I know that millions of people play Zynga’s Farmville and that they love it and that they spend money on virtual items that help them farm faster (I accidentally typed “fart faster” and was tempted to leave it be) and that there are a million derivative games out there offering a similar experience with a difference skin and that these are also very popular. I get it, and I’ve even tried to give myself to that experience. Some kept my attention for a small period of time, but ultimately none of them for very long and I think I once spent a dollar on one of them. I guess that’s a success, but I’m a sucker for in game purchases who forgets that things bought in the iTunes store cost money until they send me the receipt a few days later. I’ve made in-game purchases sometimes before I even start playing the game. It’s just that easy to convince me to pay for something that was supposed to be free. The Farmville derivatives, though? No such luck. I don’t even bother playing them anymore, already certain that they’re not worth my time or energy.
That is, until earlier this week. A friend of mine at work was telling me about Pocket Academy, the new game by Kairosoft (makers of Game Dev Story and Hot Springs Story, two iOS games I fell deeply, deeply in love with) set in a Japanese high school. The very thought of putting those two hands together led to me purchasing the game using reflex and muscle memory as I tried to work out in my head whether or not I actually had the money in my checking account and then getting sad because I actually had to wonder whether or not I had $4 in my checking account. As my fingers hurriedly worked their magic, he also tried to sell me on this new free game called Tiny Tower. He isn’t a great pitch man, however, and seeing as I was already thinking about how deeply I was going to dive into Pocket Academy, I wasn’t exactly sold on a free tower sim supported by in-game currency purchases.
On my way out the door, though, I did catch a glimpse of the game over his shoulder. While still not sold on the game, I was just a little interested thanks to the pixelated art style. Enough so that I noticed several glowing headlines about it as I perused the web the next day, and ultimately so much that I downloaded it that night because, hey, whatever, it’s free, right?
So I started playing the game the following morning while I was at what promised to be an incredibly dull day at work, breaking no less than a thousand rules. Perhaps under different circumstances this would not have happened, but Tiny Tower seemed to have luck on its side as it carried me through my predictably tedious day, sinking its insidious hooks in me along the way.
The game starts very slowly. The tutorial runs you through the first steps of creating your tower, first giving you the funds to build your first floor: a residential zone. My cleanly labeled “Plainlake Apts.” stacked on top of the similarly labeled “lobby”. Then, a little pixel man with a mustache and goatee named Ralph Barnes appeared at the elevator, and I used onscreen buttons to bring him to the second floor and he became the first tenant of my tiny tower. Next, I was given the funds to build third floor and put a restaurant inside of it. After it was built, I gave Ralph a job there, then set him to work making slices of pizza which people would then buy for one moneys. After moving a second person into my residential floor, I was able to give him a job in the pizza place as well and suddenly the two men were able to get to work on making personal pan pizzas, which would be ready for sale in fifteen minutes and would then sell for two moneys apiece. Ultimately, my pizza place (and any other workplace you can install on a floor) could support three employees, who could then make three levels of items worth one, two, and three moneys, respectively. When the items were finished being prepared, I could tap on the “stock” icon floating on the edge of the floor to put the items up for sale, bringing in more income for my tower and allowing me to purchase new floors with different store fronts and apartment styles in each. As your tower grows, it becomes more demanding of your attention. That said, it never requires your immediate attention, as the family portraits you stock in your photo studio will never spoil like an unharvested patch of pumpkins might.
It doesn’t sound terribly exciting or all that different from the typical Farmville style game, so it took me a while to really figure out what it was that drew me in so much. As I stated above, the game’s pixel art was immediately appealing to me, as they do a great job of creating many unique looking people with a limited palette. People have different clothing styles, hair, hats, glasses, facial hair, et cetera, and you have the ability to change a character’s style if you wish, though only in a limited capacity which you have no real control over. The characters are further brought to live with a very clever homage to facebook, “bitbook”, in which the people living in your tower will post status updates throughout the day about their job, the roommates, or just what they’re up to. This personalization becomes useful, as the game will randomly ask you to find a particular character for a number of different reasons, using a “towerbux” as a reward to encourage you to get to know your tenants. Each character is also made unique with a stat system, in which the person’s particular strengths in five different areas are rated between 0 and 9, and they each have their own dream job. The “game” portion of Tiny Tower is properly assigning your virtual tenants to jobs which will reduce the overhead of the job itself and increase production and sales of the product. It’s a seemingly simply system which grows in complexity in proportion to the growth of your tower.
Which leads me to the next thing which drew me in: the growth of the tower itself. In a game like Farmville, the point is to have a giant, cool-looking farm. I’ve always found that sense of scale doesn’t translate especially well, however, because you’re ultimately just making a bigger and bigger square that’s as easy to navigate at it’s biggest as it is in its smallest size. Your tower, on the other hand, gets bigger the more you play, and it’s easy to compare sizes with your friends. The size of your tower also comes into play when dealing with people who wish to ride the elevator, which requires you to hold the button as you travel through each floor. It’s a way to demonstrate how much progress you’ve made. There are even Game Center achievements for building your tower up to a hundred stories, assuring me that I’ll be working on this tower for a long time to come.
Perhaps the best part of Tiny Tower is that it is incredibly well balanced. Games of this ilk are designed around getting the player to spend money on in-game goods. Most of them, following Zynga’s model, get players hooked until they reach what can only be described as a progress wall, or a point at which the speed of the game is considerably slowed unless you purchase some in-game items in order to keep up your pace. The in-game item purchase in Tiny Tower are the aforementioned “towerbux”, which can traded in for moneys, or to speed up construction or restocking, or to purchase faster elevators. However, if you are hooked enough on Tiny Tower to spend the money on some towerbux, you likely do not need to. The game hands them out pretty generously. They are given out as tips from random people you’ve given an elevator ride to, for finding a particular resident for somebody, for building a new floor, or sometimes for stocking each level of item in a store. I’ve collected nearly thirty already just casually giving people rides and stocking my stores as I’ve been writing this review. Considering that you get a hundred for five real dollars, it doesn’t seem worth the investment. That said, I’m going to buy some towerbux just because I can’t think of any other way to support developer Nimblebit on this outstanding game. Due to the relative ease of putting out a game on iOS, you get a lot of developers who have great intentions and great ideas, but seemingly no sense of what makes their game right for the platform (see my review of Demolition Dash). For Tiny Tower to succeed on so many levels and also be a freeium title is nigh unheard of. (An enthusiastic) OKAY, YEAH.
*Edited because I spelt towerbux as “tower bucks” like a big dumb idiot and I don’t want everybody to make fun of me because I made such a stupid, stupid mistake and I’m sorry.