I have always considered myself a video game nerd. I grew up with an Atari 2600, an Atari 800, a Sega Genesis, a Dreamcast, a Playstation, and both Xboxes. I also played games on Macs, PCs, and even spent many hours of my youth playing games in actual arcades. Pretty typical for many guys my age and background. Over the last 10-15 years something happened that put me further on the periphery of gaming. I don’t know if it’s the nausea I feel playing first person shooters, or just my lack of interest in blowing shit up, but most games seemed not for me. More recent games that I have loved included SimCity, Age of Empires, Escape Velocity, World of Warcraft, Diablo II, Railroad Tycoon, Torchlight, Lego Star Wars, etc. I know there’s some mayhem in these games, but each of them has an emphasis on collecting things, building things, or exploring things as well. Those are the things I enjoy. (And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve spent plenty of time playing Angry Birds, Bejeweled, various Scrabble games, and more.)
I have not played Farmville or other games of that ilk. I get uncomfortable spamming my friends (unless it’s something I’m selling), and paying to advance in a game (rather than to unlock new content) feels unfun to me.
When I first saw Tiny Tower I was enamored of the 8-bit graphics, the jazzy soundtrack, and the memories it brought up of one of my favorite games of yesteryear — Yoot Saito’s SimTower. It was free in the app store. I downloaded it to my iPad and started playing. The goal of the game is to build your tower with a mix of residential and commercial floors, keeping your ‘bitizens’ employed in jobs they like and are good at, and keeping your commercial ventures stocked with inventory and making you cash to spend on more floors. There are plenty of artificial delays built into the game that you can skip by spending some of the ‘TowerBux’ you can earn (or purchase via in-app purchase).
I’m no expert on game mechanics and psychology, but I know enough to know that while levels usually require progressively more investment, they also yield progressively more exciting rewards. Not so in Tiny Tower. The only thing that appears to increase in Tiny Tower with each level is the amount of time you have to spend to get anything done. Now… I understand why this is. They’re hoping at some point that I reach my breaking point and give in spending actual dollars in exchange for TowerBux that I’ll use to accelerate my progress. My pain increased exponentially while my rewards moved linearly. A very different dynamic, despite which I achieved 100 floors in Tiny Tower (evidence below) without any in-app purchases or cheating. (I also had 164 of my 182 Bitizens in their dream jobs at this point.
When my wife and I used to play lots of Age of Empires she would invariably look up the cheat codes. Driving her huge American car all over the maps and shooting anything that moved was fun for her. But for me the cheating was a novelty but not fun. And it was only something I chose to do after I’d exhausted the gameplay. She went straight to the cheating. I’m not making an ethical statement (it’s just a video game) but I really can’t distinguish between the Age of Empire cheat codes, and the TinyTower in-app purchases (or buying black market gold for WOW for that matter).
I understand that this is where the money is these days in games. And the number of people who would pay 99 cents (or even 199 cents, or — amazingly — even 499 cents) for a Tiny Tower that was tuned for regular gameplay is probably dwarfed by the number of people who want to pay to get ahead. I wonder what would happen if they made two versions. One for people who like to work/play hard to earn achievements, and another for people who like to pay their way to the front of the line and see which one makes more money over the long term. In my version the developer could even use the in-app purchase system to let me buy access to a second tower, or other cool features.
Here’s my prediction (which of course is worth what you’re paying for it)… paying to advance in games is clearly popular (even though I find it decidedly unfun myself). And while I understand that it’s letting companies like Zynga essentially print cash, I think it’s got a short shelf life. Just as it seems consumers are getting bored with daily deals, I think they’ll get bored with games that are just designed to inflict pain in exchange for actual cash. Well… I hope that’s the case. Otherwise, i foresee even fewer video games in my future. (Maybe we’ll have to make some games just to have something enjoyable to play.)