“Sorry, I don’t normally do this,” I apologize as I pull my vibrating iPhone from my pocket. My friend continues to tell me about her thesis while I restock the sushi bar or floor three of my tiny tower. I’m about to put my phone away again when I realise that the laundromat on floor seven also needs to be restocked. And an old lady is in the elevator, waiting to be taken to the apartments of floor eleven. “Sorry,” I repeat and chuckle nervously. “I hate it when people do this.”
Later in the day, my girlfriend and I are in the car returning home from the university. She pulls up at the traffic lights and immediately grabs her iPhone from the dashboard. She fiddles with her tower until the lights turn green. When they do, she curses and passes the phone to me. “Can you finish restocking the coffee shop?”
Hyperbolic comparisons between videogames and society’s vices are usually clichéd and unfair, but sitting in the car, playing two instances of the same game on two iPhones simultaneously, I am willing to make an exception: Tiny Tower is a drug, easily enjoyed and easily abused. In moderation it is an absolute blast to play, with compelling-yet-simplistic gameplay, an intuitive interface and utterly adorable visuals. Yet, to play Tiny Tower only ‘in moderation’ can be more challenging than the game itself.
Tiny Tower is a simplified management sim that sees the player constructing and maintaining a self-contained tower of residential and commercial floors. Cute little ‘bitizen’ tenants move into the residential floors and can be given jobs at the various types of stores. As more bitizens move in and begin work, stores can stock more items and players slowly accumulate more money with which to build more floors and attract yet more bitizens. Maintaining cash flow becomes a task of keeping stores stocked and giving the right job to the right bitizen. Put the most efficient bitizens in the most suitable stores and they will sell items quicker, buy new items cheaper, and restock the store faster, allowing players to become richer and build their tower taller.
The catch is how long these actions can take to complete. New deliveries of sold-out items can take anywhere from two minutes to two hours while each new floor will take about half an hour longer to construct than the previous one. Fortunately, the clock continues to run in real-time while you are not playing. Construction and deliveries continue as you go about your day, but so too do to your sales. Despite all the bitizens in your employment, it is the player who must do all the work.
Once new items have finally been delivered, they can’t be sold until the player returns to the game to stock them. Which makes ignoring Tiny Tower very, very difficult. Unlike your typical addictive game, you do not simply walk way from Tiny Tower; it is always with you, in your pocket or your bag, insisting and demanding that you pay attention to it (in this way, it is much the same as Zynga Facebook games like FarmVille and CityVille). Sure, you can always put it aside for sleep, work, loved-ones, or other menial real-world commitments, but stores are certain to sell-out if you ignore them for too long and your cash flow, therefore, is certain to falter.
Notifications at first seem like timely little reminders, letting you know when a store is ready to be restocked, but as more bitizens begin to work in more stores that stock more goods more regularly, the game turns into a schizophrenic construction foreman, constantly reminding you to stock shelves, order more goods, man the elevator, construct more floors, hire more staff. Even if you disable the notifications, it will most likely be too late; Tiny Tower will already be in your mind, just an iPhone lock screen away: the tower is still there; the shelves are still empty. This is when it becomes an addiction, an obsession: when the stores must always be stocked and making money. Always.
It is at about this time that game helpfully lets you know about the micro-transactions.
In addition to its normal, in-game currency used to purchase goods and floors, Tiny Tower has a second, meta-currency known as Tower Bux. Bux can be used to speed up construction or deliveries, to purchase faster elevators, or exchanged for vast amounts of the in-game currency. That Bux can be purchased with real-world money through micro-transactions has led some to snidely label Tiny Tower ’TowerVille’ after Zynga's aforementioned (and widely reviled) Facebook games.
What this shorthand misses, however, is that Tiny Tower never requires these micro-transactions to be made, and players will not miss out on any content if they refuse to spend real money—Tower Bux can easily be collected through in-game activities such as tips from elevator users, rewards for helping find a bitizen for one task or another, or for fully stocking a shop. Real money won’t unlock new content; it will just make it obtainable a little bit sooner. While the simple inclusion of micro-transactions in a game this addictive is disconcerting, watching your tiny tower grow into a Babylonian monolith through sweat, drained iPhone batteries, missed deadlines, and frazzled relations is fulfilling in a way that spending real money to make it easier can only cheapen.
You want to be proud of your tower, and you want to show it off to your friends, to let them see the hard work that went into it. Through iOS’s Game Center, friends are not mere opponents to be beaten or commodities to be used, but neighbours to envy and to be envied by. Their towers can be entered and viewed and explored, all their hard work on display. When friends look at my tower, I want them to know I put in the hard yards to build it; I didn’t take the easy way out by spending money.
But even without friends, building your tower into its own self-contained little metropolis is a reward in and of itself. In the same way that watching your Tamagotchi grow up or your sea monkey farm expand made you fill with pride as a kid, watching your bitizens multiply and live out their cute little lives with gaping mouths and beady eyes is enough to keep you playing and building.
And building. And building. And building.
Tiny Tower was developed by Nimblebit. It is available digitally via the Apple App Store.
Brendan Keogh is a freelance writer for such publications as Gamasutra, Hyper, Kill Screen, IndustryGamers, Pixel Hunt, and CraftHub. He blogs at Critdamage.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter @BRKeogh.