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:
- Cashing in a wad of money to buy a new floor.
- Seeing what random business will appear after you select the type of business. (Wait 2 hours for construction.)
- 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.)
- Using a VIP guest to get cash slightly more quickly for 20 seconds or so.
- 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?