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Tiny Tower: Why Irrational Elements Are Fun
by Jheng Wei Ciao on 10/26/11 04:00:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Welcome to Tiny Tower!
Tiny Tower is an iOS game developed by NimbleBit. Just like their previous hit Pocket Frogs, Tiny Tower is also a freemium game. It was the game that I spend countless hours playing, occupied most of my leisure time and drained my iPhone battery a lot in the past 2 months.

“You got hooked.” she said. “No. I didn’t,” and then I swiped the screen lock, tapping on the app icon to fiddle with my tower.

Even my girlfriend’s iPhone frequently got exhausted because of playing Tiny Tower. “Have you restocked the shops today?” “My newly open floor is a Museum!” “Hey, I’ve got 69 Bitizens working in their dream jobs.” These conversations become part of our daily lives.

I don’t know from when, I choose to check my tower to stock shelves or construct new floors first thing in the morning instead of freshening up. When I’m about to sleep at night, the last thing I do is to review every floor to make sure if there’s any store still needs to be stocked.

We have a lot of work to do now!

Listening to that familiar DING (the game’s sound effect) makes me feel comfortable and satisfied.


Basic Gameplay

Although human was severely punished in the story of Babel, destroyed by God’s burning anger, it’s forever part of human nature trying to reach beyond the clouds to explore the sky above. History always repeats itself for we humans are forgetful creatures.

As the almighty lord of Tiny Tower, what players can do is not actually so much. When sufficient coins are earned to expand new floors upwards, players have 6 floor types to choose: Residential, Creative, Retail, Recreation, Service and Food.

You have 6 floor types to choose

Players can only decide what type of the floor they want to build, but not until the construction is completed, they won’t be able to know what kind of store it will be.

The habitants in the tower are called Bitizens – as they are built bit by bit. Players have to build Residential floors first to let Bitizens move in, and then assign the right Bitizen to the right job – to put the most efficient Bitizens in the most suitable stores in order to restock more goods and pay lesser coins.

There’re 2 currencies in flow in Tiny Tower – coins and Tower Bux. Coins can be used to build new floors or to order goods and services at various types of stores. The main source of coins is the income from selling goods and services, which may take from a few minutes to several hours. However, the clock keeps running in real time even when players are not playing so coins continue to accumulate till all items are sold out.

On the other hand, Tower Bux is used to speed up construction or deliveries of goods, to purchase faster elevators, or to exchange for coins. Although it can be purchased with real-world money, players will not miss out any content of the game if they refuse to purchase Bux, which can easily earned through in-game activities such as tips from elevator users, rewards for helping find a Bitizen, or for fully stocking a shop.

Tiny Tower is a type of simulation social game, and in this peaceful little tower, there’re no challenging gameplay and highly upbeat moments. Particularly, it has no glory time to defeat opponents, and no game-over screen to taunt you about your failure.

Let's do some Cosplay!

Core Mechanism

In a word, the core game mechanism built inside Tiny Tower is -- Randomness. It makes use of randomness in the following aspects:

  • Floors
  • Bitizens
  • VIP
  • Floors’ repainting colors
  • Bitizens’ outfit

There’s not much room left for players to carry out their strategies. Most of the outcomes depend on your luck and the randomness. If you are the type of player who used to play traditional games, I bet you won’t be very comfortable with it. “Hey, I thought games are about interaction and choice, aren’t they?”

Compared with strategy-centric core games, the elements in lightweight games are usually composed of much more ‘luck’. When luck plays the central role in the game, everyone has a good chance to win, whether he is skilled or not.

Every man has his talent... WAIT

This game is not really about testing your controlling skill or reaction. ‘Anyone can be in luck and hit the jackpot’ is the reason why this genre of games can always draw in players.

Jamie Madigan introduced a psychological term called ‘benign envy’ in one of his articles. He claimed that seeing friends owning the floor we want excites our will to spend real money to buy it, and it may greatly help increasing Tiny Tower revenues.

Yes, I believe it could help NimbleBit to earn big money in a short period of time; however, it might cause an opposite effect of losing players very quickly as well. It doesn’t matter what players’ goal is; as long as it could be achieved simply by the money players have, they will spend what they can afford to get it, and then lose the motivation to keep playing the game.

Randomness is the core foundation of game mechanism in Tiny Tower. Players have to ‘get lucky’ to build the floor they desperately want, and it is exactly the reason why they’re willing to keep playing and playing.


Retension Strategy

From the aspect of its basic gameplay, Tiny Tower seems to be no different from other common social games. If it was just another ordinary social game, the steps players are expected to take will be: launch the game, tap, tap, tap, done, and leave the game.

Conversely, why do players keep coming back to play it? Some essential motives are:

  1. Having a chance to get assistance from VIP
  2. Having a chance to get free Bux
  3. Having a chance to settle new Bitizens
  4. ‘Just a moment’ effect: you’re about to leave the game, but 3 minutes later the stocking at the Arcade is going to be completed. “Okay, it’s just 3 more minutes, I can wait.” A couple minutes later, you notice the items at Music Store are going to be sold out and need to be restocked after 2 minutes. “A few more minutes won’t hurt, right?” It is the tiny yet powerful effect makes me invest countless time in Tiny Tower.

