Soapbox: Tiny Tower, Free to Play, and an Alternate Gaming History

So, before I get started, I want to say that I really did try to keep this blog positive. I have a tendency towards ranting (those of you who know me are now laughing at my understatement), but as I mean this blog to be a constructive set of observations on game design, I’ve avoided falling in that trap. Well, I recently started ‘playing’ Tiny Tower, and I can’t hold it in anymore.

I have an admission to make. I hate Free to Play (F2P) games. I can’t stand them, and I wish they didn’t exist. I avoid playing them. I avoid talking about them. And, ultimately, I wish no one played them at all.

Now first, let me be clear, I am speaking of games that follow the F2P pay model, not games which are just free as in ‘free beer’. If these games were free as in beer, there wouldn’t be a pay model attached, now would there?

And to be even more clear, I don’t actually hate the concept of F2P games. Games which are free to play up front, but for which you can pay to further explore the game and what it offers would actually not be a horrible system. This kind of a system would actually benefit gamers, because it would allow us to sample games, and pay for them as we saw fit, based on how much we felt they were worth. Great idea, really.

Only, F2P games haven’t gone that direction. At all. They are actually a whole new genre of game, one in which the design is corrupted in such a fashion that only by spending money would you have the experience we have come to expect from the games we play.

Take Tiny Tower for iOS. If you haven’t played it, on the surface, it seems like a Sims or Sim City style game where you build a tower, choose whether floors are stores or residential, and then populate the tower and give jobs to the people who live in it. Seems fine, right? I agree. Until I played it. I will now present to you, in the style of the now defunct “Games for Lunch” (With apologies to Kyle Orland), one hour of playing Tiny Tower over my lunch break.

12:00 I load up the App Store™, and search for Tiny Tower. I find it, and start the download. It’s only 15mb, which downloads over my 3g connection in about a minute.

12:01 I start the game, and am immediately presented with a tutorial. Great! I buzz through it, and learn how to build floors, stores, and apartments, as well as operate the elevator and assign Bitizens, as they are called, to jobs based on their abilities. The game speeds me through this by liberally rewarding me with Tower Bux, which I can use as a substitute for actually playing, I gather.

12:02 Aha! I now have control and can make decisions. I have a store in the process of being built that was started during the tutorial. The construction crew lets me know there’s an hour and a half left before it’s done being built. That seems excessive, but maybe they are employed by the City of Toronto. Either way, I have 5000 coins, 5 Tower Bux, apartments, and a frozen yogurt shop. One whole Bitizen has deigned to show up and live in my tower. Call me Mr. Slumlord.

12:03 All I can really do right now is ferry people to different floors using the elevator. I get bored of waiting for things to just happen, and spend some Tower Bux to fill my apartment with Bitizens.

12:04 I’m done examining my Bitizens’ hopes and dreams, and have still assigned them to jobs they don’t like. Suck it, pixel men.

12:05 A VIP shows up! I am told if I take him to a floor under construction, it will shave three whole hours off the construction time. Sounds good, kind of like that deal I am negotiating with a Nigerian Prince. I rocket him to the top of my tower, and am rewarded with a fully constructed Night Club. Now I have to reshuffle my Bitizens’ jobs.

12:06 I run out of things to do again, so I spend my few remaining Tower Bux on selling stock and restocking stores. I’m still 1000 coins short of building a new floor. I pop out of the game and hit up Facebook to check for new posts.

12:07 I return to the game, to be notified that I earned 55 coins while I was away. I do some quick math, and it’ll be twenty minutes before I can build a new floor.

12:08 While ferrying Bitizens around, I am asked to help find one. I correctly pick the right floor, and am rewarded with 1 Tower Bux. Yeah, it’s still Bux when there’s only one.

12:09 I complete another Where’s Waldo segment, but I’m tired of ferrying people around, so I explore the menus. There’s a fake Facebook, called “Bitbook” which has goofy postings from my Bitizens about their lives. “What is the alligator policy in this building?” R. Peters asks. I don’t know, honestly. I guess it’s an important question, 7 Bitizens like this.

12:09 I find a menu where I can exchange Tower Bux for coins, but the exchange rate doesn’t make economic sense, unless you are the Money Changer in Quest for Glory 2.

12:09 I click on a menu called “Get Bux” and am presented with the option of purchasing Tower Bux for real money. If I buy $0.99 worth, I get 10 Tower Bux. Which I can immediately change in to 3,000 coins. Which isn’t enough to put another floor on my tower. For $29.99, I can buy 1,000 Tower Bux, which I could exchange for 2,000,000 coins. Huh. Or I guess I could use those Tower Bux to build a complete tower in as much time as it takes me to tap on the screen 500 times.

12:09 I decline to spend real money, and instead, pop out of the game and play Powder.

12:16 My Klaskov worshiping fighter dies at the hands of a ghast. I pop back in to Tiny Tower, but there’s still nothing I can do except operate the elevator. I create a Quizar worshiping thief.

12:18 My thief dies after I read an unidentified scroll that turns out to be a Scroll of Fire. Oops. While trying to decide which god to worship next, Tiny Tower notifies me that my Night Club needs to be restocked. I follow the prompt, and can choose between stocking “Cover Charge” and “Cocktails.” I assume cocktails will be more popular. I pick that, and see that it will take ten minutes to restock. Slowest. Bartenders. Ever.

12:19 to 12:28 I lose three Belweir worshing mages on their first fights. I go back to Klaskov worshiping warriors and make it down to level 4 before dying to a lich. WTF, on level 4!?

12:28 I return to Tiny Tower, and deploy my stock. I do some ferrying, and decide that with my stocked stores, I should spend the Tower Bux I’ve earned finding Waldo. I sell off both my stores’ stock, and oh hey! I have enough to put a new floor on my building! I agonize for about twenty seconds before deciding to put in another set of residential apartments. They’ll take two hours to build. Maybe I’ll be visited by another VIP.

