Tiny Tower. Uninstalled.

So after hearing good things about Tiny Tower, for well, years, and now that I have my own iPad, I decided to give it a try on Sunday morning. By yesterday evening, about 35 hrs later, I had 10 floors, 15 residents, and a physical tick that required picking up my iPad and restocking my businesses every 30 minutes…which maybe would have been acceptable if within the game there existed a single shred of fun. But there does not.  No fun.  As a hamster wheel/ pellet dispenser, Tiny Tower is mind-bogglingly effective.  I like to think I’m a hardened gamer, and I have personally deployed the strategies they’re using to build compulsion, and I still could not put it down and leave it down. But, as a game, it’s non-existent.  It is not a game.


Here’s why: games have choices and/or reactionary moments that affect outcomes. Tiny Tower is just a sequence of events that the player experiences faster or slower depending on how much they play or pay. Like its own visual metaphor, it’s just a ladder the player climbs.  And as a further elucidation: here are the moments of fun in the game in descending order, most fun first:

  1. Cashing in a wad of money to buy a new floor.
  2. Seeing what random business will appear after you select the type of business. (Wait 2 hours for construction.)
  3. Enjoying the outfits of the guests who visit your tower. (My best was some sort of Santa Claus King, and these outfits can be admittedly, pretty charming.)
  4. Using a VIP guest to get cash slightly more quickly for 20 seconds or so.
  5. Admiring your tower being tall and tower-y.

So yeah, no fun and no choices.

Ironically, I think Tiny Tower is more a testament to the power of inherent interest in games and the power of a player’s imagination in bringing a digital world to life, rather than its powers of compulsion. And in that dimension, NimbleBit made strong choices. I say this because I could almost pretend I was having fun. It did take me 35 hours to uninstall after all, even realizing after the 4th floor that there was no new gameplay incoming.

(Quick definition: inherent interest refers to our fascination with any topic we, as humans, automatically pay attention to, even if the use of the theme itself is not very good or well-handled.  Inherently interesting themes include such things as dragons, knife fights, puppies, etc.)

With regards to Tiny Tower, the inherent interest is being a mogul and creating a self-contained world and then ordering that world. Not a new theme in gaming, but always an effective one. And as to the power of the player’s imagination: even though the types of businesses had no effect on the (minimal) gameplay, I was way more invested in my game because I had a Mexican restaurant and an arcade, although I could’ve done without the bike shop. And although I think the working residents were almost always at work, knowing that they ‘lived and worked within the tower’ made them feel a little alive to me, all with basically zero AI outlay on the part of NimbleBits.

So, I’m glad I gave Tiny Tower a chance, and it has some valuable lessons for designers of casual games, but it and I are officially through. To its credit, I didn’t need to make microtransactions to keep playing. (Although it would have ‘relieved pain’ if I had paid, I didn’t feel completely hampered without paying.) It’s just tremendously disappointing to see how thin the gameplay is. Btw, I should probably say player actions instead of gameplay, because again, not a game. Habit.

As a designer, I think we often see the mechanics that could have been and here I see a vast possibility-scape, completely unexplored.  I certainly imagined a much deeper game, whenever friends told me how ‘fun’ it is. Yet, if the measure of a casual title is whether it spawns a Zynga clone, then Tiny Tower has succeeded. So, now the search begins to find a Tower game done well.  I think I’ll pass on Dream Heights, though. 

P.S. Have any of you played a well-designed Tower/builder game? Or does Tiny Tower get better after floor 10? Or have you tried other mobile games that felt like climbing a ladder, no choices and no fun?

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You’re Hired! How to Nail the Interview and Stick the Landing for Artists and Designers

Thanks to all who joined me in my session this past Thursday at the East Coast Game Conference on getting hired and being a good team member! It was great to see so many faces and meet so many of you afterward!JCanada_ECGC_2013_cover

Click on the image to the left to download the slides. These slides have been made available for personal use and reference.  If you’re an instructor hoping to use these in a classroom or group setting, please email me with a request at jennifern42[at]gmail.com.

Btw, if you saw my talk and you haven’t reviewed it yet, I’d super appreciate it if you’d take 1 minute to give my session an official conference review here: http://www.ecgconf.com/speakers/speaker/Jennifer+Canada

And I’d love to hear from you in comments below!  What did you think?  Any info you’re planning to act on?

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East Coast Game Conference 2013


I spent the last two days meeting new people and catching up with old friends at ECGC. It’s one of my favorite events of the year and this go-round I had the enjoyable duty of giving a talk on getting into the industry and being  a good team member.