We want you. We need you. We love you!
Comparing with what spending coins can achieve, Bux is the most crucial resource in Tiny Tower and it can be used in:

  • Speed up the construction of floors
  • Speed up the deliveries of goods
  • Quick sell stocks
  • Upgrade floors
  • Upgrade elevator
  • Exchange for coins
  • Hire Bitizens
  • Buy costumes for Bitizens

Dude, use your Bux to speed up things.
The valuable Bux can be purchased with real-world money from In App Purchase options. However, players can also easily earn Bux through in-game activities, without paying a dime:

  1. Tips from elevator users (Random)
  2. Fully stocking a shop (Random)
  3. Helping find a specific Bitizen
  4. Expanding a new floor
  5. Happy birthday, Bitizens!

Those in-game activities (getting the tips, fully stocking a shop and finding Bitizens) are the main attraction of the game that gets players hooked, and makes them willing to repeatedly bring the elevator users to their correct floor, which is quite a monotonous and tedious job.

The catch here is that time durations for delivering different items varies widely. The deliveries of goods can take 2 minutes to 12 hours, and even when new items have finally been delivered, they can’t be sold until the player returns to the game to stock them. It makes players feel obligated to constantly return to the game to keep stores stocked.

All these well-designed ‘unscheduled rewards’ added up brings players unique stimulation and joy, which is strong and hard to resist.


Monetizing Options

Unlike most social games, Tiny Tower provides players with only 3 price options for purchase:

  • $0.99: 10 Bux
  • $4.99: 100 Bux
  • $29.99: 1000 Bux

$0.99 option is for impulse buyers. Any player who enjoys the game more than 30 minutes would agree that it is not a hard task to earn 10 Bux or more – the only thing you need is a little bit of patience. However, when our desire defeats our intellect, for we want to get what we want right away, this is the best option for us.

$4.99 option is for rational analysts. You just need a quick analysis to figure out that this is the most reasonable option for general players. Some people might argue that $4.99 is too expensive and it would be better if it priced $2.99. However, when we decide to spend money on what we want, just a few dollars more doesn’t matter much.

$29.99 option is for whale players. Although most of us will never spend that much money on a mobile game, and may consider it as a ridiculous behavior, we should be aware that we are simply not the so-called whale players. Whales are very rare, but a large part of profit often comes from them.

Which one will you purchase?

According to one of Nicholas Lovell’s article, the pay ratio in Tiny Tower is about 3.8%. His decomposition analysis showed that 45% players chose the $0.99 option; 51% chose the $4.99 option; and 4% chose the $29.99 option. The merely 4% buyers contributed almost 30% revenue.

The initial game tutorials teach players how to use Bux to save their time to speed up building new floors and stocking items. And the game always offers players Bux generously. It makes players happy and let them feel free to spend Bux rather than saving it cautiously.

Tiny Tower demonstrates the benefits of spending Bux first, and then teaches players to form the ‘good habit’ of spending Bux. Finally, players might willingly buy the in-game resource with real-world money when they need more. The monetizing options in Tiny Tower are not so strong (intrusive and disturbing) as other freemium games. It might get lesser potential revenue in the short term, but I believe it has earned players’ devotion and trust in the long run.

Sometimes, too many options equal no option at all.


Irrational Fun

If you are the same type of player as me, who enjoy analyze various optimized strategies in games, we might feel the same pain while playing Tiny Tower.

There can be at most 3 products being stocked in each floor, and the efficiency reaches its maximum when the floor is fully stocked. Hence, any player immersed in this game knows he should keep floors as busy as possible. In short, keeping every floor fully stocked is the best strategy for the game.

While delivering items, we won’t be able to know the stock quantity of other items in the same floor, nor can we know when they will be sold out. When we wait for the delivering to be completed, it is very likely the floor is out of stocks and closed.

To maximizing the profit, we have to speed up the stocking process. “Spending just 3 Bux can save 3 hours for me.” It seems to be a very nice deal that spending a little resource could accelerate income and efficiency, so we will do it without any hesitation.

Tiny Tower has no decaying or punishment mechanism. So even you don’t play it regularly, your floors won’t get collapsed or polluted. However, if you strive to play at optimized strategies, you’ll find yourself play it constantly and spontaneously. If you don’t take action and do something, you’ll waste the chance to get the advantages. It is just like an itch you must scratch.

We are unconsciously confined by our own rational mindset even while playing games. Perhaps we shall, sometimes, dare to enjoy the fun with irrationality, and it may free us from the cage of ‘optimized strategies’ mindset.

What is your dream job?
Every classics game creates one or more amazing moments that are hard-to-forget for players. Many years later, we might forget the combo skills, the final boss or all the other details in the game, but it is the magic moment which we won’t forget and would be happy to share with friends.

