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Tiny Tower. Uninstalled.

Climbing a ladder: why Tiny Tower is not a game and how it succeeds in spite of not providing 'fun'.

Jennifer Canada

July 28, 2013

4 Min Read

So after hearing good things about Tiny Tower, for well, years, and now that I have my own iPad, I decided to give it a try on Sunday morning. By yesterday evening, about 35 hrs later, I had 10 floors, 15 residents, and a physical tick that required picking up my iPad and restocking my businesses every 30 minutes...which maybe would have been acceptable if within the game there existed a single shred of fun. But there does not.  No fun.  As a hamster wheel/ pellet dispenser, Tiny Tower is mind-bogglingly effective.  I like to think I’m a hardened gamer, and I have personally deployed the strategies they’re using to build compulsion, and I still could not put it down and leave it down. But, as a game, it’s non-existent.  It is not a game.


Here’s why: games have choices and/or reactionary moments that affect outcomes. Tiny Tower is just a sequence of events that the player experiences faster or slower depending on how much they play or pay. Like its own visual metaphor, it’s just a ladder the player climbs.

And as a further elucidation: here are the moments of fun in the game in descending order, most fun first:

  1. Cashing in a wad of money to buy a new floor.

  2. Seeing what random business will appear after you select the type of business. (Wait 2 hours for construction.)

  3. Enjoying the outfits of the guests who visit your tower. (My best was some sort of Santa Claus King, and these outfits can be admittedly, pretty charming.)

  4. Using a VIP guest to get cash slightly more quickly for 20 seconds or so.

  5. Admiring your tower being tall and tower-y.

So yeah, no fun and no choices.

Ironically, I think Tiny Tower is more a testament to the power of inherent interest in games and the power of a player’s imagination in bringing a digital world to life, rather than its powers of compulsion. And in that dimension, NimbleBit made strong choices. I say this because I could almost pretend I was having fun. It did take me 35 hours to uninstall after all, even realizing after the 4th floor that there was no new gameplay incoming.

(Quick definition: inherent interest refers to our fascination with any topic we, as humans, automatically pay attention to, even if the use of the theme itself is not very good or well-handled.  Inherently interesting themes include such things as dragons, knife fights, puppies, etc.)

With regards to Tiny Tower, the inherent interest is being a mogul and creating a self-contained world and then ordering that world. Not a new theme in gaming, but always an effective one. And as to the power of the player’s imagination: even though the types of businesses had no effect on the (minimal) gameplay, I was way more invested in my game because I had a Mexican restaurant and an arcade, although I could’ve done without the bike shop. And although I think the working residents were almost always at work, knowing that they ‘lived and worked within the tower’ made them feel a little alive to me, all with basically zero AI outlay on the part of NimbleBits.

So, I’m glad I gave Tiny Tower a chance, and it has some valuable lessons for designers of casual games, but it and I are officially through. To its credit, I didn’t need to make microtransactions to keep playing. (Although it would have ‘relieved pain’ if I had paid, I didn’t feel completely hampered without paying.) It’s just tremendously disappointing to see how thin the gameplay is. Btw, I should probably say player actions instead of gameplay, because again, not a game. Habit.

As a designer, I think we often see the mechanics that could have been and here I see a vast possibility-scape, completely unexplored.  I certainly imagined a much deeper game, whenever friends told me how ‘fun’ it is. Yet, if the measure of a casual title is whether it spawns a Zynga clone, then Tiny Tower has succeeded. So, now the search begins to find a Tower game done well.  I think I’ll pass on Dream Heights, though. 

P.S. Have any of you played a well-designed Tower/builder game? Or does Tiny Tower get better after floor 10? Or have you tried other mobile games that felt like climbing a ladder, no choices and no fun?

- Jennifer Canada 


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