12:30 No VIPs.

12:32 No VIPs.

1:00 I’ve gotten to level 7 with a warrior only to be turned to stone by a cockatrice when my god abandoned me.

I think you can see the problem. Ultimately, you can’t really sit down and play Tiny Tower, because it is not a game, nor is it meant to be played. There’s no goals, and there’s no failure. Of course, there can’t be, because if I paid $30 to build my uber-tower but screwed something up and had my game end, I’d be so mad I’d probably flush my phone down a toilet.

Consider, if this game was made a few years ago, there would have been a speed slider. As it stands, you can’t choose to play Tiny Tower for a period of time unless you are willing to spend significant amounts of money. So to play it for free, you actually have to spend most of your time doing something else, because all the time scales are chosen so that they are optimally annoying. Would anyone ever really want to spend ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch operating an elevator and playing Where’s Waldo?

If I was invested in trying to actually build a tower, I would likely buy a bunch of Tower Bux so that I could actually do so without it taking… I’m not even sure. Weeks? Months? I’d be interested in knowing how long it takes to make a complete tower, without actually spending real money. And that money is significant for an iOS game. Given how many Tower Bux you spend just to play for an hour, 100 Tower Bux is obviously not enough to play for a sustained period of time, and that’s $5, which is basically the price of iOS games made with cutting edge technology and strong financial backing. $30? Forget it.

The other thing, of course, is that you only ever make one tower. It’s not like Sim City where you can experiment and try out crazy new strategies. If you want to replace a store with something else, you can delete the existing store, but you still have to wait hours for the new one to come in. This game’s business is wasting your time, and there’s no real room for any kind of creative input or strategy from the player.

To all of this, of course, you could say, “Well, if it ain’t your thang, don’t play it.” Which is fine, for now. But F2P is the new hotness in the games industry, with people throwing around new buzzwords (buzzphrases?) like “Games as a Service.” If you want to know what that means, allow me to give you a ride in my mythical magical alternate history time machine. It’ll be fun.

The year was 1991…

Civilization was released today, from Microprose. It is a world building game where you build up your city states in order to have the largest, most impressive country, out of all your friends. It uses a free BBS in order to let you compare your city states against those of your friends all over the world. You build cities, which then grow, and based on their population and resources, you earn coins which you can then spend on ever larger cities, and the ability to travel and create new cities. In order to progress, however, you need to first research new entries on the tech tree. 

Researching new technologies is just a matter of choosing which new technology to focus your scientists on. They then research the new technology over a matter of hours, or days, real time, depending on how deep you are in the tech tree. However, if you don’t want to wait that long, Microprose has a 1-800 number you can call, with a credit card, in order to purchase special Knowledge Bux. Once you receive them, you can then choose to instantly finish researching technologies, build new cities without waiting for income from existing cities, and in general, just show up your friends.

Be the first to have a globe-spanning state! That’s the only goal in the game. Unlike other games in which you can fail or be conquered by other states, in this game, you can never lose, because it’s all about fun and competing with your friends!

And millions of gamers cried out in unison, as if an entire history of quality games was suddenly extinguished. This is the future we may be facing if these F2P games continue to gain steam and mainstream acceptance.

Don’t believe me? Lets compare an iPhone game sold at $1, versus a F2P game with rough pricing like Tiny Tower. In general, it is accepted that of any free game, only 1-5% of your player base will ever choose to spend money on it. Of those, only a small percentage will ever spend a lot of money on it. The whales, as they are called. No, I did not make that up. That’s what F2P developers call you if you spend a lot of money on a F2P game.

So, lets say that you have 1,000 sales of a $1 game, versus 10,000 downloads of a F2P. Ten times the downloads for a free game seems extremely conservative for me, so we’ll go with that. The first game makes $1,000. Cut and dried. Now, let’s say 2.6% pay money for the F2P game. And lets say that they all spend $5, because lets be honest, the $1 option looks pointless, and the $30 option is ridiculous. The F2P game has just made $1,300. And that’s without counting whales.

But wait! The reality is that most players who make one purchase, will make multiple purchases. So now we’re at $2,000, say. But a popular ‘free’ game will also earn hundreds of thousands of downloads at the very least. And, of course, we still didn’t account for whales.

So in reality, why would a company interested in making money sell you a well designed game for $1, when they can sell you a maliciously designed game for free, and make more money?

Think about that. And then think about having to pay to accelerate your tech tree in Civ 6.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Soapbox: Tiny Tower, Free to Play, and an Alternate Gaming History

  1. Graham Jans

    There’s an important thing I think you missed: Civilization is now on Facebook, as a F2P game. (Civ World, I think it’s called?)

    The problem is: It’s far worse than you describe. Try it, I dare you.

  2. Nicholas Lovell

    I disagree with your analysis, if only because I think Tiny Tower is designed for a different play style from yours.

    It’s a game designed to be played over weeks, and months. That’s the joy of it. You pop in, check out how your bitizens are doing. Restock a few shops, decide what to build next, bug out. It’s a light-touch game for light-touch gamers.

    And if you want to play faster, you can play money.

    I like this style. It suits my life. It doesn’t suit everyone’s – fair enough. I think Tiny Tower is a brilliant, elegant, enjoyable, uncynical game.

    I’m aware that not everyone agrees.

  3. Erica

    What you should have done was use your Tower Bux to speed up the construction. I can never wait 8 hours for my 18th floor to construct itself.
    I’m at 18 floors (as stated before) and have invested no money in it whatsoever. This game for me was the exact opposite as you described for me. This game’s not for everyone, and that’s okay.

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