The first amazing moment Tiny Tower brought to me was assigning Bitizens to work in their dream jobs. “What a wonderful world it would be if everyone works in his dream job!” However, after immersing myself in the game for a couple of months, and the accomplishment rate of dream jobs in my tower has been over 90%, I’m now looking forward to building my dream floor.

Have you discovered your magic moment? Welcome to my Tiny Tower!

All I want is...
Afterword

  1. The author built & demolished the same floor more than 7 times, only to get a specific shop he wanted.
  2. The author once used both of his hands to play Tiny Tower on two iPhones at the same time.
  3. The author hasn’t got his dream floor yet.
  4. The NimbleBit founders, Ian Marsh & David Marsh recently donated more than 30 iPads to the school they attended when they were kids.
  5. Don’t clone it, you won’t succeed.
  6. No, you could clone it, in a positive way. I mean it.

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Comments


Christian Kulenkampff
profile image
Thank you for sharing your thoughts! :)

The game reminds me of Sim Tower, maybe you can use it or one of its successors as "replacement therapy" ;)

Darren Tomlyn
profile image
(Note: All my posts are based on the contents of my blog (click my name), though I'm currently re-writing the first part (again) - (this problem keeps getting bigger!)).



What we're talking about here - when it comes to 'irrationality' and 'fun' is simply COMPETITION, and the way in which this product promotes it.



This piece of software promotes competition primarily (based on your post) through random stories told to the player, within a structured environment.



But such elements do not define a game. Is a lottery a game? No - it's A competition.



What ultimately matters for the recognition, understanding and definition of this piece of software, is the behaviour of the 'PLAYER' - not the software itself, (and the people who created it, indirectly).



So, the questions are, what behaviour does this piece of software truly promote from the player and how and why? What does that then mean for its definition, and the perspective and context from which it should then be viewed, recognised and understood?



Is this piece of software about competing to be told a story - (a competition), or competing by writing your own story, (using power (skill) or influence (chance)) - (a game?).



Based on the contents of the original post, I do not have enough information to truly say one way or the other - though I'm leaning towards it being a competition.



The lack of understanding and recognition of the differences and relationships between games, competition(s) and puzzles, is one of the main elements holding current pieces of such software back from reaching their full potential as either one of these three, in isolation, or even in combination. Games and competitions are, however, by their very nature, incompatible, which matters for this particular product, even if it's merely a matter of subjective perception, since it can probably be perceived as either.

Jheng Wei Ciao
profile image
@Christian Kulenkampff:

Thank you! :)



@Darren Tomlyn:

Hi Darren,



Thanks for your reply. Although Tiny Tower is not a lottery game, it contains lesser competition elements than you might think. I'm familiar with those highly competition-oriented social games, and in my opinion Tiny Tower would never be a part of them.



I can fully understand that a lot of players enjoy competition very much, however, there're a bunch of players also don't appreciate the kind of games. For me, playing Tiny Tower gave me more internal fulfillment than external achievements.

Darren Tomlyn
profile image
@Lucifer



(This is also from my blog)



Ever heard of INDIRECT competition? (Competing against the game/product itself, and therefore, indirectly, its creators...) (All single-player games, and even (created) puzzles involve indirect competition by their very nature).



The basic use of competition, (as here), is to represent an application of compete:



Compete v. to try and gain an outcome/goal at the expense of, or IN SPITE OF, someone, or someTHING else.



(Without this, no single-player activity, (or time-trials etc.), could ever be competitive, which is NOT how the word is used).



Direct and indirect merely describes the relationship between competitors - though that does mean you have to understand and recognise who/what is actually competing in the first place!



This game uses indirect competition to promote other behaviour in a structured environment. (Without it, it would simply be a work of art, or a toy to be played with). Both competition, and the behaviour it promotes - (which the rules and setting of the game itself enables) - are what people find 'fun'.



It's ONLY the latter, however - the behaviour it enables from the people taking part - that can define the activity itself as a game in combination with the competition. And, as I said in my reply above, your description isn't detailed/specific enough to make a decision one way or the other.



(Read my blog if you don't understand the following.)



Is this product about:



a) competing by WRITING your OWN story (game)

b) competing by interacting with a story being told (puzzle)

c) competing to be TOLD a story (competition)



Note that the last generally supersedes the first and second, which is why blackjack/boxing/solitaire should be defined as competitions - even if other behaviour is possible (boxing-game/solitaire-puzzle) - and even poker can be perceived as such a thing, (though IMO it does enough to be called a game (in general) when played for money).



(Many activities involve competing to be told a story, (whether you've won or lost), by interacting with a story being told, (blackjack/solitaire, above), or by writing your own, (figure-skating/diving etc.) - all of which are still competitions).



As I said, without a more detailed description of the player's basic behaviour this product enables, I cannot know what type of product it is, and therefore the true context your original post should be placed within.


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