster as the tower grew, instead, it got more and more drawn out.
I did also check on Game Center to see how others had done in the game. Maybe I would feel accomplishment if my tower was taller than theirs. But alas, no. Several had simply spent real money to grow their towers quickly, which means all the time and effort I had invested in the game was beaten by others who just paid for it. It was deflating.
Finally, a game needs an end, a win, a climax. RPG’s give you the final boss, shooters give you the alien general, word games run out of letters. As a gamer, the feeling of losing makes you want to try harder, and the joy of a win, or completing a challenging game, is why we love to play it.
With this, there is no win, it’s a never-ending set of chores. The tower keeps on growing, but so does the chore list. It gets no tougher, it gets no more challenging, it seems to get more and more endless. In fact, as the tower gets bigger and the chore list longer, the game gets slower and slower, more and more boring. The feeling of wasting your time grows and grows, the feeling of futility increases, it’s endless tic-tac-toe. Maybe they should have used this genre of game in the movie “War Games” instead.
We have enough chores, drudge, time-wasters and money-burners in real life to deal with. We play games to get away from it all, to find fun and excitement in imaginary realms. But these games add to dreariness of life. They bring no joy or escape to the player, no sense of achievement and they never seem to end.
I therefore have to conclude that the people who make these games so popular and profitable must have such a dreary existence that they need fake chores and virtual goods to uplift them to the level of basic existence. They must be so bored that having a these chores and tasks to come back to gives meaning to their lives.
Logically, since basic existence already includes huge numbers of chores and unnecessary unrewarding expenses, I cannot fathom how people would want to add to their life-drags by playing and spending on these games.
Evidentially they do. Ergo, they must be utterly and unashamedly stupid.
I set out to find the fun and allure in a game genre. All I found was drudge and time-sucking money-burning soul-numbing toil.
I’m not stupid.