If you were able to catch my talk, ‘You’re Hired! How to Nail the Interview and Stick the Landing for Artists and Designers’ and want to squirrel away the slides for future reference, or if you missed the talk and want to conduct a self-guided tour, check back this weekend for the slides!

Btw, if you saw my talk, I’d super appreciate it if you’d take 1 minute to give my session an official conference review here: http://www.ecgconf.com/speakers/speaker/Jennifer+Canada

And I’d love to hear from you in comments below!  What did you think?  Any info you’re planning to act on?

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Game of Thrones wallpaper via ~elia-illustration

I had some fun creating a wallpaper for myself with Elia Fernandez’s stunning illustrations featuring the women George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire.

Click on the image to download if anyone likes it. 2400×1600.

Trust me, you’ll probably want to check out Elia’s entire gallery here.  Thanks, Elia!

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Are we Game Designers or Game Definers?

This past week, one of the most striking posts I read online concerned an interesting fact noticed by the poster:  aspiring authors often appear more interested in creating the history, culture, and character backstories of a narrative’s setting than telling affective and moving stories within that world.

“It’s like people really want to write a wiki, and have to come up with the pesky “moving, powerful, imaginative literature” stuff out of obligation.” original here by Sean T. Collins via Vorpalizer

I will confess that I may have starting reading this post because it frames its argument using as a contrast The NeverEnding Story, one of my most cherished and formative childhood movies.  He argues that the opposite approach, a world such as NES’s
Fantasia, brimming with crazy, beautiful, terrible, astonishing, and above all—disparate—elements seems more real and more moving to its audience because any real world contains both huge variety and a lack of connection and cohesion by the very fact of its size. And as every element of Fantasia showcased within the movie exists for a narrative purpose, not simply to fill out a history, so is every scene and character moving and memorable. (Luck Dragons, anyone?) This is a movie that started with a story to tell, not as a ‘wiki’ to compile, file, and organize the facts of a world.

So, why am I, a game designer, so interested in this article? … I would argue this ‘wiki first’ approach also runs rampant in the world of game design and not to our benefit as an industry. Like novels that put classification and backstory first, games that focus on an organized and justified world ironically feel less real even though likely more time has gone into finding that ‘real’ feeling.

Since I don’t want to throw stones at games where I don’t have first-hand knowledge of how they were developed, I’ll just say, I’m sure we can all think of some tremendously detailed game worlds that felt like they were missing a soul. By contrast, games that have gone in the opposite direction have brought us living and emotional experiences like Braid, Fez, Limbo, and last year’s episodic The Walking Dead.

Anyone who’s worked with me or been in one of my classes knows I would never advocate that time spent on backstory is a waste. Indeed, all of the above games contain references to and are infused by backstory, and in the case of Braid, the entire game is based around working through a problematic past, versus Limbo which leaves the player to puzzle out what the present implies about the past. However, where these games stand out, at least to me, is that the backstory serves the narrative and emotional needs of the gameplay first and foremost. The classification and set up of the game’s world was never an end of itself. Nor can I imagine any of those designers was most excited by the prospect of enumerating facts about the world in a list.

As game designers, anytime we lose site of the experience as the main goal, our work and our games suffer for it. Fundamentally, we aren’t purveyors of bulleted lists and definitions, spreadsheets and algorithms. I think because a game idea often starts in that medium, it can be easy to lose sight of that. I will finish up with a slightly reworked quote from the original article:

“I submit that the drive to classify everything, to treat [a game world] of whatever stripe as a code to be cracked rather than a [game] to be [played] and [experienced] and [felt], is, like the great black wolf-thing Gmork, a servant of the power behind the Nothing. It leaves you with a single grain of sand. Imagine that grain in your hand. The imaginations we need to rebuild Fantasia are wild and unafraid. We need Love, not Law. “The more wishes you make, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.”

Also, confessions  …yes, I did dress as the Childlike Empress for Halloween 1989 …and I almost bought a necklace at Kohl’s two months ago because it looked the Auryn  …and yes, I did like The NeverEnding Story 2, but not 3. I’m not crazy.

Now let’s all enjoy the song together—and try to ignore the mullet…


P.S. What games do you think may have originated ‘wiki first’? And what games do you think likely originated ‘story first’? Any thoughts on which way is better?

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Kyle is helpful

Site down, then fixed. Everyone should marry a programmer.

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Triangle IGDA, 3/12/13 – John O’Neill of Spark Plug Games

Thanks to John O’Neill of Spark Plug Games for sharing his thoughts on indie games and indie games studios at the Triangle IGDA this Tuesday. Very informative! Make sure to check out his team’s newest game: Plight of the Zombie!

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