Upwardly mobile: the Tiny Tower time-suck

Friday, 7 September 2012 12:28 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Mobile games represent an increasing proportion of the VG247 team’s gaming hours. Brenna Hillier confesses to a terrible fixation on miniature, pixelated people.

Every now and then Pat suffers the pangs of primal managerial instinct and demands that the VG247 crew get together to play games and Bond As A Team. The results of this are generally fairly amusing as we’re about as co-operative as cats, but also because our tastes are so diverse.

After we’ve had our usual ten-minute argument as to why nobody else wants to do whatever Pat’s obsessed with at the moment, we’re required to submit a list of the games we’re currently playing in the hopes of getting a match. Last time this occurred, I was forced to admit that the game I’m spending the most time with, the game I return to every day, the game I think about when I’m working or cooking or trying to fall asleep, is Tiny Tower. Yes: I’m obsessed with a 14 month old, free-to-play indie mobile game.

Look – I’ve got a little developer in there.
They’re making a city-building sim.

Tiny Tower! Why are you so compelling? Insert Credit gave you a one finger review which accurately sums up your game mechanics. In essence, you require me to look at you several times an hour, and tap the screen. You require no manual dexterity or strategic planning, and allow for only the barest amount of creativity. You are genuinely less interactive than Farmville. You don’t even have a…

Hang on a second; I have to check my Tiny Tower.

Since I discovered Tiny Tower last month, at least a year behind the rest of the world, I have met several recovering obsessives, all of them fellow games writers.

“I am carefully pretending you didn’t mention That Game,” one told me via IM. “That part of my life is over.”

“I fucking loved Tiny Tower. I used to keep it on my desk at work and it would beep and I’d be on it like a shark. I was going to get all the floors, and then they kept releasing updates and I was like, fuck those guys, I can’t get anything done any more,” a more animated former addict advised me.

“I think [name redacted] had the biggest Tower,” another colleague told me of the Great Australian Games Media Tiny Tower Movement of 2011. “It was like, 150 floors or something. He had them all.”

“Does he still play?” I asked, fascinated by this wondrous vision.

“I think he threw his phone under a bus.”

Sometimes I am strongly tempted to follow suit. I have only been playing Tiny Tower for a few weeks but already I am starting to wonder if I can ever break free of its grip through any other means. I have had to implement a “once an hour” rule during office hours. I keep it open almost constantly when I’m off-duty. I have been advised, both gently and in stronger language, to get off my phone during social events. I have lost sleep over it, waiting for just one more stock cycle before I have to leave it unattended.

What is the appeal?

There are several reasons I am still playing Tiny Tower even though it is arguably having an adverse effect on my life. The first is that, like Pokémon, the impetus to catch ‘em all is strong. Nimblebit’s pixel art is so charmingly clever that each new floor I discover is like receiving a small present. I want to see them all in action and marvel at their little delights, and I want to look upon a list of ticked boxes and enjoy that fruitless sense of achievement by which the games industry holds my brain hostage. It takes me about two days to pay for and construct each no floor, a commitment which will only increase, but what is time to me? Free, that’s what.

Here’s Sherry at the dentist’s.
I am replete with satisfaction.

Perhaps more compellingly, Tiny Tower plugs right into something I call the Dollhouse Effect. I didn’t have a dollhouse growing up – nor the Castle Greyskull playset I routinely asked for in the same breath – but I regularly built shelters for My Little Ponies, Hot Wheels, Barbie dolls and Transformers out of whatever childhood resources were at hand – shoeboxes, Lego, piles of twigs glued together with tears over not having a He-Man action figure. In these more or less skilful constructions I enacted elaborate dramas full of human interest (and explosions). Each toy developed a distinct personality; my model Ferrari Testerossa was a boastful leader and Moonstone the pony was a wise elder brother. Making these completely imaginary personalities happy (after blowing off their arms and legs in bomb-filled conflicts) filled me with immense satisfaction.

Seven year-old Brenna is clearly still present somewhere deep inside and gets a heck of a kick out of making imaginary people happy. The first bitizen to move into my Tower was called Sherry Kelley and she wore a little pink hat; I remember because I was filled with undeserved pride at having attracted her to my luxurious commercial enterprise.

I pored over Sherry’s profile and discovered it was her dream to work as a dentist. From that moment on it became my mission to construct a dentist’s office and get her a job in it. As I moved her through a couple of roles on the way to our joint goal, I viewed her increasing satisfaction with growing pleasure. When she finally landed her ultimate gig, I popped her into a surgeon’s outfit at significant in-game currency cost to celebrate.

I now have almost 60 floors and over 100 bitizens. I no longer remember their names or what they want from life, relying on menus to keep track of them and my end goal of Universal Human Job Satisfaction; I’ll never have another Sherry moment, but one was enough. I’m hooked. I’m yet to send a cent Nimblebit’s way and having looked at the economics of it I doubt I’d ever be tempted to lash out on a micro-transaction – but if they ever ask me for $5 on Kickstarter I will open my wallet and bleed through a fixed grin of addiction.

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