I’m about to complete Tiny Tower (iOS, Android). As it stands right now, I am just twenty-four hours from the grand opening of a karaoke club in my tower, the last business I can build. Once open, all 285 of my bitizens (tower residents) will be working their dream job. I’ve completed all the achievements and all the missions. Soon, I’ll have nothing to do but wait for the next update.
“So what?” you may ask. “Games come to an end all the time.” Sure, but Tiny Tower is kind of like Farmville with a SimTower skin. It’s a freemium game. A freemium sim game should never come to an end. If you listen to the investors, a good game will keep you trapped in a constant cycle of mild discontent, with the promise of true happiness if you simply chuck a couple of bucks at the game. And yet, Tiny Tower is a very good game.
Tiny Tower has all the trappings of the free-to-play time-management sim games, yet manages to subvert the genre entirely. For that, I think the developer, NimbleBit, deserves praise. Tiny Tower is the ultimate expression of the genre, and yet free of the abject greed that plagues most of the genre.
Let me quickly address a worry that’s nagged at me since I first considered writing about this: is Tiny Tower really a game? This is a debate that’s going to continue in the hobby for a long time, and depending on the day, I come down on either side of it.
On the one hand, there is no challenge or skill involved in playing Tiny Tower (or most casual games). Whether the game involves clicking on a cow or stocking a store, all that’s involved is clicking and then waiting. There’s no depth in Tiny Tower: the “gameplay” never changes, and areas that look deep (such as bitizen skill levels and happiness) turn out to be very shallow.
That being said, if you expect depth from a freemium game, you may not understand what the genre is about. Challenge and skill aren’t the intent; an ever expanding array of cuteness and the feeling of accomplishment (deserved or not) are what’s important. Tiny Tower has both of these in spades.
The pixilated people are adorable (that’s the technical term). The businesses are surprisingly detailed. There’s a surprising amount of humor packed into the game, and there’s a constant delight wondering what business will open next. (You choose the “zoning” of the floor (retail, restaurant, entertainment, etc.), but the specific business is randomly determined.) Even better, never once are you forced to break out your wallet or annoy your friends in order to advance. Does any of that qualify Tiny Tower as a game? Today, I don’t really care.
What I care about today is how subversive Tiny Tower is to the genre. Freemium games are designed to get you invested in the game then pull the rug out from under you. It’s quick and easy to advance in the game so long as you have plenty of magical money. Once the magical money runs out, you’re stuck for long stretches with nothing to do, but you can’t just leave the game because your crops will die or your bank will fill up or you’ll somehow be punished. So, if you want to maintain you investment in the game, and you don’t want to be punished, you’ll get more magical money, and the only way to get magical money is with real life money.
Tiny Tower starts off much like all other freemium games do. You’re given some magical money (Tower Bux) and directed to spend it to start up your tower. You build a residence, you build a business, you stock some shelves, you build some more. The difference, though, is that Tiny Tower hands out bonus Bux, and a lot of them. You get bonus Bux when you fully stock a business, transport a visitor to a given floor, place a bitizen in her dream job, make a delivery, complete a mission, or add a floor to your tower. Some of these are random chances and some happen every time, but the flow of magical money is fairly steady.
You have the option to spend real money to get more Bux, but there’s very little reason to do so. I spent some money on Bux early on, but only because NimbleBit makes a lot of other free games I really enjoy, and I felt they deserved it. I never felt like I had to buy Bux in order to advance in the game, though.
In fact, there comes a point where buying Bux is essentially pointless. Bux hurry production and construction, fill empty residences, upgrade the elevator, and buy coins (the non-magical currency of the tower). Early on, these are all worthwhile pursuits, but everything is also cheap and quick. Later, when things are expensive and slow, you’re making coins hand over fist and the bonus Bux are rolling in.
addictive important, there’s always something to do in the tower, but you’re never punished if you take your time doing it. Any time I start up Tiny Tower, there’s a store that needs stocked, a delivery to make, or a visitor to transport. If I’m busy and can’t get to the game for a couple of days, I’m not punished. My businesses will sell out of goods and close, but I never lose money or have people move out. Once I stock them again, they’re back up and running, no harm done. Visitors will wait in the elevator for days, happy just to take in the muzack.
I’m not sure how or why NimbleBit decided to make a freemium game that bucks all the typical trends, but I’m glad they did. Even better, Tiny Tower keeps getting significant updates: not just new businesses and residences, but also new features like missions (collect tuxedoes and corsages for prom) and tower sharing. The game is truly free, actively subversive, and keeps getting better.
The honest truth is that Tiny Tower is as pointless as any given freemium game. However, other freemium games are intentionally crippled in order to make money, which only serves to draw attention to how pointless they really are. Tiny Tower is the complete package, which allows it to be a fun diversion, rather than a hateful time sink. If you’ve got an iOS or Android device, grab Tiny Tower. You won’t find better.